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Saturday Word Study: Testimony in Psalm 119

The word in Hebrew that is translated as testimony is עֵדוּת (eduth), and is derived from עֵדe (ed—note that both of these words are pronounced with an “ae” sound in English).  Both words carry similar meanings, though the connotations vary somewhat in terms of how they are used.

The first word, עֵדוּת e (eduth), refers to a witness or testimony, but is normally used in terms of legally binding stipulations or laws.  The Tabernacle is, for example, called the Tabernacle of Testimony (Numbers 17:4) because they were the home of the tablets of the Ten Commandments.  This becomes very pronounced when you get to verse 10 of the same chapter, for Moses is told to put the staff of Aaron before the testimony — ultimately the staff then was kept with the 10 commandments (Hebrews 9:4).  

Thus, when Psalm 119 speaks of testimony in this sense, it can be said to be speaking of the Moral Law (10 Commandments). Of course, all of God’s Law — all of the Scriptures even — are connected with the Ten Commandments.  This word testimony is found 9 times in the 119th psalm (which should tell us something right there), and is located in verses 14, 31, 36, 88, 99, 111, 129, 144, and 157.

The second word עֵד (ed), is a massively important word in Hebrew and is found 118 times in the Old Testament even though it is not explicitly found in Psalm 119.  It refers to the idea of witness in much the same way as the New Testament Greek term μαρτυρία (marturia—from which we get the term “martyr”) is used.  This word refers to that witness which confirms the truth to be so.  This is one’s testimony of faith before men, for example, as well as being a testimony in a court of law.

The connection between these two words is found in the concept of the covenant of God.  God’s covenant with his people is his  עֵד (ed), but this עֵד (ed) contains stipulations for those that would be in covenant with our Lord and King.  Those stipulations are the עֵדוּת e (eduth) of God.  

What is also worth noting is that another word that is derived from עֵד (ed) is the term עֵדַה (edah), which means “congregation,” referring to a gathering of God’s people.  God’s people are those that he has put into relationship with himself through his covenant, his עֵד (ed), and regulates through his עֵדוּת e (eduth).  All very closely connected.  This word is found 14 times in Psalm 119 (vs. 2, 22, 24, 46, 59, 79, 95, 119, 125, 138, 146, 152, 167, 168).  So closely are these words and ideas related that in most, if not all cases, when Psalm 119 is translated into English, they have translated it as “testimony” rather than congregation.  This is probably a little misleading in the crossover to English, but at the same time, in the context of the Psalm, it appears that the Psalmist is doing much the same thing—wedding together these ideas.  Or, to put it another way, the presence of the covenant people of God are God’s testimony to his own covenant faithfulness—his חֶסֶד (chesed—pronounced with a hard “ch” like in “Loch Ness”).  The word חֶסֶד (chesed) is variously translated in our English Bibles, but refers to the covenantal faithfulness of God in spite of our covenantal unfaithfulness, and is found 7 times in Psalm 119 (vs. 41, 64, 76, 88, 124, 149, 159) and is often translated as “steadfast love” or “mercy.”

With this in mind, permit me to digress to Deuteronomy 6:4 for a moment, commonly called “the Shema” in Hebrew circles.  The bulk of the book of Deuteronomy consists of Moses’ sermonic expositions of the Ten Commandments, forming a Constitution for the people of Israel.  With this in mind, the Shema functions essentially as the preamble to the constitution for the people.  In fact, in Judaism, Deuteronomy 6:4 is considered to be the single most important verse in the Bible and the very language that defines them as a people—giving them their national identity.  It establishes their relationship with God as a covenant people and reminds them that they are a people who have been given a name, loved as such by their God.  It is the first prayer that the faithful Hebrew prays when he wakes in the morning and the last prayer he prays before he goes to bed at night.  It is also chanted at the beginning of a traditional synagogue service.  What is especially interesting is the way it is written in the Hebrew Bible:

 שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהינוּ יְהוָה אֶהָד

Note that the last letter of the first and last words have been written larger and in bold print.  These two letters, when taken out of the verse spell, עֵד (ed) — or witness.  In other words, the Shema itself is the witness of the Jewish people to their God, just as the covenant is God’s עֵד (ed) to his people.  Lastly, if you reverse the letters of עֵד (ed), you end up with the word דֵּעַ (de’a), which means “knowledge.”  Just as fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom (Psalm 111:10), so too is all true knowledge rooted in the covenant of God.  Any pursuit of knowledge apart from God’s revelation through his covenant is vanity, Solomon reminds us in Ecclesiastes.

Covenant is, as we know, the context in which God interacts with his people.  On the very first day that Adam was alive and placed in the Garden God established his covenant with Adam and set before Adam the עֵדוּת e (eduth) of the covenant—don’t eat lest you will die-die.  The punishments given out after the fall are the consequences of their failure to fulfill the covenant.  Genesis 3:15, though reminds us that a Messiah is coming who will redeem his people from bondage to the one who led them into sin.  Genesis 15 provides us with a foretaste of what would happen to this divine Messiah, though.  In the context, God is confirming his covenant with Abraham and Abraham is sent to divide up the animals and separate them creating a bloody path to walk through.  In ancient times, when covenants were made between Kings and their Vassals, they would divide up a group of animals like this, and then the Vassal, as a pledge of faithfulness to the covenant, would walk through the middle of the line of animals as if to say, “if I don’t fulfill my part of the covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me also.”  Now, some have suggested that there may be evidence that both the king and vassal walked through this line, but the evidence is varied and this proposition makes little sense as the vassal had no power to enforce this commitment upon the king, where the king certainly had the power to enforce it upon his vassal.

Either way, what is significant is that Abraham should have walked through the bloody pathway, but God puts him into a deep sleep (not unlike the sleep that God put Adam into before he took out his rib to form Eve), and God walked through the bloody pathway in Abraham’s stead.  God was saying to Abraham, I will be your covenant mediator and representative for this covenant.  If you or your line fail to keep this covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me as well.  And that is exactly what took place on the cross of Calvary.  Jesus fulfilled what God promised, bloody and bruised, because we could not be faithful to the עֵדוּת e (eduth) of God’s covenant.

In the context of Psalm 119, the psalmist completely understands that for one to be truly blameless and righteous before the Lord, one must first submit his life to the testimonies of our God—to the עֵדוּת e (eduth) of God’s covenant.  Thus, he sets the Law before him as a guide and instructor.  We must understand that while the psalmist speaks at times of being blameless before his accusers, this is not to be interpreted in terms of a form of human self-righteousness.  Instead, he also understands, as Abraham understood, that his redemption would be paid for by another—by God himself through the promised Messiah, and that his personal righteousness was based, through faith, in the coming of the promised one.  At the same time, he understands the thrust of what Paul would say in Romans 6:1-2.  In light of that, the psalmist both begins and ends the psalm focused on remembering and obeying the Law of the Lord.

The Summation of All Things

“making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Him as a plan for the fullness of time to sum up all things in Christ — that which is in the heavens and that which is on the earth, in Him.”

(Ephesians 1:9-10)

Why does God reveal the mystery of the Gospel to us? Is it because he loves us? Is it because we deserve to know? Is it because we are special? Is it because he wants us to choose him? No, none of the above. There is one primary reason according to the Apostle Paul…it is God’s good pleasure. There is nothing outside of himself that compels him to do any of this; instead it pleases him to do so. And yes, he purposed this (intended this, foreordained this, he planned it before the foundation of the earth) and then revealed it in the fullness of time.

Probably one of the most significant clauses in these verses is one that might go overlooked. That is that all things are “summed up” in Christ. Our English Bibles translate this phrase variously — often communicating the idea of all things finding their unity in Christ or finding their fullness in Christ. The word in question is ἀνακεφαλαιόω (anakephalaio’o), which means “to sum up (as in math), to recap, or to summarize.” It is used only one other time in the New Testament, and that is in Romans 13:9, where Paul is  speaking about the summary of the second table of the Law (commandments 5-10) being “summed up” in the statement, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Interestingly enough, in Greek literature outside of the New Testament, this word is often used in conjunction with the Law (c.f. Aristotle and Dionysius of Halicarnassus). 

So, what do we do with this? What does it mean that all things in heaven and on earth find their summation in Christ, particularly in terms of the Law? The direct answer is that the only redemption that can be found, in heaven or on earth, is the redemption worked by Jesus Christ. He has fulfilled the Law on behalf of His elect and the result of that is that he is the steward of creation and will redeem creation from the effects of the Fall of Adam (Romans 8:20-23). This interpretation also fits the context of the rest of the paragraph before it, which speaks of Christ redeeming us from our trespasses. All redemption that takes place is by and through Christ. Those who are not in Christ cannot find themselves to be redeemed, no matter how hard they might try.

Deliverance!

“In Him we have deliverance through His blood — liberation from trespasses — according to the riches of His grace, which abounds to us in all wisdom and understanding,”

(Ephesians 1:7-8)

To start with, let’s talk about the idea of deliverance. In context, Paul parallels the idea with the phrase, “liberation from trespasses,” giving us a degree of additional clarity as to specifically the kind of deliverance that the Apostle has in mind. The word in question is ἀπολύτρωσις (apolutrosis), which most commonly refers to paying a ransom to free someone from slavery or bondage. The next logical answer to ask, then, is “what kind of bondage are believers delivered from?” The answer is found in Paul’s clarification — from our bondage to sin. 

One of the errors that crept into medieval theology was the notion that the ransom payment for believers was paid to the devil. Yet, we are not bound by the devil, we are bound by our sin. Further, the devil has no rightful or legitimate claim upon us as if he were some sort of equal power with God (that would be Manicheanism). No, we are bound by our sin and it is the Law that reveals our sin (Romans 7:7) and thus, any ransom that is made is ransom to the Law. In turn, then, given that the remission of sin requires the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22), then the ransom paid is not one of gold or silver or other forms of wealth, the ransom was made in blood…namely the blood of the one who has ransomed us from the bondage of sin before the Law.

The real issue that Christians too often struggle with today is that they do not see their sin as a form of bondage. Worse, some even see grace as a license to sin! Paul is very clear that such is not the view of the believer (Romans 6:1-2). Sin, all too sadly, is soft-pedaled in churches. It is seen as “not that bad” because there are others who are far more sinful than they. Thus, church discipline, too, has been put to the side. If sin is not that big of a deal, why take it so seriously as that? And the circle of cause and effect spirals downward.

Sin, even the smallest and most “insignificant” of sins, is bondage to us according to the Biblical text. Even the most minor “little white lie” would have cost Jesus his life upon that cross on Golgotha. Woe to those who will not treat it as such. Woe to the ones who excuse and justify their pet sins and an abundance of woes to the ones who look upon sin and call it by any other name. When one justifies sin, one justifies remaining in bondage and even celebrates the bondage of others. 

Loved ones, do you not see that your sin binds you? Do you not recognize the toll it takes on your life? Do you not realize that obedience to the Law in Christ is a blessed freedom, not something that robs us of all our fun. You must realize that in heaven we will be unable to sin — unable! Yet, shall we be any more free than when we are in glory? Most certainly not! How sin has so muddled our brains that we would think of bondage as good and of freedom as unstimulating and tedious. 

In Christ we have been redeemed from our bondage to sin just as the Israelites who followed Moses were redeemed from their bondage to the toil of Pharaoh’s work details. Sadly, just as there were complainers under Moses, people constantly nostalgic for the stewpots of Egypt, there are Christians in the body of Christ who likewise pine for their pet chains and shackles of sin. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free from our slavery (Galatians 5:1), shall we not enjoy and rejoice in the freedom that Christ has sacrificed to provide for us?

The Law of God

The longer I live the more things about the mindset of our culture just makes me scratch my head. When I was younger, we used to talk about “Things that make you go, Hmmm…” Today, I wonder if the phrase should be, “Things that make you go, huh?!?” And one of those things that I find a head-scratcher today is the way the Gospel has been redefined into something that it was never meant to be…at least if we have any sense of propriety to the Bible. And while it is true that this is not a new trend, it amazes me just how prevalent the idea is today.

Don’t misunderstand me, I do understand the context in which we live. The world is getting small, churches of pretty much every flavor exist on nearly every corner of America, yet overall, American church attendance is dropping. Buildings, also, are expensive. Old ones cost money to maintain and new ones cost money to build. There are also salaries to pay, activities to finance, and other costs that go along with doing business.

And so, churches behave like businesses, yes, and this is the first step down a path that leads away from fidelity to the Bible. How so? The purpose of a business is to make money and they do so by promoting their brand over the brand of others. So churches often enter into a kind of feeding frenzy, trying to grow by pulling members from one church into their own…typically by the programs and services that they have to offer. In addition, there is a phrase in business that goes: “The customer is always right.” That of course, is not true and few real businesses truly believe that sentiment, but it is still said. And, if you view church members as customers, your goal is to fill their needs and make them feel good about themselves, ready to go about the next week.

To do that, Law must be deemphasized. Why? Law makes us feel bad. It makes us feel guilty for the things we have done over the week. We’ve thought bad thoughts, we’ve coveted things that are not our own, we’ve even taken the Lord’s name in vain and have gone our own way on the Sabbath. People don’t want to be told they are sinners and deserving of the wrath of God. People want to be told that God forgives them anyway and that they should just keep doing their best and he will overlook the other stuff. 

What’s wrong with a message like that? Well, apart from being entirely unbiblical, it belittles the Gospel. It’s a form of watered-down universalism. Why? Here’s the thing, if the bad news is that God is not happy with our sin, but that he will tolerate it anyway, do we really need him? No. The Gospel then is only about us feeling better about ourselves. And worship becomes a kind of “spiritual recharge” that kind of earns us the right to receive blessings from God (you never thought of the “prosperity gospel” as a works-righteousness movement, but it is — the more you do, the more you earn from God — that’s essentially their lie). 

The problem is that God is not unhappy with us for our sin. God is enraged at our sin. It is outright rebellion and it always has been — going all of the way back to Adam and Eve (remember, they basically accused God of being a liar). The problem is that we stand in rebellion against God and deserve his wrath in the fires of Hell. Yep, that is far more serious than him just being unhappy with us…and no, he tolerates no sin in his presence (Isaiah 65:16; Habakkuk 1:13); he is light and in him is no darkness (1 John 1:5). And, as I have said repeatedly across the twenty-some years that I have been in the pulpit, and as many who have gone before me have said: “Until you come to terms with the greatness of your sin, you will never appreciate grace.”

So how do we come to terms with the greatness of our sin? That is essentially the question that is asked in the third question of the Heidelberg Catechism: “How do you know your misery?” We must indeed recognize that sin, whether small or great on human terms, brings misery to our souls. The answer is short and succinct: “The Law of God tells me.” In other words, until you let the Law weigh down your soul and nurture a sense of godly sorrow for your wicked state, grace will be nothing but a feel-good promise that eludes your life.

What then is the Law of God? Probably the best summary of it is found in the Ten Commandments — one law with ten interwoven parts. Heidelberg reminds us too of Jesus’ summary of the Ten Commandments, found in the command to Love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40). Yet, these are summaries (convicting summaries, indeed!), but the outworking and application of this moral law is found throughout the Scripture. Thus, no matter how well we know the summaries, every passage of scripture has the power to approach you and to convict your soul. 

So, the message of the Gospel is not, God is displeased but he will forgive you anyway, just come and worship him. That would portray God as a kind of senile grandfather doting on his children. No, the Gospel is much more powerful than that. You are a rebel. You are guilty of breaking the Law of God both knowingly and unknowingly and thus deserve wrath and the eternal torment of the fires of Hell. That is rightfully yours. Yet, in spite of that, God has elected to save some — a remnant from humanity for himself — not because of who we are or because of something we have done, but because he has graciously chosen to do so. And that does not mean that our sins are excused if we are part of that remnant. No, nothing of the sort. Our sins are not excused, but the punishment for our sins was borne by another — God’s own sinless Son. He did for us what we could never have done for ourselves. 

This, folks, is grace, but it only makes sense under the conviction of the Law. That means that the message of Sunday morning is not to make you feel better about yourselves. It is not to give you a spiritual recharge during the week. The message of Sunday morning is to convict you of your sins, to show you the mighty nature of our God in contrast to our lowliness, and to reveal the work of Christ that gives us hope, lowly worms that we are. We do not come to invoke God’s blessings on our lives, we come to submit to the Word — to be crushed under its weight even — and to be exhorted to live a life of gratitude on the basis of that knowledge. Anything short of that is another Gospel, and in the words of the Apostle Paul:

“But, even if we or an angel from heaven were to proclaim a gospel incompatible with the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have already told you, now I say again, if someone preaches something incompatible to what you have received, let him be accursed!”

(Galatians 1:8-9)

An Open Letter to President Obama, Governor McCrory, and other Interested Parties: Bathrooms and the Strange Legacy of Sartre

Presuppositions govern our perspectives on life and until we recognize that, we tend toward intellectual dishonesty at best and our debates tend more toward sophism than truth. Once we recognize that, we can engage with much more humility in honest conversation…that is, if we are willing. Sadly, honest and civil conversation around politics and religion, I am told, is a rare thing in our current society. People prefer to yell rather than to earn the right to whisper. My hope for this letter is to whisper.

To do that, I must be up front as to where my presuppositions lie. If you have read much of my blog, that ought to be obvious, but in case this is new to you, know that I am a Christian pastor in an old German-Reformed congregation. I consider the Bible to be the true revelation from God, with every word inspired through many authors across many generations, but all by one God. Thus, I affirm doctrines like that of inerrancy and infallibility when it comes to the Bible. That puts me amongst a group that are often labeled as “fundamentalists,” and that may be accurate, but if it is, my fundamentalism is much more akin to that of Gresham Machen than to that of Pat Robertson. I value intelligent dialogue, not mere rhetoric to gain influence.

As I said, my hope is to whisper, but perhaps it is more than that, my hope is also to interject a perspective into the conversation that I have not heard much of in the news that has covered the debates around bathrooms and who uses them.

The Simple Solution

Of course, I ought to note that there are simple solutions to the question at hand, yet simple solutions are often not what people strive for in American politics. One solution, which would favor the view of the political right would be to change the labeling of bathroom doors from “men” or “women” to “XX” or “XY.” Chromosomes are things with which we are born and they do not change as a result of a “gender identity” decision or even as a result of gender reassignment surgery. The chromosomes with which you are born are chromosomes with which you will die.

The other option, which would favor the political left would simply be to convert all bathrooms to single-use bathrooms to be used by anyone when the need arises. This is certainly how the vast majority of us live when we are in our homes, we could certainly adapt to that in public institutions without that much grief, though obviously there would need to be some remodeling work done to achieve this end. A variation on this can be found in many places in Europe where there are common restrooms for both men and women. In these areas, there are private stalls for use, but common sinks that both men and women share. I confess that as an American raised in the conservative countryside of rural Maryland, the first time I encountered a bathroom such as this, it took some getting used to, but it still wasn’t long before I adapted.

But we don’t want Simple Solutions, do we?

The reality is, this is not really a question about bathrooms, is it? While I do not know the current statistics, I would imagine that the population in America that would identify as transgender is relatively small. That does not mean that the question of how to accommodate those who are “transitioning” should not be taken seriously, it rightly should. But it seems odd that so great a battle has been waged on this matter in our culture. Surely there are overall relatively few people “challenging” which bathroom to enter. As to the other side of the debate, I would imagine that a male who presented himself as a female would receive little attention (if any) for using the ladies room in a public place. I would suggest that the same would apply to a woman who presented herself as a man.

Presuppositions and Principles?

Permit me to suggest that the real question behind the matter of bathrooms is the question of public acceptance. Will we, or will we not, accept the notion of gender choice in our society. Those who are proponents of the LGBT community would say that society as a whole must accept their lifestyle choices as legitimate and thus bathrooms and other public accommodations must be made. Those, particularly, like myself on the Christian right, would say that gender is not fluid, but is tied to biological sexuality (remember the Chromosomes above?). This is the real question at hand, though I suppose it might be easier to fight over bathrooms than to tackle the question seriously (and yes, that is a rebuke of both sides).

Lewis or Sartre?

So, which comes first? In Sartre’s work, Existentialism is a Humanism, he argues that at the heart of the existentialist perspective is the notion that existence precedes essence. In other words, we first come into being and then we are given the awful freedom and responsibility of giving meaning to that existence. Even so, according to Sartre, giving meaning belongs primarily to the individual. Applied to gender, the cultural grandchildren of Sartre would state that defining their own gender identity is part of giving meaning to one’s own existence.

In contrast to Sartre, C.S. Lewis, who is oftentimes claimed by Existentialists as one of their own (though I would disagree with that claim), when discussing gender and sexuality in the novel, Perelandra, describes sexuality as an outward expression of an inward reality (the inward reality being gender). Thus, existence and essence are inextricably bound together, but with essence preceding existence — borrowing the notion of St. Augustine that essence begins in the mind of God.

So, who is right? Clearly, I lean toward Lewis. To be fair, our culture leans toward Sartre. I appeal to the Bible as my ultimate authority; our culture tends to appeal to experience and personal expression as its ultimate authority. Which is right? I suppose that both sides of the conversation are equally committed to their position, but while I have been known in other contexts to vigorously debate the rationality of appealing to the Bible as one’s ultimate authority and in turn, submitting to its precepts, I promised that I would whisper, so I will only point out the different starting points that each side of the debate holds.

Confounding Terms

I will say, though, that one of the problems in the conversation is that terms have not been well defined and are often confounded with one another. Sexuality and Gender are prime culprits. Sexuality deals with one’s biology. This includes, but is not limited to genitalia. It also includes inner organs that are germane to males or females respectively as well as those pesky chromosomes. As chromosomes do not change nor do the actual organs a person has in their body, “gender reassignment” ought not be referred to as a “sex-change” though that is often the term that is applied.

In contrast to sexuality, gender is defined more by societal norms than it is by one’s biology. This deals with our roles, our manner of dress, and the way we interact with one another.  Historically, gender has largely been tied to biology (as Lewis would affirm), but in today’s world, the question that is being raised (largely thanks to Sartre and our Existential culture) is whether we must bind them together or if they can be treated seperately. Curiously, if one separates the idea of gender from that of sexuality, gender then becomes solely a matter of self-expression, and the idea of “gender-reassignment surgery” becomes as much of a misnomer as the phrase “sex-change surgery.” The surgery itself becomes nothing more than a cosmetic modification to make it easier to appear as the gender of one’s choice.

Laws

Laws have two purposes. The first purpose is to punish wrong-doing. The second purpose is to discourage people from behavior that is immoral. Herein lies another point of debate. How is immoral behavior defined. Clearly, I would appeal to the Bible. Society seems to appeal to social expectations, a view that I believe is fraught with danger given the fickle nature of said expectations and the sinful nature of man. Each law, though, at its very core, must answer the question, “How am I rewarding moral behavior and punishing behavior that is immoral?” And yes, with that in mind, every law legislates someone’s morality on some level.

From My Point of View

Given that I have already shared my presuppositions, it should be obvious as to where my point of view lies. The Bible is clear that homosexuality is immoral in the first place and it seems to me that much of the draw of Transgenderism is the notion of making homosexual desires more acceptable in the eyes of the culture. Even if not overtly intended to be a gateway into homosexual behavior, living life in gender roles different than those which would normally be bound to one’s sex is a form of deception, which, too, is an immoral action according to the Bible.

Whispering and the Conversation in Front of Us

The real question is whether or not we can have a dialogue on this matter in a productive way while still whispering and not raising our voices or our fists. Personally, I am very concerned that the opening up of bathrooms is little more than a first step — a minor skirmish in a larger campaign — towards something that not only will radically change the nature of the culture around us, but will also invite young men and women to express themselves and their urges in even greater immorality. I fear too, that it will be the loudest voice and not the most sound argument that will win the day and the whispers of truth will be drowned out and forgotten.

Conforming to the Status

“Nevertheless, in that which we have attained, to it shall we conform.”

(Philippians 3:16)

The principle that Paul is placing before us is that God has brought us out of our sinful estate, yet, having been given that great gift or forgiveness and reconciliation with God, we should strive to conform our lives to the new “status” we have been given. Or, in other words, in salvation we have been brought into the presence of God, pardoned, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and adopted as sons and daughters of the King. We should now live like it. Our behavior should reflect the new household into which we have been brought and not the old household from which we came.

All too often Christians take a passive attitude toward their own sanctification. They think that it is time to sit back and enjoy the ride. While certainly the power of sanctification comes from God, we also share a role as ones who actively participate in said growth or who resist the work of the spirit in a kind of passive-agressive stance.

But how do we do this? The simple answer is that we actively seek to apply the Law of God to our lives and try to obey it in every area, disciplining ourselves in the hopes of conforming to God’s law. I should note that in our culture sometimes people wrongly label this as a form of legalism. Yet it is only legalism if I judge you with a standard by which I am unwilling to judge myself. When one examines the Law of God one can either use the Law as a sledge-hammer or as a mirror. If we use it as a sledge-hammer to beat one another up for each other’s failings, then we will fall into legalism. If we use the Law as a mirror to examine our own life, then it becomes an effective tool in God’s process of sanctification in our lives…this is what Calvin referred to as the “Third Use” of the Law (first two uses are civil morality and to drive us to Christ as we recognize how far short we fall).

Beloved, let us not conform to the things of this world. Let us be conformed to the standard of God’s Kingdom into which we have been brought by Christ.

The Scribe’s Comment (Mark 12:32-33)

“And the scribe said to him, ‘Very good, teacher, you speak truthfully that He is one and that there is not another besides him.  And to love Him with the whole heart, with the whole understanding, with all strength, and to love a neighbor as ourselves is far greater than all of the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

(Mark 12:32-33)

 

It is obvious that the scribe is pleased with Jesus’ response, and this sets up an interesting dynamic, for Jesus will commend (at least on one level) the scribe as well.  This makes for one of the more unusual interactions that Jesus has during this week.  Prior to this question, Jesus has been bombarded by challenges to his authority and traps to try and trick him into siding with this group or that.  Here, as we discussed above, is at least an underlying question again as to who Jesus will side with in his interpretation of the law.  Some have made the suggestion that this comment by the scribe is rather insincere, but that seems rather odd given the context of Jesus’ statement in response.  So how are we to understand this dialogue and how are we going to understand the variation between what Jesus taught immediately before and how this scribe paraphrases his statement?

To begin with, we see the scribe giving the briefest summary of the Shema.  Jesus has quoted it verbatim and the scribe is giving his own interpretation of what Jesus said,  tying in Deuteronomy 4:35 to support his answer.  This was a common rhetorical technique amongst the Jewish Rabbis.  Theology was done in the form of dialogue, so one might begin with a question, and the discussion that ensued would be in the form of more questions, answers, and interpretations in the hopes of arriving at a better understanding of the question at hand.  We should not see the Scribe as being incompetent and unable to quote the Shema back to Jesus, but that he is interpreting Jesus’ statement in the context of the discussion.  With this in mind, it sets the stage for the second part of the scribe’s statement.  The scribe misses the language of yuch/ (psuche), or life, altogether and he replaces Jesus’ language of dia/noia (dianoia), or understanding, with the language of su/nesiß (sunesis), or intelligence.  In addition, the scribe ties in passages like Hosea 6:6 and 1 Samuel 15:22, to speak of our loving obedience to God is far better than the ritual sacrifices of the temple.  Again, what we find is that the scribe is responding to Jesus’ statement by offering an interpretation of it, and Jesus will respond favorably.

One of the major issues that Jesus battled with during his earthly ministry was the issue of people missing the intent behind the law in their pursuit of the letter of the law.  The Pharisees, especially, were guilty of this.  In their zeal for obedience, they had allowed the law to be understood in a legalistic way and had become blinded to the truth behind what God was commanding.  God demands love and obedience from his people in every aspect and area of their lives.  As Abraham Kuyper commented, “There is not an inch of this whole life that Jesus, as Lord of creation, does not put his finger on and declare, ‘Mine!’”  And in the case of this scribe, it seems that he got it.  He understood the intent of the law and demonstrated that understanding by the way he tied in other passages of scripture that spoke of similar things.  So, beloved, what should we be reminded of from our scribe’s answer?  We should be reminded that in all that we do, in whatever capacity that we serve the church, we are to be wholly committed to the Lord Jesus Christ.  This commitment must never take the form of a list of “dos” and “don’ts” apart from what scripture commands to be a “do” or a “don’t,” but instead, we are to pursue God and his righteousness in service to our fellow man.  This is our calling, to share the gospel with all and to make disciples by baptizing and teaching people to obey all that Jesus taught.  Beloved, what a task we have before us; pray that the Holy Spirit will bless that task and empower it in such a way that God is glorified in all we do.

Testimony and Psalm 119

The word in Hebrew that is translated as testimony is tWd[e (eduth), and is derived from d[e (ed—note that both of these words are pronounced with an “ae” sound in English).  Both words carry similar meanings, though the connotations vary somewhat in terms of how they are used.

 

The first word, tWd[e (eduth), refers to a witness or testimony, but is normally used in terms of legally binding stipulations or laws.  The Tabernacle is for example, called the Tabernacle of Testimony (Numbers 17:4) because the tablets of the Ten Commandments were contained within.  This becomes very pronounced when you get to verse 10 of the same chapter for Moses is told to put the staff of Aaron before the testimony—ultimately something that was kept with the 10 commandments.  Thus, when Psalm 119 speaks of testimony in this sense, it is speaking most specifically of the Moral Law (10 Commandments) but also carries the implication of the rest of the law of God—in essence, all of God’s word.  This word is found 9 times in the 119th psalm (which should say something right there), and is located in verses 14, 31, 36, 88, 99, 111, 129, 144, and 157.

 

The second word, d[e (ed), is a massively important word in Hebrew and is found 118 times in the Old Testament even though it is not explicitly found in Psalm 119.  It refers to the idea of witness in much the same way as the New Testament Greek term marturi/a (marturia—from which we get the term “martyr”) is used.  This word refers to that witness which confirms the truth to be so.  This is one’s testimony of faith before men, for example, as well as being a testimony in a court of law.

 

The connection between these two words is found in the concept of the covenant of God.  God’s covenant with his people is his d[e (ed), but this d[e (ed) contains stipulations for those that would be in covenant with our Lord and King.  Those stipulations are the tWd[e (eduth) of God. 

 

What is also worth noting is that another word that is derived from d[e (ed) is the term hd”[e (edah), which means “congregation,” referring to a gathering of God’s people.  God’s people are those that he has put into relationship with himself through his covenant, his d[e (ed), and regulates through his tWd[e (eduth).  All very closely connected.  This word is found 14 times in Psalm 119 (vs. 2, 22, 24, 46, 59, 79, 95, 119, 125, 138, 146, 152, 167, 168).  So closely are these words and ideas related that in most if not all cases, when Psalm 119 is translated into English, they have translated it as “testimony” rather than congregation.  This is probably a little misleading in the crossover to English, but at the same time, in the context of the Psalm, it appears that the Psalmist is doing much the same thing—wedding together these ideas.  Or, to put it another way, the presence of the covenant people of God are God’s testimony to his own covenant faithfulness—his ds,x, (chesed—pronounced with a hard “ch” like in “Loch Ness”).  The word ds,x, (chesed) is variously translated in our English Bibles, but refers to the covenantal faithfulness of God in spite of our covenantal unfaithfulness, and is found 7 times in Psalm 119 (vs. 41, 64, 76, 88, 124, 149, 159) and is often translated as “steadfast love.”

 

With this in mind, permit me to digress to Deuteronomy 6:4 for a moment, commonly called “the Shema” in Hebrew circles.  The bulk of the book of Deuteronomy consists of Moses’ sermonic expositions of the Ten Commandments, forming a Constitution for the people of Israel.  With this in mind, the Shema functions essentially as the preamble to the constitution for the people.  In fact, in Judaism, Deuteronomy 6:4 is considered to be the single most important verse in the Bible and the very language that defines them as a people—giving them their national identity.  It establishes their relationship with God as a covenant people and reminds them that they are a people who have been given a name, loved as such by their God.  It is the first prayer that the faithful Hebrew prays when he wakes in the morning and the last prayer he prays before he goes to bed at night.  It is also chanted at the beginning of a traditional synagogue service.  What is especially interesting is the way it is written in the Hebrew Bible:

dx’a, hw”hy> Wnyheloa/ hw”hy> laer”f.yI [m;v.

Note that the last letter of the first and last words have been written larger and in bold print.  These two letters, when taken out of the verse spell, d[e (ed)—or witness.  In other words, the Shema itself is the witness of the Jewish people to their God, just as the covenant is God’s d[e (ed) to his people.  Lastly, if you reverse the letters of d[e (ed), you end up with the word [;D: (da-a), which means “knowledge.”  Just as fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom (Psalm 111:10), so too is all true knowledge rooted in the covenant of God.  Any pursuit of knowledge apart from God’s revelation through his covenant is vanity, Solomon reminds us in Ecclesiastes.

 

Covenant is, as we know, the context in which God interacts with his people.  On the very first day that Adam was alive and placed in the Garden God established his covenant with Adam and set before Adam the tWd[e (eduth) of the covenant—don’t eat lest you will die-die.  The punishments given out after the fall are the consequences of their failure to fulfill the covenant.  Genesis 3:15, though reminds us that a Messiah is coming who will redeem his people from bondage to the one who led them into sin.  Genesis 15 provides us with a foretaste of what would happen to this divine Messiah, though.  In the context, God is confirming his covenant with Abraham and Abraham is sent to divide up the animals and separate them creating a bloody path to walk through.  In ancient times, when covenants were made between Kings and their Vassals, they would divide up a group of animals like this, and then the Vassal, as a pledge of faithfulness to the covenant, would walk through the middle of the line of animals as if to say, “if I don’t fulfill my part of the covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me also.”  Now, some have suggested that there may be evidence that both the king and vassal walked through this line, but the evidence is varied and this proposition makes little sense as the vassal had no power to enforce this commitment upon the king, where the king certainly had the power to enforce it upon his vassal.

            Either way, what is significant is that Abraham should have walked through the bloody pathway, but God puts him into a deep sleep (not unlike the sleep that God put Adam into before he took out his rib to form Eve), and God walked through the bloody pathway in Abraham’s stead.  God was saying to Abraham, I will be your covenant mediator and representative for this covenant.  If you or your line fail to keep this covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me as well.  And that is exactly what took place on the cross of Calvary.  Jesus fulfilled what God promised, bloody and bruised, because we could not be faithful to the tWd[e (eduth) of God’s covenant.

 

In the context of Psalm 119, the psalmist completely understands that for one to be truly blameless and righteous before the Lord, one must first submit his life to the testimonies of our God—to the tWd[e (eduth) of God’s covenant.  Thus, he sets the Law before him as a guide and instructor.  We must understand that while the psalmist speaks at times of being blameless before his accusers, this is not to be interpreted in terms of a form of human self-righteousness.  Instead, he also understands, as Abraham understood, that his redemption would be paid for by another—by God himself through the promised Messiah, and that his personal righteousness was based, through faith, in the coming of the promised one.  At the same time, he understands the thrust of what Paul would say in Romans 6:1-2.  In light of that, the psalmist both begins and ends the psalm focused on remembering (implying obedience) the Law of the Lord.