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Posts Tagged ‘covenant continuity’

the-Way-LogoWhere does Christianity fit in the grand scheme of world religions?

Are we merely a branch – though perhaps the truest branch – in the family tree of “Abrahamic faiths”?

Are we a part – though perhaps the most faithful part – of a broader “Judeo-Christian” consensus?

Do we have one take – though perhaps the most complete take – on OT interpretation?

When Paul is before Felix, he makes a fascinating distinction between Christianity “a sect” and Christianity “the Way”:

I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets  (Acts 24:14).

Paul’s opponents want to understand him as part of a Jewish sect.  Paul rejects that understanding.  He follows the Way.  The Ancient Way – the Way of the Law and the Prophets.

In front of Agrippa, Paul unpacks a couple of things from that quote.  First he shows what a sect is.

…according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee.  (Acts 26:5)

This is what Paul means by sect: a small part of a greater whole (in modern usage it has the added meaning of a part that claims to be the whole.)

Pharisaism is a good example of a sect within Judaism.

But Paul insists, Christianity is not a competing sect within some broader category of Abrahamic faith.  Christianity is not a smaller, more specific kind of OT faith that just happens to follow the Messiah.  Messianic faith is the Way.  The Way of the fathers, the Way of the law and the prophets. The Way it’s always been.

How can Paul say this?  Well, Paul simply explains what the law and the prophets have always testified:

I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen–  that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”  (Acts 26:22-23)

This is Christianity – the Ancient Way.  The Way of Moses and the Prophets.  This is not a sect within a larger entity called Judaism but the one way of the suffering, rising and reigning Christ – the way the fathers have always travelled.  According to Paul you cannot and must not understand Christianity as a smaller part of a broader Scriptural story, for then you misunderstand the law and the prophets themselves.

Paul says explicitly that he has not put a Christian gloss on a pre-existing sub-messianic revelation.  He is simply following the Way of Moses.

If someone does not follow the suffering, rising, reigning Christ they are not following the Way of Moses.  And, note well, this is not a new state of affairs according to Paul.   This is not Paul reading messianic meaning into Moses.  Paul is saying nothing beyond the original meaning and intention of the Prophets and Moses.

Anyone, in any age, who is not trusting in the promised Messiah is not part of the Way.  They are the sect.

That’s Paul’s understanding. Is it our understanding?  Or do we think of the Law and the Prophets as part of a broader religious movement into which Jesus fits?

 

No Jesus – our suffering, dying and reigning Messiah – is the Way.  The Ancient Way.  And there has never been any other.

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Isaiah Future- William_Strutt_Peace_1896Isaiah is the tale of two cities. Both of them are Jerusalem.

There is the old Jerusalem with its temple – the House of God. It represents the pinnacle of human and religious strength. If anywhere could be safe from the coming judgement, it would be Jerusalem. Yet the LORD repeatedly asserts that Jerusalem is first in line for divine judgement.

A few examples:

In Isaiah 5 there might be a 6-fold “woe” pronounced on the people in general, but it culminates in the temple with the LORD’s own prophet (Isaiah 6:5).

When the LORD commissions Isaiah to preach to Jerusalem, his preaching will completely cut down the tree until only the Holy Seed is left. (Isaiah 6:13)

When Isaiah pronounces oracles against the nations (Isaiah 13-21) they culminate with Jerusalem (Isaiah 22; 29-31).

In Isaiah 51, it is Jerusalem that will drink the cup of the LORD’s wrath first (cf Jeremiah 25).

Yet on the other side of this judgement comes a salvation that is also “to the Jew first.”

Isaiah is cleansed by fire from the altar (Isaiah 6:7)

The holy Seed will come as a shoot from the stump of Jesse to be universal Ruler (Isaiah 11).

After cosmic judgement, our hope will be manifest “On this mountain” (Isaiah 25:6) but “On that day” (Isaiah 25:9).

After drinking the cup, the LORD takes it out of Zion’s hand and comforts them (Isaiah 40:1ff; 51:22)

So we see that judgement and salvation as preached by Isaiah is not like this:

Judgement&Salvation1

It’s not that good behaviour could ever avert the judgement of God that rests on Jerusalem. Instead it’s like this:

Judgement&Salvation2

Or, to be more precise, it’s like this:

salvation-judgement2

Judgement begins with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Israel is the house(hold) of God. The temple is the house of God. And, in fact, the world is the house of God. But it’s all scheduled for demolition – from the top down.

Yet what about this holy Seed? What about this Offspring of Jesse? Surely He will sum up Israel – isn’t that what a King does? Represent people?

What about this Servant King who is the covenant (Isaiah 42:1-6)? What about this Anointed One who takes up the lost cause of His people? (Isaiah 61).  He will bring salvation to Zion, light to the nations, peace to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 11). First He must suffer in a very temple-kind-of-way (Isaiah 53:1-10) and then be glorified (Isaiah 53:11-12). In this way He will sprinkle clean many nations (Isaiah 52:15). They will stream to the true House of God (Isaiah 2:1-4) and so salvation can reach the ends of the earth (Isaiah 65-66).

salvation-judgement31In this way the preaching of Isaiah is classically law-gospel. There is the righteous judgement of God which cannot be evaded by any of our own righteousness (Isaiah 64:6). And there is one hope for us – the Divine, Davidic Christ of God. He alone bears our punishment and rises to give life. We who receive His word are brought into His eternal covenant and blessed with all His divine blessings (Isaiah 55:3).

Luther did not invent such a paradigm. It pulses through the Scriptures. Because all the bible preaches salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

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Luther BibleAs early as 1520, Luther identified a proper distinction of law and gospel as central to his evangelical understanding of the Scriptures:

“the entire Scripture of God is divided into two parts: commandments and promises.”

The commandments are law and to be obeyed. The promises are gospel and to be trusted. Confusing these categories is the fast-track towards losing the gospel.

For Luther and the reformers, the theological use of the law is to convict us of sin and guilt and to drive us to Christ. His blood alone can answer the demands and damnation of the law.

And so, for Luther (and for many even in the reformed tradition), evangelical preaching involves this journey of law and then gospel – the demands that kill and the promise of Christ that brings life.

At which point, non-Lutherans are liable to say, “That’s sweet. And artificial. Are we really meant to force Scripture into this mould?” It can seem a little alien.

Now I’m not a Lutheran, certainly not in the denominational sense. But let me suggest that something like “law-gospel” is not a Procrustean bed for the Scriptures, but the natural contour God’s Word.

As I argue here – it’s not just Genesis 1 that can be divided into forming and then filling. The whole of the bible runs from form to its filled-full reality. The law is a key example of this. The Good Life outlined by Moses is filled full by Jesus (Matthew 5:17).

And the journey from form to filled-full reality is a journey from death to life. First comes darkness, then light. First the seed, then the plant. First the curses of exile, then the blessings of restoration. First Adam, then Christ. First the cross, then the resurrection. First the old covenant, then the new covenant. First the old earth, then the earth renewed.

In all this, the ultimate reality is known and intended in advance, but there is a journey to undergo. And law-gospel is but one expression of that journey – through death to life. Luther was by no means the first to spot this pattern. I want to argue that this is the basic preaching of the prophets. Today we’ll think about Jeremiah. Tomorrow, Isaiah.

In Jeremiah 1, the prophet is called by the Appearing Word of the LORD who puts His words in Jeremiah’s mouth. At this point in history, the Word of the LORD will not appear to Israel en masse (Hebrews 1:1). Christ speaks through His prophets to the people. Only in the last days does the Word of the LORD come in the flesh as His own prophet (Hebrews 1:2).

But here in Jeremiah 1, what is the shape of the proclamation which Christ commissions Jeremiah to fulfil?

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”  (Jeremiah 1:9-10)

Notice the pattern? Uprooting, tearing down, destroying, overthrowing. But then: building and planting.

As Jeremiah speaks to his own people he will proclaim total destruction. Exile will come.  Inescapably.

Essentially, those in Jerusalem respond: “Yeah, sure. We’re with you on the total destruction thing. Total destruction for the nations. But we have the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” (Jeremiah 7:4)

But no, says Jeremiah. The temple is the first place to feel the flames. Judgement begins with the house of God (cf 1 Peter 4:17). God’s people are not exempted from judgement. In fact they are judged more harshly. Doom is coming. And it is unavoidable. Your special status, special places, special rituals, special behaviours, special leaders are all worthless. The end is nigh. Your only hope  is God’s Leader, His Shepherd:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The Lord Our Righteousness.  (Jeremiah 23:5-6)

It’s law then gospel. It’s Israel and all its worthless efforts then Christ and all His mighty salvation.

The whole pattern of prophetic preaching is like this. The prophets preach righteousness to the people. But they also make it clear that the people’s righteousness cannot save. Exile is coming and the only hope is God’s Messiah on the other side of judgement.

Law-gospel isn’t a 16th century invention. It’s at least 2000 years older than that.

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Genesis 12Audio    Text    Powerpoint

Here’s a point I didn’t have time for in the sermon…

In Egypt, Abram is far from the altar of the LORD and so he’s far from calling on the Name of the LORD.  It’s the altar of the LORD that makes sense of the Name of the LORD.

Think of where Abram’s altar is.  It’s on a mountain ridge between Bethel and Ai. “Bethel” means “house of God” and “Ai”  means “ruin”. To the west lies the presence of the Lord. To the east lies a ruin.  And this hilltop place of sacrifice stands between them. Where God’s house meets our ruin – there is bloody sacrifice.

At the altar God meets our ruin and provides the blood that saves.  Here sinners can call on the true Name of God.  Through the blood of the sacrifice we find that the LORD truly is “the compassionate and gracious God…” (Exodus 34:6ff). But who can call on the gospel character of Christ when they are far from His altar??

Abram shows what happens when we stray from the cross.  Having sinned, he gives us a picture of a spiritual sulk. In Genesis 13:3, he moves through the “Negev” – the “wilderness” – going from place to place. Moping in the dryness, moping around the fringes of the promised land.

Isn’t this what we all do when we fail?  I do.  I put myself in a self-imposed “time-out” with God.  I try not to bother Him for a while and hope He forgets what I’ve done. But no, time doesn’t atone for our sins. Tears don’t atone for our sins.  The LORD Himself provides our atonement.

So then, let’s flee to the cross, let’s know the blood of the LORD Jesus. Let’s not mope around on the fringes of His promise, let’s not try to clean ourselves up. Let’s come to Christ for the bath. Then we will call on His gospel character – the Name that makes sense at the altar.

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christ-and-mosesJustin Taylor recently linked to Calvin’s New Testament preface. It contains a heart-warming account of OT typology. Let me quote a few lines…

[Christ] is the victorious and noble king David, bringing by his hand all rebellious power to subjection.

He is the magnificent and triumphant king Solomon, governing his kingdom in peace and prosperity.

He is the strong and powerful Samson, who by his death has overwhelmed all his enemies.

It’s a Keller-style “Jesus is the true and better…” long before Keller. Well of course, it’s a thoroughly biblical – a thoroughly Christian – way of reading the bible.

But let’s not forget that Christ is also David’s Lord (Psalm 110:1); Solomon’s Fount of Wisdom (1 Kings 3:5); and the Angel of the LORD foretelling Samson’s birth (Judges 13).

In other words, Christ is not merely patterned in the OT (through the types). He is not merely promised. He is present. He is there as the consciously-known object of saving faith in all ages. David Murray gets at why this is so important here.

I’m massively encouraged by the church’s renewed interest in preaching Christ from the Old Testament, and especially by the increased willingness to see how Old Testament people, places, events, etc., point forward to Christ. This “types and trajectories” (or redemptive-historical) hermeneutic has many strengths.

However, I’m a bit concerned that an overuse of this tool can give the impression that Christ is merely the end of redemptive history rather than an active participant throughout.

Puritans such as Jonathan Edwards were masters of balance here. In his History of the Work of Redemption, Edwards shows Christ as not only the end of redemptive history, but actively and savingly involved from the first chapter to the last. He did not view Old Testament people, events, etc., as only stepping-stones to Christ; he saw Christ in the stepping-stones themselves. He did not see the need to relate everything to “the big picture”; he found the “big picture” even in the “small pictures.”

I’d also like to encourage preachers and teachers to be clear and consistent on the question: “How were Old Testament believers saved?” The most common options seem to be:

1. They were saved by obeying the law.

2. They were saved by offering sacrifices.

3. They were saved by a general faith in God.

4. They were saved by faith in the Messiah.

Unless we consistently answer #4, we end up portraying heaven as not only populated by lovers of Christ, but also by legalists, ritualists, and mere theists who never knew Christ until they got there. Turning back again in order to go forwards, may I recommend Calvin’s Institutes Book 2 (chapters 9-11) to help remove some of the blur that often surrounds this question.

I agree wholeheartedly with that recommendation. It gives the other side to Calvin’s teaching on the matter. Christ is not simply the true and better Adam, He is Adam’s true and only hope! Jesus is not simply better than Noah. Faith in Him is not simply better than faith in a sub-Christian God. It’s Christ alone or not at all. This is why we can never be content with merely preaching Jesus through OT types. Let’s hear Calvin some more…

[The OT saints] had and knew Christ as Mediator, through whom they were joined to God and were to share in His promises.” (II.10.2).

“Holy men of old knew God only by beholding Him in His Son as in a mirror.  When I say this, I mean that God has never manifested Himself to men in any other way than through the Son, that is, His sole wisdom, light and truth.  From this fountain Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others drank all that they had of heavenly teaching.  From the same fountain, all the prophets have also drawn every heavenly oracle that they have given forth. (IV.8.5)

Christ is the fountain, not simply the finale!  Therefore it’s vital to maintain both the christological promises and patterns of the OT and the presence of Christ.

But let me conclude with a word to those who bang the “presence” drum (people like me).  We mustn’t forget the patterns and promises. The OT saints did not merely rest in a correct doctrine of God. The fact that they grasped the Divine Sent One as ‘God from God’ did not save them! The fact they knew Christ as a distinct Member of the Godhead is not, in itself, salvific. They trusted in the Christ they knew there and then but also in what He would do when He came to save them. Their faith was not merely in the Person but also the work of Christ.  The object of their hope was not merely the Word of the LORD but His redeeming work as the Seed of the woman.

To use Calvin’s phrase, Christ always comes clothed in His promises. No-one can behold a naked Christ and we mustn’t preach a naked Christ in the OT. Christ is the root and offspring of David (Rev 22:16). If we only preach Christ as the root then we miss His incarnate – i.e. His saving – work.  And no-one can rest their faith on a non-incarnate – i.e. non-saving – Christ!

Let’s hear one last time from Calvin who helpfully upholds both sides for us: the presence and the promises/patterns:

The fathers, when they wished to behold God, always turned their eyes to Christ.  I mean not only that they beheld God in his eternal Word, but also they attended with their whole mind and the whole affection of their heart to the promised manifestation of Christ. (Commentary, John 1:18)

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burning bushI’ve had many discussions under the title of “Christ in the Old Testament.”  But perhaps the issues would be seen more clearly if we labelled the debate: “God in the Old Testament.”

And actually, the fact that those two titles sound quite different tells you everything you need to know about the dire Christlessness of modern God-talk.

We (and I include myself here in my knee-jerk western deism) imagine that there’s a bed-rock deity called “God” who is obviously the God spoken of in Genesis.  And then we discuss whether the Patriarchs also knew this shadowy figure called Messiah.  And we debate how ‘Messianic’ certain discrete verses are, and to what degree the author was aware, and to what degree the first audience was cognisant of specific promises and appearances, etc, etc.  But we almost never challenge that view of “God” which we all signed off on in the beginning!

Thus from the outset God is defined as – essentially – ‘the God of monotheism’ (broadly conceived) and Christ is defined as a nuance to a more foundational divine reality.  Then we spend all our time debating how clear the nuance was!

But what if… from the beginning, Elohim was not the god of Aristotle!  It’s a shocking thought I know, but let’s run with it.  What if… He makes all things by His Spirit and Word and says “Let us”?  And what if this is not something that needs to be kept in check by a hermeneutic that expects only an omnibeing?  And what if Yahweh Elohim stoops down and breathes into Adam’s nostrils and what if, under the name “Voice of the LORD”, He walks in the garden in the cool of the day and encounters the couple as a divine Person.  And what if Adam and Eve weren’t blind/idiots/default-unitarians?

How much clearer Adam and Eve saw God than us!  Without the “benefit” of our western theistic presuppositions, they see the “very God from very God.”  They don’t think in that exact language, but they certainly don’t think in unitarian categories either.  They think of Elohim who creates through His Word and Spirit.  They think of Yahweh Elohim – the hands-on God – who breathes life into man.  They think of ‘the Voice of the LORD’ who walks in the garden with them.  And in Genesis 4:1 they think they have begotten the LORD-Man at the first attempt (the timing was wrong, but the hope was not, cf 1 Pet 1:10).

They simply didn’t have a monadic sub-structure to their doctrine of God.  They were not proto-Arians, labouring under a philosophical strait-jacket.  To imagine that the Divine Messiah was something extra to their simple belief in “God” fails spectacularly to get at true Old Testament faith.  But it does reveal some disturbing assumptions about who we think “God” is.

Who is this “God” for whom His Word/Messenger/Messiah is an addendum?  Why on earth would we begin the Scriptures with that “God”?  And if the primary truths about God are unitarian, is our own faith primarily unitarian, just with a Jesus nuance?

The question is deeper than “Christ in the Old Testament.”  It’s deeper even than “God in the Old Testament.”  It’s the question of God.  Which explains why the issue can get quite heated at times.  But also why it’s so crucial.

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burning-bush

All the Johns agree:

JOHN CALVIN:
But let us inquire who this Angel was? since soon afterwards he not only calls himself Jehovah, but claims the glory of the eternal and only God. Now, although this is an allowable manner of speaking, because the angels transfer to themselves the person and titles of God, when they are performing the commissions entrusted to them by him; and although it is plain from many passages, and especially from the first chapter of Zechariah, that there is one head and chief of the angels who commands the others, the ancient teachers of the Church have rightly understood that the Eternal Son of God is so called in respect to his office as Mediator, which he figuratively bore from the beginning, although he really took it upon him only at his Incarnation. And Paul sufficiently expounds this mystery to us, when he plainly asserts that Christ was the leader of his people in the Desert. (1 Corinthians 10:4.) Therefore, although at that time, properly speaking, he was not yet the messenger of his Father, still his predestinated appointment to the office even then had this effect, that he manifested himself to the patriarchs, and was known in this character. Nor, indeed, had the saints ever any communication with God except through the promised Mediator. It is not then to be wondered at, if the Eternal Word of God, of one Godhead and essence with the Father, assumed the name of “the Angel” on the ground of his future mission.

JOHN OWEN
He is expressly called an “Angel” Exod. 3:2 – namely, the Angel of the covenant, the great Angel of the presence of God, in whom was the name and nature of God. And He thus appeared that the Church might know and consider who it was that was to work out their spiritual and eternal salvation, whereof that deliverance which then He would effect was a type and pledge.  Aben Ezra would have the Angel mentioned verse 2, to be another from him who is called “God,” v 6: but the text will not give countenance to any such distinction, but speaks of one and the same person throughout without any alteration; and this was no other but the Son of God.

JONATHAN EDWARDS:
This redemption was by Jesus Christ, as is evident from this, that it was wrought by him that appeared to Moses in the bush; for that was the person that sent Moses to redeem the people.  But that was Christ, as is evident, because he is called ‘the angel of the LORD’ (Exodus 3:2).

Given such unanimity among our reformed forebears (who themselves appealed to ‘the ancient teachers of the Church’) our modern reluctance to identify Him who dwells in the bush is deeply concerning.

From the 18th century onwards we’ve gotten ourselves into a position where even Christians find themselves thinking about “God” in the abstract.  In our thinking, ‘Trinity’ has become a gloss on a supposedly more ‘basic’ understanding of ‘God.’  The Son has been relegated to a theological luxury – a very good window onto the divine life.  He is no longer the one theological necessity – the Word, the Image, the Representation of God.  We find ourselves able to speak christlessly and, essentially, unitarianly about three quarters of God’s revelation.

And somehow we get ourselves to the position where the question “Who is in the burning bush?” seems odd or irrelevant or uncomfortable or a trap.  And many people hurry past the issue.  In so doing they hurry past the great I AM who defines Himself throughout the OT as the One who brought His people up out of Egypt.  ‘Who is in the bush?’ is a key question not merely for the passage, but for all the Scriptures and a litmus test of our theological convictions.  So what do you say?  Do you agree with the Johns?

My sermon on Exodus 1-3 is here.

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