Preparing for Affliction

 

In his treatise exhorting believers to the duty of meditation, The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, Puritan John Owen (1616-1683) sets forth the following proposition on the benefit of meditating on eternity,

“There is nothing more necessary unto believers at this season than to have their minds furnished with provision of such things as may prepare them for the cross and sufferings.  Various intimations of the mind of God, circumstances of providence, the present state of things in the world, with the instant peril of the latter days, do all call them hereunto.  If it be otherwise with them, they will at one time or another be woefully surprised, and think strange of their trials, as if some strange thing did befall them.  Nothing is more useful unto this end than constant thoughts and contemplations of eternal things and future glory.”

What he is saying here, in a way that only Owen does, is that for believers, key to preparing for the coming sufferings, afflictions, and trials of this world is continual meditations on eternity.

Similarly, note the words of God through the inspired pen of the Apostle Paul

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

Here we see the relationship between affliction and eternity, namely that the former is preparatory for the latter.  How so?

  1. Affliction is preparatory because, as we have seen with Job, it is a refining, purifying act of God to further cleanse the believer of defilement, strengthen faith, and develop perseverance (see Romans 5:1-5).
  2. Affliction is preparatory because due to its temporary nature, we anticipate its conclusion, knowing that it will not last forever.  Therefore by their very nature afflictions cause us to look forward to a day when they will end and eternity will begin.  This is sometimes called having an eternal perspective.

Similarly, in this passage we see that our focus should not be on the temporary, earthly, and visible things of this world, instead our focus should be on the eternal, heavenly, and invisible (at present) things of the world to come.  Having this focus constantly and consistently, as Owen states, prepares us for the arrival of affliction. It therefore does not take us by surprise, nor does it sink us into depths of despair, though we certainly may have “fear of and aversation* from great, distressing sufferings, that are above the power of nature to bear.” Nevertheless we persevere knowing that the suffering and sorrow is only temporary.

Finally, moving from a general statement on the positive benefits of meditating on eternity to a more specific look at what exactly that entails, we may note at least three objects upon which to set our minds

  1. The Restoration of All Things
  2. The Renewal of our Earthly Bodies
  3. The Christ of Eternity

For our first point we note that we must allow our minds to fix upon the restoration of all things, namely that this world, which is fading away, will one day be restored such that it will no longer be subject to the fall.  20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Romans 8:21-22 

Second, we must allow our minds to fix upon the renewal of our earthly bodies.  “50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”” 1 Cor. 15:50-55

Finally, and most importantly, we must allow our minds to fix upon the Christ of eternity, for we shall finally see Him as He is.  “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” 1 John 3:2

Our best preparation for affliction is to meditate on our eternal state in glory, as such it is also the best object of our meditations during affliction. Turning to Owen for the final word, we read,

“Eternal glory is set before us also; it is the design of God’s wisdom and grace that by the contemplation of it we should relieve ourselves in all our sufferings, yea, and rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”

 

*turning away in dislike

For additional study and meditation, read Revelation 21.

Reviving the Doctrine of Church Studies

 

It’s been a few months since we visited our ongoing study regarding the form and function of church.  We left off with an introduction to the universal concept of church as defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646.  Recall that generally speaking, the doctrine of the universal church finds chief support in Matthew 16:18 as compared with Matthew 18:17, though as we’ll soon see, whether rightly or wrongly some other verses are brought into the mix for support as well.

Additionally, in that last post, we looked at three key issues which have been the source of debate and disagreement regarding the nature of a universal church theory.  They were:

  1. The theory of the universal church conflates the concept of the people of God (church) with the concept of ekklesia (gathering), the New Testamen Greek word that is translated as church in our English bibles..
  2. The theory of the universal church, at its core, asserts too much continuity between Israel and the Church.
  3. The theory of the universal church is rooted in equating the church with the kingdom of God and the church with the family of God.

We left that post with anticipation of a historical look at this theory’s development and to hopefully determine whether any of these objections have merit.  That is where we find ourselves today, reviving our studies on the doctrine of the church.

In order to accomplish this historical review, we’ll lean heavily on the overview provided in the Systematic Theology of Louis Berkhof who provides a succinct history on the doctrine of the church.  I’ll be quoting him extensively as a solid, well-respected, point of reference, but ultimately to show how some of the conclusions we may reach are not unique, but have at least been mentioned in times past.  It of course does not mean that by citing him that we necessarily have come to agreement with his conclusions.  Generally speaking, Berkhof’s conclusions are typical of the Reformed tradition.

By way of continuing our review, in order to resume our series here, and as an introduction to Berkhof, we will follow his outline beginning with a well thought out introduction to the meaning and use of ekklesia in the New Testament (Old Testament as well).  For an expanded study, our post on this issue may be found here: What is an Ekklesia?

Berkhof writes,

“The New Testament also has two words derived from the Septuagint, namely, ekklesia, from ek and kaleo, “to call out,” and sunagoge, from sun and ago, meaning “to come or to bring together.”  The latter is used exclusively to denote either the religious gatherings of the Jew or the buildings in which they assembled for public worship, Matt. 4:23; Acts 13:43; Rev. 2:9; 3:9.  The term ekklesia, however, generally designates the Church of the New Testament, though in a few places it denotes common civil assemblies.” Pg. 555-556

As in our study, Berkof points out the two significant terms in the New Testament which find their roots in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), sunagoge (synagogue) and ekklesia, which as we’ve mentioned is translated into English as church.  After doubting the validity of deriving the meaning of ekklesia from the compound of ek and kaleo, Berkhof adds,

“Deissmann (1866-1937, German Protestant) would simply render ekklesia as ‘the (convened) assembly,’ regarding God as the convener.  Because the idea of the Church is a many-sided concept, it is quite natural that the word ekklesia, as applied to it, does not always have exactly the same connotation.  Jesus was the first one to use the word in the New Testament, and He applied it to the company that gathered about Him, Matt. 16:18, recognized Him publicly as their Lord, and accepted the principles of the Kingdom of God.  It was the ekklesia of the Messiah, the true Israel.  Later on, as a result of the extension of the Church, the word acquitted various significations.  Local churches were established everywhere, and were also called ekklesiai, since they were manifestations of the one universal Church of Christ.”

Here we may observe a few noteworthy points, namely the recognition that ekklesia refers to the “convened assembly” and that Christ’s use of ekklesia, from Matthew 16:18, alluded to those who were “convened” or gathered around Him.  That’s an important point that is often neglected and may aid to ones understanding of whether Matthew 16:18 is a universal church reference or not.  Remember that this particular verse is often championed as evidence of universal church, i.e. that Christ’s use of ekklesia here necessarily implies that He is talking about the whole community of God’s people.  Contrary to this, Berkhof is describing it as the actual fellowship of those around Him, beginning with the twelve.

After this, Berkhof begins his descriptions of these various uses or connotations of ekklesia in the New Testament, the first of which he discusses is the most frequent usage.  According to him the most frequently used meaning of ekklesia “designates a circle of believers in some definite locality, a local church, irrespective of the question of whether these believers are or are not assembled for worship.”  Here, Berkhof concludes that an ekklesia may be an ekklesia, even if they are not actually gathered together.  Additionally, he concludes that regardless of whether they are gathered or not, geographic location is still a determinant factor.  He then lists several passages as examples for gathered and ungathered, which I’ve included below.[1] This of course brings up an interesting point of discussion, which we’ll take up another time, namely, is a church a church when it is not gathered.

The second use of ekklesia in the New Testament, he concludes, sometimes “denotes what may be called a domestic ekklesia, the church in the house of some individual,” citing instances of this word in Rom. 16:23; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15, and Philemon 2.  Along a similar line, Berkhof notes that at least once, Acts. 9:31, the word is used in the singular to denote a collection of churches from Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.  This usage is a debated passage and as he points out, “this does not yet mean that they together constituted an organization such as we now call a denomination.”

His final two uses, again by way of review for our own study here, are critical towards understanding the issue at hand, namely whether it is accurate to speak of an universal church, and if so, what exactly this should refer to.  He states, “in a more general sense the word serves to denote the whole body throughout the world, of those who outwardly profess Christ and organize for the purposes of worship, under the guidance of appointed officers.”  With some hesitancy, Berkhof suggests this is found in 1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 12:28 and possibly the intention for the use of ekklesia in Ephesians.  Interestingly, he doesn’t cite Matthew 16:18 as so many do, so we’ll need to examine these additional references if we’re to find evidence of a universal theory of church.  Finally, he states that the word in its “most comprehensive meaning signifies the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been or shall be spiritually united to Christ as their Savior.”  He cites some examples that I’ve listed below.[2]

Wit this point, let’s recall the actual meaning of the word under discussion here, namely ekklesia, which refers to a gathering and note too the most frequent usage cited above.  Would it therefore be proper or accurate to refer to the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, or whether or not they have been united to Christ or not (saved) as the ekklesia, i.e. church?

Summarizing then these uses of ekklesia in the New Testament, at least according to Louis Berkof, we have the following

  1. A convened assembly with God as Covener.
  2. First used by Christ in Matthew 16:18 – a reference to those convened about Him.
  3. A circle of believers in a definite geographic location.
  4. May or may not be gathered together (for worship), meaning that they may be called a church whether they are physically present together.
  5. Ekklesia in the New Testament often referred to a gathering in a particular house of an individual.
  6. Ekklesia may generally refer to the collected body of believers throughout the world.
  7. The most comprehensive meaning of ekklesia refers to the whole body of believers, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been united to Christ.

After giving an overview of how the meaning of the English word “church” was transferred to the use of ekklesia, which we looked at earlier in this post, Berkhof overviews other scriptural concepts that refer to the people of God (i.e. Body of Christ, Temple of the Holy Spirit, New Jerusalem/Jerusalem above, Pillar and ground of the truth) and then opens up his section on The Doctrine of the Church in History.  Here is where we will pick up in the next post for the purpose of understanding how this concept of the universal church has developed in history.

In the meantime, you can get caught up on this series here:

[1]Assembled: Acts 5:11; 11:26; 1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19,28,35; Not assembled: Rom. 16:4; 1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:2; 1 Thess. 2:14

[2]Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 32; Col. 1:18,24

Stop Asking Why

 

Why is it when tragedy strikes the first question asked is Why? Why is it when personal affliction hits the first question asked is Why? Why is it when a gunman enters a church, the first question we want answered is why?  Why is it when storms hit, the question we want answered is why?  Why is it when a child has cancer, we want to ask why?  Why do we keep asking why?

One theologian has posited that we keep asking why because

“Our minds crave an answer.

Why do we ask why?

We cannot help but ask why because, made in God’s image, we are moral creatures who cannot grasp or understand the world around us without moral categories. We are moral creatures inhabiting a moral universe and our moral sense of meaning is the faculty most perplexed when overwhelmed by horror and grief.”

While quite frankly I have difficulty digesting such grandiose statements, for him at least, he is summarizing what he sees as the innate desire in humans to ask why in the midst of grief.  Another has offered his own opinion on the matter by beginning his best selling book with the following, “There is only one question  which really matters: Why do bad things happen to good people?”  He then spends 8 chapters attempting to answer this question.

In the book of Job, two parties wrestle with the “why” question in the case of Job’s affliction.  Because of this, the book has often been viewed as having the answer to why suffering exists in the world and more broadly why evil exists, sometimes called theodicy. These two parties, Job and his friends, wrestle with the question of why and reach their own conclusions.  The latter, as has been stated before, concluded that the answer to why God afflicts must be directly related to sin.  Broadly this is true.  As a result of the fall in the Garden of Eden, sin entered the world and in this way all affliction is the product of sin.

However, specifically, as in the case of Job, this is not true, at least not necessarily.  Job was afflicted, but there was no direct correlation with sin, either hidden or open, that was the direct cause.  In the case of Job, his wrestling with the why of his own affliction left him questioning the justice, wisdom, and ultimately the goodness of God.  Job’s conclusion, or answer to the why question, was that God arbitrarily afflicts both the righteous and the unrighteous for no apparent reason.  Conversely, He also blesses the unrighteous.

With the arrival of Elihu into the verbal fray at chapter 32, we have yet a third party arriving to address the question why.  For the first time, the knot of this tangled difficulty begins to be loosened somewhat as he provides at least some reasons, unmentioned previously, for why God afflicts.

However, as Yahweh appears on the scene in chapter 38, the question, or rather the answer, to “why” never even remotely comes up.  For essentially 37 chapters, and in reality who knows how much actual time had elapsed, we have been waiting for an answer to the question of why Job was allowed to be afflicted, if he was righteous.  Extrapolating this question from the context to our present reading of the book, and we may say that we too, along with Job, often find ourselves waiting for an answer to the question “why?”.  Why does God afflict?  Why does suffering happen?  Why are there disasters, disease, and death?  Surely God must answer our interrogations because of our perplexity, grief, and moral creatureliness, as the theologian cited above stated.  Right?

Absolutely not!  In fact, God’s first address to Job is, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? “  God’s answer to the why question begins with a who question, specifically, who are you to ask why.  The answer to Job ‘s inquisition in simple terms is also the answer that the Apostle Paul gives in Romans 9 for those who like to question the Almighty, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?'” Romans 9:20  Contrary to the two views from the theologian and author above in our introduction, we don’t ask why because we are moral agents looking for moral categories in a moral universe.  We demand answers to why because we are immoral creatures living in a fallen world who have failed to come to terms with the WHO.  In order for Job, and by necessary consequence us, to answer rightly this question of “who” we must see ourselves in light of Who God is.

This is precisely how God answers Job in His four chapter long rebuke.  God, fully aware of the questions that have been levied against His character responds, not by self-justifying His wisdom for why He has chosen to act in a particular way, but answers by reestablishing in the minds of His hearers WHO it is that is acting.  The why matters very little, contrary to the author cited above.  In fact, as finite, sinful creatures we would rarely be satisfied with the why even if God should condescend to answer it.  Instead, as God in His majestic wisdom knows, most often our question of why is due to our failure to properly recognize the WHO.  This WHO in the book of Job begins with God as Creator.

Building upon this, God establishes Himself as Sustainer of all that He has created.  Far from being a cosmic clock-winder that simply starts up creation and is hands off the daily operation, God informs Job that it is He that sustains creation.  In doing so, God also highlights several of His attributes, namely His sovereignty, wisdom, goodness, justice, and most certainly His freedom. Perhaps it is this last attribute that causes the most consternation among those who experience affliction or witness calamity in general because it firmly asserts that God is God and we are not, therefore He is free to do as He pleases and answers to no one.

The answer to the why question begins with a “who”, namely who are we to ask such a question. This who necessarily drives us to ask WHO God is and provides clarity for us to view ourselves as finite creatures and God as infinite Creator.  When affliction strikes, and it will, or when calamity happens again, and it will, may we be less prone to ask why and more prone to seek the WHO falling on our faces before the Almighty in recognition of His supreme wisdom to order the creation as He sees fit.  Let us then rest in His justice and goodness knowing well that He has divine freedom to do as He pleases.  Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?  Most Assuredly this is so.