As manager of this blog, it’s interesting to me to see which web sites are the ones referring to my blog. Someone on the Biblical Horizons discussion group has obviously linked to my controversial blog post about Federal Vision. I wonder what they are saying. Well, I would venture to guess that “saying” is probably too gentle a word…
This post inevitably will condense some discussion that might be better expanded. It has been expanded elsewhere, as in The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, which is the single best resource on the whole issue, since you can see the theology in actual debate. What I am going to do here is list some reasons why the Federal Vision is heretical, and utterly to be abhorred. It should be noted that not all FV advocates hold to all these points. It is not a monolithic movement. Therefore, some of these points will apply to some and not to others. However, all of these points are held by some FV proponent or other.
- The first reason why the FV is heretical is that it makes no ontological differentiation in the church between those who are hypocrites and those who are saved. FV advocates will make claims that look like this: “the only difference between hypocrites and non-hypocrites is that the non-hypocrites will persevere.” This is clear from some of Steve Wilkins’s statements: “Because being in covenant with God means being in Christ, those who are in covenant have all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places. Union with Christ means that all that is true of Christ is true of us.” Now, by itself, this statement is not really objectionable. However, the way in which he connects this with “covenantal election” is highly problematic: “The elect are those who are faithful in Christ Jesus. If they later reject the Savior, they are no longer elect- they are cut off from the Elect One and thus, lose their elect standing. But their falling away doesn’t negate the reality of their standing prior to their apostasy. They were really and truly the elect of God because of their relationship with Christ.” Both quotes taken from Federal Vision, pg. 58. He is using “election” here in the covenantal sense of being elected to the covenant. FV proponents will claim that this use of the term in no way contradicts the decretal use of the term as used in the WCF, for instance. However, there is no doubt that Steve Wilkins, for one, is claiming real salvific benefits of being united to Christ for people who will eventually apostatize. In fact, he lists on page 59 all the saving benefits that future apostates have as long as they are united to Christ in covenant. What FV proponents have done is to develop a new set of terms that describe saving benefits of being united to Christ by covenant. These benefits, however, include benefits that are normally described as being part of the ordo salutis. Wilkins includes sanctification, sharing in the righteousness of Christ (meaning justification, as is clarified later on down the page), and redemption. He makes his position even clearer on page 61, where he says this: “Thus, when one breaks covenant, it can be truly said that he has turned away from grace and forfeited life, forgiveness, and salvation.” Here is what the WCF says: “Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.” The decretal sense of election is here in view in the WCF, and it explicitly says that they *only* receive any saving benefits. What the FV has to do is invent a whole new vocabulary for every saving benefit so that there are two justifications, two sanctifications, two elections, two redemptions, one covenantal and one decretal. However, they inevitably confuse the one set of terms with the other, and have not distinguished at all the two different senses of justification, sanctification, redemption, etc.
- The FV denies the distinction between the visible and invisible church. Admittedly, they have John Murray for a precedent here. So much the worse for John Murray. This distinction between visible and invisible is confessional, and, more importantly, Scriptural. I have no wish to deny that many Scriptures speak of the church as visible as being the church. Such passages are utterly and completely irrelevant as to whether the Scripture also speaks of the church as invisible. Acts 2:41, Galatians 2:4, 1 John 2:19, Romans 2:28-29, Romans 9:6, John 10:26-27 do abundantly prove that, in addition to the definition of church as including both the elect and the reprobate, there is another definition of “church” that means only the elect. Let me repeat carefully the argument, because many will quote at me passages that prove that the church consists of anyone who is baptized. I freely admit that that is one definition of the word “church.” But that is not the only way the word is used, or, more precisely, the idea. The passages cited above prove that there is another way of speaking about church that is simply in terms of the eternally elect who will never fall away. The historical considerations are vitally important here, by the way. The Roman Catholic Church accused the Reformers of not having a church for the many centuries before the Reformation. What was the Reformers’ answer? The visible/invisible church distinction. We cannot define the church solely in terms of what is visible, or else we have no leg upon which to stand, for the Reformers did not claim continuity with Medieval Catholicism, but with the early church. How is it that they are the true church? Because they have always been the true invisible church, though they were not always visible as the church. You get rid of the visible/invisible church distinction, then you cut the leg out from under the entire Reformation. I am indebted to Wes White for these arguments. I will post more later on the reasons why the FV is heretical. This is a start.
The text under consideration is Isaiah 45:7, in the ESV: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” Now, this rendering doesn’t seem nearly so problematic as the KJV, which reads like this: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Here is the Hebrew:
יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע אֲנִי יְהוָה עֹשֶׂה כָל־אֵלֶּה׃
Now, the word in question is ra’. This word has a range of meanings centering around two main meanings, “evil” and “bad.” The question is, what is the meaning of ra’ here? John Calvin says this, “Fanatics torture this word evil, as if God were the author of evil, that is, of sin; but it is very obvious how ridiculously they abuse this passage of the Prophet. This is sufficiently explained by the contrast, the parts of which must agree with each other; for he contrasts “peace” with “evil,” that is, with afflictions, wars, and other adverse occurrences.” Then he goes on to note that “we ought not to reject the ordinary distinction, that God is the author of the “evil” of punishment, but not of the “evil” of guilt.” Indeed, the contrast does point the way here toward that understanding of ra’ as “bad.” Whatever it is, it is the opposite of “shalom,” which means “peace, well-being.” This is similar to E.J. Young’s approach (quoted by Baltzer, though missing a key sentence). Young argues that this refers to more than just calamity. It refers to the absolute decree of God. This means that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, and yet God is not the author of evil. The difficulty with this position is that the Hebrew here is bara’, which is used of absolute creation by God everywhere else it is used (for instance, Genesis 1:1). Whatever the ra’ is, God created it. Therefore, I believe that Calvin’s approach is better. The context must allow its say in how we define the term ra’. So the ESV is a better translation than the KJV here, though the older usage of the word, if remembered, rescues the KJV from obsolescence.
In the Federal Vision, it has been my experience that there is an ever-burgeoning literature from their side of things pointing out what they believe. Further than that, if one hasn’t read all of it, one is not really qualified to comment on any of it, if one believes their side of things. This is evidenced by their use of the argument “If only you had read this, you wouldn’t have said that.” By the way, this is definitely true of N.T. Wright as well. I have been accused of not understanding N.T. Wright because I hadn’t read this of him or that of him. As Peter Schickele would say, “irrelevancy alarm!” Whether I have read one article really doesn’t have anything to do with whether I have understood a different article. Of course, one article might help to understand another, but then again it might not. What is most frustrating about this, however, is the certainty of some who use this argument. They think that they have somehow capped the argument with an irrefutable answer, when in fact, the argument is completely irrelevant. If an article cannot be understood on its own terms, but must be read in conjunction with 3 million other articles, then that one article either shouldn’t have been written in the first place, or it should have been placed in a book. If the writing is really all that unclear, such that someone else cannot understand it on its own, then that is the fault of the author, not the reader. Published material in its current form is fair game for criticism. The other tendency among Federal Vision advocates is to quote these articles instead of arguing their own arguments. Of course, it doesn’t occur to them that the critics might have already read the articles referred to, and (shocker!) not have been convinced by them!
The other related point that needs to be brought into the picture here is the unbearable tendency of FV proponents to whine and complain all the time that they have been misunderstood. You know, this is so amazingly tiring. This is why I am so tired of the whole wretched debate. The arrogance iof the FV here is almost unbelievable, since the only way the Federal Vision can be understood, if you believe their side of things, is if you agree with it. I have not seen one single instance of a Federal Vision author saying that the critic has understood his position, while disagreeing with the Federal Vision with the possible exception of Joel Garver, whose position vis-a-vis the Federal Vision is not clear anyway. Whose fault is this general misunderstanding, if it is true? Can it be that the Federal Vision author might be unclear? Self-contradictory? Dialectic in Hegelian terms? This does not occur to any Federal vision proponent. They have much more than half the PCA screaming at them “heresy,” and they don’t even stop to think whether it might be true. They plunge on in arrogant determination not to listen to their betters. The path of humility would be this: “Okay, I’ve got many of the best minds in the PCA screaming at me that I’m a heretic. The thing to do is a complete re-examination of my theology in the light of Scripture, the Confession, and Reformed theology as it has held on to these old truths. What I especially need to do is to lay out my theology in front of not just my presbytery, but other presbyteries, especially the suspicious ones, and have them comment on it. And I need to seriously reconsider my position if they are still unhappy with it.” This is submission to our brothers in the Lord. I don’t see even one Federal Vision advocate doing this. All I see is arrogance, elitism, and whining, whining, whining. Grow up, Federal Vision, and realize that you’re not only behind the 8-ball; you’ve already scratched.
What I wish to do here is a relatively brief explanation of 1 Peter 3:18-22. This could well be the most difficult text in all of Scripture. It is dripping with difficulties.
18. For Christ also suffered for sins once and for all, the Righteous one on behalf of unrighteous ones, to bring us to God, having been put to death by men, but made alive by the Spirit, 19. By which also, having gone, He proclaimed to the spirits in prison. 20. They disobeyed long ago when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, when the ark was being prepared, in which a few (that is, eight souls in all) were rescued through water: 21. this baptism (being an antitype to the water) now rescues you, not as an outward putting off of fleshly filth, but of an inward pledge to God of a good conscience: all this happens through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22. who, having gone into heaven, is at the right hand of God, having all angels, authorities, and powers subjected to him.
Overall picture and relevance: These can be combined and stated in several steps: 1. Peter is writing to suffering Christians. 2. In helping such suffering Christians, Peter wants to help them with the root of their persecution, which is demonic (or perceived to be demonic) in origin. 3. Christ conquered the demonic world through His death and resurrection. 3. Christians share in this victory through baptism (which means inclusion into the safety of the covenant). 4. Therefore, suffering Christians can be bold and gentle in sharing their faith and submissive to God in their endurance of persecution. In relation to the overall relevance, we can mention Eph. 6:12. Thus, we must qualify Christ’s victory as not implying eradication of the demons. We must still struggle (note the present tense feel of Eph. 6:12) with these demons. But the victory is ours through Jesus Christ, and does not belong to the demons.
Details of this victory:
Vs. 18: The textual variant “suffered” vs. “died” makes little difference in the context. Note here that Christ is not being shown as an example. This is proven by the words “once for all.” Rather, the focus is on the value of Christ’s actions for us. Note that “righteous” is singular (“the righteous person”), whereas “unrighteous” is plural (“the unrighteous people”). The Righteous One died on behalf of the unrighteous many. “Christ on behalf of us” is the meaning, clearly referring to the vicarious nature of the Atonement. “Bring us to God” has courtroom connotations. The verdict is “not guilty.” The circumstances under which Christ can bring us to God are the three aorist participles: “having been put to death,” “having been made alive,” and “having gone.” These are the conditions that had to exist in order for Christ to make us right with God. In other words, these three events happened BEFORE our courtroom appearance. Now, there are two possible interpretations of the parallel datives “in the flesh” and “in the (S)spirit.” They must be taken in a similar sense, since they are so obviously parallel. The first way is “in the sphere of.” However, the Greek distinction between body and soul is not within Peter’s thought here. I agree with Achtemeier, who thinks of the datives as instrumental, referring to being put to death by human flesh (human beings), but made alive by the Holy Spirit. If this is so, then Christ could not have come “in the spirit but minus His body” (this would be according to the Greek philosophical conception of the division of the person) in the three days between His death and resurrection. Rather, the proclamation took place AFTER His resurrection. In other words, Christ had body and soul together when He did the preaching.
Vs. 19. The “in which” refers most probably to the “spirit” mentioned just at the end of the previous verse. The ESV has left out the “also” that is supposed to be there right after the “in which.” This indicates a second activity that has been empowered by the Holy Spirit. The word “went” does not indicate a “descending into hell.” It is never used this way in the NT. Another word is used for that in Eph. 4:9, and Rom. 10:6. I think (with Dalton and Achtemeier) that the ascension is the reference here. Jesus went after Ascension but before Session at the right hand of God. I do think it is possible, however, that Christ did not actually preach in person to the spirits. The “in which” might give some extra credence to this possibility. The word “proclaimed” here usually means that the gospel is the content of the preaching. However, this is not always the case. The basic root meaning is “to be a herald.” Thus, this word cannot be forced into meaning that the spirits have another chance at salvation. Now, who are the spirits? Grudem would claim that it still could be humans, if you understand the phrase to mean “those who are now spirits.” A parallel to this would be to say that Queen Elizabeth was born in 1926, even though she did not become queen until much later. However, why is only the flood generation of people mentioned? This difficulty is much lessened when we understand “demons” by the word “spirits.” First of all, the word in the plural almost always refers to demons. If it does not, then there is always some form of qualification, which there is not in this case. Second, the reference to the disobedience is probably dependant on the tradition of 1 Enoch. 1 Enoch thought of the people’s disobedience in Noah’s time as dependant on the demons’ disobedience, to such an extent that the demons were thought to cause the Flood by their extreme disobedience. Thirdly, if it refers to people, then how does a knowledge of Christ’s preaching to people encourage people in suffering? Remember also that Christ’s actions here are not examples, but one-time occurrences. Now, not all the phrases in 1 Peter refer to demons. “In prison” must refer to the demons. This is a further argument that they are demons. This word does not refer to the place where human souls are kept. The reference is rather to a place “under guard.” Since when are people’s souls (and in this case, they would be saved, since the message would have to be salvation) kept under guard?
Vs. 20 The next phrase also refers to the demons. It can be translated “because,” or “when.” “Formerly did not obey” obviously refers to the spirits. This (I believe) refers to the Enoch tradition as to how they disobeyed. Peter is making a literary allusion (and so not necessarily endorsing 1 Enoch’s view) to 1 Enoch’s view of Genesis 6:1ff. 1 Enoch interpreted the “sons of God” as being angels, who disobeyed God’s order not to mess with human women. As a result, they generated a race of giants, the “Nephilim.” This interpretation of Genesis 6 in 1 Enoch is not the same as Peter’s. Peter is merely invoking 1 Enoch to make the point that even the most radically powerful and evil spirits have been conquered by Christ. See especially 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6. The next phrase (“that is, eight souls) has been taken by some as conclusive that the spirits must be human souls. However, I do not think it is necessary to see this phrase as referring to the spirits of humans. It is possible that the phrase refers to both spirits and human beings, or just to human beings. The point here for Peter is to nail down the exact time. There is a parallel between that time and now. God’s patience is also waiting now while the elect are being gathered, and the wicked are increasing their wickedness. The next phrase (“in the days of Noah, when the ark was being prepared”) does not necessarily refer to the building of the ark. If the reference to 1 Enoch is finished with the previous phrases, then it might be possible that the preparing refers to all the animals being gathered. It is possibly then a divine passive (God doing this “preparing”). The only other thing that needs comment in this verse is the last phrase. I am not sure that the ESV has correctly translated it. The Flood was the means whereby Noah was saved from the pagan environment. As such, the Flood is ironic. It is extremely destructive, and yet God brought about His saving purposes through it. I believe that is the meaning of the last part of this verse.
Vs. 21 Does this verse imply baptismal regeneration? Yes, it saves, but from what? The evil dominion of the spirits! Baptism involves the person in the victory achieved over the spirits by Christ’s death and resurrection. The negative qualifier indicates that baptism is not just an outward sign of inclusion into God’s covenant. It is that, but it is also much more than that. (I disagree with Dalton here: I do not think that circumcision is meant). We tend to devalue baptism in Presbyterian circles. We should not do this. Baptism gives us a clean conscience with regard to demons. It symbolizes the blood of Christ that cleanses us from our sins. One of those benefits of inclusion into the community of God’s people is freedom from demonic tyranny.
Baptism is related to the Flood in an antitypical manner. The Flood simultaneously destroyed wickedness, and saved Noah from that wicked environment. Baptism is symbolic of the destruction of the demons, and of our freedom from their influence.
Vs. 22 This verse caps the entire pericope by stating again the grounds upon which our hope is built. Christ has conquered sin and death, and sits with angels and principalities under His feet. This is probably a reference to Psalm 110:1.
It should be mentioned that this interpretation has been stated rather forcefully. I do not think we can be dogmatic about this interpretation. Indeed, you may choose to believe Augustine’s interpretation, which I think is the only viable option for the Reformed camp. Nevertheless, I think that Achtemeier, Dalton, and Kelly are correct in their overall interpretation. I think it makes the most sense of the context, and is actually the most practical for Peter’s readers. Practicality for us can be along the same lines. We either dismiss the demonic world too easily, or we fear it too much. I think Peter has much to say on both counts.
Here is the text (verses 1-4): “I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
The phrase I wish to examine is that phrase “baptized into Moses.” Obviously, all the Israelites passed through the Red Sea. Therefore, they were all baptized into Moses. It didn’t matter what age they were, they were baptized into Moses. Infants are included in this. What we have here is an indisputable example of “baptizo” being referred to infants. However, some of the details could use some elucidation.
Moses here is a type of Christ. This is proved by verse 6, which speaks of these things as “types” for us to follow. The Baptists might wish to argue here that the word only functions on a typological or figurative level. However, the question still remains, “Why did Paul use that word here?” By the way, this passage also forms part of the argument against “baptizo” always meaning “to immerse,” since the Israelites were not immersed. They went through on dry ground. It was the Egyptians who were immersed! However, this is a side issue, which could be dealt with in another post.
To be baptized into Moses surely functions on a typological level to point us to being baptized into Christ. If this is the case, then we have rock (vs. 4!)-solid evidence of paedo-baptism in the NT. We must be careful here in distinguishing and noting the sign and the thing signified. Remember that sacramental language sometimes ascribes the effects of the thing signified to the sign. Here we have the thing signified (escape from the Egyptians by the grace of God in the Red Sea), and a sign (the word “baptizo”) closely conjoined. They can be distinguished, though not violently separated. This is not to say that baptism saves, unless by that we mean that that to which baptism points saves us. The language must be extremely careful to not ascribe too much or too little to baptism. The fathers had their baptism in the sea. God was saving them. That is a type for us. Verse 6 absolutely and finally prohibits us from relegating verses 1-4 to the interesting but irrelevant solely typological level. These types are for our benefit. Therefore, the baptism of the fathers in verses 1-4 has reference to our baptism in Christ. Notice the parallel of baptism into Moses with baptism into Christ. Surely, Paul has the latter in mind in speaking about the former. In short, this passage is extremely strong in favor of paedo-baptism.
To my mind, almost the entirety of the issue hinges on the meaning of the word “dokimazo” in 1 Corinthians 11:28. This article (ht David McCrory) argues for paedo-communion on the basis of its understanding of the context and historical situation of the Corinthians when Paul wrote the letter. The specific section is about two-thirds of the way down the article under the title “Some specific objections; a. children cannot prove themselves.” I would suggest that the article does not do the word “dokmazo” justice at all. BDAG has this definition for the word, “to make a critical examination of something to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine,” listing this passage under that definition. What is one to make a critical examination of? The answer is “heauton” (oneself). Quite simply, it is eisegesis to claim that zero subjective aspects are attached to this examination.
BOQ It is possible for a covenant child, when tested (cf. I Cor. 10:13), to demonstrate by his words and behavior that he is living a godly life which seeks the approval of God. Such faithfulness can be observed even in a young child by both parents, elders, and other members of the church. EOQ But even this would require that the child no longer be an infant. Don’t get my position wrong. I think that children of age 6 are capable in some instances of such examination. I think other children of age 15 are incapable of it. This is where the session of the church is so important. But the article does not do justice to the definition of “dokimazo” in BDAG. The best article I have ever read on the passage dealing with paedo-communion is by George Knight. It is available in the Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons volume, available here.
Here is the passage in the ESV: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
In Greek: ἐν ᾧ καὶ περιετμήθητε περιτομῇ ἀχειροποιήτῳ ἐν τῇ ἀπεκδύσει τοῦ σώματος τῆς σαρκός, ἐν τῇ περιτομῇ τοῦ Χριστοῦ, 12συνταφέντες αὐτῷ ἐν τῷ βαπτισμῷ, ἐν ᾧ καὶ συνηγέρθητε διὰ τῆς πίστεως τῆς ἐνεργείας τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἐγείραντος αὐτὸν ἐκ νεκρῶν:
The question for us is this: how connected are circumcision and baptism in this passage? The answer must be “very connected.” For example: the circumcision made without hands is epexegeted by verse 12′s “having been buried with him in baptism.” The circumcision of Christ at the end of verse 11 is also epexegeted by “baptism of Christ.” We know in other portions of Scripture that Jesus viewed His death as a baptism (Mark 10:38, where the present tense forbids us to understand His baptism there as the baptism that He experienced in the Jordan river). We also know that His death can be described as a cutting off (“circumcision”) for the sake of His people. Furthermore, we know that the New Covenant is in fundamental continuity with the Abrahamic Covenant (Galatians 3:7-9). So, in Colossians, Gentiles who have been baptized into Christ have already received the real circumcision. Now, some might attempt to argue that circumcision only has a pointing capacity (to Christ), and that therefore it ends with Christ’s finished work. However, here it is the Gentile (!) who is said to receive the circumcision, that is, that to which circumcision points. The significance, then, of circumcision is ongoing. The significance is that, in Christ’s circumcision, we receive that circumcision by being part of Christ’s body. How do we receive that circumcision? By being buried with Jesus in baptism. So, we receive that to which circumcision points by being baptized. Therefore, there is fundamental continuity between circumcision and baptism. Therefore, if anyone wishes to object to infant baptism, then those same objections have to be levelled against infant circumcision. This is part of John Calvin’s argument for infant baptism, by the way.
Deuteronomy 6:4 reads like this in the ESV: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Both occurrences of “Lord” here are “Yahweh.” This translation, however, is not the only one possible. The reason for this is that the inter-relationships between the words is not explicit (McConville, pg. 140). Here it is in Hebrew:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד׃
Now, the four interpretations that McConville lists are as follows: “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone;” “The Lord our God, the Lord is one;” The Lord is our God, the Lord is one;” and “The Lord our God is one Lord.” The first emphasizes the polemical edge against other religions. The second emphasizes the oneness of the Lord. The third emphasizes the possessiveness of one Lord on the part of Israel, and the fourth is very little different from the third. At any rate, one can say with certainty that oneness and Lordship go together, and that this one Lord is “our” Lord.
The question arises: does this formulation preclude the Trinity? The answer must be “no.” Moses, in this chapter, is very careful to contrast the polytheistic religions of the nations in Canaan with the monotheism of Israel. This is clear in verses 14-15. However, that there might be a plurality within the one God is not ruled out. Moses’ focus is polemics, not so much on saying everything about the number of God that could be said. After all, Deuteronomy occurs in the same section of the canonas Genesis 1, which plainly indicates that within God there is plurality.
We come to a very difficult portion of Scripture. In fact, there is more written on this part of Genesis than on almost any other portion of Genesis. There is quite a bit of strange imagery, unusual words, and prophecy that is dark and unfamiliar to us. What does it all mean? And how does it affect us? Those are the question we will address. The main point here is the promise of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and the prosperity that Jesus will bring with Him at the second coming.
Jacob is giving us his last words, as we saw last week. He has now adopted Ephraim and Manasseh as his own sons. Now, he has a word to say to every one of his sons. First, he calls his sons together around him in order that he might be able to tell them what will happen in future days. In saying this, Jacob claims a revelation from the Lord. We will see that Jacob’s predictions are right on target, and that the future history of the tribes bears out these prophecies.
The first son to receive a word is Reuben. At first, it seems like it will be a favorable blessing. After all, Jacob seems to praise him for being the first-fruit of his strength, being the first-born with the birth-right, having the most physical power and dignity. That is in verse 3. However, what happens next is that Jacob remembers 35:22; “While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it.” When Jacob heard of that event, he didn’t punish Reuben at the time. However, he never forgot what Reuben had tried to do. Remember that Bilhah was the maidservant of Rachel. Reuben had wanted to make sure that his mother Leah would be the favored wife of Jacob. Furthermore, he was probably challenging Jacob for the position of patriarch of the tribe. Well, as we can see here, that plan backfired seriously. Instead of retaining the position of first-born, he gets rejected. Later on, in Israel’s history, Reuben plays very little part. They are part of the tribes that were on the east side of the Jordan. No ruler for Israel ever came out of the tribe of Reuben. Eventually, Reuben is completely forgotten.
Next up is Simeon and Levi. Jacob minces no words here, either. They are mentioned together, because of their actions against the city of Shechem. Simeon and Levi were cruel and heartless. Jacob does not even want to worship with them. He says literally in verse 6, “Let no my soul come into their council.” The word “council” is something like “worship service.” Jacob cannot worship with Simeon and Levi because of their violent tendencies. So verse 7 tells us their fate: they will be divided and scattered throughout Israel. That is in fact what happened. Simeon eventually got absorbed into the tribe of Judah and ceased to be an independent tribe. The Levites were scattered all over Israel. They had various cities given to them, but not any one territory. However, God exercised grace on the tribe of Levi by making their portion to be the temple service. And so God can even turn a curse into a blessing. The curse of being scattered resulted in the blessing of leadership in worship from the Levites.
However, to Judah, who was up next, Levi’s “blessing” didn’t sound too much like a blessing. In fact, the previous three brothers sounded much more like a curse. I’m sure you can imagine that he must have been somewhat nervous in receiving a “blessing” from his father! After all, he was far from perfect. He had slept with his daughter in law, and had gone along with the plot to send Joseph down to Egypt. What made Judah so different that Jacob gives him this ringing blessing? The answer is solely God’s grace. God had worked in Judah’s life to change him, so that he even made himself into a sacrifice for Benjamin’s sake. Yes, God had worked an amazing change in Judah’s life, a change which Jacob had certainly noticed. This blessing is what is going to take up the rest of our time. It is difficult in its imagery. Let’s unpack it a bit.
First of all, Judah is shown to be a victorious lion. This is what verses 8-9 are about. The lion is the king of beasts, and so the brothers will bow down before such royalty. If one’s hand is on the neck of one’s enemies, that means that the enemy is defeated. In verse 9, a lion rises from eating his prey, and takes the remainder of it home to his lair. That is what “stooping down” or “crouching down” means. The lion in his lair with his prey: who is going to try to disturb that? Maybe people should just let sleeping lions lie.
Secondly, Judah is described as a Ruler over people, in verses 10-12. First it says that the scepter will not depart from Judah. This means that there was always a descendant of David in existence. They didn’t always rule. But there always was a scepter, even if that scepter was hidden for a time.
The scepter is always there until he comes to whom it belongs. Literally, in the original, “Until Shiloh comes.” Shiloh is a name meaning “peace.” What we have here is a prediction of Jesus Christ coming to earth. Now we must understand that the text is not saying that there will always be a ruler until Shiloh comes, and then there won’t be a ruler. Rather, the text is saying that there will always forever be a ruler in Judah, and the one who is coming is the premier example of that. In other words, the word “until” does not have any idea of cessation attached to it. When the ruler comes, the scepter will still belong to Judah.
Verses 11-12 describe the conditions of this Messiah’s rule. A person could tie his donkey to a grape vine, and not even worry about the donkey eating the grapes, since he has so many other grapevines that this one doesn’t matter. There will be so much wine available, that it can be used as detergent for laundry! His eyes will be dark from wine, and his teeth will be white, because there is much milk. In short, this describes a very prosperous time. It is a time when there is so much of everything good that what we used to think of as precious and rare is so common that it can be used for common purposes.
We see the beginning of this time of prosperity in John 2, where Jesus turns the water into wine. It is 6 barrels full of wine. These jars, by the way are huge. They hold many gallons apiece. But notice that even that miracle at the wedding doesn’t really measure up completely to what we’re talking about in Genesis. That is because Jesus did not fully complete the kingdom of God with His first visit to earth. He inaugurated the kingdom by His death and resurrection. However, He did not finish the kingdom such that the curse of the Fall would be completely reversed. We are still waiting for that when Christ comes back. What Genesis describes is in fact a reversal of the curse of the Fall. Instead of thistles, the myrtle will grow, as Isaiah 55 says. We are dealing with not just a return to the garden of Eden, but our entrance into something far better even than Eden. In Jesus Christ, we have the hope of a completely renewed and restored universe. There will be no more death, sorrow, or evil. There will be no more sin. There will be no more alcoholism, despite the fact that wine will be so amazingly plentiful.
Do you look forward to that time? It seems far off right now, doesn’t it? That’s because we have a hard time recognizing that it has already begun. As 2 Corinthians 5:7 puts it, if we are in Christ, that is proof that there is a new creation. Yes, we are part of that new creation. And it is in us that the newness is most evident right now. However, the start of the new heavens and new earth was in the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
So, are we sunk down in depression? Are we aching for something, but don’t quite know what it is? Are we aching for things to be made right? Well, what we are really looking for, then, is something that we already have in seed form. God gave us the seed of the new heaven and new earth right in our very persons. The Holy Spirit is that seed. It is planted in us when God gives us faith. Do you have this faith? If it is a small as a mustard seed, still God can buoy you up with it, and accomplish amazing things in your life through it. Faith in God makes great optimists. Over in Burma, Judson was lying in a foul jail with 32 lbs. of chains on his ankles, his feet bound to a bamboo pole. A fellow prisoner said, “Dr. Judson, what about the prospect of the conversion of the heathen?”, with a sneer on his face. His instant reply was, “The prospects are just as bright as the promises of God.” Are your prospects as bright as this promise of God for a Messiah to come, and reverse evil in the world?