Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Anyone Want to Get Expelled? Anyone? Anyone?

Are you tired of liberals being the only ones who make "in your face" documentaries? Me too. That is why I was so excited about Ben Stein's film "Expelled." Two can play at this game, and Ben has raised the stakes.

I did not see this film in the theaters, because frankly I do not enjoy going to theaters to see movies. I know, I am goofy, and I don't even own one of those whopper TVs that make the images larger than life. But I prefer watching films in my own home, in my comfortable chair where I have plenty of room and where I can talk in audible levels to my companions and eat whatever I want without being charged a week's pay for a snack. I also like having beverages in containers which are actually sized for the human hand to hold and being able to pause the movie when I need to. So for all these reasons, DVDs are for me. I rented it from Netflix, and then immediately purchased a copy of it so I can loan it out to others and watch it repeatedly. I also wanted to support the filmmakers and the organization from which I purchased it, Answers in Genesis.

I should say up front that I do not endorse the cut and paste tactics of contemporary documentaries. I know that some important material invariably ends up on the cutting room floor, and I am sure that Expelled's critics are being accurate when they say that statements were included out of context and selectively arranged to further the point of the filmmaker. I am also not an advocate of slippery-slope arguments, which this film certainly employs. But at least in this case, the shoe was on the other foot and the tactics were employed to further a far different cause than in Michael Moore's or Al Gore's films. Funny that critics did not seem so adamant about these same concerns when those films came out.

I will also lay all my cards on the table here. I am a 6-literal day, young earth Creationist, and unashamed to say so. I know that labels me as a neanderthal in the minds of some, but I do not lose sleep over their judgment of me. I prefer to prioritize what God thinks of my handling of His word. I may never be asked to teach in a secular university because of those views, but I would rather maintain my convictions with a clear conscience than to be conformed by the patterns of this world's thinking. A professor friend once told me that although he believed the text of Genesis lends itself to a 6-literal day, young earth interpretation, he could not hold that position because it would ruin his academic credentials. I think that is a crying shame, because on all accounts this was stated by a top-notch scholar.

Expelled is not a propaganda piece for young-earth Creationism. It is not even an attempt to prove the truth of Intelligent Design. Ben Stein is not a Christian, and it is fair to say that he is probably not a young-earther. Rather, in Expelled, Stein sets out to uncover a bias against all anti-Darwinian approaches to the study of origins in higher education. This is done by interviewing scholars who have lost their credentials because of their commitment to alternative explanations of origins and interviewing those who are leading the charge of the New Atheism like Richard Dawkins.

Undoubtedly influenced by his Jewish heritage, Stein demonstrates how Darwinian thinking has fueled the most horrid attrocity in recent human history: the Holocaust. It would be a slippery slope to argue that every Darwinian is pro-Hitler. While I would not want to go so far as to say that all Darwinians espouse genocide, the film helps viewers to see how this kind of thinking makes such tragedies possible, and in fact greatly influenced it in one historic case.

The real issue at stake in Expelled is academic freedom. This is a touchy subject for many. After all, Southern Baptists have not exactly been poster children for academic freedom. During the conservative resurgence, professors were fired from SBC seminaries for teaching doctrines contrary to the Baptist Faith & Message. However, these institutions are confessional schools, which are entrusted by the denomination to train up leaders for its constituent churches. Within the rather broad confines of the Baptist Faith and Message, there is room for much diversity in the classroom. In my courses at one of the SBC seminaries, I had professors who held to a variety of positions on many issues. Not all were young-earth creationists; not all were of a particular school of thought when it comes to Calvinism or Arminianism; etc. But there is and should be some expectation that professors in confessional schools will not teach contrary to the confession of faith that they have been consituted to uphold. However, most secular universities do not have a confessional basis, and therefore, each professor's work should be allowed to stand or fall on their own merits. Expelled even indicts Baylor, a historically Baptist college, for disallowing the teaching of anti-Darwinian theories.

I would recommend this film to anyone who is interested in origins, Darwinism, and Intelligent Design, as well as those who are involved as teachers, administrators and students in higher education. My hope is that it will embolden a new generation of scholars to stand up for their own convictions and publish well-defended scholarly works that uphold the integrity of Scripture and refute Darwinian evolution. I also hope that this film will spawn others to go public with their own experiences of educational biases, and raise an outcry against such hypocritical narrow-mindedness. Regardless of our presuppositions or commitments, education should always stand in opposition to such.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Praying through the Darkest Hour: Mark 14:32-42

Due to a technical glitch, the audio of this message contains a large gap that skips most of the first two points of the sermon. It is available for download here.

C. S. Lewis once set out to write a book on prayer, but quickly abandoned the effort for some unknown reason. Ten years later, he published Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, which was a collection of letters written in a fictitious dialogue between two friends on several issues, but as the subtitle suggests, chiefly on prayer. In that exchange, Lewis hints at perhaps why the earlier book was abandoned. He says, “however badly needed a good book on prayer is, I shall never try to write it. Two people on the foothills comparing notes in private are all very well. But in a book one would inevitably seem to be attempting, not discussion, but instruction. And for me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence.” So, in Letters to Malcolm, Lewis can offer his ideas on prayer, not as instruction, but as if his reader were eavesdropping on a friendly conversation. Near the end of the book, he confesses, “by talking at this length about prayer at all, we seem to give it a much bigger place in our lives than, I’m afraid, it has.” Think for a moment about Lewis’s statement. Isn’t that the case with most of us? We talk more about prayer than we actually pray? We tend to make it seem like it has a bigger part of our lives than it actually does. So he goes on to say, “Well, let’s now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us.” Maybe C. S. Lewis and I are the only ones who feel that way, but I doubt it. We may be merely two of the small number of people who would actually admit it.

In our passage today, we find Jesus Christ on His knees with His Father agonizing in prayer in the face of death. Let the reality of this sink in. Jesus Christ was God in the flesh, fully divine and fully human. Skeptics and critics of the Christian faith who mock the doctrine of the Trinity often turn to this very passage to ask if Jesus was schizophrenic, just talking to the voices in His head in the garden? The relationships between the persons of the Trinity are mysterious. God is One, and He exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not three Gods, but three distinct persons in one Triune Godhead. That’s a nearly unexplainable complexity, but we accept this reality about God because He has revealed it about Himself to us. And these three persons have perfect fellowship among themselves within the singular Godhead. The Father, Son, and Spirit are not different in nature as if one was greater than the other, but each is different in function. There is a willful submission on the part of the Son to the Father, and on the part of the Spirit to the Son. And God the Son, in the darkest hour of His earthly existence, is driven to prayer with God the Father.

Consider what the circumstance of this prayer is. In mere moments of time, Jesus will be betrayed by one of His own disciples, abandoned by the rest, unjustly condemned, physically tortured, and ultimately murdered in the most “cruel and unusual” form of capital punishment humanity has ever contrived. He is in the grove at the foot of the Mount of Olives known as Gethsemane. That word is Hebrew, and means “olive press,” the device by which olives were crushed by massive stones to produce olive oil. It is fitting that Jesus is in this place at this time, when He is consciously aware of the crushing weight under which He is being afflicted – the weight of the sins of humanity. And in the intensity of this moment, in the very face of death, God the Son is driven to prayer with God the Father.
Now, this being so, it is reasonable to make draw some preliminary conclusions. First, if Jesus Christ, who is the divine Son of God, a coequal, coeternal person of the Triune Godhead, needs to pray to His Father, then surely you and I need to all the more. And secondly, the circumstances in which Jesus turns to the Father in prayer are infinitely more severe than any circumstance ever faced by any other person. Therefore, in the midst of our own hardships, we must surely turn to God in prayer as well.

Mark describes Jesus in v33 as being very distressed and troubled. The Greek words used here are rare in the New Testament, and rightly so. The experience of Jesus at this moment is unprecedented and unsurpassed in human existence. Jesus said at this moment in v34, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death.” Notice here that the “death” of which He speaks is not His death on the cross. He speaks of the burden of His present grief as being nearly fatal. So great is the intensity of the pressure of this present hour, that it threatens to crush His very life. The reality of bearing the weight of the sins of humanity and being cut off from His Father as He bears the wrath of God on our behalf is a soul-crushing agony.

Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a great difficulty, distressed, troubled, grieved with an intensity that we deem it inescapable and fatal? My point here is not to draw parallels between Jesus’ experience and our so-called Gethsemanes. You and I will never face a Gethsemane. Jesus faced it for us. Our miseries and calamities in life, regardless of their severity, will ever pale in comparison to this one. No, my point is rather to set forth the example of Jesus in His response to this hour. The greatest man, indeed the God-man, faced the greatest horror of history, and responded to it with prayer to His Father. Therefore, we, the lesser-beings that we are, can face our lesser-trials, in the same way. How shall we pray in the midst of life’s darkest hours? We find several patterns of prayer in this horrific episode from the life of the Lord Jesus that serve as a model for us as we pray through our own lives’ devastations. There are six of these patterns seen here.

I. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with intensity (v35)

In most of the artwork I have seen depicting Jesus at prayer in Gethsemane, He is clothed in sparkling white linens, kneeling before a rock with His hands folded as He looks upward to God. This is not the picture I see in the description here in this text. Jesus proceeded a little beyond His disciples (Luke tells us, about a stone’s throw). And there He “fell to the ground and began to pray.” His concern was not for decorum or posture. The weight of the burden on His soul buckled His knees and He collapsed upon the dirt of that garden. Matthew tells us that He fell on His face! And laying in the dirt, He began to cry out to the Father. Luke tells us in his Gospel that, due to the agony of the circumstances, “He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” Now one may say that this is impossible to sweat blood, but remember two things. First, Luke is a physician, and he knows what is and is not medically possible; secondly, he says that His sweat became “like” drops of blood. NT Scholar Darrell Bock writes that this is a depiction “of Jesus’ emotional state as so intense that He perspired profusely as a result. The sweat beads multiplied on His body and fell like flowing clumps of blood and dropped to the earth.”

We often picture ourselves at prayer the way artists have pictured Jesus in Gethsemane. We envision that we must come before the Lord in clean clothes, in a comfortable posture, and reverently whisper our concerns to Him in a calm state. I believe that it is owing to this false notion of what prayer must involve that we do not more often carry our concerns to God. We feel like we have to clean ourselves up and calm ourselves down before we can talk to the Father. We don’t learn that from Jesus. What we see here is that there comes a time when all we can do is collapse before Him on our face in agony and cry out with sweat drops precipitating off of our bodies like clots of blood as we beseech the Father in intensity. In life’s darkest hour, we can pray in this way and know that God is not offended by our posture or our perspiration. He welcomes us to pray with intensity.

II. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with intimacy (v36)

As Jesus cries out in prayer, He calls upon “Abba! Father!” It is nearly unprecedented in all religious literature to address God in such terms. Until Jesus came and began to speak of God as Father, rarely would anyone presume to address God this way. But Jesus not only spoke to His Father this way, He even instructed His disciples to address God this way in prayer. What are the first words of what we commonly call “The Lord’s prayer”? “OUR FATHER.” But here, even more intimately, Jesus calls Him Abba. This is more intimate still. At the end of a long day, there is one word I long to hear more than any other. Almost without fail, the sound of my key sliding across the tumblers of the door lock at hour home is accompanied by two little voices calling out, “DADDY!” Whatever I have been through in the day fades as I drive home knowing that this will be the first sound I hear. That is what the word Abba is like. Biology can make a man a father. It is intimacy that makes him a daddy. And this is the kind of relationship Jesus has with His Father, and it this kind of relationship which He has made possible for us. Through the suffering of Jesus and His resurrection, those who receive Him are made to be the children of God. And Paul says in Romans 8 that we have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” In the darkest hour of life, Jesus is not praying to an impersonal force beyond the galaxies. He is talking to His Dad. And His Dad is the Daddy of all who have come to Him by faith in the Son. So you and I need never feel as if we have no one or nowhere to turn in the darkest hours of our lives. We can call out to God as a Daddy who loves us and is there for us at all times.

The Christian life is lived in the context of a spiritual family. We do not live it alone. We have a Father, a Daddy, who loves us. And we have brothers and sisters in this family. But sometimes those brothers and sisters fail us. Sometimes when we need them most, they aren’t there for us. Jesus understands that. He knows that the whole world is out to get Him, and as He goes to pray, He tells His disciples in v32, “Sit here until I have prayed.” He says in v34, “Remain here and keep watch.” But three times, He returns to find that they have fallen asleep at the very moment it seems that He needs them most. Like Peter, James, and John, our brothers and sisters will let us down. I will let you down. I probably have already, but just in case, I’m telling you now that I will. But Daddy never fails. In the darkest hour of our lives, though brothers and sisters fail us, our hope is not in them, it is in this Father who welcomes us to come before Him and cry out to Him intimately as our Daddy! We will not find Him asleep when we need Him most. We are never abandoned, never orphaned, never alone. Father is there for you, and you can come running into His arms crying out “Daddy!” in the darkest hour of your life just as Jesus did!

III. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with confidence (v36)

As Jesus prays, notice His words: “All things are possible for You.” He is confident that there is no situation which is out of God’s control, and there is nothing His Father cannot do. He is not ashamed to state the concerns of His heart to His Father, because He knows that God is able to do something about it. There is no question whether God can. The answer to any question that begins, “Can God …” is, “Yes!” God can. All things are possible for Him.

As I was growing up, I had a grandfatherly figure in my life that I affectionately called “Daddy Harrison.” He called me “J. R.” Daddy Harrison was a retired truck driver, a hard but tender hearted man. Daddy Harrison built every house he ever lived in, rebuilt every car he ever owned, grew or killed everything he ever ate, and fixed everything that was ever broken. No formal education, but he was the most brilliant man I ever knew. I spent the first half of my life in awe of him. And I will never forget the first time (and the only time) I saw him scratch his head and say, “J. R., I don’t think I can fix that.” In my mind, I had thought that everything was possible for Daddy Harrison, but on that disappointing day, I saw that there were some things even he couldn’t fix.

Sometimes, when we face the dark hours of life, we forget that our Heavenly Father has never said, “I don’t think I can fix that.” He has never scratched His head wondering what to do about something. He has never seen an impossibility. And so just as Jesus did, when He was facing a much darker hour than we will ever know, we too can say to our Father, “All things are possible for You!” We can pray in confidence knowing that our circumstances have not taken by surprise or exceeded His ability to intervene. Some of you this very moment are facing intense darkness in your lives. Can God do anything about it? He can. We can pray with confidence in the darkest hour of our lives.

IV. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with boldness (v36)

Sometimes, I think in genuine humility and piety, we mask our concerns in prayer and resort to vague expressions of reluctant indifference. We say things like, “Oh Lord, here’s the situation, and we just want your will to be done, whatever that is,” and never come right out with our own request. I am not criticizing that; I think the motive is good. But you will notice in our text that Jesus did not pray this way. In v35, we read that He was praying that if it were possible, the hour might pass by Him. He knew the hour was coming. He had foretold the disciples repeatedly that this hour was coming, and now it was upon them. And in His humanity, Jesus asks the Father if there may be any other way, so that the hour may pass by Him. As He cried out to the Father in the darkest hour of His life, He said, “Remove this cup from Me!”

What is this cup of which Jesus speaks? It is a recurring image in the OT prophets which depicts the judgment of God. That cup, which all of us deserve to drink for our sins, has been taken from our hands and handed to Jesus to drink on our behalf. It is this cup of which Jesus spoke when He rebuked the presumption of James and John, saying, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Indeed they are not. No man can bear his own sins, much less the sins of all humanity. But Jesus will, and in the hours prior to drinking that cup, He boldly says to the Father, “Remove this cup from Me!”

You and I will not, cannot, drink that cup, but Christ has taken it for us. And in His darkest hour as He utters this bold prayer, we learn from His example that we can make any request we desire to God. It does not always mean that God will answer in the way that we want Him to, but there is no request that we cannot bring before Him. He wants us to bear our hearts desires in His presence. And so in the darkest hours of our lives, we can pray with boldness as we make our requests known to Him.

V. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray in surrender (v36)

As Jesus asks the Father to take the cup away, He also expresses His humble submission to the primacy of the Father’s will. “Yet not what I will, but what You will.” He has made His request, and now accepts that the Father’s will may not involve the removal of the cup, but the drinking of it to the dregs. But Christ’s surrender is not a stoic acceptance of fate, it is a willing embrace of the Father’s will. Jesus’ will to obey the Father is greater and stronger than His will to avoid suffering.

Though this hour of Jesus’ life was far darker than any hour that you and I will ever face, we can pray through our seasons of darkness in the same way. As Sinclair Ferguson writes, “It is not necessarily wrong to ask for something which God does not intend to do, so long as our hearts are prepared to submit to His will. With boldness we make our requests known, but in surrender we acknowledge that the Father’s will is superior to our own. There is no such thing as an unanswered prayer, but we must acknowledge that sometimes the answer is “No.” And just as every earthly parent realizes that it may be destructive to grant every wish of our children, so the Father must sometimes say No to His children for their own good, for the good of others, and for His own glory to be made manifest. And so we pray in surrender to His will, knowing that this is the sweetest surrender we could ever make. In the world’s eyes, surrender equals defeat. But in God’s eyes, our surrender is our victory, for as we embrace His will we do so in confidence that His will serves a far greater purpose than our own.

By embracing the Father’s will, Jesus foregoes His own comforts and accepts the suffering that must come in order to provide salvation for the world, and to be crowned with the glory of the resurrection. We can all rejoice that the Father did not let this cup pass from Jesus. Because Jesus embraced the suffering of the cross on our behalf, we have the promise of redemption, restoration, and resurrection. As we pray in surrender to the Father’s will, our finite understanding may not be able to fathom His purposes. But we embrace His will knowing that He is good and that He loves us. And if His will involves a season of suffering, we know that in the end, He is working all things together for the good of them who love Him and are called according to His purposes, and that He is bringing glory to Himself through our circumstances. What we want may be good, but what God wills is best. So even as God welcomes us to come boldly to the throne of grace, and to clearly state our petitions before Him, we can pray in surrender and say as Jesus said, “Yet not what I will, but what You will.”

VI. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with persistence (v39)

As Jesus returned to prayer after finding His disciples asleep on the job, it is intriguing to me that that the text says He was “saying the same words.” Repeatedly, the Lord Jesus spoke to the Father about letting the hour pass and removing the cup. This was not just vain repetition of meaningless words, like Jesus warned against in Matthew 6 when He instructed His disciples how to pray. There Jesus had said, “When you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” There are some who have memorized certain forms of prayer and repeat them over and over again, but without any conscious reflection at each moment of what they are saying. And immediately after Jesus said this about meaningless repetition, He taught the disciples a model of how to pray in the words that we commonly call “The Lord’s Prayer.” And the ironic thing is that many have allowed that prayer to become a “meaningless repetition,” praying it while giving no thought to the words they are expressing. No, Jesus wasn’t just repeating a canned formulaic prayer in His persistent prayer here, even though He was “saying the same words.” Rather, He was praying as one who understood that God is sometimes moved by faithful persistence and perseverance in prayer.

In Luke 18:1-8, we read a parable that Jesus told to His followers in order to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart. In that parable, He tells of a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man. And in the same city, there was a widow who needed the protection of the law from an oppressor. And Jesus says that this widow kept coming to the judge, saying, “Give me legal protection from my opponent.” For a while the judge was unwilling to respond to her requests, but after a while, he finally gave in. He said, “Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.” Now the point of that parable is that if this unrighteous judge will respond to this widow in this way, Jesus says, “will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?” But then He says, “when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" In other words, will He find that people had enough faith to be that persistent in their prayers?

Jesus demonstrates persistence in prayer as He returns to solitude with His Father and prays, “saying the same thing.” Are we persistent in our prayers? Are we afraid to be persistent, thinking, “Well, I prayed about it once, so I guess I am done with that”? If Jesus taught us to be persistent in prayer, and demonstrated persistence in prayer in the midst of life’s dark hours, then we need not fear God turning a deaf ear to our persistent pleas. It may well be that God’s delay in answering is a test of our faith and our willingness to persist. Whatever the case, there is no shame in bringing the same request to the Lord in prayer time and time again until He makes His answer clear. In fact, there may be shame in not doing so. We can pray with persistence as we face the dark hours of life. Jesus did, and we can follow in His example.

As we conclude, let me say a few final thoughts. First, none of us will ever face an hour in life as dark as Gethsemane. But, we will all face dark hours of varying severity. It may well be that you are just coming out of a dark season, or that you are in the midst of one, or that you are about to enter one. But when the darkness falls in our lives, how will we respond? My friends, if Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, needed to pray through His own season of darkness, then may I suggest to us today that there is no other way for us to face ours. We have the words of the sleepy eyed witness, the Apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 2:21, as he says, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” And Peter says that Christ’s example includes this, that while suffering, He kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously. In the midst of the darkest hours of our lives, we can fall on our faces before a Father who loves us and pray intensely, intimately, confidently, boldly, surrenderedly, and persistently and trust that if He does not change the circumstance, He will change us in the midst of the circumstance, and bring good to us, blessings through us, and glory to Himself as a result.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Crisis of Confidence - Mark 14:27-31

Audio available here

On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation in a televised speech in which he spoke of a fundamental threat to American democracy. He referred to is as a crisis of confidence. He said, “We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” Perhaps those words are even more applicable in this day of political and economic uncertainty than they were in 1979. But according to sociologists today, there is a greater crisis of confidence in our culture today. It is not a crisis of national confidence; perhaps we’ve given up on ever recovering that. They say that the crisis of our day is a crisis of self-confidence. Here I would agree with those sociologists. However, I would disagree with them over the nature of this crisis. They would say that the crisis is an overwhelming lack of self-confidence among people. I, on the other hand, would say that the greater crisis is that of an over-abundance of self-confidence. Americans are stereotypically rugged individualists. We are raised to value self-sufficiency, self-reliance, self-esteem and self-effort. We read stories like, “The Little Engine that Could” to our children, instilling in them the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” This is why Paul says that the Gospel of Grace is a stumbling-block to so many – even God cannot help someone who is determined to do it on their own. We desire to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, not realizing that we are sinking barefooted in the quicksand of our own arrogance.

In our passage today, we find a dialog between Jesus and Peter as they walk from the Upper Room where they shared in the Last Supper to the Mount of Olives where Jesus will spend time in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. And we see in this interchange between them the dangers of self-confidence. I don’t want you to think that I’m saying that all self-confidence is a bad thing, but an unhealthy dose of it is spiritually dangerous and blinds us to the pitfalls that we may encounter. Dependence on ourselves will lead us into spiritual failure. And in our text today we discover the times when that may occur.

I. Self-confidence is dangerous when we make claims that contradict God’s Word (vv26-29).

Over 500 years earlier, the prophet Zechariah wrote: “Strike the shepherd that the sheep may be scattered.” Here Jesus applies that prophecy to the events that are going to soon take place in His life and that of His disciples. He says, “It is written, ‘I will strike down the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’” Jesus gives fuller expression to the statement, indicating that the intent behind it was to say that someone calling themselves “I” would strike the shepherd, thus scattering the sheep.” Who is this “I”? While we are tempted to say that the death of Christ came about as a result of the evil schemes of man, and that is true to one extent, on the other hand, the ultimate agent of the death of Christ is the Father Himself. Isaiah 53, a prophecy written 200 years before that of Zechariah, makes this clear. There in Isaiah 53:6, the prophet declared this about the Messiah: “The Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” And in verse 10 the prophet said, “The LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief.” The impending death of Jesus was a fulfillment of God’s ultimate and eternal plan to reconcile sinful humanity to Himself. He would strike the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, with the result being that at least for a brief season, the sheep would be scattered.

And on the basis of this ancient prophecy, Jesus made a very simple assertion: “You will all fall away.” And Peter makes a very simple assertion in return: “I will not.” Now, here’s the thing – they can’t both be right. Either they all (Peter included) will fall away, or they will not all fall away. If even one does not fall away, then Jesus’ words are not true. So, Peter can either believe Jesus or not. Now, if he doesn’t, then essentially what he is doing is calling Jesus a liar to His face. That may sound like a harsh charge, but that is what it is. Jesus says, “You will all fall away,” and Peter in essence says, “That is a lie.” The statement is a lie, the prophecy is a lie, the interpretation of the prophecy is a lie. These are bold claims on Peter’s part.

Would any of us be so bold as to look Jesus in the face and say, “You are a liar!”? Surely not us. But often times, our self-confidence leads us to make claims that contradict God’s Word, which is just as strong an offense as that. God’s word says that we are all sinners by nature, yet sometimes in our self-confidence we assert that we are really all good people by nature. We say, “Well, I think I have it all together pretty well, thank you very much.” But God says in His word, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” God’s word says that apart from Christ we can do nothing. His word says that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, but sometimes our self-confidence says, “I can do some pretty impressive things on my own apart from Him.” His words says in James 3, “We all stumble in many ways.” But when our self-confidence claims that we will not stumble, we are in a state of spiritual danger.

These words of God which remind us of our limitations and frailties are not meant to lead us into depression and defeat, but rather to remind us of our constant need for God’s grace and help in our lives. And when we self-confidently begin to think that we can make it on our own, chugging away like that little engine that could, without the empowerment of divine grace, we are certain to fail spiritually. We must believe what Christ has said, and what the Bible has said about who we really are. Where the weaknesses of our natural abilities and innate strength are pointed out to us, we must believe what God has said. Where He promises us of the things that we can do when we abide in His grace, we must believe Him, and never think that we can attain those things in the powers of our flesh. Otherwise, just as Peter did, we call God a liar, if not by our words then by our actions and attitudes. Anytime our self-confidence causes us to make claims that contradict God’s word, we are in danger.

II. Self-confidence is dangerous when we measure ourselves against others (v29)

When Jesus said, “You will all fall away,” it seems that Peter looked around in the dimly lit night at the faces of the other disciples and said, “Even though all may fall away, yet I will not.” In other words, Peter is saying, “Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if all of them do. But I am better than they are.” Yeah, what Jesus really needs is more followers who are just like Peter. Then He wouldn’t have to worry about everybody falling away. Or so Peter thinks.

And so may some of us think. So self-confident are we that we think we outshine everyone else. Someone else has an idea, well mine is better. Someone else attempts to do something for Christ, well I could do it better. Someone else fails the Lord, well, I would never do anything that bad! We tend to view sin like we view surgery. Do you know the difference between major and minor surgery? It is whether or not it is on you or on me. If you are having surgery, it’s a minor thing to someone else. Oh, but if I am having surgery, I think it is major, and I want you to think it is major. That’s the way we view sin. If someone else sins, that is a major sin. But my sins aren’t that major. In fact, one wonders if they can even be called sins at all. They are like sinlets, just tiny little things. Often we are so concentrated on the weaknesses and failures of others that we do not see the gravity of our own. This is the danger of comparing ourselves to others. Do you remember what Jesus said about this? He said in Matthew 7:3-5, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.”

Let’s suppose there was a contest to see who could jump farther. I might jump farther than some of you, and some of you might jump farther than me. But what if the goal of this contest was to jump all the way across the Atlantic Ocean? Then, it wouldn’t really matter how much farther we could outjump each other, because none of us are going to hit the mark. This is how it is when we compare ourselves with others. You might find some people out there of whom you can say, “Well, I am better than that person.” And you might find some of whom you can say, “They are better than me.” But when it comes to meeting God’s standard of righteousness, what does the Bible say? In Romans 3:23, it says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

What Peter does here, and what you and I often do when we compare ourselves to others, is to underestimate our own depravity. When you understand just how thoroughly infected and corrupted we all are by sin, we realize that there is NO sin that would be impossible for us to commit. Jesus says, “You will all fall away.” Peter says, “Not me. Everybody else probably will, but I won’t.” How can he be so sure? In fact, a good case can be made that even in saying this, he has already fallen away, for he has questioned the credibility of Christ’s words, and opted to trust in himself than in the necessary empowerment of God’s grace for our perseverance. We may point to the murderer and say, “Well, I’ve never killed anyone.” Well, maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t. And besides that, Jesus said that unbridled anger is tantamount to murder. We may point to the unfaithful husband or wife and say, “Well I’ve never committed adultery.” That is a good thing, but it doesn’t mean we couldn’t, and Jesus says that if you’ve ever looked upon someone with lust then we’ve already committed adultery with that person in our heart. So, with that in mind, can any of us really say, “What Jesus needs is more followers like me,” and look down our noses at others contemptuously? Let me answer that for you: No. We cannot.

Self-confidence can be a good thing at times, but at other times, it is very dangerous when it causes us to compare ourselves with others and boast of our own goodness as Peter does here.

III. Self-confidence is dangerous when we don’t know the circumstances we may face (vv30-31)

Remember that this conversation is set against the backdrop of Judas’ defection in the Upper Room. Jesus said, “One of you will betray me,” and at this point Judas has gone off to do just that. But now Jesus says, “All of you will fall away.” While Peter thinks that others perhaps could follow Judas’ example, he is self-confident that he would never do such a thing. But when Jesus speaks of “falling away,” it is not the same as the act of betrayal that Judas committed. The Greek word that is used here has the sense of “stumbling” or “falling.” Here it is used in the passive voice, meaning not that they will all willfully turn away from following Jesus, but that external factors will act upon them and cause them to fall away. It is not their willful intention that Jesus speaks of, but rather their personal weakness and failure to do as Jesus had admonished them in Mark 13:33, to take heed, keep on the alert, and be watchful. Isn’t this the way it usually is for us? Our great spiritual failures come rarely in moments of intentional, premeditated acts of rebellion. Rather, they more often come in momentary lapses of spiritual discipline, when we are caught off guard. We do not often leap into sin, but more often we “fall” or “stumble” into it, as we trip on the snares that have been set in our path by the world and the devil.

Jesus says, “You will all fall away.” But Peter insists, “I will not.” But Jesus knows things about what Peter will face that Peter doesn’t even know himself. In the Luke 22:31, Jesus informs Peter of a spiritual battle that is being waged on him that Peter has no idea of. Jesus tells him there that Satan has demanded to sift him like wheat. Peter has been singled out in the crosshairs of Satan’s artillery for a full-on attack. And because of the onslaught Peter is about to face, Jesus tells him, “Truly I say to you (that is an assertion of divine authority and truth), that this very night, before a rooster crows twice, you yourself will deny Me three times.” But Peter is still engulfed in self-confidence. Notice the intensity of his response. He kept saying, repeating over and over, and even insistently. The Greek word used there means “exceedingly, or beyond measure.” Time and time again, Peter kept on saying, “I will not deny You.” He even says, “If I have to die with you, I will not deny You.” And everyone else was saying this too. Those are awfully bold claims considering that just 12 verses earlier, they all recognized the possibility that they could be the betrayer. But Christ has still spoken: You will all fall away,” and specifically to Peter, “even this very night … three times.”

Peter does not know what Christ knows. He does not know the intensity of hatred that the mob will bring against Jesus and his followers. He does not know the reality of what is about to transpire. He does not yet know how cozy one can get by the firepit in the courts of this world’s comforts. He does not yet truly know the cost of being a follower of Jesus, nor if he is willing to pay such a cost. But Jesus does. And on the basis of what Jesus knows, He can say with authority, “You will, and you will tonight, and you will three times.” For Peter, it is easy to make grandiose claims of heroics in the quiet comforts of the garden path with Jesus by his side. But what claims will he make when Christ is undergoing unjust cruelty and being identified with Him becomes a capital offense?

You know, we can make some pretty grand claims ourselves here in the comfortable confines of this sanctuary with our padded pews and plush carpet and the sunlight shimmering through the stained glass images of our favorite Bible stories. Someone has written, “When I became a Christian I stopped telling lies and started singing them.” Think about it, we sing, “I surrender all,” and then don’t trust God enough to tithe ten percent. We sing “I love to tell the story of Jesus and His love,” but we’re afraid we’ll offend somebody if we actually do. We are just like Peter. We make great claims when it is safe and comfortable, but when the circumstances around us begin to be a little more unpleasant, will we live up to those claims? When we make self-confident assertions in God’s presence of what we will or will not do, we have to remember that we do not know the circumstances we will face in the coming years, or even in the coming day, or even within the hour that we exit the sanctuary. But Jesus does. And when He warns us about the being presumptuous or overly self-confident, we must take His word seriously. We must bear in mind that we are dependent on God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit within us to accomplish anything of spiritual merit.

Let’s recap for a moment. Self-confidence can be spiritually dangerous for us when we make claims that contradict God’s word, when we measure ourselves against others, and when we don’t know that circumstances we may face. When Jesus warns, “You will all fall away,” we must be so self-confident to think, “It won’t happen to me.” The excessive insistence of Peter only accentuates the greatness of his failure that will occur just as Jesus has promised. But notice that the promise of falling away is not the only promise that Jesus states here. He also promises that He will rise from the dead. He will go to the cross for the failures of these disciples and for our failures as well. We will bear the full weight of humanity’s sin and receive the deluge of God’s judgment on that sin in His death. Yet, He will triumph in resurrected glory, and He will go ahead of them to Galilee. Going ahead of them indicates that He will continue to be their Shepherd even after He has been struck, and they have been scattered. And in Galilee where He first called them to His side, He will regather them to Himself and restore them to right fellowship with Him, and recommission them to His service. Their failure is not final. It is humbling and embarrassing. In fact, that is one of the indications that we have a true report here, for if the early church had concocted these stories, we would certainly not expect them to come up with such a humbling and embarrassing account. Their failure brings them to the realization of what Jesus says in John 15:5 – “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” But their failure is momentary. His grace is everlasting, and in Him they will be able to stand after they have been restored into the fold.

This should be of great encouragement to those of us who, like the original band of disciples, are committed by faith to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but who in moments of weakness fall away from our faithful walk with Him. We will never fall so far that He will not restore us as He leads us like a shepherd back into the fold of His loving arms. Have you failed Him? Me too. And I would venture to say that it is very probable, not to say absolutely certain, that we all will again. But from our failures, we learn the dangers of self-confidence, and we learn of our desperate dependence upon His grace and the power of His Spirit who is at work within us to face the pressures of life in this fallen world. And learning this, we recognize that our confidence is not in ourselves, but in Him. Let the world have its self-confidence, but let the church stand in Christ-confidence. Apart from Him we can do nothing. But we can do all things through Him who strengthens us.

In 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, the Apostle Paul says this: For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, "LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD."

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Pastoral Political Pundits and the Practice of Backtracking

In these last few days, I've been hearing a lot of Christian voices saying, "Well, now that the election is over, we have to remember that God is in control, and Christ is our sovereign Lord, and ultimately our hope is in Him." I even heard one pastor say today that "If Christ is Lord, then it doesn't really matter who is in control of Congress and who sits in the White House." Agreed. But prior to the election, these were the very people who were engaged in careful political rhetoric (as far as the law would allow them, and some perhaps a little more) prophesying to their people about the horrors of seeing a particular candidate elected. Well, some of us were saying, "God is sovereign, Christ is Lord, and our hope is in Him," before the election. Some of us were laughed at by other Christians for saying such things, criticized for not being more vocal about the issues and candidates and for not being a more active part of the process. But now those who were harking political rhetoric from their pulpits are falling back on the sovereignty of God as if it were a safety net. Prior to the election they were saying that our nation was in the hands of the voters, and only now they are saying it is in the hands of a sovereign God. One wonders, what would they be saying if their chosen candidate had won?

Part of God's sovereignty entails that His purposes are not subject to the dictates of another. He does what He wants, when He wants, how He wants and why He wants. I don't know why God raises up one ruler and not another, and neither do you. But could it be that God allowed Obama to win so that those who were so heated in their political speech prior to the election would finally start talking about things like God's sovereignty, God's greater purposes, and Christ's supreme Lordship? Had McCain won, I wonder if we would be hearing of such things? We would likely be hearing about how great things happen when we human beings rally our efforts around certain causes and take action. That is what we do not need -- more of the glorification of man. Could that be one reason God acted in the affairs of our nation as He did Tuesday night? We may never know.

No one in our congregation or in our family or among my friends knows how I voted or even if I voted. Political affairs have no place in my pulpit. Why? Is it because I do not care about our country? No, it is because my belief was as strong prior to the election as it is now that God is the one who raises up and establishes authority (Rom 13:1, Daniel 2:20-21). And it is because I have more important things to discuss than who will have temporary control over this temporary nation. I am a citizen of a Kingdom that is eternal, a servant of a King who is eternal, who has spoken words of truth which are eternal. And it was those things that I spoke of before the election, and it is those things which I will continue to speak of now that it is over.

As for our President-elect, I have a biblical obligation to him. I am not obligated to agree with him on every issue, but I am obligated to submit to his authority and to pray for him (Rom 13; 1 Tim 2). Where the laws of our nation conflict with the law of God, I have a biblical obligation to side with God in civil disobedience to the laws of the land. But even this does not alleviate my repsonsibility of submission and prayer, for I must engage in civil disobedience accepting of whatever consequences or penalties man inflicts upon me for so doing, and never cease praying for those in authority. And through my actions and speech as a citizen of this nation on earth, my prayer is that all will come to know of my citizenship which is elsewhere and most importantly of the sovereign eternal King whom I serve. It is to Him that I pledge allegiance.

On Singing Lies to God ...

Nick Page, in his book And Now Let's Move Into a Time of Nonsense: Why Worship Songs are Failing the Church, writes:

"Someone once wrote, 'When I became a Christian I stopped telling lies and started singing them.' We make much more outrageous statements in song than we would in speech. Whom among us has not vowed to make history? Who has promised to build with silver and gold? Or stated that our problems all disappear in Jesus' presence? Or that we want to give everything we have to the Lord? These are all laudable statements, but I can't help thinking if we were asked to say them, rather than sing them, we might thing a little more carefully about what we were actually promising."

On his website, Page writes:
"I wrote this out of sheer frustration with the quality of the words we sing in church. The book argues that we have bought into a pop-song model of worship songs, where the words are secondary to beat and melody. The result is songs which are filled with a strange semi-Biblical code and which suffer from poor technique. Above all it encourages writers to really think about the words of their songs and whether they really communicate truth about God."

I think Page is onto something good here, and I am enjoying the book. Singing truth about God stands in contrast to lies we sing about ourselves in God's presence. Let's be careful to worship in SPIRIT, yes, but also in TRUTH. These are the worshipers that the Father is seeking.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Book Review: The Greatest Words Ever Spoken by Steven K. Scott

The Greatest Words Ever Spoken by Steven K. Scott
A Review by Russ Reaves

Steven K. Scott told his friend Gary Smalley that he didn't even know if this book would ever be published. "I'm doing it for me," he said (xvii). His understanding of John 8:31-32 and Matthew 7:21-25 led him to compile the teachings of Jesus in a topical arrangement. "He wanted the words of Christ to form the concrete foundation of his beliefs on every subject and issue of life" (xvii). This book is the finished product of what was certainly a long labor of love and personal devotional discipline for Scott. In it, over 1900 statements of Jesus are arranged into more than 200 categories, and separated among nine larger headings. Those nine headings are the major chapter divisions of The Greatest Words Ever Spoken. They are "the greatest words ever spoken" about (1) Jesus; (2) God the Father; (3) the Holy Spirit; (4) Eternity; (5) Jesus' Followers; (6) Humanity; (7) God Reaching Out to Us; (9) How to Know God. Each of these chapters and many of the various subdivisions within each one contains material written by Scott to introduce the subjects.

Scott is the author of several books including The Richest Man Who Ever Lived, Mentored by a Millionaire, Simple Steps to Impossible Dreams, and A Millionaire's Notebook. He is not a theologian or pastor, but a successful business entrepreneur. His love for Christ is evident in the obvious effort he put into this project, in the introductory words written by Gary Smalley, and in his own words which introduce the various sections of the book. It is refreshing to see someone so successful and influential in the secular world using that influence to point others to the words of Jesus.

The book has a very usable layout, with the chapter divisions and subheadings clearly marked and the biblical passages arranged in two-columns per page. The Table of Contents, Scripture Index and Subject Index make it a handy reference volume. At over 500 pages, the book is sizable, but not unmanageable.

Upon receiving this book, it occurred to me that I do not know of another book of this kind in print today. There may be one or more, but this is the first volume I have laid hands on which seeks to arrange the teachings of Jesus in a topical order. Topical Bibles abound, but this one is limited solely to the words of Jesus. As such, it is a valuable reference tool. For instance, on pp 46-51, under the subheading of Jesus' Missions, one finds over 50 passages in which "Jesus identifies twenty-six different missions that He set out to achieve when he came to earth" (46). These would serve a pastor or Sunday School teacher well in choosing texts on which to base sermons or lessons for the Advent Season.

A new Christian will find the book to be a great help in discovering Jesus' teachings on the variety of subjects treated. The introductory matter in each chapter would also serve the new Christian well in devotional usage. One could read a separate subsection each day and have nearly a year of daily devotional study set before him or her. As a godly layman, Scott's zeal for Christ and biblical wisdom is worthy of emulation for those who are taking their beginning steps in the Christian faith.

The book is not without its faults. I find three major areas of concern with the book. The first is in its theology. Most importantly, though Scott makes it obvious that he believes in the deity of Jesus Christ, he builds the case for Christ's deity slowly and, in my opinion, carelessly. In his introductory chapter entitled "The Greatest Words Ever Spoken," Scott makes no overt claim that Jesus is divine. In the introduction to the first major chapter division, "The Greatest Words Ever Spoken About Jesus," that claim is still absent. Though the titles "Messiah," "Christ," "Son of God," and "Son of Man" are employed frequently throughout these pages, and the pronouns that refer to Jesus are capitalized (He, Him, His), one is forced to endure thirty-four pages of the book before ever arriving at any clear claim of Christ's deity. There, in introducing the subsection entitled "Jesus' Identity," Scott refers to Jesus accepting worship, identifying Himself as God, and engaging in divine actions. This brief paragraph is still insufficient to convince the unbelieving reader of the divine nature of Jesus. On page 55, a passing reference is made to the fact that "Jesus is a coequal, coeternal member of the Trinity." On pages 87-88, readers are told that J. R. R. Tolkein developed "a simple yet brilliant proof of Christ's deity," but that proof is not shared with the audience. It would be my hope that in future editions, Scott would expand his treatment of the deity of Christ, and perhaps include an appendix containing a detailed apologetic of this foundational Christian doctrine. As it stands, I do not believe that the unbelieving reader will come away convinced that Jesus Christ is fully-divine. In fact, it would be very easy for one to read the entire volume and miss the brief passing statements which are included.

Another theological concern I have with the book is in its treatment of Scripture. Christians believe that "All Scripture is inspired by God (or "God-breathed", theopneustas) and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17). This means that God is the ultimate author of every word of the Bible. In short, we do not believe that the "red letters" are more important for faith and practice than the "black letters." This is not evident from Scott's statements in the early portions of the book. For instance, on page 6, he states that his topical arrangement of Jesus' teachings "will enable you to read everything Jesus said without the interruption of commentary, transitional scenes, and details about the activities of the people who surrounded Him." Are we to understand from this that the words of the Gospel writers are "interupptions," needless commentary, and unimportant details? I do not think Scott would intend to declare that, but this is precisely the effect of his words. Again, on page 8, Scott writes, "Whenever you are studying a biblical subject, considering a spiritual question, or seeking guidance for a decision, the first question you should ask is 'What did Jesus say?' His words will provide the foundation for all your values, beliefs, and doctrines." This begs the following questions: Are there passages of Scripture outside of the explicit sayings of Jesus which treat the same subjects and perhaps expand on these sayings? Are there subjects which Jesus does not address, but other passages do? And if so, are those passages of lesser importance than these "red letter" passages? We have observed in our culture the tactics of some who want to pit Jesus' teachings with those of the Apostle Paul, for instance, and the Evangelical response to those arguments is that all Scripture is God's Word, and should be handled with equal gravity. Though I am certain that it is unintentional on Scott's part, he has made a false dichotomy between the words of Jesus and the rest of Scripture that can lead to a dangerous handling of the Bible.

The second major area of concern I find in the book has to do with sloppy hermeneutics. Two examples of this will illustrate the concern. First, concerning the study of Scripture in its context, Scott says on page 6 that by reading his book, "In a matter of minutes, you can read everything He (Jesus) said about a topic, which will help you gain a deeper understanding of His teachings." My response to this statement is, "Deeper than what?" Certainly one cannot expect reading this topical arrangement of Scripture portions to provide a greater depth than a historical-grammatical inductive study of the entire passage in its various levels of context. Scott is aware of the need to study Scripture in its context, for he says on page 8, "Because context is so important, the verses surrounding the key points are usually provided." Sometimes, a verse or two of surrounding context is sufficient, but most of the time it is not. The meaning of a particular passage is embedded in a larger pericope. As a case in point, on page 445, Revelation 3:20 is cited under the heading of "Accepting and Receiving Christ." When one studies that passage in its context, one discovers that Jesus is not knocking on the door of the unbeliever, but of the church! Though Steven Scott is not the first, and certainly won't be the last, to wrench that verse from its context, it is but one example of the error of piecing passages together without a thorough understanding of the context and historical setting.

The second example of sloppy hermeneutics that concerns me in this book is its treatment of the promises of Jesus. On page 2, Scott writes, "If you choose to follow Him (Jesus), then all 108 promises are promises you can count on -- promises that will produce peace in a troubled heart, joy in the midst of tragedy, success in place of failure, and most important, a glorified life that lasts for eternity." There is a hint of subjectivity or relativism in this statement, for according to Scott, it is only those who follow Jesus who find that His promises are "promises you can count on." Perhaps more alarmingly is the undeniable fact that those who do not follow Christ will ultimately find that they can count on His promises as well, only for them they will not prove to be promises of peace, joy, success and glory. Moreover, in this statement one finds the common error of misapplying the all of the promises of Scripture as universals when many of them are addressed only to a particular person or group in a particular setting. Scott is aware of this reality in handling Scripture. On page 299, he writes, "You should note that when a promise is made to an individual or a group, it may be so specific as to apply only to that person or group. Such a promise may reflect a principle that applies to others, but it may not." Yet, repeatedly throughout the book, Scott violates this very principle in applying a particular set of promises Christ made to His apostles as if they were universal promises for all believers. I am speaking of the promises concerning the ministry of the Holy Spirit found in John 14:26 and 16:13. These are specific promises which deal with the reality that the Holy Spirit would enable the apostles to teach the foundational truths of Christ in the first generation of the faith and to write the infallible words of the New Testament by teaching them all things, bringing to their remembrance all that Christ said to them, guiding them into all truth, and disclosing to them what is to come. Scott says on page 9, "As you study the words of Christ, you will receive the benefits He promised in John 16:13 and John 14:26. The Holy Spirit will guide you into all truth, He will tell you things to come, and He will glorify Christ. Jesus also promises that the Holy Spirit will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all the things that Christ has spoken to you" [emphasis mine]. These things are repeated in the introductory words on the chapter which treats Jesus' words about the Holy Spirit on pages 114-115 and the introduction to chapter five on pages 183. It has perhaps escaped Scott's notice that the abuse of these promises has been at the foundation of the establishment of many cults who have applied these specific promises universally and used them as justification for their discovery of "new truth." It is a common but dangerous error to mishandle these promises in this way, and the book would be helped by a clarification that these promises are examples of those which apply only to a particular group, namely the apostles.

While this is not an exhaustive treatment of my concerns with the book, these are sufficient to indicate that the book needs some revision. I believe it would be helped by the constructive suggestions of theologians and biblical scholars, as well as by a broader base of personal research on the part of its author. Notwithstanding these concerns, the book is a valuable project. It is unique and fills a void in accessible literature today, being what I would describe as a "Red Letter Nave's." It would be useful for pastors, counselors, Sunday School teachers and laypeople. It would serve them well as a devotional tool and as a guide for selecting texts and parallel passages for preaching and teaching. Perhaps its greatest benefit would be in introducing new believers to the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. Though the foreword promises that Scott's short chapter introductions are "extremely enlightening and compelling to non-Christians," I believe that the non-Christian seeker would be better served by a thorough reading of the Bible itself. And for all of its potential benefits, the book cannot be a substitute for personal inductive Bible study and a regular diet of expository preaching in the local church. It is a good book. With some revisions and corrections based on the input of faithful and careful scholars, it can be a great book that will stand the test of time and serve many generations of Christ's church.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Covenant Meal: Mark 14:22-26

Audio available here

The phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” is probably nowhere more appropriately applied than in the Christian observance of the Lord’s Supper. For most of us, we have participated in it so often that much of its meaning has been lost. In contrast to those churches who observe Communion each Sunday, Baptists and other evangelical churches have opted to have the observance on a less frequent basis to prevent this from happening. But it happens nonetheless. And so today, as we come to the passage where Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper with His disciples, our aim is to rediscover the significance of this meal as we examine His words and actions on the evening prior to His death.

The meal we now refer to as His Last Supper took place during the traditional Jewish celebration of Passover, on the 14th of Nisan on the Hebrew Calendar, which typically falls within March or April on our calendars. Of all the Jewish feasts and festivals, Passover was of greatest theological significance. It commemorated the most miraculous moment in Israel’s history: the exodus from Egypt in the days of Moses. For four hundred years, the people of Israel had been enslaved in Egypt’s bondage. When Moses confronted Pharaoh with the demand to “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let my people go,” Pharaoh increasingly hardened his heart against the Israelites. Therefore, in order to shatter his hardened heart, God sent a series of ten plagues upon the land of Egypt, each one increasing in severity. In the tenth and final plague, God declared that He was going to take the life of every firstborn male child in every household of Egypt. But Israel would be spared this judgment, for they were instructed to sacrifice a lamb. The meat of that lamb would be eaten with unleavened bread in a last supper before they fled their state of slavery for God’s promised land of freedom. And the lamb’s blood was to be smeared on their doorposts. And the Lord promised, “'The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” This is the origin the name Passover. And it happened just as the Lord said it would. And the Lord instructed His people to have an annual meal commemorating this event to continually remind them of what He had done for them.

The original Passover event was, of course, followed by the Red Sea parting in which the Lord miraculously rescued His people and destroyed their pursuers. And then, when the Law of God was made known to the people at Mount Sinai, God reaffirmed His covenant with Israel. In Exodus 24, we read that a great sacrifice was prepared and Moses read to the people the book of the covenant, and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And when the people affirmed God’s covenant, Moses took the blood of the sacrifice and sprinkled it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

The word covenant is a significant biblical and theological term. A covenant is a binding agreement between two parties which stipulates obligations on both parties. The covenant that God establishes with His people is what might be called a unilateral covenant. That means that God initiates the covenant and accomplishes everything necessary for His people in establishing the covenant. The responsibility of His people is to believe His promises, and walk in faith with Him. God established a covenant with Adam, and established a similar covenant with Noah following the flood. In time, God singled out Abraham to be the recipient of His covenant promises, which He reaffirmed to Isaac, and then to Jacob and his descendants. This covenant was restored under Moses during the Exodus. After David was anointed king over Israel, God furthered His covenant with him. He promised David in 2 Samuel 7 that one of his descendants would occupy an everlasting Kingdom. This promise became the basis of Jewish Messianic expectations that God was going to raise up a deliverer of His people through the line of David. During the days of the Babylonian captivity, when no descendant of David was occupying the throne of Israel, God spoke through His prophet Jeremiah announcing the coming of a New Covenant. He says in Jeremiah 31:31-34, “"Behold, days are coming … when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them …. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days[:] … I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, … for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."

More than 500 years elapsed between those words that Jeremiah declared and this final Passover meal that Jesus observed with His disciples. And in this meal, Jesus completely redefines the significance of the Passover meal. Henceforth, for those who believe in Him, it will be a reminder of the new covenant that He has established with His people. The deliverance from Egypt was a miraculous deliverance of a particular nation from the bondage of Egyptian slavery. But the Lord’s Supper commemorates an even greater deliverance – not of a single nation, but of the whole of humanity; and not from the bondage of slavery, but from the greater bondage of sin. And the One who gave the Passover its memorial significance is the same One who exercises divine authority to redefine the observance. Jesus is superior to Moses, His salvation is superior to the Exodus, and His covenant is superior to the covenants which had been established with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. So, the Lord’s Supper is our Passover celebration wherein we remember that because of the sacrificial blood that was shed and applied to the doorpost of our hearts, God’s wrath and His just judgment will pass over us, and we will enjoy eternity in the glory of God’s presence because of what Christ has done for us. This is our covenant meal.

There in the upper room, Jesus inaugurated the meal of the new covenant with His disciples around the table. And as we read His words, and participate in the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded of our covenant with Him. Every time we observe this memorial meal, we are making proclamations about the covenant Christ has established with us. I want to focus on two of those proclamations today as we look into the words of our text.

I. When we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim the cost of His covenant.

The two elements of the Lord’s Supper are symbols of greater realities. I would imagine that a person with no knowledge of the Christian faith and practice would think we are foolish to consider this a “meal” at all. After all, we only eat a tiny wafer of bread, smaller than a penny, and drink a thimble full of grape juice. But it is not the quantity of food and drink we partake in this meal that is important; rather it is the reality behind these symbols which is important. Our goal in the Lord’s Supper is not to eat until we have had the hunger of our bellies satisfied, but to remember that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins satisfies forever the hunger of our souls. God’s offer of a covenant of salvation is a free gift which His grace extends to us. But though it is offered freely to us, we must not think that it was free or cheap for the Lord to provide. It was a costly sacrifice.

In the original Passover meal, there would be more on the table than just bread and the single cup. There would be bitter herbs reminding the people of their hard labor in Egypt. There would be the main dish of lamb, reminding the people of the sacrifice made for the blood that was applied to the door. The unleavened bread would remind them of Lord’s command to rid themselves of yeast, indicating the literal reality of eating this meal in haste before their flight to freedom and the symbolic reality of ridding themselves of the corruption of Egypt. And there would be four cups. And each of the four cups had special significance. The first cup was the cup of consecration which was drank at the beginning of the meal, indicating that God had consecrated Israel as His people. The second was the cup of affliction, indicating the plagues that were poured out on Egypt. The meal was eaten with this second cup. The third cup was the cup of redemption reminding the people of the deliverance from their bondage.

It was between the second and third cups that Jesus took the unleavened bread and blessed it. This was a prayer of thanksgiving and praise to God uttered before the bread was eaten. And then Jesus broke that flat piece of unleavened bread and gave it to the disciples around the table and said to them, “Take it; this is my body.” Just as this bread was broken, so His body would be broken. Following His betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Bible tells us that Jesus was beaten and spit upon. He was scourged, which is a method of torture in which a whip of several strands, with shards of metal, glass, or stone embedded in each strand, was struck across the victim’s body, and those shards would puncture the flesh, tearing it from the body as the whip was withdrawn. He was crowned with thorns and beaten over the head with a reed, driving the thorns deeply into His brow. And ultimately, He was taken to Golgotha, where His hands, these hands that broke the bread, were driven through with spikes and His feet were likewise nailed to the cross. It happened just as Isaiah prophesied 700 years earlier in the 53rd Chapter of the book that bears his name. He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities. The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed.

And then He took that third cup, the cup of redemption which symbolized God’s salvation in the Passover, and He gave thanks to God for it before giving it to the disciples. As the disciples were all drinking from this cup, He did NOT point to the events of the past and say “This is the blood of the Lamb which was slain in Egypt.” He rather pointed to the events that were about to unfold and said, “This is My blood of the covenant which is poured out for many.” Just as every covenant was sealed with the shedding of blood, so this covenant would be as well. This covenant was sealed with very blood of its Maker. By the shedding of His blood on the cross, He became the substitute who died in our place and bore the wrath that our sins deserve so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to God. By this blood we are bound to God in the new covenant of Christ. This is the cost of our covenant – His very body and blood, symbolized in the Lord’s Supper by the bread and the fruit of the vine. And each time we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim the cost of the covenant to ourselves, to one another, and to the world around us.

II. When we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim the consummation of His covenant.

You recall that earlier we mentioned that in the Jewish Passover meal, there were four cups: the cup of consecration, the cup of affliction, and we also mentioned the cup of redemption which was the cup Jesus used to symbolize His blood which was shed for us. But what about the fourth cup? The fourth cup was called, “the cup of praise,” and was shared to indicate that the Passover meal was completed. But you will notice that Jesus does not drink this cup with His disciples. Instead, after sharing the third cup, the cup of redemption, He says, “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the Kingdom of God.” He foregoes the fourth and final cup, essentially leaving the Passover meal unfinished. And we see this vow being upheld when, on the cross, He was offered wine mixed with myrrh as an anesthetic, but He refused it. What is the significance of this?

The new covenant, which is sealed by the new Passover sacrifice of Jesus Christ, has been depicted in the meal in symbols, but the reality had not yet occurred. Therefore, the new Passover was not completed. The redemption of humanity from sin had not yet been fully accomplished and would not be until He had laid down His life on the Cross. And it was there as He died that Jesus uttered His final word: Tetelestai, a Greek word translated in our Bibles, “It is Finished!” And then, John tells us in his Gospel, Jesus bowed His head and gave up His spirit. Now the redemption of the new Passover that seals us in the new covenant has been fully completed. But still we wait. We wait throughout all these centuries and generations for the day when He returns and consummates the covenant in establishing His perfect and righteous Kingdom on the Earth. We wait through days and months and years of trials and suffering in this fallen world, having His Spirit within us as a pledge of His promise. And we know that in His own time, according to His own perfect purpose, the day is coming when He will return and gather His covenant people to Himself. And when John was given the glorious vision of eternity in the book of Revelation, he tells us that the consummation of the covenant will be celebrated at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. And then and there, when all the elect of God have been gathered into the fold, and the wrongs have all been righted, and the Lord has executed His perfect judgment and those things which we now behold by faith become sight, the fourth and final cup of the covenant meal will be enjoyed together anew with the Lord Jesus in His everlasting Kingdom. And what a cup of praise it will be.

But until then, we gather together regularly and partake of these tokens, these symbolic elements: the bread that represents His broken body; and the third cup of redemption representing His shed blood for our sins. And Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:26, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.” In other words, we are looking back in remembrance of the cost of the covenant. Jesus Christ suffered the breaking apart of His own body and the pouring out of His precious blood on Calvary’s cross that you and I may be saved from the bondage of sin. And we are looking ahead in expectation of the consummation of the covenant. This Jesus who died for us was raised up gloriously from the dead and ascended into Heaven where He waits at the right hand of the Father until the day when He returns and establishes His eternal throne of righteousness.

And then Mark tells us that they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives. You might wonder, “What hymn did they sing?” Well, Jewish custom dictates that the Passover meal be concluded with the singing of Psalms 115-118. And in the singing of these Psalms just before walking into His betrayal, arrest, torture, and death, look at the words He sang: Turn to Psalm 115. &

115:17-18 - “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence; but as for us we will bless the Lord from this time forth and forever. Praise the Lord!”
116:3-4 - “The cords of death encompassed me and the terrors of Sheol came upon me; I found distress and sorrow. Then I called upon the name of the Lord: O Lord I beseech You, save my life!”
116:8-9 - “You have rescued my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. I shall walk before the Lord in the land of the living”
116:12-13 - “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I shall lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”
116:15 – “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones.”

Read the amazing words of Psalm 118 that the Lord Jesus sang as He went out into Gethsamane that night.

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good;
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
2 Oh let Israel say,
"His lovingkindness is everlasting."
3 Oh let the house of Aaron say,
"His lovingkindness is everlasting."
4 Oh let those who fear the LORD say,
"His lovingkindness is everlasting."

5 From my distress I called upon the LORD;
The LORD answered me and set me in a large place.
6 The LORD is for me; I will not fear;
What can man do to me?
7 The LORD is for me among those who help me;
Therefore I will look with satisfaction on those who hate me.
8 It is better to take refuge in the LORD
Than to trust in man.
9 It is better to take refuge in the LORD
Than to trust in princes.

10 All nations surrounded me;
In the name of the LORD I will surely cut them off.
11 They surrounded me, yes, they surrounded me;
In the name of the LORD I will surely cut them off.
12 They surrounded me like bees;
They were extinguished as a fire of thorns;
In the name of the LORD I will surely cut them off.
13 You pushed me violently so that I was falling,
But the LORD helped me.
14 The LORD is my strength and song,
And He has become my salvation.

15 The sound of joyful shouting and salvation is in the tents of the righteous;
The right hand of the LORD does valiantly.
16 The right hand of the LORD is exalted;
The right hand of the LORD does valiantly.
17 I will not die, but live,
And tell of the works of the LORD.
18 The LORD has disciplined me severely,
But He has not given me over to death.

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness;
I shall enter through them, I shall give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD;
The righteous will enter through it.
21 I shall give thanks to You, for You have answered me,
And You have become my salvation.

22 The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief corner stone.
23 This is the LORD'S doing;
It is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day which the LORD has made;
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25 O LORD, do save, we beseech You;
O LORD, we beseech You, do send prosperity!
26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD;
We have blessed you from the house of the LORD.
27 The LORD is God, and He has given us light;
Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.
28 You are my God, and I give thanks to You;
You are my God, I extol You.
29 Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good;
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
Psalms 118:1-29 (NASB)

The Lord Jesus walked out into the darkest night of His life singing these wonderful Psalms of Joy in the Lord. And remember what we read about Him in Hebrews 12:2 – “Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” What is that joy which was set before Him? It was this covenant, sealed in His blood which was poured out for many. He says “for many,” not all. Though the power of His blood is sufficient to redeem all of humanity, ultimately it will only be redemptive to those who turn from sin and self, and call upon Him by faith as Lord and Savior. And many have. Many will. Many in this sanctuary have. But perhaps not all. If you have never received Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we invite you to do that this very day. Just as He gave the bread and the cup to those at His table, so He gives His body and His blood to you, and says, “Take it. It is for you.”