Don’t Waste Your Time Reading Leviticus

If you’re like me and you follow some kind of Bible reading plan, inevitably you arrive at Leviticus.  The plan I’ve been using this year had me in this book for about 2 chapters a day over 2 weeks.  Chapters about clean and unclean, different sacrifices, ceremonial laws regarding priests – in the past I’ve read through it all, but, to be honest, not without much pleasure or profit.  This year I thought to myself:  “How can I make the best use of my time in this part of God’s revelation?  How can I avoid wasting my time as I read this book?” 

There are different ways.  One would be to find a readable and reliable commentary which both explains Leviticus in its original context and also shows how it points to Christ and applies to Christians (if anyone knows of such a commentary, I will allow comments for this post – please do share!).  Another way would be to use the notes in a sound study Bible.  Sometimes those notes can steer you in the right direction.

Another way, which I used this time around, is to find reliable sermons on Leviticus.  If you go to SermonAudio, there are some 3,260 sermons on Leviticus.  I can’t vouch for how reliable all of them are, but I’m sure some of them would be, especially those preached in confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches.  However, listening to a sermon on even one chapter of Leviticus could involve a significant time investment.  Some might have that time, but many others won’t. 

For many others, reading a sermon on a chapter or two might be more feasible.  If you go to a website called The Seed, you’ll find 17 sermons on Leviticus.  These sermons are suitable for reading and personal study.  There aren’t sermons on every chapter, but on enough to at least generally read one per day.

The last resource I’ll mention is the Family Worship Bible Guide.  As the title indicates, it was originally written for family devotions, but it can be equally useful for personal Bible study.  Each chapter of the Bible has notes to help Christians understand and reflect on what God is saying to us.  Let me give a couple of examples from Leviticus.  One of the notes on Leviticus 3 reads:

There are significant parallels between the peace offering and the communal meal that believers can experience at the Lord’s Table.  The table is not a sacrifice but it declares the fact of the sacrifice Christ offered that removed every barrier, obstacle, and impediment to our fellowship with God as believers; it declares that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Rejoice in the One who accomplished this on your behalf!

And this is one of the notes on Leviticus 9:

After Aaron offered the sacrifice to the Lord, he lifted up his hand toward the people and blessed them (v.22).  We are reminded of when our Lord “came out” from death and the grave having finished His work.  As He ascended to heaven, “he lifted up his hands and blessed them” (Luke 24:50).  How is the blessing of Christ better than that of Aaron?

The Family Worship Bible Guide is written from a Reformed perspective – it’s both reliable and helpful.  I can’t recommend it enough.

We believe the Bible is clear.  God’s written revelation is not an impenetrable mystery.  However, even Scripture itself says that not all parts of the Bible are equally clear.  Peter famously says that some passages of Paul are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16).  With Leviticus the passages are not always hard to understand in their original context.  The challenge really comes in understanding their relevance for us as Christians.  We can be thankful that help is available and we ought to avail ourselves of it.    


A Hidden Life: Tragic, Beautiful, Inspiring

It’s the Second World War.  You’re living in Nazi-occupied Europe.  You’re required to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler.  If you refuse, you’ll be charged with treason, imprisoned, and likely executed.  Standing your ground means leaving behind a wife and three young daughters.  You’ll be ostracized by your community and even your religious leaders won’t support you. 

That’s the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer.  Jägerstätter became convinced the Nazi regime was wicked and that he could do nothing to support it.  When he was conscripted into the German army in 1940, he refused to swear allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich.  Jägerstätter’s tragic story is powerfully told in Terrence Malick’s 2019 film, A Hidden Life.

It’s a beautifully made film.  The stark mountains of Austria feature in long, lingering shots which allow for contemplation.  Shots of the rapid rivers and creeks underscore the momentum of the storyline.  Even the weather accentuates the mood as viewers are drawn deeper into Jägerstätter’s crisis of conscience.

The soundtrack is likewise thoughtful.  For example, there’s a pivotal point in the story where we hear the familiar notes of J.S. Bach’s Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen from the St. Matthew’s Passion – “Come, you daughters, help me lament.”  There could hardly be a more appropriate piece of music for this moment in the film.  

Although it’s a story with no happy ending, A Hidden Life is profoundly inspiring.  Franz Jägerstätter was a Roman Catholic and his religion was important to him and his wife.  The film intimates that his religion was fundamental to his convictions about Nazism.  However, that doesn’t mean the alienation of Reformed viewers.  There’s one scene in which Jägerstätter pauses a moment before a Madonna and another in which he glances at a crucifix as he walks by on the road.  There are some scenes in which he interacts with Roman Catholic clergy.  Aside from that, there’s nothing specifically Roman Catholic brought to the fore.  Instead, the focus is on Jägerstätter’s steady conviction that Nazism is an evil ideology – certainly a sentiment with which Reformed believers would agree.

A repeated theme in the film is the pressure placed on Jägerstätter to compromise.  He’s told repeatedly that his resistance is going to accomplish nothing.  He’ll never be remembered.  Widowing his wife and leaving his children fatherless was going to be futile.  Even his local parish priest and bishop urged Jägerstätter to stop dissenting.  The only real support he received came from his wife Fani.  Despite all that, Franz Jägerstätter never wavered, not even when faced with the guillotine.

A Hidden Life is a family-friendly film.  There’s no sexual immorality or blasphemy.  There’s one scene in which a fellow prisoner is mocking Jägerstätter’s belief in God, questioning how he can still believe in God in the face of Nazi brutality.  And there are some vivid depictions of that Nazi brutality which may be upsetting to sensitive younger children.  It’s a long film (174 minutes, nearly 3 hours), but the length and the cinematography make the patient viewer reflect.  Christian families will definitely find fodder for discussion.  I enjoyed A Hidden Life tremendously – an unhesitating five stars out of five.


Are Christians Perfect? Yes…and No

Atheists and agnostics love to discredit God’s Word by trotting out Bible contradictions.  You can easily find lists of them online.  We shouldn’t be afraid of these “contradictions.”  The vast majority of them have simple explanations which easily defang them.  Let’s briefly look at one of these alleged contradictions.  It involves these two passages: 

Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” 

Hebrews 10:14, “For by a single offering he [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” 

Do you see the issue? 

In Philippians 3:12, Paul writes that he is not yet perfect.  But Hebrews 10:14 says that all Christians have already been made perfect.  So which is it?

At times referring to the original Greek will help.  Sometimes the same English word might be used to translate two different Greek words.  Those two different words might have some degree of nuance in meaning.  But that’s not the case here.  In this instance, the Greek words are exactly the same — even the tense is the same.  They’re both the perfect tense of the verb teleioo.

Context is always crucial in biblical interpretation.  It’s easy for atheists and agnostics to lift a Bible verse out of its context and then misconstrue it as being in contradiction with some other passage.  As the old saying goes, “A text without context is a pretext.”    

If we look at the context of Phil. 3:12, Paul is writing about his life as a Christian.  In verse 10 he mentions sharing in the sufferings of Christ and becoming like him.  In verse 13, he writes about forgetting what’s in the past and “straining forward to what lies ahead.”  This is about the life of a Christian.  It involves a process of change.                   

The context of Heb. 10:14 is quite different.  The author of Hebrews is writing about the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ and what it has accomplished.  In verse 11, he points back to the Jewish priests who offered continuous sacrifices “which can never take away sins.”  But Christ, with his single offering, has made a sacrifice which did take away sins.  The author of Hebrews is writing about what Christ has definitively done for our salvation.

In other words, we’re not faced with an “either…or” between Phil. 3:12 and Heb. 10:14.  There’s no contradiction.  Instead, it’s a case of “both…and.”  It depends on your point of view.  From the point of view of sanctification (the process of growing in holiness), we are far from perfect.  There is much remaining sin in our lives and Christians can therefore be properly described as “wretched sinners” – as the Heidelberg Catechism does in Lord’s Day 51.  But from the point of view of our standing before God because of what Christ has done – from the point of our justification – we have been perfected.  In God’s sight, because of the finished work of Jesus Christ, we stand completely righteous. 

So, to summarize, Phil. 3:12 is speaking from the viewpoint of sanctification while Heb. 10:14 is speaking from the viewpoint of justification.  There’s certainly no contradiction between these passages.  Since our Lord Jesus said that God’s Word is truth (John 17:17) we can be confident that the Bible will never contradict itself.     


The Greatest Threat to the Gospel Today

Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, Michael Horton, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008.  Paperback, 270 pages.

In 1923 a stick of literary dynamite was tossed into American Christianity.  J. Gresham Machen published his response to the deformation of the church in his day, Christianity and Liberalism.  In this book, Machen decisively demonstrated that Christianity and theological liberalism are two entirely different religions.  The sad irony is that nearly 100 years later, Machen’s book remains relevant.  Only the names have changed.  Today’s greatest threat to Christianity is not called liberalism.

With this book, Michael Horton (professor at Westminster Seminary California and URC minister) has done for our generation what Machen did in his, surgically exposing the ultimate emptiness of much of what passes for Christianity in North America.  In fact, according to Horton, much of what calls itself Christian is simply missing the boat on who Jesus Christ is according to the Bible – that’s the essence of Christless Christianity.  Writes Horton,

Christless Christianity does not mean religion or spirituality devoid of the words Jesus, Christ, Lord, or even Saviour.  What it means is that the way those names and titles are employed will be removed from their specific location in an unfolding historical plot of human rebellion and divine rescue… (p.144) 

Christless Christianity means the trivialization of the Bible’s message of good news through Jesus Christ.

By its very nature and by the author’s admission, this is “not a cheerful missive.”  Horton incisively takes on the health and wealth pseudo-gospel of popular figures such as Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer as well as the postive thinking pseudo-gospel of Robert Schuller.  He rightly points out that while the erstwhile Emergent movement put its finger on various problems in American Christianity, the solutions it offered were no less problematic.  For instance, he critiques Brian McLaren, who “scolds Reformed Christians for ‘their love affair for the Latin word sola.’” (p.194).  More “Christless Christianity” isn’t the answer.

In the first chapter, Horton promised to follow this book up with a “more constructive sequel.”  In 2009 he delivered with The Gospel-Driven Lifeyou can read my review here.  Nevertheless, he does begin to offer constructive alternatives towards the end of Christless Christianity as well.  He calls for resistance to the trend identified in this book.  It all has to do with going back to the Word of God and what it says about us, about our ultimate problems, and about the solutions in Christ.  Horton writes:

A church that is deeply aware of its misery and nakedness before a holy God will cling tenaciously to an all-sufficient Savior, while one that is self-confident and relatively unaware of its inherent sinfulness will reach for religion and morality whenever it seems convenient. (p.243).

While this book addresses the “American Church,” I think many of us will recognize the same trends spilling over into Christianity elsewhere, including in Reformed churches everywhere.  Horton’s cry from the heart is one we all need to hear.

I have one slightly critical note regarding Horton’s perspective on worship.  He rightly notes that in much of contemporary American Christianity, people come to church to do something.  “Everybody seems to think that we come to church mostly to give rather than to receive.” (p.191).  Horton seeks to correct this by drawing attention to the ways in which public worship is about God ministering to us.  While this is a helpful correction, some balance is called for and that can be achieved through emphasizing the covenant structure of biblical worship.  Yes, God’s ministry of Word and Sacrament to us stands central in biblical worship, but reflecting the structure of the covenant also means that there’s a place for human response.  Horton has worked with that in A Better Way, but it would have been helpful to have it mentioned here also.

Obviously, my overall assessment is positive.  Five stars, ten out of ten, whatever you wish – this book receives my highest recommendation.  My prayer is that, unlike Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, this book would be entirely irrelevant in 100 years.


COVID-19 & Tasmania — Update

Yesterday was a really joyful day for our congregation. After over a year of disruption — a time during which we had suspended worship services or worship services where only part of the congregation could gather — finally we were able to gather together twice with the whole church. For this blessing, we praise God!

Things are now basically back to normal in Tasmania. There’s still hand sanitizer everywhere, of course. The odd time you’ll see someone wearing a mask (they’ve never been mandatory here). At the moment, there are some concerns about a few COVID cases in Brisbane. Brisbane is locked down for three days and there are restrictions on travel to Tassie from there. Aside from that, life goes on as usual. There hasn’t been a case of community transmission here for well over 300 days.

As I’ve said before, there were measures taken early on in the pandemic which put us in this good position. The state and federal governments put in hard border closures and aggressive lockdowns. There’s a rigorous system of hotel quarantine for incoming international travellers. This system hasn’t been foolproof, but it’s worked well enough to catch most cases. Here in Tasmania a state election has just been called for May 1. Premier Peter Gutwein is banking on his pandemic success to lead his party to another majority. The polls show that the odds are in his favour.

What about vaccinations? The urgency isn’t here that you find in other parts of the world. At the moment, just over 12,500 Tasmanians have received at least one dose — 2.3% of the population.

I still think of how things are so different elsewhere. Almost every day I watch the news from Canada and I feel for my native land. I especially think of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I noticed that in my old stomping grounds of Hamilton the city has just gone into another lockdown where churches can only have 15% of capacity. How frustrating that must be. We’re praying for you! May God soon grant everyone the kind of normalcy we’re blessed with here already.