All posts by John

Christian saved by grace through faith.

The Abrahamic Tipping Point

 

One of the primary areas of disagreement over the interpretation of Scripture is the relationship between the Old and New Covenants and the implications that flow downstream from this,  such as: Israel vs. the Church, infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism, and the Future of ethnic Israel.  The tipping point in each of these debates, and the key to unraveling the continuity/discontinuity issue between the Old and New Covenants, is the meaning and significance of the Abrahamic Covenant.

On the one hand, finding too much continuity between the Old and the New Covenants, results in a continuation of the practices regarding infants, i.e. infant circumcision under the Old is continued under the New by means of the practice of baptism.  Additionally, this view collapses Israel and the Church and sees them as a (near) continuous unit.  On the other hand, finding too much discontinuity between the Old and the New, results in two distinct purposes and plans of redemption for the people of God, namely Israel under the Old Covenant and the Church under the New Covenant .  Historically, the distance between these two views has been approached from a variety of angles with a myriad of different solutions, each of which must reconcile what to do with the Abrahamic Covenant.

Keep in mind, when we are mentioning the Abrahamic Covenant, we are referring to the progressive unfolding of the covenant that God makes with Abraham, which begins in Genesis 12 and is woven throughout Genesis until around Genesis 22.  While there are many passages which one could examine to arrive at a solid conclusion on the issue of how to interpret this covenant, one passage of particular interest occurs in John 8, within the context of Jesus’ dialogue/sermon with the Pharisees and those who claimed to believe in Him.  We pick up the debate in verse 31

31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”

Here, the dialogue centers around Jesus’ statement that the truth is freeing.  It’s rather obvious that He is not talking about  being in physical captivity, as the Jews assume, rather He is talking about being enslaved by sin.  The truth, says our Lord, will set one free from this enslavement.  The reply by the Jews assures us that they do not have the ears to hear what Christ is saying, because they immediately state their heritage with Abraham, followed by an affirmation of their physical freedom.

Though He certainly did not have to clarify His statements, our Lord condescends to the Jews misunderstanding with the following

34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

With this, we have a crystallizing statement that Jesus is not talking about physical slavery, rather the slavery to sin.  The contrast in the dialogue is between Jesus’ spiritual analogy of slavery and the Jews physical concept of slavery.  Next, Jesus addresses their claim to Abraham

37 I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. 38 I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”

Jesus affirms the statement that the Jews are the offspring of Abraham.  Remember that their statements were affirming physical realities: 1. We’ve never been enslaved 2. We have Abraham as our Father.  Remember too that Jesus was talking spiritual realities.  In verse 37, He affirms their physical relationship with Abraham, yet in verse 38, He goes back to the spiritual, “you do what you have heard from your father.”  The following verses add clarity

39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” 

Notice again that the Jews assert that Abraham is their father.  Clearly they recognize that in verse 38, Jesus is talking about a different father.  Our Lord’s next statement is the focus of our post and serves to highlight the duality with Abraham

Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, 40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are doing the works your father did.”

After previously affirming the Jews relationship with Abraham, Jesus (who we may be reminded was Himself a Jew) now questions their relationship with Abraham by focusing on their deeds, or works.  Either Jesus has forgotten what He said earlier or He’s confused right?  What gives?

Well certainly He’s neither.  How can one’s works determine whether or not you have a physical ancestor in Abraham?  Clearly, Jesus is now back to an emphasis on spiritual realities.  The works that Abraham did were the results of the “obedience of faith” (see Genesis 15:6; 22:12, 16-18; Romans 4:3ff; James2:23ff).  Again, Jesus references another father in contrast to Abraham.  Let’s finish out this section of the dialogue and then summarize what we’ve seen

They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.”42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

The above passage is an important conclusion because for the first time we see the Jews finally grasping the spiritual realities that Jesus has been discussing.  They assert that yes, Abraham is their physical ancestor, but God is their true Father.  Jesus immediately debunks this superficial claim by again looking to the fruit in their lives and seeing a lack of love for Himself.  In contrast to their claim of God as their Father, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter by stating they have the devil as their father.

Summarizing then

  • The Jews claim and Jesus affirms their physical relationship with Abraham.
  • Jesus presents a paradigm wherein the Jews do not have a spiritual relationship with Abraham.
  • The Jews claim and Jesus denies their spiritual relationship with God as their Father.
  • Jesus presents a paradigm wherein the Jews have the devil as their spiritual father.

So what does all this contribute towards understanding the Abrahamic covenant?

In the context of this dialogue, Jesus presents a duality with respect to Abraham, that he has BOTH physical AND spiritual descendants.  The physical covenant with Abraham was marked by circumcision.  The “spiritual covenant” more properly called the Covenant of Grace, was marked by faith and obedience, the evidence of a circumcised heart.  All of Abraham’s descendants were to be marked by physical circumcision, remarkably, this included both Ishmael and Isaac, as well as the servants in Abraham’s house.  All of Abraham’s spiritual descendants are marked with heart circumcision.

17th Century Baptist, Nehemiah Coxe summarizes this duality in Abraham with the following words,

“Abraham is to be considered in a double capacity: he is the father of all true believers and the father and root of the Israelite nation.”

While the physical and the spiritual seed of Abraham at times had overlap, as in Isaac not Ishmael and Jacob not Esau, and the promises to Abraham, both physical and spiritual had overlap, nevertheless recognizing and maintaing this duality is critical to understanding the relationship between the Old and New Covenants.

One final note for consideration, both the seed and the promises given to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.” Galatians 3:16  This fulfillment in Christ reaches its pinnacle through His death on the cross, shedding His own blood for the inauguration of the New Covenant*, see Luke 22:20; Hebrews 8:6-13.

 

 

(*essentially this is the fulfillment of the Covenant of Grace that we mentioned earlier).

 

The Folly of Will Worship

 

One of the key themes in the Old Testament, and really all of Scripture, is worship.  It is useless to read of who God is and what He has done, is doing, or will do, if it does not lead us to worship.

Beginning in the book of Genesis, worship is central as the God WHO creates reveals that He is worthy of worship, and then that this same God has determined HOW He will be worshiped by His creation.  Adam and Eve’s failure in the Garden was primarily a failure of proper worship.  In Genesis 2, Adam was instructed to “work” and “keep” the Garden, both words in the Hebrew conveying the priestly functions of “minister” and “guard” (see Num. 3:7-8).  A priest, as we know, was given charge to mediate the worship of God.

Fast Forward some 2500+ years, to the infant stages in Israel’s history, and again we see the centrality of worship (Exodus 32:1-6).  As Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the Law of God, including regulations for worship, the people had given themselves over to the folly of will-worship.  Here, the principle offender is Aaron, who leads the people into this false system of man-made worship.  Aaron’s construction of the golden calf was bad enough, but he went a step further in declaring that this lifeless idol was the god who had delivered Israel from Egypt, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Ex. 32:4  Not satisfied with the violation of the newly minted First, Second , and Third Commandments, Aaron next instituted an unsanctioned day and feast, accompanied by sacrifices, to this graven image.  As would be expected, this unapproved worship provoked the wrath of God.

Fast forward again, around 400-500 years later, to a time when the nation of Israel was fracturing into two kingdoms, the North – called Israel, with its capital in Samaria, and the South – called Judah, with its capital and original center of worship remaining in Jerusalem.  In the North, comprised of 10 Israelite tribes (excluding Judah and Benjamin), Jeroboam is made king and almost immediately constitutes unsanctioned, man-made worship (see 1 Kings 12:19-33).  Echoing the scene described above from Exodus, Jeroboam fashions golden calves to prevent the Northern Kingdom from turning, “back to the house of David” by rightfully sacrificing at the temple, as God had commanded.

“‘You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough.  Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’  And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.”  1 Kings 12:28

Jeroboam, following in the footsteps of Aaron, created a worship of his own to replace that which God had ordained.  “He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites.  And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar.” 1 Kings 12:31-32

This scene of Jeroboam’s own folly of will-worship is perhaps best summarized by the statement, “that he had devised in his own heart.”  Jeroboam set the course for decades of idolatrous worship in Israel.  Collectively, their failure to repent and turn from Jeroboam’s folly eventually led to their exile and ultimately their destruction.  Their exile was the punishment of a failure to worship God as He had commanded.

21 When he had torn Israel from the house of David, they made Jeroboam the son of Nebat king. And Jeroboam drove Israel from following the Lord and made them commit great sin. 22 The people of Israel walked in all the sins that Jeroboam did. They did not depart from them, 23 until the Lord removed Israel out of his sight, as he had spoken by all his servants the prophets. So Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria until this day.” 2 Kings 17:21-23

Bringing this theme of worship to the New Testament, in Colossians 2:23, the King James Version translates the Greek word ethelothreskia (e-the-lo-thra-ske’-ä) as “will-worship.”  According to Thayer’s lexicon, this word is defined as, “worship which one devises and prescribes for himself, contrary to the contents and nature of the faith which ought to be directed to Christ”.  This definition describes perfectly the examples shown above where will-worship was imposed upon the worship that God had commanded.  While Colossians has little to do with golden calves and worship on high places, nevertheless, it is concerned with worship, specifically false, man-made worship.

In Colossians 2, we read of 4 specific warnings regarding worship, before the Apostle arrives at his concluding statement against “will-worship”.  The first occurs in 2:4 and warns of the dangers and influence of human wisdom.  Next, in 2:8, we read that believers, Colossae in particularly, should be on guard against the influence and practices of human tradition.  Third, in 2:16 the Apostle reaches a summary point, therefore, and exhorts believers to guard against human opinion.  Finally, in 2:18, he warns against the dangerous influence of human experience.  Each of these four warnings apply specifically to the context of worship, or perhaps more accurately when believers gather together.  Just like for Colossae they are warnings for us to guard against these influences in our own gatherings.

It’s often easy to see that God regulated His worship in the Old Testament, specifically through the giving of the law.  It’s therefore no surprise to read of the consequences that God levied against those who profess to be His people when they violated his commands for worship.  However, sometimes when we arrive at the New Testament, we are guilty of forgetting that this same God continues to take His worship seriously.  Everything that we do must be regulated by the Word of God, otherwise, we will fall prey to human wisdom, human tradition, human opinion, and/or, human experience.

Will God’s wrath against will-worship be provoked any less today than it was in the days of Aaron or Jeroboam?

Lest we be quick to dismiss this, let us be reminded that this letter with warnings for the Colossians was to be shared with the church at Laodicea (see Colossians 4:16; 2:1), the same Laodicea of the strongest warning given by our Lord in Revelation 3:14-22.  Clearly then, God’s concern for right worship has not waned one iota.

Though a topic for another day, the Apostle concludes his section on worship in his letter to Colossae with a positive command for when believer’s gather

16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  Colossians 3:16-17

 

 

A Snippet of the Radical Reformation

 

In the last decade or so there has been a resurgence of what is traditionally known as reformed theology.  Defining this can be a bit tricky.  Some, perhaps most, simply conclude that reformed theology is defined by the doctrines of grace, i.e. total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.  Others however, hold that this is just the beginning and that to be truly called reformed includes so much more, beginning with holding to one of the historic confessions of faith, i.e. Westminster Confession of Faith or the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.  This has led to splintering within the movement into at least two groups (and probably more), the “Neo-Reformed” and the historic or confessional reformed.

Regardless of which camp one finds themselves, my fear is that both groups are subject to ignorance of historical theology.  By that I mean that they embrace the tradition of the Reformers without understanding what it is that they were doing, including both what they did right AND what they did wrong.  When this happens, the Reformation is skewed and takes on mythological characteristics, while Reformers, such as Martin Luther, become cartoonish super heroes.  To begin to understand the Reformation, one must understand the term sacralism as well as the relationship between church and state.  Additional terms to reckon with would be: the definition of a magisterial reformer (hint: it doesn’t mean majestic),  the Radical Reformation and its “Reformers”, and the Anabaptist movement, which has been unfairly labeled a wholesale heretical movement.

A good start for unpacking this history is The Reformers and their Stepchildren, by Leonard Verduin, who because of his own emphasis on the error of sacralism and its trappings has been called a revisionist and accused of being historically biased.  This seems to be an unfair assessment and an uncharitable reading of his material.

In the video below, Dr. James White provides a brief glimpse into this alternate, or we might say ignored, view of Reformation history as he stands at the “prison” site of  Fritz Erbe, who was placed in a deep hole for refusing to baptize his children from 1540 until his death in 1548.  His total imprisonment lasted more than 15 years, again the crime was refusing to baptize his infant children.

The site of his dungeon imprisonment?

Wartburg Castle.

The same Wartburg Castle where 10 years earlier Martin Luther was given refuge from the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church.  The same Wartburg Castle where Luther translated the Scriptures into German.  Think about this for a moment and let it revise your own understanding of the Reformation.

As White points out, the translation of the Scriptures by Luther into the modern vernacular happened just a few yards from where Erbe was tortured and left to rot in a deep dark hole.  Erbe read and applied these same Scriptures.  Yet here we have self-professing Christians who were willing to imprison and torture another self-professing Christian simply because he refused to baptize (and rightly so) his children.  This is the danger of sacralism and it is shear ignorance to think that its effects are not among us today.  The Reformation certainly had positive effects, namely its break from the Roman Catholic Church.  However, the Protestant divorce from the RCC only led to an unholy affair with the State, and the State, as we know, wields the sword.  In one sense, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire for the “church”.  Erbe’s story is only the tip of the iceberg of the torture and persecution that professing believers faced at the hands of other professing believers for simply standing up for their beliefs of the Scriptures.

HT: The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness