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God’s Handiwork

“For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand in order that we might walk in them.”

(Ephesians 2:10)

The word ποίημα (poiema) refers to that which has been made by another, more typically, a creation made by the hands of another. This is a theme that is present from the beginning of the Bible to the very end. God made Adam and Eve and God will remake us as glorified beings. God made the creation and God will remake the creation in the new heavens and earth. God is the potter and we are the clay. We are described as “new creations” in our regeneration as we are made believers and disciples of Jesus by the work of God’s hands.

There are two observations that ought to be driven home by these words. The first is that the created thing has no say over how it is created or what its purpose will be. The creator has the power and the right to make some items for honored use and others for dishonorable use. The clay has no rights over the potter but the potter has complete rights over the clay. We have talked a great deal about God’s sovereignty in election thus far, in the context of this passage, we can add to it the notion of God’s sovereignty in our sanctification. God has remade us and in that making, we are not our own. We belong to our maker and He and only He has the right to determine what we should or should not be doing. 

In a broad sense, it is good works for which we have been created. And you will notice that those good works were prepared for us beforehand. In other words, God does not create us and then say, “Hmmm…how shall I use this person?” God has a purpose and a plan and creates us with that purpose and plan in mind. To simplify the idea with an analogy, a regular screwdriver can be used for lots of things — prying open cans of paint, loosening jammed windows or doors, banging in a nail or brad. Yet, a regular screwdriver was not created to do these things; it was created to tighten and loosen screws whose slots match the slot on the screwdriver. When used that way, its function will be best served and it will last longer without being broken or otherwise damaged. yet, the company doesn’t just put material in a mold and wonder what is going to come out. They set forth to manufacture a regular screwdriver that can be used to tighten or loosen flat-head screws. God has made you and me in a certain way with certain purposes in mind. Our design is thus different and situated to our calling; we will live longer and more fulfilled lives if we live in accordance with that design. 

The second point that is worth noting here is that when God does a work of creating something anew, it is normally found in the context of redemption. God is redeeming the creation in the new creation to come. Even the remaking of the world as a result of the Flood is a kind of redemption — the land washed clean from the filth of sin. And, so when Paul is using this language, calling Christians a craftsmanship of God, a new creation, etc…, we should see this as a reference to redemption. Not just to our individual redemption but also to our redemption as part of the body of Christ. And so, as we think about the notion of being redeemed as a new creation for the purpose of good works, we ought to ask ourselves how we can best live out that role.

I am His Possession

“who is the downpayment of our inheritance, into the redemption of his possession, to the praise of his glory.”

(Ephesians 1:14)

Do you notice the language that is used here? Paul is writing that as Christians, because of the work of Christ, we have been redeemed into God’s possession. His possession? What exactly is that referring to? 

In short, it is a reminder that when you have been redeemed from something you are also being redeemed to something else. No, we don’t become our own men and women. No, we don’t get to choose who we will serve. We are like a slave that has been purchased from one master and placed in the family of another master. Jesus’ work sets you free indeed (John 8:36), but not free from all things, free from sin and death, the greatest enemies that you face. But the believer is now brought into the household of God and given a new (and benevolent) master and thus, it is Him that we now serve.

This is one of those areas that the universalists and the Wesleyans tend to fall short in their theology. The universalist will argue that Jesus’ death applied to all of mankind, making the person free to be their own person and to live however they wish. The Wesleyan argues in his notion of “prevenient grace” that Jesus again dies for all mankind, giving us the ability to choose to enter his house and serve him if we desire. 

Yet, none of that is what the Apostle Paul is saying here. He is clearly stating that the faith we are given is a downpayment (assurance) that we have been redeemed (halelujah!) into God’s possession. We belong to God and in turn, have an obligation to serve and follow Him: obedience to our new and greater Master and Lord. There is no middle ground and there is no matter of me choosing this or that. If I am redeemed from my slavery to sin and death, I now become a slave to Christ and to righteousness. This indeed may not be a popular notion in our age of rampant individualism, but is the language of the inspired text. Upon which will you stand as authoritative?

Satisfying the Penalty

I suppose that one of the most significant criticisms that can be made of the church in America today is that pastors often downplay the seriousness of our sin. The late Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to say that “sin used to be ashamed of itself,” yet by his day, in the church, it no longer was. People think of sin as mere misbehavior that ought to be addressed with a mild scolding and not as criminal behavior that needs to be addressed by the formal authorities who enforce the law. Of course, in many ways, the American justice system itself has shown itself to be inequitable when it comes to how it punishes those who break civil laws — yet that is a conversation for a different day.

I suppose that this brave new culture in which we live has something to do with the changes taking place. While little more than a generation ago, children were taught in school that there was right and wrong and there were absolute rules that governed each category of action. Today, ethics are considered relative to the situation, absolute rights and wrongs are only a matter of preference or upbringing and thus only apply to the individual, and definitions have their meanings blurred so as to either make one view sound like something it is not or to cast another view into contempt and make its holder “guilty by association.” The greatest American virtue now seems to be a blithe acceptance of anything or everything that would flaunt historical and orthodox Christian beliefs.

And so, churches often downplay sin and wrath and judgment, they teach us that we should never hate anything, and that God loves us just the way we are and will bless our lives if we just follow him. Sadly, that is neither true nor reflective of the Bible’s teaching of the character of our God. Further, it presents an notion that we are not as bad as we really are in the eyes of God and reduces the notion of grace to merely good favor. 

Yet, God presents sin as being outward and open rebellion against God. It is lawlessness and deserves more than misbehavior. It is criminal and deserving of punishment from a just and righteous judge — that judge being God himself. And a just judge will not relent in his punishment until the demands of the law are satisfied — the penalty for the lawbreaking is paid in full.

From a Christian perspective, that is where our hope lies…not in God loving us just the way we are, but in God’s own Son perfectly fulfilling the demands of the law not only in his life but also paying the penalty for our lawbreaking in full. Christ satisfies the demands of the law for his people completely, permitting us to go free. The Heidelberg Catechism, question 1 words it this way: “With his precious blood he has fully satisfied the penalty for all my sins.” 

And so, if we wish to show our gratitude, we will live in light of that gracious work that Christ has done on our behalf as believers — seeking to honor him in all things. To go on living how we want conveys an attitude of ungrateful arrogance and a rejection of the significance of Christ’s work. And to teach others that sin is acceptable, that it is not that bad, or that God does not demand that you grow in holiness is to dishonor God’s Word and to lead others into dishonoring it as well. Or, in the words of Jesus himself:

“Therefore, if one loosens one of these commandments, even the least, and teaches the same to men, he will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever does them and teaches them, this is the one who will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

(Matthew 5:19)

Bowing in Submission

“in order that at the name of Jesus every knee would be bent in heavenly places and in earthly places and in places under the earth and every tongue would admit that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”

(Philippians 2:10-11)

And all of God’s people said, “AMEN!” This is one of those passages that ought to stir us up because it is a reminder that there is a time coming when all of the pretense of atheism and all of the rebellion of false religions will be brought to a crushing halt and Christ in his fullness will be revealed even to his enemies and they will bow before him. Amen. Amen. Amen. What a day that will be.

Yet do know, this passage is not talking about universal conversion. The language of knees bending is language that refers to people bowing in submission to one who is greater than they are. In some cases, it refers to a willing submission to one’s good and just master. But in other cases, it is used to portray the humiliating defeat of a king’s enemies who are then forced to bow, if even under the crushing foot of the victorious king.

The confession follows along with that notion. Believers, of course, will joyfully proclaim the Lordship of Jesus. Unbelievers, though, will utter it out of abject hatred through clenched teeth. They then are the defeated foe made to confess the Truth against which they have been rebelling with all of their might. These who stand in rebellion against the King of Kings hate him so greatly that they would choose even the torments of hell to remove themselves from his presence. And had Jesus not saved us from our sin by giving us spiritual rebirth, changing our wicked hearts, we would be doing the same…seething at the notion of admitting to be true that which we had spent a lifetime suppressing in our hearts.

Thus, while these verses are a song of triumph and hope for the believer, they are utter condemnation to the unbeliever. It is glory and salvation for some and utter defeat for others. May indeed we all be amongst those who will celebrate at the throne of Christ, bowed in grateful submission before his feet. And to those who stand against Christ here and now in this life, know that there will be a time when you will stand no longer but will be bowed down in utter defeat.

Having Been Filled

“having been filled with the fruit of righteousness because of Jesus Christ to the glory and honor of God.”

“Having been filled…” Notice the language that this verse begins with. We do not “fill” ourselves but we are filled. It is God’s work in us from the beginning to the end. We take no credit, we can only ever give praise for what our God has done in and through unworthy lumps of clay such as we. With the Apostle Paul, I can say that my works are but dung…something to be cast out lest they defile the holiness of the camp. Yet, in Christ, I can also say (again, with the Apostle Paul) that I have been filled with the fruit of righteousness. What a blessed tension there is between the two.

Thus, the righteousness that I have been given — the righteousness in which I stand  clothed before the throne of God — is not my own. It is Christ’s. Everything that is good or admirable that is found within me is because of Jesus Christ. I bring nothing of my own to the table when it comes to things of value. Without Christ’s work, I would be but a hollow shell in line to be crushed…destroyed under God’s wrath for God’s glory. Such is the man that I am and such is the cause for my praise. He has done for me that which I could never have done for myself. My debt of sin has been paid and I have been redeemed from death and Hell. I have been purchased by the blood of Christ, forgiven, reconciled to God, adopted as a son of the Most High, and am being prepared, along with the rest of the church, to be part of the bride of Christ. What more can we say but, “Glory!” and “Hallelujah!” What more can we do but to tell others the good news of this wonderful Savior!

And to whom is the honor given for this work? To God himself. May we never be “stingy” with our praise to our Redeemer-King. May we never hold back the honor that he is due. May we sing our praises to the Triune God without compromise and may we strive to live lives that are honoring to Him in everything we do. Such is the heart of a believer. Such is my prayer for you.

Authority

“Then Pilate said to him, ‘Won’t you talk to me? Don’t you realize that I have the authority to release you and I have the authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You have no authority over me apart from that which has been given to you from above. Because of this, the one who delivered me to you has a greater sin.’”

(John 19:10-11)

 

Authority is a sticky kind of thing because it does not reside within our persons. Authority must be given and similarly, authority can be taken away. Yet what makes it even stickier is that there are different levels of authority and thus those who give authority have first been given authority by something or someone that is outside of them. Thus, Pilate’s authority comes from the office that he fills and the authority of that office comes from Rome. But where does Rome get its authority? Their armies extend their authority, indeed, but in the end, it is God and God alone who gives authority to one nation to do this and for another nation to do that. Sometimes God does this with his direct ordination; sometimes God passively permits a course of action, but in the end, it is God and God alone who gives the authority to men to do what men do.

From whom does God get his authority? That is the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask is, “Why is authority given in this way?” The answer to this question answers both. First, authority is given this way because we are “contingent beings.” In other words, the fact that we have life and health and authority to do anything is contingent on the existence of a greater being or institution. Thus, Pilate’s role is contingent on the existence of the Roman Empire. Without it, there would have been no role for him in Judea. Even our lives themselves are contingent on the existence of the planet that houses and sustains us. Yet, God is the only non-contingent being. His existence is fixed — always has been, is, and always will be… And as a non-contingent being, not only does his existence reside within himself, but so does his authority.

Thus the authority that Pilate has is not absolute in any way. Kings and governors like to think of their authority as absolute, but it is still an authority that is permitted by God. And in specific, the authority that Pilate has over Jesus, to put him to death, is again an authority that has been granted to him not just by Caesar, but by God himself so that the promised redemption of the elect might take place through his son’s sacrifice on the cross. Jesus tells Pilate this not as a way of taking Pilate off of the hook, but as a way of cutting this prideful man back down to size.

Yet Jesus does make an interesting statement. He says that the ones responsible for handing him over to Pilate were guilty of a greater sin than Pilate. It is clear that Jesus is speaking of the Jewish authorities that have been contriving to put Jesus to death. They are guilty of a greater sin for their part in Jesus’ execution has been intentional and carefully planned out; Pilate has been a man trapped by powers outside of his influence.

Yet there is one who is ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death that is free from all sin…and that is God the Father who ordained from before the foundation of the world that he would send his Son to pay the righteous penalty for sin that we, as God’s chosen, owe. Indeed, in grace, it pleased the Father to crush his Son because of the redemption this would work for his own. This is the perfect mark of grace, a standard of redemption by which all things are measured…no sin as God’s perfect standard is demonstrated. From this point on, Jesus will remain silent before Pilate.

The Rooster Crows a Second Time

“Then he began to curse and to take an oath, ‘I do not know the man!’ and at once the rooster crowed.”

(Matthew 26:74)

 

“Then he began to place himself under a curse and take an oath, ‘I do not know the man of whom you speak!’ And at once the rooster crowed a second time and Peter remembered the word that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows twice, three times you will deny me.’ And he fell down and wept.”

(Mark 14:71-72)

 

“But Peter said, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about!’ Immediately, even as he was speaking, the rooster crowed.”

(Luke 22:60)

 

“Again, Peter disowned him and at once the rooster crowed.”

(John 18:27)

 

It has been said that the tradition of putting a rooster on top of a weathervane is meant as a reminder of the denial of Peter and how often, by our words and by our actions, we too fall into that sin. As we reflected before, isn’t it curious as to how God uses such a variety of things to remind us of our sin and to call us to righteousness. And now, through history, we are reminded of this great truth any time such a bird crows.

We have already noted that Mark is the only one that records that the rooster actually crowed twice, something that ought not be too surprising given that traditionally Mark is understood as having been Peter’s secretary in Jerusalem — and if anyone would know how many times the rooster crowed, Peter would.

What should weigh more heavily on your soul, though, is the cursing that takes place on Peter’s part. As has been mentioned, Peter is desperate. On one level he is desperate to follow Jesus and find out what is going to happen to his master. On another level, he is rightfully afraid for his life. There is no telling what this mob will do if they get their hands on Peter. Peter knows that and the words that fall from his lips reflect the reality that he is acting in that desperation. You can almost hear him screaming, “Just leave me alone!” to those who keep prodding him. And, then, this third disowning of Jesus is wed together with curses.

Interestingly, Matthew and Mark describe the curses somewhat differently. Matthew simply describes him cursing or swearing that his words are true. Mark adds that this curse was an imprecation against himself — something along the lines of, “May God strike me down if I am not telling the truth.” These must have been devastating words for Peter to utter and then to hear the crowing of the rooster following right on its heels, it must have been a crushing blow. Peter was reduced to a broken man.

Yet, that is not the end of Peter’s story. The difference between Peter’s story and Jude’s story is ultimately one about forgiveness — both from God and by oneself. Judas rejected Jesus just as plainly as Jesus did and both were broken men. Yet in God’s design, Judas bore the blame of his betrayal to the grave and into eternity. Peter, though broken, clung to hope and in God’s design was not only brought to forgiveness, but remade into the bold preacher we find in the book of Acts. What a transformation takes place between these verses and Acts 2, just a couple months later!

But that is how God works, is it not! Through the process of breaking God shows us that He is sovereign, that He orders our days, and that He is King and Ruler over the universe. We serve Him, not He us. We get ahead of ourselves if we explore Peter’s three-fold forgiveness here, but we need to at least be reminded that for Peter, as dark as this night may be, the day is coming and the story is not yet over — and praise be to God that such is the case! May you too rest in the knowledge that no matter how dark the days may seem — God is not done with you either.

The Ram in the Thicket

“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he looked and beheld a ram behind him caught fast in a thicket by its horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and went up to make a whole burnt offering of it instead of his son.”

(Genesis 22:13)

 

Substitution is perhaps the word for the day when it comes to the redemptive work of God. God substituted the ground in the place of Adam and Eve when entering into the curse (Genesis 3:17), animals were repeatedly substituted for the sins of the people (see the book of Leviticus!!!), and ultimately, God would send his Son to substitute his divine person in our place. Justice must be done and rightful justice for sin is death eternal. God sent his Son to bear the weight of death eternal so that we might be given life eternal.

Here Abraham is given a substitute for Isaac but only because a greater substitute is coming. The blood of animals, in and of itself, cannot purify, but can only demonstrate to us the horrid nature of our sin. Think of how the blood flowed in ancient Israel — sacrifice after sacrifice made for millions of people. The blood of animals was but a pointer that there was a need for a perfect sacrifice to be made … not the blood of an animal, but the blood of a perfect man who could intercede for us. God was the only one who could substitute himself in our stead, which is why his Son took on flesh. And, soon after the sacrifice of Jesus the Temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. And there is no need for rebuilding as Jesus’ sacrifice is the perfect and final sacrifice for his people.

The ram was a reprieve for Abraham and Isaac, pointing to the great Lamb of God who would come. It might be a bit of a stretch to compare the thicket in which this ram was caught to the tree (cross) upon which Jesus was hung, though it is worth noting that in this very place, the King of Glory would one day come to redeem mankind and perhaps here, in the redemption of his son, Abraham and Isaac not only got a taste for the grief of God in the death of his Son, but the joy of salvation.

How often, as Christians, we take the offer of salvation lightly and for granted. Arguably that is partly because we have such a low view of hell and the realty thereof. There are even some who reject the whole notion of Hell to begin with, considering it an antiquated tool to keep rambunctious children in line with the rules of the community. But the Bible does not let us draw such conclusions, indeed the Bible trumpets not only the reality of the place, but the horrors thereof. And the Bible insists that the only way one can avoid hell as a destination is through faith in Jesus Christ…something we neither deserve or can earn by doing good deeds. It is a gift of grace to those God equips and allows to believe. May we who have been given a gift we did not deserve be grateful for that gift. There is no questioning the extent of Abraham’s gratitude at this point in his life; may those who know us also say that there is no questioning the gratitude we feel for the work of Christ on our behalf.

Wearing Filth or Righteousness (Colossians 3:8)

“But now, you must take off—even you—the whole: wrath, anger, evil, blasphemy, obscene speech from your mouth.”  (Colossians 3:8 )

 

Oh, the follies of youth.  Sometimes, in looking back on some of the things that I did growing up, I groan a little—and sometimes I groan a lot.  I remember one summer evening, I had just gotten home from doing something with my friends Heath and Jason, and the three of us got to talking and then we got to boasting.  As I remember it, it was Heath who boasted that Jason and I could not wrestle him down—it was not long before the three of us were on the ground, in the dark, wrestling about.  And had things ended there, the memory of the event would have faded into obscurity.  The reason the evening has remained in my mind all of these years is because of what Heath did next.

As we were wrestling about, Heath reached out his hand for balance and put it in something soft and mushy—a pile of dung left behind by one of the neighborhood dogs.  And with the kind of logic that only makes sense to the teenage mind, deciding that if he had it on him, we might as well have it on us as well, it was not long before he started smearing it wherever he could get it on us.  Oh, the exclamations of surprise that came from the two of us!  When everything was said and done, Jason fared the worst, but we all reeked of something that we ought not to have reeked from.  Jason’s mom made him hose off before he was allowed in the house.   When I got inside, I could not get out of my soiled clothes and into the shower fast enough.  I wanted to get that stench off of me and fast.

Now what does having dog poop smeared all over you have to do with what Paul is talking about in this verse?  The word that Paul uses here, translated as, “you must take off,” is the Greek word ajpoti/qhmi (apotithami).  Literally, this word refers to the taking off of one’s clothing.  But Paul adds force to this word by using the imperative, saying you must take these things off!  In the larger context of the passage, Paul is saying to us, “look, you have been born again, you have been made into a new person because of the work of Jesus Christ—get out of those dirty, wretched, filthy, smelly clothes that you have been wearing and put on the righteousness of Christ!”

Clothes are a common metaphor in scripture, and are used to convey the idea of status and righteousness.  Our own righteousness is as soiled rags, horrid, wretched things deserving of nothing other than to be burned up in the fire (Isaiah 64:6; Philippians 3:8).  Yet, the wonderful blessing of God’s grace is this, if we are born again believers in Jesus Christ, having repented of our sins and come to Christ in faith, when we stand before God in judgment, we will not stand on our own merits or, to maintain the metaphor, in the clothing of our own righteousness.  As believers, we stand before God clothed in the righteousness of his Son, Jesus Christ.  Oh, what a wonderful gift we have been given as believers—and how that should spur us on to get out of our own stained and smelly rags as fast as we can with the Lord’s help.

Beloved, one of the difficulties of this life is that even though we have put on Christ, we so often drift back to the rags of our own life.  It is almost as if we, after having been given new garments, have saved the old soiled ones, putting them away even without washing them so that every once in a while we might get them out to see if they still fit.  Loved ones, the things of your old life—the things that belong to this world—should not be clung to, but should be burned!  Friends, let your mouth and your actions reflect the one who has saved you—the one whose garments you wear.  One of the arguments that is made for making children neat, clean uniforms to school is that children tend to behave better when they are dressed better.  While I am not entirely sure just how true this is, Paul is applying a similar principle to believers.  Beloved, work to make your behavior match the clothes that you wear; in doing so, you will glorify the one who has saved you and draw others to his wonderful presence.

Jesus Paid it All–All to Him I Owe…

“And you, being dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive together with him, forgiving us all trespasses.”

(Colossians 2:13)

 

“And yet God demonstrates his own agape love to us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

(Romans 5:8 )

 

We who have nothing to bring to the table, we who have no righteousness of our own, we who stand guilty in our sin, we who stand as gentiles without the law, we who deserve God’s wrath and the fires of hell, it is for us that Christ died.  We initiated rebellion; God initiated restoration.  We sinned; Christ bore the punishment for our sins.  We have hated and despised the good and righteous law of God; Christ has loved us with a sacrificial love that loves regardless of whether that love is reciprocated and has fulfilled the law on our behalf.  In the fall, we rejected the earthly paradise that God has prepared; Christ prepares for us a heavenly paradise that cannot be spoiled.  Beloved, what more can I say?  Jesus did it all, how is it that we so often do not feel a compulsion to honor him with all of our beings in our worship and our lives?  How is it that we as believers so often live for ourselves?  Loved ones, give all of your life to Christ, holding nothing in reserve.  You cannot hope to pay him back for what he has done, but oh, how you can glorify him as you live out your lives in this world!

And when, before the throne,

I stand in him complete,

‘Jesus died my soul to save,’

my lips shall still repeat.

Jesus paid it all,

All to him I owe;

Sin had left a crimson stain,

He washed it white as snow.

-Elvina Hall

Cessation: Hebrews 1:1-4 (part 14)

after making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

 

Jesus “sat down…”  The imagery of this is of a victorious king who has returned home after the defeat of his enemies.  The sitting symbolizes that the victory is final and decisive.  And indeed, we who have received the benefits of that victory can and do rejoice in the wonderful victory of our King!  Oh, the peace and confidence that come from knowing that our Lord reigns unopposed.

Yet, with this in mind, there are several observations that must be made from this clause.  The first observation is that this victory took place at the cross.  “After making purifications for sins,” this passage begins, Jesus sits down in victory.  Beloved, Jesus’ victory over the devil and sin is not something that has yet to take place, but it has already taken place at the cross.  Indeed, the devil still rages against believers.  Indeed, sin still haunts our lives and the effects of sin still surround us.  But these things are the death throes of a defeated enemy and we can rejoice in knowing that the attacks we endure have lost their sting (1 Corinthians 15:55-56) for the law has been satisfied by the work of Christ (satisfaction is another aspect of the atonement—see above).  The devil is dead and he knows it, he is simply thrashing about to do as much damage as he can to God’s people for as long as he is able.  Indeed, there is a time when our Lord will once again leave his throne and enter into our world in final judgment, casting the devil and his servants into the eternal lake of fire, but for now, our Lord reigns victorious while he brings the entirety of his elect church to himself.

The second thing that we must note about this passage is where our Lord takes his seat.  It is at the right hand of God the Father in all of his glory.  Now, we know that this is metaphoric imagery.  We know that God the father does not have hands and we know that God the Father and God the Son (as well as God the Holy Spirit), while three persons, are one God, so to make too much about designation and location is inappropriate—there is no real subordination, for example, within the Godhead (though, we can argue that there was an economic subordination in the sense that certain members of the Godhead primarily focused on certain tasks in redemptive history, but all-the-while knowing that God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are present when God the Father is working, etc…).  All of this having been said, we must note that the right hand was symbolic in ancient cultures of the hand of power and authority.  In other words, sitting at the right hand communicates that all of the power and authority of God are at the disposal of the one to that side.  It is the side given to the honored guest, brought into the fellowship of one in authority (note that we retain some of this imagery in our modern culture when we extend the right hand of fellowship to another in a handshake).  The symbolism of the right hand is seen as a confirmation that Jesus’ completed work of atonement has met the full satisfaction of God the Father and nothing more needs to be added.  Jesus’ work is complete; his sacrifice never needs repeating.  God’s justice and honor has been satisfied and his wrath has been meted out in terms of the elect—there is no more work to be done for the redemption of God’s people.

Loved ones, let that sink in a bit.  Jesus’ redemptive work is complete.  We neither need to nor are even able to add to it on a saving level.  Jesus successfully accomplished what we could not accomplish for ourselves.  Jesus’ merit was sufficient to satisfy the righteous law and his sacrifice was sufficient to satisfy the justice of his Father—what more is there left but for us to adore him!  Oh, loved ones, when we speak of the “Cessation” of the Son’s work, we are not suggesting that he puts his feet up on a celestial ottoman and sips divine lemonade for all eternity, no, he lives to make intercession for his people (Hebrews 7:25)!  Yet, in terms of the work necessary to redeem his people, that work was fully completed on the cross—we are just going through history while that redemptive work is slowly realized in the lives of the elect (2 Peter 3:9).  Believer, rejoice in the knowledge that your Lord and Savior sits in such  a place of honor and privilege in the grand scheme of God’s great plan, yet, for those who may not believe and have a relationship with Jesus Christ, be afraid, for the one you reject is the one who has the Father’s ear and who promises that none will come to the Father save through the Son (John 14:6).

To God be the glory, great things He has done;

So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,

Who yielded His life an atonement for sin,

And opened the life gate that all may go in.

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,

Let the earth hear His voice!

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,

Let the people rejoice!

O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,

And give Him the glory, great things He has done.

-Fanny Crosby

David in the Wilderness: Psalm 63 (part 7)

“When I remember you on my couch,

in the night watches, I mediate upon you.”

(Psalm 63:7 {Psalm 63:6 in English Bibles})

 

David begins this passage with a conditional clause.  In the Hebrew, this particular conditional clause (with the conjunction ~ai (im)), reflects the idea of a realizable condition.  In other words, this is not a vague or “pie in the sky” hope, but this is something that is a concrete event in his life.  On those dark and lonely nights as he lay awake sleepless, it was God that will fill the mind of David—even in the midst of his great troubles and times of flight for his life.  How often we lay awake at night because of the burdens of life (bills to pay, things left undone, etc…); David sets before us another example—meditate upon the person of Christ and his beauty and the depth and wonder of our God.  No, it won’t make your obligations or bills go away, but it will put them in their proper perspective.

How rarely we meditate on the person of Christ!  How rarely do we sit and reflect on the perfections of God!  Oh, beloved, we often think of all the things that God has done for us, and that is good and right to do, but do you think on the beauty of the one who has done these things for you?  Do you spend time reflecting on his person and his character?  A marriage relationship with stagnate if the couple is only in love with each other based on what they do together or what the one has done for the other.  Though the actions and deeds are still very important, relationships find their depth in falling in love with the person and character of the spouse.  So too with God.  If your love for God is only based on what he is done for you, you will find yourself in crisis every time you go through a dark trial and cannot see his hand at work.  You must fall in love with God for who he is for your relationship to grow deep.

Oh, beloved, what is on your mind during those dark hours that you cannot find sleep?  Is it God?  Is it God’s perfections and character?  Is it the beauty of Jesus Christ?  Is it all that God has done in the world—and for you as well?  Do you lay awake marveling at God’s redemptive plan?  Do the concerns of this world overwhelm your mind when all the lights have gone out?  Loved ones, God has promised that if you seek him, he will take care of the stresses of the day—spend your waking hours during the days and nights seeking after him and his righteousness and all these other things he will add unto you.

 

The Reflection of God’s Image: Hebrews 1:1-4 (part 9)

and the exact image of his essence…

 

The early church fathers faced a lot of challenges as they sought to defend believers from heretical teachings and to define the boundaries of what may be described as “orthodox” Christian theology.  Probably the two most important areas in which they were required to work was in the area of defining the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ.  Both of these doctrines are clearly affirmed in scripture as a whole, but neither doctrine has a nice neat prooftext that one can go to for the purpose of articulating said view.  As a result, there were many who put forward views of both of these doctrines that were either heretical in themselves or would lead another to heresy.  Hence, the church fathers needed to find a way to Biblically and clearly articulate what scripture presents as true, but in a precise way that did not leave room for error.  All four of the early church creeds, called the “Ecumenical Creeds” (The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Christological Statement, and the Athenasian Creed) come out of this struggle within the early church.

With that in mind, this verse is one of the important passages that were used by the Fathers in defining the dual nature of Christ—in what we technically refer to as “Hypostatic Union.”  The word Hypostatic comes from the Greek word uJpo/stasiß (hupostasis), which refers to the basic structure or most essential nature of something.  In terms of Christ, we recognize that he had two distinct and unconfused natures—one human and one divine.  He had within his human nature everything that makes one human, for he is in essence human.  In addition, though, Jesus had within his divine nature everything that made him God, for he is in essence divine.  These parts are not confused in any way within Christ; Jesus is not some sort of Greek demi-god or amalgamation of God and man, but his being is marked by a perfect union of a fully divine nature with a fully human nature.

One may wonder why this degree of precision is so important for us as Christians.  To begin with, were Jesus not fully human, he could not be described as having suffered in this life and died on the cross as a bloody sacrifice.  Also, were he not fully human, he could not have fulfilled the failed role of Adam as covenant mediator for his people and could not have been tempted and tried in every way as we are (Hebrews 4:15).  Were Jesus not fully human in every way, he could not have redeemed every aspect of fallen humanity.  In addition, were Jesus not to have died, he could not have been resurrected and thus, we would have no hope of a bodily resurrection ourselves.  At the same time, were Jesus not fully God, he could not have done for us what he did.  He would not have been sinless, and thus could not have entered guiltless before God to mediate a new covenant.  Nor could Jesus have made atonement for sins, for a guilt sacrifice had to found as faultless and without blemish before God.  Were Christ not fully God he could not be said to be pre-existent as scripture presents and thus could not have entered into a covenant to save the elect from before the foundations of the earth (see Ephesians 1). 

Now that we have the technical language before us, sensing the theological importance of making sure that we articulate correctly the nature of our Lord, I think that it is important for us to stop here for a minute and dwell on just what this means.  Here is one who is, to use creedal language, “very God of very God.”  This is the second member of the divine Trinity, the Son of the Father, the Living God.  Everything that makes God, well, God, belongs to God the Son as well as to God the Father (and Spirit for that matter).  Jesus is the very word which God used to bring existence into being—to form everything from nothing and to bring about life.  Here is the Son of God, worthy of all praise and glory and honor by the very principle of who he is.  And it is this one—one whose very presence and name defines the very meaning of glory itself—one who is exalted on high—who chose to veil that glory in flesh and descend to earth not simply for the purpose of communicating with us, but to suffer and die in our place.  Loved ones, that is incomprehensible.  That the King of Glory would become flesh cannot be simply rationalized and put to the side.  It is an overwhelming reality that we must deal with, and when we understand this reality, there are only two possible responses for us to take: falling on our faces awestruck in humble worship or fleeing in sin and shame.  One cannot remain ambivalent when it comes to this mighty act of our Lord—one must respond, but which response will it be?  Knowing what you know, will you commit yourself to a life of praise of our God?  Will you adore him with your words as well as with your actions?  Will you adore him even in crowds where it might be unpopular to do so?  Will you lead your family in adoring him, and will you seek to live your life as a living sacrifice, seeking to be blameless so as to honor him, for He is holy and he calls us to be holy as well.  Will you be deliberate in the way that you order your days, your accounts, your plans, and your careers, so as to honor Him with them?  Will you cherish his word as the very word of life?  Or, will you go on living for yourself in guilty fear, bound in sin and hatred, and continue to rebel against the one who gave more than you can comprehend to offer life to those who come to him in faith?  Beloved, there are two responses to this truth about Christ, and only two responses; which will you choose?  And, dear ones, knowing this, what must change in your day to day life so that your life reflects this choice?

A Proverb in a Song: part 7

“A brother can surely not redeem a man;

he cannot give to God his ransom.

For precious is the redemption of their life

And he will fail forever.

That he should live again forever,

That he should not see the grave.”

(Psalm 49:8-10 {Psalm 49:7-9 in English Bibles})

 

The first great truth of this proverb is set before us in these three verses.  And in doing so, he again addresses the question of why the believer does not fear his oppressors.  And the truth is this—it is impossible for a man to redeem himself or to redeem another from their sins.  Sin earns for us a debit against God that we cannot pay for ourselves, and as sinners, we cannot pay for anyone else.  Oh, what a sorry state we are in as we live and breathe in this world.  We are born sinners and condemned to die.  No matter how hard we work or labor, there is nothing we can do within our own strength to better that lot for ourselves or even on behalf of another. 

The great theologian of the medieval church, Anselm, put forward this same dilemma; reminding us that it is we as mankind who need a savior, yet it is only God (who needs no saving) that can save us.  He who needs saving must be saved by him who needs no saving himself.  Christ owed nothing to God as he had no sin debit—we owed everything and then some.  It is only through the saving work of Christ that we can know redemption—it is only because Christ paid the debit we owed—that I personally owed!—that you or I can have the hope and promise of eternal life.

And this was a truth that was understood long before the coming of Jesus.  The sons of Korah are clearly saying just that—man cannot redeem his brother any more than he can redeem himself—the debit owed as a result of sin is just too high.  Powerful words from ones who knew what it meant to have God give them a second chance, as God did not destroy the sons of Korah in Korah’s rebellion.

Beloved, do not despair the grave, for the one who has offered you redemption has already been there and has risen!  There is nothing to fear because our big brother has gone there first.  Yet, loved ones, never miss the importance of this great truth, because it is a truth that the world largely does not and cannot understand.  It is impossible for you or I to earn our own deliverance—no matter how many good and noble things we might do.  At the same time, there is hope from despair in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Cling to him and always point the way to him before a watching world that does not comprehend this truth.

A Kingdom of Priests! (New Song, part 8)

“ Kingdom of Priests”

 

            Just as the Levites (the Old Testament priesthood) were not given an allotment of land when the Israelites entered into Canaan, but rather lived amongst the rest of the tribes of the nation, we as Christians are a priesthood without a land here on this earth.  We are called, just as the Levites were, to live as strangers and aliens in this land, for our land is a land that is not of this world, but has been reserved for us in heaven. 

            With this in mind, there are two things that we must always keep before us.  First is that we are not to allow ourselves too high a degree of comfort in this world.  This world is passing away and it has not been given to us; our world is imperishable.  When the Christian becomes too comfortable with the things of this world, he begins to compromise his faith.  Just as the Levitical priesthood allowed the idolatry of the land to corrupt their pure faith, so too, when we become comfortable in the land, we invariably compromise the truth of our faith, and we sink into idolatry.

            Secondly, the reason that the priesthood was spread about the promised land was so that they would be a blessing to the rest of the Israelites.  Yes, the Levites served an important function within the temple, but when they were not physically serving in the temple, the Levites were to teach the scriptures to God’s people and to be an advocate for the widows and orphans, or those otherwise excluded from the society.  Just as the nation of Israel was blessed to be a blessing to the world around them, the Levites were blessed to be a blessing to Israel.

            And friends, this also remains as our task.  Not only must we seek to keep our faith pure and focused on Christ (as opposed to the things of this world), but we are also to be a blessing to the world around us.  We need to care for the widows and the orphans, and by extension, all those who have been discarded by society.  We are to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people and teach them about our God.  And, as we are priests to God, we have an important role in worship itself, for the writer of Hebrews tells us that our sacrifice (as opposed to the Old Testament temple sacrifices) is a sacrifice of praise to our God (Hebrews 13:15). 

Take my will, and make it thine;

it shall be no longer mine.

Take my heart, it is thine own;

it shall be thy royal throne.

Take my love, My Lord, I pour

at thy feet its treasure store.

Take myself, and I will be

ever, only, all for thee.

-Francis Havergal

The Ransom Paid! (New Song, part 5)

“The Ransom Paid”

 

            We must be careful when we talk about the ransom to be paid, or the debit owed, because we must be absolutely clear as to whom that ransom was paid to.  Through the history of the church, some have argued that Jesus’ death was a ransom paid to the Devil for sin, to redeem his people from the clutches of the enemy.  Loved ones, this theology is wrong, for God owes no one, especially not the devil, anything at all.  Scripture tells us that God chose the elect even before he began creating, which means that he chose the elect before there was sin in the world and before there was any need for a ransom.

            Yet, there is a debit that is owed, and that is a debit that we owe to God.  In ancient days, when countries were at war with each other, if one country was loosing badly and wanted to bring an end to the warfare, they would sue for peace.  They would pay a large sum of money to the other nation, and the war would be considered over.

            In a way, that is the same with us.  We, in our sin, have been rebels against God for hundreds of generations.  Our sin is an affront to a Holy and Righteous God, and there is a just penalty—a price—that is owed to God as a result.  The promise is that no matter what we do, and no matter how good we are, we can never hope to repay that debit.  Not even someone like Mother Theresa or William Carey could do it.  Yet, Jesus chose to do it on behalf of those who put their faith in him as Lord and Savior—the elect.  And, oh how grateful we should be!

            John tells us that Jesus is the propitiation for our sin (1 John 2:2).  Propitiation is different from atonement.  Atonement is the making of peace between two parties.  Propitiation is the act that brings atonement.  We stand convicted and guilty of sin.  Jesus acknowledges that and he acknowledges the price we owe as a result.  And Jesus paid the price, beloved; he paid it all.

For nothing good have I

whereby your grace to claim—

I’ll wash my garments white

in the blood of Calvary’s Lamb.

Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe;

sin had left a crimson stain,

he washed me white as snow.

-Elvina Hall

No Pleasure in Sacrifice: Psalm 51 (Part 17)

“For you do not take pleasure in sacrifice—I would give it—

with whole burnt offerings you will not accept with pleasure.”

(Psalm 51:18 {Psalm 51:16 in English Bibles})

 

Passages like this one have often caused people to stumble because of the many sacrifices that God required of the people in the ancient times—sacrifices that are given to be a “pleasing” aroma before God.  Yet, here and in passages like Isaiah 1:11-17, God demonstrates his distaste for such offerings—how are we to make sense of these seemingly contradictory teachings?

To understand this, we must first ask the question as to why there was sacrifice made in the Old Testament times, and the answer brings us around to sin.  As we have mentioned above, where there is no shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins (Hebrews 9:22).  Thus, as you looked at the ancient sacrificial system, it becomes more and more clear that this system was not meant to stand alone and deal with sins, but was meant to accompany a heart moved by faith to repentance.  What good was the slaughter of a thousand rams if repentance does not accompany the sacrifice!?!  As David will write in the following verse, it is a broken and a contrite heart that is the acceptable sacrifice before the Lord.

In David’s time—and in our own time as well—there are many people that think that a certain act can save them without a God-given change of heart.  In Roman Catholic theology, oftentimes people fall into the trap of saying, “If I just sponsor enough masses” or “if I just say enough ‘Hail Mary’s,” then I will be alright with God.  In protestant circles, we tend to do the same thing, although we package it differently.  Many say, “If I just say the sinner’s prayer just so” or “if I just go down to an altar call at the proper time,” then I will be alright with God. 

Beloved, true repentance requires a change of your heart, and that change can only come as a result of God changing your heart.  It is not about what you do or when you do what you do, but it is all about what God does in you.  Why does David say that the only sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken and contrite heart?  He says such because without a broken and a contrite heart to begin with, sacrifices will serve you no value.

So back to the issue of sacrifices; there is one more aspect that we need to address, and that is the issue of sacrifices as symbols or pointers to the coming sacrifice of Christ.  The temple sacrifices were imperfect in that they were performed by sinful humans and they were but a shadow of the perfect sacrifice that would come in Jesus Christ.  Yet, at the same time, all the blood that flowed on the ancient altars was meant to make us come to terms with the weight and costliness of sins.  Those ancient sacrifices had to be performed over and over; when the perfect sacrifice came in the person of Jesus Christ, it was performed once and for all time with no need of a repetition.

And herein lies our answer—God took pleasure in the sacrifice when it was offered by one who was offering it up in faith and genuine repentance.  At the same time, many people confuse the symbol with the reality.  The bloody sacrifices were symbolic both of the rent heart of the individual and of the greater sacrifice of Christ—in and of themselves, they had no value.  Many people felt that just as long as they offered the right sacrifice, they would be redeemed—it is these sacrifices that God detests—sacrifices offered as ritual and not in faith and repentance.

Loved ones, this applies directly to us today.  Though we are not making altar sacrifices any more, we are claiming to trust in the perfect sacrifice of Christ.  Yet, if this trust is not accompanied by faith and a heart broken by sin, it will avail nothing.  True repentance accompanies true faith, and without true faith, there is no salvation.  Beloved, take this to heart, and come to our Lord in faith, offering to Christ a heart that has been made supple by the work of the Holy Spirit.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,

I cannot close my heart to thee;

I trace the rainbow through the rain,

And feel the promise is not vain

That morn shall tearless be.

-George Matheson

My Mouth Will Declare Your Praise: Psalm 51 (part 16)

“Oh Lord, my lips you will open,

and my mouth will declare your praise.”

(Psalm 51:17 {Psalm 51:15 in English Bibles})

 

Loved ones, hear these words of David, and hear them well.  When it comes to your worship, and what the writer of Hebrews calls your “sacrifice of praise” (Hebrews 13:15), the value and quality of it has nothing to do with the skill that is demonstrated.  The value of it lies within the origin of the praise.  Is the praise that you give a product of the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, or is it a product of men?  You may have the voice of a world-class operatic singer, but if your song is not powered by the movement of the Holy Spirit, you are but a noisy and lifeless instrument.  Yet, you may have no more skill than a school-child, but if your praise is lifted up by a sincere heart before the Lord, and is empowered by the Holy Spirit, such a song is considered sweet in the ears of God.

Friends, do not forget who it is that is writing these words—it is David the songwriter.  Yet, David understood clearly that the power behind his songs was the working hand of God in his life.  It is God who must open our lips so that praise may flow forth.  At the same time, sometimes our lips become closed in the wake of great sin, yet David sets these words forth in confidence, knowing that in his repentance, God will restore him in faith and will once again give him a voice to sing God’s praises.

Beloved, do you sing to God?  I mean, do you really sing with your whole heart?  Are you intimidated because you have difficulty holding a tune?  Are you afraid that you will be off-key with the person in the pew next to you?  Do you worry what that person will say of your singing behind your back?  Beloved, there may be a hundred reasons why you do not sing your praises to God, but there are an infinite number of reasons to praise him with your whole voice!  Loved ones, we are a people who have been redeemed from sin and death—how can we spend a moment of our lives not praising God?  Yet, if you are one of those who are gifted in voice (something that I am not J), make sure that you are not singing because of the praise of your audience—if you sing thus, it will serve no other purpose.  Rather, sing praise that points to God and use your gift to point others heavenward.  Lastly, loved ones, praise God both inside and outside of His sanctuary.  Praise him when you go to and fro; praise him in your homes and in your cars; praise him in your waking and sleeping—praise him, praise him, praise him in all that you do.  Give God the glory, for great things he has done!

To God be the glory, great things he has done!

So loved he the world that he gave us his Son,

Who yielded his life an atonement for sin,

And opened the life-gate that we may go in.

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,

Let the earth hear his voice!

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,

Let the people rejoice!

O Come to the Father through Jesus the Son,

And give him the glory, great things he has done!

-Fanny Crosby

You Delight in Truth: Psalm 51 (part 7)

“Behold, truth you delight of in the inward parts

and in hidden places it is wisdom you teach me.”

(Psalm 51:8 {Psalm 51:6 in English Bibles})

 

Indeed, our God is truth and anything that is found that is apart from God has no truth in it.  The secular world may put things forward as the truth and they may make convincing arguments that they have truth to present, but unless God is at the heart of it, anything that is put forward as truth is but a shadow.  And thus, it is in truth that God delights!  How we as His people, must then reflect the truth in all that we do.  Beloved, do you wish to please God?  Indeed, then your life must radiate the truth of his person.  And oh how often we fall short of making that a reality in our lives.  We like the truth when it is beneficial to us; but when it is more convenient, we often justify lying.  Loved ones, do not fall prey to this trap, for just as truth is a reflection of the character of God, so too are lies a reflection of the character of Satan—and we must always seek to make our lives reflect the character of the one to whom we belong!

Keep in mind that this passage is set in the context of repentance.  One important aspect of confession before God is a recognition of what your sin really is—rebellion against God.  So often, when we look at our sin, we tend to down-play its severity.  We think of it as not that destructive or we justify it based on circumstances.  Sometimes we may even play the, “but I’m only human” card, which is particularly shameful for Christians to use.  While indeed we may be fallen humans, our forgiveness was bought at a terrible price, and when we recognize what Jesus did for us so that we might experience forgiveness, it should drive us to holy living and it should drive us to grieve our sin all the more.  And when we recognize that our lives are living testimonies to the character of the one we claim to serve, oh, how rationalizing sin should be but bitterness on our lips—oh how, as we look to our own sins—as we grieve over our own sins—we should always endeavor to speak the truth about our sins, recognizing them for what they are and hating the sins as God hates the sins.

And how must we learn to recognize sin from truth?  Indeed, the David reminds us that it is God who teaches truth to his people.  Beloved, this is part of the work of the Holy Spirit—to reveal that which is true to the people God has called to himself.  It is the Holy Spirit that must always guide our study of scripture and prayers, it is the Holy Spirit that must set the things of God on our heart so we may live day to day to His glory, and it is the Holy Spirit that testifies that what we have before us in God’s revealed word is truth and not the result of man’s imagination.  Beloved, God is truth, he delights in it and reveals it to his people.  Do you delight in God’s truth as God does?  Do you really cherish it and revel in it?  Does the truth of God in your hand cause praise to come to your lips?  And do you pray to God that he will reveal truth to you in the depths of your inward being?  Lastly, when you repent, is your repentance spurred by a heart for truth, seeking to see your sin through the same eyes as God sees your sin?  Truth is at the heart of David’s confession, is it at the heart of yours?