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

Can a God of Love Have Wrath?

bosnian gravesOne of the most common tropes in popular theology today is that a God of Love couldn’t be a God of Wrath. The two are completely and utterly opposed. The God of Jesus Christ, overflowing with love for the world in the Gospel, couldn’t possibly stand over against the world in wrath and judgement. Love affirms, while wrath condemns. Love embraces, while wrath rejects. Love is the unfathomable beauty of God, while wrath is everything dark about human hate projected onto God.

Miroslav Volf used to think that the too–until the Bosnian War, that is:

The apostle Paul ascribed to God actions and attitudes that stand in sharp contrast with how such a doting grandparent behaves. He spoke rather freely of God’s “judgment”, “condemnation”, even of God’s “wrath” (see Romans 1:18-3:20). Setting aside the litany of things that the Apostle believed merit God’s condemnation, let’s focus on the fact of it. In particular, let’s examine the appropriateness of God’s wrath, the strongest form of God’s censure….

I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

-Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace pp. 138-139

Wrath isn’t the opposite of love, then–indifference is. There are caveats on all of this, of course. It must be remembered wrath is not a primary attribute of God, but rather a relative one provoked by sin–much the way mercy are. What’s more, God is impassible and so his wrath must be conceived of within the parameters of the Creator/creature distinction, with the appropriate safeguards of analogical language in place, protecting us from some crude, explosive Zeus-like wrath. And yet, the bottom line is that it is still something properly, indeed, necessarily affirmed of the God who is the Lover of the world.

free of chargeOf course, there’s a danger that comes with a theoretical knowledge of God’s wrath–that we keep it at arm’s length and fail to relate it to our own sin:

    Once we accept the appropriateness of God’s wrath, condemnation, and judgment, there is no way of keeping it out there, reserved for others. We have to bring it home as well. I originally resisted the notion of a wrathful God because I dreaded being that wrath’s target; I still do. I knew I couldn’t just direct God’s wrath against others, as if it were a weapon I could aim at targets I particularly detested. It’s God’s wrath, not mine, the wrath of the one and impartial God, lover of all humanity. If I want it to fall on evildoers, I must let it fall on myself – when I deserve it.

Also, once we affirm that God’s condemnation of wrongdoing is appropriate, we cannot reserve God’s condemnation for heinous crimes. Where would the line be drawn? On what grounds could it be drawn? Everything that deserves to be condemned should be condemned in proportion to its weight as an offense – from a single slight to a murder, from indolence to idolatry, from lust to rape. To condemn heinous offenses but not light ones would be manifestly unfair. An offense is an offense and deserves condemnation…

-ibid, pg. 139

And yet, thankfully that is not the whole of the story. God’s love is revealed not only in condemnation of sin, but chiefly in the salvation of sinners from that judgment in the death of his Son:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)

Soli Deo Gloria

What is the Day of the Lord?

last judgmentWarning: Happy Post Ahead!

Although mention is made quite frequently of the “Day” or the “Day of the LORD” in OT prophetic literature many of us would be at a loss to explain what it was. For anybody interested in understanding the latter prophets, and really, having a well-rounded picture of God, it’s an important concept to get a handle on. Thankfully, while studying for my young adult group, I ran across a helpful digression on the subject (pp. 66-67) in Elizabeth Achtemeier’s commentary on Zephaniah in the Interpretation series.

Origins 
Achtemeier tells us that the theology of “Day” of the LORD originated within the context of Israel’s holy wars of conquest, in which the LORD was pictured as a Divine Warrior, leading the hosts of Israel against her enemies. His weapons were “thunder (1 Sam. 7:10), falling stones (Josh. 10:11), darkness (Exod. 14:20; Josh 24:7),” and especially the terror of the LORD with which he cast Israel’s enemies into confusion (Exod. 15:14-15; 23:27; Josh 2:9, 24; 5:1; 7:5). Israel was reassured that she was safe because the LORD was a mighty warrior on her behalf. When we hear the word “Day” we think about a specific amount of time, but Achtemeier says, it’s more of a specific moment, or event in time, which is left somewhat unspecified, but is known to the Lord. In much of Israel’s theology then, the Day was an event of salvation and rescue from her enemies to be looked to eagerly.

Later on though, the prophets ended up flipping the “Day” on it’s head. When Israel grew sinful, idolatrous, and complacent in her rebellion against God, Amos and others proclaimed a “Day” of the Lord that would include God’s warfare and divine judgment, not only on Israel’s enemies, but on Israel herself for violating the covenant with him (Deuteronomy 29). As Achtemeier points out, the picture is developed explicitly in places like Amos 5:18-20, Zephaniah 1, Isaiah 2:6-22, Ezekiel 7:5-27, and host of other texts.

Getting Specific
What specifically does this new “Day” of judgment look like then? From Achtemeier:

  1. It is near (Zeph. 1:7. 14; Amos 6:3; Ezek. 7:7; Joel 1:15; 2:1; cf. Isa. 13:6; Ezek. 30:3; Obad. 15; Joel 3:14)
  2. It is a day of God’s wrath and anger against the wicked (Zeph. 1:5; 18; 2:2, 3; Jer. 4:8; 12:13; Ezek. 7:3, 8, 12f, 14, 19; Lam. 2:1, 21-22; cf. Isa. 13:9, 13)
  3. It is a day of darkness and gloom (Zeph. 1:15; Amos 5:18; 8:9; Joel 2:2) or of clouds and thick darkness (Zeph. 1:15; Ezek. 34:12; Joel 2:2; cf. Ezek. 30:3)
  4. The heavenly bodies are darkened (Amos 8:9; Joel 2:10; cf. 2:31; 3:15; Isa. 13:10)
  5. God is picture as a warrior (Zeph. 1:14…3:17; Jer. 20:11; Isa. 59:15-18; 63:1-6; 66:15-16; Zech. 14:3; Joel 2:11)
  6. It is a day of  battle, of trumpet blast and battle cry (Zeph. 1:16; cf. Ezek. 7:14; Jer. 4:5, 19, 21; 6:1; Isa. 13:2-22; 22:5-8; Ezek. 30:4-5; Obad. 8-9; Zech 14:2-3). Of sword (Zeph. 2:12; cf. Zek. 7:15; Jer. 4:10; 12″12; 46:10; Isa. 13:15)
  7. The enemies are dismayed and rendered impotent (Ezek. 7:17, 27; cf. Jer. 4:9; 6:24; Isa. 13:7-8; Ezek. 30:9; Zech. 14:13)/
  8.  God searches out his enemies to destroy them (Zeph. 1:12; Amos 9:2-4; cf. Isa. 13:14-15)
  9. The wealth of the enemies cannot save them and becomes useless (Zeph. 1:18; Isa. 2:20; Ezek. 7:11; 19, cf. Isa. 13:17)
  10. Human pride is destroyed (Zeph. 3:11-12; Isa. 2:11-17; cf. Ezek. 7:10, 24; Isa. 13:11: Obad. 3-4)
  11. It may be that some are hidden in the Day of saved as a remnant (Zeph. 2:3, 7, 9; Amos 5:14-15; cff. Joel 2:18-32; Jer. 4:14; Obad. 17)

-Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum–Malachi, Intepretation, pp. 66-67

A Reminder
The Day of the Lord stands as a reminder that the God of the prophets–Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and so forth–is a Warrior. He is the mighty King, the Lord of Hosts who executes judgments on wickedness and cannot be reduced to some postmodern, ethereal, all-spirit of affirmation and cupcakes. Lest we be tempted to think he is a mere tribal god whose judgments can be directed at our enemies, these texts show us a judgment coming on all people, even, and especially, his own covenant people.

Of course Paul dashes our Marcionite hopes that this is merely some Old Testament ickiness we can be quit of now that we’re in the New Testament by linking it with the coming of Christ. Indeed, the phrase is often transformed into the “day of the Lord Jesus Christ”, the “day of Jesus Christ”, “the Day of Christ”, or simply as “The Day.” (1 Cor. 1:8; 2 Cor. 1:14; Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 5:4) Paul adopts the terminology with all of its apocalyptic background and range of meaning and identifies the promised “Day of the Lord” with the coming of the Lord Jesus. It will be the day of judgment and salvation spoken of by the prophet, only we now see that the agent of its administration is the Christ himself.

Real difference exists for the NT believer, though–in Christ they have assurance that they have found that hiding place from the “wrath that is to come” (1 Thes. 1:10), not because of their own righteousness, but by the same grace offered freely to all.

Soli Deo Gloria

Preaching A and B (Or, How Preaching is Like Feeding Your Kids Vegetables)

I don't think I was ever this cute--my mom says I was cuter.

I don’t think I was ever this cute–my mom says I was cuter.

I didn’t like eating broccoli as a kid. I don’t think any kid does. In fact, I distrust people who tell me they’ve always liked it. I mean, I’ve made my peace with it over the years–I had freakishly high cholesterol for some reason, so my parents fed it to me almost every night–but you never really like broccoli. That’s why parents usually try to find some way of feeding it to their kids. It’s good for them, but they won’t willingly eat it. It has to be fed to them.

Biblical truth is like that sometimes. There are a number of doctrines that we need to believe for our spiritual health, for us to have a correct view of God, the Gospel, and our lives, that aren’t particular appealing to us given our life-circumstances, intellectual history, etc. This is true not just at a personal level, but also at a cultural level. Certain aspects of biblical truth are just going to be harder to swallow in each culture given the dominant paradigms within them. For instance, in our relativistic-individualist culture teaching about truth and authority won’t be particularly popular. Still, we need to understand the nature of truth and God’s authority or our lives will go off the rails. Or again, the doctrine of God’s judgment is ridiculous, harsh, and arbitrary to the vast majority of Americans and secular Westerners, but it’s a core biblical teaching we need to understand if we are to understand the Gospel of the Cross, the Kingdom, or God’s promised salvation.

So, how do we preach and teach these truths in our culture in a way that they’re received and heard?

Keller on Preaching A and B
KellerPreaching to skeptical Manhattanites Tim Keller’s become a bit of an expert on this sort of thing. In his book Center Church he says that preachers need to be able to distinguish two types of beliefs in our culture: “A” beliefs and “B” beliefs. “A” beliefs are those bits of biblical teaching that people in the culture already hold by common grace. For instance, after a couple thousand years of Christian influence, our Western culture places a premium on forgiveness, or on the notion of human rights, so they readily accept those parts. Still, there are “B” beliefs in the culture, beliefs that function as ‘defeaters’ that make other Christian doctrines seem implausible and problematic as we pointed out above. (pg. 123-125)  You’ll have to do some thinking and research on this because these will change from culture to culture.

Keller says there are two things we need to do once we’ve identified those two sets:

  1. First, we need to make sure and affirm the “A” doctrines. God’s common grace has given people in the culture real wisdom, real truth, and we need to be as positive about them and preach them as forcefully as we can and show them that, in fact, we believe these truths even more strongly. “You believe in human rights? Great! So do we, but even more strongly because of the doctrine of the Image of God.” We do so first because they are scriptural. I mean, we should be talking about forgiveness, the Image of God, and grace anyways. Beyond that though, these ‘A’ doctrines form points of contact with our culture that enable us to gain a hearing within it.
  2. The second thing we need to do is challenge the “B” doctrines that make the Christian faith implausible. We need to engage our hearers to show them that their doubts are rather doubtful, or more problematic than they realize. One of the ways we do this is on the basis of the “A” doctrines we already identified and affirmed. The goal is to show that their “B” beliefs are inconsistent with their “A” beliefs. This is why it’s particularly important to emphasize the “A” doctrines. Keller uses an illustration about trying to make rocks float. Logs float and rocks sink. If you’re going to get rocks and logs across a river, you have to lash the logs together and put the rocks on top and “float” them across. In a sense, the same thing is true with doctrines. Your goal in preaching is to connect the dots between doctrines that people like, their “A” beliefs, to the ones that they’ve rejected on the basis of their faulty “B” beliefs.

Making it Concrete
What does this look like? Well, an “A” belief we’ve already identified is that of human rights. Our culture has a particularly keen sense of the rights and worth of the individual. Despite the abuses and confusion surrounding the issue, I think that’s a good, biblical insight. As we already said, the Image of God gives us good reason for affirming basic human rights. Now, a “B” belief that our culture holds which undermines basic Christian doctrines such as sin, judgment, God’s authority, etc. is the pervading moral relativism that relegates moral judgments to the sphere of mere personal opinion. Our culture strongly assumes that everyone has the right to make their own judgments about what is acceptable behavior, and that no one view can claim to be the “right” one. It’s a matter of individual preference. But “A” and “B” can’t both be true. If you want a robust notion of human rights, you can’t keep your relativism. If you think the Civil Rights movement was a good thing, a right thing, a thing that ought to have happened, not just something that suits your particular fancies, then you can’t consistently be a relativist.

Again, I remember having a conversation with my friend a few years ago on how to preach the difficult doctrine of the wrath of God. In a traditional Reformed fashion he argued that God’s holiness and righteousness require his wrath against evil and that’s generally how he approached it. Now, I think he’s basically right, but still, when it comes to preaching I favor recent approaches like that of Miroslav Volf who argues for it from the reality of God’s love. He points out that most of us will concede God is a God of love, but if God does not have wrath and judgment against the creation-destroying sin we participate in, he can’t truly be love. A God who doesn’t strongly reject and judge that which destroys the objects of his affection, can’t really be said to love them. To have a God of love, you need a God of judgment.

Or again, our culture is currently rediscovering community. We realize that we need each other–we don’t function well as islands. That’s a thoroughly biblical thought, taught over and over again in the Gospel. At the same time, our radical individualism and worship of the autonomy of the sovereign individual makes any idea of standards of belief or practice very distasteful. No one has the right to tell me there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to believe and act that I don’t determine for myself. The problem is that any community, even the most inclusive and anti-authoritarian, if it is to remain stable and safe, needs standards and norms governing its shared life.  If you want community, any kind of community, you’re inevitably going to have to accept norms of belief and practice.

Examples like this abound (cf. Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17 for a biblical model) but to sum up, in preaching and teaching you move to establish “A” because its right, but also because it is your best way of undermining “B”, enabling you to teach counter-intuitive but necessary truths to your people.

Conclusion
This is why preaching is like feeding your kids vegetables. Often-times the only way you can get your kids to eat their vegetables is to feed it to them clothed in other food, or connected to some promised dessert. To many these suggestions might seem like over-pragmatic suggestions to water down the Gospel. They’re not. God’s truth ought to be proclaimed and I’d never ask anybody to not speak the difficult truth. I think it’s perfectly fine to affirm God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice in and of themselves, especially in theological discussion. I’m just saying it’s better to not adopt the “you’re gonna sit there and you won’t eat anything else until you eat these” school of preaching.

The point, as always, is to “preach Christ and him crucified” like Paul, knowing that our words will be foolishness to the Greeks and an offense to the Jews (1 Cor 1-2). At the same time, like Paul, we should care about getting our hearers to listen to us so that they might come to know the beautiful Gospel of Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wrath or Love? Calvin on Why Jesus Goes to the Cross

Why did Jesus die on the cross? Was it because of God’s wrath or rather because of his love? Here’s one of my favorite passages where my boy Calvin breaks it down. For those of us trained to think in caricatures of Calvin as the perpetrator of a cold, legalistic theological system, his answer might be surprising:

Although this statement is tempered to our feeble comprehension, it is not said falsely. For God, who is the highest righteousness, cannot love the unrighteousness that he sees in us all. All of us, therefore, have in ourselves something deserving of God’s hatred. With regard to our corrupt nature and the wicked life that follows it, all of us surely displease God, are guilty in his sight, and are born to the damnation of hell.  But because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love. However much we may be sinners by our own fault, we nevertheless remain his creatures. However much we have brought death upon ourselves, yet he has created us unto life. Thus he is moved by pure and freely given love of us to receive us into grace. Since there is a perpetual and irreconcilable disagreement between righteousness and unrighteousness, so long as we remain sinners he cannot receive us completely.

Therefore, to take away all cause for enmity and to reconcile us utterly to himself, he wipes out all evil in us by the expiation set forth in the death of Christ; that we, who were previously unclean and impure, may show ourselves righteous and holy in his sight. Therefore, by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ. Indeed, “because he first loved us” [1 John 4:19], he afterward reconciles us to himself. But until Christ succors us by his death, the unrighteousness that deserves God’s indignation remains in us, and is accursed and condemned before him. Hence, we can be fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him. If, then, we would be assured that God is pleased with and kindly disposed toward us, we must fix our eyes and minds on Christ alone. For actually, through him alone we escape the imputation of our sins to us — an imputation bringing with it the wrath of God…

For this reason, Paul says that the love with which God embraced us “before the creation of the world” was established and grounded in Christ [Ephesians 1:4-5]. These things are plain and in agreement with Scripture, and beautifully harmonize those passages in which it is said that God declared his love toward us in giving his only-begotten Son to die [John 3:16]; and, conversely, that God was our enemy before he was again made favorable to us by Christ’s death [Romans 5:10]. But to render these things more certain among those who require the testimony of the ancient church, I shall quote a passage of Augustine where the very thing is taught:

“God’s love,” says he, “is incomprehensible and unchangeable. For it was not after we were reconciled to him through the blood of his Son that he began to love us. Rather, he has loved us before the world was created, that we also might be his sons along with his only-begotten Son — before we became anything at all. The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated. Rather, we have already been reconciled him who loves us, with whom we were enemies on account of sin. The apostle will testify whether I am speaking the truth: ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Romans 5:8]. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.”

These are Augustine’s words.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis  Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 2.16.3-4

Soli Deo Gloria