Category Archives: Scripture Notes

Human?

Hereditary chiefs of the Lake Babine Nation welcome a group of canoeists to their village.

Are First Nations people human beings or not?  Sounds like a strange question to us today, but to many people in the sixteenth century it wasn’t so clear.  In fact, in 1550, a debate was held in the Spanish city of Valladolid on that very question.  On the one side was Bartholomew de las Casas, a Roman Catholic bishop.  Las Casas argued that Native Americans are fully human just as Spaniards and therefore every effort should be made to bring them into the Roman Catholic Church.  On the other side was Juan de Sepulveda, a Dominican friar.  Sepulveda argued that Native Americans may appear human, but they are not capable of becoming Christians and that they should therefore be enslaved.  It’s not clear who won the debate, but both attitudes have been found throughout history.

There have been always been those who say the gospel is only for some people and not for others.  In the days before, during and after the ministry of Christ on earth, there were many who believed that the message of the Bible was only for Jews.  God wouldn’t want anything to do with the dirty Gentiles.  Think of Jonah.  Think of his attitude to Nineveh.

But what about us?  Where do we stand on the question of who the gospel is for?  In principle, we might easily agree that the gospel should go around the world to people from different cultures and nations.  It’s easy when we’re talking about people far away.  But what about closer to home?  How would we react if, say, the Lord were to begin gathering homeless people to our church every Sunday?  Or perhaps people with a variety of social issues.  What we would do if our pews started filling up with those sorts of people?  Would we eagerly welcome them?

What would our Master do?  To answer that, you might study his interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30.  He met this Gentile woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon.  Her daughter had an unclean spirit.  She heard that Jesus was in the area, so she seeks him and throws herself at his feet.  She begs for healing for her daughter.

Jesus gives her a curious answer.  He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).  The comparison is implied:  the children are the Jews and the little household doggies are the Gentiles.  The bread is what Christ has come to bring in his life and ministry.  At first, the whole thing seems like a distasteful comparison, especially comparing Gentiles to doggies.

However, our Lord Jesus reveals himself to be a wise teacher who presents an argument to see what his pupil will do with it.  He wants her to make a good response so he can help her.  The woman has to justify her request.  She has to demonstrate her faith.  How desperate is she?  More importantly, how does she view Jesus and what he can do even for a Gentile like her?

Her retort to him is daring, shrewd, and at the same time stunningly humble:  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28).  She recognizes his authority by calling him “Lord.” She doesn’t argue with him.  She acknowledges her low status.  She basically says, “Are you comparing me with a little doggie?  I’m in agreement with that.  I’m not a child in your house.  I’ll accept what you say and I’ll even find some encouragement in it because I know that even the little doggies get table scraps.  Can I please have some of the scraps?”  She recognizes that the Jews have a priority in the history of redemption.  But she believes that Jesus is also a Saviour for Gentiles.  She believes that he won’t turn her away empty-handed, but will also give bread to her.  He’ll restore the life of her beloved little daughter and set her free from this evil demon.  Jesus does.  He commends her faith and heals her daughter.

Unless you happen to be Jewish, by nature you’re in the same boat as the Syro-phoenician woman – all of us are little doggies.  But through faith in Christ, we’re transformed into true children in his family.  We’re fed with his food, nurtured by his love, and promised his inheritance.  We become everything human beings were created to be.  We should never cease to be amazed that this is all grace.  If we hold that thought in our minds, that’ll also bear fruit in the way we regard others, also others who aren’t in the same social status as ourselves, who look different, or who come from a different culture.  God’s grace has been wide and deep for us — it has to be wide and deep for them too and that has to be reflected in the way we interact with them.  It was that way for our Master Jesus in Mark 9.  He gave bread to this woman and didn’t hold her Gentile roots against her.  It has to be the same way for every disciple of Christ.


Christian, Don’t Suppress Your Identity!

I once heard a radio program about call center workers in India.  North American companies often contract out their call center work to cheap labour in India.  However, many North Americans get annoyed and agitated when they call that number and then hear someone who’s obviously from India.  So many call center workers suppress their Indian identity as part of their work.  They take extensive training to get rid of their Indian accent, they adopt American accents, take a Western name, adopt a Western diet and so on.  So when you call that number, Jim who sounds like he’s from Boston might really be Raj from Mumbai.

As Christians, we have a distinct identity in Christ.  Believers are united to him and that means that our identity is bound up in him.  Who we are is totally related to who he is.  What we’re like and what we’re becoming is entirely related to what he is like.  You can’t separate a Christian’s identity from Jesus Christ.

Yet that’s exactly what we’re so often tempted to do, isn’t it?  We’re tempted to divide our life up into little air-tight compartments.  This compartment is what I do for entertainment and it has nothing to do with this compartment that has everything related to being a Christian.  This compartment is for me at work and it has nothing to do with the “religious” compartment.  This compartment is for me on the Internet and it has nothing to do with the “faith” compartment.  The world insists that this is the way you should live.  If you have religious convictions, you must keep them in that air-tight compartment and don’t ever let them out.  It makes things uncomfortable for people around you if you do.  Our own sinful nature tempts us to do that too – after all, it’s much easier to take the compartmentalized approach to life.  The people at work are never going to give you a hard time if you just talk and act like one of them.  That’s what we mean by suppressing your identity in Jesus Christ, hiding the fact that you are united to him.

Scripture speaks to that temptation in several places.  For example in Colossians 3, Paul points out that believers who are united to the ascended Christ should let that fact always be evident.  Christians cannot ever suppress their identity, they can’t be hiding who they really are in Jesus.   If they have a new nature in him, it should be obvious in things like “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12).  Our identity in Christ should be seen as we bear with one another and forgive one another (Col. 3:13).  Overarching it all, our identity in Christ should be evident in our love, “which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14).  Finally, that identity is lived out by doing “everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).

Fellow Christians, we have to be who we are in the risen Lord Jesus.  No more identity suppression.


God’s Rainbow Sign

If you’re an Australian reader of my blog and have a WordPress account, you’ll probably see a rainbow banner at the top of this page.  Let me be clear:  that is not my doing, but something WordPress has done to try and promote the cause of same-sex “marriage” in Australia.  I repudiate it.  I have never supported SSM and never will — it is completely contrary to God’s good purposes and designs for humanity.

In response to what WordPress has done, let me share a message I delivered a few years ago in my last church.  This was a meditation on Genesis 9:12-16 and it was given prior to a Lord’s Supper celebration at the Providence Canadian Reformed Church in Hamilton, Ontario.  It has been slightly edited for publication here.

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Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,

Isn’t it disturbing how something beautiful can be distorted and twisted for ugly purposes?  I recently mentioned how that old classic hymn “Amazing Grace” gets abused at British soccer games.  This morning as we briefly look at the sign of God’s covenant after the flood, we have exactly the same sort of situation.  A few years ago, I was looking at the church situation around False Creek in downtown Vancouver.  We were thinking of maybe trying to do something with church planting in that area and one of the first steps is to look at what’s already there.  There was hardly anything.  One of the very few churches that we came across was the Rainbow Community Church.  On the face of it, that’s a beautiful name for a church.  But unfortunately, you can imagine what kind of church it was.  The rainbow has been co-opted as a symbol of homosexual activism for a lot of years already.  It’s sad that such a beautiful and rich image has come to stand for something so contrary to God’s purposes.  In this environment, it would be easy for us to forget that the rainbow has an objective meaning assigned to it by God and it has nothing to do with the sinful and rebellious rejection of God’s natural order.

The story of the flood in the days of Noah is well-known.  There was great wickedness on the earth and God decided to do something about it.  He would send a flood to destroy nearly every living thing because of the sinfulness of man.  Among human beings, the exception would be Noah and his family, eight persons in all.  Among animals, there was to be at least a pair of each species.  The exceptions would be saved in the ark that Noah built.  In due time, the flood waters came upon the earth, Noah and his family and the animals found refuge in the ark and they were saved.  Everything else was destroyed.  God’s wrath came upon the earth through waters deep enough to cover all the high mountains.

As the flood began to subside, Noah began to explore the new world with the help of a raven and a dove.  They became his eyes over the earth.  Through them it eventually became clear that the waters were disappearing and soon enough Noah and his family and all the animals were able to disembark.  At the end of Genesis 8, we read about the very first thing that Noah did upon leaving the ark:  he built an altar to God and offered offerings.  These were pleasing to God and led him to promise never again to send a flood upon the earth.  He established his covenant with all creation.

What is a covenant?  There are different ways to define it, but it’s best to think of it in terms of a sovereign outpouring of God’s grace.  Through this gracious outpouring, God establishes a bond, a relationship with himself.  There’s a connection between himself and the other party or parties in the covenant.  It’s always good to think of the covenant in terms of relationship, it is a relational term.  That’s why we often think (or should think) of marriage in the same way – the marriage covenant is inseparable from the marriage relationship.  In Genesis 9 then, God establishes his covenant with all creation, a sovereign outpouring of his grace.

That covenant is described in the verses that we read together from Genesis 9.  A couple of features of it:  it was a covenant not just with Noah, but with every living creature.  It was to be an everlasting covenant – it would last into all future generations.  That means that it’s still in force to this very day.  Moreover, this covenant came with a sign, God’s rainbow sign.  There are three aspects to this sign that I want to briefly consider with you this morning.

First of all, the rainbow is something that God alone puts up in the sky.  This morning we are celebrating the Lord’s Supper and here too we have signs and seals of God’s covenant.  The bread and the wine are the signs and seals of Christ’s body and blood.   God brings these things to us through human agents or means.  The bread was baked by human beings, the wine was made at a winery.  People have brought these signs and seals and placed them on the table here this morning.  However, God doesn’t use human agents to paint rainbows in the clouds.  He does it without any human cooperation or involvement.  That points us to the fact that the covenant described here is one in which God completely takes centre stage.  His grace and mercy in coming to Noah are front and center.  Whenever we see a rainbow in the clouds, we can be reminded of God’s sovereign grace to us and all creation.

Second, the rainbow is something that God put up in the sky not only for our benefit, but also and more importantly as a reminder for himself.  God says that he will see the rainbow and remember the everlasting covenant between himself and all living things.  This puts the stress again on the fact that God is everything in this covenant.

Finally, and most importantly, we need to come back to that important word:  propitiation.  Remember: propitiation refers to the turning away of God’s wrath.  Propitiation is also evident here in Genesis 9 and specifically with God’s rainbow sign.  The Hebrew word for rainbow is literally “bow” and it’s usually used in the Old Testament to refer to a bow used in battle, as in a bow and arrow.  If you think about it, this makes perfect sense.  A rainbow looks like a bow on its side.

During the flood, God went to war against a world in rebellion.  The sin and violence on the earth aroused his wrath and that wrath was poured out through the waters of the flood.  In Genesis 9, however, God’s wrath has been turned away.  The divine warrior has laid down his bow.  The rainbow in the clouds is a vivid sign of that.

That’s where there is a connection between the sign in our text and the signs that we have before us this morning in the Lord’s Supper.  The rainbow was the sign that God’s wrath had been turned away after the flood.  The bread and the wine are signs that God’s wrath has been turned from us through the body and blood of Christ offered on the cross.  Whenever we see a rainbow, we are reminded of God’s covenant in Genesis 9 and the turning away of his wrath.  We’re reminded of his promises.  Whenever we take part in the Lord’s Supper and eat the bread and drink the wine, we are reminded of God’s covenant of grace with us, established through Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice.  Just as God will never again destroy the world with water, so because of the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood he will never pour out his wrath on us.

Brothers and sisters, the rainbow is still a sign for us today, a covenantal sign.  Whenever we see one, our thoughts should go to Genesis 9 and God’s promises there.  Our thoughts should also and more importantly go to Christ, the one who has turned away God’s wrath from us.  Some day, because of what Christ has done, all the saints who have ever lived (including us), will stand before God’s throne and we will together see a rainbow.  Yes, Scripture tells us that there is a rainbow in heaven.  In Revelation 4:3, we’re told that there is a rainbow around the throne in heaven.  Some day we shall stand before that throne.  That beautiful rainbow will be a colourful and powerful reminder that God’s wrath has been turned away, we have mercy and the forgiveness of sins, we have peace with him, we are welcome in his presence.  Today’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of that coming day.  Let’s eat and drink with joy, because we know that this great day is ahead of us.

Loved ones, the rainbow is God’s sign.  An unbelieving world can try to take it away from him, but they will never succeed.  The brilliant colours after a fierce storm will always be there for God to see and to remind him of his promises.  They will be there for us, to remind us to continue seeking refuge in the cross of Jesus Christ – the only place that one will be safe when the big storm of God’s judgment hits this earth one last time, not with water, but with fire.  AMEN.


Paul’s Thorn and Prayer

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.” — 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

This piece of Scripture often gets discussed because of the “thorn” Paul mentions.  Bible readers are interested in understanding what exactly this “thorn” was.  There are all sorts of theories, but they’re all speculative.  The truth is we have no idea what exactly it was that God sent to Paul to keep him humble.

More important than the exact identity of the “thorn” is the fact that God sends it.  He sent something to Paul which he perceived as difficult, as an adversity.  God had a purpose behind it, but Paul experienced it as something that he would rather do without.  Believers have no difficulty believing that God sends the things we experience as delightful and good.  The challenge is believing that God also sends hardship.  Yet Scripture teaches that, not just once, but repeatedly:  Isaiah 45:7, Lam. 3:28, Psalm 60:1-4, Psalm 66:10-12, Psalm 71:20, Psalm 102:10 and many more places.

In this case, Paul struggled with why he had to deal with this adversity.  So he prayed.  Interestingly, he says that he prayed “to the Lord” about this.  From what follows in verses 9 and 10, it’s clear that this is a reference to Christ.  Paul prayed to Christ, not just once, but three times about his “thorn.”  There are those who continue to argue that believers may not pray to Jesus.  Instead, they say, we must only pray to God the Father (the first person of the Trinity).  That argument is based on a misunderstanding of the address of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who is in heaven…”  It misunderstands “Father” there to be a reference to the first person of the Trinity.  Instead, “Father” is used there in the Old Testament manner of speaking as a reference to God.  If Christians are only supposed to pray to the first person of the Trinity, then, to be consistent, one must conclude that Paul sinned here in 2 Corinthians 12.  However, the fact that the Lord Jesus heard him and answered him would indicate that there was nothing inappropriate in Paul’s prayer.  It was acceptable for him to pray to the Lord Jesus — and so it is for believers today as well.

The answer Paul received from Jesus is also worth pondering:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Surprisingly, weakness is the way God has often worked.  In the Old Testament, he takes the runt and makes him a leader.  You can think of Gideon or David.  In the New Testament, this principle is exemplified at the cross.  What could be weaker than a naked dying man on a Roman instrument of torture reserved for criminals?  Christ himself exemplified the principle of power made perfect in weakness.  Now he speaks to one united to him and says that he is experiencing the same.  Just as with the cross, there is a goal in the weakness.  There is a purpose in the thorn.  And there is enough divine grace from the Saviour to see it properly and endure it contentedly.

Does it really matter, then, what the “thorn” was?  Obviously it was something difficult.  Yet the Spirit, in his wisdom, hid it from our view.  The situation is comparable to many of the Psalms.  Many of the Psalms are laments — they feature the psalmist singing the blues.  Some of the lament Psalms are tied to concrete historical situations, but many are not.  There too, the Spirit has hid the circumstances from view, reminding us that there is a timeless quality to these words.  The words of Scripture in these cases can and should be easily “universalized.”  As we suffer adversities and hardships, these passages of Scripture can help us with the right perspective.  We too can learn contentment in the midst of difficulty, knowing that God’s strength comes in weakness.


The Mountain of Blessing and Life

For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”  Psalm 133:3b

There’s a question I often ask my catechism students:  where is the temple today?  We all know that the temple and sacrifices of the Old Testament are gone.  That’s all been fulfilled in Christ.  We know that because the temple curtain tore top to bottom while our Saviour hung on the cross (Matt. 27:51).  That was God’s announcement that this Old Testament institution was finished.  But does that mean that the temple idea is altogether gone?

When I ask that question of my students, I expect a certain answer.  Most students jump to the teaching of 1 Cor. 6:19 – our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  While definitely not a wrong answer, it is an incomplete answer.  Because it is incomplete, we can sometimes struggle in making New Testament applications of Old Testament passages like Psalm 133.

Let me briefly fill out the New Testament’s answer to the question of the present-day temple.  It begins with Christ himself.  Referring to his own body, he said in John 2:19, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  Christ is the temple – he is God come to dwell among us.  Christ’s body, the church, is also the temple.  In 1 Cor. 3:16, the Holy Spirit says, “Do you [plural] not know that you [plural] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you [plural]?”  The Spirit says the same thing in 1 Pet. 2:5.  The church of Christ is the temple of God, his dwelling place.  Then, yes, we do also find that individual Christians are also referred to as the temple of the Spirit in 1 Cor. 6:19.  Finally, in Revelation 21, the entire new creation becomes the temple of God as he comes down to make his dwelling place with man.

Going back to Psalm 133, the Holy Spirit was first speaking about the temple as it existed on Mount Zion.  He spoke of the unity of God’s people being like the dew of Hermon which falls on the tops of Mount Zion in Jerusalem — in other words, on the temple.  The temple is where Yahweh “commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”  The temple is where God’s people would go to make the sacrifices for sin which spoke of the promised reconciliation in the Messiah.  As a place of blood and death it pointed to substitutionary atonement, and therefore, eternal life.

But how are believers today to find encouragement from these words?  By asking ourselves, “Where is the temple today?” and then applying the New Testament’s four-fold answer.

First and foremost, God has commanded blessing and life forevermore in the temple of Christ’s body.  He was where our sacrifice for sins was made.  We have blessings because of what happened with the New Testament temple.  We have eternal life because that temple was destroyed and then raised up again in three days – as Christ prophesied in John 2:19.

God has also commanded blessing and life forevermore in Christ’s body, the church.  The church is where the means of grace point us to the gospel.  The preaching of the Scriptures and the administration of the sacraments both tell us of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  The church is also where we’re discipled for life in Christ.  God’s blessings are heaped upon us corporately through this manifestation of the New Testament temple.

What about the individual believer as a temple of the Holy Spirit?  If we’re Christians, the Spirit has regenerated us.  That has brought us the blessing of faith.  That has connected us to Christ and life in him.  The Spirit also constantly works renewal and holiness in our lives.  You see, God has lavished us with blessing and eternal life in these fleshly temples too.

Finally, we need to reflect on the new creation temple in Revelation 21.  There, because of the gospel of Christ’s redemption, we’ll certainly experience God’s blessing and life forevermore.  It will all culminate in this eternal joy in God’s presence.  The blessings of the original Old Testament temple pointed ahead to Christ and the blessings in this temple will point back to Christ and his cross.  Blessings and life forevermore will be based on the worthy Lamb who was slain.

Embedded in the biblical idea of the temple is God’s grace in effecting reconciliation with sinners.  God never owed it to the Israelites to dwell among them, nor did anyone ever deserve to have Christ dwell on this earth to suffer and die for sinners.  However, also embedded in the idea, in both the Old Testament and New Testament, is human responsibility.  Israelite believers were called by God to approach him at the temple with sacrifices.  Today, we’re called by God to approach him through Jesus Christ.  We’re “to enter into the temple” through faith in our Redeemer.  We’re called to be “living stones” in his temple, to be living members of his body, the church.  We’re called to keep ourselves holy as temples of the Holy Spirit.  Now, as we walk in faith, we can look forward to blessings and life forevermore in the ultimate fulfilment of the temple in the age to come.