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

Posted by R. Fowler White

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by R. Fowler White

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

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

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

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

Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 5 (Rev 5:8-14)

Posted by R. Fowler White

If not for the vision that John sees in Rev 5:5-7, we should be weeping as he did. After all, we now know the truth that John knew. We know that no creature, angelic or human, is qualified to secure the future of Christ’s church or empowered to fulfill God’s purposes for history. This world, with all its enticements, tempts us away from Christ. With all our vulnerabilities, we Christians and our congregations are increasingly at risk. Watching John’s weeping turn to worship, however, we too stop our weeping as we see the omnipotent, omniscient Lamb in Rev 5. Yet there is more to that scene than glorious sights to see. There are also glorious sounds to hear. Creatures from every part of creation worship the Lamb in Rev 5:8-12 and the Lord God Almighty in Rev 5:13-14.

The heavenly anthem begins in the inner circle around the throne: the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down, throwing themselves to the ground to celebrate the Lamb who is God’s Lion (5:8-10). Accompanied by the music of harps and by prayers for vindication, they sing a new song, a song of joy after the Divine Warrior’s victory, a song celebrating the Lamb’s worthiness to finish God’s plan of redemption and reckoning. The Lamb is worthy because the price He paid in His sacrificial death had the power to redeem a people of every kind for God and the power to reform those He redeemed into a kingdom and priesthood for God.

The choral singers’ number expands outward from the throne, beyond the living creatures and the elders (5:11-12). Now the choir of angels multiplies to include millions and millions of voices. They sing to the Lamb, attributing to Him all the excellencies belonging to God Himself.[i] Then the sacred chorale expands once more to every quarter of creation (5:13-14). Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them celebrate the Lord God and the Lamb. Now the choir of all creation celebrates Their glory, attributing to Them blessing and honor … glory and might, and that in an everlasting doxology. Confirming the truth of this glorious heavenly anthem, the four living creatures shout, Amen! Meanwhile, as in the previous scene in ch. 4, the twenty-four elders again throw themselves to the ground to pay homage to the supremacy of the Lord God and the Lamb.

How clear can it be that, for every part of creation, the Lord and the Lamb—God the Father and God the Son—in company with God the sevenfold Spirit (4:5; 5:6), are the sum of all that is held up to be glorified and enjoyed! Every part of creation finds in God alone all moral and spiritual excellencies and perfections. Every part of creation finds in Him all these qualities in impeccable proportion, harmony, and unity; in delicate balance, stunning brilliance, and full integrity. Every part of creation finds God in Three Persons to be altogether excellent, exquisitely splendid, supremely beautiful, and radiantly wonderful.

John the Apostle came to the visions of Rev 4–5 troubled for the congregations of Christ’s church in his day. Who can doubt that he would be troubled for us in our day? We see the vices of unbelief corroding government and business. We hear anti-Christian bigotry becoming the norm in society at large. Pressured in such an environment by the prospect of losing rights and privileges, some in the church advocate for us to shrug off the historic Christian confession and moral vision and to embrace the world’s priorities. Forget about it. As citizens of a heavenly homeland, we’ll follow John’s example and his words. With the eyes of faith, we’ll ponder the glorious sights of our Divine Sovereign in His Heavenly Palace surrounded by His angelic court. With the ears of faith, we’ll revel in the glorious sounds of creation’s choir worshiping the Lord and the Lamb in the presence of the Spirit—the Blessed Trinity in the splendor of heaven’s holiness. Thus prepared, we’ll fight the good fight, singing a new song as King Jesus delivers God’s chosen captives from the domain of darkness and transfers them into His own benevolent kingdom of priests.

[i] Richard D. Phillips, Revelation, ed. R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, and D. M. Doriani, REC (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 204.

Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 4 (Rev 5:5-7)

Posted by R. Fowler White

It’s hard for most of the congregations of Christ’s church to resist the world’s promises of influence and affluence, especially when it threatens to shove us to the hinterlands of society. Some negotiate with the world to avoid that marginalization and persecution and to gain financial security and influence—and in the process they lose their Christian identity. Following John’s example and words, however, we know that there is a better choice: ponder the sights in Rev 5:5-7 with the eyes of faith. That vision turned John’s sorrow into joy. That revelation turned his weeping into worship. Just look at how the drama unfolds …

When we last saw John, he had broken into tears, aching for God’s plan of salvation and judgment to be fulfilled. And, at just that moment, John hears one of the twenty-four elders speak words of comfort to him. That elder, remember, was among the rank of angels who serve as God’s court officers and who represent the redeemed in both Testaments. He tells John, “Stop weeping and look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David.” But wait a minute: why should seeing this Lion stop John’s crying? Because this Lion is the One with the ancestry of God’s chosen king. He is the king from Judah to whom God had promised the nations as His inheritance. This Lion is the king whom God had charged to engage in holy warfare to make His people secure and pure for fellowship with Him. He is the king who is greater than David: He is not just David’s son; He is also David’s Lord. He is the One with proven qualifications: He has already conquered sin, the world, the devil, and death. This Lion is thus the Conqueror poised to take the scroll of inheritance and to finish God’s plan for history. “John,” says the elder, “stop weeping and behold, the Lion.”

We can only imagine John’s excitement as his weeping gives way to wonder. Blinking his tears away, John turns to see a Lion … but instead he sees a Lamb, and not just any lamb. This Lamb is greater than the Passover lamb and the sacrificial lambs of Israel. This Lamb has been slaughtered as a sacrifice and yet has taken His stand, not just outside the tomb on earth but also here in heaven. This Lamb is like no other lamb. He has seven horns, the fullness of strength. This Lamb has seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, the fullness of the Spirit, the fullness of knowledge and wisdom. It is this omnipotent, omniscient Lamb who steps forward to take the scroll, to finish God’s plan for the destiny of this world and of all who are in it. What a vision this is for John and for us his readers: this Lamb, slaughtered yet standing, is the Lion of God who has already conquered!

How do these sights strike our eyes? Weeping John was told to stop crying and look: look at, look to the victorious Lamb. Does this revelation stop our weeping? No creature in heaven or on earth was or is qualified to secure the future of Christ’s church or to finish God’s plan for history. Only Christ—David’s son and David’s Lord—is worthy because He is the Lamb led to slaughter as an innocent sacrifice for His guilty people. He alone is qualified because He is the Lamb standing as the Lion who has conquered the devil, the world, sin, and death. Because of His death, resurrection, and ascension, Christ alone is worthy to open the scroll of inheritance and to finish God’s plan for the ages. He alone is qualified to be Heir of all things and to make His people into co-heirs with Him.[i]

Christian, does your heart ache for God to finish His plan for the ages? Church, is it hard to resist the world’s promises of influence and affluence, especially as it threatens to shove us to the hinterlands of society or worse? Don’t bargain with the world to avoid its threats and to gain its promises. If you do, Christ says, you’ll lose your Christian identity. Instead, like John, stop weeping, look up, and worship the Lamb in the splendor of heaven’s holiness. God’s plan for the destiny of this world and for the future of His church is in the good hands of that victorious Lamb, of that conquering Lion.

[i] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (1999), 341.

Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 3 (Rev 5:1-4)

Posted by R. Fowler White

We know the plot of Rev 1–4 pretty well. Our King Jesus dictated seven messages to prepare His church for the battlefield of this world. We’re to follow Him into battle with the mission to bring God’s chosen captives out of Satan’s kingdom into His kingdom until He returns. In His seven messages, Christ tells us time and again that He knows the state of every congregation in His church. He tells us that for most of His congregations, the chief problem is that we prefer the majority culture to the church’s historic faith and practice, and so we jeopardize our Christian identity. If that is King Jesus’s diagnosis of our problem, what’s His remedy? We’ve seen the first part of His prescription in Rev 4. As we keep reading, we realize that the scene in ch. 4 continues uninterrupted into ch. 5. The Lord our God, who is worshiped in 4:8-11, is before us again in ch. 5, but this time the vision adds even more depth and breadth to our understanding of Christ’s remedy for His church.[i]

John’s vision in ch. 5 opens with him seeing a scroll in the right hand of the Lord God Almighty. As for the scroll’s appearance, it’s written within and on the back. It’s a double-sided document like the scroll handed to Ezekiel (2:10). In addition, similar to the sealed scrolls of Isaiah and Daniel, it’s a sealed document, signaling that it’s not just important but also authentic, unchanged, and unchangeable. The scroll has seven seals, suggesting that it’s filled up, complete, and comprehensive. As for the scroll’s content, it reveals God’s plan, His predetermined agenda, for the ages, covering the development of all of sacred history. The scroll’s content, though partially revealed and documented in the OT, focuses in Revelation especially on sacred history from the cross to the new creation.[ii] In other words, the scroll covers God’s plan for the rest of this age and the age to come. But we can say more: from the worship described in ch. 5, we also learn that the scroll is a last will and testament of inheritance for the heirs of God. This scroll, then, contains God’s plan for the destiny of this world and of all who are in it.

John’s vision of the scroll of inheritance notwithstanding, the scene in ch. 5 takes an unexpected turn. A powerful angel from God’s palace in heaven addresses anyone who has ears with a loud voice: Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals? In other words, who is qualified, who has the ability and the authority to execute God’s plan of salvation and judgment?[iii] As John looks on, not one created being in heaven or on earth steps forward. Those creatures know what the scroll represents: they know no creature has either the autonomy to direct history to its proper conclusion or the capacity to carry out God’s plan of inheritance.[iv] Seeing that no creature qualified to open the scroll, John breaks into tears, weeps loudly, greatly, intensely. Can we even imagine such a thing: crying in heaven? He aches for God’s plan to be accomplished, yet he knows that human beings can’t depend on mere creatures, human or angelic, earthly or heavenly, to carry out God’s plan for the destiny of this world—and that knowledge moves him to sob.

How does this scene in Rev 5 move us? If it were not for the vision that John sees next, it should make us weep as John did. Why? Because the drama in God’s heavenly palace in Rev 5:1-4 reminds John and his readers that no creature can rescue them from the dangers on the battlefield of this world. No creature, even among those in heaven, is empowered to fulfill God’s purposes in salvation or judgment. There is no creature, not even one from heaven, who is qualified to secure the future of Christ’s church. Put this together with Christ’s seven messages, and it hits us how vulnerable the congregations in Asia Minor were to the world’s allure. In fact, so are ours. This world is a threatening place for Christians and congregations with our many liabilities. So where does all this leave us? Out of fear or trust of the world, some would negotiate (i.e., compromise) to ensure rights and privileges and to avoid penalties and punishments. Following John’s example and his words, however, there is a better choice: learn the lessons of the scene that comes next in Rev 5:5-7. It turned John’s sorrow into joy, his weeping into worship—and it ought to have the same impact on us.

[i] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (1999), 337.
[ii] Beale, 341.
[iii] Beale, 348.
[iv] Beale, 338.

Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 2 (Rev 4:8-11)

Posted by R. Fowler White

If the seven letters of Rev 2–3 are any indication, it’s hard for most of the congregations of Christ’s church to resist the world’s offers of influence and affluence, especially when the alternatives are life at the margins, in the shadows, and worse. So, what exactly should churches do to resist the world’s allure? As we saw in a previous post, we resist by keeping before us the vision that King Jesus has given to us in Rev 4:1-7: a revelation of the Lord our God in the splendor of holiness, the grandeur of our Divine Sovereign in His Heavenly Palace surrounded by His court. Yet Christ gives us even more to see and hear in heaven above, more to make us bold on the battlefield of this world. Christ presents to us the never-ending worship of the attendants of the Lord God Almighty. What started in 4:1-7 as a heavenly montage unfolding before John’s eyes now becomes a scene of adoration and acclamation in Rev 4:8-11.[i]

John begins by telling us about the worship of the four living creatures (4:8). With six wings they are shielded before the brilliance of God’s holy presence; they are equipped to do His bidding with alacrity. Full of eyes they are attentive and perceptive. Day and night, they never cease to praise. They break out in choral song, extolling the Creator God for His perfections. First, they honor Him, the God of heaven and earth, as Holy, holy, holy. He is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably superior to and separate from all His creatures, even the sinless ones. But especially when compared with His sinful creatures, there is not a trace of evil desire, of impure motive, or of unholy inclination in Him. Second, they pointedly hail the God of heaven and earth as the Lord God Almighty. He is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably all-powerful, omnipotent. Here is the one Being who does whatever He wills, however and whenever He wills it. Only He can do, and does do, all His holy will. Third, they also adore the God of heaven and earth as the One who was and is and is to come. He is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably beyond time and history. He has always existed; He will always exist. He never began; He will never end. He does not grow; He does not age. He sees and knows each event and all events of history as one. Do we hear the never-ending worship of the four living creatures in heaven? Surely, the world’s siren song pales by comparison.

John’s focus shifts from the four living creatures to the twenty-four elders, who are also worshiping (4:9-11). Perhaps these who represent the redeemed of both Testaments are singing antiphonally with the four living creatures; perhaps they are singing harmony. In any case, these angelic officers of the heavenly court fall down (4:9), throwing themselves to the ground as an act of devotion and humility before the ever-living Lord God Almighty. They cast their crowns before His throne, paying Him homage, submitting to His supremacy. They ascribe all worthiness, the highest worthiness, to Him as Creator. He exerts His sovereign power and will in creating and sustaining all things, and His sovereignty in creation and preservation guarantees the fulfillment of His purposes in re-creation. Do we hear the never-ending worship of the twenty-four elders in heaven? For those with ears to hear it, the heavenly anthem drowns out all music but its own, including the world’s siren song.

So, what do we do when the congregations of Christ’s church seem indifferent to the boundaries between the world and the church? When the world presents us a choice between economic security and influence, on the one hand, and society’s margins and shadows, on the other, how exactly will we resist the world’s siren song? King Jesus gives us a better song to sing: the chorus sung by the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders. We’ll join that everlasting song because the issue at stake for us is not merely a first amendment issue; it is a first and greatest commandment issue. So we’ll praise the Lord God Almighty for His perfections. We’ll rejoice in our eternal God and His unceasing rule in and over history. No matter the time or place, no matter the trial, our holy, eternal God is enthroned in heaven. He alone is the Creator and Preserver of all things, so we’ll resist the world’s allure and sing of Him in the splendor of holiness, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.[ii]

[i] J. Ramsey Michaels, Revelation, vol. 20, IVPNTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), Rev 4:1.
[ii] M. Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, 2471.

Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 1 (Rev 4:1-7)

Posted by R. Fowler White

The messages dictated by King Jesus to the seven churches in Asia Minor in Rev 2–3 are meant to prepare us readers to follow Him onto the battlefield of this world, with the mission to bring God’s chosen captives out of Satan’s kingdom into His kingdom. From those messages, we learn that the battle is hard for most churches. The difficulties for the seven churches came not because they were universally poor, or totally alienated from their culture, or even subject to government-sponsored persecution. No, for the most part, those churches—five of seven, to be exact—were weak or self-satisfied, compromising with the majority culture, blurring the boundary between the historic faith and practice of Christ’s church and the beliefs and behaviors of the world, all to secure their “place at the table” and, with it, their viability. The issue at stake, in other words, was not a first amendment issue; it was a first (and greatest) commandment issue. Squeezed into the world’s mold, they were jeopardizing their Christian identity. Sound familiar?

Well, what’s the remedy when congregations are blurring the lines with the world’s beliefs and behaviors, when they’re feeble or complacent and compromising their Christian identity? Christ Jesus, the Lord and Head of His church, gives His answer in Rev 4. He gives John a fresh vision of the Divine Palace in heaven where the Sovereign Divine Ruler sits enthroned, surrounded by His court of attendants (4:2b-7). It’s a marvel of sight and sound unlike anything on earth.

John describes what his eyes can see of the invisible God Himself (4:3). God makes Himself visible to John in a splendor like that of precious light-diffusing stones that intensify the radiance emanating from His throne, the unapproachable brightness surrounding the Deity Himself.[i] Displayed in this portrait is God’s magnificent grandeur, His dazzling glory and, from the rainbow, His abundant mercy. Ineffably sublime, here is the One who is the Majesty enthroned on high!

To enhance our grasp of God’s cosmic supremacy, John’s eyes pan around to His attendants. Around the throne (4:4) are twenty-four elders seated on thrones. Reminiscent of both the twenty-four divisions of old covenant priests and also of the twelve tribal fathers of old Israel with the twelve apostles of the new Israel, these angelic officers of the heavenly court represent the entire community of the redeemed of both Testaments.[ii] Dressed in white garments and wearing golden crowns, they are upright and holy, having a majesty all their own. From the throne (4:5) come flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, evoking the sights and sounds of Mt Sinai. God appears here in His holy power, ready to reveal His judgment and His salvation. Before the throne (4:5-6) are burning seven lamps of fire, which are the seven Spirits of God. Present with God on the throne is God the Spirit in His sevenfold fullness, just as Isaiah described Him in Isa 11:2. Before the throne was also something akin to a sea of glass like crystal, waters quieted by God’s power, like those at creation, after the flood, after the Red Sea and Jordan crossings, in the bronze basin of the tabernacle and temple courtyard. Together with the precious stones, this sea of crystalline glass suggests just how resplendent God’s throne is. Also around the throne (4:6b-7) are four living creatures. Guarding and supporting God’s throne like the seraphim that Isaiah saw (Isa ch. 6) and like the cherubim that Ezekiel saw (Ezek chs. 1 and 10), this rank of angels embodies all the highest attributes of living creation, projecting the likenesses of a lion (the greatest and fiercest undomesticated animal), an ox (the strongest domesticated animal), a man (the ruler of all animals), and an eagle (the noblest bird).[iii]

The contrast between the grandeur of the Divine Palace in heaven and the allure of the world’s blandishments could hardly be more stark. Offers of influence and affluence from the world are hard to resist for churches, particularly the weak or complacent, when their earthly alternatives are a place at the margins, in the shadows, or worse. So, how exactly do churches resist the world’s siren song? By remembering what King Jesus gave all seven churches in Asia Minor. Along with His open letters to them, He gave them a revelation of the Lord God in the splendor of heaven’s holiness. That is the vision He gives us too. Captivated by that vision, we won’t do what most churches in Asia Minor did, even if we’re pushed to the margins and the shadows. We won’t blur the boundary between the world and the church. We won’t jeopardize our Christian identity to ensure financial peace and influence. Instead, we’ll heed Christ’s call from heaven to join, in Spirit and truth, the creatures in heaven around God’s throne. We’ll heed Christ’s call from heaven to engage in the single most important activity of all time and space: the worship of our Divine Sovereign in His Heavenly Palace, surrounded by His court of attendants. Then, as heavenly-minded strangers and pilgrims in this world, we’ll “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also,” and we’ll carry out the mission our King has given us, speaking the truth in love to bring God’s chosen captives out of Satan’s kingdom into His kingdom.

[i] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (1999), 321.
[ii] Beale, 323.
[iii] Richard D. Phillips, Revelation, ed. R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, and D. M. Doriani, REC (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 171.

A Response to Tom Hicks on the Question of the Proper Subjects of Baptism, Part 4

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

In part 3 of his critique of paedobaptism, Mr. Hicks attempts to argue that a proper understanding of the regulative principle of worship is inconsistent with infant baptism. His argument runs like this: 1. The RPW forbids any element of worship not explicitly commanded in the New Testament Scriptures. 2. Infant baptism is not explicitly commanded in the New Testament Scriptures. 3. Therefore, infant baptism falls foul of the RPW. He goes further to try to answer some Reformed responses. Some Reformed folk might respond by saying that OT circumcision is the route to consistency with the RPW. He answers that circumcision is only commanded in the OT. A second possible response is that infant baptism is only a circumstance, not an element. His response is that infant baptism is an element.

There are many ways to pursue an answer to this part of the argument, which I consider to be the weakest in the piece. He betrays a misunderstanding both of the RPW and the doctrine of infant baptism as understood by the Reformed. Firstly, he misunderstands the RPW. The RPW is not limited only to what is explicitly commanded in the NT Scriptures. An element could be implied by apostolic example. Secondly, there is more biblical-theological continuity between OT and NT worship than he allows. OT worship most certainly had the call to worship (present in many of the Psalms), singing of Psalms, preaching of the Word, prayer, and benediction, all things that are commanded in the NT (though benedictions only by example!).

Secondly, he misunderstands the Reformed view of infant baptism. He treats it as though Reformed folk believe it is a completely separate thing from an adult baptism. It is not so. The Reformed believe there is only one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. There is not a separate adult baptism element of worship and an infant baptism element of worship. There is only baptism. And baptism is commanded. Since the efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment of its administration, it does not matter, in Reformed theology, whether the person comes to faith before, during, or after the sign is given. That is why infant baptism and adult baptism are the same thing.

His attempts to forestall objections fall short of the mark, since no Reformed theologian I know would claim that circumcision is what makes baptism allowable according to the NT RPW. It is rather in accordance with what is argued above: 1. Infant baptism is regular baptism; 2. Regular baptism is commanded by Jesus; therefore 3. Infant baptism is in accordance with the RPW. His other attempt to forestall is equally inaccurate, since there is no Reformed author of which I am aware who would even begin to claim that infant baptism is a circumstance. Baptism is an element, as all Reformed theologians agree.

Extra Services?

The Puritans generally rejected extra services of worship besides the Sunday Sabbath services. They lived in a context where the churches in power tended to require lots of extra services. There were feast-days, holy days, saint-days, etc. The Puritans believed that requiring all these extra services bound the conscience to something that was not God’s Word. Their position became clear: only the Sunday services of worship were required by Scripture. However, they did not forbid extra services entirely. WCF 21.5 states that “thanksgivings upon special occasions” are appropriate. The WCF does not specify what those special occasions are. We know from the rest of the standards that none of these extra services can be forced upon the people. However, that is a very different thing from saying that therefore they are not allowed.

If a congregation, therefore, decides that it wants to give thanks to God generally by holding a Thanksgiving service; give thanks to God for the incarnation of Jesus Christ at Christmas; and give thanks to God for Christ’s resurrection at Easter, this does not fall foul of the Regulative Principle, and it falls within the parameters of WCF 21.5. The congregation would then have decided that those are the special occasions on which it wants to give thanks. If someone were to respond by saying “those aren’t special occasions,” I would respond by saying, “who gets to decide what the special occasions are?” Is it not the congregation, led by the session? In my situation, for instance, the congregation is used to having a Thanksgiving service, a Christmas service and an Easter service. No one feels bound in their conscience to go. They go freely. This is very different, obviously, from what the Puritans were facing, in terms of required services.

Now, can we require people to go to extra services? Of course not. That would definitely be a violation of Scripture. Nor could we, hypothetically speaking, discipline anyone who did not come to the special services. They must be kept voluntary. This is the understanding of many Reformed churches through the years. One could not fault a church for holding only to the Sabbath services. However, it seems to go too far to judge churches that have Christmas and Easter services. There seems to be a range here of acceptable practice.

An Argument Against Exclusive Psalmody

Let it be known at the beginning of this post that I love the Psalms, and that I believe the Psalms should be sung in worship frequently, just not exclusively. I heard this argument recently from a new friend of mine in the OPC, by name, the Rev. Brett Mahlen. He used to be EP himself, and so he knows the position from inside, as it were. The argument goes like this: the way most EP proponents phrase the matter is that we can only sing in worship words that are inspired, and that the Bible commands us only to sing the Psalms (usually they interpret Colossians 3:16 to refer to the Septuagintal division of the Psalter into psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs). The argument from my friend addresses the first half of the statement. If we may only sing inspired words, then we cannot sing in English, since the translation into English is not itself inspired; only the autographs are inspired. If we then say that the English translation (into meter, which involves considerable paraphrasing!) is inspired, then we are undermining our doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration. English metrical Psalms, as beautiful as they can be (and most worthy of being sung, I might add!), are not inspired Scripture.

Furthermore (and this is now my addition to the argument), by saying that only the very words of the Psalter may be sung, proponents of EP commit a word-concept fallacy. To remind ourselves, the word-concept fallacy is an error in logic that happens when people believe that words are the same thing as ideas, whereas the truth of the matter is that we use words to express ideas, even though those ideas could be expressed with different words. To flesh it out a bit more, an idea can be present even though a specific word is not used. Similarly, just because a specific word is present does not mean that the idea is also present. In this case, the word-concept fallacy is committed by saying that what is meant in the Psalter can only be obtained by singing the very words themselves. Then the error is compounded by saying that the English metrical Psalters can fit the bill of singing the ipsissima verba (the very words) of Scripture. Ironically, in other places in their Reformed theology, EP proponents would not commit this fallacy. For instance, Reformed EP proponents all (as far as I know) hold that the Bible teaches the doctrine of the Trinity, even though the word “Trinity” nowhere occurs in the Bible. They recognize that the concept of the Trinity is very much present (even obviously so!), and yet the word “Trinity” is not present. The word “Trinity” is our shorthand to express the fact that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there is only one God. So there is not a consistency here with EP proponents: they say that we may only sing the very words of the Psalter, and yet they advocate English metrical Psalters to accomplish this, which English Psalters are not the very words of the inspired Psalms.

To push the point a little further, we may remember that several commentators on the Psalms have said that the Psalter is a mini-Bible. My description of the Psalter would be that it is an emotional commentary on all of Scripture, mostly in the form of prayers. The Psalter thus extends its influence on all the rest of Scripture in one way or another. If this is so, then it is by no means unreasonable to assert that any hymn that is biblical in content reflects the teaching of the Psalter.

Of course, no case whatsoever can be made for a position that says we must all learn Hebrew so that we will sing the Psalter in the original language. That would again commit the word-concept fallacy. The content of Scripture can be translated into other languages, and it is the content of Scripture that we want available to us. Translation of Scripture is implied in the Great Commission of Matthew 28, among other places.

So the EP proponent, if he admits the force of this argument, might respond by saying, “Well, as long as we have the content of the Psalter, then we are good.” However, once one has gotten over the hump of the word-concept fallacy, the whole game is given away, because of what I wrote two paragraphs ago. It seems to me that the claim that we must only sing the inspired Psalms is an essential linch-pin in the EP argument. Without it, the whole thing collapses to the ground. The EP proponents singing metrical Psalms in English are not singing the inspired Psalms, because they are not singing the original Hebrew.

My position is that we must sing only what is biblical. But by the term “biblical” I mean what is biblical in content. We do not need to sing only the very words of Scripture. Otherwise we would have to sing in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. We need to sing the content of Scripture. There is a continuum, therefore, of “biblicalness” when it comes to what we sing. Some can only marginally be called Scriptural. Songs like “In the Garden” have content that can be argued as being anti-biblical (really, an experience that none other has ever known? Are you the recipient of direct divine revelation or something? What kind of walking and talking with me is the song singing about?). We should aim, therefore, to ask the right question: is this hymn biblical in its content?

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