Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Sign of Jonah

In Matthew 12, Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees the following:

"An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matthew 12:39-40)

This turns me to the great prayer of Jonah that he prayed in the belly of the fish.  Let's read it and imagine Christ praying this same prayer during his three days in the heart of the earth:

“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice.

For you cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.

Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
yet I shall again look
    upon your holy temple.’

The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O Lord my God.

When my life was fainting away,
    I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple.

Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!”

When we hear Christ praying this, we learn:

1. As Christ was fully human, the experience of death was an excruciating one.  Just because he was also fully God does not mean he didn't experience pain and desperation.

2. Jesus had the closest relationship possible with the Father, but throughout this whole experience, he felt detached.  We hear him cry out to the Lord before he dies, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  In the heart of the earth, he cries out to the Father, and the Father responds.

3. Christ's crucifixion and death is ultimately an act of the Father, agreed upon by the Trinity, volunteered for by the Son.  The plan was set into action, with the Father allowing his only begotten son to be sacrificed for our sins.

4. The Son had perfect faith and knew that he was going to be restored to his rightful place in the Kingdom.

5. Christ descended to the dead, and the Father rescued him, raising him up.

6. Faith is always remembering the Lord as first and foremost.  Our prayers and discourse with God come bubbling out of a heart that is continually inclined toward him.

7. Those who put their faith in anything other than the God of the Bible are forsaking their hope of steadfast love.  They have rejected the salvation that only comes from the Lord.

8. The fruit of faith is thanksgiving.  We thank Jesus for saving us.  He also thanks the Father for rescuing him from death. 

9. Christ's sacrifice is to the Father and is the only sufficient sacrifice possible for the sins of the whole world.

10. Christ vowed payment for the sins of the world, and his payment was indeed made in his own blood.

Jonah was a type and shadow of Christ in his aquatic tomb, the belly of the fish.  Just so, believers in Christ experience trials and persecutions that feel like inferior copies of Christ's death.  See what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.

Jonah was put through his trial to rely on God.  Christ went through his sacrifice to rely on the plan that the Trinity had conceived at the beginning of time.  Christ had the most faith, even though he was God.  He put himself into a situation where he could exercise his faith in the greatest plan ever conceived.  Trials that feel like death--even death itself--instill us with hope for the deliverance from such death.  God delivers us from the temporary failings.  He will deliver us from everlasting death into everlasting life.

Christ is our only hope.  He will deliver us.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

We Can't Seem to Win

“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:16-19)

These comments are directed at the scribes and pharisees at the time Jesus walked among us, but they also apply to many today, believers and unbelievers.

First unbelievers: how unreasonable!  We've seen this everywhere.  Anything that smacks of religion is rejected, no matter how clear and reasonable it is.  At Christ's time, the Jews found fault with practically everyone.  Here comes John the Baptist, preaching repentance.  He prepared the way with repentance and lived an ascetic life.  How did the Jews react?  He has a devil.  Now here comes Jesus Christ, God himself in the flesh, living like the men and women he was to save, preaching the gospel constantly, and he's not practicing any of the austerity that John the Baptist practiced.  What was the reaction? He's a glutton and a drunkard!  He hangs out with sinners!  Jesus was right to describe them as wayward children.

Second believers, or should I rather say, "professing Christians:" just as unreasonable!  Reactions to teaching and preaching alone is shocking.  The fault-finding is incredible!  Nothing pleases them.  We preach about grace alone and justification by faith, and we get hostility.  We are accused of being false teachers because we haven't given our congregation a steady diet of works-based-righteousness.  We preach holiness and are then accused of being legalists.  Congregants feel condemned--and rightly so--but they miss the fresh and loving gospel that follows the heaviness of the law.  They were so busy thinking of how the preacher made them feel bad that they missed the good news entirely.  Preachers are accused of being self-righteous with one breath and worldly with the next, puritanical at one time and then lost at another.  This is what Jesus experienced in his day, and he spoke to that very thing in these verses.

Here is the truth: unconverted people will never be satisfied, because the issue is not with the preaching.  It's not with even religion in general.  The unconverted hate God.  Christ said not to be surprised when they hate you.  They actually hate me, and they are merely taking it out on you.  True conversion comes from a change in the heart, and that change only happens by the will of God. The Holy Spirit convicts a man of his sin and the same Holy Spirit rescues that same man from his fate of everlasting death by opening his eyes to the joy of the gospel.  All else follows: obedience to the law, loving your neighbor, loving God.  All of these things come from a heart transformed by the glorious gospel.

How do Christians need to react?  The world is always going to be this way, so we must not be concerned with it.  We pray for their eyes to be opened, and in the meantime we focus on the gospel message, the glory of Christ, and the beauty and love of the God who made us and saved us.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Violent Take It By Force

From the days of John the Baptist until the now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. (Matthew 11:12)

Here is another difficult verse in Matthew 11, mainly because we think of the word "violence" with completely negative connotations.  Here is another version of the verse, not from a different translation but from a different gospel narrative, Luke's: "The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it." (Luke 16:16)

1. Jesus has already considered John the Baptist the greatest of the prophets.  Why?  Something has changed.  Until John, all prophecy was law-based.  Everything was immersed in the keeping or violation of the covenant of law.  From John until now (even our day) all prophecy (preaching) is gospel-based, good news based.

2. Upon hearing the good news, those who believe spiritually storm the kingdom of heaven.  It's so easy to get in!  The law-based prophecy implied that it was difficult, but since John the Baptist, the gospel-based preaching has confirmed that it is the easiest thing of all.  This truly is good news!

3. To cease all ideas of antinomianism (lawlessness), due to the ease of entering the kingdom of heaven, Jesus follows up these statements in both Matthew and Luke.  Here's Luke's first: "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void."

4. This apparent contradiction is an important verse.  The prophecy up until John is not contradicted.  It is not nullified.  It's just that something important has changed.  The law still stands but now entering the kingdom of heaven is not through the law but through the gospel--through faith in Christ.  Through belief in Jesus Christ.  But the law is not abrogated.  No, to the contrary, the law still stands firm, and this is an important aspect of the gospel.  The law may not be the way through which one gets to heaven, but the law is a benchmark from which we can determine if one has grasped Christ through faith.

5. This is the difference between belief and unbelief.  A believer is keeping the law (imperfectly) out of gratitude for salvation.  This may or may not be conscious gratitude, but through faith the believer indeed becomes a more gentle and loving individual (remember that keeping the law is the same as loving God and your neighbor), more conforming to the image of Christ than he or she ever was.  This is evidence of true conversion.  This is assurance.

6. Here is Matthew's version of the verse, whch gives us more clues as to what Jesus is saying: "For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come." The first part of this verse confirms all that has been said above, but there is this addition: "He is Elijah who is to come."

7. If we go to Malachi 4:5, the prophet writes, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes."  Jesus is saying that this prophecy has been fulfilled and that John is the one like Elijah who precedes the Lord's coming.  Jesus, of course, is the Lord.

8. After that verse in Malachi, we get this verse: "And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction." This means that from John the Baptist until now, the gospel will be preached, believers will have their hearts turned to their father, and they will enter the kingdom of heaven (be written in the book of life) before the final destruction comes.

9. Jesus previously said in Matthew (verses 10:34-39) that he had come not to bring peace but a sword and that he would divide families from each other.  Is this a contradiction with the last verses of Malachi?  No.  Whereas the believers' hearts will be turned by the gospel toward their father in heaven, the believers' hearts will also be turned away from worldly individuals who do not believe the gospel, even after they have heard the good news.

10. The gospel is a wonderful, and yet violent, thing!  It turns the wicked against the justified in a violent way.  It turns the world against the gospel itself.  Finally, it yanks the justified into the kingdom violently, because God's grace is irresistible. Repent and believe the gospel!  Overtake the kingdom violently.  The Lord wishes that you will, and he will rejoice at such action. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Degrees of Glory

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,

    “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
        who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:7-11)

Last time we talked about how John did indeed know that Jesus was the Christ, but he was evangelizing his disciples from prison by sending them to Jesus, in order to be converted to Christ by the source.  Afterward, Jesus says a few things about John that are both fascinating and help us in our walk.

1. "A reed shaken by the wind means" doubt and double-mindedness. Jesus is essentially confirming last week's sermon.  No, John never doubted, and Jesus says as much.

2. He was a penitent disciple who taught other disciples to be penitent.  Jesus contrasts him with an arrogant and prosperous king.  John was the opposite.

3. Jesus calls him the greatest of the prophets, for two reasons. First, he directly heralded Jesus' coming.  Second, he is written about by other prophets, like Isaiah and Malachi.  Usually only Jesus is prophesied in the Old Testament, but John was prophesied, too.

Now, here comes the next baffling thing Jesus says.  No one is greater than John the Baptist, "yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."  This seems like a paradox.  This seems to imply that the lowliest sinner who was saved by the skin of his teeth is going to be considered greater in God's eyes.  So, the thief on the cross who repented at the last moment is going to be at some higher place in the hierarchy than John?  Well, what if "the one who is least" is Jesus himself? Isn't this the only thing that makes sense? Jesus referred to himself as many things.  What if this is one of them? If you doubt this, think of how he was treated during his short life on earth.  He was indeed treated by the wise of this world as if he were dirt. He is the indeed "the one who is least."  Therefore, there is actually only one person greater than John the Baptist in heaven, and that would be Jesus himself.

But where did we get the idea of a hierarchical structure in heaven?  It does seem to be hierarchical, especially when we read texts about John being just under Jesus in status, but I think the wrong word here is "status?"  We get the idea of a hierarchy of status from our own sinful desires, and also from parables from Luke and Matthew about kings giving talents or minas to servants who then wisely invest them and are then placed in charge of many things or ten cities, etc. One servant just buries his and does not invest it.  He is thrown out entirely.  On the surface, this parable sounds like we will be given great responsibilities in heaven, depending on our good works on earth.  Indeed, some may even end up being janitors in heaven because they didn't do enough here.

Many are convinced this means a hierarchy of status, but I'm going to make the case that it is actually degrees of glory.

1. We are saved by grace alone. 

2. We are given good works to do by God's grace, too.

3. The Holy Spirit performs these good works through us.

4. Jesus did the true good work on the cross.  Any good works that we do are mere manifestations of faith in the good work Jesus did.

5. Since Jesus did the one good work, and the Holy Spirit does good works through us.  The only one who deserves any status reward in heaven is Christ himself.

6. In the parable, ignoring number of cities and investment of number of minas, the ones who do the good works that God has given them (in actuality the Holy Spirit doing the good works through the believer) are given eternal life.

7. The one who buries his mina/talent is cast out entirely.  He is not given a janitorial job in heaven.  He is not allowed in at all.

8. Since Christ is doing good works through believers, the resulting hierarchy is not that of status but of glory.  Status forces a comparison between individuals, which is a problem on earth.  Why would it be present in heaven?  Knowing someone got "more" or "less" than I would prompt sinful thoughts.  Also, any preaching that goes in a "hierarchical status" direction is hitting me with all law and no grace.  Despair enters into my Christian walk, because I feel that I'm not doing enough, and the result is backsliding and turning away from God.

So, why are there degrees of glory?  For the answer to this question we turn to Herman Bavinck and the final passage of his four volume Reformed Dogmatics:

"God crowns his own work, not only in conferring eternal life on everyone who believes but also in distributing different degrees of glory to those who, motivated by that faith, have produced good works.

"His purpose in doing this, however, is that, on earth as in heaven, there would be profuse diversity in the believing community, and that in such diversity the glory of his attributes would be manifest. Indeed, as a result of this diversity, the life of fellowship with God and with the angels, and of the blessed among themselves, gains in depth and intimacy. In that fellowship everyone has a place and task of one's own, based on personality and character, just as this is the case in the believing community on earth."

1. Just as the material world is diverse (think of the vastness and complexity of the universe and the complexity of the microscopic world), so is the heavenly realm.

2. Just as our lives are different and varied, so will our lives in heaven be.

3. All of this variation and complexity and diversity is to manifest God's own glory.