Born at Just the Right Time

Posted by R. Fowler White

One of the most beloved carols that Christians sing during the Christmas season is that of William C. Dix, “What Child is This.” As few other carols do, the lyrics of this selection prompt us to contemplate the identity, the person and work, of the Baby in the manger (i.e., the feeding trough). In fact, the carol politely but persistently presses us to answer the question: is this Child truly a holy infant or merely a holiday infant? When we think about that question, most of our reflections focus on the birth announcements in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. Those passages certainly have their place. For now, however, consider Christ’s birth according to the Apostle Paul. Yes, even the Apostle reflects on the wonders of the birth of Jesus, and he does so in Gal 4:4-5. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. In that one sentence, the Apostle Paul tells us extraordinary things about Jesus, and in the process he gives us answers to the question that the carol poses. Though the lyrics of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” may have us singing, “late in time behold him come,” the first thing Paul tells us is that Jesus is the Child born at just the right time.

Paul’s words—when the fullness of time had come—prompt us to reflect on the timing of Christ’s appearance in the world. The time at which Jesus came is said to have been time at its fullest point, a unique occasion when all the parts of history that had to occur had, in fact, occurred. Each and every detail that had to take place was then in place. Clearly, Paul wants us to realize that the timing of the historical appearance of the Father’s Son was something agreed upon and fixed between the Father and the Son from all eternity. The Apostle Peter adds to this that the timing of the Son’s arrival was a date that the prophets of old diligently searched out, and it was revealed to them and predicted by them (1 Pet 1:10-12). Paul’s words, then, make us realize that the timing of Christ’s birth was according to the determination of God, the Lord of history. He, from all eternity, had, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass. Christ could not have been born either sooner or later.

If, then, the birth of Jesus took place in the fullness of time, what did that fullness look like? As the commentators have pointed out, it was a time of political preparation. The Roman Empire had brought the pax Romana to the then known world and so the world was united as never before (cf. Luke 2:1). It was a time of economic preparation. Of particular note, the Romans had constructed a superior transportation system, focused in five main highways facilitating travel and commerce from Rome to destinations throughout the ancient world (cf. Col 1:23). It was a time of cultural preparation. The Greek language had become the medium (i.e., the lingua franca) of commerce, culture, and philosophy, and so it was possible for the gospel and the gospel literature to reach an effectively universal audience. And, finally, it was a time of religious preparation. We might say that a famine of the soul, individual and social, had come upon the world. The failures of paganism and even Judaism, along with a revival of Messianic hopes, characterized much of the ancient world.

Thus, in his phrase when the fullness of time had come, the Apostle Paul points us to the truth that, politically, economically, culturally, and religiously speaking, history had been orchestrated by the one true God. In fact, by God’s own singular sovereignty and providence, the histories of Rome and Jerusalem, both of which figured so prominently in our Lord’s life on earth, had converged. The appointed date for the debut of the Son of the Father arrived right on schedule. In the fullness of time behold him come! What Child is this in the manger, then? He is the Child born at just the right time.

What’s An Exile to Do? Devote Yourself to Your God

Posted by R. Fowler White

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Pet 1:14-16, ESV)

The First Epistle of the Apostle Peter meets us where we live as a kingdom-colony of resident aliens in this world. We’re making our way to New Jerusalem, and we need directions on the right path to take. Having filled us with courage in our elect identity and with thanksgiving for God’s saving work, Peter exhorts us in 1:14-16. Be holy, he says. Be devout. Devote yourself to your God. Look at the details.

First, he tells us how we’re not to live our new life (1:14). Don’t let your pre-Christian ignorance determine your choices and affections now. Don’t stay stuck in those old patterns of passing pleasures. Don’t follow your former routines. Remember what life was like as a non-Christian (see Rom 1:18-32): you and I suppressed what we knew of God, and we didn’t see fit to acknowledge Him. How’d that work out for us? He gave us up to dishonoring our bodies and debasing our minds. Captive to corrupt cravings of body and mind, you and I were hopelessly confused, with darkened minds and hardened hearts, without a sense of shame. We lived for pleasure, shaped by our corruption, defiled in all the parts and faculties of our souls and bodies. By nature, you and I were utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil. We were, spiritually and morally, corpses in coffins, prodigals in pig pens. In light of all that, Peter says, don’t let your former ignorance keep shaping your life. Or as Paul said it, don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold (Rom 12:2, J. B. Phillips).

Having told us how we’re not to live, Peter now tells us how we are to live (1:15-16). Leaving behind our old appetites and priorities, we’re to devote ourselves to the holy God who called us into a new life. In 1:2, Peter mentioned what God did for us: the Spirit set us apart from the world and devoted us to (i.e., reserved us for) God, so that we obeyed the gospel and were cleansed by Christ. That phase of the Spirit’s sanctifying work is finished. But in 1:15-16 Peter mentions what God requires from us now: we’re to be holy, devout, devoted to our God. Strengthened by His Spirit and lined up with His Word, we’re to emulate our God more and more. Look to God’s own character. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all holy, holy, holy, entirely devoted to Their glory, each and all. Heed, then, His revealed will: be holy—be entirely devoted to God’s glory—in every department of your lives (J. B. Phillips). And just how does devotion show up in our lives? It shows up as we nourish and develop our new passions to know God and His revealed will. It shows up as we bear the fruit of the Spirit more and more. It shows up in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Overall, devotion to our God shows up in change from likeness to the world to likeness to Him, not just on isolated occasions, but in our new affections, priorities, and routines. In Peter’s words we hear echoes of Paul’s command in Rom 12:2, Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. To be holy is to be devout. It is to be committed to the process of progressive conversion to the likeness of the holy God who called us.

On the way to New Jerusalem, what are we exiles to do? Recognize that the holy God has called us to Himself. In doing so, He has united us by His Holy Spirit to Christ. Old unholy passions have been cut off from their food supply. New holy affections have been implanted. The seeds of holiness have started to grow. Meanwhile, Peter directs us onto the right path to take: don’t let the passions of your former ignorance keep shaping your life. Cultivate your new affections for the holy God who called you, and devote yourself, soul and body, to the glorious fame of His name.[i]

[i] For more on the theme of holiness as devotion to God, see S. B. Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016).

What’s An Exile to Do? Live in Confident Expectation

Posted by R. Fowler White

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 1:13)

Therefore … The commands for the new life that we Christians should live always seem to begin with that word therefore. After summarizing what God has done for our good in the opening (1:1-2) and thanksgiving (1:3-12) sections of his first letter (aka his “Survival Manual for Exiles”), the Apostle Peter turns in the letter’s exhortation section (1:13-25) to tell us what God calls us to do for His glory. The order of indicative/imperative is particularly important here: it reminds us that God does not address His commands to us His elect exiles as those who are still in bondage to sin. No, He addresses us as former slaves now free for a new life, free to grow in holiness. By free, we don’t mean that we’re fully and finally freed from sin’s presence, but we are freed from sin’s penalty and power, free to live the new life to which Christ calls us. So now, as we take courage from our elect identity in Christ and give thanks for God’s saving work, Peter instructs us about how we exiles should live.

So, what’s an exile to do now? Live in confident expectation (1:13). Our salvation calls for—in fact, it brings about—a reset of our outlook. Peter says, set your hope fully …. Fasten your gaze entirely, fix your eyes completely, focus your energies totally, on your hope of the grace of resurrection life to come (1:3), of the eternal glory that will be yours (1 Pet 5:10). Don’t set your hope on anything that’s of this earth or of this world (like an election cycle). Don’t focus your energies on anything that’s temporary, on anything that dies, goes bad, or fades away. Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

But we ask Peter, how? How do we go about fastening our gaze, fixing our eyes, focusing our energies on our hope of our future resurrection life? Peter answers, by preparing your minds for action. Our translation blurs the image that Peter provides us. The Apostle refers to the fact that, in ancient times, men wore long robes and would tuck them into their belts if they wanted to move more freely and quickly. Peter may even be recalling what happened at the Passover. Remember how, once the blood of the lamb was applied, God’s people were to be ready to leave Egypt for Canaan (Exod 12:11). Get dressed and ready to take off. So, exiles, says Peter, get your minds ready for action. Don’t imagine that we’re just going to stroll or coast to the finish. Roll up your sleeves; tighten your belt. Get ready to roll, to exert yourself in a vigorous and sustained way. Live your life in confident expectation by preparing your minds for action.

But Peter mentions one more way to live in confident expectation: by being sober-minded, that is, by disciplining yourself, by getting your mind in gear. In other words, gear up and stay alert. The tests and trials peculiar to our exile can make us careless. So we need to concentrate. Don’t let your mind wander. Don’t zone out. Sure, take time to rest and worship, but don’t just veg out and “let life happen” to you. Don’t get distracted by leisure and recreation, personal peace and affluence, worldly reputation and power. Lock in on your life to come in that lasting city.

Noah, an exile who preached (2 Pet 2:5) while he built an ark to sail to a new world (Heb 11:7), was called to live in confident expectation. The OT church, exiles freed to march to a new land, was called to live in confident expectation. So it is with us. Resurrection life in our heavenly country awaits us. For now, we are exiles set free from this world, and we live in confident expectation of the world to come. And, oh, yes: Peter provides us more detail on what our life of confident expectation looks like. Keep reading in 1 Pet 1:14ff.

What’s An Exile to Do? Give God Thanks

Posted by R. Fowler White

For all us Christians who find ourselves increasingly marginalized in society, the Apostle Peter’s “Survival Manual for Exiles” tells us how to persevere. He opens his manual with a call to take courage from our identity as God’s elect (1 Pet 1:1-2). He continues with a review of God’s past, present, and future saving work on our behalf. In light of God’s work, Peter challenges us to bless God, to give Him thanks for His great mercy to us (1:3-12).

Give God thanks, says Peter: He has given us new birth (1:3-5). He has given us just what Jesus said we must have in order to inherit God’s kingdom: you must be born again (John 3:7). God has done for us what we could never have done for ourselves: He has caused us to be born again. Through this rebirth God has brought us a living hope, a hope of new life before death and more: as the reference to Christ’s resurrection makes clear, a hope of new life after death. Through that new birth God has also brought us a lasting inheritance, one with no expiration date. It’s an inheritance that God guards for us, while by His power He protects us now through faith. Our place in the heavenly country is, thus, secured with a divine reservation that no creature can ever cancel. So, give thanks to God for His great mercy of rebirth.

Give God thanks, says Peter: we have joy, love, and faith now, despite testing (1:6-8). Though we face the trials of being exiles, we still have joy in our salvation. Yes, trials hurt, but they’re temporary. Yes, trials injure, but they’re valuable. They prove that our faith is genuine. They bring God glory, and they bring us reward when, at last, we see Christ face to face. So, give thanks: God has given us joy in our salvation. Moreover, though we haven’t yet seen Christ face to face, we do now love Him. God converted us from hating Christ to loving Him, and, with that adoration and affection, we gladly present ourselves to Him as living sacrifices. Give God thanks, then: He has put love for Jesus in our hearts. Furthermore, though we don’t now see Christ face to face, we do now have faith in Him. To be sure, our faith is not yet sight. But we are now trusting Him, and through that faith He is protecting us. So, we give God thanks: He has given us faith more precious than gold. And one more thing: though we don’t now see Christ face to face, we do now have joy in the future He holds for us. Again, though our faith is not yet sight, we find joy now in knowing that whoever believes in Christ will not be put to shame. On top of that, we find joy now in knowing that trials do to faith what fire does to precious metal: as heat separates dross from metal, so trials test and prove that our faith is genuine. We endure the testing of our faith, then, strengthened by the knowledge that trials are our God’s refining fire. So, give God thanks: we do have joy, love, and faith now, though we’re tested in exile.

Give God thanks, Peter writes: we’re blessed to hear the preaching of that grace predicted and investigated by the OT prophets (1:9-12). We now see the grace that they could only predict as a service to us in their future. As Jesus said, Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. Ours, then, is the blessing to live in the time of fulfillment! Ours is the privilege to see and hear what even the OT prophets did not! Give thanks to our God, then: He has granted it to us a great advantage to live in the time of which the prophets could only dream.

Peter’s first readers were much as we are: pushed into cultural exile, sometimes geographical exile. As it was then, so it is now: the world wants us just to shut up and assimilate. But we need to listen to Peter. He knew the temptation to deny his identity and to assimilate. After all, though he had been the first to confess Jesus’ identity as the Christ, on the night when Jesus was betrayed, Peter had three times denied both Jesus’ identity and his own identity. Jesus, however, had prayed for Peter that, though tested, his faith would not fail. God by His power guarded Peter through faith so that, when he turned again, he strengthened his brothers in faith (Luke 22:32). Peter continues that strengthening ministry to us in his first letter, telling us that, though the trials of exile test our faith, we should give God thanks for His great mercy to us. Will we heed his message?

What’s An Exile to Do? Take Courage

Posted by R. Fowler White

The Apostle Peter’s first letter has been described as a Survival Manual for Exiles, for Christ’s kingdom-colony of resident aliens in this world. His letter was relevant in the first century and is relevant now because, in the ebb and flow of divine providence, Christians can find themselves at the margins of life, relegated into social-cultural, if not geographical exile. To increasing numbers of people in our world right now, we who confess the historic Christian faith are outmoded at best and hateful at worst. It is vital, then, for us to know how Peter would have us approach every area of life. The Apostle’s opening message (1 Pet 1:1-2) to us is straightforward: though we’re exiles, we ought to take courage in our identity as God’s elect.

First, our present reality: we’re exiles (1:1). To be specific, we’re exiles of the Dispersion. But what does this wording mean? Originally applied to deported Israelites, Peter now applies it to the NT church, including Gentiles, scattered throughout the nations. But Peter’s words tell us more. They tell us that, like our father in the faith, Abraham, we’re resident aliens and strangers in this place. Meanwhile, however, by faith we understand who we are: we understand that God has made us heirs of a better country, a heavenly homeland. Knowing, then, our identity as God’s exiles, Peter says to us, “Take courage.”

Though like other exiles we lack a permanent homeland here, we’re different from others too. We’re elect exiles, loved from eternity by God the Father (1:2). Just as the Father foreknew His beloved Son (1 Pet 1:20), so He foreknew us. That is, before the creation of the world, the Father, who set His affections on His Son, set His affections on His people too. While we humans make our choices based on something worthy in others, God’s choice of us as His own is not based on anything worthy that He has foreseen or sees in us. As the Apostle Paul plainly states, God chose as He did so that no human being has anything to boast about before Him. So, nothing in us made us deserving of His choice. His choice is purely gracious. By contrast, the world measures our worth by ever-changing standards, vacillating between tolerance and hatred. Disdaining the world’s ambivalence toward us, we take courage in our gracious God: we’ve been irrevocably under His care since before the world began.

Speaking of God’s irrevocable fatherly care, we’re His elect exiles, set apart from the world by God the Spirit (1:2). Chosen precisely as the Father foreknew us, Peter says that He chose us for the purpose of having the Spirit sanctify us. That is, He had the Spirit set us apart from the world to be saved through faith. We ought to take courage, then, knowing that our present identity is no accident, no product of good luck. To the contrary, it is the Father’s eternal choice of us coming to fruition through the Spirit who set us apart for salvation.

Being now saved just as the Spirit sanctified us to be, we’re God’s elect exiles, obedient to and purified by God the Son (1:2). Focusing on the goals (not the grounds) of the Father’s choice and the Spirit’s sanctification, the Apostle describes the two sides of our conversion: side one is our obedience to Christ’s gospel; side two is Christ’s cleansing and forgiveness of us who believe. God chose us, not because of obedience to Christ, but for obedience to Christ. That is, He chose us to the end that we would obey Christ as He called us to repent and believe His gospel. God also chose us for sprinkling with His blood, to be cleansed from the sins that defile and doom us. Most likely, Peter means to remind us that Christ is like Moses, but also better (see, e.g., Heb 9:11–10:18). Moses put the old covenant into effect, and the high priest kept it in effect, by sprinkling the blood of sacrifices that could never take away sins. Christ, however, put the new covenant into effect and has kept it in effect by sprinkling the blood of His one sacrifice, by which He has forever taken away our sins. We who believe, then, should take courage from knowing that we have become just what God chose us to become: obedient to Christ and purified by His blood.

So what’s an exile to do when relegated to the margins of society? Take courage. Though we have no lasting city here, we bear witness that our triune God has given us an identity better than anything this world has to offer. By His grace alone, we are His elect, loved from eternity, set apart for salvation, purified forever.

What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: Change for the Good

Posted by R. Fowler White

Overall, the evidence and fruit of reformation in the OT church after the exile was change, change for the good. Change in direction from self and sin to God and His will as revealed in Scripture. Change in attitudes and affections, priorities and choices. Decreasing likeness to the world and increasing likeness to God. To as many of us as enter into solemn covenant with God and His church, we give testimony that He has begun a work of change in us and our household. So, as we read the story of Nehemiah, we examine ourselves and ask, do we, as members of God’s church, see the continuing fruit of reformation in ourselves, in our households, and in our congregations? When was the last time I noticed increasing holiness in my thoughts, words, or deeds? In Neh 12:44–13:3, reformation produced three observable changes in God’s people.

In Nehemiah’s day the people were joyfully supporting the temple ministers in their work (12:44, 47). They were joyfully fulfilling the vows they had taken (Nehemiah 10). They were giving contributions of the fruit of every tree, the wine, and the oil to the priests. They were giving their firstfruits and firstborn, year by year, to the house of the LORD. They were giving tithes in keeping with their vow that they would not neglect the house of their God. All these gifts were owed and given as required by God’s revealed will in His law. The people had vowed to support the OT church in its worship and work, and so they gave their tithes and offerings in keeping with their vow.

In Nehemiah’s day the temple ministers were faithfully performing their work (12:45-46). The priests, Levites, storeroom stewards, singers, and instrumentalists were all faithfully performing the service of their God and the ministry of purification. They were doing their work in keeping with God’s commands as implemented by King David and King Solomon. Why look back to the reigns of David and Solomon? Because they were largely the glory days of Israel: David had organized Israel’s worship; Solomon had built the temple. Their worship was driven and their faithfulness was defined by God’s word, not by the preferences of the postexilic generation or even previous generations. The postexilic temple ministers, then, organized and administered worship according God’s command as exemplified in David and Solomon.

In Nehemiah’s day the people promptly applied God’s standard for admission and exclusion to the visible church (13:1-3). Let’s bear in mind this OT “ministry of the keys” was a necessity not based merely on ethnic terms, but on covenantal, moral, and spiritual terms. According to Moses, God had sworn to bless those who, in faith, blessed Abraham and his seed and to curse those who, in unbelief, cursed Abraham and his seed. So, certain Gentiles, like Rahab, Ruth, and Naomi, had been admitted with their households because they confessed saving faith as Abraham did. On the other hand, certain Israelites, even some generations of Israel, had proven to be spiritually and morally Gentiles and had been broken off from the patriarchal tree for their unbelief. The standard for admission and exclusion was response to God’s oath to Abraham and his seed. In that light, the people were reading what was written about that standard and were promptly obeying it.

When reformation came to the OT church after the exile, it produced change in God’s people. Cheerful givers fulfilled their vow to support the church’s worship and work. Are you and I cheerful givers fulfilling our vow to support the church’s worship and work? God’s ministers faithfully administered temple worship and work according to His word. What is it that drives our worship choices and defines our faithfulness: what God wants or what we want? The people promptly applied God’s standard for admission and exclusion to the visible church. Do we acknowledge that Christ has established officers in His church to grant or refuse fellowship as His word requires? In Nehemiah’s day the evidence and fruit of reformation in the OT church produced change for the good in God’s people. May it be so in our day too.

What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: Family Heads and Officers

Posted by R. Fowler White

Since we’ve just completed our 2020 remembrance of Reformation Day, it’s timely to reflect on what reformation looked like when it came to the OT church in Nehemiah’s and Ezra’s day. Having looked at reformation’s effect on the people as a whole in Nehemiah 8, we should also consider its effect on family heads and church officers. Here we’re focused on those who were husbands and fathers, chief stewards of households (including stewards of God’s church), required to be holy as He is holy and to expend themselves for the good of those in their charge and care. So, when reformation came to the OT church, what was the evidence and fruit of its impact on family heads and officers?

Look first at two observations about family heads. The text tells us that they took the initiative to seek out the teaching ministry available to them. According to 8:13, these chief stewards came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. Public worship in congregation had reemerged as a non-negotiable (8:1-12). Yet public worship was only the beginning of their stewardship of their families’ discipleship. We’re told here that these family heads sought opportunities to be taught in addition to public gatherings for worship. The family heads were also obedient to what they were taught. As narrated in 8:14-18, they did what they had found written in the Law that the LORD had commanded. Note that, when they were directed to celebrate the Festival of Booths, they went out and built those booths and lived in them, each on their roofs and in their courts (8:16). We underestimate the significance of this activity unless we recognize that these family heads took the knowledge of Scripture that they had gained and spread it throughout the families in their clans. We may even say that Neh 8:14-18 is a picture of Deut 6:6-8 being lived out as a key means to and fruit of reformation among them: whether sitting, walking, lying down, or getting up, families rehearsed among themselves what God required of them.[i]

Consider also what church officers did when reformation came to the OT church. We remind ourselves that the priests and the Levites, along with Ezra and Nehemiah, were models of what the people should become, namely, a holy nation of priests. So, what happened among OT church officers when reformation took place? In general, the officers applied their abilities to the congregation’s need for teaching. We read how Ezra, Nehemiah, and the 13 Levites who stood on the podium with Ezra helped the people to understand the Law. In addition, those officers kept watch over the congregation’s response to the teaching ministry. Notice two details in Nehemiah 8. First, the officers discipled the congregation to do what God required. In 8:9, we read of how Nehemiah … and Ezra … and the Levites [spoke] to all the people. In 8:13, we’re told that the priests and the Levites were with the family heads, and together they all came to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. In other words, the officers came alongside the family heads for Bible study. Second, the officers consoled the people in their repentance. When reformation came to the people, they trembled at God’s warnings, suffered deep sorrow for their sins, and determined to turn away from their sins—and the officers knew all this. Seeing the people’s repentance, the officers spoke “words of assurance of pardon” to them (8:10-11): Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. And so the Levites calmed all the people (8:11). They reminded the people of the truth expressed in Neh 9:17, You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.

When reformation came to the OT church, family heads took the lead to seek out teaching, and they were obedient to what they were taught. Church officers applied their abilities to the congregation’s need for teaching, discipling them to do what God required and keeping watch over their response to that teaching. In this light, we have to ask ourselves, has reformation come to our congregations? We who have entered publicly into solemn covenant with God and His church have testified that God has begun a good work of reformation in us. As we read the story of Nehemiah and Ezra, we’re again constrained to ask if we, as officers, family heads, and members of God’s church, see evidence and fruit of His reforming work in us and among us. In the days of Nehemiah and Ezra, the OT church saw that evidence and fruit. Do we?

[i][i] D. Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale OT Commentaries, 1979), 108.

What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: The People as a Whole

Posted by R. Fowler White

When reformation comes to the congregations of God’s church, what does that reformation look like? To put it differently, when God renews and revives His church, what does that renewal and revival look like? Would we recognize it if it happened in our congregations? Would you recognize it if it happened in your family? In you personally? Historically, we think of the Reformation in the 16th century. We think of an extraordinary sovereign work of God through His King according to His Word to His own glory, manifested in increased holiness and decreased worldliness in thought, word, and deed among God’s church and usually in increased civic righteousness (restraint of evil) among non-Christians through increased fear of God in their hearts. So, what will reformation look like if and when God brings it to us today? As a framework for answering that question, let’s consider what reformation looked like when it came to the OT church in Nehemiah’s and Ezra’s day. We can analyze what happened from various valid angles, so consider first what the people as a whole did when reformation came to the OT church.

They took the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture. Strikingly, we are not told that Ezra summoned the people. Instead we’re told (8:1) that on the 1st day of the 7th month, all the people (almost 50,000) gathered as one man. We’re told (8:4) that the people made the wood platform from which Ezra read Scripture, the Book of the Law of Moses. We’re told (8:13) that on the 2nd day of the 7th month, the family heads came together to Ezra. The people took the initiative. And then what? They submitted themselves to be discipled under their leaders. The people told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book (8:1). The people remained in their places as the Levites helped them to understand (8:7), and the family heads came together to Ezra to study and to find out what God required of them (8:13-14).

Having taken this initiative, the congregation’s discipleship produced certain fruit. They were united. Notice how many times throughout this passage we’re told that “all the people” or words to that effect did this or that. No fewer than 10 times, the solidarity of the people is highlighted (8:1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 17). They were also zealous, eager, passionate, hungry, thirsty for God and His will as revealed in Scripture (8:2, 3, 7, 12, 13, 16). They were worshipful too (8:6, 17-18). We read more about this in Neh 9, where the people confess their own sins and also the iniquities of their fathers. But notice in Neh 8 that they wept over their sins as they heard the words of the Law read and taught (8:9). The people were so exercised by the conviction of their sins that the leaders, especially the Levites, had to calm all the people down (8:10, 11). Having turned from their sins, the people also celebrated their God (8:6). They were instructed to celebrate, and they did it (8:10, 12). And how did they celebrate? Just as God had prescribed: they kept the Festival of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, signifying their identity as pilgrims living in temporary housing with God their Provider but anticipating their permanent home with Him in the Garden Land (8:13-17). Representing faithful pilgrims from all nations, this Festival testified to the congregation of God’s presence with them on the way to the beauty and bounty of a restored Eden, and they rejoiced in God and delighted in His presence, and they rejoiced in God and delighted in His presence.

When reformation came to the OT church, the congregation took the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture; they submitted to discipleship under their leaders’ stewardship; they were united, zealous, and worshipful disciples of their Lord; they wept over their sins; they celebrated their God. Having just celebrated another Reformation Day, let’s ask: are we seeing congregations taking the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture? Have we and our fellow members submitted ourselves to be discipled under the stewardship of our leaders? Are we united, zealous, and worshipful as Christ’s disciples? Do we weep over our sins? Do we worship our God as He prescribes? This is what reformation looked like in the OT church when God brought it to the congregation as a whole. Next, God willing, we’ll consider what family heads and officers did.

Christ the Holy Son: Better Than Moses and the Levites (Heb 3–10)

Posted by R. Fowler White

Having put before us the contrasts between Jesus the Son and the prophets in Heb 1:1-3 and the angels in Heb 1:4-14 and 2:5-18, the writer of Hebrews continues to increase our esteem for Christ by turning in chs. 3–10 to the contrast between the Son and Moses and the Levitical priests. Beginning in 3:1-6, we’re told that Jesus is the faithful Son over God’s house and the builder thereof; Moses is a faithful servant in God’s house. To understand better the different roles of Jesus and Moses relative to God’s house, it helps us to consider the house’s two forms. One of those forms appeared in Exod 20–23, where God required “the house of Jacob” (Exod 19:3) to be holy as He is holy (Exod 19:6; Lev 19:2) so as to become His holy nation of priests (Exod 19:4-6). A second form of God’s house came into view in Exod 25–31 and 35–40, where the earthly tabernacle was built after the pattern of God’s holy residence in heaven (Exod 25:40; Heb 8:5) according to His word and by His Spirit. In fact, the tabernacle stood as a shadow and type of what the house of Israel was required to be, namely the living and holy house built when God’s Spirit effectually applied His word to His people. Noticeably, what these two forms of God’s house have in common is the holiness required of them, and to understand how they were sanctified is to gain an even more reverent esteem for Christ. So let’s look further at how God’s house was sanctified.

As summarized in 9:11-28, the sanctification of God’s house in its two forms was accomplished through the priesthoods of Moses and the Levites and of Christ. Under God’s servants Moses and the Levites, God’s house was sanctified when Moses inaugurated the first covenant, cleansing the earthly tabernacle and the worshipers with the blood of calves and goats for his own sins and for those of the worshipers. Once inaugurated by Moses, the Levitical priests kept the tabernacle and the worshipers cleansed by continually offering sacrifices for their own sins and for those of the people. Similarly, under God’s Son Jesus, God’s house was sanctified when He inaugurated the second covenant, cleansing the heavenly tabernacle and the worshipers with His own blood, not for His own sins but solely for those of the worshipers. The sacrifice by which Christ established the holiness of the heavenly tabernacle and the worshipers is the same sacrifice by which He maintains that holiness. He offered His sacrifice for sins once for all time (10:10, 12), forever perfecting those worshipers He sanctified (10:14) and now always ministering for them in heaven (7:25; 12:22, 24). As Hebrews presents them, then, both priesthoods followed the same liturgy necessary to sanctify God’s house in both its forms. Even so, the two priesthoods were markedly different when it came to fulfilling God’s command to emulate His holiness.

Disabled by sin and death (5:1-3; 7:23, 28; 9:7; 10:11), the Levites were not and could not be holy as God is holy. Nor could they make anyone else holy and perfect (7:18-19): their ceaseless sacrifices could neither take away sins nor cleanse the inner man (9:9-10, 13; 10:1-4). Granted these realities, however, the Levites and the worshipers they represented could and should have learned of the good things to come (3:5; 10:1). Though many continued to boast in the Levites, the remnant who shared Abraham’s faith knew of those good things. Through God’s promises, prophecies, ordinances, shadows, and types, they, like Isaiah, looked heavenward to the priest better than any son of Levi and found in Him the blessings of His sanctifying (cleansing) work (Isa 6:7). They, like Moses and David, also looked forward to the priest from the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:8-12) and the order of Melchizedek (Gen 14:18-20; Ps 110:4). According to Hebrews, Jesus, the eternal Son incarnate, became that priest. Having through the eternal Spirit (Heb 9:14) demonstrated in His life and in His death the holiness that God required, Jesus proved to be holy even as God is holy (4:15; 5:7; 7:26; 9:14; cf. 2 Cor 5:21). Sinless and immortal, He is powerful to sanctify the people He represents, cleansing their hearts and transforming them into a living tabernacle-house (e.g., Deut 6:6; Ps 37:31; 40:8; 119:11; Isa 51:7), a holy nation of priests on whose hearts God’s law is written (e.g., Mal 3:1-4). He is, in a phrase, both sanctified and the sanctifier of all who believe (Heb 2:11; 13:12), as Abraham, Moses, David, and Isaiah did.

The message of Hebrews is clear: though pressures from our opponents may tempt us to deemphasize or conceal, or even reject and deny, the distinctives of our historic Christian faith, let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess (10:23), since in Jesus the Son, the Holy One, we have so great a priest over the house of God (10:21).

Christ the Victorious Son: Better than the Angels (Heb 2:1-18)

Posted by R. Fowler White

As we’ve emphasized in part 1 and part 2 of our series, the author of Hebrews teaches that our perseverance is traceable, in part, to a deepening appreciation for the eminence of Christ our high priest. In this post, we come to 2:1-18, where the author finishes what he started in 1:4-14. Having told us that Christ the God-man is exalted over the angels, he warns us: since we know that punishment was inescapable for neglecting God’s previous message through the angels at Mt Sinai (2:2), we dare not turn a deaf ear to God’s final message through the Superior who is over those angels (2:3 with 1:4)! To impress us further with the gravity of this warning, the author amplifies the contrast between the Son and the angels even more.

In 1:4-14 the writer’s accent fell on the Son’s historical glorification and His eternal deity, but in 2:5-18 his accent shifts to the Son’s historical humanity and humiliation. In 1:4-14, the theme is the Son’s supremacy to angels by rank and being, pivoting off of Ps 110:1 in 1:3 and 1:13. In 2:5-18 the theme of supremacy reappears, but now the emphasis is on His supremacy to angels by conquest as promised in Ps 110. Quoting Ps 8:4-6 to focus our thinking, it is clear in 2:8b-18 that the glory of the conquest promised in Ps 110:1 will belong not to the angels, but to man. More than that, the man qualified to conquer will not be just any man: according to Ps 8:2, God’s design is for the weak to conquer the strong. To see the force of this argument, we need to backtrack to Gen 3, where man was overcome by God’s enemy—a former cherub angel, at that—and was given with his seed over to sin, death, and defeat. In Gen 3:15, when God announced His future victory over the serpent and his seed, He reasserted His original design to have the weak conquer the strong. Specifically, God appointed death—the death of the woman’s one upright Seed—as the way to new life. Though ostensibly weak in death, that Seed would conquer the strong. Until the arrival of that upright Seed, however, God effectively took away from man the task of keeping the garden secure and pure and transferred it to the cherubim angels (Gen 3:24). As a result, man was, for a little while, subjected to the angels (Heb 2:7a; cf. 2:9).

With the appearance of the Son “in these last days” (1:2), however, the author of Hebrews can announce the arrival of the Seed promised in Gen 3:15 and Ps 8! It is none other than the eternal Son, the Creator God, who condescended to become the man qualified for conquest. In His state of incarnation (2:14), the Son overcame the temptations to sin (2:18). While contending with the indignities of this world, the temptations of the devil, and the infirmities in His flesh, He put His trust in God (2:13a), even unto death, and was thereby perfected (i.e., fully qualified) to become as the champion of salvation for the children whom the Father had given Him (2:13b). For the sake of those children, He defeated the devil, inflicting mortal suffering on him as He Himself endured mortal suffering (2:9, 14). For the sake of those children, He faced down the terrors of death, giving them the hope of resurrection (12:2; 6:18-19; 11:35). Though feeling the weight of God’s wrath, He laid down His life as a propitiation for the sins of His people (2:17). All this He did, bearing the reproach of man’s exile from Eden in being made lower than the angels for a time, so that by grace (2:9) and mercy (2:17) He might qualify man again for the glory (2:10) of life with God.

At the beginning of the ages, God drove man from the earthly sanctuary (Gen 3:23), and the cherubim angels resisted his return (Gen 3:24). Now, at the end of the ages (Heb 1:1), God has restored man, through the incarnate Son, to the heavenly sanctuary, and the angelic hosts assist Him to maintain its security and purity for all who will inherit salvation. Knowing that Jesus is the victorious Son greater than the angels, we dare not turn a deaf ear to God’s final message through Him. No, we hold Him, with ever-increasing faith, in the highest esteem! In our next and last post in this series, we’ll focus on Christ the Holy Son in Heb 3–10.

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