A Question for Theonomists

I know that I have at least two theonomists who regularly read my blog, and so this is a question addressed to them. The sin of idolatry, in the Old Testament, was punishable by death. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus, and many other religions practice idolatry. One can even make the case that Muslims and Jews are idolaters, since they do not worship Jesus Christ as God.

America was founded on a principle of liberty of religion. The issues get complicated in a hurry, of course, but my question is this: if Christian Reconstruction were to win out in America, does that mean that the members of these other religions should be executed? Or is the principle of death for idolatry changed in the NT, according to theonomists?

Treasures New and Old

Matthew 13:51-53


One voice teacher for whose students I did a lot of accompanying had this sign in her house: “Neat people never make the exciting discoveries I do.” Of course, what she meant was that old treasures were constantly being found. The fresh discovery of something that you thought you had lost s a very exciting discovery. It is perhaps equally exciting to go to a garage sale or an estate auction and find some old antique that is worth something and is going for a bargain price. And so you get a bargain on something. I imagine that there are few things in life that are more fun for Dutch farmers than finding a bargain. It is similar with the Bible, however. There are treasures and jewels rich and rare, as the hymn we sang has it. There are treasures in the Scripture waiting for us to discover. They can only come with digging and hard work. I’m sure that those of us who like to go to sales are quite willing to put up with the high gas prices, the time it takes to get there, especially if you get there early in the morning before all the good deals are gone. There is a certain amount of effort required in treasure hunting via garage sales. It takes work, and it often takes patience in order to find the really good deals. The same thing is true of God’s Word. Those treasures are not there on a bare reading, necessarily. Some lie closer to the surface and are easy to find and pick up. Others, however, take a little digging, a little work, and a little patience. They are more than worth it. It is a far better bargain than anything at a garage sale could hope to equal.

Jesus starts out this passage with a question about all these parables. We have found that parables are not easy to interpret properly. It takes some work and dedication. So when Jesus asks the disciples whether or not they have understood these things, I think the disciples are a little too quick to answer yes. They don’t understand the nature of the kingdom of God even after Jesus is raised from the dead. We see that in Acts chapter 1, where they ask Jesus if He is going to restore Israel at this time. So, they probably do not understand the parables as well as they think do, at least not at this time. This is important for understanding what Jesus says to them next.

Jesus, in effect, is saying that the Bible is inexhaustible in its wealth of wisdom. The disciples have a good start, perhaps. But they have a long way to go. In other words, they cannot simply hear or read what Jesus says once, and then claim to understand all of it. Similarly, we cannot claim to understand everything about the Bible once we have read it once or twice, or even thirty or forty times. People go to schools called seminaries in order to learn more about the Word. You can get doctorates in interpreting the Bible, and yet great scholars do not understand everything about the Bible either. Does this mean that we cannot hope to understand anything about the Bible? Of course not. The Reformation has always said that everything we need to know for salvation is clearly revealed in Scripture, and is on the surface. We don’t need to dig for that so deeply. Sometimes, one time reading that is all we need. But of course, we need to know more than just the surface meaning of the text if we are going to be mature Christians.

Now, notice that Jesus is talking primarily about teachers here. He says, “every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is talking primarily here about Jewish teachers of the law. They are the shepherds of the people. They already know about the Old Testament. They have studied the Old Testament so that they are teachers. But there is something else that they need to learn. They need to know about the kingdom of heaven. They learn about that in the New Testament. This is probably what Jesus means when He says new treasures as well as old. The new treasures refers to the New Testament, the new revelation that comes at the time of Jesus, and describes Him as being the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Of course, when Jesus said this, none of the New Testament had been written down yet. Nevertheless, Jesus knew that the New Testament would be written down, and that the kingdom of heaven would be the subject matter of it. The old treasures, then, refers to the Old Testament.

Here we see the importance of the Old Testament for believers. Nothing is more disturbing to me in the church today than to see that people do not read their Old Testaments very much. It is no accident that the Old Testament is ¾ of our Bible! Yes, the New Testament is more dense in information. That is why I simply cannot preach on a whole chapter of any New Testament book at one time, and will probably never do so. In the Old Testament, however, this happens frequently. Nevertheless, the Old Testament is not less important than the New Testament. It is all God’s word. 2 Timothy 3:16 says “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” Paul wrote that and was referring primarily to the Old Testament, since those were the Scriptures of the first generations of Christians while the New Testament was still being written. In our modern culture, however, anything that is old is bad. New is better. So the Old Testament gets ignored. That’s really a shame, since it is only in the Old Testament that we learn what humanity’s problem is and why we need Jesus. In the Old Testament we have also the law of God, which is to be our delight, as David says in Psalm 119. In the Old Testament we see the reliability of God, as He fulfills prophecy in Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 10 also, Paul tells us that all these things in the Old Testament were written down for our instruction. And in 1 Peter chapter 1, which we looked at a few weeks ago, Peter tells us that the Old Testament prophets knew that they were serving us when they wrote what they wrote. So there is no reason at all to neglect the Old Testament.

I think the main problem for us in approaching the Old Testament is that it is more foreign to us than the New Testament. It seems to be darker and more difficult to understand. All the more reason to take the torch of the New Testament and enter the storehouse of the Old Testament with that torch of the New Testament. For that is the way in which we can understand the Old Testament. We understand it in the light of the New Testament. When we do that, all sorts of treasures will pop out at us, all sorts of treasures that are old in one sense, and yet new to us.

As a pastor, digging up these treasures is really what I do with most of my time. There are not many passages in Scripture that directly address what a pastor is to do, and explains what they do. This passage is one of them, and so I would like to talk also about what I do. Most of you do not see what goes on in the office when I am there. It would be very easy to think that what I do in the office is not all that important. But let me describe to you what happens when I write a sermon. The first thing I do is to read the passage in the original Hebrew or Greek. This is why I spent years in college and seminary learning Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. It is never wise for a pastor to be dependent on a human, fallible translation. By reading the passage in the original language, I mean that I look up every word I don’t know in a lexicon, which is a dictionary of Hebrew or Greek. I then look up the word in every resource I possess, which is about three or four dictionaries. When I have the definition of each word well in hand, then I go to the grammars, and see if there are any particular grammatical difficulties in the passage. After that, I look up the passage in other kinds of dictionaries to see if they shed any light on the passage by talking about cultural background or historical background. I look up any figures of speech that might be in the passage, and whatever idioms might be used. Only after this work is done do I turn to the commentators. I usually read about thirty to forty commentaries on a given passage on which I am preaching. For instance, on this passage, I read thirty four commentaries. You might ask why so many? I have found that sometimes, the very last commentary I read has the most insight, and has something that all the other commentaries miss. Even the worst commentaries I read have an insight somewhere that everyone else missed. I want to have the fullest, richest understanding of the passage that I can possibly have. And that is not the only reading that a pastor should be doing. He needs to read church history, systematic theology, apologetics (that’s defending the faith), and practical theology in order to stay fresh with new insights taken from other areas of theology. A pastor needs to be up to date on what is happening in the world, so that the Word can be always applicable to where we find ourselves. On average it takes about 10-15 hours of research for one sermon, and that does not include the writing of the sermon. The writing of the sermon takes another 1-2 hours. So the average time for 1 sermon is about 12-17 hours, with most of the work being the preparation.

Why am I telling you this? Well, it is certainly not in order for you to say “what a scholar our pastor is.” If I actually were a great scholar, I would not need so much help! I tell you this so that you can appreciate how difficult it is to dig up these treasures old and new. I tell you this so that you will love the Word of God preached. I tell you this so that you will know how much I love this congregation. For all this work is not for myself, even though I learn so much in doing this. All this work is so that I can preach the very best sermons I can possibly preach so that you who listen will get the most out of it that you possibly can. Scholarship is not defined by how well one can quote other authors. If you listen carefully, you will find that I do not quote other authors very much. Scholarship is defined as being able to take something that is complicated and make it so that anyone can understand it. That is what I aspire to do, and to that I feel called as a pastor. I pour myself into sermon preparation the same way a cook takes great care to make the very tastiest and healthiest dish for those who will eat it. Those cooks who value what they do and desire to do the very best job they can, all for the glory of God, will be the best cooks. Those who simply slap dash a meal together and do not take the time for preparation may have other priorities in life, but cooking is not one of them. I believe that the most important thing for Christian growth and maturity is in understanding and applying the Word of God to the believer. That is what God Himself has described as the primary means of grace. That is how God speaks to us.

This means that we should listen to sermons expecting to receive treasure from God. That should be our attitude in listening to God’s Word. Taking notes is a great way of retaining what you have learned. Many people keep a diary of sermons, where they jot down all the important things of the sermon. That way they can make use of those sermons later on. Some people take notes in their Bible which they bring to church. That way, whenever they read that passage again, they can remember what the passage means. It makes sense to have some sort of way to retain these treasures. Would you find a great deal at a garage sale, buy it, and then immediately throw it away? And yet, we can come to the sermon, listen to it, and then immediately forget what God said to us. James talks about this in his letter. He says, “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it- he will be blessed in what he does.” Another great way to listen to the sermon is to discuss the sermon over the noon meal, or after the service, in the case of an evening sermon. You can discuss ways in which the sermon applies to your life, and increase the number of applications. It is not possible to include all the ways that a text could apply. And it is not really the pastor’s job to spell them all out. He is to give indications of where and how, with examples. But it is the people’s job to apply it to their hearts and minds and then go and do it. If we do these things, then we will be blessed, and will be retaining all those treasures old and new from the text of Scripture.

Three New BECNT Volumes

Baker Books is producing three entire volumes in their stellar commentary series, the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. 1-3 John (actually published, and WTS bookstore is only waiting for their next Baker shipment to arrive), 2 Peter/Jude, and Mark. With these three volumes being published, there are only 8 volumes left (depending on whether they take the Pastoral Epistles in one volume) in the series, the quality of which has been uniformly high, and at least one volume has become the definitive commentary on its book (Bock on Luke). In my opinion, pastors should own the complete set.