Category Archives: Biblical theology

Book Review: Fill the Earth

Fill the Earth: The Creation Mandate and the Church’s Call to Missions, Matthew Newkirk.  Eugene:  Pickwick Publications, 2020.  Softcover, 328 pages.

When it comes to what the Bible says about mission, where do your thoughts immediately go?  If you’re like most Christians, it’d probably be the Great Commission, especially the version found at the end of Matthew 28.  We’re accustomed to thinking almost entirely in terms of Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all nations.  However, the Bible’s teaching about mission reaches far beyond the Great Commission.  In fact, as Matthew Newkirk persuasively argues, it stretches back to Genesis and forward to Revelation.

Matt Newkirk has his ordination credentials in the Presbyterian Church in America.  He serves in Japan, teaching Old Testament at Christ Bible Seminary in Nagoya.  He received his seminary training at Reformed Theological Seminary and also holds a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Wheaton College.

Fill the Earth can aptly be described as an exercise in biblical theology.  By “biblical theology,” I don’t mean “orthodox theology” (although it is).  “Biblical theology” is a field of study often regarded as having been pioneered by Geerhardus Vos.  Vos described biblical theology as “that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.”  God’s revelation is embedded in history and involves a historical progression.  Biblical theology describes that, often by taking a topic or concept and tracing its development through the Scriptures.  In this case, it’s mission.    

There have been previous attempts to wed biblical theology and mission, Greg Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission being one of the most well-known.  Newkirk builds on the work of Beale and others.  He convincingly demonstrates that not only is mission bound up with the story line of the Bible, but it’s also intrinsic to the church founded in Genesis and which continues through and past the book of Revelation.

One of the notable features of this book is its detailed exegesis of numerous Scripture passages.  While he’s tracing out the big picture, Newkirk also has the exegete’s penchant for detail.  Some of the detail gets technical, but most readers without advanced theological training should still be able to follow his arguments.  Not unexpectedly, the level of detail also means that, at times, other students of Scripture are going to disagree.  For example, Newkirk argues that the book of Jonah is only missional “insofar as it exhorts Israel to repent from their hardened and disobedient posture towards God’s Word and respond to him faithfully” (141).  I can fully agree that it is missional in that regard, but I find it difficult to ignore the fact that Jonah is sent out by God to a foreign nation with a call to repentance.  There appears to be an incipient form of centrifugal mission here pointing ahead to what will unfold in the New Testament.  Aside from some of these debatable points of detail, I find Newkirk’s overall trajectory to be cogent, namely that Scripture teaches our mission to be “to fill the earth as God’s representatives and thereby demonstrate that his kingship extends over the entire earth” (18).

Most of Fill the Earth is taken up with making that case.  However, Newkirk concludes with a chapter explaining how his argument bears on the work of mission today.  Let me share some of the questions addressed (without giving away the answers):

  • Is mission merely a reactive response to the presence of sin in the world? 
  • Is non-expansionistic ministry legitimately classified as “missions”? 
  • Is missions fundamentally cross-cultural?
  • In light of what Scripture teaches, how should we evaluate the trend towards seeing the nations coming to us and therefore concluding that we need not send out missionaries to places without a sufficient indigenous gospel witness? 

The cumulative argument made in this book has a bearing on how each of those questions (and more) are answered.     

This book is thought-provoking – Newkirk helpfully challenged some of my previously held notions of what the Bible teaches about mission.  If you’ve done any reading in the field of missiology, you’ll know how difficult it is to find books which not only take the Bible seriously as the Word of God, but also go in for the deep dive.  But to advance the field of missiology in a God-honouring way, that’s exactly what we need, and that’s exactly what Matt Newkirk has provided

Preaching in the New Testament — Jonathan Griffiths

I just want to drop a little note about this great study on preaching from 2017.  The Second Helvetic Confession famously said that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”  Those of us who’ve been preaching for a bit know the popular biblical supports for this statement, passages like 1 Thess. 2:13.  Jonathan Griffiths discusses those, but he also goes way further and deeper.  Exegeting the relevant passages, he deftly explains what makes preaching a distinct form of word ministry.  Along the way, he also implicitly makes a case for why only men can be preachers of the gospel.  It’s a book not so much about the “how” of preaching as the “what.”

Sin Separates?

Sometimes you hear it said that the most horrible thing about sin is that it separates you from God.  Along the same trajectory, the most horrible thing about hell is that it is eternal separation from God.  It makes sense if hell is the eternal consequence of sin, the ultimate punishment for sin.  But is it true?  Does the Bible actually teach that sin separates the sinner from God?

You could be tempted to think it doesn’t.  After all, God is omnipresent.  In Jeremiah 23:23-24, God says, “Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away?  Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD.  Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD.”  If God is present everywhere, how could sin separate you from him?  Moreover, doesn’t David say in Psalm 139:7, “Where shall I go from your Spirit?  Or where shall I flee from your presence?”  If God is inescapable, then how can you ever be separated from him?

Moreover, when it comes to hell, there too we’re confronted with God’s inescapable presence.  Christians are saved by Jesus from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9).  That wrath is expressed with unbearable fury in hell.  God is present in hell to punish unrepentant sinners.  So, how can anyone say that hell is eternal separation from God?  The worst thing about hell is that God is present confronting sinners with his justice.

It might seem like an open and shut case.  However, we do have to reckon with everything the Bible teaches on such things.  As it happens, the Bible does teach that sin separates the sinner from God.  It also clearly tells us in what sense this is true.

First, Isaiah 59:2 says:

…your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,

and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.

The language of separation here is unambiguous.  Now there is a feature of Hebrew poetry that helps us in discerning what it means:  parallelism.  The first part of the verse is explained by the second.  “Separation” means the hiding of God’s face in such a way that he does not listen to the prayers of the sinner.

Second Thessalonians 1:9 speaks about hell and the punishment awaiting unrepentant sinners:

They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…

This passage links hell with separation from the Lord.  However, it too qualifies this separation by adding, “and from the glory of his might.”  In the following verse, the Holy Spirit speaks about the glorification of the saints.  Witnessing “the glory of his might” in this context is meant to be a positive thing, a blessing.  That blessing will be missed by those in hell.

Obviously Scripture teaches that there is some real sense in which sin does separate sinners from God.  That sense is this:  sin separates you from friendly fellowship with God.  Sin separates you from a relationship with God whereby he will listen to your prayers and bless you.  The ultimate expression of that separation is indeed in the eternal fires of hell.  There unrepentant sinners are permanently separated from any positive relationship to God.  Sin separates by alienating and creating hostility.  That said, sin will never separate the unrepentant sinner from God as Judge.  Sin will never separate such a person from God’s justice or his wrath.

The gospel addresses this problem of separation caused by sin.  It does so with the reconciliation worked by Jesus Christ.  Reconciliation brings the alienated and hostile back together into a harmonious relationship.  Through Christ, our separation is bridged and we’re brought back to God in fellowship.  It was all because he endured the separation we deserved – he bore our hell on the cross.  God hid his face from Jesus.  He ignored his cries.  Jesus was “away from the glory of his might” – all blessings were snatched from him.  Since that happened in their place, Christians can be confident that absolutely nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39)!

Is God Your Friend? What About Jesus?

Many Reformed people object to the idea of God as our friend, or at least are uncomfortable with it.  Since he is God incarnate, the same reasoning is applied to Jesus Christ.  I imagine they’re reacting to that type of American evangelicalism which portrays our relationship with God in terms too casual.  Speaking of him as our friend seems to endanger a proper understanding of God’s majesty and holiness — that applies to all three persons of the Trinity.

Surely we want to have the proper respect for our God and Saviour.  He deserves to be honoured in the highest degree.  But what if Scripture speaks about our relationship with God in terms of friendship?  The Bible has to be our standard, not an over-reaction against extremes found elsewhere.  What does the Bible say about this?  On the basis of God’s Word, can we say that God is our friend?

In general, in the Old Testament, we do find that some well-known believers were said to be friends of God.  Exodus 33:11 says, “Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses, as a man speaks to his friend.”  Though Moses was a sinner (why couldn’t he enter the Promised Land?  Failure to obey!), God related to Moses as one friend to another.  Abraham is another example.  No less that three times does Scripture say that Abraham was a friend of God:

Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham, your friend? (2 Chronicles 20:7)

But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend… (Isaiah 41:8)

Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness — and he was called a friend of God. (James 2:23)

I remind you that Abraham too was an inconsistent believer, a sinner like us.  Yet, wonderfully, God called him “friend.”

One might be tempted to counter, “But Moses and Abraham were special.  None of us can claim their special place in God’s redemptive plan.  They might have been friends of God, but that was something reserved for these unique figures.”  Certainly they were unique figures in some respects.  But what about in this respect of being called friends of God?  To answer that, we need to let Scripture interpret Scripture.

An important start is made with Psalm 25:14, “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.”  If you fear God (honour him with reverence), he promises you friendship.  He will make known to you his covenant — his special relationship of fellowship.  That is an amazing verse!  It doesn’t say God’s friendship is only for prophets and mediators.  It doesn’t say God’s friendship is reserved for key figures in the history of redemption.  It is for all those who fear him.  He will be a friend to all genuine believers who trust in him and stand in awe of him.

Now remember that Jesus Christ came to this earth to reveal God and what he’s like (John 1:18).  So what do we see in his earthly ministry?  In Matthew 11:19, Jesus said the Jewish religious leaders were offended at him because he was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”  Note well:  Jesus does not deny it.  In fact, in John 15 he speaks further along these lines.  Here he is speaking to his disciples:

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.  No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:13-15)

Note the echoes of Psalm 25:14 when Christ says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”  In other words, if you fear the Lord Christ and do what he says, he is your friend.  Moreover, in verse 13, he says he is the one who lays down his life in love for them.  That is the love of a friend!  In response to that gracious love, we honour our friend by lovingly following his precepts.  There is no contextual indication in John 15 that these words are restricted to the apostles — as if Jesus only calls the eleven his friends and no others.  No, there is every reason to believe what he says here applies equally to all disciples, including Christians today.

The biblical evidence is clear.  True believers may consider themselves to be in a friendly relationship with God — thus, he is our friend.  We may rejoice knowing that Christ calls us, those for whom he died, friends.  Those truths in no way detract from the reverence we have for God.  In fact, if we do not have the fear of God, we are being pretentious in claiming friendship with him.  We are deluding ourselves if we think Jesus is our friend when we have no desire to follow him.  To be in this relationship means we never treat him casually, as if he is a human buddy or mate.  But it does mean we can be confident that our Creator and Redeemer God is on our side and cares about us deeply.  The gospel promises us friendship with God.  Believer, he is your friend.

God’s Jealousy

The following is a talk given to the morning assembly of the Cornerstone Christian School in Lynden, Washington on December 13, 2017.

When we think of jealousy we often think of it as being a bad thing.  Your parents might tell you it’s not good to be jealous of someone else’s stuff or their looks or whatever else.  When we use the word “jealous” in that way, what we’re really talking about is envy.  Envy is a sin.  It’s coveting, sin against the Tenth Commandment.  You want what someone else has.  In that sense “jealousy” is not good.

But there is another type of jealousy we can say is good.  There is a kind of jealousy where we would even say it’s wrong if it’s not there when it needs to be.  You can see it best in the relationship between a husband and a wife.  A husband should be jealous for the love of his wife, and a wife should be jealous for the love of her husband.  That’s normal.

Shai Linne has a song where he vividly describes this jealousy.  It’s on his album The Attributes of God.  The song is called “the Jealous One” (listen here) and the first part of the song goes like this:

Ok, let’s begin- let your mind roam
Our scene takes place inside of a home
The husband has just walked up the staircase
He glares into space with despair on his face
His soul is on fire, inside there’s a war
That can’t be denied, He stands outside the door
On the other side, His bride and her lover
Oblivious to the fact their lie has been discovered
So as they embrace and try to make haste
They have no idea what’s about to take place
Gun in hand, he longs to understand
What would lead his wife into the arms of another man?
He thinks back to the day they made their vows
Before God, before the minister and the crowds
Exchange of the rings, the joy of the reception
Now a tainted memory destroyed by deception
He had been faithful to her
Now the fire of his desire got him ready to do something hateful to her
He never thought his wife would be just a faker
And that her lust would make her a covenant breaker
The promise of fidelity they made was glorious
But now his jealousy has made him furious
And they can’t see the danger
No screams or pleas they make could ever ease the pain or appease his anger
He kicks open the door- they jump out of the bed
“Don’t move!” is all he said, gun pointed at his head
The screams of his wife as she clutches the covers close
Her lover spoke to plead for his life
The husband says to the guy- “Look me in my eye
My face will be the last thing you see before you die”
The husband cried inside- his love was bona fide
Trouble for the bride- double homicide

You see, what kind of husband would just be okay with that situation?  What kind of husband would just look the other way while his wife is unfaithful to him?  He would be a bad husband if he were not jealous for the exclusive love of his wife.  Jealousy in the marriage relationship is a good thing, isn’t it?  By the way, Shai Linne is not saying it’s okay for jealous husbands to kill their wives, and neither am I.  He’s simply saying that in our world, jealousy produces these strong emotions that sometimes make people act violently.  That’s what happens in human relationships.

In the Bible, God says that he has a relationship with us.  He compares the relationship with his people to a marriage.  God is the husband and his people are his bride.  This is found in a few places in Scripture, but the place where it’s described most is in the book of Hosea.  At the time Hosea was written, God’s people were being wicked and sinful.  They were worshipping idols.  God says this was unfaithfulness to him.  They were in a covenant relationship, a relationship which is like a marriage.  In that relationship they were only supposed to love him and be committed only to him.  But God says in Hosea that they were like a wife who commits adultery.  And God doesn’t look the other way.  He sees this and it arouses his jealousy.  He becomes righteously angry at their spiritual adultery and he expresses his jealous anger.  In chapter 1 of Hosea he says that he will have no mercy on his people.  He says they are no longer his people and he is no longer their God.  And there will be consequences.  It’s all very intense.

Let’s try to think a little more deeply about this.  First, what exactly is God’s jealousy?  We could say that it is God’s intense zeal to protect the exclusiveness of the relationship with his people.  It is God’s passionate desire to have all the love and commitment of his covenant people.  Furthermore, it leads to God’s wrath against his people when they are unfaithful to him.

There is far more we can say about it.  If you look in article 1 of the Belgic Confession, you find a list of God’s attributes.  It’s a good biblical list, but it is not a complete list.  God’s jealousy is not directly mentioned there.  The Westminster Confession of Faith is another Reformed confession, used by our Presbyterian sister churches.  The Westminster Confession has an article mentioning God’s attributes as well.  It’s a fuller list than you find in the Belgic Confession.  But there too, we don’t find any explicit mention of God’s jealousy.

This is because God’s jealousy is usually connected with another attribute of God.  Some connect it to his righteousness and holiness.  They say because God is righteous and holy, he must be jealous for the love of his people.  There is truth to that – in Joshua 24:19, Joshua says to Israel, “You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God.  He is a jealous God…”  You find the same thing in the Second Commandment.  We hear it every Sunday:  you shall not worship idols, “for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.”  His holiness means that he must be jealous for the exclusive love of Israel.  If they don’t love him exclusively, they will face his holy judgment and wrath.  He will visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation” of those who hate him.  That’s righteous, holy wrath.

However, in view of what we read in Hosea and elsewhere, we can also see God’s jealousy as connected to his love.  If a husband didn’t love his wife, there would be no jealousy if she were unfaithful.  Similarly, if God didn’t love his people, there would be no jealousy if they were unfaithful.  God’s love is therefore at the root of his jealousy.

One of the key things to remember about God’s jealousy is that it has a background against sin.  To say it more correctly, it has a background against the possibility of sin.  A husband is jealous for the love of his wife, because we live in a broken world where we know unfaithfulness happens.  He doesn’t want his wife to be unfaithful to him.  But in a perfect world where nobody was ever unfaithful, jealousy wouldn’t need to exist.  It’s the same with God.  He is jealous for the love his people, because there is a fallen world where unfaithfulness happens.  God doesn’t want his people to be unfaithful to him.  Therefore, because it is a broken and fallen world, God expresses his jealous love in his Word.

Whenever we sin against God, we are being unfaithful to him.  Whenever we break one of his commandments and do our will instead of his, we are committing spiritual adultery.  We are God’s people, but we are not acting like his people.  Instead, we’re acting like we belong to someone else.  The Bible says that our sin is covenant-breaking – it violates the relationship with God and provokes his jealousy.

This is why we need Jesus.  As I mentioned, God’s jealousy exists within the context of his relationship with his people.  We have a special word for that relationship:  the covenant.  God has his covenant with us, with believers and their children.  This is a relationship between a holy God and a sinful people.  The distance between these two could not be greater.  But there is someone who has bridged that distance.  That someone is the Mediator of the covenant, Jesus Christ.  He goes between a sinful people and a holy God and he makes the relationship work.  He does that in two particular ways.

One is that Jesus took the jealous wrath of God on himself before and during his time on the cross.  Though he had never done anything to deserve it, he took our place.  Jesus took our hell in body and soul.  He took the punishment against all our unfaithfulness.  If we are trusting in Christ, then God promises that all our unfaithfulness and spiritual adultery is forgiven.  We are restored to a healthy relationship with him.  The breach has been healed.

With his blood shed on the cross, Christ wipes our slates clean.  There’s not a trace of unfaithfulness left on our account with God.  That’s good news!   But the good news gets even better.  Our Saviour doesn’t just leave our slates clean.  He fills them up with his own righteousness.  He was consistently faithful to God.  He never worshipped idols.  Jesus never provoked his Father to jealousy.  He was always 100% committed to God, loved him perfectly, obeyed him flawlessly.  The Belgic Confession echoes the Bible when it says that “his obedience is ours when we believe in him.”  When we are joined to Christ through faith, God looks at us and he sees Christ and his faithfulness, his love, his commitment.  He sees us as he sees his own Son.

The forgiveness offered on the cross plus the obedience offered during Christ’s life makes the covenant of grace work between us and God.  Even though we are still sinful and imperfect, we can still have this beautiful relationship with a holy God.  It’s all through Christ, through Christ alone.

This is the gospel, this is the good news that warms our hearts in love for God.  When we see Christ in his glory living and dying for us, then we’re in the right place to begin hating all our unfaithfulness.  We’re in the right place to see it as something to be suffocated.  We have to kill it.

Because we’ve been rescued by Christ and saved by God’s love, we don’t want to provoke him to jealousy anymore.  How do we avoid doing that?  First of all, we have to recognize that when the Bible speaks about God’s jealousy oftentimes it’s in the context of idols.  Exodus 34:14 says, “For you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”  Idols are not just Baal, Ashtaroth and all those false gods of the Old Testament.  Idols are anything we turn to the in place of God.  John Calvin once said that we are idol factories.  We crank them out.  We create them out of everything and anything.  Idols are anything we turn to in the place of God for joy, satisfaction, or purpose.  Sports can be an idol.  So can money, music, sexual pleasure, work, and just about anything.  We need to see our idols and see them for what they are.  Jeremiah 2:13 says that they are broken cisterns that can’t hold water.  They can’t sustain life.  Idols are never going to bless you – instead, they’re only going to destroy you.  Part of the way they do that is by wrecking your relationship with God.  Once you see that reality, you will see that there is a superior joy, a superior satisfaction, and the highest purpose in God, in loving God and living in his ways.  Listen to what his Word says about the reality of idols.  Don’t listen to the world and its fantasies about idols.  The world tells us lies about our idols.  The Bible tells us the truth, and it’s that truth that will set us free.  It’s that truth that will help us to steer clear of provoking our God to jealousy with our idols.

I don’t think we reflect very often on God’s jealousy.  That’s too bad, because this is something included in the Bible to make us see the real nature of God’s relationship with us.  When we sin against God with our idols, it’s like a spouse cheating.  The spouse cheated upon takes it personally.  The spouse cheated upon feels hurt and angry.  God’s jealousy tells us that God takes it personally when we’re unfaithful to him.  What kind of God would he be if he weren’t like that?  What would it say about his love if he weren’t jealous for our love?   Seeing this reality of what our God is like and what our relationship to him is like is meant to draw us closer to him, meant to motivate us to care about being faithful to him.  May he help us with his Holy Spirit to do that.