Amazing Thoughts on Prayer

Witsius knocks this one out of the park. He is commenting on the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“Hallowed be thy name”).

It is a very extraordinary and almost incredible familiarity of intercourse which a man is permitted to maintain with God in holy prayer. That a base wretch,—a sinner under sentence of condemnation, a worm that deserves to be trampled under foot,—should be admitted to intercourse with the Divine Being, whose majesty the brightest inhabitants of heaven approach with lively praise, and yet with the lowliest adoration, is certainly a high privilege. To be conducted to the throne of grace by the only begotten Son of God,—to have the words and the very groans supplied by the influence of the Spirit of prayer,—to be permitted to express, with the utmost boldness and freedom, every desire and wish which is not inconsistent with the honour of God, or the true interests of the worshipper,—is a privilege higher still. But the most wonderful of all, and one which almost exceeds belief, is that a man should be allowed to plead, not only for himself and for his neighbour, but for God,—that the kingdom of God and the glory of God should be the subject of his prayer,—as if God were unwilling to be glorious, or to exercise dominion except in answer to the prayers of believers…The honour of praying for God, which is thus granted to a human being, ought to be so highly prized by a believing soul that, loving God above all things, even above itself, it should overlook for a time its own concerns, until the matters which relate to the glory and kingdom of God have been carefully settled (from The Lord’s Prayer (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, facsimile of 1839 edition), 185-6).

Witsius goes on to note that we do not pray for God as if He needed anything. We pray in order that God’s glory may be declared.

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A Chronology of Jesus

(Posted by Paige)

In a bid to enhance biblical literacy in our congregation, I’ve dabbed many a brushstroke onto the walls of one room in our building to provide our Bible teachers with enormous maps and timelines to illustrate their lessons. I’ve just embarked on the most complex of the timelines, an attempt to sort out the events of Jesus’ ministry years into more-or-less chronological order; but I’m finding that I need to do some homework here before I commit myself in acrylics. Maybe some of you redemptive-history buffs can help.

First off, where do we get the idea that Jesus’ ministry was three years long? Is this simply implied in his parable about the barren fig tree in Luke 13:7 – “Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none”?

Second, have any of you ever seen a decent attempt to harmonize the events in the Synoptics with Jesus’ several visits to Jerusalem as described in John? I’m thinking of grouping the events from the Synoptics above the timeline, and adding the punctuation of the holiday visits to Jerusalem from John’s account below it.

Not to mention the Lazarus event – am I correct to read this as the unnamed catalyst that turned Jesus southward from Galilee towards Jerusalem late in the Synoptic accounts? (Though John maybe implies that Jesus was in Perea just prior to that cataclysmic miracle – “He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing at first, and there he remained,” Jn. 10:40. So was he in Galilee or Perea when the message reached him [Jn. 11:6,“he stayed in the place where he was”]?)

I realize that the best we can do here is make educated guesses, so I’m hoping that some of your education in this area exceeds mine. Thanks in advance for your expertise!

If you’d like to see some of the murals from our Chart Room, check out the wall of my biblical literacy site. I have yet to figure out how to photograph the 20-foot timeline of redemptive history, but you can at least take a look at the maps. (The full-map JPEGs work great as Power Point slides, by the way – so I take my walls with me when I teach elsewhere! You’re welcome to borrow them too, if you’d like.)

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology, Take Three

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a link to a 30-minute talk that I gave at a Bible study conference this October. It’s another introduction to redemptive history, this time tracing the theme of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles through the Old and New Testaments. I also play around with a connection between the Syrophoenician woman and Paul’s words about the “mystery” of Gentile inclusion in Ephesians 3. It’s on YouTube this time NOT because it’s a video of me speaking, but because I made slides to illustrate the audio. Please listen if you like, and pass the link on to others who might benefit, especially those who are just getting to know the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria!

The Literary Connection of Matthew 24 to Matthew 25

Jesus’ discourse on the last times in Matthew 24-25 is tightly connected and parallel in construction. This has important theological and pastoral ramifications. Let me demonstrate.

Two mini parables end chapter 24: the parable about the thief and the master of the house, and the parable about the faithful and wise servant who is doing what his master commanded when the master returns. What follows in chapter 25 is three large sections, two of them definitely parables, and the last section possibly a parable, or perhaps an extended metaphor. The first parable of chapter 25 is the parable of the ten virgins (five were wise in being prepared, five were foolish in being completely unprepared). The second parable is of the talents, again having wise servants (with the 5 and the 2 talents) and the foolish servant (with the 1 talent). The chapter ends up with the separation of all people into sheep and goats. For our purposes here, I want to point out the parallel order: the ultimate once-for-all preparedness of faith in Christ precedes and grounds the subsidiary preparedness of obedience. Faith is the foundation for obedience. The master of the house who is wise in watching for the intruder is the faithful servant doing what his master commanded when the master comes back, who is in turn the wise virgin who prepared by bringing extra oil, who in turn is the faithful servant multiplying his talents, and is the sheep at the end. The (implied) foolish master of the house who did not watch is the foolish servant who beat his fellow servants, who is the foolish virgin caught without oil, who in turn is the foolish servant who hid the talent in the ground, and is the goat at the end. There are two parallel threads here marking out (ultimately) the sheep and the goats.

Even further, however, notice that in both chapter 24 and chapter 25 the ultimate preparedness comes before and grounds the subsidiary preparedness of obedience. You have to be the wise master of the house in order to be expecting the master’s return and behaving accordingly. Similarly, in the parallel chapter 25, you have to be the wise virgin in order to be the wise servant multiplying talents. Faith always leads to obedience. It is the source of obedience. The indicative grounds the imperative, as it does in all of Paul’s letters, and as it does in the Ten Commandments.

Going back a bit further into chapter 24, we notice that Jesus is setting up these two threads by talking about preparedness: some will expect Jesus to come back any day, while others will treat it the same way as those sinners in Noah’s day. Going back even further, Jesus gives us signs of the times, some of which signs apply to the destruction of Jerusalem, while others apply to the end of the world (see the programmatic question of the disciples in verse 3). It all hangs together: prepare for the Lord’s coming by believing in Christ, and obeying Christ, and obeying Christ because you believe in Him.

“Commandments” in Matthew 5:17-20?

(Posted by Paige)

While puzzling this week over the referent for “these commandments” in Matt. 5:19, I came across two distinct explanations in two of D. A. Carson’s older commentaries. I think they end up in the same place, but they begin quite differently. What do you think?

Here is the familiar passage, from the ESV:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Carson writes this in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World (Baker, 1978; but I have the 1987 edition):

The expression ‘these commands’ does not, I think, refer to the commands of the OT law. It refers, rather, to the commands of the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom mentioned three times in verse 19f. They are the command already given, and the commands still to come, in the Sermon on the Mount…It is worth noting that Jesus’ closing words in Matthew’s Gospel again emphasize obedience: the believers are to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded (28:18-20). Jesus’ commands are highlighted, much as in 5:19.” (40, 41; bold added, italics in original.)

And he writes this in his article on Matthew in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (ed. Gaebelein; Zondervan, 1984):

“But what are ‘these commandments’? It is hard to justify restriction of these words to Jesus’ teachings…, even though the verb cognate to ‘commands’ (entolon) is used of Jesus’ teachings in 28:20 (entellomai); for the noun in Matthew never refers to Jesus’ words, and the context argues against it. Restriction to the Ten Commandments…is equally alien to the concerns of the context. Nor can we say ‘these commandments’ refers to the antitheses that follow, for in Matthew houtos (‘this,’ pl. ‘these’) never points forward. It appears, then, that the expression must refer to the commandments of the OT Scriptures. The entire Law and the Prophets are not scrapped by Jesus’ coming but fulfilled. Therefore the commandments of these Scriptures – even the least of them… — must be practiced. But the nature of the practicing has already been affected by vv.17-18. The law pointed forward to Jesus and his teaching; so it is properly obeyed by conforming to his word. As it points to him, so he, in fulfilling it, establishes what continuity it has, the true direction to which it points and the way it is to be obeyed. Thus ranking in the kingdom turns on the degree of conformity to Jesus’ teaching as that teaching fulfills OT revelation. His teaching, toward which the OT pointed, must be obeyed.” (146; bold added)

So…which is it, Dr. Carson? (Anybody have his new edition of the Expositor’s commentary?)

A Banner Year for Matthew Studies

This year has seen an astonishing array of outstanding studies in the Gospel of Matthew. If pastors could only have access to commentaries on Matthew published in this year, they would not be seriously lacking in content. First off the block is a republication of this commentary, originally published in 1893, just after the author’s death. It shows the author at full maturity. The commentary is not lengthy (only 442 pages), but it does have that quality that Calvin prized so highly of “lucid brevity.” Spurgeon always preaches. This is a newly type-set edition, published in a well-bound hardback. I don’t really need to press people to get this. Pastors will know that they should own it.

Next we have this excellent addition to the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series. I have reviewed the other volume currently published here. I direct readers there for my initial thoughts about the series. The potential of this series for helping people to get a solid grasp of the flow of the text is enormous. I can only hope that they will start an Old Testament series along the same lines. This is a major series, and with forthcoming volumes on Ephesians and Galatians, it looks like they will be publishing steadily. Edit: they just became available at WTS today! Osborne teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a colleague of D.A. Carson. This volume is a heavy-hitter, weighing in at 1154 large-sized pages. He is a conservative when it comes to the text, and recognizes well the interdependency of history and theology. He denies neither in the text. This volume is full of insights, and is well worth the investment.

Speaking of Carson, he has revised his volume in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary for inclusion in the Revised Edition. Carson’s commentary has long been a standard in the field, and this revision brings it up to date. Carson’s work is by far the most bibliographically thorough of the four works discussed here. He even had the opportunity to interact with Turner’s volume (only published 2 years ago!). The value of Carson’s commentaries can hardly be overestimated. Obviously Osborne and Carson were not able to integrate fully the findings each of the other, although as colleagues at the same school who both wrote on Matthew, I’m sure they shared many thoughts together on Matthew over a cup of coffee. If pastors don’t purchase this volume, they are insane.

Last, but certainly not least, is the perfectionistic work by Knox Chamblin (volume 1 and volume 2). This is a simply massive commentary (almost 1600 pages in the two volumes!). The care that Chamblin took over this commentary is reflected in the amount of time it took to get these volumes to press. While as thorough as he could be (he spent more time in the books than in the articles), his bibliography is inevitably a tad behind (he could not even interact with France’s commentary, which was published 5 years ago). One should not view this as anything close to a substantial weakness, however, for the depth of treatment is unsurpassed. The only commentary that rivals this one for depth of treatment is Davies and Allison in the ICC. The advantage this commentary has over Davies and Allison is that Chamblin is a Reformed confessional author (he taught at RTS Jackson, where he is now emeritus). I need not spend any more time doing injustice to these magisterial volumes. Instead, I will quote Derek Thomas’s thoughts on these volumes: “If I were to be limited to only one commentary on Matthew, this would be the one.” As I said before, a banner year for Matthew studies. When one adds these four volumes to the ones recently published by France, Nolland, Turner, Wilkins, Bruner, Davies/Allison (1, 2, 3), Hagner (1 and 2), Blomberg, Doriani, Garland, and Keener, one will find all the modern help one could wish to have (one must not neglect older studies like Plummer and Meyer, of course).

Does God practice temporary forgiveness?

Posted by Bob Mattes

I read Dr. Rob Rayburn’s letter to the PCA Standing Judicial Committee with some interest. I was curious to see how a church officer defends someone who holds virtually identical views to a man who was a hair’s breath from indictment a short time ago before fleeing the denomination. I found the read, though, greatly disappointing and even disturbing. I found the theological arguments to be more like blind assertions, and support was entirely lacking when Rayburn seemed to be making assertions about particular Scriptural texts.

I found the assertion that God forgives temporarily particularly disturbing, and that will be the subject of this post. Rayburn:

Justification – whatever else it is – is the forgiveness of sins. It is perfectly obvious that there is such a thing as temporary forgiveness because the Bible says there is (cf. Num. 14:20 with 1 Cor. 10:5; Ezekiel 16:1-14; Matthew 18:32-34; etc.). Whether we are entirely satisfied with Dr. Leithart’s effort to incorporate this biblical material into the larger picture of the way of divine grace, the fact is, temporary forgiveness is a biblical datum.

I’ll deal with his view of justification in another post. The assertion above, made without support, is that temporary forgiveness is perfectly obvious in the Bible – a given. Really? I’ve never seen it, and neither did Calvin, the Westminster Divines, or any other orthodox Reformed scholar I can find.

Let’s look at the Scriptures cited, starting with the most challenging. Matthew 18:32-34 (ESV) says: Read the rest of this entry »

The Nature of Faith

Matthew 17:14-23

8/30/2009

Most people do not know what faith is. Not true faith in the living God. They believe that they can say that simple belief is what faith is. And people stress so much how powerful our faith ought to be. If something doesn’t happen right, then they will say that our faith just wasn’t strong enough. And it is but a short step from there to saying that the size of our faith is determined entirely by what goes on inside of us. Now, we do not want to downplay the fact that faith can be more or less in a person. Jesus plainly tells us right here that there are degrees of faith. However, we must remember the true nature of faith in order to answer these questions.

This passage is not primarily about the healing of a boy with a demon. Rather, the healing of a boy with a demon is a test case in a larger discussion related to the nature of faith. Once we realize this, then we can begin to see that there are lessons here for us. After all, there aren’t many people here I know of who have epileptic seizures due to demonic possession. But the lessons of faith this passage can teach us are profound and far-reaching.

The story starts with a man being concerned for his son. Maybe “concerned” is a bit of an understatement. He is actually desperate. There is nowhere else to turn. He has even gone to the disciples, but the disciples were unable to cast out this demon. Sometimes Jesus allows His servants to fail, in order that people will come straight to the source, which is Himself. He is jealous of His own glory and honor, and will not share it with another. And so he often reminds us that He alone is sufficient. We need then to keep on coming back to the source of all blessings.

The problem with this man’s son was that he was demon-possessed. The demon afflicted him with what is probably epilepsy. Literally, the word is “moon-struck.” He was a crazy boy, doing many weird things all throughout his life. He would jump into fire and water and suffer harm as a result. In the parallel account in Mark, we learn that the demon made him mute as well. The man had brought his son to the disciples, but the disciples were unable to help him.

Jesus’ answer to this is something of a puzzle. Why would Jesus call this generation unbelieving and perverse? Why would the entire generation be seemingly responsible for this one man’s problem? And isn’t the trouble related to the disciples’ lack of faith? Well, the answers to these questions get us to an important place in our examination of this passage. Jesus is here expressing frustration over the lack of faith in the current generation. It seems to be a fairly comprehensive statement that includes just about everyone. The people in the crowd are unbelieving and perverse. Certainly the epileptic son is unbelieving and perverse. Certainly the disciples are struggling with a lack of faith in God’s power. Now, the disciples did believe in Jesus. But they did not always believe in their commission. You might remember that Jesus commissioned them to cast out evil demons. He gave them the power to do that. In chapter 10, Jesus sent out His disciples with power to cast out demons. However, because that power is there does not mean that the connection to that power is always present. Maybe there is a short in the line somewhere. The disciples found this out when they could not do what the man had requested. Fixing the short in the line means that we realize the true nature of faith. True faith has its power not from something inside us, but rather from the power of God. Let me say that again. True faith has its power not from something inside us, but rather from the power of God. Faith is not powerful because we believe better and harder than someone else. True faith is rather an unhindered access to our all-powerful God. The power of faith comes from the power of God in which our faith rests.

Here is a helpful way of thinking about faith. Imagine that you are canning some fruit. You have your jars in the boiling water so that when you take them out, the lids will seal. You can’t just reach in your hand to the boiling water to get them out, or you will scald your hand badly. You need something like a pair of tongs. I know that they make these special tongs that can grab hold of a jar. You use these tongs to lay hold of the jar and bring out the jar from the boiling water. Similarly, our faith is like a pair of tongs that lay hold of God Himself. We cannot touch God in and of ourselves, for God is holy and we are not. However, we can lay hold of Christ by faith. Faith, then is not where the power resides. Faith rather lays hold of our God, which is where the power resides.

It should be evident by now that the greatness of our faith is not quite as important as the greatness of our God. A small faith that is true to God can still access that great power. However, there is truth in saying that some people have more faith than other people have. What we mean by that, however, is not so much that the power comes from within the person. Rather, what we mean, and what we should mean, is that a person with great faith has fewer obstacles in the way to his access to the power of God. This is evident from what Jesus says about little faith. He describes faith the size of a mustard seed. You might remember from Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed and the kingdom of God that mustard seed is a very tiny seed. Nevertheless, faith even as small as that can move mountains when it is a true faith in the living God. God is the one who does the heavy lifting. So, when Jesus says that the reason the disciples could not cast out the demon was their little faith, what he means is that the faith of the disciples is faulty. There is a short in the line somewhere. The faith is not functioning properly. Probably, the problem was that the disciples forgot where the power actually lay. They thought that the power of God somehow transferred over to them. They probably forgot that the only way to do what God calls us to do is to rely on the power of God, and to trust that Jesus will do what is best for us.

When Jesus says that true but little faith can move mountains, what He means is that true faith can things (by the power of God, not by the power of itself) that might seem impossible. The last phrase confirms this when it says “nothing will be impossible for you.”

When I think of the great heroes of the faith who had this kind of faith, with no obstacles in the way of faith, the figure that comes to mind most strongly was George Muller. He ran an orphanage asylum in England. He often did not have daily food for the children in his care. Things were always tight. They lived on a shoestring budget. In such an environment, Muller’s faith grew by reading the Scriptures and by prayer. One day there was no food. There was simply nothing to eat. The children and the workers all called out miserably in despair, not knowing where the food would come from. Muller calmed them down, and told them that they should pray. When Muller prayed, he thanked the Lord for the food that was coming and that was already on its way toward their house. No sooner had he finished the prayer when there was a knock on the door. A milkman was there. His horse had gotten a lame foot, and so he could not deliver the milk to the people of his route. Rather than see the milk go to waste, he wondered whether Muller could use it for his orphans. Muller recognized, you see, that the milk was coming because of the power of God, not because of the power of his faith. Because he recognized that, his faith was functioning properly.

The disciples’ faith was still not functioning properly in the last part of this passage when they hear for the second time that Jesus had to be delivered into the hands of men and be crucified. Now, their reaction was one step better than Peter’s reaction in chapter 16, which was to reproach Jesus for His obviously bad theology! They believe that what Jesus says is true. But they do not yet know that this had to happen for them to be saved from their sin! The reason that they were distressed was that it seemed to them a prophecy of the end of what they believed. But as Jesus told the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus’ death and resurrection were written in large letters all over the pages of the Old Testament. They should have known, and were slow to believe all that the prophets had spoken! Their faith believed Jesus’ words, but did not yet realize all the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The faith believed, but did not trust fully yet.

In the Reformed faith, we have always said that faith has three parts to it. The first part is belief. This is the content of faith. What doctrine do we hold to? What do we know about God? That is what we believe. It is a vitally important part of faith. But it is not all of what constitutes faith. The second part of faith is that we agree with what we know. We call this “assent.” We assent or agree with what we believe. We can know something, and yet not agree with it. We might know someone else’s opinion on something, for instance, and yet not agree with it. The third part of faith is trust. This is the part that actually connects ourselves with the power of God. It is trust. As James tells us, even demons, even the very demon that possessed the boy believed that Jesus is the Son of God. That demon might even have assented to this truth. But that demon would never entrust himself to Jesus. This is in many ways the key aspects of faith. Again, to back to our image of the wire, knowledge is the substance of the wire, maybe copper. Assent is like the outer coating of the wire. After all, we know that exposed wires are dangerous, and so we cover them with something. But if that wire is not connected to the power source, if there is no trust, then the wire is useless. So the actual connection with the power source, that is like trust. A good thing to meditate on. I know that a lot of us can do electrical wiring. Think of this the next time you wire something. Think of the nature of faith, and ask whether you trust Jesus, whether your faith is actually connected to Jesus.

In practical ways, we can see the importance of this. Faith means that we won’t hold back when an opportunity for evangelism presents itself. For we know that the One to whom we are connected has all the power. True faith means that we will not despair in difficult circumstances, for we will trust our God that He knows what He is putting us through, and that He only designs to consume our dross and refine our gold, as the hymn has it. True faith believes great things and hopes great things from God, knowing that He can do far more than all we ask or imagine. Let us not be part of that faithless and perverse generation of which Jesus spoke. Let us instead be part of a generation like George Muller, knowing that all the power comes from God, and so we can do what God requires of us, not because of our faith, but because of the object of our faith.

The Way Down

Matthew 17:10-13

8/16/2009

After a great spiritual high often comes a spiritual low. We read about Elijah in our call to worship, in his marvelous encounter with all the prophets of Baal, and how the Lord delivered Israel from false worship. In the very next chapter, Elijah is off the mountain and fleeing for his very life. Paul also talks about a surpassing spiritual vision that caught him up into the third heaven. He was not permitted to speak of it, and, to keep him from being too puffed up, the Lord gave him a thorn in his side. Well, in our text here tonight, we see a very similar pattern. After the incredible experience of seeing the majesty of Jesus revealed in its true colors, the disciples now have to be brought down a notch again. That is why Jesus here tells His disciples once again about the true nature of discipleship.

The Transfiguration is still very important for our understanding of the passage. Moses and Elijah had appeared to Jesus on the mountain. We saw that that meant that all the law and prophets tell us about Jesus, and point us to Him. The appearance of Elijah must have sparked some questions in the minds of the disciples. See, the disciples all believed that Jesus was the Messiah. However, they also knew their Old Testament. The very last part of the Old Testament is the book of Malachi, and the very last prophecy in that book is that the Lord would send Elijah BEFORE the Messiah. It would be a very public event, because it would result in turning the hearts of the children towards their fathers and the hearts of the fathers towards the children. Otherwise the land would be struck with a curse. Elijah hadn’t appeared, at least not to the vision of the disciples. So then, how could Jesus be the Messiah if Elijah the forerunner had not come yet?

The Jews also believed that Elijah would come back. Remember that Elijah did not die. He was one of two people in the Old Testament (the other being Enoch) who did not taste death. Elijah went up to heaven in the chariot. So he could easily come back, and the Old Testament said that he would. Well, turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and vice versa was a good thing, but it was only a start, thought the Jews. The Jews eventually expanded the prophecy to say that Elijah would restore all things before the Messiah came. Of course, that didn’t leave much for the Messiah to do! And the Jews were going beyond what the text of Malachi was predicting. Malachi did not say that the return of Elijah would bring a restoration of all things, but that the return of the Messiah would bring the restoration of all things.

This is why Jesus then says that Elijah has already come. The Jews didn’t recognize him, because they had a completely different set of expectations concerning him. They thought he would restore the fortunes of the people of Israel in the land of Israel. Some people still think that that is the point of the nation of Israel today. But the project of the Elijah that Jesus is talking about was quite different from the Jewish expectation. It was a much more global, much deeper issue that this Elijah addressed. The problem is that of sin. This new Elijah proclaimed the gospel of the coming kingdom of God, which was a kingdom not limited to one particular people group, but one that would eventually extend over the entire globe. It was a kingdom based on repentance and the forgiveness of sins because of what the One coming after him would do.

Here we can see, incidentally, just how dangerous one’s theology can be. All that happened was that the Jews started adding a little bit to God’s Word. They added more to what Elijah would do. And they forgot that the passage in Malachi might not actually be fulfilled literally with the return of the literal Elijah. They forgot that it might be the idea of a forerunner, just as Elijah was the forerunner of Elisha, so also someone who could be called an Elijah might come before the Messiah. Because of these fairly small changes in their theology, they missed the coming of Elijah completely. When Elijah came, they filtered him through the eyes of their altered reading of God’s Word, and thus they missed him. It is indeed perilous to tamper with God’s Word. They wound up killing the forerunner because of their theology!

Of course, what is even more dangerous is that their rejection of the forerunner also meant that they would not accept the real Messiah either. Like forerunner, like Messiah. If the forerunner was concerned about a spiritual kingdom wherein repentance was the rule, the Messiah would be concerned about the same thing. All throughout Matthew we have seen that John the Baptist (for that is the Elijah here meant) and Jesus preached exactly the same thing. They both preached “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, or has approached.”

So, just as they preached the same message, so also would their reception be the same: utter rejection. Just as John was executed by those who rejected his message, so also would Jesus be executed by those rejecting His message. This is what made the disciples finally realize who was the “Elijah” about whom Jesus had been speaking. It was John the Baptist. John the Baptist is like Elijah. How?

Malachi holds the key link for us. The Lord will send Elijah before the great and awesome day of the Lord. The great and awesome day of the Lord will put all to rights. The wicked will be punished and the righteous will be restored to all the glory that they should have as God’s people reflecting the glory of God. But then that raises the very important question, “If Jesus has come, why didn’t the great and awesome day of the Lord also come?” The answer to that is to remember that Christ is coming again. The reality is, you see, that Christ’s first coming and His second coming are really part 1 and part 2 of the same coming. The Day of the Lord has begun, and yet it has not yet finished in its entire work. Certainly, we see some of the things the Old Testament prophesied coming to pass now. For instance, we see that wherever the Gospel is preached, the hearts of the children are turned to their fathers, both their earthly, and their heavenly fathers, and likewise with the fathers’ hearts turning towards their children’s hearts. However, the final judgment has not yet come. There is still something that remains with regard to judgment. So, it is not as if God’s Word has failed. Far from it. However, God’s plan for the fulfillment of His Word surprises us rather a lot, because it splits the coming of Christ into two comings, thus creating an “in-between” time, the time in which we now live. And so we wait for that time when all will be made right.

We must learn from this passage that God’s Word will always find people to add to it or flat out reject it. People rejected the message that Jesus Himself gave out! That should be encouraging to us. Whether someone responds to the gospel or not has to with whether the Holy Spirit is working in that person’s heart. It does not have to do with how well or poorly we share the Gospel. They rejected Jesus, and they will reject us also. We should not be either surprised or discouraged by that fact. We should rather expect that we, being Jesus’ disciples, should not expect different treatment than the Master. We’ll be treated the same way. We should do what Jesus did anyway, however, because that is what He has commanded. Remember that the passage immediately before the Transfiguration passage is the place where Jesus told us that we must take up our cross and follow Jesus.

We must also learn to take great care with God’s Word. God’s Word has many things in it that are clear. Indeed, we say that when it comes to matters concerning salvation, God’s Word is very clear. However, there are still many places where it is possible to go wrong. We must not add to Scripture, we must not take anything away from Scripture, we must not distort Scripture, and we must not change Scripture. The Word of God is the Word of God, and He does not want it altered in any way. We must not lessen the force of God’s commands in order to justify what we want to do. We must not use our experience to twist the words of Scripture in order to justify our own experience. The Scripture is the judge of our experience rather than the other way around. We also must not allow modern culture to change what Scripture says. There are lots of people, for instance, in the feminist and homosexual groups who will reinterpret Scripture based on their cultural stance. Then they allow the Bible to say whatever they want it to say. We must rather be humble. For we know that the Scripture rules us. And yet, when the truth is on the line, we must not compromise with any untruth just because it might be convenient.

Listen to Him

Matthew 17:1-9

8/9/2009

People love to talk about mountain-top experiences. They want nothing more than that spiritually uplifting experience, because then they think they will know all that they need. And certainly, we do not want to downplay what many people experience every now and then, when it comes to a glorious transcendent experience of God’s goodness. Of course, we have to be careful, because Satan is very good at counterfeiting these experiences. And it seems that the more Satan is active, the more certain people are that their experience is from God. However, when it comes to the Transfiguration, we can undoubtedly say that it was a mountain-top spiritual experience for the disciples, and that it confirmed them mightily in their faith.

The Transfiguration, however, is difficult to understand. One of the main reasons for this is that this story is absolutely drowning in references to the Old Testament. And, as we shall see, we have to look at other parts of the New Testament as well, in order to understand. At the most basic level, however, we have to look at the immediately preceding context in order to know why the passage is here. We must note that the chapter divisions of the Bible are not part of the original manuscripts. They were added a lot later. Some chapter divisions make more sense than others. This chapter division is understandable in one sense, but we must be able to connect the two chapters together. We have seen that suffering and death is in store for Jesus, and for the disciples, who are commanded to take up their cross and follow Jesus. That kind of language is very discouraging to the disciples, since they really cannot see through Jesus’ death to the other side of resurrection glory. Jesus knows this about His disciples, and so He gives them a taste of that glory, telling them in effect that the suffering and death are not the end of the story. And that is the main message: we should listen to Jesus, for He is the end of the story. And the end of Jesus’ story is not the cross, or even the empty tomb, but rather the glory of being exalted to the right hand of God. I hope to communicate something of the excitement that this passage is supposed to bring up in us. And if we are not moved by this account, then there is something wrong with us.

The passage starts with something significant, but easy to miss. It says “after six days.” In Exodus 24:16, we hear this: “The glory of the LORD dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.” And then also we are reminded of the creation week: six days of labor and one day of rest. Both of these passages are in the background to this time marker.

Jesus took three disciples with Him (Peter, James and John), and took them up on a high mountain. This is a mountain-top experience indeed! For Isaiah 40:9 says (which we providentially just read!), “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” The disciples are the heralds of this news, although they cannot bear these tidings to anyone just yet. Not until the resurrection happens, to which this Transfiguration points.

Verse 2 tells us that Jesus was transfigured. You maybe have heard the word “metamorphosis.” It means a change in form. That is the Greek word here used. He was transformed into a different form, a glorious form. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes were radiant, since the glory of the Lord shone right through the clothes and made them radiantly white. What is this form in which Jesus now appears? It is the form of glory. Jesus had glory before he came to earth, and He has glory now, after He was raised from the dead. Jesus revealed a hint of that glory here and now.

When it says that His face shown like the sun, we are certainly to be reminded of the passage we read as a call to worship, that when Moses came down off the mountain, his face was shining. Jesus, however, is the new and better Moses, for Moses had to put a veil over his face. Jesus here is unveiled.

Speaking of Moses, there he is, right in the passage! In fact, Moses and Elijah both appear to Jesus. As an interesting and comforting side-note, this passage proves that people do not lose their identity in heaven. We don’t know how the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah, since they had never seen them. But Jesus probably told them about who they were. But they were Moses and Elijah, clearly recognizable as such. Our loved ones in heaven will be recognizable by us as those people. Only they will be better, for they will have much greater glory. Of course, even the glory they have now will be as nothing compared to the glory they will have at the Resurrection. For here, Moses and Elijah are temporarily given bodies that look exactly like the resurrection bodies we will all receive. Jesus wants us to know that this is the true end of the road.

And that end is not just for Moses and Elijah. It is for all who believe in Jesus Christ. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” The word for “transformed” in 2 Corinthians is exactly the same word used here. But Paul says that we are even now being transformed. How is that? For we cannot see this transformation in our bodies. Paul explains this in Romans 12:2 by means of a command: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” You see, it is our inner being that is being transformed by the Word of God. Paul says that we should not be forced into the mold of the world, but rather that we should be put into a new mold, that of Jesus Christ.

Peter is so excited that he gets ahead of the program in verse 4. Peter is not being stupid, as many suppose. It was standard courtesy to build a place of relaxation for important people who came your way. There may also be a reference here to the feast of Tabernacles, where people built booths in which the lived for a short time. We could also think of the Tabernacle, built as the temporary residence of God Almighty. But Peter’s error here is two-fold. Firstly, he had the timing wrong. This was a fleeting moment, wherein just a glimpse of the heavenly world was revealed to Peter and the others. It was not a moment that could last, for Jesus still had to suffer and die. Peter wanted to prolong the moment, but that could not happen. The other error he makes is that he puts Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all on the same level by his offer of making a tent for each of them. It says clearly in Hebrews 3 that Moses was a faithful servant in the house of God, but that Jesus is the Son who rules over the house. Jesus is Lord of Moses and Elijah. This we find out clearly, when the voice comes out of the cloud and tells the disciples to listen to the well-beloved Son. Notice that the voice from the clouds actually interrupts Peter. Peter was still talking. This is somewhat humorous. God cannot wisely wait for Peter to finish what he is saying before the much more important words of the Father come out of the cloud. Listen to Jesus, fix your eyes on Jesus. He is the only ultimate voice to which we can listen. It is as if the Father is saying, “From now on, I refer all knowledge of Me to the Son. He will tell you all you need to know.”

All the Scriptures breathe of him. That is part of the significance of having Moses and Elijah there. They stand for all the law and the prophets. The law and the prophets all point to Jesus. They all mean that we should listen to Jesus. And that means not only that we hear what Jesus says. The word “listen” here means what it so often means in Scripture: hear and obey, hear and believe. To understand this fully, we have to go back to the OT once more to hear Moses speaking to us in Deuteronomy 18:
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers–it is to him you shall listen– just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ Here at the Transfiguration, the Father is saying, “Here is the Prophet Moses promised to you. Listen to Him.” Jesus is like Moses. Both go up on the mountain to receive the Word of the Lord, the only difference being that Jesus had the Word inside Himself.

The last point for understanding is that we need to notice the presence of God here. Just as the Lord descended in fire and cloud upon Mount Sinai, and upon the tabernacle, and upon the temple, so also the cloud descends here upon the mountain. That symbolized God’s presence. It is from that cloud that the voice came. When the disciples heard that voice, they fell down and were terrified. While I’m sure the experience was thrilling, that’s not all it was. Being in the presence of the Lord while being a sinner is a terrifying experience. But the Lord Jesus is with us to touch us, and to let us know that our sin problem can be erased through His Person and work. That Moses and Elijah vanish, and it is only Jesus remaining teaches us that only Jesus can fix our sin problem. He tells us to believe. The Father tells us to believe what Jesus says.

While this moment may have lasted only for a short time, the resurrection lasts forever. We need, therefore, to fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. And we need to live this from the perspective of someone who is raised from the dead. Spiritually, if we believe in Christ, we have the new resurrection soul. And we have the promise of the resurrection body. This is true. It is going to happen. Peter uses this Transfiguration account to prove to his readers that what he says is in line with what Jesus says:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Peter 1:16-19)
The question is whether we believe and worship Jesus.
For a final application, I can do no better than to quote one of my very favorite hymns, “For All the Saints.”

For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. You were their rock, their fortress, and their might: you, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight; you, in the darkness drear, the one true Light. O may your soldiers, faithful, true, and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win, with them, the victor’s crown of gold. O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in you, for all are thine. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, then steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. The golden evening brightens in the west; soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest; sweet is the calm of paradise the blest. But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on His way. From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia, Alleluia!

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