“Suffered under Pontius Pilate”

Posted by R. Fowler White

We turn here to article four of the Apostles’ Creed, in which we confess our faith in Jesus Christ, who suffered under Pontius Pilate. Three times Pilate pronounced Jesus innocent of all charges against Him, yet Pilate had the authority to release an innocent man or to have him crucified. He was the one human being who had the most to do with Jesus’ crucifixion. He chose the latter to preserve his political career. In the Gospel of Matthew (ch. 27) the Evangelist gives a terse but vivid portrayal of Jesus as He suffered under Pilate and the soldiers in his charge. The details of our Lord’s suffering before He suffered on the cross are expressed in eight brief, heartbreaking statements. They provide a disturbing picture of unspeakable atrocity and unbearably sadistic torture. For they show us that under Pilate the King of Glory was in the hands of angry sinners. 

Despite Governor Pilate’s threefold finding of innocence, the official process of Jesus’ execution by crucifixion began. Now, for the first time, the Roman military had Jesus, the royal wannabe (as they saw Him), in their hands. They will proceed to act out a mock ceremony of coronation, mixing brutality with sarcastic barracks humor. Since Jesus was on His way to execution, nothing will curb their enjoyment of this opportunity to humiliate this King of the Jews, this ludicrous example of a Jew who, as they saw it, had dared to challenge the world’s super power. Like no one else, they would see to it that this one suffered under Pontius Pilate. Merciless soldiers were never more cruel or crude than they were with the King of Glory. 

Faced with the outcry of the unruly crowd in Jerusalem, Pilate caved in and decided to punish Jesus by having Him flogged in anticipation of crucifixion. So, first, they tore off the outer garments and undergarments of Jesus. Stripped of clothing, He endured the shame of public nakedness that Jewish persons in antiquity earnestly sought to avoid. Naked, He was most likely tied to a post or pillar with His hands secured tightly above Him; if not in that position, thrown to the ground would have worked too. Next, the military guards took their positions standing on either side of Him, brandishing the whip(s) made from cords of leather, with pieces of metal and bone braided into the leather strands. Then they flogged Him, repeatedly lashing his back, his chest, or both, likely leaving strips of flesh hanging from His wounds, perhaps exposing even bones or organs. While the Jews only allowed thirty-nine lashes, the Romans had no such limit. This gruesome assault was designed, if not to kill Jesus, at least to weaken His overall constitution before He was nailed to the cross, shortening the time it would take Him to die there.

The flogging left Jesus a pathetic sight: His appearance severely altered, His form marred beyond easy recognition, barely able to stand or walk, and certainly humanly powerless to resist. Putting His garments back on Him, the soldiers took Jesus into Pilate’s official residence and the military barracks housed there, and they gathered the whole battalion before Him. There stood a company of the 600 men normally stationed in Jerusalem at the fortress on the Temple Mount, reinforced by troops who accompanied Pilate to the Passover feast in case they were needed for riot control. They had Jesus to themselves inside their barracks, and it was time for a little macabre theater. Their mocking coronation play began, each new action a parody of a king’s regalia.

After they again stripped His garments off, leaving Him naked, the staring, chuckling battalion put a loose robe (a reddish-purple outer garment worn by soldiers and travelers) on Him, pretending He was a royal warrior. Arrayed in knockoff royal regalia, He needed a crown. After all, those who held national office wore crowns as a sign of their exalted status. The Roman victor’s crown was a bent twig or perhaps two twigs tied together. Often a single wreath of grass or one made of flowers and leaves was used to adorn the brow of the wearer. So, continuing their little coronation charade, the soldiers crowned Him with a crown all right. In their contemptuous, sadistic ridicule, they designed a crown of thorns to puncture and scrape His forehead and scalp. This was no sign of exalted standing. It was a derisive imitation of the crown worn by Rome’s rulers, a sign of utter disdain.

But their parody was not done yet. What else did a king need but a scepter, a monarch’s symbol of his authority and power? So, they placed a scepter in His right hand: in fact, an imitation of a scepter, a bamboo cane often used in military floggings. And still the ceremony for their cartoon king was not complete. It remained for them to show Him what homage they owed Him. They knelt before Him and mocked Him, pretending to recognize Jesus’ royal majesty and throwing in His face that sneering taunt, King of the Jews. Kneeling before Him was not enough, however: they spat on Him. Nothing of the expected kiss of homage (e.g., Ps 2:12) for this king, these soldiers repeated the insult that Jewish leaders had inflicted on Him earlier. And still the abuse continued as they ripped the fake scepter from His hand and beat Him about the head with it, every blow driving the thorns of His crown more deeply, more painfully into His forehead and scalp. Having shown Him what homage they owed Him, the torture of their coronation play was over. They stripped Him of His royal regalia, dressed Him again in His own garments, and led Him away to be crucified.

Ordinarily, as the person condemned to execution by crucifixion, Jesus would Himself have had to carry the thirty- to forty-pound horizontal beam of the cross on which He was to be nailed out to the site where the upright stake stood. But it was physically impossible for Him to do so. So, to carry the beam, the soldiers pressed into service Simon from Cyrene (roughly modern Libya), probably a Jewish pilgrim who had travelled to Jerusalem for Passover. Onward they would walk, until they arrived at the site on Calvary where the upright stake stood.

Thus do we confess Jesus Christ … suffered under Pontius Pilate.

“Conceived by the Holy Spirit and Born of the Virgin Mary”

Posted by R. Fowler White

Having focused in the second article of the Apostles’ Creed on Christ’s relation as God the Son to God the Father and on His relation as Lord to believing sinners, we turn next to the third article and the events that resulted in His incarnation. What was required of the eternal Son of glory whom the Father sent from heaven to earth? The Creed affirms that, for our sakes, He was required to humble Himself in incarnation through conception and birth. That being the case, we learn that His nativity began His earthly humiliation, and the Creed summarizes that nativity in two phrases.

Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The Son was pleased to humble Himself in incarnation through conception. Though from all eternity God the Son had been in the presence of God the Father and God the Spirit, He emptied Himself, poured Himself out, made Himself of no reputation, condescending to be made in human likeness and fashioned as a man. Pleased to take on human flesh, He did so when the fullness of time had come, when all the events of history that had to occur for His arrival on earth had occurred, just as the OT prophets had predicted. In fact, before His mother and His adoptive father would come together in marital union, it would become obvious that she was with child. Yet, because Mary and Joseph were chaste before their marriage, it would be revealed that His conception as to His human nature was not just ordinary conception, but conception that could not have been other than by the power of God the Holy Spirit, such power as preserved Him from sin’s defilement throughout His gestation in His mother’s womb. For this reason, we Christians confess Him to be the holy Child, the Son of God, in the unique sense of the incarnate Son.

In due course, the Child conceived by the Holy Spirit became the Child born of the virgin Mary. We can only marvel at the truth condensed here in the Creed’s brief phrasing. Though He was the glorious eternal Son, He was born of a young virgin woman, thus taking part in all human properties, except sin, through His mother. Just as His conception was anything but ordinary, so we know that His birth was also: born of a virgin, born without a man. The commissioned Son, in taking on human flesh, was not only made and formed in woman; He was of her, of her flesh and blood.

Knowing as the Apostles did that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, they proclaimed Him to us as the Word of Life who was from the beginning with the Father (1 John 1:1-2; John 1:1-2), the eternally preexistent Son of the Father, now one Person with two natures. The facts of His nativity are among the reasons they could document for us and preach to us the audible words of His that they had witnessed with their own ears; the visible deeds of His that they had witnessed and had looked upon with their own eyes; the tangible flesh-and-blood physicality of His body, before and after His death and resurrection, that they had witnessed with our own hands. The Apostles’ references to their ears hearing, their eyes seeing, and their hands touching can hardly be explained as anything other than first-hand, empirical, sensory experiences. As such, their confession stands in stark contrast with that of the world, ancient and modern. The world, then and now, either denies that knowing God is possible or claims to know God through objects made with hands or concepts fabricated in our imaginations (as in “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” [John Lennon]). By contrast, the Apostles saw and heard and touched the Source of true knowledge of God, and they proclaimed that revealed knowledge as morally binding on all who read or hear them.

With the Creed, therefore, we confess that Jesus Christ was God with God, God the Word, God the Son who has permanently taken to Himself sinless human nature with all its properties, and will remain forevermore one Person with two natures, the God-man, fully God and fully man. Let’s be careful not to underestimate these affirmations concerning Christ’s conception and birth. To deny that Jesus of Bethlehem is God who became man is not merely to reject the Creed. It is to reject the Christ of the authentic gospel of Scripture; it is to exchange the truth for a lie.

“Jesus Christ, His only [begotten] Son, our Lord”

Posted by R. Fowler White

Who is Jesus Christ? There are many voices with many answers to that question. Some pretend not to care about the answer at all. Even in the “evangelical” world there are voices leading folks away from the historic confession of Christ. They deny the necessity of His role in salvation, or His death as a substitute, or His obedience in both life and death. Not only do challenges come from among professing Christians, there are also challenges from the spread of Islam, the collapsing morality of Western culture, and the rise of those who have no religious affiliation at all. Our post-Christian era is a time of confusion and pluralism. These realities push us to make sure we’re equipped with clarity and conviction regarding who Jesus Christ is. With that in mind, we turn for help to the Apostles’ Creed, article two, where we confess our faith in Jesus Christ. Who, then, is Jesus Christ?

Following Scripture, the first part of the Creed’s answer is, of course, that He is Jesus. Heaven itself mandated that name for the eternal Son of God who became man. Messengers from heaven’s court told His mother Mary and His adoptive father Joseph to name Him Jesus. When we read that name, we do well to think Yeshua, or even better Joshua, meaning “Yahweh saves.” We remember that after Moses died God appointed Joshua to bring Israel into the Promised Land and to enforce God’s law in Canaan. Despite partial victories in Canaan, Joshua secured neither the nation’s obedience to God nor their rest in the Land because he was powerless to save them from their sins. Yet when the eternal Son became man, the Angel Gabriel proclaimed that Jesus, this new Joshua, would succeed where the old Joshua had failed: He will save His people from their sins (Matt 1:21). Conceived by the Spirit, filled with the Spirit, equipped with the full armor of God, Jesus went into spiritual combat for our souls against the devil, the powers of this dark world, and the spiritual forces of evil. As He delivers people from disease and even death, we learn that He is able to save from sin’s penalty, power, and presence. By His obedience in life and in death, Jesus did what Joshua could not do: He satisfied the demands of God’s law and saved His people from their sins. This new Joshua is the Savior who showed Himself to be God-with-us who alone redeems His people from all their iniquities (Ps 130:8).

We confess that this Jesus is also Christ, the Anointed One, the one and only Mediator, fulfilling all three of the Mediator’s offices. He is Prophet: because we’re ignorant by nature, by His word and Spirit, Christ as Prophet reveals to us God’s will for our salvation (see. e.g., Heb 1:1-2). He is Priest: because we’re guilty of breaking God’s law, Christ as Priest offered Himself up, once and for all, to pay the debt we owe for our sin (Heb 9:14) and to reconcile us sinners to God (Col 1:20). And He now always lives to pray for us (Heb 7:25). He is King: because we’re powerless against our enemies, Christ gathers us to Himself (Acts 15:14-16), rules and defends us (Ps 110:3), and restrains and conquers all enemies, His and ours (1 Cor 15:25).

We also confess that Jesus Christ is His only [begotten] Son. His Son: whose Son? The Son of the Father. The Son, before He was sent, born, or given the name Jesus, was a Person in the Godhead, indeed a Person distinct from the Father (and the Spirit). Yet there was (is) harmony between Them. God the Father determined to send God the Son, and the Son agreed to be sent by the Father to fulfill the Greatest Commission of all. Once incarnate, the Son declared, I have come down from heaven … And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day (John 6:38-40). Thus we confess Jesus Christ, His only [begotten] Son. These simple words take us into the background of the Son’s coming from eternity into history. Whether our translations of the Creed include or exclude the word begotten, the point of the Creed’s original terms is that the Son is without beginning, is not a creature, is not made, shaped, fashioned, formed, or adopted. He is unmade, unbegun, uncreated. The Son simply has been from eternity. He was in the beginning, as the Father was and as the Spirit was in the beginning.

Moreover, we confess that Jesus Christ is our Lord. This confession we make only by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3b). In the ancient world, to confess someone as Lord was to acclaim that one’s majesty and to swear absolute allegiance to that one as our royal Deity, as our Savior and Judge. Among God’s covenant people, the one called Lord was the God of the patriarchs, Yahweh, I AM. To confess “Jesus is Lord,” then, is to confess “Jesus the Crucified is, by His resurrection and enthronement, Lord of all from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things.” In the NT world, this confession was shocking, for Jesus had endured capital punishment at the behest of Jewish and Roman authorities. Nonetheless, our confession, worked in us by the Spirit, is nothing less than a triumphant acclamation of Jesus Christ’s exaltation over a hostile world.

Further, we confess that He is our Lord. Confession of Jesus’ lordship is a two-sided coin. It’s a declaration not only of who Jesus is, but also of who we are. All who confess with their mouths and believe in their hearts that Jesus Christ is our Lord belong to Him as slaves whom He redeemed from bondage with His blood. That being the case, Jesus takes responsibility for us believers as our Lord, and He is the authority to whom we believers answer and from whom we believers learn what to believe and how to behave. To confess Jesus is Lord is, as one commentator has put it, a declaration … of personal devotion and commitment that is part and parcel of a Christ-centered worship and lifestyle. Therefore, to confess that Jesus is our Lord is to set ourselves apart from all others.

In our post-Christian era of confusion and pluralism, the Apostles’ Creed has us Christians confessing the truth that the Holy Spirit speaks in Scripture: Jesus Christ is His only [begotten] Son, our Lord. To confess these truths is to declare that we’re under the care of Him who is our Lord and our God, the One to whom we answer, the One on whom the Father bestowed the name that is above every name (Phil 2:10).

Thoughts on Sermon Prep for Narrative

Posted by R. Fowler White

Whenever I’m preaching or teaching regularly, one thing I do is to reflect on what I’m doing (or not doing) in preparation and trying to figure out how to prepare better. This is particularly the case when I’m surveying a major narrative division within the canon (such as the five books of Moses) or expounding the pericopes in a specific narrative document (such as the Gospel according to Mark).

In seminary I was taught exegesis and homiletics, first in the NT letters and later in Ruth and the Psalms, with basic references to the literary dimensions of the text. As you can see from that synopsis, the instruction I received was customary but light on narrative. Understandably, the emphasis, as I remember it, was consistently on details of the original text, with a view to expounding the text verse by verse (sentence by sentence). Missing was instruction on expounding the text scene by scene. Over time, I’ve found that, though there is some overlap between the two, the work on each is a different, sometimes very different, skill set. As a result, I’ve reflected more on my approach to narrative in particular. Here, then, are some thoughts on what I’ve found expounding OT and NT narrative.

The approach I’ve settled on over time seems to revolve around four sequential steps. First, I identify the discreet component scenes of a narrative section. Second, the most challenging step: I summarize “the story/plot/drama developments” from scene to scene, trying to avoid simply retelling the details unless they were crucial. Third, with that summary in mind, I seek to discern the (biblical- and systematic-) theological point(s) being made in each scene. Last, I answer the question, what does the Holy Spirit speaking through the text want readers or hearers to know, or be, or do in light of this passage?

I’m sure that the preceding comes off as fairly basic and commonplace advice. Then again, the more I’ve dealt with narrative, the more I’m pushed to see that responsible exposition, particularly in a survey narrative series, necessitates giving folks the macrostructures and major storylines of the Bible tethered to the theology being develop in the text. This is usually the case because folks don’t generally know the Bible as well as they must to hear an exposition of its narratives, especially in the OT, with profit. For example, in general, I’ve found that, when it comes to the OT narratives, their theology seems to keep coming back to the ways in which they expose transgressions, on the one hand, and to evangelize transgressors, on the other. As the actors in the text keep failing, the Lord keeps calling them to repent and trust Him alone as their Redeemer or to face Him as their Judge, especially once Jesus, the Son of Abraham and David, appears in history.

To fill out the picture even more fully, maybe it would help to combine the points above with a grid of questions and tasks for exposition that I’ve found myself using. That grid includes the following questions: what does the text indicate that God wants readers (or hearers) to know, to be, or to do? What are the topic and the purpose of the text? What are the doctrine and the duty in the text? With answers to the preceding questions in mind, my focus turns to more specific tasks. Here’s what I have in mind. Develop an outline and fill in its details so that it lays out the argument of the text. Wherever there are connections between the teaching of the text and the teaching of the Reformed confessions and catechisms, bring out those connections in your outline or exposition. When it comes to expounding an OT or NT narrative, make conscious reference to the Apostle’s instruction in 2 Tim 3:15-17, highlighting in the text the person and work of Christ, the offers of grace, and the warnings of judgment. When it comes to expounding an OT text, keep before yourself the Letter to the Hebrews and Christ’s example in Luke 24:25-27, 44-46. Regardless of the narrative’s place in redemptive history, present God’s gospel, His law, and His Christ in His sufferings and glory.

I’m sure that there are readers who can identify and provide more and better thoughts than those above.

“God the Father Almighty”

Posted by R. Fowler White

The twelve articles that make up the Apostles’ Creed are extraordinary anchors to the historic Christian faith, even if we recognize that they are not the rule of faith and practice that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are. Yes, it will be crucial to understand that the Holy Spirit speaking in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testament Scriptures is our final authority, the supreme judge of all controversies of religion and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and claims to private revelations. We are taking the Apostles’ Creed, then, as a help and a tool, not as a rule, to help us organize our reflections on what the Scriptures teach us in regard to faith and practice. Then we can use what we gain to evangelize our family and friends and to defend the Christian faith against its detractors.

We begin where the Creed begins: with our confession concerning God the Father and creation. Scripture and history show us that no individuals, families, churches, or nations can ever rise above the faith that they have in the God of their worship. When some declare, “In God we trust,” we must ask, “Who is the God in whom you trust?” Their answer and ours determines everything in our lives. If the object of our trust is wrong, we’ll get the whole world—ourselves included—wrong. There is scarcely any falsehood in our faith or any failure in our practice that doesn’t go back to false and faulty thoughts about God. The importance, then, of right beliefs about God simply cannot be overestimated. Who, then, is your God: the God revealed in Scripture, or the God envisioned in your imagination? Don’t shrug off the question: we cannot just “believe in God” and be saved. No, we must believe in the one true God: that is, as the Creed (following Scripture) expresses it, the God who is is God in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

With questions and realities like those above, we take up the first article of the Creed, wherein we Christians confess faith in God the Father Almighty. We realize, first, that to confess faith in God the Father Almighty is to confess faith that God can and will do all that He intends. Whatever the Lord pleases He does (Ps 135:6). He is the one and only omnipotent Being (Deity) who reigns over His world. By contrast, man cannot do whatever he pleases. Man’s power to do what he intends is conditioned by creatureliness and sinfulness; his power is limited, dependent. God’s power to do all that He intends is not limited, not dependent, not conditioned by anything or anyone whom He has made. As the Apostle Paul declares, He works all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph 1:11). And note well: God’s almightiness extends to His power over evil and sin. Because He is most holy and righteous, He is not and cannot be the author or approver of evil and sin. Granted, there is mystery related to the origins of evil and sin in God’s creatures, but this much is revealed to us: evil and sin originated in the creatures alone and not from the Creator God. No, the one true God displays His power and wisdom as, without fail, He accomplishes good purposes even out of the evil designs of man (as Joseph confessed before his brothers, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good [Gen 50:20]). Because of His almightiness, then, God the Father overrules even evil and sin.

We Christians who confess faith in God the Father Almighty also confess faith in Him as Maker (Creator) of heaven and earth. The one true God is before creation, eternal, far above time and space. He is other than the world; the world—“the Universe” as it is sometimes personified these days—is not God, personal or impersonal. Before the world came to be, there was only God and nothing else, and it is He who created the world from nothing.

Moreover, the Creator God, though invisible, is revealed in the visible world He created. In the words, deeds, and products of creation documented in Genesis 1-2, we are made wiser about God’s person, word, work, and will. We learn that He created the world to be inhabited (Isa 45:18), to be constructed of places in which His creatures would exist, and He with them. By revelation, we know that the earth was given form and fullness in six creation days. In the first three God gave the earth light and form: where there had been only darkness and deep, there was now light, sky, land, and sea. In the second three days God gave the earth fullness: where there had been emptiness in sky, land, and sea, there were now residents. As a result of those six days of creative word and deed, we are made wiser to see that it is the Creator God who rules over the world He created. And we should note: the world is not about His creatures, as glorious as they were at their origin. The world is about His glory, His weightiness, His name, His fame; His perfections, His grandeur, His beauty.

Having exchanged the glory of the Creator for the glory of the creation and of creatures, our post-Christian world prefers an alternative narrative of the world’s beginning. And do note: it is a narrative that has made us foolish. “Nature” with her Forces, we’re told, is our Mother goddess whom it’s not nice for us to fool. Allegedly, her Forces control life and death, prosperity and adversity, victory and defeat. It is Mother Nature that determines who lives or dies, who succeeds or fails, who wins or loses. It is the Mother goddess that determines that only the fittest survive and flourish, and it is She who identifies the fittest as—surprise, surprise—none other than those who worship and serve themselves as divine and the rest of creation as divine.

By contrast, the Creator God revealed in Scripture is the architect and builder of heaven and earth. It is He who gave form to the world so that it is His palace, heaven His throne and earth His footstool. It is He who also gave fullness to the world: heaven and earth are full of His glory. It is He who controls life and death, prosperity and adversity, victory and defeat. By this revelation, we are made wise, learning that nothing in creation is divine. All worship and service are for the one true God, who alone is Maker of heaven and earth. In Scripture, the first fact of life that we must face is that the Creator of heaven and earth is alone God, and that His claim upon us humans and upon the non-human world is absolute. Indeed, the Creator-creature distinction is the crux of all true thought about all that is, seen and unseen.

As we said above, the identity of the God in whom we believe determines everything in our lives. If we doubt the validity of that point, stop for a moment and consider the confusion rampant in our culture. Although we know the Creator God through all that He made we do not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him. We have become futile in our thinking and our foolish hearts have become darkened. If our society is to recover from its confusion, and if we Christians are to avoid its confusion, we must hold fast and hold forth the historic truth we confess: we believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

A Point to Ponder on 1 Peter 5:6-7

Posted by R. Fowler White

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV)

“Casting one’s cares on God is a recognition of God’s monopoly on justice as well as a deep-seated confession of God’s power to accomplish his purposes. It is an enacted credo.”

— Joel B. Green, 1 Peter (Eerdmans, 2007), 179.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 8 Final Thoughts

Posted by R. Fowler White

As we close out this fairly lengthy series, it might be useful to conclude with several overarching observations.

Recurring patterns. Looking back over these Eschatology Outlines, it may have struck the reader that the biblical writers teach us and therefore expect us to see recurring patterns as God works in history, not least as the future is presented as the past reconceived and finalized. Remarkably, this “patterning” discloses to us both the organic unity in God’s revelation and the consistency in God’s governance of history. In it we see the signature of the Bible’s Divine Author, transcending the particular contributions of the individual human authors. All of this moves and induces us to a high and reverent esteem of Holy Scripture that takes all the more seriously the Bible’s own claim to be inspired by the Spirit of God.

Trajectory, boundaries, and consensus. As it relates to eschatology, a full review of early church history (as found in, e.g., C. E. Hill, Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity (second ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001) would show us where the trajectory and boundaries of orthodox eschatology were set, but we can only summarize those points here. Before the Council of Nicea in AD 325, the church expressed a broad consensus confessing Christ’s second coming, the general resurrection and judgment, the programmatic oneness of God’s people, and the eternal state. There was no consensus on the belief in a 1,000-year earthly kingdom after Christ’s return and before the eternal state. Interestingly, affirming or denying that millennial era was tied to one’s doctrine of the intermediate state of the righteous dead. The question being asked was this: where do the souls of the righteous dead go when they die? There were, in general, two answers. On the one hand, those who believed that the righteous dead occupied an intermediate state underground (“in the lower parts of the earth”) also affirmed the doctrine of the 1,000-year kingdom. On the other hand, those who believed that the righteous dead occupied an intermediate state in heaven denied the doctrine of the 1,000-year kingdom. As the church came consistently to confess the doctrine of the heavenly intermediate state, the doctrine of a millennial kingdom after Christ’s return faded from view. After the Reformation, however, divergent opinions on the 1,000-year kingdom reemerged. Then, in the 1830s, three closely related views—premillennialism, pretribulationism, and dispensationalism, with their programmatic distinction between Israel and the Church—congealed into an eschatological framework. Over the next century that framework grew to dominate in Bible-believing circles, as the spread of dispensational-pretribulational premillennialism tracked with developments in the fundamentalist-liberal controversy. Over the last 50 years or more, differences among sincere, well-meaning Christians on all sides seem to have moderated. Yet in church pews, popular discussion, and media, dispensationalism and its entailments are widely presumed. Thankfully, the Bible-believing church maintains its adherence to cardinal doctrines at the heart of its historic confession, focusing on Christ’s return, final resurrection and judgment, and life everlasting in the world to come. Granted our continuing differences, however, we can only help ourselves by thinking about how to manage them. What follows are some suggestions.

Burden of proof. While acknowledging that certain cardinal doctrines distinguish the church’s confession, new (novel) beliefs, which the church through its shepherds and teachers has never confessed, do occasionally emerge. To be taken seriously, these novelties must bear the burden of proof and demonstrate that the weight of the relevant biblical, historical-theological, and systematic-theological evidence is not only with them but is, in fact, weightier than usual. This is the case because it is unlikely, though it has occurred and is certainly still possible, that the church’s devout and learned shepherds and teachers, along with the great majority of serious Bible students, would for centuries have missed the Spirit’s teaching in Scripture.

Common duties. Meanwhile, our continuing duties to others in the church include obligations to take seriously the historic consensus of the church and to seek further unity beyond that consensus where possible. Such obligations require us to love those with whom we differ, trying to understand not just what they believe but how they reach their conclusions. Gaining answers to both the “what” and the “how” questions, we just may discover where our facts or conclusions are wrong or incomplete and uncover reasons for greater agreement. Overall, sticking to these duties, we’ll likely find that our emphasis will fall on doctrines held in common and expressed in the church’s confessions across the centuries.

God has given His people hope. Ever since our first parents were banished from Eden, God’s people have looked to the future in hope for a new city in a new garden on a new mountain where God will dwell forever with man. We long for that city’s security and purity, for a new creation ruled, filled, and at rest. We ache for the Last Adam—our Bridegroom, God’s Dragon-Slayer and Temple-Builder—to complete the rescue of His bride. The Bible’s eschatology sustains and nurtures those expectations in us, as it declares the vindication of good over evil, of light over darkness, of life over death, of blessing over curse. Because our God is the one true God, singularly sover­eign and wise, we know that final destinies of blessing or curse are traced to His one beneficent purpose (Lam 3:37-38; cf. Gen 50:20). With that purpose, God obliged Himself to resolve our liability as sinners to judgment that resulted from His decree to permit man’s fall into sin. His resolution of that liability was to make the death of a Substitute the way to life for His chosen people. Thereby He has assured us that the Bride chosen for the Last Adam, though presently corruptible, will ultimately put on incorruption. Through the Lord Christ, she will witness the death of death and the issue of all things into the glory of the one true God. In the end, then, the Bible’s eschatology—God’s eschatology—is a true moral optimism in which our God will be no frustrated Deity, nor will our Bridegroom be defeated in His mission to rescue His Bride.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7G Interpreting Rev 20:11–21:8

Posted by R. Fowler White

The visions of Rev 20:11–21:8 are the last set of visions that we’ll examine in the light of the themes of “battle and building.” Starting off, let’s notice why we should treat the vision sequence in 20:11–21:8 as a unit.

1. The unified picture in 20:11–21:8. Following the fiery destruction of the nations and the devil in 20:9-10 and the desolation of the present creation in 20:11b (cf. 6:12-17; 16:17-21; 21:1), we’re told in 20:12-13 (cf. 11:18) that those once dead were standing (20:12), having been released from their burial sites for judgment (20:13-14a). Introduced after the present heavens and earth disappear in 20:11b, the woe of the unrighteous, whose names were not in the book of life, is underlined in both 20:15 and 21:8. Introduced after the new heavens and earth appear in 21:1a, the weal of the righteous, whose names were in the book of life (21:27; 3:12), is highlighted in 21:2-7. Seeing, then, both the resurrection and the judgment of all in 20:11–21:8, the visions form a unified picture of the heavenly court’s final session in which the Divine Judge resurrects and judges all the dead. With that scene in mind, we can summarize how the combat and construction themes help us understand what’s going on in 20:11–21:8.

2. Victory over our last enemy. First, the emptying of all burial sites (natural or supernatural) in 20:13 signals the final overthrow of bodily death. Both the unrighteous and the righteous share in that victory. Yet for the unrighteous, that victory is no victory at all because it’s as empty as their grave: ironically, it issues in a death worse than bodily death. Having no share in the first resurrection (20:5), they emerge from their tombs only to be thrown into the lake of fire where the second death will forever have power over them (20:15; 21:8). By contrast, for the righteous, their victory over bodily death is as full as it is final. Full because, having taken part in the first resurrection, the second death has no power over them; final because they will abide forever in their eternal home with their God in the new creation, never to suffer death again (21:4). Only the righteous, then, will truly have title to proclaim, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? (1 Cor 15:54b-55a).

3. Our final residence with our God is a temple. Second, with the victory theme in clear view, the building theme is expected to shine through in the consequences that follow not only death’s defeat in 20:11-15 but the defeat of the Gog-Magog enemies in 20:7-10. The pattern we saw in 20:1-6 appears again in 20:7–21:8, and the pattern in 20:7–21:8 parallels the pattern in Ezek 38-48. The OT prophet had revealed God’s establishment of the new temple-city in the new paradisal land following His defeat of Gog-Magog. We already know that when the saints shared in the victory of the second death, their first resurrection announced their spiritual re-formation as the kingdom and beloved city (20:4, 6, 9). So, when we reach 21:1ff., we know that the saints have now shared in the victory over bodily death and that the promise Christ made in 3:12 is now to be fulfilled. He had said of the victorious saint that at His coming (cf. 3:11) I shall make him a pillar in the temple of my God … and I shall write upon him … the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from heaven. So, when the saints share in the victory over bodily death, the holy city image reappears in 21:2, 10. In fact, John describes the new city in 21:3 as the dwelling place (i.e., tabernacle) of God. Seeing these images side by side, we recognize that the saints’ presentation as the city-tabernacle in 21:2-3 (cf. 21:9-10) is the building episode that we expected to follow the Divine Warrior’s victory over His last enemy. Presumably, then, the new Jerusalem that appears in chap. 21 after Christ’s return in 20:9-11 is the temple-city that He promised to build using his saints as living stones, indeed, stones resurrected from physical death! Even the eternal heavens and earth should also be understood in the light of the temple building theme since John calls attention to the absence of all that is unclean from that final residence of God and His people (21:27; cf. holy, 21:3). All in all, then, not only do the saints, as living temple stones, make the lasting city holy (21:3), but the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple (21:22). Everything about the final residence is temple, a holy house built to the glory of God with man!

4. Conclusion. As we reflect on the contents of the visions in Rev 20:11–21:8, the “battle, then building” themes help us to see that the (second) resurrection constitutes the Divine Judge’s victory over death, while the saints’ resurrection and the creation’s restoration constitute the twofold building project that follows the victory over humanity’s last enemy, death. In all of this, it’s not hard to see that John has framed the Apostles’ teaching about Christ’s redemptive work at His return so that it conforms to the theology of “victory, then house building.” What is more, we see how much of a debt John owed to his OT heritage, a heritage that he embraced no doubt to inspire our confidence in our Lord Christ’s purpose and power both to triumph over His and our enemies and to establish His holy habitation with His holy people.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 8 Final Thoughts

Christ’s Family Tree in Matt 1:6b-17

Posted by R. Fowler White

In my previous post about Christ’s family tree from Abraham to David, we noticed that the tree was an amalgamation of Israelite and Gentile branches. Now we turn to the branches from King David through the exile to Christ Himself (Matt 1:6b-17), and once again we realize that this is no ordinary list of names. These branches carry the history of not just a nation but also a royal lineage, both reeling from the travesty of David’s sins with the wife of Uriah and against Uriah himself. Having laid bare the root of Israel’s division into ten northern tribes and two southern tribes, Matthew would show us again how God’s grace overruled the moral chaos in and among His people to keep the line of Christ alive.

The Evangelist opens this segment of the family tree by casting a knowing glance toward King David’s affair with the woman-whose-name-shall-not-be-mentioned. She was the wife of the faithful and elite Gentile warrior Uriah, whom David conspired to get killed in an effort to cover up his tryst. The effects of David’s sins on his family and on the nation of Israel were catastrophic. We’d prefer to remember David as a war hero and conquering king, but the Evangelist pushes us to face the reality of who Christ’s ancestors really were and what they really did.

Matthew wants us mindful of how David yielded to sexual indulgence and excessive ambition … how he so badly mismanaged the raising of his children that he sired not only insurrectionists but an incestuous sex offender. Later in life, David was presiding over the nation when it collapsed, and he was responsible for his family when it fell apart. Embedded in the names of 1:6b-11 we find the conflict among his sons and the revolt they led against him. We recall too the revolt of the ten northern tribes of the twelve that made up the nation. Do we remember just how bitter the fruit of David’s sins was not only in his family’s history but in the whole nation’s history? Yet the fruit here is not only bitter. As we turn from King David to his descendants, the names in Matthew’s genealogy remind us how God brought hope to the nation: hope in the midst of failure during the divided kingdom and during the southern kingdom’s final years.

For Matthew, it seems, this hope-amidst-failure was epitomized in David’s son Solomon himself, whose divided heart led to a divided nation and bore a spiritually divided lineage. We track these divisions in the four royal father-son combinations that Matthew mentions after his brief glance at Solomon. We’re to remember that bad father Rehoboam begat bad son Abijah, and bad father Abijah begat good son Asa. Then good father Asa begat good son Jehoshaphat, while good father Jehoshaphat begat bad son Joram. Clearly, Solomon’s divided heart begat a divided lineage. And as we reach the final branch in Christ’s pre-exilic family tree, we stumble on Jeconiah and his brothers. Remember them? No? No, not so much. They’re David’s descendants who were taken prisoner by Nebuchadnezzar, enduring the shame of being the last royal family of Judah before the exile. So, what was going on among Christ’s ancestors from Solomon to Jeconiah and his brothers? Despite bad royal seed, God raised up good royal seed and, in the midst of failure, He was giving hope. Though King David’s sins wrecked the purity and peace of his family, his descendants, and his nation, God’s grace was finally irresistible, preserving the line of the Messiah.

There’s one last segment of Christ’s family tree for Matthew to cover: he walks us from the exile to Christ’s birth in 1:12-17. Having given us three selective groups of fourteen generations to aid our memories, Matthew informs us that even through the deportation God preserved the line of Christ. Made obscure by the exile, only two names in the final group stand out. The first mentioned, Zerubbabel, was heir to David’s throne and governor of Judah after the return from exile. Then we reach the last name, that of Joseph, only to notice that once more Matthew departs from the standard genealogy formula and recounts a most extraordinary event. Matthew states only that Mary was Christ’s mother. Wait. What? Though Joseph is the last natural branch that links Jesus to David, Matthew indicates that he was not Jesus’ biological father. How, then, was Joseph a link between David and Jesus? The facts of how Joseph got into Jesus’ genealogy may rattle our cages.

On the authority of Matthew’s account, we learn that it was through the power of the Holy Spirit that Mary became the mother of Jesus, and it was therefore not through ordinary biology but through adoption that Joseph, a son of David, became the father of Jesus and Jesus the son of David. Furthermore, however, Matthew would have us reckon with the world-altering fact that Jesus, conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit, is truly David’s God as much as He is truly David’s son! He is the eternal Son of God in the flesh, God-with-us, Immanuel! And it was Heaven that mandated that His parents give Him the name Jesus because He had come to save sinners from their sins!

Christ’s family tree is no mere registry of names, is it? No, these names carry indelible memories of God’s power in His grace to overcome the sin that destroys both individuals and nations. Is it not transparent from this genealogy, then, that we must confess on bended knee that God, from all eternity, did—by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will—freely and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass? Moreover, must we not confess that He was pleased, in His eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, His only begotten Son, to be the mediator between God and man? Knowing Christ’s family tree as Matthew has given it to us, let us be sure to confess Him as the God-man, son of David and son of Abraham, who came to save us sinners from our sins.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7F Interpreting Rev 20:7-10

Posted by R. Fowler White

As I understand it, the vision in Rev 20:7-10 depicts the Divine Warrior’s age-ending victory over Satan-led nations who were threatening God’s kingdom-temple with desolation after they had turned His creation into an abomination of desolation. Let’s see if we can shed light in particular on the meaning of John’s depiction of that kingdom-temple as the camp of God’s people, the city he loves (NIV; cf. the encampment of the saints, the beloved city [CSB]) in 20:9.

1. Parallels to Ezek 38–39. Like 20:4-6, the vision in 20:7-10 is shaped by chapters from Ezekiel where we find a group of visions that reflects the OT pattern of “combat, then construction” that we’ve mentioned before. We can be sure that John has adapted Ezekiel’s visions of God’s victory over the chaos-causing nations because in 20:8-9 he explicitly mentions the Gog-Magog passage in Ezek 3839. In fact, in Rev 20 as in Ezek 3839, the Divine Warrior intervenes in the conflict with His customary weapon of theophanic fire to destroy those who attack the city of God (Rev 20:9; Ezek 38:22; 39:6, 9-10; cf. Ps 46:9; 76:3).

2. Camp, city, and saints. After the fiery destruction of the nations and the devil in 20:9-10 and the desolation of the present creation in 20:11 (cf. 6:12-17; 16:17-21; 21:1), we expect, following biblical patterns, to read about an episode of cosmic (re)construction in the visions that follow 20:7-10. And, in fact, that’s what we find. The theme of construction-after-victorious-combat clearly helps us understand what we read in 20:11–21:8 (we’ll explore that point in a subsequent post). Yet, interestingly, while we expect to find a building project in the visions after 20:7-10, we also see a building project within the vision of 20:7-10 itself. John sets before us the camp of the saints, the city God loves in 20:9 (NIV; cf. CSB). When he describes the camp of the saints using the additional terms the beloved city, his description links the saints with the four-square configuration of Israel’s camp in the wilderness (see, e.g., Num 2) and with the city of God that was represented in the tabernacle and the temple (Ps 27:4-6; Isa 4:5-6; Ezek 40:2–42:20). Described as the camp that is the city, the saints are an extraordinary sight to behold: they are God’s holy protectorate that has itself become the tabernacle-temple-city through Christ, the greater Moses and the greater Solomon. We get confirmation of this identification from another parallel to Ezek 3637.

3. A dwelling place for God’s Spirit. John’s presentation of the saints in 20:9 forms a really striking parallel to Ezekiel’s vision of Israel in Ezek 37:26-28. There we learn that, in the day when the Spirit rebuilds Israel’s house (37:11) by spiritual resurrection (37:1-14; cf. 36:27), that house will be the very dwelling place (Heb. mishkan, “tabernacle”) of God. No doubt this will be the case because, as we see in 36:27; 37:9-10, 14, the house will itself have become a sanctuary for God’s Spirit. Furthermore, according to Ezek 38–39 (especially 39:29), it is these very Spirit-indwelt residents of God’s dwelling place who will prove to be indestructible in the day of the nations’ final assault in Rev 20:7-10.

4. Parallels in the NT. In light of the parallels in Ezek 36–39, we can say the visions of 20:4-10 depict the saints as the kingdom-temple-camp-city built by Christ after His capture of the dragon in 20:1-3. The saints are nothing less than the blessed kingdom-temple built by the victorious Lamb in 20:4-6 and the beloved camp-city defended by the Divine Warrior in 20:7-10. What makes John’s visions all the more compelling is that their teaching is not at all isolated from the rest of Revelation or the NT. We’ve already seen the theology at the heart of Rev 1:5-6; 5:9-10; 12:10-12; 14:1-4 (with John 2:19-22; 5:24-29). Yet the parallel to Ezek 3637 shows up again in the broader NT when Paul and John both refer to those chapters in other contexts. Paul describes the church as the new covenant temple in 2 Cor 6:16, citing Ezek 37:27. John recounts Jesus’ teaching on the new birth in John 3:5-8, alluding to Ezek 36:25-27; 37:1-14. Then, while reviewing Jesus’ post-resurrection words and deeds and specifically His breathing (of the Spirit) on the Eleven in John 20:22, John touches on Ezek 37:9 (cf. Gen 2:7). With more space and time, we could show in detail how the theology of the camp of God’s people, the city he loves in Rev 20:9 is consistent with Paul’s and Peter’s presentation of the church in 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19-20; Eph 2:20-22; and 1 Pet 2:4-9 as a spiritual house for God in the Spirit.

5. Conclusion. We’ll close these comments on Rev 20:7-10 by stressing the power of John’s vision there. Like his OT forebears, Ezekiel in particular, John found in the ancient “battle and building” themes a theological prism through which he could make known to us the dynamics at work in our experience as the church militant between the first and second comings of Christ. By knowing and pondering those dynamics, our longing to see the final manifestation of Christ’s power in the devil’s death and the nations’ vanquishment and in the establishment of our eternal residence with God only grows stronger.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7G Interpreting Rev 20:11–21:8

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