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The Bible – Book by Book – Deuteronomy

The opening line of John Calvin’s Institutes says, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[1] Calvin makes the point that the most important things we can know are God and ourselves. Furthermore, if we are to know God, we must know ourselves, and if we are to know ourselves we must know God. A true knowledge of the one enables a true knowledge of the other.

If we seek to have a knowledge of God and a knowledge of his people, the book of Deuteronomy is one of the best places to look. It “is the most important book in the Old Testament for writing an Old Testament theology.”[2] J. Gordon McConville says, “It…goes to the heart of the great issues of the relationship between God and human beings.”[3] It is a book that later prophets will turn to for theological content about God. It lays out the contours of the covenantal relationship between God and his people. It is the book most often quoted by Jesus. When he was tempted in the wilderness by Satan, the book of Deuteronomy was on his lips. It is referenced fifty times in the New Testament. Only Isaiah and Psalms are quoted more. And yet it is a seldom preached and seldom taught book in most churches. There is a great deal of gold to be mined from the pages of this book.

Deuteronomy was written by Moses. The text of the book makes this claim in several places (1:1, 5; 31:22). Mosaic authorship is also claimed in other places of the Old Testament (2 Kings 14:6) and by the New Testament. The Jewish historian Josephus considered Moses as the author. Now, this isn’t to say that portions, like the last chapter which details Moses’ death, were not added to the book’s current form. This kind of addendum does nothing to negate the authorship of Moses. This book was likely written on the plains of Moab in 1400BC as the Israelites prepared to enter into the Promised Land.

As the people prepared to enter into the Promised Land, Moses is not going to go with them. This book is a restatement or reiteration of the covenant God had made with the people. It is a covenant renewal before they take the land. This is seen in the very structure of the book of Deuteronomy. A covenant treaty included a few basic parts. The first part is a historical prologue where the nature of the relationship between the two covenant parties is repeated. Then there are stipulations expressed. These are the responsibilities of one party to the other. Finally, there would be a listing of the blessings and curses. This is what happens when the stipulations are not met. This is basic structure of the book of Deuteronomy.

Chapters 1-4 are a historical prologue. Moses recounts for the people how they ended up on the shores of the Jordan looking over into the land. The wilderness years and the defeat of Og and Sihon are repeated. The people are reminded who they are and who God is.

Chapters 4-26 are the stipulations. The Ten Commandments are repeated (ch. 5). The people are called to love the Lord. The Shema declares that the Lord is One. He is simple (i.e. without parts). He is unchangeable. He is without beginning or source. He simply is. And so, Israel is to love God with a single-eyed devotion. Various laws are enumerated to define what this relationship looks like. These are laws to protect the holy name of God and to protect those who bear his image. They are laws about how the people are to love God and love their neighbor.

The third part, chapters 27-30, detail the blessings and curses of the covenant. The Land before them is most closely related to the blessings of the covenant. Their capture and retention of the Land becomes a “theological barometer” of their obedience to the covenant. And unlike most treaty formulations, the Lord provides a process of repentance for Israel’s sins. The Lord’s gracious blessings will overcome the people’s transgressions.

As the people stood on the shores of the Jordan River and cast a wishful eye over to the land, God renewed his covenant with them. He was their God and they were his people. That’s where Deuteronomy gets its English name. Deutero means second and –nomy comes from the Greek word nomos which means law. It is the second giving of the Law, which itself is a pattern of God’s covenantal treaty with the people. The nature and character of God’s holiness and graciousness are repeated to encourage a sinful and yet chosen people. God would magnify himself through his election and blessing of a sinful but redeemed people.

 

[1]  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; vol. 1; The Library of Christian Classics; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 35.

[2] Bruce K Waltke and Charles Yu, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007), 479.

[3] Quoted in, Waltke and Yu, 479.

The Bible – Book by Book – Numbers

Most Christians know the book of Numbers as the place where “Read through the Bible in a Year” programs go to die. The first chapter of Numbers opens with a long census of the fighting age men of Israel. The English name for this book comes from this and the second census that occurs later in Numbers (26:1-65). The Greek LXX called this book arithmoi and the Latin Vulgate followed with Numberi. But this is a really unfortunate title and understanding of the content of the book. The book of Numbers is actually one of the most dramatic and action-packed books of the Bible. One just has to persevere through the opening head-counting.

This book, as with the rest of the Pentateuch, was written primarily by Moses. The Hebrew title of this book is “In the Wilderness” which is taken from the opening word of the book. This also helps to set the location of its action. And it is this setting that is so crucial to understanding what is going on in the book. God’s People have been brought through the waters and redeemed from slavery and captivity in Egypt. But they have yet to enter into the Promised Land. They are pilgrims on a journey. They will face hardship. They will hunger and thirst. They will grumble. They will face opposition from the surrounding nations. They will see rebellion and sedition from within their own ranks. They will have to trust the LORD and the faithfulness of his promises. All of this takes place in the wilderness.

There are three main sections in the book of Numbers, and they revolve around the two censuses. The first section is the census and consecration of the first-generation army (1-10). The second section is failure of the first-generation army (11-25). The third section is the census and the consecration of the second-generation army (26-36).

The census and the consecration of the first-generation army included those who had witnessed all the plagues and miracles in leaving Egypt. They had experienced the first Passover where death came to every home. The first born of Egypt died but those under the blood of the Lamb walked out of the tomb in the morning. The Levites are the tribe of Israel that is set apart as belonging to the LORD in a special manner. And then the men are consecrated for holy war. They leave into the wilderness dressed for battle and ready to take the Promised Land.

The second section details a number of failures on the part of Israel. The people grumble about their general misfortunes in the wilderness (11:1-3). They complain of the lack of meat and vegetables (11:4-35). Miriam complains about Moses’ wife (12:1-16). The people complain and lament the spies report (13:1-14:38). Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On rebel against Moses and Aaron (16:1-40). The people grumble about the judgment on the rebels (16:41-17:13). The people complain of no water (20:2-13). The people question God’s goodness (21:4-9). The result of this series of failures to trust in the faithfulness of God is that the people are forced to wander in the wilderness for a whole generation. None of that generation, except Joshua and Caleb, would enter into the Promised Land. And their failure would serve as a warning to the next generation. It is also incredibly important to note that all of these failures began with grumbling and complaining. Outright rebellion against God always begins with an initial grumbling in the heart about our circumstances.

The third section begins with the census and consecration of a second-generation army. The Levites are once again set apart for the LORD. Joshua is then appointed to succeed Moses. This second-generation receives a foretaste of victory by defeating the Moabites and Midianites (31:1-54). And the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manassah are allowed to settle the Trans-Jordan (the area east of the Jordan), but only upon their commitment to fight with their brothers. The book closes on the plains of Moab by the Jordan in sight of the Promised Land with some final exhortations to the whole people. Remember the failures of your fathers. Trust in the Lord and act faithfully.

The book of Numbers details an important period in the pilgrimage of Israel from captivity to the Promised Land. As such, it has tremendous application for the Church today. We live between two worlds. We are pilgrims on a journey from this world into a better country. The failure of Israel’s first-generation should be a clarion warning for us to remain faithful and trust in God’s provision. Our grumbling and complaining will spread like gangrene and lead to spiritual death. Paul warned the Corinthians with the example from Numbers, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did…Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:6, 11-12).[1]

[1] Please see, Numbers by Michael J. Glodo, in  A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised. ed. Miles Van Pelt, et al., (Crossway, 2016), 107–31.

The Bible – Book by Book – Leviticus

My maternal grandmother kept an immaculate house. Everything had its place. As an adult with 4 children, I look back on the tidiness of her home with envy. As a young child, I looked at the tidiness of her home with fear and trembling. There was a small pond immediately behind her house. I loved to fish in that little pond, but occasionally while walking down to the pond my shoes or pants would get a little muddy. I would try to enter the house through the garage and my grandmother would yell from the down the hallway, “Take off your shoes!” And somehow, I’ve never figured out how she knew, but she would know whether my muddy pants needed to come off. My grandmother didn’t care that I found it very embarrassing to have to take off my pants in the garage, but there were rules to entering grandmother’s house. The dirty grandchild was loved but the dirty grandchild was not allowed to enter without getting clean.

The book of Leviticus, along with the rest of the Pentateuch, was written by Moses. It is God’s instruction for how an impure people can live in the presence of a holy God. Leviticus explains what is necessary for the sinful Israelite to live in a covenant relationship with a holy God. This is often a difficult book to understand because the ritual and the requirements stipulated in it are so foreign to our modern minds. The concepts of sin and holiness, sacrifice and atonement, and uncleanness and purity do not always find ready analogs in our lives today. But the themes presented in Leviticus are ones that re-emerge throughout the New Testament and find their fulfillment in Christ. So understanding the book of Leviticus is important if we want to understand the Old Testament background to the New Testament.

Three important themes in Leviticus are 1) the Divine Presence, 2) Holiness, and 3) Atonement through Sacrifice. The act of worship was to be done “to the LORD” (Lev. 1:2). The tabernacle of meeting, described in Exodus, was the place where this was to happen. It was the place were God would most readily manifest his visible glory (e.g. Lev 9:23, 24). The greatest delight and privilege of the Israelite is that God would dwell with them. “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:11, 12).

The requirement of God for his people to be in his presence was holiness. “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to by your God. You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:45). Man is made in the image of God. He is, in a manner, to reflect the nature and character of God. God is holy, so man is to be holy. Holiness requires an exhibition of the purity and perfection of God’s character in physical, spiritual, and moral areas. The laws about cleanliness and uncleanliness in Leviticus 11-16 are often confusing to many people. Why does the Bible have bodily discharges and mold in houses? When we understand that holiness is comprehensive to all life because holiness is based in the perfection of God’s character, it begins to be clearer. How you relate to one another, how you love one another, how you worship, and how you give of your wealth all relate to the holiness reflected in God’s perfection. All that we are comes from God. All that is in God is perfect. All that we are must conform to God’s perfection.

This demand for holiness is impossible. It was impossible for my 10 year old self to remain clean enough to enter my grandmother’s home. But my grandmother loved me. And she provided a way for me to get clean. God loves his people. And he provides a way of atonement. Atonement comes through sacrifice. The sacrificial system is described in chapters 1-7 and the role of priests in chapters 8-10. (The name of the book of Leviticus comes from the Latin which means “about the Levites.” The Levites were the priestly tribe of Israel.) The great national feasts are detailed in Leviticus 16, 23, & 25. Some of these feasts were the Day of Atonement, the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Year of Jubilee. The Day of Atonement was the one day the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies and offer a sacrifice for the people. The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread commemorated when God separated the people from Egyptians and called them to live a holy life. The Year of Jubilee was a time when God set the people free from their bondage and slavery to various debtors. These symbols, rites, and festivals were meant to point to the redemption that God offered the people. That redemption is ultimately fulfilled in Christ. Jesus is the perfect High Priest who offers up the perfect sacrifice, his own life, as an atonement for sin. Through that perfect offering, an imperfect people can dwell in the presence of a holy God.

The Bible – Book by Book – Exodus

This is the second in our period series in which we cover the content and themes of the books of the Bible.

The book of Exodus derives its English name from the Greek word exodos which means “exit” or “departure.” This is the central event and theme of the book. The exit of Israel from their slavery in Egypt is recorded in the first 15 chapters of the book. The Hebrew title of the book is Shemot, which is taken from the first words of the book, “These are the names.” This opening line connects the story of Exodus with the closing of the book of Genesis. As Jacob and Joseph die in Genesis 49-50, a record of the names of the descendants of Jacob who inhabited the land of Egypt is detailed.

The author of this book is Moses. Jesus calls Exodus the “the book of Moses” in Mark 12:26. There are no compelling reasons to doubt the Mosaic authorship of Exodus. Moses, the author of the whole Pentateuch (Gen. – Deut.), records the ongoing unfolding of God’s covenantal promise to Israel. This book records the radical change of situation for the people of Israel when “there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exo. 1:8). This new king would oppress Israel and the need for a redeemer of Israel became acute. Moses would be that redeemer.

This first cry for help from the people suffering under Egyptian oppression is heard by God. God faithfully remembers his covenant with Israel and calls on Moses to deliver them. Through a series of ten plagues, Moses pleads with Pharaoh to release his people. But Pharaoh’s heart has been hardened. He will not let the people go. The tenth and final plague to befall the people of Egypt is the Passover. All of Israel was instructed to prepare for this plague by killing a lamb and spreading its blood on the doorposts. When the Lord passed over the land, every home that was under the blood of the lamb was spared, but every home without the blood saw the death of the firstborn. Through this vicarious shedding of blood, the people of Israel were released from their bondage and slavery. Israel left Egypt but Pharaoh’s heart was again hardened and he pursued the people all the way to the Red Sea. At the Red Sea, the Lord miraculously parted the waters and Israel passed through on dry ground. When Egypt tried to follow, their chariot wheels were mired in mud and the walls of water came crashing down. “The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone” (Exo. 15:5).

The next stage in the exodus of the people from Egypt was their time in the wilderness. God had delivered his people. Now God would lead his people. He provided food and water for the people. Water from the rock and manna from heaven provided for the needs of the people.

The next few chapters (19-24) detail how God covenants with his people. Moses ascends Mount Sinai and receives the Law from God. Chapter 20 details the Ten Commandments as a standard for living in covenant community with God. This law reveals God’s holy nature. It reveals the requirements of the people among whom God will dwell. It reveals the people’s need for a greater Redeemer than Moses.

The rest of the book of Exodus explains how God is worshiped by his people. The pattern for the worship of God is detailed. Then Israel’s rebellion against God’s holy instructions prompts God’s holy wrath to be poured out on the people. But Moses intercedes on behalf of the people and God renews his covenant with the people. The rest of the book shows how the Tabernacle, the furnishings, and the courtyard were assembled. The Tabernacle is then raised and the book closes with God’s glory resting on the tent of the meeting.

The book of Exodus not only records major historical events in the life of Israel. It also presents major redemptive elements that will be developed throughout the rest of the Scriptures. God’s redemptive work through a redeemer, his judgment over evil, his adoption and provision for his children, and the establishment of his dwelling place among the people are major themes that will find their fulfillment in Christ and in the Second Coming (see, Eph. 2:14-22, Rev. 20:11-22:5). The symbols of Exodus are brought to their fullness in the New Testament. Much of the book of Exodus ends up serving as a shadow to the realities found in Christ. The sprinkled blood of the Passover lamb is fulfilled in Christ (John 1:29, 1 Cor 5:7). Jesus spoke of his “exodus” from Jerusalem which would bring salvation to the people (Luke 9:31). Exodus presents the story of Moses that is then carried forward to the “greater Moses” that we find in Christ (Heb. 3). The book of Exodus lays a foundational hope in the redemptive power of God that is fulfilled once and for all in Christ.

 

The Bible – Book by Book – Genesis

Periodically and over the next several years, we are going to use this space to provide for you brief surveys and overviews of each of the books of the Bible.

The name of the book of Genesis is derived from the opening words of the book. The Hebrew title of the book is Bereshith, which means “In the beginning.” The Greek title, Genesis is based on this and means “origin.” Both titles speak to the opening content of the book, namely the beginning of history.

The book is technically anonymous, but it is part of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) which is properly attributed to Moses. The New Testament also hints at Moses’ authorship of Genesis in John 7:22 and Acts 15:1 when it speaks of circumcision being given by Moses. The sign of circumcision given in Genesis 17.

The book of Genesis can roughly be divided into two sections. There is the Primeval History (Gen. 1-11) which is followed by the History of the Patriarchs (12-50). The first part covers the creation of all things in the span of six days. It details broadly in chapter 1 and then with more specificity in chapter 2 the creation of man and woman. The Primeval History then moves to the Fall of mankind and the progression of sin throughout the world. The effects of sin reach a crescendo in chapters 6-9 with the Flood and God’s redemption of mankind through Noah. After the flood, the population is rebuilt and spreads abroad on the earth.

The second section of Genesis details the history of Abraham and his descendants. God calls Abraham to “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:1-2). Abraham follows this call and enters into a covenant with God. This covenant is a promise that God will be his God and Abraham will be God’s people. This promise is made with Abraham and his offspring after him throughout the generations for an everlasting covenant (Gen. 17:7).

God blesses Abraham with the birth of a son, Isaac. Just as God had appeared to Abraham, he appears to Isaac. The promises of the covenant to Abraham are repeated for Isaac (Gen. 26:1-6). God promises to Isaac that, “I will be with you” (Gen. 26:3). This promise is then repeated to Isaac’s son, Jacob (Gen. 35:11, 12). God remains faithful to his covenant promises as they pass through the offspring of Abraham.

Jacob has twelve sons. Through their mischief and deceit, their younger brother Joseph ends up in Egypt. Eventually, famine brings the sons of Jacob to Egypt looking for help. In Egypt, they find their long-lost brother, Joseph, who is now the right-hand man of Pharaoh. Joseph saves his family by bringing them to Egypt. They settle in the land of Goshen, where the twelve sons of Jacob prosper. The book ends with Jacob and Joseph’s deaths in Egypt but with a promise that their bones would be carried up out of the land.

The book of Genesis introduces us to three critical themes that run throughout the whole of the Scriptures: Creation, Fall, and Redemption. The opening verses of Genesis lay out the creative work of God. God spoke and everything came into being. God demonstrates his primacy, his power, and his providence in creation. The creation account is fundamentally about God, not the creation. God created man in his image (imago dei). God is to reflect this image in what he does. He is to subdue creation, fill creation, and rest.

But a problem enters into this creation. Man falls into sin (Gen. 3). The serpent tempts the woman, and man falls into sin. The serpent twists and distorts God’s Word. He provokes the pride and fear of man. And man takes of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and eats. At this rebellion of God’s Word, sin enters into creation. Death, disease, and decay are not part of creation. Every atom of creation is affected by this rebellion. Things are no longer the way they should be. From now on the history of man will always be punctuated with “…and he died.”

The Lord is gracious and merciful. A word of prophecy is spoken in the midst of the curses of sin. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). There is a battle between the seed of the serpent and the seed of woman. This seed of the woman is promised Messiah. He will strike a mortal blow to the head of the serpent, but in doing so, he will receive a blow to his heel. Thus, God promises a Redeemer to crush the enemy. The rest of the Bible begins to unfold this promised Redemption. God’s covenant with Abraham becomes the vehicle for his redemptive blessing to the nation. The blessing of Jacob on his son Judah is that “the scepter shall not depart from Judah” (Gen. 49:10), meaning that God’s promised Messiah will come through the line of Judah.

This creation, fall, redemption theme finds its consummation in Revelation. A new heaven and new earth with a Tree of Life are described (Rev. 22:1-5). The defeat and judgment of Satan is finalized with his being cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:1-10). And people of God worship Christ as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Rev. 7:9-10). A glorious wedding feast is portrayed as the consummation of the story of Genesis that started with “in the beginning.”

All the Nations

Working with a large evangelical parachurch ministry in college and after college, I often heard talks and sermons about God’s heart for the nations. The plan of the Gospel is a global plan. I listened to so many inspiring messages that encouraged me to be radical and risk it all for the Gospel. I wanted to charge the gates of Hell with a squirt gun. There is so much truth to this.

If you read through the Bible, you will see from Genesis to Revelation that God’s heart is for all nations. The scattering of the nations at Babel (Gen. 11) is symbolically reversed in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2). The promise made to Abraham (Gen 12) is that not only Abraham’s family, but “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The prophecy given to Isaiah was that God’s coming Servant would be a “light for the nations” (Isa. 42:6). The promise is that “the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations” (Isa 62:2). Jeremiah was appointed to be a prophet “to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). The Gospels proclaim that the nations will be gathered together before Christ (Matt. 25:32). The house of the Lord will be a “house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17). And the consummated vision of eternity is of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!’” (Rev 7:9, 10). I dare say, if you went through your Bible from cover to cover highlighting every passage that deals with God calling the nations to repentance and faith in Christ, you’d run out of highlighter before you’d run out of Bible. The call of the Gospel is a global call.

This should motivate us to be involved with the global call of the Gospel. It is a central and crucial theme to the whole of the Scriptures. There is clearly an obligation for every Christian to be involved in the global mission of the Gospel. But how is the average Christian supposed to respond to this obligation? Is everyone supposed to go? Is everyone supposed to travel to the farthest corners of the globe to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who have never heard? Or can you be a faithful Christian without actually going? What role should we play in global preaching of the Gospel?

Jesus gives us some answers at the end of Luke’s Gospel. After the resurrection Jesus appears to his disciples and explains from the whole of the Scriptures that his life, death, and resurrection was the point of the Scriptures. He explains that repentance of sin and faith in Christ is necessary for redemption. He also explained that the scope of this Gospel message is to go to “all nations” (Luke 24:47). Every land. Every nation. Every place. Every people. None are exempted from the obligation to repent and believe. None are excluded from the inestimable benefits of Jesus Christ.

But the scope of this message is bigger than any person. How does the average Christian mom, high school student, or businessman respond to this call? Along with the message and the scope of the Gospel, Jesus also explains the power of the Gospel. “And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you” (Luke 24:49). The promise of the Father is granted to believers in the giving of the Holy Spirit. Every Christian is empowered and filled with the Holy Spirit. The very presence of God dwells within every believer. This power means that you have ability to share this message right now. And Jesus instructs that empowered with the Holy Spirit and equipped with the message of the Gospel, you can begin to reach the world by starting where you are right now. He tells the disciples, “beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). They were to just start where they were.

Don’t let the scope of the promise of the Gospel intimidate you. There will be those who tell you that you must be radical. You must model the path of the apostle Paul. You should be the next William Carey or CT Studd. You don’t. Jesus gives us a message. He gives us the power. And then he tells us to start where we are. Look at where you are right now. Look at your present circumstances. Take the first step. Share the message of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit where you are. Teach your kids. Talk with classmates. Share with your colleagues. Take one step. If God is calling you to go to the farthest corners of the world, he’ll direct your steps that way. We earnestly pray that some of our covenant children will. But most of you will not be led that way. So instead of crumbling under the weight of being some super apostle, take one step and be faithful.

Staying A Move Ahead

Both in my preparation for starting the book of Joshua and in my daily Bible reading, I have spent a good bit of time looking at the life of Moses and the Exodus. This is one of the central stories in Redemptive History. And this particular story reaches a climax in Exodus 14 with the crossing of the Red Sea. When we look at God’s unfolding story of redemption, this event looms large. It is foreshadowed in Moses’ birth narrative, where life is brought through the waters. It is foreshadowed in Noah, where death comes to all those at enmity with God, but through the water, there is redemption. The Red Sea itself foreshadows God’s redeeming grace in Christ, where those who repent and believe in him are brought through the waters of baptism into new life. Those who are at enmity with God, those who reject him as Lord, are cut off from the living. This is a thread that is woven into the story of God’s redemption for his people. I love this story.

The deliverance at the Red Sea shows how God is sovereignly ordaining all things that come to pass. God is the grand master chess player. One summer we led a group of college students to do evangelism in Russia. We hosted an English Camp in a remote area with Russian college students. One of the Russian students was studying to be a Grand Master in chess. I thought I’d challenge him to a match. This is like telling a professional boxer, “Hey, how hard can you hit me?”

The student was kind but devastatingly good. Every time I attempted to move my chess piece, he would nod disapprovingly. I would then change my mind and start to move another piece. He would shake his head no. This went on until I eventually found the right piece. Then I would move. Then he moved. And we repeated this until he captured my king. Essentially, he was playing himself through me. There was one time that I made a move and he said, “Oh, I did not see that move. That was very good. Now I will take your bishop.” He was always several moves ahead of me.

In Exodus 14, the Lord tells Moses to leave Egypt via a circuitous route. The reason? Pharaoh will see where you are going and think you’re lost and wandering in the wilderness. Then the Lord says he will harden Pharaoh’s heart and set a trap for him. The Israelites obeyed God’s instruction. And Pharaoh saw them wandering. His heart was hardened. And Pharaoh changed his mind. He would not let the people go. Pharaoh launches the full force of his military (probably the greatest military power on the planet at that time) against the Israelites. The trap was set.

But the Israelites saw Pharaoh coming and panicked. They didn’t trust God. Perhaps they had forgotten all the plagues the Lord had unleashed on Egypt. Perhaps they had forgotten how the Lord provided for them when they plundered Egypt. Perhaps they had forgotten all the things Moses had told them. They obviously had problems with their memory, because what they did remember was not the truth. “They said to Moses, ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians?’” (Exod. 14:11, 12). Their failure of memory would be laughable if it were not so sad. Think about it, what is Egypt most known for? The pyramids. What are the pyramids? They are big elaborate tombs. Who built those tombs? The Israelites. I think Moses is well aware of the tombs in Egypt. And the people did not say, “let us serve the Egyptians.” In fact, “the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God” (Exod. 2:23). The people panicked because they didn’t believe God was a move ahead of them.

Their fear is misplaced because God is maneuvering the pieces of the chess board according to his plan. They panic because they “lift up their eyes” and only see the Egyptians. Moses reminds them that God is sovereignly ordaining all these events. “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Exod. 14:13, 14). God then split the waters of the Red Sea. The people of God passed through on dry ground. The Egyptians followed but were bogged down in the mud. The waters fell in upon them and covered the Egyptians. And what is the next thing that the Israelites saw? “Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD” (Exod. 14:31).

We often do not see that God is working several moves ahead of us. We don’t see the plan he is orchestrating and ordaining in our lives. Sadly, we often only see the enemies of God advancing against us. And in our fear, we “remember” things that simply are not true. We doubt God’s goodness. We doubt his grace. We doubt his sovereignty. We doubt his love for us. We need to see that the LORD is fighting for us. We need to see the redemption won for us in Christ. We need to see that the LORD is playing out his perfect plan with precision before us. We need to see the great power of the LORD.

Lemuel Haynes

In January 1754, a five-month-old boy was orphaned by his parents. No one knows who the parents were, though most speculated that the child was born to a white mother and a black father. In the mid 18th century, this was simply not something that was supposed to be done. The child, Lemuel Haynes, was indentured to Deacon David Rose of Granville, Massachusetts. Legally, Lemuel was the property of Mr. Rose until he turned 21. But by all accounts, Lemuel was raised as one of the Rose family. Haynes would later recount, “[Deacon David Rose] was a man of singular piety. I was taught the principles of religion. His wife, had a peculiar attachment to me: she treated me as though I was her own child. I remember it was a saying among the neighbors, that she loves Lemuel more than her own children.”[1]

Haynes was included in the family work of farming. He was educated in the small school in Granville and in the regular family worship. He had a hunger for learning and devoured whatever books he could get his hands on. He made it his “rule to know something more every night than [he] knew in the morning.”

When he turned 21 he was freed from his indenture. It was the year 1774 and American Revolution was in full swing. Haynes joined the Continental Army and served until a bout of typhus forced him leave the military. He returned home to the Roses. As was the custom during family worship on Saturday evening, someone in the family would read a sermon to the family. Haynes read a manuscript of a sermon on John 3:3. Deacon Rose asked Lemuel if the sermon was from Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield. When he admitted that it was his own sermon, the family encouraged Lemuel to pursue gospel ministry.

Haynes was very much a product of the First Great Awakening. He poured over sermons by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. He memorized large portions of Scripture. He was trained by Daniel Ferrand of Canaan, Connecticut and William Bradford of Wintonbury, Connecticut. He was a brilliant student, and he had to be. No African-American had ever been ordained to gospel ministry before. In 1785 Lemuel Haynes became the first African-American ordained by any religious body in America. In 1804 Middlebury College awarded him an honorary master’s degree, also a first for an African-American.[2]

Haynes eventually was called to pastoral ministry in an all-white congregation in Rutland, Vermont. He served there for 30 years. Haynes lamented that Vermont was full of people sympathetic to both a deist and opponent to Christianity like Thomas Paine and Arminianism. New England at the time was prone to churches that admitted anyone to the Lord’s Supper, regardless of a profession of faith. It was also common for pastors to baptize the children of people who showed no credible evidence of faith. The essentials of the faith were often ignored in the churches. Haynes knew that “a clear understanding of the doctrines of the gospel were very necessary for ministers at that time.”[3] So he preached and wrote forcefully. Haynes mocked the Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou in a satire that was circulated throughout America and England. Haynes mocked the universalist idea to the lies of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Ballou was not amused but Haynes would not relent.

Haynes also wrote forcefully against chattel slavery in America. He celebrated the principles of the republican government formed in America while also rebuking the inherent contradictions of that same system enslaving Africans. He rebutted pro-slavery arguments with clear and faithful biblical responses in his address, Liberty Further Explained.[4]

Lemuel Haynes left Rutland after 30 faithful years of ministry. By most accounts, he was forced out because some in the church could no longer submit to a black man as their pastor. His final pastorate was in South Granville, NY along the Vermont border. He would die a few years later and be buried in the cemetery of the South Granville church. His final sermon was preached on 2 Cor 1:9, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us not rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” A fitting text for a dying minister.

Lemuel Haynes remained faithful to the last. He overcame incredible hardships and met each one with an unwavering faith and trust in the sovereignty and graciousness of his God. He penned his epitaph with the words by which he hoped to be remembered:

Here lies the dust of a poor hell-deserving sinner, who ventured into eternity trusting wholly on the merits of Christ for salvation. In the full belief of the great doctrines he preached while on earth, he invites his children, and all who read this, to trust their eternal interest on the same foundation.

[1] Lemuel Haynes and Thabiti M Anyabwile, May We Meet in the Heavenly World: The Piety of Lemuel Haynes (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009), 2.

[2] Haynes and Anyabwile, 7.

[3] Haynes and Anyabwile, 8.

[4] Haynes and Anyabwile, 10.

Fake News and Good News

Having lived in the despotic totalitarian regime of Belarus for a year after college, I’m always curious when other similar or worse regimes are portrayed in the news. With the Winter Olympics in full swing in PyeongChang, South Korea, there has been a tremendous amount of coverage given to North Korea. The theme of these 2018 Olympics has been that of peace. The North and South Korean teams have been competing together as a unified team. And there has been an inordinate amount of media coverage of the North Korean cheer squad and the sister of the North Korean leader, Kim Yo-jong. For some reason, the synchronized cheering of these North Korean women has several media outlets captivated with rapt and uncritical attention.

All of this coverage sent me to check out some more information about the North Korean regime. Having seen the way a cult of personality worked in the former USSR and in Belarus, I wanted to learn more about the leadership of Kim Jong Un. John Sweeney’s book North Korea Undercover is a harsh exposé of life under this dictator.[1] Sweeney describes his many experiences as an undercover economics professor touring North Korea. One of the chapters in Sweeney’s book is an incredibly graphic description of the mausoleum where the bodies of Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather are displayed in a glass casket. In North Korea these men are revered as gods, their bodies presented as objects of worship.

Sweeney’s description of the embalming process that went into displaying these men is as amazing as it is disturbing. As he details the chemical processes at work in preserving the body, my mind raced back to my visits to the mausoleum of Lenin in Moscow, Russia. Since 1924 in a little marble ziggurat on Red Square, Vladimir Lenin’s body has been displayed in a glass casket. He is a permanent monument of the enduring legacy of Communism in the former Soviet Union. Sweeney notes that the North Korean officials recruited the same Soviet scientists and morticians who had embalmed Lenin. In fact, after Lenin a little cottage industry of embalming and displaying dictators has developed. Mao Zedong in China, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela are some of the despotic dictators who sought to continue to rule over their people long after their death.

These dead men are chemically made to appear to be resting and at peace. In their death they attempt to maintain an iron grip on the lives of their people. In reality these men are physically nothing near a real human body and spiritually, apart from an unknown and remarkable deathbed conversion to Christ, certainly not experiencing eternal rest and peace. And yet these totalitarian regimes must balance the stability of their nations on the appearance of their dead leaders’ vitality beyond the grave.

The silly naiveté of western media’s infatuation with the antics of a despotic North Korea during the Olympics and the lengths to which North Korea goes to prop up the cult of personality around Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un reeks of fake news. Sweeney’s book gives anecdote after anecdote of North Koreans who have only lived their lives under the influence of this kind of fake news. They have honestly never known the truth.

We would also have to be naïve to believe that we are never the victims of fake news. Much of the media we consume is carefully and subconsciously curated to reinforce our preconceived biases. Fake news is not relegated to the northern half of the Korean peninsula. We live in a world of fake news. But there is Good News. There is Good News that upsets and overturns the hopelessness of the fake news in our world. There is a radically disturbing and life-changing Good News in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of a kingdom built upon the chemically preserved remains of a despotic leader, Jesus Christ offers a kingdom built upon the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Lamb of God. Instead of creating armies of Stepford Wives to robotically and mindlessly cheer on a regime, Jesus Christ offered to bring a fullness of life (John 10:10). Instead of a kingdom ruled by a man who would crush his people in order to maintain his grip on authority, Jesus Christ emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7), and was crushed for our iniquities (Isa. 53:5) in order to set us free (John 8:36). When the media offers us a hope built upon falsehood, we need to continue to turn to the sure hope of the Good News.

[1] John Sweeney, North Korea Undercover: Inside the World’s Most Secret State, 2016.

Full of Grace and Truth

The Bible opens with these words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). It has been said that the rest of the Bible is just the outworking of this verse. I believe there is a great deal of truth to that sentiment. The Bible begins with God and the description of how God entered into a covenant relationship with his people. With these opening words, we are immediately confronted with both the origin of everything that was created and the gracious manner in which it was created. There is a God who desires, simply because of his good kindness, to make himself known to the people he created. The Bible builds up to the grand conclusion of this creation with a new Jerusalem in Revelation 21. This is a vision of creation where God is truly known by all his people and his glory shines in the place of the sun and the moon. Death, disease, and decay are no more. Sin no longer hinders and clouds the vision of God’s children in seeing their Father.

“Between these two moments,” Herman Bavinck argues, “lies the revelation of God in all its length and breadth.”[1] The thrust of this revelation is the divine covenantal promise, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” And the crowning apex of this revelation is the revealing of God’s own Son, Immanuel, God-with-us. God brought everything into being by the power of his word. The culmination in the new Jerusalem is the fulfillment of every promise of his word. So it makes sense that the highpoint of God’s revelation would be the Word made flesh. Bavinck then makes this incredibly important point about the Son of God, “That is why Christ, in whom the Word became flesh, is said to be full of grace and truth (John 1:14).”[2]

What is meant by this idea that Jesus is full of grace and truth? In John 17:17 Jesus prays that God the Father would “sanctify them in the truth.” Then Jesus immediately defines his terms, “your word is truth.” Jesus’ definition fits with our understanding of God’s creative work. We know what is true in the natural world by understanding that God created a world of order out of chaos. We can use the scientific method to test and given the same set of criteria, because our world is not governed by chaos, we can expect an experiment to produce the same results again and again. We can discover the truth. We must note, however, that we don’t create the truth. We discover the truth which God has created. God spoke the word of creation and the truth of what has happened. Jesus, as the very Word of God, is the manifestation of truth. He speaks what the Father calls him to speak (John 12:48-49). When Pilate asked the question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), he would have done well to realize that Truth was standing before him.

There is more to Jesus than just being full of truth. Because of our sin, if Jesus was just truth, the reality of Immanuel, God-with-us, would only bring condemnation. Our knowledge of God and his creation would only bring about a truthful awareness of the just judgment deserved for our sin. But God from the beginning has been full of grace and truth. The grace of God is exhibited in his revealing himself to us. In his revealing, he shares himself with us. There was no need in God that necessitated his revealing himself. God, simply of his own good pleasure, created and revealed himself to us. From the opening words of Genesis to the close of Revelation, he declares to his people, “I am your God and you are my people.” This revelation is nowhere more clearly displayed than in the person of Jesus Christ. The Word made flesh. This is all of grace.

God has always been full of grace and truth and this has been most clearly displayed to us in Jesus Christ. The application of this is really two-fold. First, this reality of God should cause us to glorify God. He is both the source of all truth and he has graciously revealed that truth to us. The generosity of God is on full display in his grace and truth. “God gives himself to his people in order that his people would give themselves to him.”[3]

Second, we should seek to express this same balance of grace and truth in our lives. Often we gravitate toward one or the other. Perhaps words of truth come easily to us. We are able to see right and wrong, and then we point it out. But truth without grace brings only condemnation and judgment. Or we might gravitate more towards grace. Overlooking an offense and extending mercy are much easier than confronting someone in their sin. Grace without truth leads ultimately to a soft condemnation. As God has always been full of grace and truth in his relationship with us, most prominently in Christ, we too must see our relationships marked by grace and truth.

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1977), 24.

[2] Bavinck, 24.

[3] Bavinck, 24.