Category Archives: Scripture Notes

Contextualization in Scripture

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Whenever I read a book, I usually make notes afterwards for future reference.  I finished reading Keller’s Center Church a couple of months ago, but I’m only finally getting around to writing my notes on it today.  As I’m doing so, I’ve across something worth sharing about contextualization.  Keller defines contextualization like this:  “…it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them” (page 89).  A little further in that chapter, he gives this helpful sidebar:

Craig Blomberg points out that in Matthew’s parable of the mustard seed, the sower sows his seed in a “field” (agros, Matt. 13:31), while in Luke the sowing is in a “garden” (kepos, Luke 13:19).  Jews never grew mustard plants in gardens, but always out on farms, while Greeks in the Mediterranean basin did the opposite.  It appears that each gospel writer was changing the word that Jesus used in Mark — the word for “earth” or “ground” (ge, Mark 4:31) — for the sake of his hearers.  There is a technical contradiction between the Matthean and Lukan terms, states Blomberg, “but not a material one.  Luke changes the wording precisely so that his audience is not distracted from…the lesson by puzzling over an…improbable practice.”  The result is that Luke’s audience “receives his teaching with the same impact as the original audience.”  (page 95)

I looked into this a little bit and it seems to check out as correct.  Just one small point:  I would prefer “apparent discrepancy” to “technical contradiction” (after all, fields and gardens are not exactly polar opposites).  The main point is that contextualization is evident in Scripture — therefore, we need to take it seriously too.  For myself, as a Canadian living and ministering in Australia, I try to use the right words for my audience.  I try to avoid Canadian idioms and use Aussie ones.  However, I’m quite sure that I still have a long way to go in minimizing linguistic distractions when I preach and teach.


Does the ESV Honour the Holy Spirit?

This past Sunday morning, I preached on John 1:29-34.  As I was working on the text, I noticed a potential problem with the ESV translation of verse 32:

And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”

Do you see the problem?  If not, compare the ESV with the NIV and NKJV on the same verse:

NIV:  Then John gave this testimony:  “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.”

NKJV:  And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him.”

If you haven’t caught on yet, the problem is with the “it” in the ESV.  The other translations avoid this issue, either through by-passing the use of the pronoun or using the third-person masculine pronoun.  This is what I said about this verse in my sermon:

I need to say one more thing about verse 32.  Look at it with me.  Our Bible translation says that “it remained on him.”  That could give the impression that the Holy Spirit is an “it.”  I want to be charitable.  I think the ESV translators meant to say that the image of the dove remained on Jesus.  “It” then refers to the image, not the Holy Spirit himself.  After all, elsewhere the ESV is careful to refer to the Holy Spirit as “he.”  To be fair, even the old King James Version used “it” here.  The NKJV has “he,” and that is better at removing the danger that we might think and speak wrongly about the Holy Spirit.  What we need to remember is that the Holy Spirit is not an “it.”  We dishonour the third person of the Trinity when we refer to him as “it.”  We always need to speak of he, him, his, when we’re speaking of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force or power – that’s what the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach. No, he is a person, which means that he is a someone.  Scripture teaches that he is a someone whom you can grieve (Eph. 4:32), he is someone to whom you can lie (Acts 5:3) and so on.  Brothers and sisters, I urge you to be careful in your speaking about the Holy Spirit.  Be careful, don’t ever say “it.” Why?  Because this is a matter of honouring God.

So, in John 1:32, while I still wish it would be clearer, I’m willing to cut the ESV translators some slack.  I’m less inclined to do that for another problematic text referring to the Holy Spirit, Numbers 11:25.

ESV:  Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.

NKJV:  Then the LORD came down in the cloud, and spoke to him, and took of the Spirit that was upon him, and placed the same upon the seventy elders;

NIV (1984):  Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took of the Spirit that was on him and put the Spirit on the seventy elders.

This is a more challenging case, because there is no image or symbol of the Holy Spirit involved.  There is apparently no excuse for the ESV’s approach in Numbers 11:25.  However, there may be an explanation.  I suspect it has to do with the pedigree of the ESV in the RSV and KJV.  Compare:

KJV:  And the LORD came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders:

RSV:  Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was upon him and put it upon the seventy elders;

Notice how both the KJV and RSV translate/interpret the Hebrew word ruach as “spirit” with a lower-case ‘s.’  The Hebrew alphabet doesn’t have capital letters like English does, so it can be difficult sometimes to gauge whether a word like ruach is referring to the spirit of a man or to the Holy Spirit.  The KJV and RSV chose for the former and then used the appropriate pronoun for their choice, “it.”  The problem with the ESV is that it capitalizes “Spirit,” normally meaning a reference to the Holy Spirit, and then — inconsistent with that choice — uses “it.”  That seems to be a carry-over from the earlier translations, a mistake that was somehow overlooked.

One of the good things about the ESV is that it is still being periodically revised and updated.  There is a possibility that future editions of the ESV will include better translations of John 1:32 and Numbers 11:25.  I find it hard to believe that the ESV translators deliberately set out to speak of the Holy Spirit as “it.”  Rather, I reckon this betrays a problem common amongst so many Christians:  we don’t take the Holy Spirit seriously enough as a person of the Trinity.  He often has a background role and, as a result, our thinking and speaking about him can often be less than precise.  Bible translators are no less afflicted with this than the rest of us.  However common it may be, it should not be acceptable.  We should aim for giving full honour to the Spirit and his personhood in our speaking — and we should also insist that a faithful Bible translation do the same.


He Came to Save Sinners — A Meditation on 1 Tim. 1:15

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If you were somewhere with some unbelievers and they were to ask you for a brief summary of what you believe, what would you say?   A great answer would be what we have here in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  If you’re looking for the briefest summary of the gospel, it’s hard to beat these words.

From the first words of verse 15, it would seem that it has served as a summary of the faith since the time of the apostles.  Paul writes that it is a trustworthy saying.  By calling it a “saying,” he indicates that this was a common expression amongst Christians.  Perhaps they used it to encourage one another and perhaps they used it to witness to unbelievers – probably both.  Whatever the case may have been, the expression was well-known to Paul and Timothy and other early Christians.  Moreover, it was a trustworthy or reliable saying and worthy of full acceptance.  You know how sometimes there can be sayings that are not so reliable.  There can even be sayings that circulate amongst Christians that we think are biblical, but really aren’t.  For instance, “God helps those who help themselves.”  It’s not in the Bible and it doesn’t express a biblical truth.  God helps the helpless – that’s the truth.  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” is also the truth, a fully reliable saying that everyone should sign on to.

There is a lot packed into this little saying.  If you were to give this brief summary of your faith, you could certainly use it as a springboard to explain all the important elements of the gospel.  For example, the one who came into the world is “Christ Jesus.”  Who is this person?  You could explain that he is the eternal Son of God.  He is the second person of the Holy Trinity.  He is true God.  He is the Messiah – Christ means “Messiah,” and Messiah means that he is the anointed one of God – anointed to be a prophet, priest, and king.  He is the Messiah that was promised in the Old Testament.  In the fullness of time, at just the right moment, he came into the world.

How did he come into the world?  There you get to the story of Christ’s conception and birth.  He took on our human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary through the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit.  He came into the world as one of us, a human being in every respect, yet without sin.

And who sent him into the world?  Scripture is clear that the Father sent him out of love for his creatures.  The Father sent him in faithfulness to his promises to Adam and Eve, to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and others.  And when the Father sent him, the Son willingly agreed to go.  The Son of God didn’t have to be bribed or forced.  Instead, he gladly came into the world, even though he knew the cost involved.  He gladly came because of his love for fallen creatures like us.

This saying also answers the question of why he came into the world.  It does that with the three simple words, “to save sinners.”  Again, there’s much compacted into these words.  We can tease it out and see the full weight of what’s being said here.  “To save sinners,” but to save them from what or whom?  Sinners need to be saved from the guilt of sin, from the heavy burden of a guilty conscience.  Sinners need to be saved from the slavery of sin, from the chains that keep you doing the foolishness that will destroy you.  But most of all, sinners need to be saved from the eternal consequences of sin.  Sin arouses the wrath of God against the sinner.  God is holy and he does not turn a blind eye when people rebel against him and slap him in the face.  He is the King of the universe, and when people sin they are committing treason against this King.  The problem is that he does not tolerate it.  It justly provokes him to wrath.  Sinners need to be saved from the expression of God’s justice in an eternal, conscious torment in hell.

Who are these sinners who need to be saved from all that?  The answer is simple:  all of us.  All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  No one is exempt.  We all need Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is the one who came to save sinners.  How did he do it?  First of all, God demands perfect obedience from all human beings.  He expects every single human being to perfectly keep every single part of his law.  Jesus Christ came into the world to do that for those who believe in him.  As we look to him in faith, his perfect obedience is credited to us.  The gospel announces that Christ Jesus came into the world to live the obedient life that you could not live for yourself.

He also died the death you were supposed to die.  He suffered and died in your place.  In his suffering and especially on the cross, he bore the wrath of God against your sin so that you would be forgiven.  When he was on that cross, you were with him.  You were on his heart.  He offered up the sacrifice which turned away the wrath of God from you and returned his favour.

We have the guarantee of that in Christ’s resurrection.  When Jesus rose from the dead, that was God’s way of saying, “The sacrifice for these sinners has been received and approved.”  It was God’s sign to us that sin and death had been definitely conquered.  A risen Saviour promises us that his mission to save sinners was truly accomplished.

The saying provides a simple summary of the gospel.  It would be easy to memorize this and keep it in your back pocket, so to speak:  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  But then Paul adds something about himself, “of whom I am the foremost.”  There are some who stumble over these words.  People will say, “Paul, how can you say that?  How can you say that you are the chief of sinners, the worst of sinners?  Don’t you have Jesus Christ as your Saviour?  You’re righteous in him.”  That would be one approach.  Another approach would be more in line with the dominant thinking around us today, “Paul, you have low self-esteem.  You shouldn’t think so low about yourself.  Stop being so negative about yourself and start looking at the positives.”  However, you cannot get around these words.  They are in the Word of God.  They were written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  These words come from God and God has a purpose in these words.  So we must be very careful not to discount these words and throw them away as being merely the words of an apostle suffering from either bad theology or a bad self-image.

What does God want to say to us here?  We need to look at the context.  In the immediate context of verse 15, Paul writes about his past life.  He had been a blasphemer, persecutor and insolent or bold opponent of the gospel.  His past involved much sin against the Lord.  Paul looks back at that with regret.  He knows how huge a debt he’s been forgiven, how much grace he’s been shown.  So there’s that.

However, if we look at the broader context of Scripture, we also see Paul as a Christian who was quite aware of the darkness which still lingered in his own heart.  It was Paul the apostle who wrote Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  When he wrote that, he used the present tense, “Wretched man that I am!”  That parallels 1 Timothy 1:15, “of whom I am the foremost.”  That’s also present tense.  While he was a sinner in the past before Christ saved him, he continues to be a sinner in the present.  Yes, he is justified by faith in Jesus Christ through grace alone.  In God’s sight, he has been declared righteous.  Yet, his life still involves this struggle with sin each day.  He is both justified and a sinner.

Here’s the point:  Paul writes this letter to Timothy as someone who has been a Christian now for several years, probably for about 30 years.  The life of a Christian involves growth and part of that growth is a growing awareness of your sin.  You grow in holiness, but also grow in becoming more sensitive to your remaining sinfulness.  As you mature as a Christian, you became ever more aware of your need for Jesus Christ.  That’s where Paul is writing from.  He’s writing from the position of someone who’s been growing in his faith.  He doesn’t need to look at others and their sin.  He knows that the remnants of his old nature are there and they’re horrifically ugly.  From where he stands, he can’t see any comparison with others because he knows the great need he himself has.  God wants all of us to be moving to that point.  He wants all of us to be saying, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and I’m the one who needs him most because I know my own wickedness.  I see it more than anyone else.”

Now when we share the gospel with unbelievers, they might lash out at us and call us self-righteous.  They’ll assume that we think we’ve got it all together and we’re talking down at them from a position of righteousness.  We have to disarm them right away.  Maybe even beat them to the punch.  You have to say, “Do I think I’m better than you because I’m a Christian?  No, in fact, if you were to look into my heart, like I look into my heart, you would know that I’m not.  I’m a sinner too, a terrible sinner.  Friend, I need Jesus Christ and so do you.  Listen, I’m just a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread.”

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”  — it is indeed a trustworthy saying and deserving of full acceptance by us and others.  Let’s believe this today as we worship and always.  Let’s also go out into the world with the only good news that can reconcile sinners to God.


Are the Saints in Heaven Aware of Our Miseries and Trials?

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When you’ve taught catechism to the youth of the church for a few years, you start to know where questions will pop up.  When you deal with Lord’s Day 18 and the subtle argument found there relating Christ’s ascension with his presence here on earth and the polemics with the Lutherans, you can reasonably expect that your catechism students won’t be asking any questions.  But when it comes to Lord’s Day 22 and the doctrine of the last things (eschatology), you might want to slot in an extra class just to deal with their questions.  It’s not just young church members who have questions — I’ve noticed that older church members do too.  We all wonder what “perfect blessedness” in the hereafter really involves.  One question that I’ve been asked and have often pondered is whether believers in glory are aware of goings-on here on earth, including the suffering and grief we might experience.  I’ve always been inclined to say “no.”  After all, how can “perfect blessedness” include concern and anxiety over what is happening with your loved ones who are not (yet) in glory?

In his book, Josiah’s Reformation, Richard Sibbes indirectly addresses this question.  In the last chapter, this Puritan author exposits 2 Chronicles 34:28.  Here God is addressing King Josiah through the prophetess Huldah:   “Behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place and its inhabitants.”  Sibbes notes that one of the things to take away from this verse is a clear indication that the Roman Catholics are wrong in praying to Mary and other saints.  After all, God promised this saint (Josiah) that he would be taken out of this world with the consequence that he would be unaware of the disaster that would come on the people of God after his lifetime.  This consequence is not peculiar to Josiah, but is true of all human beings brought to glory.  It was and is a blessing for saints to be relieved of their concerns for their loved ones.  Sibbes goes a step further and notes the absurdity of the Roman Catholic view.  He says, for the sake of argument let’s grant that saints in heaven are aware of what goes on down on earth and can hear the prayers of unglorified believers and extend help.  But they are still finite creatures, aren’t they?  Writes Sibbes, “How can one saint give a distinct answer and help to perhaps a thousand prayers, as the virgin Mary hath many thousand prayers offered her?  How can she distinctly know and give a distinct answer to every prayer?”  It’s only possible if she is no longer human.

For our purposes, however, we can note that Josiah was taken out of this world with the promise that he would be unaware of the miseries and trials to follow his death.  Is there any indication in Scripture that this is not true of all believers?  Does the Bible anywhere teach that Christians are taken to heaven but still weighed down with concerns over what takes place on earth?

What about Ecclesiastes 9:5-6?

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.

These verses played a part in a controversy in the Netherlands over the doctrine of soul sleep.  Some (e.g. Telder) taught that “the dead know nothing” means that when you die you have no conscious awareness of anything on earth or in heaven.  Your soul essentially falls asleep.  Two comments:  1) It is dangerous to hang a doctrine on a passage from a difficult book like Ecclesiastes.  This type of wisdom writing can easily be misused.  2)  The context here demonstrates that the Preacher’s perspective is related to “all that is done under the sun.”  If anything, you can only restrict what is said here to life on the earth.

In Luke 16, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  The parable shows the rich man looking down on earth after death and having concern for his five brothers left behind.  However:  1) The rich man is not in glory, but in hell.  If this is indicative of something of the after-life, it’s only telling us that the damned continue to be aware of the miseries and trials of this earth.  2)  But, this is a parable and again care needs to be taken in interpreting this as definite doctrine about the hereafter.  Our Saviour often worked within the understanding of his listeners about these things.  If what’s said here can be confirmed from other passages in Scripture, we can be more dogmatic about accepting it as divine revelation concerning the hereafter.

If there’s one passage that comes close to leading us to believe that saints in heaven are aware of the trials of saints on earth, it would have to be Revelation 6:10-11.  When the sixth seal was opened, John saw the souls of the martyrs under the altar.  We then read in Rev. 6:10-11,

10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Doesn’t this seem to suggest that at least some saints (the martyrs) in heaven are aware of the travails of some of the saints on earth?  These verses need to be read carefully.  The glorified martyrs’ cry of “how long?” is related to the avenging of their blood shed while they were on earth.  In response to that, they are told to wait until the number of the martyrs is complete.  This suggests at most a general knowledge that the final judgment has not yet come, but not necessarily an awareness of the particulars of everything going on in the world left behind.  Moreover, the genre here also has to be taken into consideration.  This is apocalyptic literature and vivid imagery is used that’s not always intended to be understood literally.  The classic example is Satan’s chain in Revelation 20:1.  Satan is an angel, a spiritual being, so he obviously cannot be bound with a literal physical chain.  Similarly here, in Revelation 6, the language may simply be trying to convey the eagerness that heaven and its inhabitants have for final justice at the last day.  But that doesn’t mean that Oma looks down from heaven and sadly sees me getting grumpy and irritable with my family here (for example!).

When all the biblical evidence is considered, we have to conclude that “perfect blessedness” in heaven involves being unaware of the particular trials and struggles that saints on earth continue to experience.  We can expect that when we are graciously brought to glory, we will not have our eyes directed back from whence we came, but to Christ, to our God and Saviour.  We will be perfectly living in communion with him — and he will take care of looking out for our loved ones left behind, he will continue to be aware of their sufferings, temptations, and trials.  And as all-powerful God, he is the one who can actually do something about all of it.  In heaven, we will be content to leave it all to him — that’s perfect blessedness.                      


What Does It Mean That Jesus Was Forsaken by God on the Cross?

In Matthew 27:46, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  These words are often misunderstood. This last Good Friday, I preached on these words and offered the following explanation.

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What does it mean that Jesus was forsaken by God as he hung on the cross? To understand that, we have to go back to Psalm 22 and the word used there in verse 1. The word for “forsaken” was often used in the Old Testament to refer to a break in covenant communion. The word has covenantal overtones; it’s used in the context of relationships. When someone forsakes someone else in the Old Testament, it often means that the relationship has changed for the worse.

There are examples of people forsaking God. For example, there’s Jeremiah 2:13, where God says his people have forsaken him, “the fountain of living waters and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” That “forsaking” there refers to a broken covenant relationship. The relationship is still there, but its character has changed. Where once there was fellowship, now there’s hostility.

There are also examples of God forsaking his people. If we stick with Jeremiah, there’s Jeremiah 12:7. God says, “I have forsaken my house, I have abandoned my heritage; I have given the beloved of my soul into the hands of her enemies.” Again, there’s a broken covenant relationship, a changed covenant relationship. For God to forsake his covenant people means that there is no longer fellowship and communion. Instead, there is enmity. God does not just walk away and absent himself from these people. Rather, he turns against them in his wrath.

It’s important that we keep this in mind as we look at the words Jesus shouts in Matthew 27:46. Too often people read these words and conclude that Jesus was completely alone on the cross. In other words, God was no longer present with him. He has been entirely abandoned. Related to that is a view of hell. The pain of hell is sometimes said to be the fact that God is absent there. Well, if God is absent in hell, whose wrath is being poured out there? Whose justice does hell represent? No, we can’t say that God is absent in hell. That’s not biblical. After all, isn’t Scripture clear that God is omnipresent – by nature he is present everywhere. He fills the universe says Jeremiah 23:24. So God must somehow be present in hell. Similarly, if Jesus experienced hellish agony on the cross, we can’t say that God was absent there. His words here mean something different, something at the same time far more terrifying and yet far more comforting.

His forsakenness should be viewed in negative terms, in terms of God taking things away from him, “omission” you could say. Jesus has had everything removed from him. As we saw already, the lights were turned out. Before that, his friends had turned against him, denied him, left him. One of his disciples had even betrayed him. Even the angels were gone – there was no one to support him or encourage him. His dignity and honour had been removed. He hung on the cross naked. Yes, he wore a crown, but a crown of thorns. He was publicly mocked and humiliated. Every comfort that God offers his creatures in this life was gone. It had all been taken away and he was left with nothing. Certainly that is part of what it means that he was forsaken by God. God turned against him by withdrawing everything good.

But his forsakenness must also be viewed in positive terms, in terms of God doing things to him, “commission” you could say. Here you need to remember that everything about Jesus at this moment screams “cursed.” He is hanging on a cross – a crucified one was cursed by God. He is the reason the lights went out, why darkness fell – because he was cursed. He wears the crown of thorns – thorns were part of God’s curse on creation after Adam’s fall. The one cursed by God is not merely ignored by God, abandoned in the sense that God walks away and becomes absent. No, God actively turns against the accursed. He bears down on him with his wrath. God is very present on Golgotha, but in the most terrifying way he can be present. He’s not present to love and bless, to live in fellowship and communion, but to punish sin with his wrath. That punishment God brings down to bear on the crucified Jesus. God is there in his wrath, the expression of his justice against sin. Being forsaken by God means that Jesus experiences the full wrath of God against sin. Let that sink in.

Now also let it sink in that Jesus did not experience this God-forsakenness against sin in the abstract. What I mean is that he didn’t suffer this horrific torment just for a nameless mass of humanity. This is where the comfort starts. The comfort starts with the fact that as Jesus cried out in his anguish, he had the names of every elect person on his heart. You and I should be the ones receiving the forsakenness I’ve been describing. We deserve to have every good comfort removed from our lives for eternity. We deserve to have God’s wrath bear down on us forever in hell. Yet, look and wonder: as you believe in him, Jesus took all this in your place. He did it conscientiously with you in mind, you personally brother, you personally sister. He knew your name on Golgotha. He had your name in mind, he had love for you on his heart as he shouted these words in Matthew 27:46. It’s as if he’s saying, “You should have been forsaken. But I loved you so much that I chose to be forsaken for you.” Loved ones, trust his good Word to you. Believe this gospel message that your Saviour was forsaken in your place. He had everything withdrawn, so that you could be filled with God’s blessings. God turned against him in his wrath, so that you could be received in mercy. What gospel encouragement we have here! What rich comfort!