Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Coronavirus19 – What’s It for?

What do Creed–reciting  Christians have to say about the plague? ? They believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. How do they relate sudden evils such as we are presently enduring, to God’s almightiness? Many different theological and religious approaches are able to say the same Creed, reflecting  the varieties of theism (and deism) extant. Some say that in the Apostles’ Creed we find ‘mere Christianity’, a universal set of Christian beliefs.  Others will have met the Creed earlier in life, its importance gradually waning over the tears.

A Reluctance

What is surprising is that there has not any bringing together of God Almighty and the Coronavirus plague. Asking the question, what does the common Christian creed say to us about the plague? A least not to my knowledge. (Since writing this I have  heard  Hugh Palmer, Rector of All Souls, London, "What is God saying through the Virus?" on  22nd March. No doubt there are others by now.)

 Of course, perhaps this reluctance is the result of reading  endless opinions, written and spoken, on 'the problem of evil', that people have become tired with any implausible answers.  Despite this,  I thought I would have a try.

There are two types of answer, three if ‘silence’ is a possible answer. The first, let us call it ‘the public problem answer', is to have something positive and intelligible to say to people in general, relating what evils are apparent to the goodness of God. The other is the personal or individual case of evils and God’s goodness. I have a suggestion about each type of answer, relating them to Jesus’s own teaching.

The Public Case

In Luke 13 Christ comments on the fall of the Tower of Siloam, a tower near a reservoir of Jerusalem, whose fall, a contemporary tragedy, which killed eighteen people. What does Jesus say to this ‘hard question’.

Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam  fell and killed them: do you   think that they were worse offenders than all who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent , you will all likewise perish. (13.5)

This follows his answer to those Galileans who had been killed by Pilate, who then mixed the shed blood with  the blood of a sacrifice, to whom Jesus gave a similar response. Perhaps this was is a case of anti-Semitic action on the part of the occupying Romans, including governor Pilate, and perhaps those who asked Jesus about this did so to try in turn  to stir up anti-Roman feeling in Jerusalem. This prompted the following retort of Jesus, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you, unless you repent. You will all likewise perish’. (Luke 9, 1-3)

 There are some Creed-repeaters who esteem Jesus for his actions and teaching of the primacy of selfless love and community, will find these words disappointing. The references to sin and guilt and repentance will put them off. But a contemporary Jesus – follower, who values Jesus’s words, should he not value these words? But no one, or scarcely one, of his followers today, quotes them, but shuns them. Jesus is silenced. When there are references, to sin, evil and judgment to come, there is a deafening silence. A person who respects Jesus' words  sees the purpose of the Coronavirus plague and other such evils as prompts to reflection and penitence, for Jesus calls all people are called to penitence for their evils even if, outwardly respectable, they convince themselves that they have no such need.

The individual, personal case

The second example  is the account of the young man who was  born blind,  in John 9.  Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. This prompted a controversy between Jesus, the man’s neighbours, his parents, and the Pharisees. At the beginning of this encounter, his disciples asked  him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ To which Jesus answered ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the  works of God might be displayed in him’. So this could be called a theme of Jesus’s ministry, could it not?

Interestingly, the pool of Siloam figures in this also, as Jesus bids the man (or boy, perhaps) go and wash in the pool of Siloam. He did, as an act of faith in Jesus' command, and thereby gained his sight.

The mind set.

There is a common mindset in both examples, that evils occur as God’s punishment for evil. One difference between these stories and (as we are seeing) the reactions of the contemporary liberal and secular mindset, are obvious. Who needs to repent and to come to Christ for forgiveness? We must not forget that the call to repentance was prominent at the beginning of Jesus’, and of John the Baptist’s, ministries. (Matthew 3) For ignorance of the need for repentance is in sharp contrast to that of Jesus attitude.  For a modern person, plagues have a cause, of course, but their occurrence seems random. They elicit a response, hundreds of responses, of loss and of fearfulness, as we are seeing, but they are otherwise mute.They are not to affect us spiritually.

For Jesus and those who trust him, like the beggar lad of John 9, the occurrences of evils speak. More precisely, for Jesus they speak, like the tragedy of the fall of the tower of Siloam. And what they say is of importance to him. Somehow, they too, are to elicit faith. The boy, we are not told how, had learned that this rabbi was, ‘Jesus’ (v.11). He was  granted the grace of  faith in Jesus the Christ. The blindness that had plagued him from birth , immediately vanished. And that remarkable physical change was the sign of a deeper, spiritual change.

His  faith in the rabbi aroused various reactions. The Pharisees, not able to deny the evidence, made a legal point. They objected to Jesus’s alleged violation of the Sabbath. They  said that Jesus was a ‘sinner’, a Sabbath-breaker. By contrast the boy believed that he was a prophet. (v. 13f). All they knew was what they saw, blindness and then seeing. The boy’s parents, fearing that they would  be excommunicated from the synagogue if they opened their mouths in criticism of the Pharisees, were too scared to say anything, so passed on the problem to the boy who was old enough to speak for himself. He seems rather stroppy, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen….Do you want to be his disciples?’ (v.34) The Pharisees did not pay any sympathy to his story, and alleged that he was illegitimate. That explained his blindness. They cast him out after all.

When a little later Jesus sought him out, having heard of all this, and found him, who was who interested to know more about him, confessed Christ, and worshipped him, perhaps kneeling. Jesus sought the boy and told dim that he was  more than a prophet, he was the Son of Man.

Jesus had a final word: ‘For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind’. The judgment was a division, not any more about blindness and sightedness, but the separation between those who are poor and needy, like the young man, and those who were self-sufficient and self-satisfied, like the Pharisees. No more was heard of the boy. The incident ends:

Some of the Pharisees near Jesus got to hear what he had been saying, and asked him. ‘Are we also blind?’ Jesus said to them,  ‘If you were blind, you would have no guilt: but now that you say, “We see”, your guilt remains’. (40-1). Terrible words.

The current plague

Prompted by the current plague, we have turned to some of the words of Jesus. You’ll find that at such time some emphasise this and that bit of the Bible. Here I have gone to the very words of Christ about  affliction and loss, the words of him who was ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Pontius Pilate, was crucified , dead, and buried’. We have looked at two sorts of affliction, public and individual. Jesus did  not react as the Puritans, who thought of the occurrence of plagues (including the London plague of 1645), as a society-wide divine punishment.

Here surely they forgot that whatever purpose plagues played in the O.T., we should hold to the fact that now the people of God are no longer  ‘slaves’ but ‘sons’ (Gal. 4.3), Jesus taught that evils  act as ‘reminders’ or as warnings of human mortality and weakness and need, and of the personal accountability before God of each of us. As we get older, such reminders are gradual, and increasingly persistent, occasional; at other times they are spectacular, as currently. As Paul said when he was in Athens, ‘He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead’. (Acts 17.31) We should judge that like then, as now, some people will mock, while others reacted like those mentioned by Luke,  ‘some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman Damaris and others with them.’ (Acts 17.34)  


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Easter gifts

This is my second effort at themes for Easter, if you keep Easter. The first dealt with the tearing of the Temple curtain from top to bottom, signifying the new way made by Christ’s work.

New Life

An Augustinian, Reformed confession holds that our Lord Jesus Christ, through his atonement, brought his people new life: regeneration and all the steps of the ordo salutis. Through his death and resurrection,  the Holy Spirit came as the energizer of them, (gifts unto men).

Among these gifts was that of prayer through the mediatorship and  high priesthood of Christ, whereby the people of God cry ‘Abba, Father’. For a moment, contrast this with the fact that we live in a Christianised culture which has left a legacy  of prayer, chiefly routine prayer for the dying, and at death, on public occasions, for Christmas presents, and the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer. Beside, in our culture there are Jewish prayers, Muslim prayers,  and so on.

New Testament Prayer: The Mediator

The letter to the Hebrews is the place which gives us the idea of Christ's mediatorship. His priesthood is introduced in 2.17, based on his deity and his humanity. ‘So that he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make  a propitiation for the sons of the people.... he is able to help.....he is able to those who are being tempted.' (Heb 2.17)  He is keeper of God’s house (3.6).  The idea of Melchizedek’s priesthood enters in chapter 7, and it is developed in Ch. 8., and climaxes with teaching on his uniqueness  9.24;‘Christ has entered, not into places made with hands,  which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now  to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.’ And especially the application at 10.19f. ‘Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith…..Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering…..Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.’

His Mediatorship is endorsed elsewhere in the New Testament, but rarely. Paul , the Apostle to the Gentiles, hardly touches on it, unless he is thought of as the author of Hebrews, the long-time view which now is discarded.  In Galatians 3. 19-20 he  uses mediator/intermediary once in a rather different connection. In I Tim. 2.5 he states to Timothy, ‘For there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.’ There is what is called Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17.           .

In the New Testament there are two conditions that presuppose and govern prayer, Christian prayer. Not conditions that the one praying has to fulfil, but conditions of there being such prayer.  The first is that in the New Testament, men  and women have a mediator, Jesus Christ, who by his death made access to the holy of holies sure. The torn Temple curtain bears witness to this. Christ is revealed as our Great High Priest, whose death and resurrection paid for sin, and purchased righteousness, and which glorified God, and especially that by his resurrection he ever lives to make intercession for his people.

His death, a glorifying

Not only ‘glorified’ but they are instances of the glory of God. In his teachings recorded in the Gospel of John, Christ refers to his forthcoming death as a ‘glorification’. His  death was not what happened to Jesus  but an event in which he takes control. For example he teaches that he is going to his ‘Father’s House’ which contains ‘many mansions/rooms’ (14, 1-3) which he prepares and  will return for his people. That is one theme, glorification, (13.31-2, 14.13,16.14, 17). 4,5. A5.8, 16.14, 17.1,4, 5,22,24)  And the other is the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter sent by his Father (14.26,15.26,7. 16.7) But the emphasis on Christ’s case is not with the glorifying of martyrdom but with that death glorifying the Godhead, and inaugurating glory for the people of God.

Jesus is the Mediator, or intermediary, as the OT priests represented the nation of Israel on the day of atonement annually. It was repeated, therefore, as the author of Hebrews argued, Jesus Christ, the God-man, divine but bearing our nature sinlessly, is alone to having a full or adequate nature for this, and so is alone to be a fitted to be this Mediator. Two locations in the new Testament emphasize this: Gal 3 19-20 , and Heb. 8.6, 9.15, 12.24. There is also a reference  at I Tim 2.5. He mediates two  parties, sinful human beings and God, reconciling the sinful human. For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God by faith. So Jesus the Christ can bring many sons to glory, ‘You are all sons of glory, all one in Christ Jesus, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise’ (v.29)

Christian Prayer: The Spirit

So Hebrews (mainly) gives us the first condition, with the second  condition, prayerfulness, at the end of Gal. 3 ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.’ And as a result of this new arrangement of grace, those for whom Christ died are sons, ‘and because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba! Father! So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. This also is foretold in John 16. 5-15.

That he is the Father, to whom they have a familiar, intimate, relationship, is similar to the fuller statement in Romans 8.12,  If we are sons, then we address him in prayer; as we pray, pleading the person of Christ our mediator, even though not all prayers need to sign off  with ‘in Jesus name’. To appreciate what happened at the first Easter, see  Rom 8.15, Gal 4.6.

Some Consequences

What becomes clear is that in the new Testament there is a sharp distinction between prayer, already mentioned, and Christian prayer, prayer founded on the one Mediator. ‘There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle…a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.(I Tim.2.5-7)  Here Paul is stressing the international character of Christian prayer.

In my experience, in the present, given these NT strands of teaching, pulpit prayer is weak and disappointing, with little solemnity or feeling. The fact that the uttering of such prayer has been won by Jesus is rarely mentioned, never developed. References to the word and spirit, yes, but the language of his great priesthood is seldom utilized. 

So so the incarnation is God’s gift, another gift is the work and agency of the one Mediator, and a third the gift of prayer,  a gift of the Son and the Spirit. When we survey the New Testament, this requesting and intercessing in Christian prayers,  has as its scope the growth in grace of God’s people, the prosperity of the church’s ministry, its evangelistic and missionary mandate. The same Spirit who is at work in the groanings of the prayers of Christ’s people is to be the one who energises their praying. In the later chapters of John’s Gospel,  Jesus describes himself as the Resurrection and the Life ((11.25), and contrasts ‘loving the glory that comes from man’ and ‘the glory that comes from God’. (12.43). Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world. (18.36) and praying for it must be in accordance with the needs of such a kingdom. So it is in this vein that Jesus teaches, ‘Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.’ (14, 13-14)  And the promised coming of the Spirit, the Helper, ‘who will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness and judgement. (16.8)

These are the gifts of Easter, not bunny rabbits, daffodils and eggs. It is not an entrance into spring, but celebration into glory of the people of God.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

The Curtain, His Flesh

After two postings about the anniversary of the coming of the Saviour,  I thought it would be appropriate have a post on Easter, in good time,

The three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, each tell us that at  the time that Jesus died, the curtain (or veil) of the Temple in Jerusalem was rent in two, ‘from top to  bottom’  (Matthew, 27.51 ), Mark, (Mk.15.38)  has ‘And the curtain of was torn in two, from top to bottom’ and  Luke (Luke 23.45) ‘And the curtain the temple was torn in two’. Two of the accounts are placed close to the expiring of Jesus on the cross. In Mark with Jesus uttering with a loud cry, and breathing his last. In Luke before Christ’s ‘calling out with a loud voice, he said Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. And having said this, he breathed his last’. So that destructive event, the rending of the Temple curtain, is at the climax of Christ's torture,  so it seems purposely closely associated with the Cross and with what it achieved, and so intimately associated with Easter. Have you ever listened to an Easter sermon that took the topic of the torn curtain and what it signified? In the Gospels that event is associated with the darkening, and with what seems to have been a minor earthquake, and with the resurrection of some from their graves. But what of its greater effect?

If we have heard such a sermon it will make the point about the significance of the curtain  in the lay-out of the Temple. It is the separation between the Holy Place and the Holiest Place. It was only to be opened or pushed aside when the High Priest had to enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. As The Epistle to the Hebrews puts it,

The priests go into the first section [the Holy Place], performing  their ritual duties but into the second [place, the Holies Place], only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for unintentional sins of the people, By this the Holy Spirit indicates, the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing, which is symbolic for the present age.  According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper, but deal with food and drink and various, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. (Heb, 9. 6-10)
These verses are part of a detailed case the writer is making for the superiority of Christ’s priesthood  over the Old Testament Levitical priesthood. Christ is a priest of the order of Melchizedek (Ch. 7) superior to the Levitical order which sprang from Abraham. He cites relevant texts……As a consequence Christ is the mediator of a new covenant (Citing Jeremiah 31 in Chapter 8) so those that are called [i.e. effectually called] may receive the promised eternal inheritance. since a death  has occurred that redeems them from the first covenant…… (9.15) (Those who are expert in covenant theology don’t seem to allude to Christ who is a priest of Melchizedek, not of Levi, and so not of Abraham.)

Christ is our Mediator, a Mediator of the whole world.  He opened a new and living way to enter the holy places through his blood, which he opened for us through the curtain that is, his flesh. So…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance  of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an  evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. (10.19f.)

John Owen comments

And there is great instruction given us, in this comparison of the type and antitype, into the way and the nature of our access unto God in all our solemn worship. It is God as he was represented in the holy place to whom we address ourselves peculiarly [that is, especially]; that is God the Father as on a throne of grace: the manner of our access is with holy confidence, grounded solely on the efficacy of the blood or sacrifice of Christ,…we have our entrance into the holy place by virtue of the flesh of Christ, which was rent in his sacrifice,  as through the rending  of the veil a way was laid open into the holiest.[1]

The Epistle of the Hebrews is supplied with numerous Old Testament quotations but that inference, at the heart of what it means to pray as a Christian, in 10.21, ’through the curtain, that is, through his flesh’ is not from the Old Testament, but is an inspired inference that was drawn by whoever the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews was. What kind of inference is it?  That of a type and antitype within the birth of the New Testament era. The rent curtain is a type of Christ’s rent body. When Christians pray, they are not to forget the wounding and agony of Christ. The rent curtain tells Christ’s offering of himself as we engage in prayer,  to remind us that Christ procured this right only by his own suffering. So we have seen that both the role of the Spirit, as the replacement Comforter, and the Word of God incarnate as the Great High Priest, are suffused with Christ’s  sufferings.

For it came to pass on the death of the Lord Jesus, that ‘the veil of the temple was rent from the otp to bottom’. And that which is signified hereby is only this , that by virtue if the sacrifice, wherein hi flesh was torn and rent, we have a full entrance of  into the holy place, so that it should as would have been of old upon the rending of the veil. This, therefore is the genuine of this place, \We enter with boldness into the most holy place through the veil; that is to say, his flesh’; we do so by virtue of the sacrifice of himself, wherein his flesh was rent, and all hindrances  thereby taken away from us; of which the veil was an emblem, and principal instances, until it was rent and removed. (506)_

Easter and prayer. In the current understanding of prayer, personal prayer is simply a case of talking with Jesus, a direct consequence of ‘knowing Jesus’. And Easter is being taken over by rabbits and daffodils. The Bible itself presents us with Jesus not as a companion to his  New Testament people, but as a physically absent Saviour,  who is our Great High Priest in virtue of his sufferings. His death, resurrection and ascension formed one transaction between the persons of the Holy Trinity, the economic Trinity, as a consequence of the physical vanishing of Jesus Christ’s resurrected, ascended self. This was a loss to the church, a needy place in which the Holy Spirit has become the assurer and encourager of God’s people, and our risen and ascended became Christ the mediator of the covenant. Our worship is to be ‘solemn’, as Owen tells us, because it is an activity, wherever and whenever it takes place that is validated only by the solemnity of the purchase of Christ’s blood.  Easter was never to be a once in a year celebration, and we are to remember the death of the Saviour in every prayer we engage in.

[1] John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. W.H.Goold, (1855 repr. Baker, 1980), VI.507