Saturday, September 30, 2006

One last thing

One last thing on this blog: would everyone who has linked to my blog be so kind as to change their link to my new blog? I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks in advance for your kindness.

Moving my blog

I have decided that I am going to move. I like the category feature so much (and could not find a satisfactory category hack for blogger), and the ease of use, that I am going to switch. There are some features that I don't particularly like (one cannot edit the template at all). However, that is not really a problem for me. I have a feeling that a great deal of flexibility will appear once I get to know it a bit better. So here is the new blogsite: http://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/ Or, you can just link to it here. I will start indexing there my blog entries here, so that nothing will be lost, and there will be complete reciprocity between the two blogs.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Experiment

I am experimenting with WordPress as a possible new blog. I would very much appreciate comments on the new blog, if you like it better than my blogger blog. I am not satisfied with blogger anymore, and so I am test-driving WordPress. I am not totally committed to moving, yet, either. I have many blog posts on blogger. Please, please just drop a line to tell me what you think.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Final Judgment

Christ shall come again, with glory, to judge the living and the dead. This is creedal, and it is biblical. the book of Revelation amply testifies to it, as do many other passages of Scripture. The one issue that I wish to deal with is the future aspect of justification. There are many today who would say that our present justification is on the basis of works, and that future justification is on the basis of a life well-lived. In doing so, they make justification again to depend on our works. Scripture never says that the future aspect of justification is based on works. We must note here that LC 90 does indeed say that there is an open acknowledgment and acquittal on the final day of judgment. Hence, there is a future aspect to justification which in no way whatsoever competes with or diminishes the present finality of justification. We will never be more innocent or more "saved" than we are right now, if we be united to Christ. The future aspect is merely a public acknowledgment of what has already happened on the basis of Christ's work. That judgment in the future has already been brought into the present in all its finality. There is nothing uncertain about our standing before Christ if we be justified now. We are not going to plead our own works on the day of judgment as the reason why we should be openly acquitted. See, the operative word there in LC 90 is "open." Justification as it is in its present aspect, is a private acquittal in God's court-room. But the whole world does not know about it. On Judgment Day, believers will come before the judgment seat of Christ, and Christ will say, "This person was justified by faith alone in his lifetime: does the world need proof of this? Then look at the fruit that came from it." The fruit is the evidence of justification. Therefore, the fruit will function as a witness that we were in fact justified. The fruit will not function as the basis for future justification (which is Christ's righteousness), but as the evidence for it. We need to avoid any intimation whatsoever that we are not completely justified in this life if we be united to Christ. Otherwise, Romans 8:1 will have zero force: "There is now therefore no condemnation..." If there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, then they have nothing to fear on Judgment Day, and hence are utterly and completely justified right now. However, that fact is not evident to all the world, which is what the future aspect to justification addresses. Scripture uses the language that the future judgment will be according to works, not on the basis of works. The phrase "according to" has evidentiary force (Romans 2:6). Romans 2 must be interpreted in the light of chapters 5-8. Paul does not contradict himself. A further point must be noted in Romans 2: we can say that judgment is according to each person's works: it is Jesus Christ's works by which he will be judged! Furthermore, degrees of reward (and punishment) will be in accordance with each person's own works. Only this understanding does justice to all of Paul's teaching. This brings up a profound problem in N.T. Wright's theology. He claims that justification is the verdict of the final day brought into the present (he says this: I'm not going to look it up right now, Todd: you do it). And he says that that is by faith (although he has problems with that, too: his other theology negates that claim). But then he says that future justification is on the basis of a life lived in service to God, or words to that effect. This is a deep contradiction that he has not even begun to resolve. The only way I can see for him to resolve it is to say that faith and works can inhabit the same sphere of basis. But that is to confuse faith and works, the very thing that the Roman Catholic Church did at Trent.

How Not to Pray

Matthew 6:5-8 Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer once told a story about prayer. It seems that a certain minister was in the habit of profound prayers, oftentimes using words that the people didn't know. This went on week after week, to the dismay and frustration of the congregation. At last, a small Scottish woman in the choir ventured to take the matter in hand. On a given Sunday, as the minister was waxing his most eloquently verbose, the little woman reached across the curtain separating the choir from the pulpit. Taking a firm grasp on the frock tail of the minister, she gave it a yank, and was heard to whisper, “Jes' call Him Fether, and ask 'im for somethin'.” Now, that is a story about a minister. What about us? Do we do certain things to try to make sure that our prayers are heard? I think we do. But let's look at our passage to see what Jesus tells us. What Jesus tells us here is how not to pray. There are two dangers in prayer about which Jesus tells us. The first danger is hypocrisy: doing prayer so that other people will notice how pious we are. This is given to us in verses 5-6. The second danger Jesus tells us to avoid is meaningless jabbering. Let us examines these one by one. First of all, we must notice that we are now in the second of three examples. Jesus has told us in verse one of this chapter that we are not to practice our righteousness before other men in order to be seen by them. Then Jesus gives three examples of how our righteousness should be private: alms, prayer, and fasting. We are going to spend some time on prayer, at least several weeks. Well, what is this hypocrisy about which Jesus warns us? Hypocrites love to be noticed in their piety. I just saw a picture the other day of Hilary Clinton praying in front of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. There were all sorts of cameras there taking pictures of her. My guess is that she was doing anything but praying to the Lord God. What she was doing was sheer politics. She everyone to see that she was praying. In the first century, hypocrisy was down to a fine art, as it is today. What they would do is time their business just right, so that when the time came for the scheduled prayers of the day, they would just happen to be in a great spot to be noticed by just about as many people as possible. They were ostentatious in their display of piety. But they were not praying to God. Instead, they were praying to other people. Another story: a man went to a church in Boston, and heard a very erudite preacher pray in his congregation. It was a very long-winded prayer that did not take people up to the throne of grace, as a pastoral prayer should, but rather tried to impress the people with his knowledge. The man remarked, “That was the best prayer I ever heard offerred to a church in Boston.” Prayer needs to be directed solely to God, not to anyone else. That is why Jesus says that they have received their reward. Again, we have that word that means “paid in full.” There is no further payment to be expected. Furthermore, what Jesus says here implies that it wasn't really prayer at all, in fact. Prayer is by definition directed to God, not to people. That is why Jesus tells us what the remedy is for hypocritical prayer: it is to engage in prayer in a place where we cannot possibly be seen by anyone. And, of course, it does no good for us to somehow let someone know that we have to go pray now. We can sometimes say, “Last night while I was praying,” or “The Lord showed me while I was praying.” These expressions can often be used as subtle hints that we are quite holy and pious. One is reminded of the story of Pharisee and the tax-collector. The Pharisee stands upright in the middle of the Temple area, and publicly thanks God that he is not like this tax-collector. But the tax-collector was the one unable to face God. He simply beat his breast and called to God to have mercy on him. Jesus tells us that it was the tax-collector, not the Pharisee, who went home justified. Now, it is important to recognize that Jesus is not condemning public prayer. If He was, then the early disciples surely misunderstood Him badly when they prayed together in their meetings in church. Jesus is talking about our private prayers, those prayers that should only exist between God and yourself. He is not talking about public worship, and so we cannot read His statements here as condemning public prayer. Well, what kind of place does Jesus recommend? He recommends the most private place you can find. In those days, the only real privacy you could have among other people was in a private store-room that could be locked. That is the room Jesus is talking about here. You see, Jews of those days thought that the only acceptable place to pray was the Temple. So, in one sentence, Jesus tells us that the most Holy place in which we can pray, is the room most likely viewed as the least holy place. We might think this way today about the church. “I can only really pray in church, because it is more solemn there.” The fact is that you can pray anywhere. But if you are going to pray when other people are around, and there occasions when we must do so, then we should pray in our hearts. Now, what about prayer meetings? Is Jesus condemning those? Well, no, He is not. But He would condemn prayer meetings where people pray to other people rather than to God. If you are in a prayer meeting, or are in a place where other people are going to pray, say, family night, or Ladies' Aid, then beware lest your prayers turn into a performance for the other people there. What you must do instead is lift the people to the very throne room of God. You are not on display for other people, but are rather to be talking with God. For that is the most basic definition of prayer: talking with God. God talks to us in Scripture. We talk to God in prayer. Both are necessary, and both complement the other. This is a good segue into the second danger that Jesus warns us about: long-windedness. We've all probably experienced some time in our lives, someone praying, and we just wish that person would shut up. Probably some of you have thought that about some of the pastoral prayers that I have offered! Well, long-windedness is not very acceptable to people. What makes us think it is more acceptable to God? For it is often the case that the very same people who would object to hearing long-windedness in others will do the very same thing themselves! What does Jesus mean here? Well, we must understand the background to Jesus' statement. Pagans of that time were very fond of long prayers. They would call on every deity they knew (for most of them were polytheists), and after a lengthy recitation of gods' names (along with all the various attributes they thought the gods had), then, and only then, would they start actually talking to the gods. They thought that you had to address God in a very particular way, or that god would be offended. In fact, they would often include a catch-all phrase at the end of the gods' names, lest they had forgotten one. What they would then do is to pile up meaningless phrase after meaningless phrase, thinking that the gods would only hear you if they really thought you were sincere because of your long-windedness. This is sometimes true in the Roman Catholic tradition, where they will say the Hail Mary and the Our Father about 100 times, thinking that God will hear them only after they have said that many times. But what about ourselves? It is easy to point to something like that and say that it doesn't affect us. Do we use an exalted style of language to talk to God, thinking that God will only listen to us if we use King James English? I'm not saying that it is wrong to use such language. However, we must ask ourselves this question: why do we do that? Do we do it out of true reverence? Or do we do it only when other people are around, so that they will think that we are reverent and pious? How often do we think about what we say when we pray the Lord's Prayer? Is it just another meaningless repetition of the Lord's Prayer? Just mouthing the words? Or do we mean it every time we say it? Do we understand it? That is one reason why we are (Lord-willing) going to go rather slowly through the Lord's Prayer. It is so familiar, that we don't listen to it anymore, oftentimes. We need to hear the Lord's Prayer afresh, or we will wind up turning the Lord's Prayer into the very thing that Jesus here condemns: meaningless words! Now, let's clarify what Jesus is NOT saying. He is not saying that repetition is necessarily bad. Jesus himself did it in the High Priestly Prayer in John 17, where He stresses the unity between Father, Son, and church very many times. Jesus is also not condemning length in prayers, for He Himself would often pray all night. He certainly did the night He was arrested, when He prayed in Gethsemane. Well then, what is Jesus condemning? He condemns meaningless repetition. Repetition done so that God will hear better. Why is this? Why are we not to meaninglessly repeat things in our prayer? Jesus gives us the reason in verse 8: God already knows what we need before we even ask Him. You might remember the parable of the unjust judge. There, the woman kept on coming back and coming back to the judge, demanding justice from him, until finally the judge gave in, simply to get this old woman off his hands. Jesus is there arguing that if such persistance is required with an unjust judge, then how much more will God hear us, when He is not unjust, and hurries to fulfill His children's requests? We should not give up, simply because God seems slow to us. God's time runs differently from ours, much like Narnia time runs differently from England time, in C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. God calls all times soon. And so we should not be impatient in our prayers, thinking that God does not hear. One is reminded of the story of the prophets of Baal versus Elijah the prophet. Those Baal prophets cried out from morning to night on the name of their god, who did not answer. The silence was deafening. Elijah makes one simple, short, direct, and fervent prayer to God, and does God ever answer him! Martin Luther said that our prayers should be “brief, frequent, and intense.” We pray when we need to pray, which is far more often than we normally pray. This brings up another issue in regards to prayer: how often should we pray? If we are not praying morning, noon, and night, then are we inferior Christians? That is rather a difficult question. On the one hand, it is certainly true that our whole lives should be one long prayer to God. On the other hand, we often use such a thought as an excuse not really to pray at all. There should definitely be set times when we come before our Heavenly Father in prayer. Morning is probably the best time, since we are not immediately thinking about the events of the day, like we are at night. On the other hand, night-time is the best time for talking with God about the events of the day. Sometimes we also need prayer in the middle of the day, so that God would help us to accomplish the task at hand. Our lives are to be characterized by prayer. That is what Paul means when he says, “Pray without ceasing.” He does not mean that we are only to pray, and do nothing besides. But it does mean that we are to be characterized by prayer. We should remember in all this that we cannot come to the throne of grace without a Mediator. Jesus is here telling us that we need Him as a Mediator. We don't use the opinion of other people as a Mediator, which is what hypocrites do. Nor do we use many words as our Mediator. No, we simply have Christ as our Mediator. He is our High Priest in the heavens, listening to our prayers, and pleading for us, on our behalf, to the Father. Do you want to know if God hears your prayers? Do you have a Mediator? The answer to that question answers the other question. If you have Jesus as a Mediator, then God hears your prayers. That is an absolute promise in Scripture. If you do not have Jesus, then it doesn't matter how many people see you pray, and it doesn't matter how long you pray, or how many meaningless phrases you pile up, God will not hear your prayer. A final word on the efficacy of prayer. What does it accomplish? James tells us that the prayer of a righteous man avails much. That is, it is effectual. We like to think sometimes that the only thing it changes is us. That is true. God does not change because of our prayers. However, there is a danger in thinking that way. We can start to think that because prayer doesn't change God, that therefore God doesn't care about our prayers, and then we are tempted to give it up altogether. What we must know is that God uses our prayers to accomplish His purposes. Yes, even our weak, unfaithful, lapsed prayers are tools God uses to accomplish His will. That is an amazing idea, isn't it? Why should God use me, a sinner? And yet, He does. So, pray to the Father. “Call 'im Fether, and ask 'im for somethin'.” He is a loving Father, who desires to give all good gifts to His children.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Intermediate State

When a believer dies, his soul goes to be with God, though his body turns to dust. The soul does not sleep. This is proved by Hebrews 12:1, among other passages. The body awaits the resurrection, of which Christ's resurrection is the first-fruits. I would like to focus for a bit on how to minister to the dying and the bereaved. This is a vitally important ministry, and is misunderstood by many. Firstly, there is no need to be especially talkative to such people, unless they really want to talk. Often, it is the presence, the aura of peace that you bring that is especially helpful. Secondly, it is not about the dead that people really wish to talk. Bereaved people really wish to know other things. This is why it is not really helpful to say, "Well, that person is in a better place now." That's great for the dead person. And it's true, if the deceased by a believer. But how does that help the living person? It is much more helpful to say, "You will see that person again (in the case of talking to a believer about a believer's death), talk to them again, touch them again, hug them again. There is resurrection, and you will know them again. You will recognize them (a question often asked, by the way)." They do want to know about the intermediate state, but the reality is that the pain is very much on a physical level: it is the physical presence that is missed. It is the person as he existed in the body who is missed. If you can utter nothing but platitudes, then it is better by far to say nothing. They will not misunderstand you if you utter platitudes (that is, they will assume that you mean well), but they will not derive much comfort from your being there, if you utter platitudes. Instead, if you cannot think of anything to say, just be there, comfortable with silence. This is ministry, too. Do not think that you must say something. For many people, they would simply prefer you be there, but be silent. It can be helpful to ask them whether or not they wish to talk. Make yourself available for the form of comfort in which they are interested. Do not ever underestimate the power of touch to comfort. They miss the person on a physical level very much. Comfort, then, on a physical level can be very helpful, especially holding their hand and hugging. Do not be ashamed or uncomfortable if they start crying. Cry with them. Passages for bereaved people are: Psalm 23, Job 19, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4, John 11, Revelation 21-22 For the dying person, the Gospel is the focus, especially the resurrection aspect of it. Dying believers really need to know that this is not the end, but rather the beginning of victory. They need to know that Christ's resurrection has turned death from defeat into victory. They need to know about the resurrection body. This gives inestimable comfort. 1 Cor 15 is key here.

True Repentance

Genesis 42 In his book I Surrender, Patrick Morley writes that the church's integrity problem is in the mis- conception "that we can add Christ to our lives, but not subtract sin. It is a change in belief without a change in behavior." He goes on to say, "It is revival without reformation, without repentance." How do you know if true repentance has taken place? You can find out by looking at the fruit of repentance: a changed life, a permanently changed life. Charles Hodge said this, “The sure test of the quality of any supposed change of heart will be found in its permanent effects. 'By their fruits you shall know them' is as applicable to the right method of judging ourselves as of judging others. Whatever, therefore, may have been our inward experience, whatever joy or sorrow we may have felt, unless we bring forth fruits meet for repentance, our experience will profit us nothing. Repentance is incomplete unless it leads to confession and restitution in cases of injury; unless it causes us to forsake not merely outward sins, which others notice, but those which lie concealed in the heart; unless it makes us choose the service of God and live not for ourselves but for Him. There is no duty which is either more obvious in itself, or more frequently asserted in the Word of God, than that of repentance.” What Joseph is doing in this chapter is finding out if the brothers have truly changed. All his actions are directed towards reconciliation. However, reconciliation cannot happen unless true repentance has taken place on the part of the brothers. In the same way, God wants reconciliation with us. But He will not do it unless He has first enabled repentance to take place in our lives. It is therefore vital to describe what repentance is, and what it is not. Repentance is not merely a confession of sin. That is required, of course, but it is not the full definition of repentance. Repentance means a complete turn-around in a person's life. One poor pastor said once that repentance is a complete 360 degree turn around from sin. You can see that math is sometimes important to know! I think 180 degrees would be a much more helpful way of putting it. Well, what does repentance mean for Joseph's brothers? It means that they will not treat Benjamin the same way they treated Joseph. We start off the chapter with Jacob finding out that there is grain in Egypt. So, he sends off his brothers, all except Benjamin. Verse 4 seems to indicate to us that Jacob didn't really trust the brothers. The last time he sent off one of Rachel's offspring to the brothers, Joseph got killed (at least in his own mind). So, he wasn't taking any chances with what would surely be a fairly dangerous journey. He keeps Benjamin close by him. That probably had the unwitting effect of arousing the slumbering consciences of the brothers. They would have been reminded of Joseph by Jacob's actions. They have that on which to ponder as they make their way slowly down to Egypt, the place where they knew that Joseph had been sold as a slave. Never in their wildest dreams did they think that Joseph would be in a position of power. It was in Joseph's wildest dreams, but not in theirs. Verse 6 shows us that the brothers cannot thwart the plan of God. Joseph's dream had been that his brothers' sheaves of grain (!) would bow down to his, signifying that they themselves would bow down to him. Now they do it quite unwittingly. Their grain being gone, they have to bow down to the seeming Egyptian, and his large store of grain. Probably Joseph didn't have a lot of time to react. He had to make a decision quickly: how was he going to treat them? Would he forgive and forget? Or would he try for something even deeper: reconciliation through the repentance of the brothers? He knew that he could drop the facade at any time. So he decides to try to find a way to see if they have really changed or not. He accuses them of being spies. Anyone accused of being a spy starts telling their accuser all sorts of interesting things. Joseph noticed that Jacob and Benjamin were not there with the brothers. He wanted to find out if they were still alive. After wearing them down with repeated accusations, Joseph does get them to tell him that Jacob and Benjamin are in fact still alive. Their answers to his accusations are a bit hurried and disjointed, as you might expect from people accused of a crime of which they know they are innocent, though the accusation was quite sudden and unexpected. That combination of factors helps to explain why they almost stutter with protestations of innocence. Joseph has the edge here, because he recognizes them, since they wore beards, and there were 10 of them. They hadn't changed nearly as much as he had. He was a smooth-shaven, well-dressed, powerful Egyptian, who used an interpreter, and spoke harsh Egyptian. No wonder they didn't recognize him! Now, Joseph's accusations are entirely ridiculous. Who ever heard of a spy ring consisting of ten brothers, all in the same place, with donkeys obviously brought for taking back food? It is not really credible. However, as was said, this accusation had the purpose of keeping them from recognizing him, and telling him what he wanted to know. Calvin has this to say: “it was to be feared lest they, keeping their father out of sight, and wishing to cast a veil over the detestable wickedness which they had committed, should only increase it by a new crime. There lurked, also, a not unreasonable suspicion concerning his brother Benjamin, lest they should attempt something perfidious and cruel against him. It was therefore important that they should be more thoroughly sifted.” And it was important that this happen while the brothers were ignorant of his real identity. Jesus would similarly sift the Jews of His day. He spoke in parables in order to sift them, to see if they would repent or not. Candlish says this, “In this respect he fitly represents a greater than himself, one raised to a higher glory, for a wider purpose of grace. Jesus is “exalted, a prince and a Savior, to give repentance unto Israel, and the remission of sins;” -not the remission of sins only- but repentance and the remission of sins together. Joseph could have no difficulty about giving his brothers remission of sins; he has forgiven them long ago in his heart, and right gladly would he assure them of that at once. But, acting under divine guidance, he must so deal with them as to force upon them a deep and salutary exercise of soul, which in the end is to be blessed for their more complete peace, -their more thorough unity and prosperity,- in the day when the full joy of reconciliation is to be experienced.” Joseph gives them a taste of their own medicine by putting them in prison for three days. This has at least two purposes: one is to give himself some time to think about how he will pursue this reconciliation. The other purpose is to make the brothers aware that this is exactly what they did to Joseph. In the book The Horse and His Boy, Aslan, the Christ figure, gives the main character five scratches, to help the main character know what someone else had gone through. Aslan's comment was this, “It was necessary that you should feel what this other person felt.” Joseph does exactly this, and the result is exactly that for which he had hoped. The brothers are thinking only about Joseph. We said earlier that their consciences had already been awakened. Now, their consciences are in full force. They all agree that it was because of their treatment of Joseph that they were going through this trial. Now, Joseph had required that one of the brothers go back and get Benjamin. Otherwise, he would not believe their story. In verse 20, Joseph tells them that their words will be verified only if they bring back Benjamin. Joseph knows that they will have to come back, since there is at least five more years of famine left. So, the brothers in prison are surely discussing which one of them will have to go back to tell Jacob that the youngest brother will have to go back if all the brothers are to survive. Reuben does not want to do it. That is the reason for his self-justifying comment here in verse 22. However, Reuben's comment is not so compelling. Reuben actually recommended that they throw Joseph into the pit. He is here claiming credit for his god intentions, though his good intentions were not strong enough to overturn the other brothers' bad intentions. However, it is a piece of information which Joseph had not known before. It is Reuben's comment that makes Joseph turn away and weep. He sees that the brothers are not completely hardened. It is also Reuben's comment that makes Joseph pass him by and instead take Simeon to be the hostage. Simeon will have to cool his heels in Joseph's prison until the brothers come back with Benjamin. As we will see, that is quite a long time. Well, the brothers are ready. After Joseph unexpectedly gives them leniency, and reverses the number of those who will go versus the number of those who will stay. Joseph unexpectedly gives them their money back. Probably, this had more than one motive as well. Joseph wanted to care for his brothers. He had long forgiven them in the past, as is very clear from his statement later on when he says that it was the Lord's doing. However, Joseph also wants to up the ante here. They are going to have to come back afraid, thinking that they would be labelled thieves in addition to the charge they already have of being spies. After the brothers tell their father about their encounter, selectively removing anything that appears bad, they empty their sacks, and discover that their money has been returned to them. Now, we have a difficulty here. Earlier the text says that one of the brothers opens his sack to find his money. And in chapter 43, verse 21, the brothers tell Joseph on their second trip that they all found out at the same time at the stopping place. How come chapter 42 seems to imply that only one of them found out at the stopping place, and that all the rest of them didn't find out until later? Liberal scholars say that the answer lies in the theory of two sources, and that there is no way to resolve the contradiction. I disagree. I believe that the reason has more to do with how good the brothers want to look to their father. Notice that they leave out the part of the one brother finding his money returned to him. Probably what happened is that they all found out at the stopping place. But they pretended that they had not found out. They wanted to have as much credibility with their father as possible. So they wait until they can all find out together, so that when Jacob found out (as he surely would), he wouldn't blame the brothers. This was a needless deception on the part of the brothers, but they did it anyway. The main point of this whole chapter has to do with guilt and repentance. That is Joseph's entire aim, as we have seen. And in this chapter, we have seen that the brothers have admitted their guilt before God. This is an essential step in the reconciliation process. However, as we said at the beginning, we need not only to confess our sin, but also to turn away from it. So, if you have faith, have you repented? That is, have you left behind your enslavement to sin? We admit, as good Reformed people, that only God can make us do that. But the call is to people: have you repented? It is impossible to say that you believe in God, and then to say that you can still live a life of sin. To quote Candlish again, “Thou art called to deep and salutary exercises of penitential sorrow. If instead relief for thy burdened conscience is granted, and he whom thou hast pierced utters at once the words, “Be of good cheer, it is I, thy sins be forgiven thee;”- with what a flood of tears shouldest thou be graciously mourning for these very forgiven sins? And if it should be otherwise with thee,- if it should seem as if this assured forgiveness were long of coming, and the prince, the Saviour, were long of showing himself,-surely thou canst not pretend that thou hast any right to complain. Thou canst no more take it amiss than Joseph's brothers could, that thou shouldest have bitter days and nights to spend in thinking over all thy heinous guilt.” Repentance is a sorrowing turn away from sin. It is sorrow that we have sinned against God, not merely sorrow for sin's consequences. Rather it is sorrow for sin itself. That is the message of repentance, and of our chapter.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Sacraments

Sacraments are signs and seals. As signs, they function like road markers that point to a city. "Minneapolis this way," a sign might say. The sign is connected to the city, assuming that no one has tampered with the sign. It points in the right direction. Baptism says "salvation is in Christ; go this way, and repent and believe." That function is slightly different, depending on whether the sign is administered before faith (in the case of infants) or after faith (presumed faith, in the case of adults). As seals, they function as God's statement "This person is engaged to me" (in the case of baptism), or "This person is in fellowship with me" (in the case of communion). With regard to baptism, we can give a further analogy: baptism functions like an engagement ring. The person is spoken for. But engagements can be broken. Baptism is not the wedding ring: that is faith. But it is like an engagement ring. 27.2 of the WCF is absolutely essential to understand, when surrounded by the debates in the PCA and elsewhere: "there is in every sacrament a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other." This means that sometimes the Bible uses the term "baptism" when it means to talk about the thing that baptism signifies. Romans 6 and Galatians 3 are good examples of this, as has been argued in a previous post and comments. The WCF is just as careful to avoid the "empty sign" theology of Zwingli, as it is to avoid baptismal regeneration. Since no one really disputes the former, I will focus on the latter. Indications that baptism does not automatically confer union with Christ: 27:3 "The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them...the word of instituation, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers." Emphasis mine. More on this in the next WCF post on baptism. Someone will probably immediately quote 28.6 to me, which says this (usually truncated by FV advocates): "Yet notwithstanding, by the right use of the ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred, by the Holy Ghost." What is missing, of course, is the very next essential qualifying statement: "to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time." I have highlighted the importance of these two phrases: this grace does not belong unto those of the non-elect. And, the grace of baptism is conferred in God's own time (it is not limited to the time when baptism is administered).

The Resurrection and Ascension and Joseph

Genesis 41 Robert Dick Wilson, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary before it went liberal, once heard one of his students preach. Afterward, he came up to the man and said this: “If you come back again, I will not come to hear you preach. I only come once. I am glad that you are a big-godder. When my boys come back, I come to see if they are big-godders or little-godders, and then I know what their ministry will be.” His former student asked him to explain, and he replied, “Well, some men have a little god, and they are always in trouble with him. He can't do any miracles. He can't take care of the inspiration and transmission of the Scripture to us. He doesn't intervene on behalf of his people. They have a little god and I call them little-godders. Then, there are those who have a great God. He speaks and it is done. He commands and it stands fast. He knows how to show himself strong on behalf of them that fear him. You have a great God; and he will bless your ministry.” He paused a moment, smiled, said, “God bless you,” and turned and walked out. Joseph was a big-godder. He had a massive conception of who God was, and so must we. One of the biggest things about God that is important is that He has brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, and given Him the name that is above every name. But that great event in history is not the only time that God has done something like that. Even to the OT believers, God gave them a picture of what Jesus would look like. God gave them Joseph. That is why I have entitled this sermon “The Resurrection and Ascension of Joseph.” It is truly a great God that we serve, and that is proved over and over again in the pages of Holy Scripture. God's providence is evident in a particular way in the beginning of our story. For Joseph is made to wait two whole years before he is delivered from prison. This had a two-fold reason. One reason God did this is so that Joseph would be made perfect through suffering, just as Jesus Christ was. The second reason is that God wanted the perfect timing for the cupbearer to remember. If the cupbearer had remembered earlier, then very little good would have come out of it. But now, a great good will come out of it, nothing less that the salvation of the entire world from starvation. In a similar way, Jesus would endure two days in the grave, but on the third day, Jesus would rise again. If Joseph's resurrection meant a physical salvation of the world, then Jesus' resurrection means a spiritual resurrection, and then a bodily resurrection for His people. The occasion of this great act of God was a dream on Pharaoh's part. This dream was very scary to Pharaoh for a number of reasons. The first is that the Nile river was the source of life for Egyptians. That is what they believed. However, here the Nile is putting forth bad cows and bad corn. The Nile failed in the dream. That was also a failure of the god of the Nile, whose name was Hapi. The first part of the dream had to do with cows. Cows were sacred animals in Egypt, and symbolized Egypt itself. So Pharaoh knew that something very bad was going to happen, when he started seeing these cannibal cows. He will say later on that the cannibal cows, after eating the fat cows, didn't even look any better than they were before. And then, after having awoken because of the vividness of the dream, he fell asleep and dreamed another very similar dream. In fact, the two dreams are so alike that Pharaoh thought of them as one. In verse 8, most modern translations say that Pharaoh told his dreams plural to the wise men. Actually, the KJV translates it accurately: he told his dream singular to the wise men. He saw it as one dream. But the interpreters thought of them as two dreams. That is why it says that there was no one to interpret them to Pharaoh. He wasn't satisfied with any of their interpretations, because they thought of his one dream as two dreams. So the wise men of Egypt cannot interpret for Pharaoh, and they cannot even count right! Pharaoh knew they were really one dream, because there was the element of seven, the element of the later bad things destroying the earlier good things, and the completeness of the “victory” of the bad things. In this whole process, the cupbearer suddenly remembers Joseph. He tells Pharaoh about Joseph, especially the fact that Joseph had interpreted the dreams correctly. That gets Pharaoh very excited, and all of a sudden, Joseph finds himself brought out, shaved, dressed in new clothes, and brought before Pharaoh. One little interesting detail here: the Hebrew men always wore beards, but the Egyptians never wore them. That is why Joseph had to be shaved. Otherwise, he would not have been presentable to Pharaoh. Pharaoh is so excited that here is one who can interpret dreams. However, Joseph quickly, though gently, corrects the Pharaoh. Joseph tells the Pharaoh that the interpretation belongs to God. It is the same thing that he told to the baker and the cupbearer in the previous chapter. In one word in Hebrew, Joseph disavows any claim to the wisdom necessary to understand dreams, and says instead that God gave it to him. It is vitally important to give God all the glory for any and all gifts that we have, any skills that we have. After having given a particularly devout and moving sermon one Sunday morning, Charles Spurgeon was greeted by members of his congregation. One man said to him, “Sir, that was the greatest sermon I have ever heard and that you have ever preached?” Spurgeon turned to him and said, “Yes, the devil told me that ten minutes ago” But Joseph here takes great care that the arrow should not point to him, but to God. The same thing was true with Jesus Christ. He did not point the arrow at Himself, but rather let His Heavenly Father proclaim what a good Son He had. Joseph interprets the dream for Pharaoh. Finally, here was someone who could count. Joseph insists that the “two” dreams are really one and the same. The only they came in a two-fold manner was to emphasize how certain would be the fulfillment of this one dream. Joseph tells Pharaoh that God has revealed what He is about to do. The future is not in the hands of Pharaoh, you see, but rather in the hands of Almighty God. However, after Joseph finishes interpreting the dream, he gives a solution. The dream presents quite a problem for Pharaoh. Joseph knows this, and so has compassion on the Egyptians, and presents them not only with the proper interpretation of the dream, but also with a solution to the problem. Joseph is not thinking of himself here as he describes what this discerning and wise person is to do. He is not jockeying for position. Joseph just wants to get out of prison! He has no idea of himself being the one chosen. That is quite important, because he did grasp after authority like Adam did. Rather, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on him the form of a servant. As a result of this humiliation, God exalted him above every other name that can be named. Only in regard to the throne would Pharaoh be higher than Joseph. That also is reflected in Christ's experience, as described in 1 Corinthians 15:27, which says this: “For 'God has put all things in subjection under his feet.' But when it says, 'all things are put in subjection,' it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him.” God the Father is not subject to the Son. Neither is the Son subject to the Father. They are equal, unlike Pharaoh and Joseph in that respect. Pharaoh reasons very well here. He thinks that since Joseph not only interpreted the dream correctly, but also provided a solution to the problem, there could be no one better qualified to do this thing than Joseph himself. And so Pharaoh promotes Joseph beyond any other minister in the kingdom. He is the vizier. That is the term used here. Now is fulfilled one of Joseph's own dreams. He dreamed that the sun, moon, and stars would bow down to him. That refers to the largest superpower of the ancient world, Egypt. Now it is a reality. It is only a matter of time now before the other dream will come true, since the famine will be severe not only in Egypt, but in the rest of the world as well. The seven years of plenty follow immediately, and Egypt and Joseph are both fruitful and multiplying. Joseph gets married into one of the highest social circles of the land. Priests were very well respected in those days. Joseph has two sons by her: Manasseh and Ephraim. These years are fairly uneventful otherwise, and so we pass on to the years of famine. The people come to Pharaoh, who immediately directs them to Joseph, who is the only one who can give to them the Bread of Life. So also, Jesus is the only one to whom we can go for the Bread of Life. Verse 57 paves the way for the brothers to come, since the famine was severe in all the lands, not just in Egypt. However, because of Joseph's wise policy of taxation, there was grain in Egypt. Joseph probably did not sell grain to the Egyptians until later years. He was actually rationing it carefully, so as to have enough grain for seven whole years. So what can we take away from this story? Well, we have seen that Joseph prefigures Jesus Christ in many ways. So also, he prefigures the church. Therefore, the Joseph story also applies to us through Jesus Christ. For instance, do we take credit for a gift or a skill that we have? It should rather be used for the good of others, and to the honor and glory of God alone. We are NEVER to use our gifts and skills for our own self-aggrandizement. We are never to puff up ourselves, thinking ourselves so great, when everything we have is a gift from God. Joseph could have taken credit for his interpretation of the dream, but he did not do so. Instead, he used his skill for the good of the world, and, as it turned out, for the good of the OT church. It is important to head off at the pass an incorrect application of this passage. This passage is not telling us today that we should follow our dreams, to have them interpreted. Hebrews 1 is very clear about this: in the OT, says Hebrews, God revealed Himself in many different ways and at various times. In these NT last days, He has revealed Himself to us in His Son. We need no other revelation than Jesus Christ, as recorded for us in Scripture. If you want to have guidance for your life, then look to Scripture, not to dreams, and not to magic, like horoscopes. The Egyptian magicians were always shown to be incorrect in their interpretations, and incomplete in their knowledge. They couldn't interpret this dream of Pharaoh's properly at all. That kind of thing is the way of darkness and confusion. If we want light, then we must go to Scripture, and pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth. Furthermore, when we have the opportunity to do something great in front of someone else, we should not do it with an eye towards our own interests. This follows closely from what I said before. However, it certainly bears repeating. We are not to be interested in self. We are rather to have the same mind as Christ Jesus, who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, making Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. That is what Joseph did, and it is what we should do. So, do the thing that no one else wants to do because it is too low. Jesus washed His disciples' feet, and in the very process showed them what they must do for each other. Maybe you don't want to take care of your elderly parents or grandparents. But shouldn't you give them that service? Maybe you don't want to help your neighbor out with something. Shouldn't you volunteer? Maybe you don't want to shovel manure and clean out someone's cow stalls. Shouldn't you do that very thing anyway? We should never think that any kind of service to others is beneath us. For Jesus Christ humiliated Himself far more than we ever even could humiliate ourselves. He did that for us so that we could be saved from the wrath of God. Then He tells us to go out and do likewise. And then, we should not forget God's providence in bad times. For two years, Joseph could have cursed God for having forgotten him. But God did not forget him. He is a great God. He never forgets, unless it be our sin, when we repent of it and turn away from it. But He never forgets His people. Our trust must be the same as Joseph. He trusted that God would bring him out of his dark and low circumstances. Do you have a big God or a little god? Are you a big-Godder or a little-godder? Being a big-Godder means that you will experience resurrection and ascension, just as Joseph and Jesus did. God resurrects His people to new life and a place that is above every place that can be named.

Great sermon on Islam and Christianity

Go here for a great sermon. There are some real eye-openers here.

Interesting typology

Here is an interesting interpretation of Genesis 41:56-57, from Hamilton's commentary, volume 2, pg 513: "Joseph is an antitype of Noah, building storehouses just as Noah built his ark. The storehouses of Joseph, however, are for the survival of the masses. The ark of Noah was for the survival of one man and his family." What do ya'll think?

Hurricane

It is very odd to share a name with a hurricane.