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C.H. Spurgeon: Paul…and His Books

In a sermon on 2 Tim 4:13 entitled “Paul – His Cloak and His Books,” C.H. Spurgeon commented,

 “We will LOOK AT HIS BOOKS. We do not know what the books were about, and we can only form some guess as to what the parchments were. Paul had a few books which were left, perhaps wrapped up in the cloak, and Timothy was to be careful to bring them. Even an apostle must read.  Some of our very ultra Calvinistic brethren think that a minister who reads books and studies his sermon must be a very deplorable specimen of a preacher. A man who comes up into the pulpit, professes to take his text on the spot, and talks any quantity of nonsense, is the idol of many. If he will speak without premeditation, or pretend to do so, and never produce what they call a dish of dead men’s brains—oh! that is the preacher. How rebuked are they by the apostle! He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, “Give thyself unto reading.” The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible. We are quite persuaded that the very best way for you to be spending your leisure, is to be either reading or praying. You may get much instruction from books which afterwards you may use as a true weapon in your Lord and Master’s service. Paul cries, “Bring the books”—join in the cry.”[1]

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The Preface to the Lord’s Prayer

In Mt 6:1-18, the Lord Jesus addresses the issue of man’s approach to religious observances (almsgiving, prayer, fasting). He cautioned His disciples against praying like hypocrites and heathens. The Lord then gives His disciples a model to use for prayer. Calvin comments on the prayer:  “[Christ] embraces, therefore, in six petitions what we are at liberty to ask from God. Nothing is more advantageous to us than such instruction. Though this is the most important exercise of piety, yet in forming our prayers, and regulating our wishes, all our senses fail us. No man will pray aright, unless his lips and heart shall be directed by the heavenly Master.”[1] It is important to note that Jesus says, “In this manner, therefore, pray” – He doesn’t say “repeat after me with blind repetition” – that would be tough to sustain in light of vv.7-8. It is also important to note that after the preface, there are six petitions with a specific order:  God comes first. The Bible is conspicuously God-centered and while the unbeliever balks at such a truth, the believer delights in it. Prior to the petitions, the Lord Jesus highlights another important truth concerning prayer:  the believer is not to rush into the presence of his Father and immediately start asking for things; but rather the believer is to ponder who God is and ascribe praise, worship, and adoration to the Father. There are obvious exceptions to this general rule (the moment before a car collision, a fall from a high place), but the pattern ought to be reflected in the believer’s prayer life.

The Lord Jesus instructs His people to address God as “Father.” This title is loaded with meaning. In the first place, the Christian does not address blind fate or impersonal power, but rather a personal Father. Secondly, the title indicates the gracious character of God’s relation to us.  We are dead in trespasses and sins and completely alienated from God, but He “predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will” (Eph 1:5). This also indicates that this particular prayer is the possession of believers only. Carson notes, “The early church was right to forbid non-Christians from reciting this prayer as vigorously as they forbade them from joining with believers at the Lord’s Table.”[2] Thirdly, the title indicates that God our Father hears us. A fundamental problem with heathen idols is that “They have ears, but they do not hear” (Ps 115:6) – not so our God! The Lord Jesus said that when we got into our secret room, the Father who sees in secret will hear us and reward us openly. Fourthly, the title demonstrates that our Father cares for us. Peter encouraged his readers that when they pray, there are to do so by “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7). Finally, the title reminds the believer that our Father loves us. Thomas Watson wrote, “He loves His children with such a love as He loves Christ (Jn 17:26). It is the same love, for the unchangeableness of it. God will not more cease to love His adopted sons than He will to love His natural Son.”[3]

The Preface to the Lord’s Prayer not only calls the believer to address God as Father, but it also encourages the child of God to remember that the Father is “in heaven.” God occupies a position of authority over His creation. In theological terms, this means that God is transcendent.  While God is omnipresent (is always present with His people), He is also independent of His creation and over His creation. Secondly, the position of God in heaven reminds the believer that God is sovereign. The Psalmist demonstrates a fundamental difference between the gods of the nations who cannot speak, see, hear or smell, with the God of heaven and earth who is in the heavens and therefore “He does whatever He pleases” (Pss 115:3; 135:5-6). Thirdly, the position of our Father encourages the believer by reminding him of God’s omnipotence. God may love His people, hear them when they call upon Him, and care for them, but stripped of His ability to come to their aid, He would be reduced to an impotent, albeit sentimental being, who cannot undertake on behalf of His children.

The Preface to the Lord’s Prayer further teaches that prayer is to be intelligent. The heathen are known for multiplying words in order to be heard; the believer is to pray with intelligence to his prayer hearing God. Intelligence here should not be misunderstood; intelligence means knowing the Bible, knowing good theology, and praying God’s thoughts back to Him. The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 puts it this way, “prayer… [is to be with] understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance…” The practice of Christian prayer is not an exercise wherein the believer empties his mind and approaches an idol in a spirit of ecstasy and carnality; but rather it is an exercise where the believer understands who God is and approaches Him accordingly. Because this is the case, the believer must know God and must address Him accordingly. Prior to rushing in to the presence of God and telling Him all the things He can do for you, take some time, reflect upon the written word, understand who your Father is, delight in the position of absolute sovereignty He occupies, and then worship through prayer.

 



[1] John Calvin, A Harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke (trans. William Pringle; Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1840; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), XVI, p.317.

[2] D.A. Carson, Matthew, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary:  Matthew-Mark (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2010), p.204.

[3] Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (Carlisle:  PA, 1890 [1993]), p.17.

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Revelation: The Vision of the Son of Man

The first thing to notice about John’s vision is Christ’s location.  He is “in the midst of the seven lampstands” (Rev. 1:13).  The lampstands are the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev. 1:20).  Christ is present with His church!  He is not an absentee king, ruler, head, or prophet, but He fulfills all of these functions within the context of His churches.  This is not an isolated theme in the NT but is repeated for the encouragement of the people of God.  In commissioning His church to make disciples, Christ promises “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20).  In Acts 1:1, Luke highlights that his previous book (the gospel) was a record of “all that Jesus began both to do and teach.”  The implication is obvious:  Acts is a record of all that Jesus continues to do and teach in His church.

When John reports Christ’s location, we 21st century readers are not to miss the significance.  It is especially encouraging when we consider the makeup of the churches addressed in Rev. 2-3.  Not only does Christ not de-church some of those less-than-perfect churches in Asia Minor, He is actually found among them!  This should encourage us to come to church in order to meet with Christ.  Secondly, we ought to see the centrality of the church in God’s redemptive plan.  And thirdly, we must recognize that Jesus really is the ruler over all things and that He has a special concern for His body.

The description of Christ given in Rev. 1:13-16 is symbolic.  When we compare Dan. 10:5-6, we note several things.  Firstly, Daniel’s messenger had His “golden band” around His waist, whereas Jesus here has His about the chest (Rev. 1:13).  Secondly, the “voice” in Daniel was like a multitude; here it is compared with the sound of many waters (Rev. 1:15).  Thirdly, the “countenance” in Daniel had the appearance of “lightning” but here it is “like the sun shining in its strength” (Rev. 1:16).  Absent in Daniel are references to “white head and hair” (Rev. 1:14), a sword coming from His mouth (Rev. 1:16), and “seven stars” in His right hand (Rev. 1:16).  What do we make of this description?  Steve Gregg writes,  “The general character of the vision is one of the glory of Christ, the shining face being reminiscent of that which John had seen on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:2).  According to the various expositors, the golden band worn across the chest is an emblem of high rank in the ancient world, and the long, linen garment is probably priestly.  White hair is the emblem of age and honor – and possibly wisdom.  The flaming eyes convey the idea of piercing vision, and the feet like fine brass suggest the irresistibility of His judgment as He will later tread the “great winepress of the wrath of God” (Rev. 14:19).” So, we have a glory-filled Christ who possesses the highest rank who is also a priest and who is from everlasting and who is the embodiment of wisdom and who is sovereign and who will execute judgment upon His enemies – hallelujah, what a Savior!

It is important to recognize the weapon employed by Christ:  “out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword” (Rev. 1:16).  He rules and reigns and saves and damns by His word.  This is not surprising for students of the Bible (compare Is. 11:1, Hos 6:5, and Heb. 4:12 for illustrations).  In Revelation, Jesus calls the church in Pergamos to repentance and threatens His coming to them and fighting against them “with the sword of My mouth” (Rev. 2:16) if they continue impenitently.  And of course, the Rider on the white horse of Revelation 19 makes war with the sword that proceeds from His mouth (Rev. 19:15, 21).  Is there not a present temptation to de-value the weapon of Christ’s warfare?  We need to give heed to John’s description:  Jesus reigns now and wields almighty power now and that power is wielded through His word and Spirit.

John is not novel.  He is very Old-Testamentish, not only in the way he writes, but in the way he responds to God.  In Rev. 1:17, he says “And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead.”  John differs from those in our generation who have claimed to see Jesus but were not moved to tremble.  John is just like Ezekiel, “So when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard a voice of One speaking” (Ez. 1:28).  John is like Daniel, “Therefore I was left alone when I saw this great vision, and no strength remained in me; for my vigor was turned to frailty in me, and I retained no strength” (Dan. 10:8). John is like Isaiah who was ushered into the throne room to behold the glory of the pre-incarnate Christ and his response was “Woe is me, for I am undone!  Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Is. 6:5).  Whenever sinful man is given a view of the holiness of God, humility is the biblical response.

Christ’s response to John is also typical of the God who is seen.  Jesus laid His right hand on John and said “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last.  I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore.  Amen.  And I have the keys of Hades and of Death” (Rev. 1:17b-18).  Is this not the Lord’s way in dealing with His servants?  He comforts and equips them for service.  His holiness humbles them; His mercy enables them.  He comforts John with a declaration of His eternality.  He comforts John with a declaration of His death and resurrection.  He comforts John with a declaration of His absolute authority over all things, including Hades and Death.

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The Believer and Discouragement

Contrary to some notions that often affect the church, believers face difficulties and discouragements in the Christian life.  The Christian “must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).  The Christian who lives godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Tim 3:12).  In a world that opposes God and His Christ, how can believers even think they will escape the difficulties and discouragements that are part and parcel of such a system?  Added to this, the believer’s Master was described by the Prophet Isaiah as a “Man of sorrows” and one “acquainted with grief” (Is 53:3).  The book of Hebrews states that our Lord “learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (Heb 5:8).  In light of these truths, the question is not “will I have difficulty and discouragement” but rather “what am I supposed to do in the midst of difficulty and discouragement?”

The Prophet Micah faced difficulties and discouragements during his ministry in Judah in the 7th century B.C.  In chapter 7 of his book, Micah begins with a lamentation because he had no godly companionship.  He laments that “the faithful man has perished from the earth” and that there was “no one upright among men” (v.2).  The leadership of Judah was also ungodly (vv.3-4) which further highlighted the extensive corruption of society.  Added to this, there was no comfort to be had even in family relations as this basic institution of society had also disintegrated.  I daresay that most Christians who read this blog have at least one person they can turn to in their churches or in their families; such was not the case for Micah.  If we ask the question:  “what did Micah do in order to deal with these difficulties he encountered?” we must acknowledge that he did not leave Judah for a better society, nor did he seek aid from professional counselors.  In fact, the question “what did he do,” is better put, “in Whom did he trust?”

As Micah continues in chapter 7, we find that it was theology that pulled him through the difficulties and discouragements facing him.  We tend to think that theology and biblical truth are the possession of the academic elite or of the teachers in the church.  We desperately need to recognize that theology is the stuff that not only informs us of who God is and what He does, but it is also the stuff that steadies the believer when faced with the trials of life.  For instance, Micah’s understanding of who God is and what God does enabled him to declare, “Therefore I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; My God will hear me” (v.7).  He understood that while Judah would in fact fall (probably a reference to coming exile), she would in fact rise by the power of God (v.8).  He understood that those who made fun of Judah (v.10b) and challenged their God, would be brought to certain judgment (vv.9-10a).  He understood that the remnant would expand (vv.11-13), and that due to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ which he had previously reported in chapter 5.  He understood that the people of God would triumph because the God of the people – the Lord, would shepherd them (vv.14-15) and that He would destroy their enemies (vv.16-17).

Micah’s theological understanding comes to glorious expression in the final verses of his prophecy.  In a play on his own name, he asks the question that Israel posed after having been delivered from Egypt (cf. Ex 15:11), “Who is a God like You?  Pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage?” (v.18). Micah is not seeking information; Micah is rejoicing in free grace!  God passes over the transgression of His people (v.18) and “does not retain His anger forever; because He delights in mercy.” His character is such that He delights to demonstrate mercy to His people.  His conduct is such that He passes over their transgression.  It is important to remember that God does not pass over His people’s transgression by pretending they do not sin or by turning a blind eye to their sin.  Rather, as Paul will later explain in Romans 3, God passes over His people’s transgression because He set forth His Son Jesus Christ as the propitiation who bore the wrath of God for His people’s sins.    Micah ends by recounting more of God’s character, “He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities.  You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (v.19), and God’s covenantal faithfulness, “You will give truth to Jacob and mercy to Abraham, which You have sworn to our fathers from days of old” (v.20).

The believer will certainly face his share of difficulties and discouragements in this world (see Jn 16:33 if you’re still not convinced).  The believer must not grumble, complain, play the victim, or call into question the goodness and mercy of God.  The believer must arm himself with the knowledge of the Bible and good theology in order to navigate through such trying times.  The believer must not let circumstances or bad experiences rob him of confidence in God.  The believer must, like Micah the Prophet, look to the character and conduct of God and rejoice in Him who “does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy.”

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Revelation: The Commission of John

John’s Relationship With His Audience

John writes in Rev. 1:9, “I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island of Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.”  John identifies with his audience in three important aspects of Christian living:  tribulation, kingdom, and patience.  John spoke as one who shared in the sufferings of Jesus Christ.  He was not immune from the tribulation facing his audience; he shared in it.  D.S. Clark writes, “He stood with them on common ground.  Every hardship they bore, he endured.  Every prospect of martyrdom they faced, he had already contemplated.  He was even in the vanguard bearing the first baptism of fire and blood.  They would listen to the words of one who suffered in their sufferings, and stood in the forefront of their dangers.”

It is important to notice that John’s worldview does not involve tribulation only, but he is a partaker along with his audience of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.  From John’s vantage point, the kingdom of Christ is not a future event waiting to happen; it is a present reality that God’s people currently enjoy.  The kingdom of Christ was inaugurated at His ascension (Acts 2:30ff and Rev. 12:5) and was in place in the first century when John wrote.  While he sat exiled on Patmos, John was a partaker of a glorious kingdom!  The church today needs to recover the vision promised in the prophets (see for example Is. 9:6-7 and Dan. 7:13-14), celebrated in the Psalter (see Pss. 2, 22, 45, 72, and 110 for a sampling), and fulfilled at the first advent of Jesus Christ (see Mt. 28:18-20; Acts 2:29-36; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; 1 Thess. 2:12; Eph. 1:20-23; Col. 1:13).  The Lord Christ bestowed a kingdom upon His disciples (Lk. 22:29) and we ought to proceed as loyal subjects.

A fitting summary statement of the book of Revelation is Jesus’ words in John 16:33, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Revelation addresses the tribulation Christians face in the world.  God does not lie.  He tells it like it is.  He does not hide the difficulties associated with following Christ in a hostile world.  The Christian life can be a life punctuated by suffering and trial and tribulation and torture and persecution and imprisonment and death.  But Revelation always directs us back to the throne of Christ who has overcome the world and therefore bids us to “be of good cheer.”

This participation in tribulation and kingdom produces patience.  John says he is a brother and companion in the tribulation, and kingdom, and patience of Jesus Christ.  The patience John refers to means “patient endurance; bearing up under pressure” and is translated “perseverance” in Rev. 3:10 (cf. also Rom. 5:3-4).  Is this not God’s way?  He gives us a kingdom but we dwell in a hostile land.  This promotes perseverance on the part of His children as they strive to be faithful and imitate their Master who was tried while a King.  G.K. Beale writes, “This is a formula for kingship:  faithful endurance through tribulation is the means by which one reigns in the present with Jesus.  Believers are not mere subjects in Christ’s kingdom.  ‘Fellow partaker’ underscores the active involvement of saints not only in enduring tribulation, but also in reigning in the midst of tribulation.”

John’s Commission

While John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day,” the glorified Christ commissioned him to write the book of Revelation.  Commenting on the phrase “in the Spirit,” D.S. Clark writes, “We cannot describe this psychological state other than to suppose that all the channels of his being were open toward God, ready for the reception of any divine communication.”   The reference to the “Lord’s Day” is commonly understood to be a reference to Sunday, the Christian day of worship.  As James Durham noted, “As the Lord’s Supper is for the remembrance of His death till He come again; so is this day for remembering the work of redemption, and His resurrection, till He come again.”

The nature of John’s commission is consistent with much of what occurred in the Old Testament when a man of God was called to proclaim the message of God.  G.K. Beale and Sean McDonough state, “The introduction of John’s commission is coined in the language of the prophet Ezekiel’s repeated rapture in the Spirit, thus identifying John’s revelation with that of the OT prophets (cf. Ezek. 2:2; 3:12, 14, 24; 11:1; 43:5).  His prophetic authority is enforced by the description of the voice that he heard as “a great voice as a trumpet,” evoking the same voice that Moses heard when Yahweh revealed Himself to him on Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:16, 19-20).”

The commissioning of John was enjoined with a vision of the Commissioner, as was the case in the OT.  John is given a vision of the glorified Christ who has come to use John to set forth His word to the tried and troubled churches in Asia Minor.  John’s message is relevant for us today as we are still called to tribulation, kingdom loyalty, and perseverance to the end.

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Why Pray if God is Sovereign?

In Matthew chapter 6, the Lord Jesus Christ cautions His disciples against praying as the hypocrites (v.5) and the heathen (v.7).  He then prescribes a model prayer for His disciples’ use.  Prior to the model prayer (or, “Lord’s Prayer” as it is commonly called), Jesus makes this statement in v.8, “For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.”  This statement is a corrective to the technique employed by the heathen:  use many words so that God (or the gods) will hear you and answer.  Jesus is saying that you cannot manipulate God or control God or exercise certain formulas in order to make God perform; rather, He knows what you need before you ask Him.  It is important to notice what Jesus does not say; He does not say, “Your Father knows the things you have need of so don’t bother asking Him.”  No, the Lord Jesus says “He knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” – the Lord assumes we will present our petitions before God.  This is consistent with the Prophet Isaiah in chapter 65:24, “It shall come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear.”  God is a sovereign God and therefore knows the end from the beginning and has certainly decreed all things that come to pass.  If God were not sovereign; if God did not decree all things; if God did not possess absolute authority over all things, prayer would be useless.

In light of this biblical truth, people often ask, “Why pray if God is sovereign?”   The Scripture gives several reasons why believers ought to pray to a sovereign God.  Here are just a few of those reasons.  In the first place, prayer is a natural response from the born again child of God.  In the discussion concerning prayer in Matthew 6, Jesus does not command believers to pray, He assumes that they will pray.  When the Lord speaks to Ananias and tells him to make contact with the newly converted Saul of Tarsus, He describes Saul this way, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying” (Acts 9:11).  It is true that hypocrites pray (remember Mt 6:5) and therefore we can say that “not all that glitters is gold.”  However, it is equally true that gold does in fact glitter and therefore a man who has been brought out of darkness into marvelous light by the sovereign grace of God cannot help but pray.  Secondly, prayer is commanded.  While Jesus assumes believers pray in Mt 6, the rest of the Bible contains various commands to pray.  We might be tempted to think, “if it is part of my life as a new man to pray, why would I have to be commanded to pray?”  There are a whole host of things Christians ought to do, but nevertheless they also need to be commanded to do them; such is the way with remaining sin.  Thirdly, prayer is an act of worship.  God has ordained prayer as a means by which the believer submits to his Father and expresses praise and adoration for His goodness.  This facet of prayer is displayed in the life of Job.  After having experienced the loss of most everything that was near and dear to him, Job did not seek solace in worldly comforts or books with catchy titles like “Ten Principles on Dealing with Grief.”  No, the Scripture says, “Then Job arose, tore His robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped.  And he said, ‘naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there.  The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.  In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong” (Job 1:20-22).  Our difficulties do not lessen the beauty and glory of God.  Our difficulties do not remove the obligation or privilege of worshiping God.  Upon later reflection, many seasoned saints have witnessed how difficulties drove them to a more earnest worship of their heavenly Father.  Fourthly, prayer to a sovereign God is an exercise of the believer’s faith.  From time to time books appear or sermons are preached which maintain the unbiblical notion, “prayer changes God.”  Prayer does not change God, but rather prayer changes us.  God is our Rock, He is unchanging, and He is all powerful.  It is not God that needs to change; we need to change.  In prayer, the believer’s faith is exercised, his dependence upon God is strengthened, and slowly but surely, the believer is conformed to God’s will.  Finally, prayer is a means by which the believer may unburden himself with One who cares for him, as Peter writes, “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7).  Calvin summarizes in this manner,

 “Believers do not pray, with the view of informing God about things unknown to Him, or of exciting Him to do His duty, or urging Him as though He were reluctant.  On the contrary, they pray, in order that they may arouse themselves to seek Him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on His promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into His bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from Him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things.”[1]

 

In conclusion, the believer must also realize that prayer does not exist in isolation from the Bible.  The Bible informs us concerning God, His being, His attributes, and His purpose in the world and with His people.  We must know Him as God through our Lord Jesus, trust Him as our heavenly Father, and realize that He has purposed to work all things for good for His people (Rom 8:28) which even includes difficulties, trials, and tribulations.  With this understanding of prayer, perhaps the more legitimate question is, “Why pray if God is not sovereign?”

 



[1] John Calvin, A Harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke (trans. William Pringle; Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1840; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), XVI, p.314.

 

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Revelation: A Theological Greeting to the Churches

The Apostle John begins the book of Revelation with a theologically rich greeting to the seven churches of Asia Minor.  In many ways, the greeting sets the foundation for the remainder of the book.  The people of God are experiencing trials and they need to be reminded of the source of their comfort:  the triune God who dwells in heaven and rules the nations.

John begins with a statement concerning the triune God.  In a time of tribulation and suffering, God’s people stand in need of grace and peace.  John highlights the source of all grace and peace:  the triune God.    The glory of our eternal Father is referenced in the words, “from Him who is and who was and who is to come.”  The Holy Spirit in His manifold glory is referred to:  “and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne.”  John then describes Jesus in a biblically familiar manner:  His threefold office as prophet, priest, and king.  We learn from this greeting that the doctrine of the Trinity is not an abstraction for infrequent consideration, but it is “the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him” (LBCF 2:3). May the church imbibe something of Gregory Nazianzen’s trinitarianism,

“No sooner do I conceive of the one that I am illumined by the splendor of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one.  When I think of any one of the three I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me.  I cannot grasp the greatness of that one so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest.  When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.”

John proceeds to the threefold office of Christ.  The Apostle communicates the fullness of our divine Savior.  He satisfies every demand of His Father and every need of sinful man.  His prophetic office is in view with the words “the faithful witness.”  Christ identifies Himself in like manner when speaking to the church in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14).  The people of God are to be faithful in the midst of all things as is their Savior.  In Rev. 2:13 the church in Pergamos is commended for holding fast “My name” and in Rev. 6:9 the martyrs are described as those who “had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.”  In Rev. 12:11, the people of God are those who “overcame him [the devil] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.”

John describes Christ’s role as priest with the statement “the firstborn from the dead.”  The word “firstborn” does not mean that Christ is a creature; it means He is the preeminent One.  The word is used in the Septuagint in Ex. 4:22 and refers to the preeminence of Israel over the nations of the earth.  It is used by Paul in Col. 1:15-18 where he sets forth the supremacy of Christ in all things.  The primary background the use here is Ps. 89, especially verse 27:  “Also, I will make him My firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.”  This is the “majestic covenant Psalm” according to C.H. Spurgeon and all three descriptions of Christ used in Rev. 1 are found in Ps. 89.  G.K. Beale comments, “John views Jesus as the ideal Davidic king on an escalated eschatological level, whose death and resurrection have resulted in His eternal kingship of his ‘beloved’ children (cf.v.5b), and this idea is developed in v.6.”  David was not the first king of Israel in terms of chronology, but rather he was the first king in terms of preeminence; this is John’s point regarding Jesus.  The fact that He is the firstborn from the “dead” points to His priestly role:  Christ was both priest and victim in the sacrifice at Calvary.

John further describes Jesus as “the ruler over the kings of the earth.”  Sometimes the church operates as if Christ is waiting to reign or as if He is an absentee king.  John says that Jesus currently possesses all authority in heaven and on earth.  He has sovereign control over all earthly rulers.  This perspective is foundational for the book.  Throughout Revelation, John shifts from the earthly perspective to the heavenly and his instruction is clear:  we must learn to interpret the earthly by the heavenly and not the other way around.  While people rage against the church (chapters 2-3), Christ sits in the heavens and holds them in derision (chapters 4-5).

John moves from who God is to how we should respond:  worship.  The doctrine of God should lead to doxological praise.  In Rev. 1:5b-6, John praises Christ for who He is and what He has done in saving His people from their sins.  John addresses His praise “to Him who loved us.”  This is one characteristic of our Lord Jesus, He loves sinners!  John indicates this in his gospel at Jn. 13:1.  Jesus exhorts His disciples to love one another in the Upper Room discourse and uses His love for them as the standard (Jn. 15:12).  Paul prays for believers to comprehend the love of Christ that “passes knowledge” in Eph. 3:18-19.  We learn from John that Christ’s love should be a means of promoting praise, worship, and adoration.

John moves from Christ’s love for His people to the grand demonstration of that love for His people:  redemption through His blood.  John praises Jesus because He “washed us from our sins in His own blood.”  The book of Revelation refers to Christ as the “Lamb of God” twenty-nine times.  This is consistent with John’s Gospel wherein the Lord Jesus is identified as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29).  The point is clear:  we are to worship, praise, and adore the One who died for us in order to cleanse us from our sins.  The atonement produces worshipers!

John continues in his praise for Christ for His role in the new creation, “and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father.”  Ex. 19:6 is the background for this assertion and indicates that the church is the new or true Israel because of her Redeemer.  What Israel of old failed to accomplish, Christ accomplished perfectly and in Him, believers share that blessed privilege of being a kingdom of priests.  G.K. Beale comments, “Christ’s death and resurrection (v.5) established a twofold office, not only for Himself (cf. also vv.13-18) but also for believers.  Their identification with His resurrection and kingship (v.5a) means that they too are considered to be resurrected and exercising rule with Him as a result of His exaltation.”

John closes this greeting with the words of praise, “to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever.  Amen.”  May the wonderful description of Christ given in these verses cause the church to worship Him in like manner.

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The Doctrine of Imputation

The Bible sets forth two fundamental truths:  God is righteous and man is wicked.  Because of this, the most important question facing man has always been, “How can a sinful man find acceptance with a holy God?”  Ex 23:7 and Dt 25:1 set forth the law which forbids the justifying of the wicked and the condemnation of the righteous which further exacerbates the problem of reconciliation between a holy God and sinful man.  The gospel of Jesus Christ relieves this tension.  The gospel of Jesus Christ answers the question of how a sinful man can find acceptance with God and it does so in a manner consistent with God’s holiness and righteousness.

The Apostle Paul deals with justification by faith alone in Rom 3:21—4:25.  Justification by faith alone in Christ alone is his overarching theme in this section of the great epistle, but Paul also deals with a vital element of justification:  the doctrine of imputation.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism answers the question “What is justification?” by stating, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (WSC #33).  In Rom 3:26, Paul says that God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”  God is able to maintain His justice and justify sinners because God “imputes righteousness apart from works” (Rom 4:6) to those who believe the gospel by God’s grace.

The word “impute” means to reckon to one’s account; to credit to one’s account.  The word is used in a forensic or legal way and destroys the notion of Rome’s transformation of character approach to justification.  In other words, the Protestant reformers correctly understood Paul’s doctrine:  we are justified by faith alone on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, not an infused righteousness which Rome maintained.  Concerning justification, the 1689 Confession of Faith says,

 “Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justified, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in His death for their whole and sole righteousness…”  (Chapter 11, para.1, emphasis added).

Paul demonstrates this truth in Rom 4 with Abraham and David.  In Rom 4:3 Paul writes, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”  When he believed God, God reckoned him or credited him with righteousness that was not inherently his own.  In Rom 4:6 Paul says, “just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works.”  This righteousness that David celebrates is not inherent in man; it is imputed “apart from works” and therefore is a righteousness one can truly celebrate!

The Bible speaks of three specific instances of imputation.  In the first place, Adam’s sin is imputed to his posterity.  Adam stood in the covenant of works as the federal head or representative of all his posterity.  As WSC #16 says, “Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression?  The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.”  This is not a theological construct developed by the Westminster Divines, but a biblical truth recognized by the church since its inception.  Paul writes in Rom 5:18a, “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation” and in Rom 5:19a, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” and establishes this link between Adam and his posterity.  The NKJV translation “made” is better rendered “constitute” or “appoint” as Paul’s point is not that the sinner undergoes a moral change, but rather Paul establishes a legal or forensic unity between Adam and his posterity.

The second type of imputation is the sin of the elect imputed to Jesus Christ.  Imputation lies behind the sacrificial transaction in Leviticus chapters 1 and 16:  when the hand was laid upon the sacrificial victim, there was the transfer or imputation of guilt from the sinner to the sacrifice.  Isaiah prophesied that such would be true when the Suffering Servant came into the world, “And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:6).  The Apostle Paul declares this imputation in 2 Cor 5:21, “For He [God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us…”  The sense is legal or forensic – sin was imputed to Jesus; He did not actually commit sin.

The third instance of imputation is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to His people.  After stating that God made Christ to be sin for us, he goes on to declare the purpose behind this activity in 2 Cor 5:21, “that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  The sense is legal or forensic – righteousness is imputed to the elect; they are not transformed into sinless beings.  We saw above that Paul says imputation of righteousness is “apart from works” in Rom 4:6.  He speaks further to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in Rom 5:18b and 5:19b as he concludes his argument concerning the two men in history that everything hinges upon:  the first Adam and the last Adam.   He writes, “even so through the one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life” (5:18b) and “so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (5:19b).

The doctrine of imputation is crucial for our understanding of justification.  The doctrine of imputation explains how God is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:26) and how He is the God who “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5).   It is imperative that God’s people study the Apostle’s words and understand his meaning and give serious attention to the abstract theological truths that explain how a holy God saves sinful man.  It is also beneficial for God’s people to see those abstract principles put into a practical context; Zechariah 3:1-5 is one such context.  Joshua the High Priest is brought before the LORD God Almighty.  As a public person, Joshua stands not only for himself, but for the nation.  He stands before the LORD with Satan at his right hand to oppose him, and Joshua is described as being clothed with filthy garments.  The LORD rebuked Satan and dealt most graciously with Joshua.  The filthy garments are removed which demonstrate the pardon of sin, and Joshua is clothed with rich robes which demonstrates the imputation of righteousness.  This blessed transaction is only possible because Jesus Christ was clothed in filthy robes as our sin was imputed to Him (2 Cor 5:21) and He stood in our place and receive the punishment we deserved at the hand of a righteous God.   Thankfully He rose again and this was “because of our justification” (Rom 4:25).

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The Lawful Uses of God’s Law

In 1 Tim. 1, Paul urges Timothy to “charge some that they teach no other doctrine” (v.3). He then indicates the nature of their error in v.7, “desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm.”  The heretics desired to be “teachers of the law” but distorted the truth.  In v.8, Paul makes a statement for our consideration:  “But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully.”  The Reformed confessions of faith summarize the biblical teaching concerning the use of God’s law which is a helpful corrective to the antinomian and legalistic tendencies in the church today, two tendencies which have the same enemy:  the law of God.

The first is the civil use.  Richard A. Muller defines it as “the political or civil use, according to which the law serves the commonwealth, or body politic, as a force for the restraint of sin.”[1]  The LBCF of 1689 teaches that the law written in the heart of man at creation was “delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments” (19:2) and then states that this “moral law doth for ever bind all, as we justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of God the Creator, who gave it; neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.”  The law is used by God for the restraint of His creatures.

The second is the pedagogical use.  Muller defines it as “the elenctical or pedagogical use; i.e., the use of the law for the confrontation and refutation of sin and for the purpose of pointing the way to Christ.”[2]  This function of the law demonstrates man’s sinfulness and shows his need for Christ.  Paul indicates this in Rom 3:20, “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” WLC #96 says, “What particular use is there of the moral law to unregenerate men?  The moral law is of use to unregenerate men, to awaken their consciences to flee from wrath to come, and to drive them to Christ; or, upon their continuance in the estate and way of sin, to leave them inexcusable, and under the curse thereof.”

The third is the normative use.  Muller defines it as the use that “pertains to believers in Christ who have been saved through faith apart from works.  In the regenerate life, the law no longer functions to condemn, since it no longer stands elenctically over against man as the unreachable basis for salvation, but acts as a norm of conduct, freely accepted by those in whom the grace of God works the good.”[3]  The LBCF of 1689 amplifies this use in 19:6 and indicates that while the law is no longer binding as a covenant of works, it “is of great use to them [believers] as well as to others” in that it functions as a “rule of life.”  John Murray observed concerning this use, “It is symptomatic of a pattern of thought current in many evangelical circles that the idea of keeping the commandments of God is not consonant with the liberty and spontaneity of the Christian man, that keeping the law has its affinities with legalism and with the principle of works rather than with the principle of grace.  It is strange indeed that this kind of antipathy to the notion of keeping commandments should be entertained by any believer who is a serious student of the New Testament.  Did not our Lord say, ‘If ye love Me, ye will keep My commandments’ (John 14:15).”[4]

Problems regarding the law are manifold in the church today.  A return to the Reformed confessions and an emphasis on covenant theology should prove a helpful corrective in this area of study.  J. Gresham Machen said, “A new and more powerful proclamation of that law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of law…So it always is:  a low view of the law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace.  Pray God that the high view may again prevail.”[5]



[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms.  (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, 1985), 320.

[2] Ibid, 320.

[3] Ibid, 321.

[4] John Murray, Principles of Conduct.  (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., [1957] 1984), 182.

[5] J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith?  (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., [1925] 1974), 141-142.

 

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The Centrality of Preaching

The LBCF of 1689 highlights the ministry of the word in connection with saving faith:  “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the word…”  It should come as no surprise to reformed Christians that God places a great emphasis upon preaching in the church of Jesus Christ.

The Bible is clear concerning the fact that sinners must hear and believe the gospel in order to be saved.  There is objective truth revealed in the Bible concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Christ that sinners must hear in order to be saved.  There are several passages that demonstrate the necessity of the gospel with reference to the salvation of sinners; see for instance Rom 1:16; 10:17; 1 Cor 15:1-4; Eph 1:13-14; 2 Tim 3:15-16; Jas 1:18; 1 Pet 1:23.  This means that no matter how dramatic or powerful our personal testimony may be, if we do not set forth biblical truth, the sinner we witness to will not have the saving data used by the Spirit to affect life-saving change.

The Bible not only emphasizes the objective truth that must be communicated, it highlights the primary vehicle for that communication:  preaching.  In Rom. 10:14-17, the Apostle Paul sets forth the necessity for God-sent men to communicate the truth of the gospel for the salvation of sinners.  John Murray comments, “The main point is that the saving relation to Christ involved in calling upon His name is not something that can occur in a vacuum; it occurs only in a context created by proclamation of the gospel on the part of those commissioned to proclaim it” (Romans, p.58).  Note specifically verse 14 where Paul says, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?  And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?”  We could accurately translate the second question this way:  “And how shall they believe Him whom they have not heard?”  When a biblically qualified man accurately expounds the Scripture, Christ is speaking in the churches.  Paul illustrates this in Eph. 2:17 when he says “And He [Christ] came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near.”  Jesus never physically traveled to Ephesus, but from His place of authority at the right hand of God, He preached peace by His Spirit through His earthly representatives.

The Second Helvetic Confession states concerning preaching:  “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good” (1:4).  May God indeed revive in each of us an appreciation for a sound pulpit ministry.