Famous Last Words, Part 3

Genesis 49:13-27

At age 16 Andor Foldes was already a skilled pianist, but he was experiencing a troubled year. In the midst of the young Hungarian’s personal struggles, one of the most renowned pianists of the day came to Budapest. Emil von Sauer was famous not only for his abilities; he was also the last surviving pupil of the great Franz Liszt. Von Sauer requested that Foldes play for him. Foldes obliged with some of the most difficult works of Bach, Beethoven, and Schumann. When he finished, von Sauer walked over to him and kissed him on the forehead. “My son,” he said, “when I was your age I became a student of Liszt. He kissed me on the forehead after my first lesson, saying, ‘Take good care of this kiss–it comes from Beethoven, who gave it to me after hearing me play.’ I have waited for years to pass on this sacred heritage, but now I feel you deserve it.” The power of that blessing made its way through many generations. I myself come from that heritage, since my teacher studied with a student of a student of a student etc. of Liszt. I know then, what it is like to experience the power of a blessing that comes through many generations. We will look at how that happens in the blessings of Jacob here today.

First up is Zebulun. Zebulun is difficult in some ways, because the prophecy is all about the sea, and yet Zebulun was a land-locked tribe. How to explain this? One commentator says that they eventually possessed a portion of the shoreline. This wasn’t for a while, but in the meantime, they did trade on the sea-shore. Matthew 4 has the ultimate answer for us: Jesus was to live in Capernaum, which was by the sea of Galilee, and hence the Gentiles were to come into port there, as it were. We have then a prophecy here of the coming of Christ. Have you settled your ship into the port of Jesus Christ?

Secondly, we have Issachar. Some people think that this “blessing” is really a curse. However, I believe that it is not a curse. The blessings both before and after are really blessings. That would lead us to believe that this is also a blessing. Secondly, there is no record of a particularly shameful deed being done by Issachar except for selling Joseph into Egypt. However, that deed was shared by all the brothers, and Jacob doesn’t mention it. Thirdly, all the other animal comparisons are positive in the blessings. It would be odd if this one were not. Maybe we should translate it this way: “Issachar is a sturdy donkey lying down between two saddlebags. When he sees how good is a resting-place and how pleasant the land, he will bend his shoulder to bear, and he will become a body of workers that work the land.” So we see that Issachar is a tribe of strong workers. Issachar did not sell its freedom for peace with the Canaanites, as some propose.

Thirdly, we have Dan. In Dan, we have a serpent by the roadside. We are not to think of Satan the serpent, as if this were a curse on Dan. Verse 16 clearly implies that Dan is a just tribe, a good tribe. Rather, this prophecy probably refers to the time of Samson. Samson the judge was from the tribe of Dan. He certainly was a poisonous serpent to the Philistines, whom he slew by the thousands. Samson is also a type of Christ, who slays His enemy by the thousands as well. Don’t get bitten by that snake!

In verse 18, we have this one verse that does not seem to be connected with anything around it. However, Jacob is looking forward here to the time of Christ. That is what he is looking for, the time of deliverance. It is the prayer of Simeon before he held the baby Jesus in his arms. Simeon then says, “Now my eyes have seen your salvation. You can let me go in peace now.” Do you look for the deliverance of Jesus Christ?

Fourthly, Gad was one of the three tribes that settled east of the Jordan river. As such, their position was always precarious regarding the raiders that constantly harassed people in the desert. As a result, the Gadite tribe became very good at fighting. The prophecy is fulfilled in their constant defense of their homeland against invaders. In the same way, Jesus constantly fights on our behalf against the demons, and against Satan, so that the temptations that come our way will not be unbearable. He gives us the victory, as is prophecied here.

Fifthly, we have Asher. The name “Asher” means “happy,” you might recall. And their prophecy is bright with hope. They will be rich. Their tribal allotment was far to the north, and on the coast. They traded much, and were thus providing many delicacies for kings, as the text says. Moses says this about the tribe: “Asher is the most blessed of sons; may he be the favorite among his brothers and bathe his feet in oil. May your bolts be of iron and bronze and your strength last as long as you live.” The richness of the food reminds us of the wedding feast of the Lamb. There, the food will be rich, and Jesus Christ Himself will provide the richest of fare for us. Will you let Him feed you, not just then, but now, with the Holy Spirit?

Sixthly, we have Naphtali. Naphtali was born from Bilhah, Rachel’s maid. Rachel named the boy, saying “I have wrestled mightily with my sister, and have prevailed.” Napthali’s name means “wrestling.” Moses’ comment on the tribe goes like this: “Naphtali is abounding with the favor of the Lord, and is full of his blessing.” Full of blessing is much like what Jacob says here, “bears beautiful fawns.” So also, Jesus Christ is so full of blessings that bear fruit. Christ especially gives the Holy Spirit to His church. Do you have the Holy Spirit of promise that bears much fruit? Do you have so much blessing that others are blessed by your blessing?

Seventhly, and climactically, we have Joseph. Now, Joseph’s sons already received the blessing of being first-born in chapter 48. However, Joseph could be left out of this blessing, and so Jacob gives him a long blessing. In fact, this blessing is as long as Judah’s blessing in the earlier part of the chapter. Jacob was aware of the resentment that the brothers exercised against Joseph, although Jacob does not seem to be aware, even now, of the insidious plot that the brothers unleashed against him. We will see more on that in the next sermon. But here, certainly, Jacob recognizes that Joseph has been attacked without cause. One remembers also the incident of Potiphar’s wife, where Joseph was slandered. Slander is called by the name “arrows” in Scripture. Joseph had his full share of arrows shot at him. However, the Lord strengthened him. In fact, the Lord helped him so much that the help turned into blessing. Joseph wound up being blessed far beyond his brothers in this respect. We see the same pattern in Jesus Christ. He was shot at with many arrows of slander. People said that He blasphemed. People covered Him with undeserved abuse. And yet, the Lord sustained Him to the point of death, where that sustaining power was taken away that the Lord might have all the bitterness of hell’s punishment laid on him. This was for our sins. Those arrows turned into blessing however, when Jesus was raised from the dead. Then those blessings “rested on the head of Jesus,” as He was taken from the grave, and exalted to the position of highest honor. We therefore have all spiritual blessings in Christ in the heavenly realms, as Ephesians says. We have these blessings of Joseph through Jesus Christ. Are you blessed in that way?

Eighthly, and lastly, we have Benjamin. We naturally think poorly of wolves. However, here is a positive mention of wolves. Benjamin is called a wolf because he is such a ferocious fighter. In the book of Judges, Benjamin fights all the rest of the tribes, and holds out for quite a while before they can be conquered. Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin. Matthew Henry has this comment on Paul: “Blessed Paul was of this tribe; and he did, in the morning of his day, devour the prey as a persecutor, but, in the evening, divided the spoil as a preacher.” Ultimately, our Lord is the ravening wolf, greedily devouring His enemies, but dividing the plunder with His people.

We have seen that Jesus is the true Israel. He fulfills or reverses (in the case of the curses) all of these prophecies. These prophecies came down through many generations, again like the blessing that Beethoven gave to Liszt, who gave it to one of his students, and so on. The blessing had a way of making itself felt. How have you blessed the next generation? Have you given them the Word of God? Have you catechized them? Have you taught them the truth about Christ? These things you can still do, even if you did not do them so well before. Don’t let any opportunity slip by you for telling the next generation. Then you can have your last words be ones of hope for the future, not words of regret. You can have words of hope, like Jacob had.

John 15 and the Federal Vision

John Barach has the most entertaining and rhetorically flourishing comment on this passage. In talking about the branches that eventually cut off, he says “These branches were not stuck to the tree with Scotch tape.” The only problem with this quotation, rhetorically speaking, is that it should have been duct tape. Although, I don’t know if that would have worked rhetorically, come to think of it. Duct tape is too strong. The quote, by the way, is in AATPC, pg. 150, line 47.

Here is the text: 1. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7. If you abide in me, andmy words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

It is the contention of the FV folk (and Norman Shepherd: see Call of Grace, pp. 89-90), that the passage makes no ontological distinction between branches that stay in, and branches that get thrown out. Barach, for example, says that “they were genuinely in Christ, but they were taken away because they failed to abide in Christ” (AATPC, pg. 150, lines 47-48). He qualifies this statement in lines 51-52 with this statement: “According to Scripture, not everyone who is in the covenant has been predestined to eternal glory with Christ.” So Barach is not claiming that the temporary “in Christ” status of the eventually-apostatizing-branches is equivalent to decretal election. He does equate this status to covenantal election in lines 68-70 on page 151. So, it would be God’s choosing of Israel/church which is in view. Barach does not limit this covenantal election to corporate status, however. He goes on in line 89 to say that covenantal election applies to individuals as well. So the question boils down to this: what, precisely, are the benefits which in-covenant but eventually apostatizing people have? Are they “saved?” My contention is that FV authors claim too much for this covenantal status. Barach claims that it is fine to say of these people that Christ died for them (lines 149-152 on page 153); Wilkins claims all the ordo salutis benefits for these apostates on page 59 of _Federal Vision_. Christ died only for the elect, and the ordo salutis benefits apply only to the elect, as has been said by the WCF in previous posts.

But we must deal with a critical issue here in the exegesis of John 15. What about the warnings? As Norman Shepherd seemingly wisely indicates: “If this distinction (outward and inward branches) is in the text, it is difficult to see what the point of the warning is. The outward branches cannot profit from it, because they cannot in any case bear genuine fruit. They are not related to Christ inwardly and draw no life from him. The inward branches do not need the warning, because they are vitalized by Christ and therefore cannot help but bear good fruit” (Call of Grace, pp. 89-90). R. Fowler White has the answer to this. It is decisive. He says “The warnings of God’s Word, as a means of grace, retain their integrity because the decree of election is realized through them, not apart from them…when the warnings against apostasy and wrath come, we are not to presume our election and to ignore them; rather we are to prove our election by trembling at the threats of God’s Word and embracing its promises.” In the face of this clear exposition of the value of the warning to the elect, Shepherd’s criticism of the traditional position falls utterly to the ground.

Exegetically speaking, there are several indications that there are ontological distinctions within the covenant, and I am picking my words very carefully here. Some branches are “fruit-bearing,” and others are not. This indicates an ontological distinction. I used to work on an apple orchard. When pruning apple trees, there are branches that grow straight up, but will never bear fruit. These are called “suckers.” they grow differently from fruit-bearing branches. They are pruned away, since, far from growing in any positive direction towards fruit-bearing, they actually steal sap away from the fruit-bearing branches. However it be interpreted, the suckers that are there in the vine are not doing the vine any good whatsoever. They are fundamentally different from the fruit-bearing branches. At the risk of pushing the analogy too far, what is the sap? It is not saving grace. These branches are attached to Christ’s body, the church, not by Scoth tape. They really are part of the visible church. Plainly here, the vine is the visible church, which includes the elect and those who are not. But these branches are fundamentally different. In fact, the branches that do not bear fruit are dead branches. The same is true in the parable of the wheat and tares. They both grow up together in the visible church. But the tares are never wheat! So also here, the branches that do not bear fruit never bear fruit.

Romans 5:1, a text-critical problem

There is a significant textual variant in Romans 5:1 that drastically affects the meaning of the verse. The variant that almost all translations have as their in-text printing is the indicative “we have peace.” The by far stronger manuscript support, however, is for the subjunctive (“let us have peace.”) The two readings side-by-side would then read, first “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And second, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here we have a case where internal evidence (that is, evidence of probability) far outweighs the manuscript support (external evidence). Paul is writing in the indicative all the way through this section. He is not in the imperatival portion of the epistle yet. He is describing the indicative of our salvation. It would surely be completely out of character for Paul to say that we have justification, but then have to strive for peace with God. It contradicts everything else the apostle ever wrote about justification. Justification means that we do have peace with God. Add to this the other internal evidence of the similarity of vowels in the two readings (the two variants only differ by one vowel which sounds the same in both variants: omicron for the indicative, omega for the subjunctive), and one has enormous probability that the indicative is correct. I throw this variant out there to indicate the relative weight of various factors in textual criticism. Textual criticism has two sorts of evidence: internal and external, which correspond to transcriptional probability versus manuscript evidence. In general, I weight the external evidence more heavily, since it is much more verifiable. However, internal considerations cannot be discounted. The other place where internal evidence rules is in the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is much shorter than Matthew’s.

If we wanted to break down criteria for textual criticism, we could do it this way. In the external evidence side of things, there are several criteria we need to use in weighting manuscripts, none of which is absolute: age of manuscript (older is generally better); geographical distribution of readings (a more geographically diverse reading is much more likely to be original); family characteristics of manuscripts (a daughter manuscript (if proved to be a daughter) has no additional weight than the parent manuscript, unless corrected against another manuscript; number of manuscripts (the more the better: however, there are a significant number of qualifications on this one, since the vast majority of manuscripts of the NT are Byzantine in origin, and there are definitely family characteristics there. Furthermore, the Byzantine manuscripts are much younger than other text-types); tendencies of text-types (certain text-types are prone to expansion, others are prone to deletion, etc.). The internal evidence attempts to weigh transcriptional probability (what is most likely to have been written). It asks question such as these: “what is the more difficult reading (more likely to be original, since a scholar would be more likely to make a reading easier to understand than more difficult: however, this is not absolute),” “is there some error of copying that can explain the variants (same ending of words, same beginning of words, copying two identical words instead of one, omitting one of two identical words, same line ending, same line beginning, and so on).” This evidence is inevitably more subjective. However, as in the case above, internal evidence cannot be let go so easily. When weighing the variants, a dictum that is well-nigh absolute is this, “Does the reading I am leaning towards have the ability to explain how all the other readings arose?” This is an immensely important dictum in textual criticism. The best reading can explain how all the others arose. So textual criticism weighs internal and external evidence in attempting to find the original text.

Lest anyone have any misimpressions, very little of the NT is in any serious doubt as to what the original manuscript (the autograph) said. And of the texts that are in doubt, very few of those, in turn, have any significance for the meaning of the text. The dealt with above is one of the few.