New Commentary on Jonah

Jonah is one of my favorite books of the Bible, and this author is one of my favorite authors. The combination is sure to be good.

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Elijah, The Hinge

Matthew 11:13-15

4/27/2008

Audio Version

Here are Edgar Fiedler’s Forecasting Rules. (1) It is very difficult to forecast, especially about the future. (2) He who lives by the crystal ball soon learns to eat ground glass. (3) The moment you forecast, you know you’re going to be wrong — you just don’t know when and in which direction. (4) If you’re ever right, never let them forget it. This is true of all human attempts at telling the future. We just do not know what is going to happen, and even if we think we do, we are just as often wrong as right. Even if forecasting the weather, the weatherman is just as often wrong as right. In fact, if you predicted that tomorrow was going to be just like today, you would have just as good a chance of being right as the weatherman. However, there were right all the time. Their prophecies never failed. They were the biblical prophets. The reason they never failed was that they were inspired by God. God does know the future. That is why Isaiah was able to tell us about Cyrus hundreds of years before Cyrus was even born. However, the most important prophecies of the Old Testament had to do with Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the One who would take away the sin of His people. That is Whom this passage is really about. The passage looks like it is telling us about John. However, as we have seen in the previous passages, the only reason that John is important is that he is the one who points his finger and says, “There is the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

Last week we saw that the kingdom of heaven suffers violence. It makes perfect sense, then, to go to talk about prophets, since the prophets were persecuted just like the Kingdom of God is persecuted. And John, of course, was the perfect example of this persecution, since he was sitting in prison as Jesus spoke these words.

Jesus says that all the prophets and the law prophesied. Now, isn’t that interesting? Normally, we think of prophets when we use the term “prophesying.” What sense does it make to say that the Law prophesied? Well, the law tells us about Jesus as well. In John, chapter 5, Jesus Himself tells us that Moses wrote about Jesus. So, the entire Bible is about Jesus. That is what Jesus means when He says that the Law and the Prophets prophesied. They were all about Jesus. Of course, the Word had a significant meaning for the people at the time they were written. The significance of the Old Testament is not limited to Christ. But Jesus Christ is still the main subject of the Old Testament. Every passage does show us Jesus Christ in one way or another.

However, these Old Testament prophets came to an end with John the Baptist. John was the last of them. And he came after a long time when there was no prophecy. There was four hundred years between Malachi and John the Baptist. Interestingly, that prophecy Malachi ends with these words: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” Elijah was prophesied in the very last part of the Old Testament. The New Testament opens with John the Baptist paving the way for the Messenger of the Covenant, Jesus Christ.

Why does Malachi talk about Elijah? Was Elijah himself going to come back down from heaven? Remember that Elijah is one of two people who never died. He was taken up to heaven. So the Jews thought he would come back from heaven, when he was needed. Of course, John the Baptist is not literally Elijah, as he himself tells us in the Gospel of John, when the Jews were asking him who he was. John said that he was not Elijah (John 1). However, Jesus is telling us here that John the Baptist is Elijah in another sense.

You see, Elijah in the Old Testament could in one very important sense be called the forerunner of Elisha. Elisha had a double portion of the spirit of Elijah. Elijah did twice as many miracles as Elijah did. Elisha was therefore a greater prophet than Elijah. So also is Jesus greater than John the Baptist. Everything that John did was to make himself lower compared to Jesus. He said that he was not even worthy of untying the sandal from the feet of Jesus. Jesus is, then, the one to whom Elisha points. Elijah was seen in the prophecy of Malachi to be that forerunner of the one that everyone wanted to come, the Messenger of the Covenant, as Malachi says in chapter 3.

This is what Jesus wants us to hear, and it is important enough for Jesus to add this comment: “He who has ears, let him hear.” What does Jesus mean there? He means that if you are really listening to your Old Testament, and these references to Malachi and the books of Kings, which tell us of Elijah and Elisha, you will recognize that the Kingdom of God has come in the person and work of Jesus Christ. You will recognize that John the Baptist was the forerunner promised by Malachi, and you will also recognize that Jesus is the Messenger of the Covenant. This verse about having ears and hearing is always used by Jesus when something especially important is being said that is difficult to understand. Not everyone can hear. This is a common theme in the prophets of the OT. The prophets often castigated the people for not hearing properly what the Lord said. It reminds me of the placard you can buy that says, “What part of ‘Thou Shalt Not’ didn’t you understand?” But people’s hearts are hard. They cannot hear and understand and believe. Why is that? It is because people are stubbornly trying to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, as the apostle Paul would tell us. People’s hearts are hard. They cannot hear. The only way they can hear is if God opens their ears and hearts to understand. In other words, hearing, understanding, and believing what Jesus has to say here is really nothing less than the Gospel itself. After all, if you hear what Jesus is saying here, then you understand what Jesus came to do. You will understand that Jesus is the one True and Great Prophet, in whom is all wisdom and knowledge. You will know that God has definitively spoken to us in His Son, Jesus, as Hebrews 1 tells us. You will know that what Jesus has told us is that we must believe that He is our Elisha, come to raise the dead to life, come to raise us from our spiritual death to spiritual life.

How does this help us? Well, the Gospel is laid out for us, and so we must believe what Scripture tells us about itself. This is an aspect of Scripture’s authority. It tells us what we are to believe about itself. This is what is called the self-attesting nature of Scripture. Scripture attests that the prophecies of the Old Testament find their yes and amen in Christ. They all came true, and not a single one fell to the ground unfulfilled. This is because God is faithful, and knows the future. That is a wonderful thing about God to remember. Not only does He know the future, but has planned it as well. That is something no one on earth can do, or has ever done. Which would you rather trust? The spiritual equivalent of weathermen, true one day, but horribly wrong the next? Or would you rather trust the God of the universe, who does what He says He will do?

Secondly, this understanding of what Jesus said helps us to understand out Bibles better. Surely it is obvious that this Scripture helps us to understand what in the world Malachi was talking about when he uses the term “Messenger of the Covenant.” It also helps us to understand what Malachi was talking about when he said that Elijah would come. It helps us understand what Kings is really talking about when it gives us the life stories of Elijah and Elisha.

Thirdly, it helps us to understand that we must strive to listen in order to understand. It is one thing to hear a sound or a word or a sentence. It is quite another actually to hear and understand. Sometimes we call this the difference between hearing and listening. When Jesus says “let him hear,” Jesus means that we must be listening and hearing in order to understand. The meaning of what Jesus says is not always obvious. My wife has frequently told me that much of what Jesus says is puzzling to her. I heartily agree with her. Jesus is not always the easiest prophet to understand. But taking the time to hear, listen, and understand is important if we are going to be good Christians. Jesus commands us to hear. It is not a suggestion. We must not be like small children, who must be admonished because they are not listening. Instead, we must place our undivided attention upon hearing, listening, and understanding Christ.

Norman Shepherd’s First Article, part 6

Continuing on in the first article of Norman Shepherd in A Faith That Is Never Alone (and finishing that article), we come to this question: when Paul is talking about faith versus works, is Paul excluding all works from justification, or only some works? From Norman Shepherd’s own pen, we can see that his definition of faith does not exclude faith itself as being a work. He approves of Godfrey’s translation of Romans 1:5 of the phrase “the obedience of faith,” but then completely misunderstands the direction in which Godfrey takes that translation. This is what Godfrey understands it to say: “Paul was not suggesting that believing is the one work God rewards, but rather was ironically teaching that faith looks away from itself and rests in the obedience of another” (emphasis added, pg. 279 of CJPM). Shepherd says this: “This interpretation (the correct translation of Romans 1:5) has the advantage of rightly defining faith as itself an act of obedience, and therefore as a work” (pg. 65). This is clearly not Godfrey’s interpretation of the phrase “the obedience of faith.” So, whatever “this interpretation” is, it certainly was not Godfrey’s. It is entirely misleading for Shepherd to suggest that it is.

Shepherd clearly confuses justification and sanctification on page 66, when he says this:

We are not justified by dead faith (faith without works) and we are not justified by dead works (works without faith). We are justified by living and active faith. This is the kind of faith Paul calls for in chapter 6 when he tells us not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies, and not to offer the parts of our bodies to sin.

In other words, Shepherd is saying that we are justified by a living and active faith that works. Works is therefore a constituent member of justifying faith. They have to be Spirit-filled works, of course. My question is this: how is this one iota different from Trent? Trent would be more than happy with this formulation. I go with Calvin, who resolutely adheres to the exclusive particle in the phrase “justification by faith alone.” By the way, it is clear that Shepherd does not agree with Luther and Calvin in their interpretation of Romans 3:28 (pg. 65). He sets up the traditional straw man that Godfrey and others are advocating a dead faith justifying.

To return to our original question: what works does Paul exclude from justification? They are any and all works. But Shepherd does not think so. He outright denies this position on page 67, when he says,

Now we have to ask, what are these “works of the law?” They are not simply any and all good works, as Godfrey and many others thing, nor are they simply the ceremonial aspects of the law without the moral aspects…By “works of the law” Paul is referring to the old covenant, the Mosaic covenant delivered to Israel on Mount Sinai, summarizing the promises and obligations under which Israel lived from the time of the Exodus to the advent of Christ and the establishment of the new covenant.

In other words, not all works are excluded from justification itself! Calvin says this (commentary on Romans 3:21): “But that the Apostle includes all works without exception, even those which the Lord produces in his own people, is evident from the context. For no doubt Abraham was regenerated and led by the Spirit of God at the time when he denies that he was justified by works. Hence he excluded from man’s justification not only works morally good, as they commonly call them, and such as are done by the impulse of nature, but also all those which even the faithful can perform” (pp. 134-135). It is to this passage in the commentary that Calvin refers, when he says later on 3:28 “Why he names the works of the law, I have already explained; and I have also proved that it is quite absurd to confine them to ceremonies. Frigid also is the gloss, that works are to be taken for those which are outward, and done without the Spirit of Christ. On the contrary, the word law that is added, means the same as though he called them meritorious; for what is referred to is the reward promised in the law” (pp. 148-149).

Furthermore, in reconciling James and Paul, Shepherd advocates the very position that Calvin calls a “gross sophistry.” Calvin says that the term “justify” is used differently in James than in Paul (pg. 149 of the Romans commentary). Calvin says that the term “justify” and the term “faith” is used in two different senses. It is useless for Shepherd to appeal to Machen on this score, since Machen did not address the question of whether “to justify” means something different in James versus Paul. Shepherd says that the position that “justify” is used differently is “exegetically untenable” (pg. 64). This is bare assertion without any proof or argumentation.