December, 2012

A Prayer for Newtown, CT – Psalm 33

*This is the pastoral prayer from our weekly worship. We are praying through the Book of Psalms. This week (12/16/2012) we prayed through Psalm 33.

Psalm 33 

Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!    Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;    make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song;    play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

For the word of the Lord is upright,    and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;    the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,    and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;    he puts the deeps in storehouses.

Let all the earth fear the Lord;    let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!
For he spoke, and it came to be;    he commanded, and it stood firm.

Father you are great and glorious. You have so blessed us. You have abundantly provided for our every need. Creation moves at your will. Your sovereign will is supreme. This world is your work. You spoke and it came to be. We are your creation. We are your children. We bear your image because you delighted in seeing that which is most glorious. You have filled the earth with your creatures. Your word established heaven and earth. May all on earth stand in awe of you.

We pray for those who would give of their lives proclaiming this good news. We pray also for the local church. May your church be the front line against the moral decay of society. May our communities see the resources available for real life change in the Gospel. May our churches be bold and courageous to step into the mire of this world in order to redeem it as the Son of God was compassionate and gracious to enter into our mire to redeem it.

Father, we also come before you grieving as a nation because of the tragedy in Connecticut. Father, there are more questions than answers. There is fear and pain and hurt in our nation. We pray for those families who lost children on Friday. We pray for those parents who received the news no parent should hear. We pray for those families that will have unopened presents under their tree because their child is gone. Our hearts ache and we grasp for answers. May we find comfort in you. You love righteousness and justice. This earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. Father, may we see justice. May we know your love. May we know your peace.

 

10 The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;    he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
11 The counsel of the Lord stands forever,    the plans of his heart to all generations.
12 Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,    the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!

13 The Lord looks down from heaven;    he sees all the children of man;
14 from where he sits enthroned he looks out    on all the inhabitants of the earth,
15 he who fashions the hearts of them all    and observes all their deeds.
16 The king is not saved by his great army;    a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
17 The war horse is a false hope for salvation,    and by its great might it cannot rescue.

Father, in the wake of such tragedy, we grasp for answers. We grasp for help. We grasp for something to dull the pain and the hurt as we wonder, “Why?” We want to find hope and comfort in something. We want to look for solutions to this problem so that it never happens again. Father, many will claim they can solve this with education or legislation or better security; we we know that these are false hopes for salvation. These strategies cannot rescue. Father, may we look to you. May we run to you for hope and salvation and rescue. Father we thank you that you have looked down on your children. You know our pain and our hurt. You are a God of justice. You are a God who will not let evil go unpunished. Even when our society tries to eliminate the idea of right or wrong, good or evil; we are confronted with the horror of sin in these events. We know there is right and wrong, even when it impinges on our selfish desires. Lord, you will not let evil go unpunished. We are thankful and we have hope in the knowledge that while this murderer may have escaped judgment in this world by taking his own life, he will face judgment before you. Father, you will mete out your holy and righteous anger on him who would destroy those who bear your image. But Father, may we be aware that we too are in need of salvation. We too have sinned against you. We too deserve your wrath. Father, we thank you for Christ, the Son of God, Immanuel, God with us, who took our sin and suffered the punishment of it, the wrath of God, so that we could experience the fruit of his righteousness. Our hope is in the steadfast love of the Lord.

 

18 Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,    on those who hope in his steadfast love,
19 that he may deliver their soul from death    and keep them alive in famine.

20 Our soul waits for the Lord;    he is our help and our shield.
21 For our heart is glad in him,    because we trust in his holy name.
22 Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,    even as we hope in you.

 

Father, for so many years we have sown seeds of rebellion. We have sown seeds of violence. We have sought the pleasures of this world far more than we have sought your kingdom. We have cast your aside and clung to the empty promises of our own power, our own possessions, our own pride, our own passions. We have as CS Lewis wrote, “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we removed the organ and demanded the function. We made men without chests and expected of them virtue and enterprise. We laughed at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrated and bid the geldings be fruitful.” Father we need you. Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. Would you deliver us our souls from death and keep us alive. Father, may we spend our lives in preserving and valuing and supporting and promoting life. May we work to honor those who bear your image. May we who have received much grace, extend much grace to those who hurt, to those in need, to those who are lost. May we be a balm of comfort to the broken. In you, O Lord, our hearts are glad. In your holy name, O God, we trust. May your love be upon us. May we have hope that comes from the steadfast love of the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and forever. Amen.

Is the Virgin Birth Essential?

When I worked with college students at the University of Kentucky I was approached by a campus minister about bringing in a big name speaker for an event. This speaker was one of the best known pastors in America. His books were bestsellers. He is engaging, entertaining, compelling, and charming. But I passed on being a part of the event. I passed because the speaker was Rob Bell.

What was it that made me nervous about aligning with Bell at the height of his popularity? In his book Velvet Elvis, Bell never personally denies the virgin birth but he argues that Christianity would be just fine without it. When I told my fellow campus minister my concerns, he responded, “Whoa, you can’t be that concerned about the virgin birth. It’s not the main thing.” I strongly disagreed with my friend and decided not participate in the event.

While remaining very popular with many evangelicals, Bell has left his church to pursue other ministry opportunities. He has published a book denying the existence of Hell and advocating a universalism in which everyone is eventually justified before God simply by dying. He has left the historic and orthodox norms known as Christianity. He made good on everything he hinted at in Velvet Elvis.

This leaves us with an important question: Is the virgin birth essential? The virgin birth is an essential doctrine because the Bible declares it and our understanding of atonement depends on it. This is good news for us today because if it is true, then we can rest in the promise of Immanuel, “God with us.”

The Bible declares the virgin birth. Both Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the birth of Christ refer to the virgin birth. The question is often raised, “Is this what the text is really saying? Couldn’t those words means something else?” Luke records Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement that she will give birth, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1:34, ESV). Scholars are right, the words translated in the ESV as “virgin” don’t really mean “virgin.” In fact the Greek text doesn’t even have the word “virgin” in that verse. The defenders of orthodoxy have been caught red-handed switching words! The text actually reads, “since I know no man.” Ok, maybe the use of virgin is not so much of a stretch. Critics will need to look elsewhere.

Matthew’s account seems to be more problematic. It references a prophecy in Isaiah, “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is 7:14, ESV). Scholars have pointed out that the Hebrew word used here is almah. This word does not necessarily mean “virgin.” It could mean a young girl or a maiden. Some argue that had Isaiah meant to refer to one who is a virgin, he would have used the word betulah. But this wouldn’t conclusively solve the problem. The word betulah is used in Joel 1:8 to refer to a young woman who has lost the husband of her youth. That usage would imply that the word could refer to someone who is sexually experienced. The word almah, however, is never used in Scripture to indicate anyone other than a virgin. Additionally, the translators of the Septuaguint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) chose the Greek word parthenos to translate almah. And this work was done 300 years before Christ was born, so a bias toward a virgin birth cannot be claimed. So, Scripture clearly affirms the reality of a virgin birth. The simple fact is that the writer of this passage chose his words in such as a way as to communicate that a virgin would give birth supernaturally. To say otherwise is to muddy the waters simply to advance an a priori agenda.

But does Scripture’s affirmation of a virgin birth make this doctrine essential for atonement? It does for two reasons. First, it is necessary because we believe that Scripture is true in all that it states. So if it is wrong about the virgin birth, how can we be sure it isn’t wrong about our salvation? We cannot simply pick and choose which portions of Scripture we want to believe. This doesn’t demonstrate a belief in the authority and sovereignty of the Almighty God who far surpasses our capacity to understand as much as it demonstrates a belief in our own intellect and ego.

Second, it is necessary because we needed a Savior who was fully God and fully man. Jesus had to be human to be able to represent us before the Father (Heb 4:15). He had to be without blemish to be worthy to make sacrifice for us (Heb 7:27). But no one born of ordinary generation is without the curse of original sin (Eph 2:3, Rom 5:12, WCF VI.3). So Jesus had to be born in a supernatural process, i.e. the virgin birth.

The virgin birth was also essential because it was a demonstration of the union between God and man. God assumed the very thing which needed to be healed. He was God and man united in one person. He fully God to be able to atone for our sins. He was fully man to be the firstfruits of that glorious atonement. He was conceived supernaturally in the womb of the virgin by the same Holy Spirit that worked to resurrect his body from the grave. This is the same power that is with us today. God with us, Immanuel. This is the Good News of the Gospel, God is with us.

The Baby Jesus and the 2nd Commandment

At my seminary, a donor had given the school a beautiful and elaborate wood carved nativity set. Each year it would be placed on the second floor right in front of the elevator doors. And each year two of the professors would steal the baby Jesus from the set, hide him, and return him before the set was put back in storage. What gives? Were these PhDs simply channeling their inner frat boy and indulging in some sophomoric hijinks? Or was there a deeper theological rationale behind their kidnapping?

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, 
or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.” – Exodus 20:4-5a (KJV)

The 2nd commandment prohibits creating any image of God. It could be argued (and often is) that it prohibits the making of any image in order to worship it. This is a fair interpretation. The question, though, remains…How do you not import the memory of that image into your mind while you are worshiping? How does the presence of God (what else is an image other than a declaration of God’s presence?) not drive a Christian to worship? This is the stance the Westminster Divines took.  The Westminster Larger Catechism #109 explains this passage:

Question 109: What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?

Answer: The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature: Whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense: Whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God has appointed.

As Christians we worship Jesus Christ as the 2nd person of the Godhead, very God of very God. Jesus is God, even when Jesus was an infant. So, is the baby Jesus in a nativity set a violation of the 2nd commandment? If we’re honest, we need to admit that we often use nativity sets featuring a baby Jesus without thinking about this issue (i.e. we’ve ALWAYS done it this way). But before you begin smashing all nativity sets (iconoclasm) or coming at me with pitchforks (how dare you attack the baby Jesus!) let us take a look at this knotty issue and see what answers Scripture might have for us. What I believe Scripture gives us is not a dogmatic rule but a set of guidelines. There are two primary issues to weigh in this issue. The first is the problem of images in worship. The second is the incarnation of Jesus. I believe these two issues will form guardrails for this issue to keep us in line with Scripture.

The problems of images in worship is documented through Scripture (Ps 115, Is 40, 46, Jer 10, Ex 32, Lev 26, Acts 17, et al.). These idols are a false god. They are inaccurate and false pictures of the incomprehensible God. They attempt to put tangible constraints on God so that we can manage him.

This practice has historically led to all manner of abuse in the Church. At the 2nd Council of Nicea (787AD) there was a distinction made between worshiping and venerating images of God, Jesus, Mary, and the Saints. But in practice, this distinction was/is nonexistent. The people kneel before, kiss, and make offerings to images. With good intentions, the people slip into idolatry. Even the Roman Catholic church acknowledged the abuse of “veneration” in Vatican II when they stated, “they [images for veneration] may foster devotion of doubtful orthodoxy.”

This doubtful orthodoxy is seen in the pilgrimages of people to see images of Jesus or Mary in order to receive some power or access to heavenly blessings. God is not being worshiped as God, but he is being used as a cosmic vending machine. Venerate, pay respect or pray to Mary (whether it be a statue, icon, her mystical appearance in a grotto, or her miraculous appearance on your toast) and God will give you what you want. The people, once again, attempt to put tangible constraints on God so that he can be managed. The use of images of God in worship leads to idolatry. This would lead us to say that even images of the baby Jesus in a nativity set are wrong and a violation of the 2nd commandment.

The second issue to weigh, however, might lead us to a different conclusion. Jesus was the incarnate God. He was God in flesh. God became man and condescended to us. We couldn’t have grasped the immensity and grandeur of God without his condescension. Because of the incarnation Jesus occupied space and time (cf. 1 Jn 1:1-4). He had matter. He had a particular weight, height, eye color, and hair color. To deny this physical body is to slip into the heresy of Docetism. It is possible, then, that the image of Jesus could be produced that is faithful to the image the disciples had on their retinas when they saw Jesus with their own eyes. That image would be accurate and faithful to God’s revelation. But what did Jesus look like? Can we make an accurate image of him? Wouldn’t an image that is accurate according to the message of the Gospel affirm the fact that Jesus had a real body? The danger is that any image of Jesus is based in some part on speculation. Religious art always reflects biblical exegesis. It is always an interpretation of the text and more importantly the context of the artist. The important question is whether the image is faithful to the content of the Gospel. This leaves a great deal of liberty and freedom but with the overarching desire to only represent Jesus as the message of the Gospel represents him.

So, what do we do with the baby Jesus? Here are some helpful suggestions to wrestle with as your get ready for Christmas. First, think through this issue for yourself. If you’ve never thought the 2nd commandment related to this, maybe your should give some prayerful thought and study of the Scriptures to it. Second, evaluate the image of Jesus you have in your mind. Albert Schweitzer’s study of the Quest of the Historical Jesus determined that we tend to make Jesus in our own image. Are you doing this with your nativity? Is Jesus being used as a means to justify your selfish desires around the holidays or does the reality of God becoming man and dwelling with us direct the course of our celebration? Are you celebrating a holiday that revolves around you, your family, and materialism, or are you celebrating the coming of the Lord of the Universe?  Third, weigh this image by Scripture. Is this image being faithful with communicating the message of the Gospel?

I’m not arguing for you to ditch your nativity set…but if that happens through your wrestling with this issue, I’m okay with that. (Full disclosure: We have a children’s nativity set…and I continue to weigh the value of having baby Jesus in it. He is currently not in it, but will make an appearance on Christmas morning. This is largely to help our toddler grasp what Christmas is.) I am asking you to think carefully about the impact any image of Jesus has. Does it help communicate the message of the Gospel, or is it a bad interpretation of Scripture? God has given us a great picture of Jesus in Scripture. We are called to proclaim that message to the world, but we must be careful not to change or add our own baggage to it.