An Outline of Acts with the Lord Jesus at the Center

acts of JesusThe book of Acts has been known as “The Acts of the Apostles” for most of church history because of it’s focus on, well, the acts of the apostles. For the most part it’s Peter preaching here, Philip baptizing there, and Paul getting in fights everywhere. Scholars have alternatively suggested that it ought to be thought of as “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” given the prominent role played by the Spirit in empowering the Church throughout the narrative. Recently, though, Alan J. Thompson has suggested what I think to be a more appropriate way of understanding the book: “The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus.”

In this new study of the theology of Acts, Thompson demonstrates that Luke’s sequel volume really ought to be seen as a depicting the continuing  Kingdom-ministry of the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus through the Church by the Spirit.  Now, while it would be fascinating to go into the case, I think it might be more interesting to see how Thompson thinks this should shape our view of the outline of Acts.

Thompson notes that there are a couple of different typical approaches to the outline of Acts. One is the focus on Paul’s missionary journeys, which, while somewhat intuitive, ends up focusing more on Paul than on Jesus. And the other is to key in on certain programmatic statements as marking movement in the story, which is a bit truer to the literary style, but it still has some organization disadvantages when viewed as a whole. Instead, Thompson presents us with an alternative structure with the “reign of the Lord Jesus” at the center:

Acts 1:1 – 2:47  The reign of Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit

Acts 3:1 – 8:3   The reign of Christ the Lord over rising opposition

Internal and external

Acts 8:4 – 9:31 The reign of Christ the Lord over outcasts and enemies

Samaria

Ethiopian Eunuch

Paul

Acts 9:32 – 12:25 The reign of Christ over all the nations

Peter preaches Christ in Lydda, Joppa, to Cornelius and household

The Jewish Gentile Church in Antioch is established

Peter is rescued from ‘King’ Herod Agrippa I and his prison

Acts 13:1 – 16:5 The reign of Christ the Lord proclaimed to the nations: part 1

Commission in Antioch (13:1-3)

Ministry in Cyprus, Pisidia, Lycaonia (13:4-14:20)

Nurturing the churches (14:21-28)

Evaluation in Jerusalem (15:1-16:5)

Acts 16:6 – 21:36 The reign of Christ the Lord proclaimed to the nations: part 2

Commission in Troas (16:6-10)

Ministry in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus (16:11-19:41)

Nurturing the churches (20:1-21:14)

Evaluation in Jerusalem (21:15-36)

Acts 21:-37 – 28:31 The reign of Christ the Lord vindicated before the rulers

Trial before the crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 21-22)

Trial before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (Acts 23)

Trial before Felix in Caesarea (Acts 24)

Trial before Festus and Herod Agrippa II in Caesarea (Acts 26)

Final meeting with Jewish leaders in Rome (Acts 28)

The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan, pp. 69-70

So then, maybe take up the book of Acts this week and read it with new eyes, focused not so much on Paul or Peter, but the way the Risen Lord advances his Kingdom through the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is God a Pluralist? (TGC)

religious-symbolsIt was in my freshman composition class at the University of California, Irvine, that I first heard a professor say, “Well, you know, most of the differences in religion don’t matter. The main point is that God just wants all is just to love each other, right?” It’s a claim that’s become increasingly familiar to me ever since.

But is it true? Is God indifferent to religion? Does he care how he’s worshiped? In other words, is God a pluralist?

While it comes in myriad different forms, the kind of pluralism I’m talking about is a sort of relativism about religion, claiming either that all religions are equally salvific, or that outward forms don’t matter since all faiths share a common core, or that the divine is too grand and unknowable to be encompassed by some exclusive set of doctrines. Unless you adhere to a conservative religious confession—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and so forth—some kind of religious pluralism is the default mindset among the broader “spiritual but not religious” late-modern culture we live in. But why?

For one, it seems to reinforce political pluralism—the social accommodation of various religious beliefs. If there’s no big difference, then there’s not much to fight about. What’s more, and this is probably the most enticing reason to adopt it at the popular level, it seems more humble and open to other viewpoints. Everybody’s equally right (or equally wrong), so no one can claim religious superiority. It’s a more “tolerant” view since there’s no one correct religion against all the others, and thus the moral playing field is level.

At least, that’s how it appears at first.

You can go read about why this is a dubious assumption over at The Gospel Coalition.

No Miracles = No Christian Hope

resurrection jesusWhether it be Gnostic mysticism, or German Liberal Rationalism, throughout Christian history there have been numerous attempts to separate the effects, or “inner truth” Christianity from it’s concrete grounding in the narrative of God’s interaction with Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. In other words, we want the value of “loving your enemies” and “forgiveness” without grounding it in the Cross where the Godman concretely loved his enemies and forgave them with his own blood. We want the sense of gratitude and joy on a sunny day without grounding it in the Creator God who gives  it to us and currently sustains all things in things in being.

We have seen this in the 20th Century with various atheistic philosophies of hope that try and take their inspiration from Jewish-Christian eschatology, and transpose them into an immanent, or naturalist key, stripped of God and the miraculous. They want the hope without the “extras” of divine revelation that points beyond the limits of reason alone–they want the substance without the form.

In his Reformed Dogmatics, the great Herman Bavinck comments on the impossibility of such attempts by those rationalist theologians who tried to keep the content of revelation, without admitting the category of special revelation and miracle:

Accordingly, faith  in special revelation is ultimately one with faith in another and better world. If this world is the only world and the best world, then of course we have to be content with it. Then the laws of nature are identical with the decrees of God; then the world is the Son, the Logos, the true image of God; then the order of nature in which we live is already the full and exhaustive revelation of God’s wisdom, power, goodness, and holiness. But then what right do we have to expect that the “there” will one day become “here,” that the ideal will become reality, that the good will triumph over evil, that the “world of values” will one day prevail over the “world of reality”? Evolution will not take us there. Nothing comes out of nothing (nihil fit ex nihilo). This world will never turn into a paradise. Nothing can come forth from it that is not in it. If there is no beyond, no God who is above nature, no supernatural order, then sin, darkness, and death have the last word. The revelation of Scripture makes known to us another world, a world of holiness and glory. This other world descends into this fallen world, not just as a doctrine but also as a divine power (dynamis), as history, as reality, as a harmonious system of words and deeds in conjunction. It is work, no, as the work of God by which he lifts this world out of its fall and leads it out of the state of sin, through the state of grace, to the state of glory. Revelation is God’s coming to humankind to dwell with it forever.

-Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1: Prolegomena, pg. 376

In other words, if there is no miraculous intervention, if God is to be boxed away inside the laws of nature, restrained from acting beyond the patterns of the ordinary, if he is not allowed to decisively and supernaturally reveal himself as the redeemer of nature as he has in the narrative of Israel and Jesus, then we have no hope–not any that deserves the name “Christian”, at least. Nothing about the causes immanent to nature, or the history human nature lead us to expect more than a superficial, technical progress in the future–if we don’t destroy ourselves with it. No, Christian hope is grounded and sustained solely in the God beyond nature who can actually do something about the world because he is not limited by it.

On a slightly different note, the apostle Paul put it this way:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only,we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)

The form and the content of Christian hope go hand in hand. You cannot hope in God if that God is not the God of Resurrection and miracle.

Soli Deo Gloria

If Jesus is the ‘Word of God’ Can We Call the Bible the Word of God?

Even as a lover of books, this might be one of the most terrifying pictures I've ever seen.

Even as a lover of books, this might be one of the most terrifying pictures I’ve ever seen.

“The Bible is not the Word of God, Jesus is. John says he is the Eternal Logos, the true Word spoken from all eternity, and to put such a focus on the Bible as the Word of God is to take it off their point: Jesus. In fact, it’s tantamount to bibliolatry–elevating the Bible to the 4th person of the Trinity.”

Ever heard something like that before? It’s become a truism among many of the Christian internet set, and something like it has been popular in theological circles for some time now.

I must admit, when I first heard the slogan myself, I was thrown off a bit. I mean, John does identify Jesus as the Logos, the Word, of God from all of eternity–the truest and deepest reality Father is eternally speaking. What’s more, it’s true that from time to time you can run across someone in a fundamentalist church who treats the Scriptures as if they were dropped from heaven and yet remain utterly oblivious to its central content. I can begin to see what motivates some to adopt it.

However, after the initial appeal, it appears to me that this is a mistaken move that many (though not all) use as a lead-up to falsely pitting Christ against the Scriptures. In fact, I’ve come to see this as sadly little more than a rhetorical sleight of hand, passing itself off as serious theology.

A Word About Words – The first is concerned with the basic nature of language and the simple text of the Bible. It should be an obvious point that words or phrases can, quite comfortably, have more than one proper use, or an expanded lexical range. For example, the phrase “God’s will” can refer to God’s will of command expressed in his explicit commands, but it can also refer to God’s will of decree by which he governs history. Both meanings are appropriately designated by that phrase, and context will usually clarify any confusion on that point. It ought to be uncontroversial to say the same thing is true of the phrase “the Word of God.”

At the most straightforward level, the phrase “The word of God” just means “a word God has spoken.” We find hundreds of references to God’s speech (“the word of the Lord came to”) littered throughout the canon, whether in the Law, the prophets, or the wisdom literature. Every time God spoke to Moses, he heard “the word of God.” Every time a prophet prophesied and used the phrase “Thus says the Lord”, they were speaking the “word of God.” Over and over, we see the preaching of the Gospel in Acts described as the “word of God.” That Jesus Christ is the eternal Logos of God does not change the fact that it is entirely appropriate to speak of the utterances of Jeremiah or Isaiah as the “word of God.” How much more then for the totality of all that God has “breathed out” by his Spirit?

For those worried about confusion on this point, this is why sometimes theologians have gone out of their way to distinguish what they mean by the phrase, specifying “the Word of God incarnate”  (ie. Jesus) or “the Word of God written” (ie. the Bible). They know very clearly that one has certain properties that the other doesn’t. For instance, the Son of God doesn’t have the properties of being made up of 66 books by various authors over a period of a thousand years or so. On the other hand, the Bible doesn’t have the property of being eternally-generated by the Father, or being incarnate, crucified, risen, and ascended in glory. Straightforward enough.

So when the author of Hebrews speaks about the Son’s unique revelatory function he says “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (1:1-2), it’s important note that he doesn’t follow that up with, “so now that we have this final Word let’s not call those previous communications ‘God’s Word.'” The conclusion simply does not follow.

Which brings me to the next point: the Word’s own view of the words. 

Jesus and the Bible

Christ himself presents us with the Word.

What Did Jesus Say? I’ve written before that it’s rather misleading to pit Jesus against the OT, or the “red letters” against the black letter sections of the Bible, given his own view of it. Once again, consider:

Is it not written in your Law, “I said, you are gods”? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, “You are blaspheming,” because I said, “I am the Son of God”? (John 10:34-36)

Not only is Jesus not squeamish about equating the Old Testament Scripture with the “Word of God”, he re-emphasizes their inviolability and authority by adding that they can’t be “broken.” Passages like this could be multiplied ad nauseam. In this he is followed by all of the apostles.

But instead of just repeating myself, J.I. Packer has some wisdom for us on this point:

But who is this Christ, the Judge of Scripture? Not the Christ of the New Testament and of history. That Christ does not judge Scripture; he obeys it and fulfills it. Certainly, He is the final authority of the whole of it. Certainly, He is the final authority for Christians; that is precisely why Christians are bound to acknowledge the authority of Scripture. Christ teaches them to do so.

A Christ who permits His followers to set Him up as the Judge of Scripture, One by whom its authority must be confirmed before it becomes binding and by whose adverse sentence it is in places annulled, is a Christ of human imagination, made in the theologian’s own image, One whose attitude to Scripture is the opposite to that of the Christ of history. If the construction of such a Christ is not a breach of the second commandment, it is hard to see what is.

“Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, 61–62 (HT: Matt Smethurst)

In other words, if Jesus identifies the Scriptures as God’s Word, why are we so squeamish about following suit?

The Trinitarian Word – Finally, this approach is confused because in doesn’t see that the Bible is the Trinitarian Word of God. Michael Horton calls our attention to the Trinitarian coordinates of inspiration in The Christian Faith. Reminding us of the structure of all trinitarian actions he writes “In every work of the Godhead, the Father speaks in the Son and by the perfecting agency of the Spirit.” (pg. 156) The Bible is the “Word of God” because in all the Law, the narratives, the Psalm, Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles we hear the Father testifying to the Son (John 5:39) by way of the power of the Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21).

We can see something like this understanding in Heinrich Bullinger’s Second Helvetic Confession. After calling attention to the locus classicus establishing this doctrine (“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching,for reproof,” etc. (II Tim. 3:16–17), Bullinger puts it this way:

SCRIPTURE IS THE WORD OF GOD. Again, the selfsame apostle to the Thessalonians: “When,” says he, “you received the Word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it, not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God,” etc. (I Thess. 2:13.) For the Lord himself has said in the Gospel, “It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of my Father speaking through you”; therefore “he who hears you hears me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Matt. 10:20; Luke 10:16; John 13:20). (Chap. 1)

In a sense, it is only as we acknowledge the Bible as the Word of the Father about the Son that we truly see the Son as the Father’s own True Word. It is through the testimony of the Word of God written that we recognize Jesus as the Word of God Incarnate. What’s more, given the current illumination of the text by the Spirit we ought say with Bullinger that “God himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures” about the Son.

At this point I think it becomes clearer that to pit Jesus as the Word of God incarnate against the Bible as the Word of God written is a false choice. It’s not only confused both at the level of language, not the attitude towards the Scripture taught to us by Jesus, but at the deeper level I fear it leads many to denigrate the diverse testimony of God to Christ in Scripture all in the name of elevating him.

So then, is Jesus the Word of God? Yes and Amen. Should we still speak of the Bible as the Word of God? Of course we should–Jesus told us to.

Soli Deo Gloria

Ideological Moralism and Gospel Grace (TGC)

My life has meaning because of the Cause. You oppose the Cause. You must submit or be destroyed.”

— Modern/postmodern ideological moralism

Charles Taylor

I posted that status after reading a little section toward the end of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self on Friedrich Nietzsche’s analysis about the modern demand of benevolence. Nietzsche offers one of the most insightful examinations of how the modern idea that humanity must maintain goodwill toward all—”a secularized agape,” especially apart from the context of grace—can provoke feelings either of unworthiness or self-satisfaction in the human soul. Basically, the options are despair or smug self-satisfaction depending on how well you think you measure up to the standard.

Taylor goes on to analyze one further implication Nietzsche left unexplored:

The threatened sense of unworthiness can also lead to the projection of evil outward; the bad, the failure, is now identified with other people or groups. My conscience is clear because I oppose them, but what can I do? They stand in the way of universal beneficence; they must be liquidated. This becomes particularly virulent on the extremes of the political spectrum, in a way which Dostoevsky explored to unparalleled depths.

In our day as in his, many young people are driven to political extremism, sometimes by truly terrible conditions, but also by a need to give meaning to their lives. And since meaninglessness is frequently accompanied by a sense of guilt, they sometimes respond to a strong ideology of polarization, in which one recovers a sense of direction as well as a sense of purity by lining up in implacable opposition to the forces of darkness. The more implacable and even violent the opposition, the more the polarity is represented as absolute, and the greater the sense of separation from evil and hence purity. Dostoevsky’s Devils is one of the great documents of modern times, because it lays bare the way in which an ideology of universal love and freedom can mask a burning hatred, directed outward onto an unregenerate world and generating destruction and despotism. (516-517)

Taylor penned these words almost 25 years ago, but I read them and couldn’t help but think of my own generation and the one coming after us. It’s pretty common to either idolize or demonize our moral sense; we’re supposedly either relativists or morally superior activists. I’d say there’s quite a bit of both. And one “ist” I’d certainly add to the list is “moralists.”

You can go on to read the way this plays out over at The Gospel Coalition.

Kevin Vanhoozer Corrects N.T. Wright’s 5-Act Hermeneutic

Wright againWhile many other scholars have made similar points, Kevin Vanhoozer and N.T. Wright have probably done more than any other theologians to help me understand the Bible as a drama. As opposed to viewing the text as a static collection of theological bullet-points, they suggest we conceive of it in active, narrative terms, with a plot whose development yields the doctrine which gives life to the Church. So, when one of them offers up a criticism and nuance of the other’s approach the way Vanhoozer does here, I’m definitely interested:

Tom Wright has thrice put forward a model for conceiving biblical authority that trades on the notion of biblical improvisation. He compares the drama of redemption to a Shakespeare play, most of whose fifth act is missing. The church has the first four acts (creation, fall, Israel, Christ) but must work out the fifth act (church) for herself, all the while remaining in character. It is not enough for the actors “merely to parrot what has already been said”; they must go beyond the sacred page and find—improvise!—the conclusion. Still, the first four acts are the “authority” for the fifth act, hence the idea of “improvising with a script.”

This suggestive model has much to commend it. However, I see the fall not as its own act, but as the conflict in the first act, creation. I prefer to see each of the five acts of the theodrama as set in motion by a divine act. Hence: creation, election of Israel, Christ, Pentecost and the church, consummation. On my dramatic reckoning, the church does not have to work out the ending so much as to live in its light. The essential thing is to play the right act. The church is no longer in Act 2, under the law, nor in Act 3, in which case it would have to do the work of Christ. Nor is it already in Act 5, as some in the first-century church at Thessalonica with an over-realized eschatology mistakenly thought. No, the church is in Act 4, an in-between the first and second comings of Christ time, marked by the firstfruits of the end time but not yet at the end.

-Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology, (Kindle Locations 2961-2973).

On one level I find this all rather compelling. The more traditional Creation, Fall, and Redemption (or Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation) is still rather serviceable. Wright’s suggestion is helpful, though, in that it distinguishes Israel’s phase thereby ensuring we don’t simply skip over it straight to Jesus–as if we could. It also helps us remember that while Israel is part of the Jesus plan, it is still a distinct phase, not to be confused with Christ’s work or that of the church.

Vanhoozer’s rolling the Fall back into the first act of Creation is also admirable for it’s theocentricity–God-centeredness. When it comes to thinking through the different acts as periods of human action, the Fall needs to be accounted for in our moral and theological reflection, but isn’t really stage on its own, it’s a presupposition for the rest. The narration of salvation-history is governed by God’s gracious action, not human sin.

I don’t have much to comment beyond that except to ask: what do you all think? Theologians, Bible-types, any thoughts?

Soli Deo Gloria

And This is Why I Read Bavinck: Jesus–the Miracle of History

Jesus 3Yesterday I posted a killer Gospel quote by Calvin that basically sums up the glory of Christ in the Gospel and simultaneously explains why I read him so much. I ran across a passage in Bavinck over the weekend that similarly serves to point us to Christ, and hopeful whets your appetite to read him:

The coming of Christ is the turning point of the ages. Grouped around his person is a new cycle of miracles. He himself is the absolute miracle, descended from above, and yet the true and complete human. In him, in principle, the creation has been restored, again raised from its fall to its pristine glory. His miracles are the signs (semeia) of the presence of God, proof of the messianic era (Matt. 11:3-5; 12:28; Luke 13:16), a part of his messianic labor. In Christ there appears a divine power (dynamis) that is stronger than all the corrupting and destructive power of sin. This latter power he attacks, not only peripherally by healing diseases and performing all kinds of miracles, but centrally, by penetrating the core, breaking and overcoming them. His incarnation and satisfaction, his resurrection and ascension are God’s great deeds of redemption. They are in principle the restoration of the kingdom of glory. These facts of salvation are not only means of revelation by are the revelation of God himself. Miracle here becomes history, and history itself is a miracle. The person and work of Christ is the central revelation of God; all other revelation is grouped around this center.

–Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1: Prolegomena, pg. 339

Soli Deo Gloria

This is Why I Read Calvin: He Points Me to Jesus

CalvinThis, this is Gospel-gold. It doesn’t get better than this:

“We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is “of him” [1 Cor 1:30]. If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects [Heb 2:17] that he might learn to feel our pain [compare Heb 5:2]. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion: if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross [Gal 3:13]; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge. In short, since rich store of every good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other.”

-John Calvin Institutes 2.16.19

Passages like this make me mourn for those who refuse to read Calvin because of the bad taste some Youtube video, or jerky Calvinist, left in their mouth. Please don’t rob yourself of the spiritual riches to be found as Calvin points you to Christ in passage after passage.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sabbath Sticks, OT Morality, and the Jesus Tea Strainer

There’s a very troublesome text smack dab in the middle of Numbers 15, which I suspect many of us wouldn’t know what to do with if asked about it:

While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death,as the Lord commanded Moses. (Num. 15:32-36)

well-that-escalated-quicklyOn first reading we’re left thinking, “Well, that escalated quickly.” It’s a bit harsh isn’t? I mean, really, picking up a few sticks on the Sabbath and he’s to be executed? Is that how God works? Is that a moral Bible? Indeed, some skeptical critics point to that story specifically in order to prove that it isn’t.

I was reminded of this as I watched my friend Andrew Wilson debate (or rather, get interrupted by) Steve Chalke about the authority of Scripture and how to read the OT.  During the debate, after a lot of prodding for clarification, Chalke finally came out and said that while he believed that the event happened, Moses or the author was simply confused as to God’s commands, having misheard him or something (I kid you not, that’s what he says, I’m not lying). Given who Jesus is, and the fact that God is unchanging, he simply couldn’t believe that God would wipe a guy out just for picking up some sticks on Sabbath, so the text is simply wrong on that point. And pretty much every other time it says God strikes something down (all throughout the OT and NT).

Now, I can’t be too harsh here. I really do get the hesitation. It’s an odd, initially terrifying story that I’m somewhat tempted to edit myself. That said, as I watched and considered, I thought of a few points (a couple contextual, one broadly theological) that ought to be considered as we approach troubling texts like these in order to do them justice without chopping them up. I’ll tackle them in no particular order:

1. Flagrant defiance – The first has to do with the act itself. Looking at it the stick-collecting in a sort of flat sense, it does seem fairly innocuous. A few sticks–what’s the big deal? But, see, I don’t think it is as simple as just a few sticks. Say for instance you have a child and you see him reach for a cookie, so you say to him, “Don’t lay a finger on those until after dinner–I don’t want you to spoil your supper.” Your child then looks up at you, looks at the cookie, looks back up at you, and then with a smug look, grabs the cookie and stuffs it in his mouth. Now, at that point, what do we have? We don’t have a simple cookie-eating incident do we? Instead we have an act of willful flagrant defiance that merits some more serious attention. Superficially innocuous actions can be laden with deeper meaning.

Was it worth it?

Was it worth it?

Now, a 5-year old doing some boundary-testing is still pretty mild, but consider the case in question. The Israelites have been saved out of grinding slavery and given a good law by the sovereign God of the Universe. Moses came down from the mountain of smoke, lightning, and fire, and delivered the Ten Commandments, the foundational charter laws of the Covenant, on tablets written by the finger of God himself. The fourth, the command to keep the Sabbath Holy, is actually the lengthiest of the ten. At this point you begin to see that this man, in going out to collect something as stupid as a bunch of sticks, isn’t just bending a little rule–he’s acting in flagrant defiance of the express will of the King of the nation. This is not a mild act, but an aggressive breach against authority demonstrating his total repudiation of the rule of the Lord.

Some might wonder if I’m importing or imposing this interpretation on the text, but I think I’m on solid contextual ground when we consider that this little episode is recorded right after the regulations forbidding sacrifices to atone for intentional sins or “sins with a high hand” in verses 32-33:

“‘But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel. Because they have despised the Lord’s word and broken his commands, they must surely be cut off; their guilt remains on them.’”

The fact that we don’t see this, I think, is indicative of how little importance we place on the idea of authority culturally, or the idea of defying God’s authority. We simply don’t take that category of sin seriously, because of our modern, Western mindset.

2. National Significance – The second factor to consider is that this is probably not just about this one guy.  I’ll be honest that it’s been a conviction of mine for as far back as I can remember that God doesn’t owe me my next breath–both by dint of authorial rights as well as because of my own sins and wickedness. That said, it’s hard to not see this as a national, and indeed, redemptive-historical issue.

God has purposes for his people. They are to live in relationship with him and serve as a light to the world in their worship and obedience. The laws serve as a hedge around them, protecting them from the pagan influences of their neighbors as well as training them in the proper life with God. These laws aren’t simply for the life of Israel, then, but for God’s cosmic redemptive purposes for Israel among the nations. In that light, the question becomes then: Is God serious about his law? Is he just blowing smoke when he commands these things, or do we need to take him seriously? Are these serious commands or mere suggestions?

I would suggest then, that while he was culpable and deserving in himself, this early case of Sabbath defiance also had ramifications beyond his own case that were at issue as well. The course of the life of the nation was stake such that tragic, but just, action had to be taken to ensure there was clarity and resolved on this point.

3. Appropriate For The Time – Third, I think there is also a level of progressive revelation at work here. Both Wilson and Chalke agreed that compared to most of the laws of the surrounding nations, the law of Israel was comparatively humane and just. In fact, one of the processes we can see in Scripture is the idea that God meets people in history, deals with them in a manner that’s appropriate to them at the time in order to move them along towards the divine ideal. He starts out with their pagan, distorted thinking and then employs laws that are suited to them (but are no longer suited to us) in order to bring them along slowly.

Think of it this way: were I to have children, some of the rules I might give to my 5-year old would be harsh and inappropriate for a 15-year old. For instance, I might tell a five-year old child, “Every time you go outside, you need to come ask permission. If you don’t, you’ll be grounded from play for a week.” Now, to a 15-year old, this would seem draconian–indeed, to apply it to the 15-year-old it would be–but it makes perfect sense for a 5-year old at a time when you’re trying ingrain the lessons of the importance of parental authority, safety, and so forth. A second point follows from this: simply because I change the house rules for my 15-year-old to something different than when he was 5, it doesn’t mean that I’ve overall changed my mind or something. It means that in my consistency of character I have spoken differently in different situations.

In a similar way, God implemented laws back then and there, which were appropriate in the process of moral and theological education (“because of the hardness of your heart”) that he wouldn’t apply now–especially in light of the new covenant in Christ and the move from a theocractic national kingdom to a spiritual Kingdom. But that’s not because he would have been unrighteous in applying them then, but because we’ve moved on from that part of the story. To try to go back is to miss the intended movement at work. Nor is he inconsistent when he shifts his demands, or changes the application of underlying principles in the New Covenant.

Of course, being a Brit, Wilson would make it a *tea* strainer.

Of course, being a Brit, Wilson would make it a *tea* strainer.

Returning to The Tea-Strainer – Where does all of this go? Well, for one I hope it sheds some light on Numbers 15. But further than that, I think this serves to highlight what Wilson has called the difference between a Christ-centered lens versus a Christ-centered “tea-strainer” hermeneutic. The one allows you to look at a text in a different light, while the other simply screens out the bits we don’t like. Returning to the debate I referenced above, we see that Chalke looks at this text and says, “Well, looking at Christ in the NT, I know God couldn’t have commanded that and therefore we see that Moses was probably confused.” And therefore, the text is actually wrong. (Again, go watch the video, I’m not exaggerating here).

I had a couple of friends complain about the article when I shared it last week to the effect that, “Well, that doesn’t reflect the Christocentric hermeneutic I’m talking about, or the best versions of it.” Well, if that’s the case, then that’s lovely. I’m ecstatic to hear it. But sadly it does reflect Chalke’s self-designated “Christ-centric” hermeneutic, and it’s even the sort of thing that I’ve seen Brian Zahnd, someone I have serious respect for, write before, to wild applause and cheers in some sectors.

So what do we say instead? I, and I think Wilson as well, would say something like, “Well, looking at Christ, his affirmation of the OT, as well as instruction to the effect that he has fulfilled and we’re moving on now, let’s look back and see how this command was functionally-appropriate for the time.” It’s a way of accepting all of what Jesus says when he affirms:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

There’s both an affirmation that it’s all true, it was all valid, and yet, at the same time, now that Christ has come, we aren’t going back there. God spoke it all and did it all–every single law, judgment, story, and so forth–to somehow point forward towards a climax of grace and justice in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But of course, if you just cut bits out, or say the Israelites or Moses were confused at such & such point when the text says “the word of the Lord”, then you’re actually leaving out some of the testimony to the Glory of Christ.

So, which hermeneutic are you working with? A lens or a tea-strainer?

Soli Deo Gloria

I work through some related issues in “The Cure that Killed the Patient“, as well as this post on the importance of Context the Conquest of Canaan.

Keller, Passive Wrath, and Understanding the “Fearful Symmetry” of Judgment

KellerMy twitter-buddy Tony Reinke (content strategist for DG and prolific memer) had an interesting article about Tim Keller today. In the past (and apparently in the present), Keller has been criticized by the conservative Reformed for his apparent weakness on the issue of wrath. Based on The Reason for God, and a couple of other works, people have said he’s de-emphasized or sidelined the issue unbiblically. Now, as someone who has podcast a couple hundred of his sermons, I never really saw it. He talks about judgment, penalty, and wrath all over the place–certainly not with the raised and rumbling voice some might like, but it’s there nonetheless.

Well, now the proof is more than just anecdotal. I don’t know where he found the time, or how he pulled it off, but Tony went ahead and found, catalogued, and gave us some statistics on Keller’s sermons over the last 35 years of preaching, using Piper as a control on preaching on wrath. The stats:

The easiest way to search for this theme is to find every mention in a sermon to an explicit mention of “wrath” near the word “God.” No two terms, in such close proximity, better stress God’s activity in judgment, and in this particular search we find all the references to phrases like “wrath of God,” “God’s wrath,” even “wrathful God,” “God poured out his wrath,” etc.

I’ll start with a search of Piper’s manuscript archive (1980–2009). From this collection of 1,232 sermon manuscripts, 244 sermons appear in the search result — 19.8% of his sermons making at least one explicit mention of God’s wrath.

Next, I use this identical search query in Keller’s sermon transcript archive (1989–2009). From this collection of 1,212 sermons, 159 sermons appear in the search result — 13.1% of his sermons making at least one explicit mention of God’s wrath…

Second, the gap between Piper and Keller isn’t nearly as wide as I originally expected, and the gap between Spurgeon and Keller is much narrower than I would have guessed. The gap between Piper and Keller narrows even further in a search for references where “God” appears near words for “judge” (“judge,” “judgment,” etc). In this search it’s Piper 25.2%, Spurgeon 24.5%, Keller 22.1% (though for a variety of possible variants, this second search is less conclusive).

Now, again, I’ll admit, this is an odd search for Tony to conduct. But hey, a man with a lot of archived data and quick research skills can get a lot done, apparently.

On a more serious note, I get the concern. To some it might be odd to be so fixated on getting the stats on wrath-preaching, but the deeper concern is biblical-preaching. The desire, as I see it, is the desire to preach on things at least as much as the Bible talks about them, or as it is appropriate to understand the various themes connected to it. As Keller himself said the other day “the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice is diminished if you minimize the wrath of God.” If we want to hold up Christ’s humble, sacrificial work (among all the other things he does and is) as glorious, you inevitably have to address wrath.

(Interesting side-note: John Piper talks about wrath in only 1 out of 4 sermons. That’s actually low for what I thought it was going to be. I mean, not low overall or anything, but, ya, surprises everyday.)

Passive Wrath. Beyond that, the interesting thing that caught my eye was Tony’s observation that while Keller speaks to God’s active wrath decently often, he tends to focus on God’s passive wrath in his writing. As Reinke explains:

…the Reformed tradition has affirmed a fourth dimension of God’s judgment, a passive judgment, whereby God allows the sinner to self-harden and self-condemn (Romans 1:24–28). God, from his position of “righteous judge,” can choose to withdraw his sin-restraining power from sinners; thereby he “gives them over to their own lusts . . . whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves” (WCF 5.6). Keller knows this, too, and chooses to stress this “passive judgment” in his books.

In other words, you worship Money, a fitting judgment is for God to let you be consumed with greed. You worship Sex, then it is a fitting judgment for God to let you be consumed with lust. You worship Power and it is a fitting judgment for God to let you chase that down until it destroys you. In that sense, the judgment is self-imposed, organic, flowing from one’s own behavior, and yet still God’s active choice to give you over to it.

Now, that established, Tony says that his study of Keller’s sermons “still does not answer every question I have about why he prefers to stress God’s passive judgment in his books.”

Fearful Symmetry. I think I have a bit of an answer for Tony. Aside from the fact that it is Biblical as he affirms, I suspect that the reason Keller has spoken more often of God’s passive wrath, giving us over, more often is that it functions as a helpful heuristic tool for understanding the nature, justice, and reality of God’s wrath for postmoderns. Most people in contemporary culture function with a tacitly Zeus-like understanding of wrath and judgment. If they know God as a judge, he appears to be an arbitrary one, applying lightning bolt punishments that don’t fit the crime. Beyond that, it’s all very far-away and distant from our contemporary experience. The passive wrath of God, though, that we can begin to see.

a. It’s Terrifyingly Real.  We’ve seen addiction in our souls. We’ve seen friends become colder as they pursued career to the destruction of family, health, and friends. We’ve seen the misery of self-imposed obsessions with power and manipulation. We know the darkness of our own hearts that can seem so small, so hidden, but then is powerfully exposed at those terrible moments when it rears it’s ugly head and we say to ourselves “Oh, I wasn’t myself then.” But, thing is, deep down we know that it is our self–our deepest self. It is at that moment that we begin to fear what Edwards spoke of:

There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire, if it were not for God’s restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell. There are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are seeds of hell fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments as they do in them. –Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

To preach judgment this way isn’t to minimize it’s fearfulness for postmoderns. Instead, it’s actually probably the only way of conveying how truly terrifying it is.

b. It Fits. Beyond that, the passive judgment of God exposes the justness of all of God’s judgments. When you hear Keller tell it, you begin to see all of God’s judgments as more than the irrational outbursts of an angry tyrant, but as the fitting punishments of a Just God. What injustice is there about giving you what you’ve chosen? You choose idols, then receive the terrible dehumanizing degradation that idolatry leads to. Choose violence? Get war. Choose self-centeredness? Get the terrible loneliness, anger, and despair that narcissism leads to. Choose adultery? Get divorce.

When you begin to see this, then you begin to see that principle at work even in his active judgments. I believe Ray Ortlund Jr. has called this a “fearful symmetry.” So, for instance, when Israel decides to cheat on God with the idols, his active judgment through the nations is the historical manifestation of the spiritual reality they’ve chosen. All of the blessings of protection, life, beauty, and goodness are connected with relational wholeness with Yahweh. Reject Yahweh’s covenant and you’ve essentially rejected these things. When you reject God, he gives you not-God, and that is a terrifying, but just judgment. Roll that principle out into the rest of the Bible and you begin to see the way this helps us understand even those more active, seemingly-extrinsic moments of judgment in the Scriptures.

Final Word of Judgement– Let it be clear, I’m not a wrath-obsessed guy. I don’t think all Reformed Calvinists are wrath-obsessed either. The reason I’ve written about it as much as I have (which, honestly, isn’t much) is simply because I see it is a prominent theme in the text, it’s crucial for understanding much of the biblical story-line, it is currently down-played by many, and, most importantly, it is the necessary dark background against which much of the Glory of the Gospel shines.

That said, preachers need to be careful about how you handle this theme. Be careful how much you emphasize it. Be careful that your parishioners know that wrath is not the fundamental reality when it comes to God, but rather the loving holiness of the Triune one who reaches out beyond wrath with redeeming grace to restore and redeem his creation to himself.

Soli Deo Gloria