Whom Did God Foreknow in Romans 8:29?

Romans 8:29 says, “For whom He [God] foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.”

In this Bible verse, those who hold to Arminian theology understand the word “foreknew” to refer to information about people that God perceived ahead of time — i.e., that He foresaw in eternity past who would believe in Jesus Christ and predestined those people to receive salvation on the basis of their foreseen faith.

For example, Arminian theologian Roger E. Olson argues that “God provides all the ability, the seed of faith, and we freely accept it and use it to repent and trust in God alone. But once we do repent and trust, we see that it was God who made it possible in every way, so we cannot boast. And God foreknew that we would (or wouldn’t) repent and believe. That’s another dimension of God’s election in Arminian theology. Individual election, predestination, is conditional in that we must accept it. If we do, it turns out that God foreknew that we would” (emphases mine).

One of many problems with this interpretation is that according to the author of Romans 8:29, the object of God’s foreknowledge is people, not information about those people. The verse does not refer to what God foreknew, but “whom” He foreknew.

In the Bible, when God is said to “know” people, it speaks not of foreseen knowledge of decisions those people will make, but rather of the Lord’s special, intimate regard for them. “You (Israel) only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. I have appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). God foreknew Jeremiah — had regard for him before he was born — and chose him to be a prophet.

We frequently see the same sense conveyed in the Bible when people are said to “know” other people. For example, Genesis 4:1 says, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.” Genesis 4:17 says, “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch.”

Certainly God knows all information about His creatures comprehensively. He is omniscient (Psalm 147:5; 1 John 3:20; Psalm 139:1-4; Matthew 10:30; Hebrews 4:13; 1 Chronicles 28:9; Isaiah 40:28, 46:9-10). Yet the precise wording of Romans 8:29 (as also in other similar verses) leads to the conclusion that God “foreknew” His chosen people not in the sense of simply knowing ahead of time that they would believe, but rather that He knew them — loved them — ahead of time. “For whom He foreknew (intimately loved and chose ahead of time), He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son….” This is consistent with Ephesians 1:4b-5: “In love He predestined us to adoption as sons and daughters through Jesus Christ to Himself.”

In further support of this position, note the following:

  1. If God looked ahead in time, saw who was willing to believe in Him, and chose them on that basis, it means God elected people for salvation not according to grace (i.e., not as an undeserved free gift), but because He foresaw something good in them (a willingness to believe) that He did not foresee in others. This makes the human response of faith the good work that merits eternal life. Yet Scripture consistently teaches that salvation is entirely a gift, according to God’s free grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). As the apostle Paul writes, Christians were predestined by God “according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Ephesians 1:5b-6a; cf. Romans 5:3-5).

  2. To say that God foresaw who would believe in Him and predestined them accordingly makes man the ultimate elector. God essentially rubber stamps the decision man has made for himself. Contrary to this, the Scriptures consistently teach that God is the one who chooses us (Ephesians 1:3-6; Romans 8:29-30; John 15:16). Romans 9:16 says explicitly that election “does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” (See also John 1:12-13.)

  3. The Scriptures teach that faith is the gift of God. Philippians 1:29: “For to you it has been granted . . . to believe in Him.” (See also John 6:65.) To say God chooses whom He has foreseen will choose Him reduces faith to a mere human choice. How does this leave room for the divine gift of faith? If we have the ability to believe on our own, what need is there for God to “grant” us faith? Acts 13:48 says, “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” According to the Bible, belief is the evidence and result of God’s appointment to eternal life, not the cause of it.

  4. The Arminian view of foreknowledge also denies God’s omniscience, for it teaches that God looked ahead in history and learned things. The Scriptures on the other hand teach that God knew and declared the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10).

Any way you slice it, the Arminian interpretation of Romans 8:29 is untenable and contrary to biblical teaching.

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Amillennialism in a Nutshell

[The following is my brief explanation of the biblical eschatology known as amillennialism, especially as it relates to the spiritual warfare inaugurated by God in Genesis 3:15 (“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed”).  One of the primary goals of this essay is to demonstrate that amillennialism is inherently optimistic, yet ironically so given the nature of this “present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) and the ongoing sufferings of Christ’s people.]

Before the coming of Christ, the Kingdom of God was limited to one tiny nation, Israel, and occasional foreigners like Ruth and Rahab who were converted to the God of Israel.   The devil had widespread ability to deceive the nations and prevent them from coming to the truth.

All of this changed when Christ came in the world.  From the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus began to wage war against the devil and his kingdom.  As soon as He was anointed by the Father as Prophet, Priest, and King at His baptism (Luke 3:22), Jesus was immediately driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to fight against Satan (Mark 1:12-13).  The Lord defeated our unseen Adversary and sent him fleeing (Matthew 4:10-11).

Thereafter Jesus entered Galilee and began to cast out demons, who were terrified of Him and had no power to resist His authority (Mark 1:23-25).  Christ’s one Man rout of Satan’s kingdom continued to escalate, and He eventually appointed His disciples to join the battle (Mark 3:13-19; 6:7-13).  The demonic world was in total panic because they thought Jesus had come to send them to their final doom (Luke 4:34).

In the midst of this warfare, Jesus was accused of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebub (Matthew 12:24).  Jesus replied, “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? . . . But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.  Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man?  And then he will plunder his house” (Matthew 12:26, 28-29).

Here Jesus explained that the purpose of His exorcisms was to “first bind the strong man” and then “plunder his house.”  By the power of the Spirit, Christ was freeing Israel from Satan’s power to save the lost sheep of Israel who were dominated by that dark power.  This was the evidence that “the kingdom of God has come.”

Yet it is critically important to note that even though Jesus confirmed Satan had been “bound,” the enemy continued to be active in opposing Him (Matthew 16:23; John 8:44, 13:27).  We see this same tension present in Paul’s ministry.  2 Thessalonians 2:6-12 affirms that the devil has been “restrained” in this age.  Hebrews 2:15 says that Jesus has rendered the devil “powerless” (NASB).  Colossians 2:15 teaches that Jesus has “disarmed principalities and powers . . . triumphing over them in it.”  Yet it is equally clear from Paul’s other writings that Satan is active in opposing the work of God’s people (1 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Corinthians 2:11, 11:14, 12:7; Ephesians 6:11-13; 1 Thessalonians 2:18; 1 Timothy 5:15).  Peter, too, exhorts Christians to be sober, vigilant, and resistant to their adversary the devil, who “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8-9).  Biblically speaking, the devil being “bound” or “restrained” in the present age does not mean he has been rendered inactive, or that he is prevented from troubling Christ’s people.

What happened in Christ’s ministry is a picture of what later happened on a worldwide scale after the coming of Christ’s Spirit at Pentecost.  The battle to free the “other sheep” of Christ (John 10:16) and bring them into His fold was engaged beyond the borders of Israel.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit just as Christ was, and emboldened by the promise of Christ that He has all authority “in heaven and on earth,” the apostles went forth among the Gentiles to preach the Gospel, waging war against Satan and plundering his house (freeing people from spiritual darkness and making them Christ’s disciples, Acts 26:18; John 12:46).  The Kingdom of God expanded beyond the borders of Israel and became a global community (a “holy nation,” 2 Peter 2:9), one that included people from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).  The promise to Abraham that “all the families of the earth” would be blessed in his seed (Genesis 12:3) was fulfilled in Christ (Galatians 3:7-9), and continues to the present hour (Matthew 16:18).

The apocalyptic vision of Revelation 20:1-3 affirms the same truth, that Satan has been restrained in this present age from deceiving the nations — i.e., he cannot prevent the Gospel from going forth to make disciples of the elect from all nations, in fulfillment of the all-powerful Christ’s Great Commission even while he is simultaneously active in making trouble for God’s people (Revelation 12:17).  Despite the devil’s mischief, his house continues to be plundered by Christ (Matthew 12:26-29), who is building His church (Matthew 16:18).

Yet as John’s vision also reveals, the devil will be unleashed once more upon the world at the end of the age, with the coming of the Antichrist (Revelation 20:3; cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:6-10).  Satan will be granted temporary power to deceive the entire world once again, as he had before Christ’s first coming, and he will use this power in an attempt to eradicate God’s people from the earth (Mark 13:20-27; Revelation 20:7-9a).  At the darkest hour, Christ’s ultimate triumph over Satan and his hosts will finally be realized, when the Lord Himself comes from Heaven to deliver the final blow to the devil and condemn him and his followers to the lake of fire (Revelation 20:9b-10).

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Is Baptism by Immersion Mandated by the Bible?

Some Christians teach that baptism must be performed by immersion (aka submersion) for it to be legitimate.  For example, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith mandates baptism by immersion, inferring that baptism by any other mode – either pouring or sprinkling – is no baptism at all.  “Immersion, or dipping of the person in water, is necessary to the due administration of this ordinance” (1689 London Confession, chapter 29, paragraph 4).

In defense of this view, Dr. John MacArthur teaches that without doubt, baptism as presented in the New Testament always refers to immersion:

Two verbs express this reality, bapto and baptidzo.  Those two verbs are used when baptism is referred to.  They mean to immerse, to dip down.  The noun, baptisma is always used in Acts to refer to a believer being immersed in the water.  Sprinkling is a completely different word, rhantismos, completely different word, never used to describe a believer’s baptism in the New Testament, never used to describe a believer’s baptism in the New Testament, never. . . . Immersion is commanded of every believer as a picture, as an object lesson, as a symbol, as a visual analogy of a spiritual reality.  It is the way that God designed to publicly declare the truth of personal salvation.  What does it symbolize when a person is immersed, submerged?  Clearly unmistakably throughout the New Testament, Christian baptism is a picture of the union of a believer in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.” (fromIs Infant Baptism Biblical?preached by Dr. MacArthur September 18, 2011)

The goal of this essay is to test Dr. MacArthur’s assertion that baptism in the New Testament always points to immersion.  I do not believe his claim holds up in the light of biblical scrutiny.

For example, the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 that the Israelites “all passed through the sea, all were baptized (ἐβαπτίσαντο, from the Greek verb baptidzo) into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”  This refers to the crossing of the Red Sea, in which Paul says the Israelites were “baptized.”  Clearly the Israelites were not submerged – in fact, the only people submerged in that event were the Egyptians.  Thus we have clear evidence of a New Testament author defining “baptism” in a way other than immersion, indeed, in a way that makes immersion impossible.  The Israelites “passed through” the water; they were not submerged in it.

The same can be seen in the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus taught His disciples that they would be “baptized (βαπτισθήσεσθε, again from the Greek verb baptidzo) with the Holy Spirit not many days from now,” and that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit” came upon them (Acts 1:5, 8 ).  The fulfillment of this prediction came weeks later at Pentecost, but the concept of God submersing the disciples in the Spirit is nowhere found in the language of the biblical text.  Rather, God baptized Christ’s disciples by “pouring out” His Spirit upon them (Acts 2:17-18, 33), and as a result they were “filled” (i.e., controlled) by Him, and not controlled by new wine as the mockers suggested (2:13).  This was to fulfill the prophecy of Joel that God would “pour out” His Spirit (Joel 2:28-29; cited by Peter in Acts 2:17-18).  The same thing is seen in Acts 10:45, where the Jews were astonished because “the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.”

Throughout Acts, the language regarding the baptism of the Spirit plainly and consistently points to pouring, not immersion/submersion.  In Acts 2, the visible sign of the baptism of the Spirit was “tongues as of fire” that “sat upon each” of the disciples (Acts 2:3), which pictures anointing/pouring, not immersion.  God poured out His Spirit – this is the baptism of the Spirit as defined by Scripture.

As well, the various βαπτισμοῖς (baptisms) mentioned in Hebrews 9:10 refer to the *sprinkling* of blood (9:13, 19, 21).  Once again, the concept of baptize = immersion is not found, and instead we have additional evidence that the word “baptism” calls to mind sprinkling/pouring.

It is significant that the Holy Spirit chose the Greek word baptidzo and not bapto to describe Christian baptism.  Bapto points to dipping/dunking.  The word is used three times in the New Testament, and in each case dipping or dunking is plainly in view.  The rich man wanted Lazarus to βάψῃ (dip) his finger in water and give him a drink (Luke 16:24).  Jesus βάψας (dipped) the bread and handed it to Judas (John 13:26).  Jesus wears a robe βεβαμμένον (dipped) in blood when He comes in judgment (Revelation 19:13).  The Greek word bapto as used in the New Testament means to dip, dunk.  (Dr. MacArthur’s claim that bapto is used “when baptism is referred to” is incorrect.  Again, bapto appears only three times in the NT, never with reference to Christian baptism.)

Baptidzo and its related forms appear much more frequently in the NT, and in none of them is dunking or dipping demanded.  In fact, as we have seen, in some passages the idea of dunking/dipping is precluded altogether.

What about Romans 6:4?  Paul says, “We have been buried with Him through baptism into death.”  Does this not point to submersion baptism?  It might seem to at first, but it actually points to nothing specific, since the mode of baptism is nowhere mentioned by Paul in that context.  Dr. MacArthur points to this verse to establish immersion baptism, but it’s an argument by conjecture, conclusive only to those who already presuppose “baptism always means immersion in the Bible,” which as we have seen, it clearly does not.  Besides, Jesus was buried by being placed in a cave, not by being “immersed” with dirt.

Lacking any exegetical data to verify Dr. MacArthur’s argument, Christians who baptize by pouring or sprinkling have no trouble understanding from the Bible that the pouring or sprinkling of water is indeed symbolic of the burial of death – as with the water that fell in the Noahic flood that destroyed all except those in the ark.  Interestingly, Peter teaches that there is correspondence between Christian baptism and the eight people on the ark who “were brought safely through water” (1 Peter 3:20-21), as opposed to those who were submerged and perished.  (Note the similarity to Israel being “baptized” in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2.)

What about John 3:23?  The apostle writes, “John (the Baptizer) also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there.”  Does “much water” demand immersion?  No.  It might be inferred, but there is no conclusive evidence here of baptismal mode, any more than in Romans 6:4.  Once again the argument for immersion is one of conjecture.  In fact, if early Christian art is a reliable guide, the preference for “much water” was due to the baptismal recipients standing partly in water while water was poured over their heads, which was the common way early Christians were baptized.

The same can be said about Acts 8:38-39: “they both went down into the water . . . they came up out of the water.”  Baptism by immersion is not proven in these verses but only conjectured.  And again, if early art is any indication, going “down into” the water is exactly what would have happened if the eunuch stood partly in it while Philip (also in the water) poured water on his head.

Here are two scenes of baptism from the Roman catacombs which illustrate how baptism was typically conceived in the ancient church:

Baptism scenes from the Roman catacombs
(Click here to see more baptismal scenes from the catacombs.)

Finally, what about Dr. MacArthur’s observation that “Sprinkling is a completely different word, rhantismos, completely different word, never used to describe a believer’s baptism in the New Testament, never used to describe a believer’s baptism in the New Testament, never”?

Is this a valid way to establish that baptism by submersion is mandated in the New Testament?  No. There might be something to the argument if the mode of baptism referenced by baptidzo always pictured immersion/submersion — but as we have seen, that is clearly not the case.

Since baptidzo at least sometimes pictures something other than submersion in a number of New Testament verses, and at times unmistakably points to pouring/sprinkling, the claim that the biblical writers would have hypothetically used the Greek verb rhainó (to sprinkle) instead of baptidzo if they had intended to point to sprinkling is superfluous.  In fact, the author of Hebrews uses the verb rhainó (translated “sprinkling/sprinkled”) in Hebrews 9:13, 19, & 21 to give definition to the βαπτισμοῖς (“baptisms/washings”) mentioned in 9:10!  According to the inspired text, and contrary to Dr. MacArthur’s claim, ritual washings/baptisms are witnessed via rhantizó, sprinkling.

What do we learn from this study? 1) We must be careful to understand the words of Scripture in the way the biblical authors actually use them. 2) We must be careful not to let unproven presuppositions about the meaning of certain words govern our reading of the biblical text.  When we do all this, we find much compelling evidence in the New Testament indicating that the mode of Christian baptism was by sprinkling/pouring, and nothing conclusive to indicate baptism by immersion, despite Dr. MacArthur’s claims.

May God give us the light to see and embrace what is right.

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Is Civil Disobedience Ever Required of a Christian?

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to imitate our Lord’s example and “be subject to governing authorities” (Romans 13:1; cf. 1 Peter 2:19-23).  We are obligated to do this because we believe in the sovereignty of God and recognize that “there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1; cf. Psalm 47:2; 135:6; Ephesians 1:11; Isaiah 40:22; Daniel 4:35; Proverbs 21:1).

This is the biblical rule, that we are to “submit [ourselves] to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14).

That said, there are exceptions to this rule, wherein civil disobedience is not only optional but required of the Christian, since we understand that God’s Law is above all human law, and that we are to fear the Lord above any human leader or government.

The Bible calls believers to non-violently disobey civil government if that government commands us to do evil; i.e., if it requires us to act in a manner that is contrary to the clear teachings and requirements of God’s Word.  This is the only circumstance in which civil disobedience is justified — when government compels Christians to sin against God, or when there is no other legal recourse to oppose an unjust decree.

Examples from the Old Testament

The Hebrew midwives disobeyed Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-21).  Pharaoh commanded the midwives to murder all newborn male infants, “but the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive” (Exodus 1:17).  Despite lying to save the Hebrew babies (v. 1:19), “God dealt well with the midwives, and . . . because the midwives feared God, He provided households for them” (v. 20-21).  It was not the midwives’ lying that God blessed, but because their primary fear was in Him rather than the earthly king who had ordered them to commit murder.

Rahab helped the two Israelite spies (Joshua 2). Rahab disobeyed the command of Jericho’s king to turn in the Israelite spies who had entered the city to surveil it.  Instead, her faith in God motivated her to help the spies escape (Joshua 2:14-16; Hebrews 11:31).  Rahab disobeyed a direct order from the supreme government official of her city, and despite her lying to that authority, God blessed and saved her and her household when Joshua and the Israelites destroyed the city.  God went on to honor her by including her in the Messianic line (Matthew 1:5).

Additional examples:  1) The Israelites refused King Saul’s unjust command to murder Jonathan after he had led the nation to victory over the Philistines (1 Samuel 14:24-30, 43-45).  2) Because Obadiah “feared the Lord greatly,” he deceived his master, King Ahab, by hiding and caring for the prophets of Yahweh (1 Kings 18:3-6).  3) Queen Athaliah attempted to destroy the royal line of David, but Jehosheba, the king’s daughter, resisted this effort by hiding Joash so that the blood line would be preserved (2 Kings 11:1-3).  In each case, the Scriptures plainly infer God’s approval of the acts of civil disobedience.

Three more notable examples from the Old Testament:  1) Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down to a golden idol, defying King Nebuchadnezzar’s command, whereupon God delivered them unharmed from the king’s wrath and turned Nebuchadnezzar’s heart to greatly bless them instead (Daniel 3:4-6, 12-30).  2) Daniel prayed to God, in defiance of King Darius’ decree to the contrary, and God saved Daniel in the midst of the lion’s den and punished Daniel’s enemies instead (Daniel 6:6-24).  3) David was often persecuted and harassed by the God-appointed civil authority of his day (King Saul), yet David refused to speak evil or take up arms against that wicked authority and was ultimately delivered from Saul’s murderous rage and honored by God as the new king.

Examples from the New Testament

The book of Acts records the disobedience of Peter and John toward the religious authorities in Jerusalem (who had civil authority as well).  After Peter healed a man born lame, Peter and John were arrested for preaching about Jesus and put in jail.  The authorities were determined to silence the apostles’ teaching, but Peter and John said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge.  For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20).

After the apostles were imprisoned, God sent His angel to release them, who also commanded them to go to the Temple and preach Christ to the people — in defiance of the Jerusalem authorities (Acts 5:17-21)!  Later, the rulers confronted the apostles again and reminded them of their command not to teach about Jesus, but Peter and the others responded, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  The use of the word “ought” is critical, for the apostles thereby teach Christian believers by word and example that earthly authorities have no right or authority to command disobedience to the King at God’s right hand, who has “all authority in heaven and on earth,” and who calls His people to make disciples, baptize them, teach them, etc. (Matthew 28:18-20).  Indeed, we find in Acts at least one example of God commanding His disciples (through an angel) to preach the Gospel in direct opposition to the civil authorities who had commanded them to keep silent (Acts 5:19-20; cf. Acts 4:18-20).

We may also cite the example of the early Christians, who were at times severely persecuted because they feared the Lord and refused to worship Caesar, and yet whom God used as mighty witnesses of His power and redemption to transform the Roman empire from paganism to Christianity (speaking in broad strokes here and not endorsing the worldliness and corruption that thereafter invaded the church).  These early Christians overcame the civil government’s temptations to do evil, submitted to their unjust punishments, remained faithful unto death, and received the crown of life (Revelation 2:10).

Conclusions

1) Christians should submit to, pray for, and honor civil authorities, even those who are evil and God-hating, in recognition that “there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1, 7; cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-4; 1 Peter 2:17; John 19:10-11).

2) Non-violent civil disobedience is permitted, approved, and obligated by God when the earthly government’s laws and commands are in direct violation/defiance of God’s laws and commands (Exodus 1:20-21; Daniel 3:4-30, 6:6-24; Acts 5:29).  Violent civil disobedience is not commended by Scripture.

3) If a Christian disobeys a civil authority because he fears God and refuses to disobey His commandments, he should be willing to accept that civil authority’s punishment for his actions, following our Lord’s example (1 Peter 2:19-23).  For example, the apostles were beaten for their disobedience to the Sanhedrin, but they interpreted that experience through the paradigm of the cross and rejoiced rather than complaining, even while they continued to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:40-42; 16:16-28).  Submitting to an evil and unbelieving government when it persecutes believers is inherent to the call of Christ to take up our crosses and follow after Him (Luke 9:23; cf. Matthew 5:36-48; Romans 12:21).

4) God uses both Christian submission to government and Christian civil disobedience as powerful witnesses of His authority, justice, and redemption, and He is able to use such witnesses to bring about dramatic redemptive effects, including turning earthly governments to the fear of God and vindicating the righteous (Daniel 3:28-30, 6:23-24; Matthew 5:16, 38-48; Romans 12:17-21; 1 Peter 2:13-17; Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26-27; 3:5, 12, 21).

5) Christians are nowhere forbidden from participating in the installation of new government leaders and the establishment of righteous laws, and we therefore have liberty to participate in such efforts, and also to serve in civil leadership positions, working within the lawful parameters that have been established (e.g., Daniel and others serving faithfully in the Babylonian and Persian governments).  Christians who have the freedom to vote for their civil authorities and serve in government positions should recognize such privileges as gifts from God to be used to advance Christ’s kingdom and influence civil governments to the fear and glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:23).

This is how Christians are to “seek the peace” of the nations in which we live, even as we dwell in their midst as aliens and strangers, waiting patiently for the return of Christ and for “the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10; Jeremiah 29:7; cf. 1 Peter 1:1-2; James 1:1, 5:7-8).

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Why Do Reformed Churches Use Creeds and Confessions?

Evangelical Christians often wonder why Reformed churches emphasize the importance of creeds and confessions.  “What’s the deal with that?  Isn’t the Bible enough?  Why do we need creeds and confessions?”

Here are twelve reasons why I believe it is good and needful for all Bible-believing churches to use creeds and confessions:

1) They help Christians make sense of the Bible by highlighting what is important and summarizing its essential message.  (If the Bible is the world, the creeds and confessions are the road maps.)

2) They help the faithful memorize the essential beliefs of the Christian faith (especially regarding the work of the Triune God to save us).

3) They promote universal and apostolic unity.  (Creeds and confessions connect us to the past and to other churches by summarizing what true Christians around the world have confessed since the days of the apostles, not just what we believe in our local congregations.)

4) They provide specificity to our faith and help distinguish us from false teachers and sects (the original purpose of the Nicene and Athanasian creeds).

5) They provide structure for Christians to publicly confess their personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (the original purpose of the Old Roman Creed, which eventually expanded to become the Apostles’ Creed).

6) They are useful for apologetics (equip Christians to give succinct answers for the hope that is within them, 1 Peter 3:15).

7) They delimit church power (establish where the doctrinal authority of the church begins and ends, and make that authority transparent to all).

8) They clarify the content of the Christian faith to those who may ask.  (“These are formal summaries of what we believe and teach.”)

9) They provide distilled, well-tested theological judgments that fence our thinking and help us not to stray from the biblical faith (essential because all Christians, even pastors and theologians, are prone to forgetfulness and spiritual laxity).  

10) All Christian churches hold to creeds and confessions, whether they admit to it or not.  (“Despite claims to the contrary, the Christian world is not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who just have the Bible.  It is actually divided between those who have creeds and confessions and write them down in a public form, open to public scrutiny and correction, and those who have them and do not write them down.  The reason is simple:  every church (and indeed every Christian) believes the Bible means something, and what it thinks the Bible means is its creed and confession, whether it chooses to write its beliefs down or not.” – Carl Trueman, Why Christians Need Confessions)

11. It is implicitly required of Christian churches to develop and use creeds.  (“Pay close attention to your life and your teaching; persevere in these things, for by doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.” – 1 Timothy 4:16
“While, however, the Scriptures are from God, the understanding of them belongs to the part of men.  Men must interpret to the best of their ability each particular part of Scripture separately, and then combine all that the Scriptures teach upon every subject into a consistent whole, and then adjust their teachings upon different subjects in mutual consistency as parts of a harmonious system.  Every student of the Bible must do this, and all make it obvious that they do it by the terms they use in their prayers and religious discourse, whether they admit or deny the propriety of human creeds and confessions.  If they refuse the assistance afforded by the statements of doctrine slowly elaborated and defined by the Church, they must make out their own creed by their own unaided wisdom.  The real question is not, as often pretended, between the word of God and the creed of man, but between the tried and proved faith of the collective body of God’s people, and the private judgment and the unassisted wisdom of the repudiator of creeds.” – A. A. Hodge, A Short History of Creeds and Confessions)

12) Confessing creeds is a biblical practice.  (The Old Testament saints daily confessed, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5); and the New Testament church was founded on Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-18).  Early Christian churches began formulating faithful summary statements of the faith even while the apostles were still alive; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Timothy 3:16.)

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Replacement Theology or Expansion Theology?

Modern Dispensationalists often accuse Covenant theologians of promoting “Replacement Theology” — the belief that the Christian church has replaced Israel.  At times they are also charged with encouraging anti-semitism.

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Dispensationalists are correct that Israel and the church are at times separately distinguished in the New Testament.  The New Testament was written (at least most of it) between Pentecost and A.D. 70, when the Temple was destroyed and the Old Testament theocratic nation ceased to exist.  During this period, the apostles sometimes identified “Israel” as the mostly Christ-rejecting Jewish community that was distinguished from the community of believers in Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 10:1, 21).

Yet Dispensationalists tend to make too much of this observation, because Christ’s apostles also identified the multi-national church of Jesus Christ by the same terms used in the Old Testament to identify Israel.  What was the apostolic purpose in this, except to drive home the point that the New Covenant church is continuous with the “kingdom of priests” established under the Old Covenant?

For example, Peter wrote that the scattered churches of Christ (1 Peter 1:1) are “the holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9), the same title given to Israel at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19:6 (“you shall be to Me a . . . “holy nation”).  To make sure his readers didn’t miss this point, Peter heaped together other descriptive terms in 1 Peter 2 — “chosen generation, a royal priesthood … His own special people” — all of which were used in the Old Testament to describe Israel (Isaiah 43:20; 61:6; Deuteronomy 4:20) but which the apostle used to identify the church of God.  Thus Peter plainly and repeatedly identified the scattered, multi-ethnic church of Christ as Israel, now expanded to other nations.

Furthermore, Paul taught that the olive tree onto which the nations have been grafted is the same as existed in the Old Testament (Romans 11:16-18).  Gentiles who were formerly “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise . . . have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13).

The promise of world-wide, multi-ethnic blessings goes back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Genesis 28:14).  God said “all the families of the earth” would be blessed in Abraham (Genesis 12:3).  And now in the New Covenant, all who believe in Jesus Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike, are the “sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).  The fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant is Christ and His multi-national church (Acts 3:25; Galatians 3:8).

It’s also worth noting that Stephen, a deacon in the early Christian church, didn’t think it strange to identify Old Testament Israel as “the church.”  As he prepared to be martyred, Stephen referenced “the congregation (ἐκκλησίᾳ, the Greek word translated “church” throughout the New Testament) in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers” (Acts 7:38).

Thus Paul right to identify the Christian church as the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).  This fits seamlessly with what the apostle taught earlier in Galatians 3:28-29:  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you [Gentile believers in Galatia] are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

This is why Covenant Theology says that the church does not replace Israel, for the church cannot replace itself.  Rather, the church has been expanded to include all nations (Revelation 5:9-10).

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Do Christians Need to “Forgive Themselves?”

Don't forgive yourselfChristians are often told that we should “forgive ourselves” when we struggle with guilt.  Is this a correct way to believe and speak?

The reason we struggle with guilty feelings is because we have sinned against God, not against ourselves. Psalm 51:4:  “Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight.”  (Cf. also Psalm 32:3-4.) “Forgiving ourselves” is therefore an inappropriate response, really the opposite of what we should do.

Here are the typical problems and weaknesses Christians encounter related to the experience of guilt, as taught in the Scriptures:

(1) we are prone to blaming others instead of admitting our sin (Gen. 3:11-12, 15; 1 Sam. 13:11-12; 15:13-25);
(2) we are prone not to being too hard on ourselves, but rather too easy (e.g., blind to the planks in our eyes, Matt. 7:3-5, 18:28);

(3) we are prone to self-absorption and a lack of humility (Phil. 2:3-8; James 4:10);
(4) we are prone to worry and anxiety (Phil 4:6-7; Matt. 6:25-34; 1 Pet. 5:7);
(5) we are prone to hardening our hearts (Prov. 28:14; Heb. 3:7-13; Mark 8:17);
(6) we are prone to forgetting God (Deut. 4:9, 23; Psalm 9:17; James 1:24-25);
(7) we are prone to being deceived by the Devil and our sin (Gen. 3:4; 2 Cor. 11:3; Matt. 7:15, 24:4; Eph. 5:6; Gal. 6:7; Rev. 12:9; Heb. 3:13; 1 Cor. 10:12-13);

(8) we are prone to unbelief that God has forgiven our sins (Eph. 1:7; Rom. 5:1; John 5:24) and to wallow instead in doubt and fear (Matt. 14:31; Mark 9:24; Luke 5:8, 12:32).

Here are the actions the Bible commends to us when we struggle with guilt:

(1) humble yourself before God and the brethren (James 4:8-10, 5:16; 1 Pet. 5:6-7);
(2) remember Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and is now exalted in Heaven (Acts 5:31; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Tim. 2:8);
(3) give thanks to the Lord for the promises of the Gospel (1 Thess. 1:10, 5:18; Eph. 5:20; Psalm 107:1);

(4) pray with confidence for grace and mercy from God, that you may be forgiven, cleansed of unrighteousness, and strengthened to forsake your sins (Matt. 6:12; Heb. 4:16; Psalm 51:7; Isaiah 1:18; 1 John 1:9);
(5) as needed, ask forgiveness and make restitution to any people you have wronged (Matt. 5:23-24; Luke 19:8);

(6) rejoice, for even though sin is inevitable in this life, abundant forgiveness is always available in Christ because of His once-for-all sacrifice on the cross (Phil. 4:4; 1 Thess. 5:16; 1 John 1:9, 2:1-2; Heb. 10:10-17; John 19:30; Eph. 3:20-21; Rom. 10:13);
(7) whenever you’re tempted to doubt the Lord’s forgiveness, remember that He proved His love for you by dying on the cross, and is always faithful to keep His promises (Psalm 103:12; Rom. 5:8; John 15:13; Matt. 1:21; 1 Cor. 1:9; 2 Thess. 3:3; 2 Tim. 2:13);
(8) resist the devil’s accusations, pray for the Holy Spirit to empower you, forget what lies behind, and press onward for Christ (Rev. 12:10; Eph. 5:18, 6:16; Luke 11:13; James 4:7; Phil. 3:13-14).

Conclusion: “forgiving yourself” is unbiblical language and an unChristian concept that grew out of self-esteem theology.  Man’s problem is pride, not a lack of self-forgiveness (James 4:6).  Indeed, Jesus assumes that we already love ourselves (Matt. 22:39), and that it is the spirit of rebellion to love ourselves even more (note Paul’s strong warning to Timothy:  “in the last days perilous times will come, for men will be lovers of themselves,” 2 Tim. 3:1-2.)  The Bible teaches us to forgive others, but never to forgive ourselves.  The entire notion of “forgiving yourself” should therefore be rejected.

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Another Side of the Wine vs. Grape Juice Discussion

Communion Wine & BreadOne aspect of the “Wine vs Grape Juice” discussion that isn’t contemplated nearly enough:  wine is often mentioned in the Old Testament as symbolic of Messianic, New Covenant blessings.

For example, Isaiah, contemplating the blessings of the Messianic kingdom, wrote, “The Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain.  A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, and refined, aged wine” (Isaiah 25:6).

Jeremiah described Christ’s kingdom this way, “They will come and shout for joy on the height of Zion.  And they will be radiant over the bounty of the Lord—over the grain and the new wine and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd” (Jeremiah 31:12).

Similarly, the prophet Joel wrote concerning the kingdom of the Messiah, “The Lord will answer and say to His people, ‘Behold, I am going to send you grain, new wine and oil, and you will be satisfied in full with them.’ . . . The threshing floors will be full of grain, and the vats will overflow with the new wine and oil” (Joel 2:19, 24).

The prophet Amos also declared, “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed.  The mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.  I will bring back the captives of My people Israel.  They shall build the waste cities and inhabit them.  They shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them” (Amos 9:13-14).  See also Isaiah 27:2; 55:1; Hosea 2:22; Joel 3:18; Zechariah 9:17.

It is therefore no coincidence that Jesus’ first public miracle was turning water into wine (John 2:1-11).  This miracle was more than just a revelation of Jesus’ deity — it was also a sign that He is Israel’s Bridegroom, the Messiah who had come to usher in the abundant blessings of the New Covenant (“the vats shall overflow with new wine” – Joel 2:24).  The prophesied new era was dawning, and it was time now for God’s people to put their trust in Jesus and believe that He is the one who makes all things new, who gives His Spirit and fulfills the Law with a Gospel that gives life, joy, and freedom.

This is why it became so commonplace for Jesus to eat and drink with His disciples — so often in fact that His enemies accused Him of being a glutton and a winebibber (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34).  Jesus living on Earth was a continuous celebration of kingdom blessings!  The King was with His people, and the great joy this brought to everyone, symbolized in the abundant food and wine, is why it was inappropriate for the disciples to fast at that time (Matthew 9:15).

Thus the use of wine in Communion is rooted not only in New Testament language and practice, but also in Old Testament prophecy and symbolism.  Wine in the communion cup is an ongoing testimony that the blessings of the Messiah and the New Covenant are ours (Matthew 26:28), and that Jesus will drink wine with us again in celebration when God’s kingdom is consummated (Matthew 26:29).

This is one reason why it is inappropriate to use a different beverage in the Communion cup.  To do so not only damages our connection with the worship of the universal church (which used wine for the first 1800+ years of its existence), it also diminishes the connection between the Lord’s Supper and the Messianic promises that Jesus fulfills.  Why would we obscure such a rich treasure of biblical teaching and christological expectation?

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What Is the “Perfect” Thing in 1 Corinthians 13:10?

graphe“Love never fails.  But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part.  But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.  When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face.  Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.  And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13)

A number of well-known evangelical Bible teachers (e.g., Wayne Grudem, John Piper, D.A. Carson, Matt Chandler) interpret the above passage this way:

“The spiritual gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge will cease when the perfect comes.  The perfect is the coming of Christ and the future state, not the completed Bible.  Thus the New Testament teaches that the revelatory gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge will continue in the church until Christ returns.”

I believe this understanding of the text fails because the exegesis doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, as I will seek to demonstrate. 

Whose “face” do we see?
In 1 Cor. 13:12, Paul uses the analogy of a “mirror” to teach the believers in Corinth that when they used the revelatory spiritual gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge, they were only able to “see in a mirror dimly.”  That is, apart from the “perfect” (telios, i.e., completed or mature) source of revelation which was to come, the church in Corinth possessed a dim understanding of God and themselves, just like the use of a poor quality mirror makes it difficult to see one’s face clearly.  The Corinthian Christians “knew in part,” in incompleteness, with lack of clarity, by use of the revelatory spiritual gifts.  “But then” (later, when the completed source of revelation comes) Paul says the Corinthians would see in the mirror more clearly; i.e, “face to face,” with greater perception and clarity, just as a high quality mirror gives a person a clearer and more complete sight of his face than a poor one can.

In verse 13:8, Paul states that the spiritual gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge — gifts which were “childish” in that they served the church in their infancy, and which were “partial” in that they communicated God’s Word to the church in a fragmented way, and permitted the early Christians to understand God’s overall purpose and plan only “dimly” — Paul says that those gifts “will be done away…will cease…will be done away.”  That which provides partial revelation will cease, and that which is perfect (i.e., not morally perfect, but complete) will thereafter provide a far clearer and more comprehensive understanding of God and His will. The clearer and more comprehensive revelation of God’s Word which was to come would allow the Corinthians to look in the “mirror” and see a more perfect reflection of themselves, i.e., see themselves “face to face” (cf. James 1:23-25).  Therefore, the Corinthians were not to boast in childish, incomplete revelatory gifts that would soon pass away, but were instead to pursue love, which will never cease because it is eternal.

Thus 1 Cor. 13:8-13 argues strongly that the gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge have ended, for the church now has the mature and perfect revelation of God, the completed Bible.  No other knowledge about God and our Savior is gained apart from that perfect Word.  If we believe Paul’s teaching and predictions about the aforementioned gifts (that they are by nature childish, incomplete, and passing away), and we believe that the completed revelation of God is the Bible, we must conclude that the early revelatory gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge have ceased.  The fact that this was indeed the testimony of the early and historic church — that those gifts ceased to be part of the church’s experience very soon after the age of the apostles ended — seals the deal.

When Paul later wrote, “Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39), the application of the verse is mitigated by the prediction Paul had just made that the spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues “will be done away…will cease” (1 Cor. 13:8).  As long as the spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues (and knowledge) continued to operate, they were not to be forbidden.  But when the “complete” thing comes, the Corinthians understood that those gifts would discontinue, since they were by nature incomplete and childish, and superceded by what is complete and mature (the canon).  This is exactly what happened in the post-apostolic church.  The church — indeed, the Holy Spirit — “put away” the “childish” revelatory gifts of tongues, knowledge, and prophecy in favor of the completed canon (the perfect and inspired words of the Holy Spirit), and the clear, mature, and comprehensive knowledge of God it provides.  The church’s knowledge of God is not perfect in the sense that it is perfectly apprehended.  It is perfect in the sense that it is complete.

Are you saying “knowledge” has ceased from the church’s experience?
People sometimes object to the above exposition this way:  “Paul says ‘knowledge’ will ‘vanish away.’  Are you saying knowledge has already come to an end?  That is absurd.  We still know things and are still learning things, so your interpretation can’t be right.”

This objection is easily answered:

(1) Paul says the spiritual gift of knowledge will vanish away, not knowledge in general.  The spiritual gifts are the main subject of 1 Corinthians 12-14, and in context, it is clearly the gift of knowledge (along with the gifts of prophecy and tongues) that Paul says will pass away.

(2) In 1 Cor. 13:8, Paul cannot possibly mean that “knowledge in general” will one day come to an end, for knowledge clearly continues in the age to come.  “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)  When the apostle says “knowledge…will vanish away,” he can only be referencing the vanishing of the spiritual gift of knowledge.

Does “that which is perfect” refer to the future coming of Christ?
The common contention that the revelatory gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge will continue until Christ’s return is unsupported by the context.  Jesus is not mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13.  Neither are His 2nd Coming or heaven directly referenced.  Paul is talking about “knowing” God’s Word incompletely (via the “childish” revelatory gifts of tongues, knowledge, and prophecy) versus the coming time when Christians will know God’s Word completely (telios = “perfect,” which references completion/maturity, not “moral perfection” or “absolute perfection”).

Paul is saying that the church will go from a childish stage (with the three revelatory gifts providing incomplete knowledge) to a “perfect,” i.e., mature stage (where knowledge will be known completely).  The New Covenant church was in its infancy when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians.  It was one of his earliest epistles, when the revelatory gifts were still in play.  Yet Paul said a time was coming when the church would reach maturity and put away those childish things in favor of knowledge that is complete, mature.  And that time came when the apostles passed from the scene and left us God’s complete, inerrant, infallible, enscripturated Word.

Interpreting “face to face” as a reference to Christians seeing the face of God in the eschaton is unwarranted by the context.  Again, the phrase is connected to Paul’s mirror analogy.  Look into a mirror, and what do you see?  Your face.  Thus will Christians see “face to face” (i.e., will “know” much more clearly and comprehensively) when the “mature” knowledge of God comes.  This is why the “childish” and incomplete knowledge of God that came via the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge “ceased” and “vanished away.”

A related passage is Numbers 12:6-8:  “Then He [God] said, “Hear now My words:  If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision.  I speak to him in a dream.  Not so with My servant Moses.  He is faithful in all My house.  I speak with him face to face, even plainly, and not in dark sayings.  And he sees the form of the Lord.  Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?”

If Paul is alluding to these verses from Numbers 12 in 1 Cor. 13:12, then God speaking to the church via the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge is likened to the dark and obscure revelations given to the prophets in Num. 12:6.  Contrasted with these “dim” revelations is the “complete, perfect” revelation (likened to the “face to face” revelations given to Moses) which God was now providing through the apostles, and which Paul insists would eventually supplant the more obscure and “childish” revelations given via the revelatory gifts.

Note that “face to face” is primarily an analogy for clearer and more complete revelation in both Num. 12 and 1 Cor. 13.  It must be so, since Moses didn’t literally see God face to face (he only saw His backside and/or “the form of the Lord”).

Note, too, that the comparison between the prophets and Moses in Num. 12 is not eschatological in nature.  Again, the comparison has to do with the clarity and completeness of revelation, as in 1 Cor. 13.  The messages God gave via the OT prophets (12:6) were not as clear and complete as the canonical Word given through Moses (12:8).  In the same way, the messages God gave via NT prophets like Philip’s daughters and Agabus (Acts 21:9-11) were not as clear and complete as the canonical Word given through Paul and the apostles (Eph. 2:20).

Also note that in both Num. 12 and 1 Cor. 13, special revelation (words from God and the knowledge they provide) is in view.  The contrast is not between the experience of Christians in this present age and the age to come (a concept nowhere indicated in the chapter), but between the knowledge of God attained via one thing versus another.

Paul predicts prophecy, tongues, and the gift of knowledge will “fail…cease…vanish away” when the “perfect” (complete) source of knowledge comes.  And those gifts did vanish away.  The dark sayings, dreams, and visions of the New Testament prophets (Acts 2:17) were no longer needed and soon passed from the experience of the Christian church once the Word of God was completed.  Thereafter the church had everything it needed to know from God concerning Christ (cf. Heb. 1:1-2).  Again, the knowledge of God attained in the completed canon is not perfect in the sense that it is perfectly understood.  It is perfect in the sense that it is complete.

As the Westminster divines rightly concluded:

“Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.1)

What about other New Testament usages of τὸ τέλειον?
Some object to the above exposition on the grounds that the “perfect” thing (τὸ τέλειον) in 1 Cor. 13:10 must refer to Christ’s return in glory, especially since Paul uses a related term elsewhere in the epistle to reference the same event.  Here is how the argument is typically presented:

“In a number of New Testament contexts other than 1 Cor. 13, the related words telos (‘end,’ ‘termination;’ ‘last part’) and teleō (‘bring to an end’) are used in relation to the Second Coming of Christ.  This is true in both non-Pauline writings (cf. James 5:11; Rev. 20:5, 7; 21:6; 22:13) and 1 Corinthians 1:8; 15:24.  Since the Second Coming is plainly referenced in these other contexts, and especially in 1 Corinthians, it is more natural to understand 13:10 to mean that the ‘perfection’ will occur at the return of Christ, or if before, when the Christian dies and is taken to be with the Lord (2 Cor 5:1–10).”

On the surface, this argument seems quite reasonable.  Paul does indeed use the related term telos in 1 Cor. 1:8 and 15:24 to refer to the coming eschaton (15:24:  “then comes the end,” τὸ τέλος).  The implication is that since the use of τὸ τέλος in 15:24 is relatively close to 13:10, Paul must be talking about the same thing in both places.  Therefore, the “perfect” thing in 13:10 is the future state.

However, the argument withers when we observe the following:

(1) As already noted, the term Paul uses in 15:24 is τὸ τέλος, which is not the same term he uses in 13:10, τὸ τέλειον.  Telos and teleios are related but not identical Greek terms, telos being a noun, and teleios an adjective.  If (as the argument infers) Paul intends to make an obvious connection between verses 13:10 and 15:24, why does he use different words which are commonly used in different ways?

(2) More importantly, Paul uses teleios (the same word he uses in 13:10) in the chapter between 13 & 15, and this without reference to Christ’s return.  Verse 14:20:  “Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature (τέλειοι).”  In this nearer context (nearer to 13:10 than 15:24), the word teleios (same word used in 13:10) plainly does not refer to the future state.  Rather, it means “mature” or “complete,” the exact adjectival meaning that I believe is found in 13:10.

(3) As well, Paul’s use of teleios in chapters 13 and 14 are in both cases related to a discussion of the spiritual gifts.  It makes far more sense to interpret the apostle’s use of teleios in 13:10 in light of how he uses the same adjectival term in chapter 14, particularly since he is discussing the same subject in both places.  Paul’s use of telos (noun form of the word) in chapter 15 comes in the midst of his discussion of the future resurrection, an entirely different subject.  If we are seeking to understand the precise meaning of τὸ τέλειον in 13:10, does it make sense to skip over 14:20 (where the same Greek word is found) and liken τὸ τέλειον in 13:10 to τὸ τέλος in 15:24 — different words used in different contexts?  No.  Since Paul’s use of teleios in chapter 14 has nothing at all to do with the Second Coming, this is suggestive that his use of teleios in chapter 13 also has nothing at all to do with the future state.

(4) There are other examples in the New Testament of Paul using telios or telos in ways that clearly do not refer to the end of the age and the return of Christ; cf. Philippians 3:15; Romans 10:4, 12:2, 13:7.  For example, Rom. 12:2:  “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect (τέλειον) will of God.”

(5) It’s true that in James 5:11, τὸ τέλος (noun form) may allude to the future state.  Yet James also uses telios (the adjectival form, same word Paul uses in 1 Cor. 13:10) five times in his epistle — twice in 1:4, and once each in 1:17, 1:25, and 3:2.  In none of these uses is the return of Christ referenced.  For example, James 3:2:  “For we all stumble in many things.  If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect (τέλειος) man, able also to bridle the whole body.”

(6) Other New Testament authors use both telios and telos without reference to the Second Coming; cf. Matthew 5:48, 19:21; Hebrews 5:14, 9:11; 1 John 4:18.  For example, Heb. 5:14:  “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age (τελείων), that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”

For all these reasons, I believe the objection is not sustained, and the exposition I have presented above stands.

Conclusion
1 Cor. 13:8-13 is powerful testimony that the fragmentary, revelatory spiritual gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge have passed away from the experience of the Christian church.  The church now possesses all the knowledge of God and His redemption that it needs in the completed Bible.

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Are Reformed Churches Against the Creation of ALL Images?

Bible  StudyWhen Christians are first exposed to the Reformed position on images of the divine Persons, they frequently ask the following question:

“I know Reformed churches are not against ALL images.  My question is, why are you NOT against all images, given the exhaustive list of Exodus 20:4, ‘any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’?”

Here is my response:

1. Egypt worshiped a pantheon of gods that were associated with the physical universe; for example, Ra (sun god), Horus (falcon-headed god of the sky), Hathor (cow goddess), Menhit (lioness goddess of war), Apis (bull god of fertility), Hapi (fertility god of the Nile), Sobek (crocodile god of the Nile), Apep (serpent god of the underworld), etc.

2. These Egyptian gods corresponded to “heaven above (sky gods) . . . the earth beneath (animal gods) . . . and the water under the earth (river and underworld gods).”

3. Israel made a habit of worshiping these gods of Egypt during their captivity.  They resisted the Lord even while in Egypt when He commanded them to get rid of these idols.  Exekiel 20:6-8:  “On that day I raised My hand in an oath to them, to bring them out of the land of Egypt . . . Then I said to them, ‘Each of you, throw away the abominations which are before his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.’  But they rebelled against Me and would not obey Me.  They did not all cast away the abominations which were before their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt.”

4. When the Lord brought idol-worshiping Israel out of Egypt and constituted them a nation at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:6), He commanded them to no longer make “any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5).

5. In its historical and religious context, it is clear that the 2nd Commandment language concerning the “heaven above . . . earth beneath . . . water under the earth” had specific reference to the Egyptian gods of those domains that the Israelites had long worshiped, and were still worshiping (Ezekiel 20:8-10).

6. Thus the 2nd Commandment was never intended as a general decree forbidding the creation of every sort of image, but a two-imperative law that forbade 1) making images of beings that are worshiped; and 2) the worship of those images.

7. That the 2nd Commandment forbade the creation of all images of the God of Israel is obvious, as clarified in Deuteronomy 4:15-18, and also in the Golden Calf incident, where the Israelites exhorted Aaron to “make us Elohim that shall go before us,” and then referred to the image as “Yahweh” and “your Elohim that brought you out of the land of Egypt” (“the Lord…your God,” Exodus 32:4-5), for which they were severely judged (Exodus 32:27-28).

8. Thus God’s people are forbidden to create images of the God they worship.  This is why Reformed Christians are not against the creation of all images in general (and are certainly not opposed to art), but are especially opposed to the creation of images of the three persons of the Trinity.  Indeed, God Himself commanded the creation of the bronze serpent (Numbers 21:8-9, though see also 2 Kings 18:3-4) and the various images used in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25-27), but at no time did He ever ordain images of Himself to be used (cf. Deuteronomy 4:10-18).

9. Thus John Calvin:  “God is opposed to idols, that all may know He is the only fit witness to Himself.  He expressly forbids any attempt to represent Him by a bodily shape . . . We must hold it as a first principle, that as often as any form is assigned to God, his glory is corrupted by an impious lie” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:11).

10. This is why Reformed confessions such as the Heidelberg Catechism do not forbid the creation of all images without exception. “Q97: May we not make any image at all?  A: God may not and cannot be imaged in any way; as for creatures, though they may indeed be imaged, yet God forbids the making or keeping of any likeness of them, either to worship them or to serve God by them.”

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Why Did John Calvin and the Reformers Forbid All Images of the Divine Persons?

One question I am frequently asked as a Reformed pastor is why I believe all images of the divine Persons of the Trinity are sinful.  This is my reply.

Heidelberg CatechismHistorically, Reformed and Calvinist churches have taught that all images/statues/paintings intended to represent Jesus Christ (and the Father and the Holy Spirit) are violations of the 2nd Commandment:  “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5a).

Thus John Calvin:  “God is opposed to idols, that all may know He is the only fit witness to Himself.  He expressly forbids any attempt to represent Him by a bodily shape . . . We must hold it as a first principle, that as often as any form is assigned to God, his glory is corrupted by an impious lie” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:11).  See also Heidelberg Catechism Questions 96-98; Westminster Larger Catechism Question 109; and 2nd Helvetic Confession Chapter IV.

So, no images of Christ at all?  Not in church?  Not in public nativity scenes?  Not even as art?  Yes, that is the teaching of the Reformed confessions, and I am persuaded from Scripture it is the correct one.  Here’s why:

1. The 2nd Commandment forbids not only the worship of man-made images of beings regarded as divine, but also the creation of such images.  “You shall not make for yourself a carved image.”  The tendency is to run this statement together with what follows (“you shall not bow down to them nor serve them”) to conclude that it is only the worship of such images that is forbidden.  Yet the commandment has two imperatives and expressly forbids the making of such images exactly because it is in the nature of man to fall down and worship what he considers to be divine.  Jesus our Lord is in heaven, and He is to be worshiped by faith.  He is not to be imaged.

Many Christians say that it’s not sinful to make images of Christ (or other so-called gods), just so long as we don’t worship them.  Yet this conclusion doesn’t follow from the 2nd Commandment, and is not supported by Scripture.

If it was theoretically okay for the Israelites to make graven images of God or so-called gods as long as they did not actually worship them, why in Deut. 4:15-18 does God command the Israelites to “take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, etc.”?

Notice that God says acting “corruptly” is evidenced not just in the worship of graven images, but in the creation of them.  Why is the making of such images in itself sinful?  Because God says that a graven image, an image of the unseen God or any other so-called god, is innately “a teacher of lies” (Hab. 2:18).  This is why Moses completely destroyed the golden calf, and ground it into powder.  This is why in Deut. 7:25, God commanded the Israelites to utterly destroy every Canaanite idol when they went into the land: “You shall utterly detest it and utterly abhor it, for it is an accursed thing.”  The image is evil and accursed in itself, because it lies to us.  This is why it draws us into lying, accursed worship (kissing icons, kneeling before images, praying while staring at images, etc.).  And this is why we are not to make or possess images of God (including the incarnate Christ) or other so-called gods.

2. Many say, “The sin’s not in the thing, it’s in my heart.  There is nothing innately wrong with images of Christ, it’s how men abuse them that is sinful.”  This type of argument would certainly apply in the case of things like alcohol and dancing.  The Bible teaches that wine is a gift from God (Ps. 104:14-15), and nowhere does the Bible prohibit dancing.  It’s true that people frequently abuse those things (just as they abuse other good gifts from God like food and sex), but the abuse of a thing is no argument against its proper use.  It is Pharisaism, man-made religion, to say all drinking of alcohol and all dancing are innately sinful.

However, in light of the plain and repeated teaching of Scripture, the above argument is misapplied in the case of graven images.  “The sin’s not in the thing, it’s in my heart” is a false dichotomy when applied to the creation (and ownership) of images of the unseen God or other so-called gods.  Again, according to God Himself, the sin is in the image itself.  This is why the Israelites were commanded to “burn the carved images of (the Canaanite) gods with fire . . . for it is an abomination to the Lord your God” (Deut. 7:25).  The images themselves were abominations, hateful things to God.  This is why the 2nd Commandment specifically forbids both the creation of such images and the worship of them.

3. The apostles walked the Earth with Jesus, and even though they wrote extensively about Christ, they did not leave behind any images of the Lord, nor did they even describe His earthly appearance.  We can be sure that if these early eyewitnesses had thought it was important for the Christian church to have an accurate image of Jesus in His humiliation, they would have provided it.  But they didn’t.  This means that no one knows what Jesus looks like, and all images of Him are nothing more than figments of human imagination.  Thus if a man draws a picture and says, “This is Jesus,” he is telling us that what he has invented in his mind and created with his hands is the Son of God, and that is impious deceit, a gross corruption of His unique glory.  There is no essential difference between pointing to an icon or statue of an imaginary person and saying “this is Jesus,” and Aaron referring to the golden calf as “the Lord (Yahweh).” (Exodus 32:5).

4. Images of Jesus can only capture His (imagined!) human nature.  Christ’s divine nature is impossible to reproduce, and thus the deceitfulness of the image is compounded, for the incomprehensible glory of the enthroned Son of God is unrepresented.  Zacharias Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, said that this seems to revive the ancient heresy of Nestorius, who taught that the human and divine natures of Jesus were separate things.

5. Christianity is a religion of faith. It focuses on “things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Christians worship the unseen God and His unseen Son seated in the unseen Heaven, mediated by the unseen Spirit.  Unauthorized images of Christ add nothing beneficial to this religion of faith, and serve only to tempt the faithful to take their minds off “things above” (Colossians 3:2) and focus on the creations of human hands.  Such images tempt us to idolatry, the very thing we are to guard ourselves against (1 John 5:21).

6. Christians today need to be especially clear about these matters, given the growing number of popular films that portray Jesus.  As well-made as “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Jesus Film,” “Jesus of Nazareth,” and “The Son of God” may be, they violate the 2nd Commandment in that they are riddled with graven images of an imaginary Christ, leaving in their wake a mental image of Jesus that is a gross corruption of the true Christ.  We must especially resist the idea of using such films to promote Christian evangelism.  Faith comes by hearing the word of God (Romans 10:17), not by watching graven images set to film.

7. Are Reformed churches against the creation of all images?  This is a frequently-asked question, and the answer is no.  Heidelberg Catechism Question 97 speaks to this:  “May we not make any image at all?  Answer: God may not and cannot be imaged in any way; as for creatures, though they may indeed be imaged, yet God forbids the making or keeping of any likeness of them, either to worship them or to serve God by them.”  The 2nd Commandment forbids the making of images of beings regarded as divine, whether it be the true God or a saint or some pretended god (for example, the various sky, animal, river, and underworld gods the Egyptians worshiped, which are referenced in “heaven above . . . the earth beneath . . . the water under the earth”).  God did not forbid the making of all images.  He forbade the making of images of beings the Israelites had made a habit of worshiping while they lived in Egypt (Ezekiel 20:5-9).  That this prohibition included any and all images of the God of Israel is obvious, as was demonstrated in the golden calf incident, where the Israelites exhorted Aaron to “make us Elohim that shall go before us,” and then referred to the image as “the Lord (Yahweh) . . . that brought (us) out of the land of Egypt,” a terrible sin for which they were severely judged (Exodus 32:1-5, 27-28).

As Ursinus concluded, “God ought not to be represented by any graven image, because He does not will it, nor can it be done, nor would it profit anything if it were done.” (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 883)

“What profit is the image, that its maker should carve it?  The molded image, a teacher of lies?” (Habakkuk 2:18)

“I am the Lord, that is My name. I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images.” (Isaiah 42:8).

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Is the Expression “Oh My God!” Sinful?

Is it sinful to say “Oh my God!”?  Not in the context of Christian worship, but in the casual, exclamatory sense that is so common these days?

The English name “God” comes from the Old Testament Hebrew names, El, Elyon, and Elohim.  In ancient times, Elohim was sometimes used to refer to heathen deities (translated generically as “gods”), but it was by this very name that the God of Scripture first chose to identify Himself via the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).  The name “God” speaks of His essential deity as Creator.

Theos is the Greek word that the writers of the New Testament used when translating El, Elyon, and Elohim.  Theos is also translated as “God” in our English Bibles and also speaks of His essential deity as Creator.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God (Theon), and the Word was God (Theos) . . . All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1, 3).  Similar to Elohim, Theos was a generic word that had been commonly used to reference various pagan deities, but the God of the Bible, via the inspiration of Scripture, chose to refer to Himself by that same name.

Thus “God” is the one of the names of the biblical God.  It is the name He has chosen.  To say otherwise is to argue against the Scriptures.  Accordingly, expressions like “Oh my God!” (as casually used in modern society) are most certainly sinful, for they take the name of the almighty Creator in vain:

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).

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What Did Jesus Mean When He Said, “Judge Not”?

One of the best known and most frequently misquoted verses in the Bible is Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”  What exactly did Jesus mean by this statement?  How should followers of Jesus respond when “Judge not!” is thrown in their face because they have identified a behavior such as fornication or drunkenness as sin?

1. When Jesus said, “Judge not,” He was certainly not condemning civil or church courts.  If we are prohibited from judging the behavior of others, maintaining civil justice and church discipline would be impossible (Rom. 13:3-7; Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:13).

2. Jesus was not prohibiting discernment, the use of our critical faculties to form opinions about other people and their actions.  Otherwise, how would we be able to tell if we were giving what is “holy” to “dogs” (the very next subject the Lord addresses in Matt. 7:6)?

3. Jesus was not prohibiting Christians from calling sin, sin.  Otherwise, how would we be able to preach repentance to others (Acts 20:21)?  How would a minister ever be able to “reprove” and “rebuke” the people under his charge (2 Tim. 4:2)?  How would parents be able to evaluate and correct wrong behavior in their children (Prov. 19:18; Heb. 12:7-11)?

4. Jesus was not telling Christians to never correct other Christians.  The Bible compels us to “admonish (i.e., reprimand, correct) one another” (Col. 3:16), and to restore erring brethren in the faith (Gal. 6:1).  It would be impossible to obey these commands if Jesus was saying we should never correct others (cf. James 5:19-20).

5. If “Judge not” means what many people today claim it means, then Jesus contradicted Himself, for in John 7:24, Jesus exhorted His listeners to “judge with righteous judgment.”

6. The command to “Judge not” is part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), which was directed to Christ’s disciples, not to everyone.  Matthew 5:1 says that Jesus, on “seeing the multitudes, went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.”  Jesus deliberately separated Himself from the mixed multitude and went to a place where only His disciples would be instructed.  Thus when the Lord said, “Do not judge,” He was speaking to His followers, and was concerned primarily with how they relate to one another in the kingdom of God.  The illustration He uses Matt. 7:3-4 is looking at “your brother’s” eye, which plainly has in mind fellow Christians and not just anyone.

7. What then is the correct meaning and application of “Judge not, that you be not judged?”  Jesus was teaching His followers not to be hypercritical of one another, not to focus on discovering the faults of their brethren for the purpose of condemning them, lest they put themselves at risk of devouring one another (cf. Gal. 5:14-15).  All of us have “planks” in our eyes, sins and errors we are easily blinded to.  Jesus doesn’t say if we have them, but to realize that we have them.  Realizing we all continually fall short of the glory of the God (Rom. 3:23), we must therefore be humble, charitable, gentle, and repentant when confronting the sins of other Christians (Gal. 6:1).  We must not be unmerciful and unloving toward our brethren, but rather quick to forgive, for those who do not forgive demonstrate that they are not forgiven by God, and will be judged (Matt. 6:14-15; 18:32-35).

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Is Cremation a Legitimate Option for Christians?

cremation-vs-burialIs cremation a legitimate option for Christians?  It’s a question being asked in our day more than ever before.  Fifty years ago, it wasn’t like this.  In those days, the vast majority of Christians in America buried their dead and didn’t give much thought to burning them.  According to statistics provided by the Cremation Association of North America, in 1965, only 3.87% of deaths in America resulted in a cremation.  By 1999, that figure had reached 24.8%, and by 2014, it had jumped to 46.7%.  With funeral costs rising and cremation becoming an increasingly common practice in American society, more and more Christians are considering cremation when their loved ones die.

The subject of how Christians should care for their dead is essentially ignored in modern American pulpits.  For this reason, biblical ignorance on the subject has become fairly rampant.  Most believers I talk to have a vague sense that burial may be the right way to go.  They understand that burial was the practice of biblical times and have concerns that cremation may not be proper.  But because they have little or no biblical grounding on the subject, they are easily persuaded that burial is, in the end, simply a tradition, one they are free to observe or ignore, depending on conscience, preference, and financial considerations.

“The Bible has nothing to say about this issue. It just doesn’t matter.”   Statements like this sum up the attitude of a great many American Christians about cremation.  Some become quickly irritated when the subject of burial vs cremation is raised.  They do this because they have been led to believe that the Bible is silent on the matter.  Their perception is that the way Christians care for the bodies of the departed is strictly adiaphora, a thing indifferent.  Accordingly, they regard those who argue that burial is the correct Christian practice as legalists, advocates of man-made tradition rather than biblical truth.

Is this a valid perspective?  Is it “legalistic” to say that Christians ought to bury their dead?  By no means.  Rather, good and necessary consequence from the Scriptures compels Christians to bury their dead, and not cremate.  The biblical, theological, and historical evidence for this position is substantial:

1. Burying the bodies of the dead is a declaration of the believer’s hope in future bodily resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:42-44).  Jesus Christ is coming from Heaven on the last day to call forth all who are in their graves, and to raise them from the dead (John 5:28-29).  In anticipation of this event, Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:42-44, “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.  It (the body) is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.  There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.”  As the apostle looks forward to the day of resurrection, he describes the Christian practice of planting a mortal body in the Earth, in hope that an immortal body will come out of the Earth.  As he concludes, “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.”

Paul teaches elsewhere that Christians who die are “asleep in Jesus” (1 Thess. 4:13-14), referring to the bodily rest of death, in hope of bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15:18-20ff).  Just as those who sleep at night awake at daybreak, so also those who “are asleep” (i.e., who rest bodily in their graves, 1 Thess. 4:15) will wake bodily on the Day of the Lord (1 Thess. 4:16; 1 Cor. 15:52; Job 19:25-27; John 5:28-29). Burying the bodies of the departed faithful is an expression of this hope; destroying their bodies in fire is a denial of it.

This is consistent with the historic Christian hope confessed in Heidelberg Catechism Question 57:

Q: What comfort do you receive from the resurrection of the body?
A: That not only my soul after this life shall be immediately taken up to Christ its Head, but also that THIS MY BODY, raised by the power of Christ, SHALL BE REUNITED WITH MY SOUL, and made like the glorious body of Christ.

2. The image of God is not just our spirits, but our bodies also.  God made Adam, all of Adam, in His image (Genesis 1:26-27).  It wasn’t just the soul of Adam, but the whole man, body and soul, who was the image of God.  The invisible God was imaged in visible man.

Some object to this notion because God has no physical body.  But the fact that God has no body is exactly the point.  The invisible God who has no body is witnessed in what has become visible.  The first man Adam was created in the image and likeness of God, and though that image and likeness was in some sense lost when he rebelled against God, mankind retains the divine image.  As Bavinck writes, “According to Scripture, the image of God is larger and more inclusive than the original righteousness.  For, although this original righteousness has been lost through sin, man continues to carry the name of the image and offspring of God.” (Herman Bavinck, “The Origin, Essence, and Purpose of Man”)

Jesus Christ, the obedient and physically resurrected Son, is the new Image (Colossians 1:15). Christians have been “predestined to be conformed to the image of (God’s) Son,” (Romans 8:29), and our conformity to Christ’s image will not be complete until we are clothed with physical resurrection glory (“these He also glorified,” Romans 8:30). “As we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.” (1 Corinthians 15:49)

In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus notes that “everlasting life is the perfect restoration of the image of God, with eternal joy and delight in God, heavenly glory, and the full fruition of all those good things which are necessary to a state of perfect happiness. In a word, it is the perfect conformity of man with God, consisting in the true and perfect knowledge and love of God, and in the glory both of the soul and body of man.”

As Bavinck argues, “Even the body is not excluded from the image of God.  True, Scripture expressly says that God is Spirit (John 4:24), and it nowhere ascribes a body to Him.  Nevertheless, God is the creator also of the body and of the whole sensuous world.  All things, material things too, have their origin and their existence in the Word that was with God (John 1:3 and Col. 1:15), and therefore rest in thought, in spirit. . . . Hence all those activities which we accomplish by means of the body, and even the physical organs by which we accomplish them, can be ascribed to God.  Scripture speaks of His hands and feet, of His eyes and ears, and of so much more, in order to indicate that all that man can achieve by way of the body is, in an original and perfect way, due to God.  He that planted the ear, shall He not hear?  He that formed the eye, shall He not see? (Psalm 94:9).  To the extent, therefore, that the body serves as tool and instrument of the spirit, it exhibits a certain resemblance to, and gives us some notion of, the way in which God is busy in the world.” (“The Origin, Essence, and Purpose of Man”)

How can a dead body retain the image of God?  A physically dead body retains the image just as a natural man (1 Corinthians 2:14) retains the image of God (Genesis 9:6) despite being spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1).  Accordingly, after the spirit departs at death, we ought to show respect for the human body, because it is God’s image.  Do we show such respect when we put the image of God in an oven and reduce it to powder?  No.  We show respect for the image of God by placing it intact in the Earth, in hope of future resurrection (Job 19:26-27).

3. Our Lord was buried and therefore sanctified the grave for His people.  Thus the grave is no longer a place of cursing, but a place of rest and hope for bodily resurrection.  This Gospel comfort is one of the reasons why the early Christians, living in a Roman culture where cremation was the norm, chose burial as the way to care for their dead, often at great sacrifice.  Burial instead of cremation reflected the belief of those early Christians that they had been redeemed by Christ “body and soul, both in life and in death” (Heidelberg Catechism Q1).

As Paul wrote, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21)

What is it that Jesus will transform?  “Our lowly body.”  On the other hand, when a human body is reduced to bone fragments, and those bone fragments are ground into powder (the “ashes”), there is no more “body.”  Christians plant the bodies of the faithful in the Earth as a testimony of their hope that those bodies remain united with Jesus even in death, and that the Lord will bring forth glorified bodies at His return (1 Corinthians 15:42-55; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18).  In this we self-consciously follow Christ, whose mortal body was buried and whose glorified body was raised.  We follow Him in death (burial of our bodies) as we do in life (suffering of our bodies), in hope that we will also be raised from the dead when He returns (glorification of our bodies).

In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus notes one of the reasons Christ was buried. “That we may be confirmed in the hope of the resurrection, as we, after his example, shall also be buried, and shall be raised again by his power; knowing that Christ, our head, has opened up the way for us from the grave to glory.”

4. Burying the dead was the universal practice of God’s people throughout biblical times, and also in the first 1900+ years of Christian church history.  Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, virtually all the kings of Israel/Judah, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, etc., were all buried.  Abraham, our father in the faith, never owned any land in Canaan, except for a burial site that he purchased at great cost (Genesis 23:12-18).

Early church fathers like Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Lactantius, and Chrysostom all argued that burial is the proper way for Christians to care for their dead.  Augustine summarized the thinking and piety of the early church:  “Our Lord Himself, too, applauds, and commends our applause, the good work of the religious woman who poured precious ointment over His limbs, and did it against His burial.  And the Gospel speaks with commendation of those who were careful to take down His body from the cross, and wrap it lovingly in costly cerements, and see to its burial.  These instances certainly do not prove that corpses have any feeling; but they show that God’s providence extends even to the bodies of the dead, and that such pious offices are pleasing to Him, as cherishing faith in the Resurrection.”  (City of God, chapter 13)

There is powerful, really indisputable evidence that the church throughout the ages has been united on this matter, and has seen great theological significance in the practice of burial, primarily because of faith that man is made in God’s image, and that all men (the righteous and wicked together) will one day be raised bodily from the dead.  As Jesus taught in John 5:28-29, “the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”

5. God Himself practiced burial.  We read this in Deuteronomy 34:5-6: “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord.  And He (God) buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Peor; but no one knows his grave to this day.”  What is the method of bodily disposal that God practiced?  Burial.  As John Calvin notes, the likely reason God buried Moses in an unknown location was to prevent superstitious veneration of his body by the Israelites.  Yet the peculiar focus of this discussion is the method of bodily disposal that God chose for the faithful departed, and that was was burial.  When we bury the bodies of our dead, we imitate God.  Matthew Henry:  “God himself buried (Moses), namely, by the ministry of angels, which made this funeral, though very private, yet very magnificent.  Note, God takes care of the dead bodies of his servants; as their death is precious, so is their dust, not a grain of it shall be lost, but the covenant with it shall be remembered.”

6. Burning bodies is a frequent expression of God’s judgment against the wicked, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament.  As David wrote of God’s enemies, “You shall make them as a fiery oven in the time of Your anger.  The Lord shall swallow them up in His wrath, and the fire shall devour them” (Psalm 21:9).

Under the Old Covenant, sacrificial animals and grain offerings were often burned (God’s judgment directed against the sacrifices instead of the people), cf. Leviticus 4:12, 21; 6:22-23; 8:17.  Similarly, the bodies of people under God’s curse were also burned, as also witnessed in the New Testament.  Many examples of this can be cited:

(1) Achan and his family were burned because they stole from the booty of Jericho (Joshua 7:24-26).

(2) In Numbers 11:1-3 and 16:35, “fire from the Lord” consumed His disobedient people.

(3) In 2 Kings 1:9-12, “fire came down from heaven and consumed” Elijah’s enemies.

(4) In Leviticus 10:2, Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, were burned with fire from the Lord for their disobedience.

(5) Under the OT Law, burning by fire was the prescribed form of capital punishment for certain extreme forms of wickedness (Leviticus 20:14; 21:9).

(6) Paul says that Christ is coming “in flaming fire, taking vengeance on those who do not know God” (2 Thessalonians 1:8).

(7) John the Baptist warned that when Christ comes in judgment, “every tree (i.e., Israelite) which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” and that the Lord “will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:10, 12).

(8) Jesus spoke of branches (i.e., people) being thrown into the fire and burned, another plain reference to God’s judgment against those who reject Him (John 15:6).

(9) In Revelation 20:9, “fire” comes down from God in Heaven to consume Christ’s enemies.

(10) Hebrews 12:29 says, “For our God is a consuming fire,” a clear warning of the fiery judgment coming against those who refuse Christ.

(11) Jesus warned people to “fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  God’s eternal wrath against individuals is demonstrated in the burning of their bodies.

(12) God created a lake of fire as the place of eternal judgment for Satan and the demons, the same place where God’s resurrected human enemies will be sent to burn forever (Daniel 12:2; Matthew 25:41; Revelation 14:9-11, 20:15).

When God first appeared to Moses in the burning bush, what fascinated Moses was that the bush was not consumed (Exodus 3:3).  Exactly!  God’s supreme glory and holiness was manifested, but did not consume — a perfect way for God to witness to Moses that He was coming to save His sinful people and dwell among them, and not destroy them.  When the God who is a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24; 9:3; Hebrews 12:29) is manifested in a fiery way (as in the pillar of fire, Exodus 13:21) and does not consume His people (as in the wilderness wanderings), it is a picture of His forgiveness, mercy, and grace toward sinful people who would otherwise be liable to judgment.

Similarly, when the Levitical priests offered bulls as sin offerings, the animals were taken outside the camp and burned with fire (Exodus 29:14; Leviticus 4:12; 8:17; 9:11; 16:27). Consistent with many other Scripture passages, the fire represented God’s burning judgment against sin, directed in this case at the animals outside the camp rather than the people inside the camp.  Fiery demonstrations against sin within the camp, in the midst of those who were under God’s covenant mercies, would have been inappropriate, so the animals were removed from that place. (This also foreshadowed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which was done outside of Jerusalem, Hebrews 13:10-13).  What’s interesting about this is that when the Exodus generation rebelled against God, fires (representing God’s judgment) broke out among the people, on the outskirts of the camp (Numbers 11:1-3)!

Because burning bodies is plainly representative of God’s judgment against the wicked (Psalm 89:46), it was unthinkable for the Israelites to burn the bodies of their brethren.  It should be equally unthinkable for Christians to burn the bodies of their brothers and sisters who have been delivered from divine judgment.  The practice of cremation is in essence a repudiation of our Christian faith that we are forgiven of our sins, and that we will be raised bodily from the dead.

7. Cremation has historically been the practice of religions that reject belief in bodily resurrection.  When we cremate, we do not imitate God.  We do not imitate God’s people.  We imitate Hindus, Buddhists, occultists, and others who do not hold to the truth about God.  God will obviously have no problem resurrecting believers who have been burned, drowned at sea, eaten by wild animals, died in explosions, etc.  That is not the point.  This debate is not about what God can do, but what Christians should do.  It is about how Christians are to lay the dead to rest under normal conditions, as an expression of their faith.

Other considerations

It’s important to note that cremation doesn’t actually turn a body into ashes.  It reduces the human body to 3-9 pounds of charred bone fragments, which are then ground into powder — the “ashes.”  If it is unthinkable for us to destroy the bodies of our loved ones by other means, it should be equally unthinkable to submit those bodies to the violence of 1800 degree flames, reduce them to piles of charred bone fragments, then pulverize those fragments.

The increasingly common perception among Christians is to view cremation as a dignified and respectful way to care for the bodies of their loved ones. Much of this perception is due to people not witnessing the actual act of cremation, nor thinking too deeply about what happens. Nevertheless, cremation is in fact a violent and destructive act committed against the image of God. As a method of bodily disposal, it is in no way dignified or respectful, but barbaric and pagan.

When we give up burial for cremation, we forsake our Christian minds, our history, and our theology.  And we imitate the godless.

What did the Reformers believe concerning burial vs cremation?

The Protestant Reformers restored the Scriptures as the supreme authority in the Christian Church, and it was their conviction that those Scriptures “command” burial as the only prescribed way for believers to care for the bodies of the dead.  This is summed up in the 2nd Helvetic Confession, Chapter 26:

“THE BURIAL OF BODIES.  As the bodies of the faithful are the temples of the Holy Spirit which we truly believe will rise again at the Last Day, Scriptures command that they [bodies] be honorably and without superstition committed to the earth, and also that honorable mention be made of those saints who have fallen asleep in the Lord, and that all duties of familial piety be shown to those left behind, their widows and orphans.  We do not teach that any other care be taken for the dead.”

This conviction is consistent with other Reformed confessions.  For example, Question #1 of the Heidelberg Catechism confesses the underlying theology of burial — that our bodies belong to Christ and are thus united with Him, even after death:

Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil….

And again, Question #57 is very clear:

Q: What comfort do you receive from the resurrection of the body?
A: That not only my soul after this life shall be immediately taken up to Christ its Head, but also that this my body, raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul, and made like the glorious body of Christ.

The Westminster Larger Catechism also confesses the Christian hope that even after death, the bodies of believers continue to be united with Christ:

Q. 86. What is the communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death?
A. The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death, is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day they be again united to their souls….

Q. 87. What are we to believe concerning the resurrection?
A. We are to believe, that at the last day there shall be a general resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust: when they that are then found alive shall in a moment be changed; and the selfsame bodies of the dead which were laid in the grave, being then again united to their souls forever, shall be raised up by the power of Christ.  The bodies of the just, by the Spirit of Christ, and by virtue of his resurrection as their head, shall be raised in power, spiritual, incorruptible, and made like to his glorious body; and the bodies of the wicked shall be raised up in dishonor by him, as an offended judge.

Don’t we need a specific command from Scripture to require burial and forbid cremation?

Does the 2nd Helvetic Confession go too far when it says the “Scriptures command” burial?  Must we have a positive command from Scripture (e.g., “Thou shalt bury and not cremate”) in order to justify such a position?

“Good and necessary consequence” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6) is a sound and well-established principle of biblical interpretation.  It has to do with those areas of Christian belief and practice that are not expressly set down in Scripture, but which are nevertheless important and even necessary for us to believe and do. I have intended to demonstrate in the above arguments that the Bible, by good and necessary consequence, compels us to burial as the prescribed way we are to care for the bodies of the departed faithful.  The early Christians and Reformers obviously agreed.

Jesus taught this principle.  When the Sadducees contended with Him about the resurrection (cf. Matthew 22:23-33), the Lord used the methodology of “good and necessary consequence” to prove His case.  Jesus referred to Exodus 3 and the burning bush — a passage that has nothing directly to do with the coming resurrection — and said, “But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?  God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”  The fact that Abraham and the other patriarchs are alive and will be ultimately raised from the dead is evidenced by God’s name.  Jesus used good and necessary consequence to silence ignorant speculation and prove that the righteous will be raised.

See also Matthew 22:41-46, where Jesus uses good and necessary consequence from Psalm 110:1 to prove that the Son of David is also the Lord.

If someone objects, insisting that a positive command of Scripture is required to prove the case, then I suppose we should not require Christians to believe in the Trinity (since that is nowhere expressly commanded in Scripture), nor should we allow women to receive the Lord’s Supper (since that practice is nowhere expressly commanded or exemplified).  Certainly the Bible teaches both the Trinity and that women are to receive the Supper.  All orthodox Christian churches agree on this.  The point is that each of those beliefs are derived by good and necessary consequence from the Scriptures, not by a single verse that says, “God is a Trinity,” or “Thou shalt serve Communion to women.”  We must not argue childishly, demanding that the Bible must speak a certain way or else we will not listen.

That said, I believe the following statements by the apostle Paul constitute sufficient proof in themselves that the Bible compels us to bury our dead:  “So also is the resurrection of the dead.  The body is sown in corruption [i.e., buried], it is raised in incorruption [resurrected].  It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.  There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.” (1 Cor. 15:42-44).

Christians don’t bury their dead out of tradition or superstition or custom.  We bury bodies primarily because of our belief that man is created in the image of God, and Christ is coming to raise the dead.  We ought not cremate the bodies of believers (who have been delivered from God’s wrath) because burning a human body is a sign of God’s wrath against the individual.  Burial is a statement of our faith, just as it was for the early Christians.  Imitating the example of our Lord and His people, we plant our dead in the Earth like a seed, in sure hope that Jesus will one day come and call forth those bodies from their resting places to resurrection glory.

Are there any examples of cremation in the Bible?

There is only one example in the Bible of what we might call “cremation” (the modern practice of submitting a human body to 1800 degree flames, reducing that body to 3-9 pounds of charred bone fragments, and grinding those bone fragments into powder, the so-called “ashes”).  At the least, it’s the closest thing we find in the Bible to the modern practice.

It’s found in Amos 2, where the Lord pronounces condemnation on the king of Moab “because he burned the bones of the king of Edom to lime” (Amos 2:1).  For this act, the Lord said He would “send fire upon Moab” and “consume the citadels of Kerioth.”  “And Moab will die amid tumult” (2:2).

Matthew Henry, commenting on Amos 2:1-2:  “It is barbarous to abuse human bodies, for we ourselves also are in the body; it is senseless to abuse dead bodies, nay, it is impious, for we believe and look for their resurrection.”

For obvious reasons, it is problematic for cremation defenders to cite this example, especially since God refers to the burning of the body as “transgression” (Amos 2:1).

Wasn’t King Saul’s body cremated?

What about King Saul and his sons?  Weren’t their bodies burned (1 Samuel 31:11-13)?  Didn’t King David speak approvingly of the men who did this (2 Samuel 2:4-7)?  Some have made more of the burning of King Saul’s body than is warranted, to the point of finding in the event as an implicit endorsement of cremation as a viable means for Christians to dispose of their dead.  However, to derive such a conclusion from the text is unjustified.

After King Saul’s death, his body and the bodies of his three sons were mutilated by the Philistines. Saul’s head was cut off, and all four bodies were fastened to a wall in Beth Shan for public ridicule.  Brave men from the city of Jabesh Gilead who were loyal to Saul came and removed the four bodies from the wall.  They then burned the bodies, certainly an unusual act, and we aren’t specifically told why they did this.  The most likely explanation is that the Philistines had made pagan religious markings on the corpses as a sign of their contempt for Saul, and that fire was used to purge the bodies of those images.

It is important to note that the men of Jabesh Gilead did not cremate Saul and his sons (at least in the modern sense), for their bones (not ashes) were then buried.  Also, the Bible never says that King David specifically approved of the burning of Saul’s body, only that he was pleased that he had been buried (2 Samuel 2:4-7).

To derive authorization for Christians to cremate their dead based on the exceptional events recorded in 1 Samuel 31:11-13 and 2 Samuel 2:4-7 is unfounded to say the least, especially given that burning bodies is a sign of divine judgment (Leviticus 10:2; 20:14; 21:9; Numbers 11:1-3; 16:35; Joshua 7:24-26; 2 Kings 1:9-12; Psalm 21:9; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; Matthew 3:10, 12; 10:28; 25:41; John 5:28-29; 15:6; Hebrews 12:29; Revelation 14:9-11; 20:9, 15).  Saul’s death was itself a divine judgment against him (1 Chronicles 10:13-14), and the burning of his body was a peculiar circumstance that marked the tragic end of his unfaithful reign.  Given the context, the burning of Saul and his sons is arguably best understood as an additional sign that the king had been judged and found wanting, and that his sons would not take the throne of Israel after he was gone (1 Samuel 28:16-19).

Other objections

Some object as follows:  “Our bodies will turn to dust either way.  ‘Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.’  Since our bodies won’t be intact when Jesus returns, what difference does it make how we dispose of those bodies?”

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” first appeared in the funeral rites of the 1549 edition of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer.  (The full expression is, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”)  This saying has since found its way into other Christian burial rites, and has become so well known that Christians now cite the expression in defense of the practice of cremation.

The problem is that the statement, “ashes to ashes” is not found in the Scriptures, nor is the concept representative of biblical theology.  Some cite Genesis 2:7 (“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground”) and Genesis 3:19 (“For dust you are, and to dust you shall return”) as justification for the saying.  But this is eisegesis, since “ashes” are not mentioned or referenced anywhere in either context.  Adam was formed from the dust of the Earth, not from the remains of a fire.

Besides the fact that “ashes to ashes” does not appear in the Bible, the objection misses the point.  The issue at hand is how Christians are to care for their dead, as a rule, under normal circumstances, as an expression of our theology and faith.  Again, the debate is not about what God can do, but what Christians should do.  Does the Bible speak to that issue?  Yes, it does, and emphatically in favor of burial.

Some say, “Ashes are simply the human body in another form.”  On the contrary, ashes are bodies that have been destroyed in a fire.  They are a different form in a chemical sense, but they are not bodies.

Some have said, “Jesus was actually entombed.  If we really want to follow Jesus in this regard, we should all be placed in crypts.  Or better yet, in caves.”  This objection also misses the point.  The issue isn’t where Jesus was buried, but that He was buried, with His body intact, following the example of generations of godly believers that preceded Him.  The writers of the creeds used the word “buried” (Apostles’, Nicene), even though they obviously understood the body of Jesus was “laid . . . in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mark 15:46). We ought not miss the significance of the word “buried,” which pictures intact bodies being laid in the Earth.  “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:4)

One of the most common objections against burial has to do with its high cost.  People say, “Some folks don’t have the financial wherewithal to buy a cemetery plot.  Cremation is all they can afford.”  I understand finances are a concern for many Christians.  It’s impossible to answer every nuance of that concern in a single article.  But just to say, there are low cost ways to bury the dead that make the burial option financially competitive with cremation.  For example, there are companies that make caskets that look like the “real thing,” and yet are made of compressed cardboard.  The cost of such caskets is approximately $400-$700, which generally includes the padding, hardware, and other essentials one would expect in a casket costing ten times as much.  This is one example of how the costs of burial can be significantly reduced, if money is a factor.

That said, it’s true that even lower-cost burial options may not be quite as inexpensive as cremation.  Yet if we’re convinced from the Bible that burial is what Christians are to do, and we understand that we are often called to make sacrifices in the observance of our faith (Romans 12:1-2), we can find a way to make it work, just as Abraham did when he bought a cemetery at great cost to bury his beloved wife Sarah.

Conclusion

It is only recently, in the doctrinally chaotic age in which we live, that Western Christians have begun practicing cremation.  I believe this is because the contemporary church has lost its biblical, theological, and historical bearings.  Neglect of the Scriptures and faithful preaching are the chief causes, and because of this, most believers have been set adrift in a sea of privatized, utilitarian religion, where every “choice” regarding care for the dead is considered equally valid, and every man is quick to affirm the right to do what is right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6).  The Christian mind on the subject of burial that previous generations of the church took for granted has been almost entirely lost.  As a result, burial vs cremation seems to be a complete non-issue for many Christians. The Western church has given up its Christian theology, history, and practice, seemingly without a fight.  It’s a scandal, a shame, and ultimately an offense against God, who clearly points His people to burial as the prescribed way to care for their dead.

Christians need to return to the practice of the Bible and the historic church:  burial and not cremation.

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I recently (2/22/2015) preached a sermon on this topic, which you can listen to here:

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Asking the Right Questions about Baptism

Sometimes the best way to clarify our beliefs is to ask the right questions.  For example, many Christians are reluctant to embrace the biblical doctrine of predestination because they think the ultimate question is, “How can it be fair for God to save some people, but not all?”  But the deeper question, the more biblical question is, “Considering how sinful people are, why does God save anyone at all?”  Once we ask the right question, we’re halfway to resolving the difficulty.

This is especially true regarding Christian Baptism.

Typically my Baptist friends will ask, “Where does the New Testament teach the baptism of infants?”  That’s understandable in a sense, but the more biblically compelling question is, “Where does the New Testament teach that the children of believing parents are no longer to be regarded as members of God’s covenant community, a status they have enjoyed since the time of Abraham?  Especially since the New Covenant is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant that included children, and promised blessings to ‘all families of the earth'” (Gen. 12:3; 17:9-12)?

Surely if the apostles had received a revelation involving such radical discontinuity – that children of believers are NOT to receive baptism, and thus for the first time in redemptive history such children enjoy no greater covenant status with God than the children of unbelieving pagans – they would have let us know.  Yet not a single New Testament verse even hints such a thing.  Indeed, a number of passages teach the reverse:  that children of believers are “holy,” and thus distinguished from the children of unbelievers (1 Cor. 7:14); that the kingdom of God belongs to the children of believers (Mt 19:14); that the promises of the covenant (forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit) are also for children (Acts 2:39); that “children” are among the “saints” Paul addressed in his letter to the Ephesians (cf. Eph. 1:1 and 6:1-3); and that Christ’s apostles baptized entire households (Acts 16:31; 1 Cor. 1:16).

Simply put, the human authors of the New Testament had no reason to write a sentence like “Children of Christians should be baptized,” because for those authors, coming from a mindset thoroughly steeped in an understanding that children were part of the covenant community of God, it was inconceivable to think otherwise.

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We Must Be Born Again to Understand Who Jesus Is and Believe in Him

Today on a Facebook public forum, a man asked the following question:

“Can someone show me a clear-cut, “no doubt about it,” verse of Scripture proving spiritual regeneration takes place prior to a person putting their faith in Jesus for salvation?”

My reply:

John 3:3: “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.'”

Nicodemus the Pharisee said some right things about Jesus. He confessed that Jesus was from God, and that His teaching and the signs He was doing in Jerusalem were of divine origin. John 3:2: “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”

To this, Jesus replied, “Unless one is born again, he cannot SEE the kingdom of God.”

In context, it is clear what Jesus meant by this somewhat cryptic statement. Nicodemus had seen (perceived) some right things about Jesus, based on physical evidence (Christ’s teaching and the signs and wonders He was performing). It is apparent that Nicodemus represented the men in Jerusalem who were professing belief in Jesus because “they saw the signs which He did” (John 2:23). Yet Nicodemus did not truly “see,” for he did not fully understand or embrace who Jesus was — the divine Son (vv. 1:1-4, 14) whose body would be crucified for sinners and raised up on the third day (v. 2:19). Jesus identified His death and resurrection as the “sign” He would perform to confirm His validity as Messiah — a sign Nicodemus did not yet comprehend, and a significant majority of Jews would ultimately reject (I Cor. 1:23; I Pet. 2:7-8).

Thus in His reply, Jesus informs Nicodemus that his confession was inadequate for salvation. Nicodemus had some right ideas about Jesus, but he needed to be born again in order to see the kingdom of God; i.e., understand who Jesus was (Son of God incarnate) and what His true mission was (to die for sinners and be raised on the third day). The Pharisee did not yet have eyes to see (Matt. 13:16).

Following up in John 3:5, Jesus also informed Nicodemus that unless he was born again, neither would he be able to ENTER the Kingdom of God: ”Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Thus taking verses 3:1-5 together, Jesus told a man who confessed some true things about Him that there was no way that man could fully perceive who Jesus was or enter the Kingdom (through personal faith) “unless” he was “born again.”

“Unless” Nicodemus was born again by God’s Spirit, he would never understand Jesus’ identity or mission, or trust in Him for salvation.

Regeneration precedes faith.

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Genesis 22 – Abraham Commanded to Sacrifice Isaac

I am writing a new Sunday School curriculum for our church (a survey of the entire Bible, which will take about five years to complete), and here is this week’s lesson.  The curriculum is in Q&A format, which makes it easier to teach and encourages students to think. The subject is Genesis 22, the chapter where God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. An important passage indeed, especially considering the Christological implications (detailed in “Applying the Text”).  Geography is another important consideration.  All Scripture references are from the New King James Version.

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S.S. Lesson 14 – Abraham Commanded to Sacrifice Isaac

A. Reading the Text

Read Genesis 22:1-24 & Hebrews 11:17-19.

B. Understanding the Text

1. Why did God tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?
to test him; i.e., to see if he trusted God

2. Where did God tell Abraham to offer the sacrifice?
in the land of Moriah, on a mountain that God would choose

3. How was Isaac to be sacrificed?
as a burnt offering, meaning he would have to be killed first, then his body burned

4. Why did God refer to Isaac as “your only son Isaac, whom you love?”
God was reminding Abraham how dear Isaac was to him to stress the difficulty of what He was asking Abraham to do

5. God had promised Abraham in Genesis 21:12 that many descendants would come through Isaac, but at this point how many children did Isaac have?
none, he wasn’t married yet

6. Did Abraham argue or complain about God’s command to sacrifice Isaac?
no

7. How soon after God’s command did Abraham and Isaac leave for Moriah?
early the next morning

8. What does the early departure tell us about Abraham’s attitude toward God’s command?
he did not hesitate to obey

9. How long did Abraham and company journey to reach the mountain?
three days, which allowed Abraham time to consider his actions, and made his obedience all the more deliberate

10. Before Abraham and Isaac ascended the mountain, how did Abraham demonstrate his belief that Isaac would emerge alive after the trial?
a) Abraham told his servants, “we will come back to you”
b) he also told Isaac, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering”

11. Who carried the wood for sacrifice up the hill?
Isaac

12. What did Abraham carry?
fire and a knife, the tools for sacrifice

13. What did Abraham do when he and Isaac arrived at the place God had chosen?
he built an altar and set up the wood for the burnt offering

14. What did he do next?
he tied up Isaac and laid him on the wood

15. What happened as Abraham was preparing to plunge the knife into Isaac?
the Angel of the Lord called to him and told him to stop

16. How do we know the Angel of the Lord was God and not just another angel?
when the Angel spoke to Abraham, He said the sacrifice Abraham was willing to make was to “Me”

17. Who is the Angel of the Lord?
the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God, before He was incarnated as the man Jesus

18. What did Abraham’s actions demonstrate to the Angel of the Lord?
that Abraham truly feared God, since he did not withhold his only son from Him

19. After the Angel of the Lord stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, what did Abraham see?
a ram stuck in a thicket

20. What did Abraham do with the ram?
he sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of Isaac

21. What did Abraham name that place?
Jehovah Jireh, “the Lord will provide”

22. Why did he name it so?
because God had provided the ram and would one day provide the Lamb of God as the ultimate substitutionary sacrifice

23. What did the descendants of Abraham call the mountain of Moriah after this?
“In the Mount of the LORD it shall be provided”

24. After the ram was sacrificed, what did the Angel of the Lord promise to Abraham?
a) He would greatly bless Abraham
b) He would give Abraham many descendants
c) He would give Abraham’s descendants possession of their enemies’ gates
d) He would bless all nations on the earth in Abraham’s seed

26. Who did the Angel of the Lord swear by to do all these things?
Himself

26. After Abraham and Isaac returned to the other men, where did they go?
Beersheba

27. What did Abraham learn while dwelling in Beersheba?
he heard about the many children who had been born to his brother, Nahor

28. Who was born to Bethuel, Abraham’s nephew?
Rebekah

C. Applying the Text

1. How did the mountain that God chose become important in subsequent biblical history?
a) Jerusalem was built on the mountain and became the capital city of Israel
b) the Temple of Solomon was built on the southern end of the mountain (cf. 2 Chronicles 3:1)
c) Jesus was crucified on Golgotha, the highest elevation of the mountain, just outside of Jerusalem

2. What does this teach us?
God picked the precise location for our redemption to be accomplished long before Jesus came into the world

3. God commanded Abraham to do a very hard thing.  How could he kill the one through whom the promise was to be fulfilled, given that Isaac did not have any children yet?
Abraham learned what it means to trust in the One who Promises, not in the thing promised

4. According to Hebrews 11:17-19, why did Abraham obey God’s command?
he believed God would raise Isaac from the dead in order to keep His promise to bless Isaac’s descendants

5. What lessons do we learn in all of this from our father Abraham?
a) we must fear God and keep His commandments
b) we must trust in the Lord when He tells us to do something, whether or not we understand it
c) we must love God above everyone and everything else, with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength
d) we should not hesitate to obey God
e) we must trust that God will keep His promises
f) we must trust in Jesus Christ, the ultimate sacrifice God has provided for our sins
g) we must trust in God’s power to resurrect us from the dead

6. Genesis 22:2 contains the first mention of “love” in the Bible.  How does this reference to love help us better understand the Christian Gospel?
a) it is a father’s love for his only begotten son, and tied to offering the son as a sacrifice
b) Abraham is thus a picture of our Heavenly Father offering His beloved and only begotten Son as a sacrifice on the mountain of Moriah to save us from our sins

7. How did the new names for the chosen mountain in Moriah point to the future sacrifice of Jesus on the very same mountain?
a) Abraham called that place “the Lord will provide”
b) it was also called “In the Mount of the LORD it shall be provided”
c) Jesus was the Lamb whom God later provided to die on that mountain as our Substitute (cf. John 8:56)

8. The sacrifice of Isaac was a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  In what ways were the two sacrifices similar?
a) both were only begotten sons
b) both had been promised
c) both were greatly loved by their fathers
d) both carried wood up the hill to the place of sacrifice (Jesus carried his cross)
e) both were offered in sacrifice on the same hill
f) both were delivered from death on the third day (cf. Hebrews 11:19)

9. Why did the Lord swear by Himself to bless Abraham and his descendants?
it was the greatest possible assurance that He would keep His word, since there is no one greater to swear by than Himself

10. What does God’s promise to bless Abraham teach us?
when we believe in the Lord and give up things that are valuable to us to serve Him, He will reward us abundantly

11. What are some things we value that the Lord asks us to sacrifice to Him?
a) our time
b) our service
c) our talents and giftedness
d) our money
e) our lives! (cf. Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 25:14-30)

12. When the Lord promised He would bless all nations on the earth in Abraham’s seed, how was this promise fulfilled in the Christian Gospel?
according to Matthew 1:1, Jesus Christ is the ultimate “Son of Abraham,” the Seed in whom all nations on the earth have been blessed with salvation (cf. Genesis 22:18; Isaiah 66:18-19; Revelation 5:9)

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Jesus the Deliverer King

After the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit of God descended from heaven upon Christ, and immediately afterward He was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1).  The purpose of this study is to explore the proximity of these three key events in the life of Jesus — His baptism, the sending of the Spirit, and the Spirit leading Him into the wilderness — and identify their significance in the wider context of Messianic expectation and fulfillment, and in particular how they point to Jesus as the Deliverer King of Israel.

It will be demonstrated in this study that the three events identified above are tightly linked, and an examination of the Old Testament narratives in Judges and 1 Samuel will present compelling evidence that (1) the baptism of Jesus represented His earthly anointing as King of Israel; and (2) Jesus being driven into the wilderness by the Spirit of God to fight with the devil was a fulfillment of His role as Deliverer King.  Admittedly, several streams of Old Testament prophecy and expectation merged together in the baptism and temptation accounts; e.g., the baptism of Jesus was also His anointing as Prophet and High Priest of His people; Jesus as True Israel successfully passed tests which the Exodus generation had failed; Jesus the Son of God proved His covenant loyalty to His Father, as opposed to Adam the covenant breaker.  As well, the giving of the Spirit to Jesus by the Father has rich Trinitarian significance.  The purpose here is not to ignore or disallow these important considerations, but rather to isolate one prophetic stream — Messiah as Deliverer King of His people — and demonstrate its fulfillment in the baptism and subsequent ministry of Jesus Christ.

Biblical Historical Pattern in the Book of Judges
In the days before the kings, Israel repeatedly fell into sin and apostasy.  As a result, God used the surrounding nations to judge His rebellious people, bringing them into servitude. When foreign oppression became unbearable, the people made supplication to God for deliverance.  In faithfulness and covenant mercy, God heard the cries of His people and sent salvation in the form of a deliverer (or “judge”), who was empowered and equipped by the Spirit of God to save the people from their enemies.  After a period of rest, the judge died, the people returned to their evil ways, and the cycle would repeat.

This historical pattern of sin, servitude, supplication and salvation by the Spirit-led deliverer is stated in summary form in Judges 2:11-19, and repeatedly demonstrated in the narrative portion of the book (e.g., 3:7-11; 3:12-30; 4:1-5:31; 6:1-8:35, etc.).  This repetition is accompanied by an increasingly downward spiral of corruption (2:19) and spiritual anarchy (17:6), to the point near the end of the era where the author laments that “everyone [in Israel] did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25).

Thus the deliverers of Israel were raised up by God in periods of spiritual darkness and foreign oppression.  The Lord equipped these judges to deliver the Israelites by the power of the Spirit coming upon them (cf. 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6; 14:19; 15:14; and implied elsewhere).  Of particular interest for this study is what happened immediately after the Spirit came upon a judge.  In every case, the judge was stirred to successful battle against Israel’s enemies.  Thus Othniel went out to make war against the king of Mesopotamia (3:10); Ehud was stirred to attack the king of Moab (3:15-16); Barak was called to defeat the Canaanite army (4:6-7); Gideon summoned Israel to fight against the Midianites, Amalekites and their allies (6:33-34); Jephthah was aroused to battle with the sons of Ammon (11:29); and Samson was moved to wreak havoc against the Philistines (13:25-14:4; 14:19; 15:14-17).

Thus when God called individual judges to deliver Israel from her enemies, He sent them His Spirit as a divine investiture of heavenly glory and strength, to equip them for their tasks.  Soon after this divine investiture, the judges were moved by the Spirit to battle, resulting in great deliverance for the nation.

Biblical Historical Pattern in the Call of King Saul (1 Samuel 8-10)
Samuel, the last judge of Israel and the first in a line of kingly prophets, was called to appoint the first king of Israel (1 Samuel 8:22), a man of God’s own choosing.  Soon after, God spoke to Samuel, indicating the time and place where the Lord would send to him the man He had chosen as king (9:15-16).  The next day, when Samuel saw Saul coming toward him, God spoke to the prophet, saying, “There he is, the man of whom I spoke to you.  This one shall reign over My people” (9:17).

After meeting with Saul, Samuel took a flask of oil and anointed the new king, explaining that the Spirit of God would soon come upon him (10:1-8).  Later that same day, the Spirit did come upon Saul, and he prophesied (10:9-10).  Soon after, Saul was presented to Israel as their new king (10:17-26), and the Spirit came upon him once again (11:6), provoking him to wage war against the Ammonites who were threatening his brethren (11:7-10). The Israelite army, under the direction of its Spirit-led king, completely routed the Ammonites (11:11).

Saul later proved disobedient to God (13:7-13), and the Spirit was taken from him (16:14) and his kingdom removed (13:14; 15:28; 28:17).  Nevertheless, the basic pattern evident in the period of the judges was repeated in the early days of Saul’s reign: disobedient Israel was oppressed; God appointed a man to deliver the nation from its bondage; and God sent His Spirit upon the chosen man to equip and provoke him to battle. The differences were as follows:

1) God now appointed a king to be the deliverer of Israel (as the people had requested).
2) The prophet of Israel was providentially directed to meet with the new king.
3) God spoke to the prophet, identifying the new king.
4) The prophet anointed the head of the new king.
5) After the anointing by the prophet, the Spirit of God came upon the new king.
6) Soon after, the king was provoked by the Spirit to fight against Israel’s enemies.
7) The Spirit-filled king and the armies of Israel won a great victory over their enemies.

Biblical Historical Pattern in the Call of King David (1 Samuel 16-17)
After the Lord rejected Saul as king, Samuel was again called to appoint the new king of Israel, once again a man of God’s choosing (1 Samuel 16:1).  The Lord directed Samuel to the house of Jesse, and as the sons of Jesse were presented before him, the Lord passed over each in turn until David arrived.  Just as He had done in the call of Saul, God spoke to Samuel when the prophet laid eyes on the young man: “‘Arise, anoint him; for this is the one’” (16:12).  Samuel immediately took a flask of oil and anointed David as king, “and the Spirit of the LORD came upon David from that day forward” (16:13).

Soon after, the Philistines arrayed themselves in battle against Israel, and their champion, Goliath, challenged King Saul’s armies to send out a champion to fight him (17:1-10).  The Israelites and apparently even Saul were afraid of Goliath, but David, being led by God’s Spirit, was provoked to fight against the Philistine giant (17:26).  David subsequently met Goliath in battle, defeating him in dramatic fashion and turning the Philistines to flight (17:40-51).  Emboldened by this turn of events, the Israelite army pursued their fleeing enemies and routed them (17:52-53).

Thus the historical pattern in the call of King Saul was repeated in the call of King David:

1) The prophet of God was commanded to anoint a king.
2) God providentially directed the prophet to meet the new king.
3) God spoke to the prophet, identifying the new king.
4) The prophet anointed the head of the new king.
5) After the anointing by the prophet, the Spirit of God came upon the king.
6) The king was then provoked to fight against Israel’s enemies.
7) The Spirit-filled king and the armies of Israel won a great victory over their enemies.

Biblical Historical Pattern in the Call of King Jesus (Matthew 3:1-4:1)
When Jesus began His ministry, the Roman Empire was in firm political and military control of Palestine.  The illusion of an Israelite kingdom was offset by the occupation of Romans troops, Roman tax collectors, and the leadership of a corrupt foreign king, the Roman puppet Herod Antipas.

Foreign oppression was bad enough, but the Jews suffered under another type of subjugation more fearsome than Rome: demons were everywhere.  Seemingly every community in Israel was afflicted with the presence of evil spirits, explaining why hundreds and perhaps thousands of Israelites ultimately came to Jesus to be delivered from demonic possession.

This underscores two important historical realities: 1) The Israelites at the time of Christ were extremely corrupt (Jesus referred to them as “an evil and adulterous generation“) and under God’s severe discipline, being oppressed by fearful enemies both seen (Romans) and unseen (demonic hordes).  2) Consistent with the historical pattern in the periods of the judges and the earliest kings, God in His mercy sent a Deliverer (His Son!) to Israel during a time of spiritual darkness and foreign subjugation, to save His weak and sinful people from their bondage.

We note in the context preceding Christ’s baptism (Matthew 3:1-12) that John had been preaching the coming of God’s kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” The prophet’s announcement anticipated the soon appearance of the new King on Israel’s stage (Matthew 3:11-12; cf. John 1:26-27).  We learn, too, that God had spoken to John about how to identify the King: “‘He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit”’” (John 1:33).

With these first century conditions in mind, and the OT backdrop of Judges and 1 Samuel also in view, we will now examine the events surrounding the baptism of Jesus and His subsequent wilderness temptation.  Below is Matthew’s account (3:13-4:1):

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.  And John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?’ But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’  Then he allowed Him.  When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.  And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’  Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

Jesus came to John to be baptized, and it is not entirely clear what John understood about the Lord’s request.  The prophet obviously perceived that Jesus had no need for repentance, and he also knew that Jesus was greater than him (cf. Mark 1:7).   It appears John also understood by this point that Jesus was the pre-existent Lamb of God (cf. John 1:29-30) and thus the divine Son (John 1:34).  For these reasons, John was resistant to baptizing Jesus, until Jesus persuaded him with these cryptic words: “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  Whatever one makes of this statement, it is clear that after John heard it, he relented and was willing to baptize Jesus.

Immediately following the baptism, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus, accompanied by God’s voice declaring Him to be His Son.  Jesus was then compelled by the Spirit to go to the wilderness to face off with the devil (Matthew 4:1-11).  After defeating the devil’s temptations, the Spirit-filled king followed up by waging a successful campaign against the devil’s armies who were oppressing His people, sending the panic-stricken spirits to flight (Mark 1:23-27, 32-34, 39).

Analysis and Implications
Measured against the backdrop of the call of the first two kings of Israel, the events surrounding the baptism of Jesus are striking:

1) God told the prophet (John) that a new king was to be ordained and presented to Israel.
2) God arranged the climactic meeting between the prophet and the new king (Jesus came to John and they spoke).
3) God spoke audibly to the prophet, identifying the new king (occurred before Christ’s baptism, and then again when the heavenly voice declared Jesus to be the Son of God).
4) The prophet anointed the head of the new king (with water instead of oil).
5) After the anointing by the prophet, the Spirit of God came upon the king (vision of the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove).
6) The newly anointed king was then provoked by the Spirit to fight against Israel’s chief enemy (Jesus compelled into the wilderness to battle the devil).
7) The Spirit-filled king won a great victory over Israel’s enemies (Satan and then his hosts — initially a one-Man rout, and later joined by the apostles when they were commissioned and empowered to drive out demons; cf. Mark 3:13-19; 6:7-13).

Thus the historical pattern of 1 Samuel was reproduced in the events surrounding the baptism of Jesus.  If we connect the dots of the biblical story as intended, this sequence of events reveals Jesus as the ultimate Deliverer King of Israel, the Son of David called by God to save His people from their enemies.

Furthermore, these observations clarify why Jesus refrained from performing miracles and exorcisms before His baptism.  Certainly He had power as Deity Incarnate (John 1:1-18) to perform such deeds at any time, but as the divine Son (“true man and true God,” Heidelberg Catechism Question 47), Jesus was fully submitted to His Heavenly Father’s will (John 6:38).  It was evidently the Father’s will, in keeping with the historical pattern of King Saul and King David, 1) first for the prophet of Israel to anoint Jesus as King, 2) then for the Father to empower Jesus from on high with the Holy Spirit (explains why the miracles of Jesus were accomplished by the power of the Spirit instead of His own omnipotent power), 3) then for the Spirit to provoke Jesus to battle against the greatest and most fearful enemies of Israel.  After the anointing, empowering, and provocation of Jesus were completed, the Lord was thereafter free to engage the enemy at will, sending the demonic hosts to flight, and rescuing His people from their bondage to their other previously unassailable adversaries, sin and death.

Conclusion
Against the historical backdrop of God raising up Spirit-empowered judges, and the subsequent anointings of Saul and David as the first two Spirit-empowered kings of Israel, we conclude that the giving of the Holy Spirit to Christ was a divine investiture of heavenly glory and power, marking Jesus as King and equipping Him to deliver Israel from her enemies.  The anticipatory preaching of John the Baptist pointed to the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of David, who was introduced to Israel by the prophet.  The baptism of Jesus was therefore His anointing as King.  The subsequent anointing of the Holy Spirit from heaven, and the great spiritual victory gained by Jesus and His followers over Satan and his legions — climaxed by the greatest of all victories, Christ’s sufferings on the cross and His resurrection from the dead — demonstrates that Jesus is indeed the ultimate Deliverer King of His people.

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