Editor: James T. Dennison, Jr.
The Editor …………………………………………………………….…………… 2
1. A SERMON ON HEBREWS 12:1-3
Geerhardus Vos …………………………………………………………………… 4
Charles G. Dennison ……………………………………………………..………. 16
3. THE CONQUEST OF THE CROSS
Robert Drake ………………………………………………………………………23
4. LIFE, LIGHT, LAMB . . . AND THE LOGOS
5. THE CHURCH AND PROCLAMATION
KERUX is a publication of Kerux, Inc. and appears three times each year. Editorial offices are located at 1131 Whispering Highlands Dr., Escondido, CA 92027. Correspondence should be directed to the editor at this address. Subscription rates for one year are: $15.00 (U.S. and Canada); $20.00 (elsewhere). Costs per issue are: $5.00 (U.S. and Canada); $7.50 (elsewhere). All remittances should be made payable in U.S. funds.
ISSN 0888-8513 Vol. 1, No. 1
Welcome to KERUX and the stimulating world of biblical-theological preaching. The Board of KERUX fervently hopes the material in this issue and all subsequent issues will cause you to delight even more in the Lord Jesus Christ.
First, a word of explanation regarding our name. KERUX (pronounced KAY-ROOX) is a Greek word which means "herald," "one who proclaims," "preacher." It is found in the New Testament in I Timothy 2:7, II Timothy 1:11 and II Peter 2:5. We herald the Lord Jesus, proclaim him our life and preach him alone. Soli Deo Gloria!
The interpretive method of Geerhardus Vos has earned him the title "Father of Reformed Biblical Theology." The editor of this journal and her inaugural contributors owe a debt to Vos which can only be reflected in the desire to "evangelize" others with the insights he mined from the biblical text. Vos has not spoken the last word; until the Lord Jesus appears, we preach and write and pray. But it is Jesus we seek in the text of the Word of God–in the spirit of those Greeks of old–with the passion they displayed, "we would see Jesus" (John 12:21). In the words of the inspired apostle (also the words of our Latin moto), we wish "to find our life hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3). Indeed, our life and the life of the Church is Christocentric.
In the hope that we may assist the high calling of preaching in the direction of Christ-centeredness, we send forth this journal. May it encourage the Church and, God willing, may it be a forum for the improvement of her preaching. For those "hungering and thirsting" for Christ Jesus, we pray that it may be so!
The editor welcomes contributions from our readers. Contributions should be sermons or addresses which evidence the biblical-theological approach (cf. the works of Geerhardus Vos and Herman Ridderbos for a beginning). All manuscripts should be typewritten and double-spaced. Please use the New American Standard Bible for biblical quotations unless you note your alternative source. Final decision on publication of unsolicited manuscripts belongs solely to the editor. Manuscripts not accepted for publication will be returned only if the author includes a stamped, self-addressed envelope.
We ask our readers to encourage those who preach in a biblical-theological manner to submit material to KERUX. We wish to learn from one another and build one another up in our glorious faith.
A Sermon on Hebrews 12:1-3
These verses stand at the beginning of one of the five hortatory sections which are so characteristic of the Epistle to the Hebrews. There is perhaps no other book in the New Testament in which the two elements of theological exposition and practical application are so clearly distinguishable and yet so organically united as in this epistle. The writer never makes exhortation a substitute for doctrine. His practical counsels are always based on a carefully managed presentation of the truth addressed to the intellect of his readers. It must have been in many respects an extremely critical situation in which he found them and from which he endeavored to rescue them; but nevertheless he attacks it in his thoroughly objective, calm, reasonable and confident manner. He relies upon the inherent power of the truth to commend itself and work its way as applied by the Spirit of God.
He appreciates the mighty weapon which a full command of the truth puts into the hand of the preacher. He knows that the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing till it divides the soul and the spirit both in their joints and in their marrow (i.e., till it reaches the very skeleton and what is within the skeleton of the innermost consciousness of man and becomes the judge of the thoughts and intents of his heart). And you will observe that where he deplores the general backwardness of the Hebrew Christians, he has just as much in mind their failure to make progress in the doctrinal apprehension of Christianity as the lack of development in the more practical province of their religious life. His complaint is distinctively the teacher's complaint as you can best see from the fifth chapter. There he charges his readers with having become dull of hearing and declares them to be in need again that someone should teach them the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God and characterizes them as babes without experience in the word of righteousness (Heb. 5:12,13).
It is quite in keeping with all this that in the passage before us also he gives such a turn to his exhortation as to gather up in it the gist of the whole preceding chapter in which the nature and possibility of a life of faith had been exemplified from the sacred history of the Old Covenant. The personal appeal he makes to his readers is contained in the words: "Let us run with patience the race set before us." The figure is a familiar one quite common especially in the epistles of Paul and one which would easily suggest itself to a writer who came at all in contact with the pagan athletic life of the times. And the figure was strikingly apposite to the religious situation of that time. In these early days, Christianity bore a most strenuous character; internal and external causes combined to impose upon its adherents the straining of every nerve in order to maintain their faith. To be an active, aggressive believer was more than ever essential because not to be so exposed [one] more than ever to the danger of ceasing to be a Christian at all. Still there were probably special reasons why the representation of Christianity as a race to be run was extremely appropriate under the conditions of the readers to which the writer
of the epistle addressed himself. The readers seem to have been lacking in the energy of faith. Instead of having their faces resolutely set forward towards the future, they were given to looking backward at the antiquated forms of a ceremonial religious system for the mistaken love of which they overlooked the far greater privileges and treasures to which Christianity had given them access. Repristination may sometimes be necessary, but even at its best, even when it is repristination of that which is good and of permanent value, it is little conducive towards a healthy spiritual growth and development, least of all so when it aims at the revival of something that has served its purpose and is nigh unto vanishing.
In the second place, these Hebrew Christians seem to have been abnormally restive under the certain trials and afflictions and persecutions that had befallen them. In the midst of these, they had failed to develop that Christian fortitude and heroism which on the whole were so characteristic of the early church in the subapostolic period. For these two reasons, it was peculiarly appropriate that the author clothe his exhortation to them in the athletic figure of the racecourse which contains the central thought of the passage. The way in which he introduces the figure and the motives which he advances for its enforcement enable us to trace to some extent the situation which it was intended to meet. Let us for a few moments look at the figure and what its implications are.
Old Testament Saints
In the first place, the writer exhorts his readers to the exercise of an energetic Christian faith by pointing them to the example of the Old Testament saints which he had depicted for them in the preceding chapter: "Having therefore so great a cloud of witnesses lying around us, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race set before us." We shall get somewhat closer to the author's meaning by observing the intimate connection in which these words stand with the
6two last verses of the 11th chapter. The thought that the Old Testament saints are witnesses may have been suggested by what is said about them in the 39th verse: "And all these, having had witness borne to them." But the idea expressed is a different one since there they are the objects of the witness borne by God or men to the nobility of their character, while here they appear as witnesses themselves. The only point doubtful is whether they are called witnesses in the same sense that they speak to us through the historic testimony of their heroic faith recorded in Scripture; or whether we must bring the idea into closer connection with the figure of the race so as to conceive of them as actually witnessing, surveying us, spectators of the struggle in which we are engaged. Something may be said in favor of either view: the preceding chapter as a whole perhaps favors the former interpretation that they bear witness to us as figures in history. But over against this, we must place not merely the admirable manner in which the other interpretation fits into the figure, but also the fact that they are called "a cloud of witnesses," "encompassing" us (which expression naturally suggests the great crowd of spectators seated or standing around the arena). It does not necessarily follow, if we adopt this latter view, that the writer means to represent the saints in heaven as "conversant with our life here and fascinated by the interest of it." Evidently, the emphasis does not rest on what we are for the departed saints, but on what they ought to be for us. The writer intimates as much as this by saying that we have this cloud of witnesses. The whole conception is figurative and ideal and the only question that can be raised is whether the author wants us to imagine the Old Testament heroes of faith as speaking to us from out of their own historic situation or as gathered figuratively and ideally around us. Looked at closely, it will be seen that the latter interpretation to a certain extent includes the other as the more comprehensive of the two. For if the Old Testament saints appear as encompassing us, the effect which their ideal presence should produce upon us must be largely due to the fact that they themselves were at one time runners in the same race. They influence us not merely through the thought that they once passed through the experience we now have. All the memories of what they endured and accomplished crowd in
upon us when we imagine them as holding us in survey.
There is certainly an important lesson embodied in this noble figure for us as well as for the first readers of the epistle. I do not know whether we always make enough of this retrospective communion of the saints–of this spiritual continuity with the church of the past. In natural relations, we are not slow to take pride in our descent from such as have left an honorable record behind them in the annals of history and we all feel more or less the obligations which such a connection imposes upon us. Why should it be different in the religious sphere? In the exercise of faith as well as in that of the natural virtues, we ought to feel the force of the principle noblesse oblige. Sometimes we are altogether too much concerned with what the present world will say about us–whether it will regard us as progressive and enlightened and liberal; while we but too seldom consider what would be the historic judgment passed upon us by the church of the former ages if its great figures could gather around us and review the part we take in the making of the history of the present–whether they would be shamed or gladdened by our doings. Let us then sometimes at least endeavor to view our condition and performance in this light. Let us ask ourselves whether we can without shame and self-reproach allow the soundness of our faith, the purity of our life, the consecration of our service to fall below the attainments of any earlier generation in the church of God. And on the other hand, though the world may look down upon us as reactionaries and antiquated people, if we can conscientiously say that we have remained faithful to the principles which God himself stamped with his historic approval in the past, let us derive comfort from the thought that we walk not alone, but are compassed about on every side by an innumerable host of friends who will honor us as God has honored them.
The Race as Prospective
The next important point of comparison when the author represents the Christian life as a race to be run lies in this: its whole character ought to be prospective; everything in it ought to be determined by the thought of the future. It is a race to which the inheritance of the final kingdom of God forms the goal. Just as one who is in the racecourse running for a prize makes the attainment of this end his supreme–his only concern–so the true believer obeys but the fundamental law of his Christian calling when he concentrates his mind and energy upon the future. This is the reason why the author in the 40th verse of the 11th chapter emphasizes that the fathers received not the promise. For although this on the one hand implies that we have an advantage over them inasmuch as we have at least a partial possession of the promise already in this life, whence it is added that God had provided something better concerning us; yet on the other hand it is obviously the writer's intention to remind the readers of the resemblance which their life ought to bear in this respect to that of the Old Testament saints. They were not to be made perfect without us. We had first to join them in their looking forward to, in their reaching out after the world to come before this world could actually appear. We and they form one great assembly of believers, animated by the same thought, inspired by the same vision of the ideal life–the ideal kingdom. From this point of view the survey of Old Testament history which the author had made was peculiarly adapted to put the Hebrew Christians in the frame of mind required in those who are to run a spiritual race. The Old Testament was preeminently a prospective period, a period of anticipation, a period in which the believer was reminded at every step of something higher and better yet to appear. Enoch and Moses and Abraham and all the prophets bore witness by their whole manner of life that they appreciated this, that the present was to them something provisional.
Now just as it would have been a grave defect in them if they had lost sight of this fact and had been reconciled to these Old Testament conditions as final and adequate (sufficient), just as truly it will
have to be regarded as a serious spiritual fault in the New Testament believer if he ceases to give the future world that dominating influence over his entire life and thought which, as the goal of his Christian calling, it can properly claim. Whatever the difference in other respects, we are one with the whole church of God of every age from the beginning of the history of redemption until now in this fundamental trait–that we seek the absolute, the final, the perfect. Hence the race is represented as being in reality a race of faith in which the energetic exercise of faith corresponds to the running, and that not so much faith in its general sense, but specifically faith in its eschatological bearings–that faith which puts one in vital contact with and impels one irresistibly forward towards the unseen realities of the heavenly world. And in a negative form the same thought is expressed by what the author adds concerning the laying aside of every weight and the sin which does so easily beset the Christian. Of course in its former half this representation is again borrowed from the racecourse. As a runner would lay aside every encumbrance of dress as well as every other burden that might endanger his success in the race, so the believer who has his face set towards the future, heavenly life must divest himself of every such concern with the present world as would retard his steady progress towards the higher kingdom.
Perhaps the author had specifically in mind the entanglement of the Hebrew Christians in the ceremonial forms of the Old Testament religion and regarded these as a weight dragging them down, so that they could not rise to a truly spiritual apprehension and appreciation of the heavenly realities in which Christ ministers at the right hand of God. But whether this be so or not, at any rate the words admit of a more general application in which they have their significance for every believer. We may say that the things here called "weights" embrace everything that might in any sense turn away the heart from the pursuit of heaven even though these things might in the abstract be unobjectionable or even comely. It should be remarked, however, that properly speaking, not the innocent associations or engagements with the earthly life as such constitute the weight, for that would be equivalent to saying that we must adopt the principle of monasticism.
Not that the believer should be indifferent to the natural environment in which the providence of God has placed him; but he should not have his portion in the present life in the same sense as the children of the world have it. He must gravitate towards the future life and must make every contact into which he comes with earthly concerns subordinated and subservient to this. Instead of weights these affairs must become wings speeding him onward and upward in his flight towards God. If he fails to do this, he becomes unfaithful to the claim which the spiritual world has upon him; a fornicator, as the author drastically expresses it, resembling Esau who for one mess of pottage sold his own birthright.
Laying Aside Sin
But while such weights must be laid aside because they hinder the believer in running well and involve a temptation to falling, even more resolute should the Christian's attitude be towards sin as such. You will observe how the author singles this out from the general category of weights, perhaps distinguishes it as a separate category from the latter: "Let us lay aside every weight and the sin which doth so easily beset us." Sin requires special, radical treatment; it must, as he says immediately afterwards, be resisted unto blood. Here again the author may have had in mind that specific sin which the Hebrew Christians were in eminent danger of committing, if some of them had not committed it already, i.e., the sin of open unbelief in the Gospel and the God of the Gospels as a consequent relapse into Judaism or into something worse than Judaism–a state of rebellion against God as such. In several passages of the epistle at least the word sin occurs with this specific connotation. Nevertheless here also the words admit of a more general exegesis. What the author says of sin is true generically of every form of sin, viz., that it must be laid aside, if the believer is to run his race with alacrity and success. Sin from the nature of the case interposes a barrier between us and the goal of our Christian striving. It not merely prevents further progress, but it throws him who commits it back to a position less advanced than
he had reached before. It obscures the vision of the heavenly state; it weakens the desire from its enjoyment; it breaks the energy of the will in pursuing it. This is especially clear if we place ourselves upon the standpoint from which the author is accustomed to view sin, as an impediment in our approach to God, for God is the center of attraction in the kingdom of glory; so that to lose touch with God inevitably means to stop in the midst of the race towards heaven.
Moreover sin finds such ample opportunities for barring our way of access to God and the higher world. For this reason the author characterizes it as the sin "that doth easily beset us," a statement not intended to refer to any particular form of sin, as we might be led to think from the analogy of our phrase "a besetting sin," but applying to sin generically. It is for sin an easy thing to approach us; we always carry it with us; it runs, as it were, the race with us; it is at the same time the most dangerous and the most ubiquitous of our spiritual foes. Thus the characterization of sin as that which easily besets us is meant to suggest to the readers the most powerful motive for laying it aside, for breaking with it utterly, while they bend all their energies to the race of sanctification. This is an enemy with whom no compromise should be made. Every sin which we allow to stay with us may at any moment become an occasion of falling to us. What is demanded therefore is a positive and aggressive attitude towards sin. We must not merely resist it, but lay it aside–in dependence upon the grace of God, cut ourselves loose from it. Sanctification ought to be to every child of God not a desultory matter, but an intelligent systematic pursuit.
Running with Patience
The next point upon which the passage throws emphasis is that the Christian race must be run with patience. Patience in this connection means more than perseverance, persistence; it describes the endurance of what is hard and painful. As in the figure, the striving after the prize exposes to hardship; and as in order to success, this
hardship must be met with such a spirit of fortitude that it shall not only not impede the runner but positively assist him in reaching the goal, so in the Christian pursuit of the kingdom of God, suffering and trials are the inevitable concomitants; and so far from hindering him in his progress must become the very means of helping him onward through the development in him of patience. We may say that the cultivation of this virtue forms an integral part of the running of the race itself. The examples given in the 11th chapter show that heroic endurance appeared to the writer as one of the aspects of faith; that therefore it must be in his view something which speeds the believer onward towards the goal. The conceptions of faith as spiritual vision of the eternal world, and of faith as the source of Christian fortitude and of faith as the principle of Christian obedience are closely associated in the epistle.
The manner in which patience becomes subservient to the attainment of the prize can be variously conceived of. In the case of Jesus, of whom the author speaks in the immediately following statement, there was a direct meritorious connection. What he endured in the race of his earthly life became the legal ground on which God based the bestowal upon him of all the glory and blessedness of his exalted state. The joy he received was the natural reward for the cross endured and the shame despised. It is not possible, of course, and the author does not mean to transfer this connection in the same sense to the case of the believer. No amount of patience displayed by us in our earthly trials and afflictions can give us the least semblance of a claim upon the glory that awaits us at the end. And yet the author clearly so represents it that there is if not a meritorious, yet a reasonable, logical nexus between the one and the other. As a broad supposition this view underlies everything said in the preceding chapter about the heroic conduct in suffering of the Old Testament saints. The principle on which these were crowned was a principle of free grace, but on that account it was not arbitrarily applied.
The reason will appear if we remember that in the first place these trials are endured for the sake of and in obedience to God; and
in the second place that the patience with which they are endured is the direct result of the believer's vital connection with the heavenly world in which the prize awaits him. To express the first thought, the author says that the race we run is a race set before us, viz., by God. Everything that meets us in it is an object of God's appointment. In obedience to him we ought to endure it without murmuring, especially if, as is frequently the case (as was probably the case with the Hebrews) it is the outcome of our identification with the cause of God; if we suffer, as Moses did, the reproach of Christ. What is more natural than that God should in his grace reward those who thus suffer for him with the heavenly life; so that patience and glory appear in the relation to one another of the race to the crown? God cannot but honor this loyalty to himself evinced in suffering; of such patient runners he is not ashamed to be called their God and he has prepared for them a city.
And in the second place the Christian virtue of patience is something that can spring only from true vital connection with the spiritual heavenly world. It is something entirely different from stoical apathy or resignation. If the Christian patiently endures, it is because he sees the invisible; because there is a counter-power, a counter-principle at work in his life which more than offsets by the joy it creates, the pain of tribulation. This is naught else but the power of the spiritual, heavenly world itself to which through faith he has access. Although in one sense the inheritance of this world lies yet in the future, yet in another sense it has already begun to be in principle realized and become ours in actual possession. The two spheres of the earthly and the heavenly life do not lie one above the other without touching at any point; heaven with its gifts and powers and joys descends into our earthly experience like the headlands of a great and marvelous continent projecting into the ocean.
Now it is the secret enjoyment of a real communion with this celestial sphere that is the source from which all Christian patience is fed, without which it could not exist itself for a moment. In point of fact, brethren, patience–negative as the conception may super-
ficially appear to us–is in its Christian sense a most positive thing; at least it is the manifestation of a most positive thing, the manifestation of the supernatural energy that works in faith itself. The heavenly world is to the believer what the earth was to the giant in ancient mythology; so long as he remains in contact with it, an unintermittent stream of new spiritual power flows into his frame. Is it strange that patience thus engendered should become, under God's appointment, the great prerequisite and in a certain sense the measure of reward at the end of the race? In the example of Christ which the author holds up before his readers, we can most clearly observe the manner of working of the principle in question because he was the Leader and Perfector of faith, the ideal believer, and therefore the ideal pattern of patience. What else enabled him to endure the cross and despise the shame, but that in faith undimmed he had his eye constantly fixed upon the joy that was set before him and in uninterrupted intercourse with the world of heaven received daily strength sufficient for the running of his race? The thought is the same as that expressed in the beautiful catena of Paul in Romans 5 with which I will conclude my remarks: "We rejoice in tribulation, knowing that tribulation worketh patience and patience probation, and probation hope, and hope maketh not ashamed, because (even in this present life already) the love of God (as the principle and earnest of eternal blessedness) is shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit given unto us" (Rom. 5:3-5).
Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary, April 6, 1902.
(The Vos sermon is transcribed from his personal sermon notebook deposited in the Heritage Hall Archive of Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan and is printed here with their kind permission. The editor has made minor changes in punctuation and added the subheadings.)
CHARLES G. DENNISON
Jesus said unto her, "Mary!" She turned and said unto him in Hebrew, "Rabboni," (which means teacher) . . . (John 20:16)
In John 20:1-18, we find a story we all know–John's account of the morning of the first day of the week following Christ's crucifixion. But did you notice John's mention of the darkness? Only John among the gospel writers tells us, "It was still dark" (v.1). When it was dark; that is, when darkness still enveloped everything, including those most devoted to Jesus...!
It is not as if the light has not shined. Magnificently, light has burst forth in the resurrection of Jesus. This light was like that which burst forth once before, at the very beginning of time. You see, the first day of the week of which John writes reminds us of that very first day in the very first week of creation. Now, as then, God performs a hidden work. At creation no one but God and his holy angels witnessed what took place. Who was there to hear the Almighty say, "Let there be light?" It is the same at the resurrection of Jesus. Here again is a hidden work and in it God brings to life this dark world's light.
You might think, however, that such a work, hidden as it is, has limited value and credibility. God sees things quite differently since it is this hidden act that focuses and proves our faith. Remember what is said about the original creation in another New Testament text. We are told, "By faith we understand that the world was made by the Word of God" (Heb. 11:3). As it was with that first creation, so it is with the new.
But there are other parallels. The testimony of God's original great act was set finally before his creatures–the man and the woman, our first parents–whom God made as the crown of his creating work. Unfortunately, we tend to think of Adam and Eve indiscriminately, as if they were featureless, as if they weren't the consequence of God's sovereign, electing, creating power and disposition. But why them? Why those particular bodies? those brains? those specific features? I am astounded that so many do not believe in God's predeterminative ordination, since you cannot get beyond the first chapter of Genesis without being confronted by it.
Here in the new creation there are once again chosen witnesses before whom the testimony of what God has done is displayed. In the first eighteen verses of John 20, we have three: Simon Peter, that special disciple known as the one whom Jesus loved and, most importantly, Mary Magdalene. We want to look at each in turn, but see them in keeping with the fact that John says, "and while it was still dark."
Jesus has been raised from the dead! The light has come for the nations, and yet John says, "while it was still dark." The three mentioned here then will be related to that darkness, our understanding of the darkness and our understanding and comprehension of the light.
Simon Peter, called a rock by Christ, followed Jesus early on. You know of his admirable loyalty and fervor when others were deserting the Savior. Jesus asked the twelve if they would leave him too. It was Simon Peter who said, "To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have believed and have come to know that you are the holy one of Israel" (John 6:68).
We also know of Peter's–how shall we call it?–proud humility, best expressed when he drew back from Christ's attempt to wash his feet. "You'll never wash my feet, Lord," he says, only to be ashamed by his Lord's rebuke to such an extent that he exclaimed that washing his feet would hardly be adequate: "Lord, not my feet but my head; no, all of me, please" (John 13:8,9). There is an ambivalence in Peter, a frailty overlaid with that bold boast–that bravado. "I will lay down my life for you, Lord," he says (John 13:37), only to have that remark answered by his cowardice. "Know him? I neither know him nor revere him."
Now before you are too hard on Peter, I want you to consider him in light of what John says in verse 1 of chapter 20. "While it was yet dark [even though the light has come] . . . . " To be fair to Peter, we must penetrate him at a much deeper level than is ordinarily done. You see, he is more than a solitary figure; he is more than just an individual man. He is that disciple who strikes us at one and the same time with his amazing resilience and even faithfulness, and then amazing bewilderment to the point of offensiveness. Understanding Peter for all that he is, we are compelled to see in this one man the deep agonizing struggle for all within Israel who
are longing for their Savior, but are frightened by the prospect that this Jesus might be the one. "Shall we follow Jesus as God's Messiah," they wonder, "Or should we hold back?"
In Peter, Israel is struggling with itself because, even among the faithful, the hope of that people is bound to so many things–things like the land, and this Messiah has said, "My kingdom is not of this world." To give up the land? Palestine? "I don't know if I can do it. It has been my life!" comes the response.
But other demands are made by this Messiah. He says that when he is lifted up, he will draw all men, all nations to himself. What then of the indigenous character and purity of the Jewish people? And what about the law? Some are saying, "I don't know what Jesus is doing with the law, but he certainly isn't handling it like our rabbis. It's as if he intends a transformation–a bewildering transformation of even the law. How can I give up what I have cherished most for the sake of this Jesus and his gospel?"
So, in the figure of Peter, we encounter a desperate struggle. Even though the sun has risen, it is still dark. Peter is faithful Israel overshadowed by ambivalence.
The Beloved Disciple
Now if Peter speaks to us about uncertainty and ambivalence in Israel, what might we say of the beloved disciple? How fresh he appears in the passage. He outruns Peter. He arrives first at the tomb. He looks in and, after giving place to Peter–certainly the older–he enters; and, we are told, he believed. If Peter is hesitant, uncertain and ambivalent Israel, then in this beloved disciple we find a picture of an almost naive confidence. Here is un-hesitancy, un-ambiguity.
As we have said, he arrived first at the tomb; as we have said, after seeing what Peter saw, he believed. But yet this one who is poised,
ready, willing–even for him it is still dark. He realizes so little; he doesn't know what it all means; he doesn't know how it all fits together, much less what to do about it.
We learn then in these two men about the nature of the true Israel of God–those faithfully waiting for the arrival of the Messiah. In Peter, we have one holding on to the old, even when the new has come. In the beloved disciple, we have one quick, poised, ready to believe and obey, yet not knowing what to do. But both are stymied. They walk and grope in the darkness as yet. They both return to their homes, holding on to life in this world as if nothing had happened (John 20:10).
A better grasp of the magnitude of this darkness awaits us in the figure of Mary Magdalene. She will not merely take us back into the heart of Israel, to the foundation of the nation. She takes us back to the very foundation of the earth; in her we are confronted with the depth and severity of the darkness. So great is this darkness that, to be sure, apart from God's sovereign and gracious mercy, it envelopes Israel's best. But even more, it is as ominous as the kingdom of darkness and as terrifying as that kingdom's dark prince. Its history is as old as Genesis 3, as ancient as the Garden of Eden. It was Eve's seductive intruder, but it has been Mary's and humanity's life-long companion.
And now Mary, as a latter-day Eve, is brought in John 20 to a garden. If in that first garden man died, being disobedient as he was, in the second garden man is made alive. Bringing the woman into perspective–if in that first garden the woman succumbs, in the second she triumphs. If in the first garden the woman found no one–not even her husband–to stand in her place, to die for her in order that she might be reconciled to the light of the glorious knowledge of the true God, in the second she finds the resurrected Christ who
has not only offered himself up for her but now claims her by speaking her name. He elicits from her a sovereignly deposited affirmation: he is Rabboni, "teacher." No one else will instruct her in all the purposes of God. He it is then that perfectly remedies the deceit to which she originally fell prey.
The darkness once chased on creation's first day invaded the earth through sin, bringing with it its dreaded fruit–death. Even the best of Israel lived under the shadow of death. But now on the first day of the week in the new creation, darkness is chased again. The light shines in the darkness; the darkness will never be able to put it out. It is chased from the Israel of God; it is driven back from the borders of the nations, from those called of God as they are ministered unto by the resurrected teacher, Rabboni, the Lord Jesus Christ. He, the Word of God, brings light. All of us then with Mary must learn as she did from that teacher.
Notice how the darkness still grips her as she looks at Christ. At first she doesn't recognize him. Then she wants to hold onto him as if, in finding him, she has found a true husband, a new second Adam–as if she by holding him can bring to pass a new paradise here on earth. But his instruction to her, and through her to us, is that the paradise for which she and we long is not found in any garden of this creation, but rather is above with God, a place unthreatened by any darkness at all. And that is the place to which Christ presently ascends.
In him was life and that life was the light of men. With the instruction that he gives, based upon his resurrection, Jesus Christ chases darkness from the souls and the hearts of men who, till this time, have claimed the earth or vainly believed that the real objective of life is some kind of permanent residence in this world. It is not. His resurrection life brings to light all of the purposes of life itself and makes clear the reason why we are here. We are enlightened by him who has gone to prepare a place for us and will come again and receive us unto himself, that where he is we might be also.
Jesus "commissions" Mary with this message to his brethren–the message that the life from above, the life from the risen, ascended Lord (no, even more, that from the eternal Word who became flesh), is the light of men. She, as if embodying for a moment the apostolate, strikes the note that distinguishes the gospel. Peter will see the light and instruct us who are aliens and strangers in this world about our certain inheritance "imperishable and undefiled . . . , reserved in heaven" (I Pet. 1:4). And John, presumably the disciple Jesus loved, stamps his gospel with the imprint of Christ's glorious transcendence: "You must be born from above," Jesus says in John 3.
In the new creation these witnesses are the eyes to our faith; they have seen the Lord. But we are by no means deprived; rather we who have not seen the Lord yet love him and believe in him are blessed by his presence in the Spirit. In the day in which the glories of heaven are revealed, we too will see the one upon whom we have fixed our hope. Without the faintest shadow to cloud our vision, we shall say at the new creation's consummation what Mary said at its beginning, "I have seen the Lord."
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
The Conquest of the Cross
The unity of the context in which we find this verse may be grasped at a glance if we compare the cross of Jesus Christ to a knife and then to a sword. As a knife, the cross is God's instrument for dealing with the crucial problem of man's fallen nature. This is why Paul may compare the cross to the rite of circumcision. That rite was a cutting away of the flesh; as such, it was God's own illustration of his remedy for sin. Contrary to what the "philosophers" in Paul's day taught, sin could not be conquered by more education drawn from the source of man's wisdom. Instead, sin had to be radically removed by something like a surgical process and the cross was the
knife God used. In that cross, the sinful nature of man, which Paul calls "the body of flesh," was cut off and that operation was a total and complete success.
The Cross as a Sword
But the cross of Christ may also be compared to a sword by which God in Christ has conquered and disarmed his enemies. This second use of the cross is actually introduced in verse 10 when Paul says that Christ is the head over all rule and authority. It is the same rule and authority which he declares in verse 15 have been disarmed. The question is: who are these rulers and authorities and why is it necessary for us to know that they have been conquered?
Sometimes Paul adds other expressions when discussing these rulers. His full list includes "rule and authority and power and dominion." What he means by these titles is summed up in Ephesians 6:12: "We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places." They are the forces of evil which rule this fallen world.
But when we put it this way, we tend to think of demonic or angelic powers and this seems removed from our modern way of thinking. In Paul's day, demons or angels may have been his primary reference. Perhaps he was "plugging into" the language of the gnostic philosophers and their beliefs about the powers which ruled the world. They may have believed that Christ was only one such power in a whole hierarchy of powers and they needed to understand the uniqueness of the Son of God as the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, the one in whom the fullness of deity dwelt in bodily form. Whether that was their position or not, Paul is not bound by their philosophy and uses "rulers and authorities" in a way which is applicable for every generation of believers. For him, the rulers may be identified with the consequences of man's fall into sin. In other
words, fallen man in a fallen world is under the rule of evil and the consequences of that evil.
The World Subjected to Vanity
To understand his point, we may begin with Romans 8:20 where the apostle says that God subjected the world to vanity. The meaning here is that the world seems useless and worthless because it is characterized by suffering and decay (vv. 18,21). This was not the way the world was created. It is the result of man's rebellion and sin. It is, in fact, the result of God's curse upon man and the world. Contrary to what some people may think, God is not surprised by the presence of disease, distress and death in the world, as if these things entered the world when he was not looking. Stated quite bluntly: death was God's idea. It was his idea in the sense that death was the covenant curse upon sin. It was God who warned man he would die if he disobeyed. It was God who sentenced man to return to the dust. It was God who subjected the world to vanity, to suffering and to decay because of man's sin.
Another way to say the same thing is that God sentenced man and his world to the rule and dominion of sin and death. In Romans, Paul alludes to sin as a ruler when he says "sin reigned in death" (5:21). He also says, "Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey" (Rom. 6:16)? His point is that sin and death have rule and authority and power and dominion over the fallen world. In I Corinthians 15:24,25, after stating that Christ will abolish all rule and authority, the apostle then identifies death as the last of those enemy powers.
When we hear this, we must not think that the rule of sin was simply imposed upon man against his will. Man, we remember, "presents" himself to this ruler. Having chosen sin, man's punishment from God was to receive exactly what he wanted. Here many
may object and say they did not deliberately choose a world of sin, but what they really mean is that they did not choose to have others sin against them. No one wants his own property taken or his own wife seduced, but we justify our own thefts and adultery. We do not want a world in which others are free to sin against us, but we do want a world in which we are free to sin. We have not realized that our neighbors feel the same way and serve the same powers that we do.
All this is the same point Paul made in Colossians 1:13 when he said we were in the domain of darkness. We were ruled by the forces of wickedness. To be exact, we were ruled by Satan himself. Having chosen Satan as our god-like ruler, it ought not to surprise us that he exercises his rule through the forces of wickedness. These forces have one chief characteristic or chief work to perform and we see that work spelled out in Romans 8:31-39. As the consequences of sin, they work suffering in order to separate us from God. Satan has always worked to separate. This was his work in the Garden of Eden and it has remained his work ever since. He who worked to separate man from God and consequently man from woman, man from his work and man from the earth itself, seeks to continue that separation. His forces of separation, his rulers and authorities and powers, manifest themselves as these: tribulation, distress, persecution, oppression, poverty, famine, nakedness, pain, tears, conflict, fear and ultimately death. Under these powers in a fallen world, Satan wants you to suffer and therefore shake your fist at God and feel alienated and separated from his holy love.
The Cross as Conquest
How shall these powers and authorities, these works of wickedness, be conquered? With what weapon does God overthrow them? The answer is in the cross of Jesus Christ. In the cross, we see the Son of God enduring the onslaught of the powers, doing battle with them by suffering under them and then triumphing over them. His cross is his sword by which he defeated them and hitched
them to his royal chariot. This he did by enduring the full fury of their attempts to separate him from God the Father. He was oppressed and persecuted by the religious rulers and civil authorities. He suffered the distresses of nakedness, thirst and pain. He was even brought to the very brink of crying out, "Why have you forsaken me?" But then in faithfulness he gave up his spirit to the Father in death. And because he remained faithful to the Father even unto the end, the Father raised him from the dead, raised him from the pain and the oppression and all of the forces of separation.
In Christ, these forces have been stripped of their ability to separate us from God. Christ met Satan on Satan's own ground, as he always had, but nothing could break him. Deprived of the things we hold dear–wealth, family, health and finally human life itself–his theme continued to be, "I live by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God." "Thy will be done." He gave up everything to God the Father so that the powers had no power over him. How different it would have been if he had said, "I have come to be ministered unto, not to minister." Then the powers could have stripped him of glory and reputation against his will and made him question the love of God. But he had no such weakness. Everything had already been given to the Father.
And now by faith in Jesus Christ we die to those powers in his cross. We too crucify wealth, family, health and even life itself. Satan has nothing left in his arsenal to use against us. We have died to the forces of this age and have been raised up to new life in Christ. In that new life of resurrection strength, we too say, "Man shall not live on bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God" (Mt. 4:4). This is the conquest of the cross for all who believe: those things which Satan intended to separate us from God now only draw us closer to him. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not distress, not disease, not even death itself. In Christ, death, which is the judgment of God against us all, now only draws us closer to him. The rulers and authorities of this age have been disarmed.
Christ's Triumph and Christian Experience
This triumph in Christ was part of Paul's experience as recorded in II Corinthians 12. He suffered from a "thorn in the flesh" which he called a messenger from Satan (not God). Satan meant to defeat him. Three times Paul prayed for deliverance, but God had already conquered all the messengers of Satan in the cross. Instead of being discouraged and defeated, Paul became even more aware of the grace of God perfected in weakness, the very weakness with which Satan sought to crush him.
This triumph is to be the experience of Christians in all their sufferings. In our congregation, a thirteen year old boy was recently told he had bone cancer and would lose his right leg. This disease which reigns with power and authority over our flesh in this fallen world was intended by Satan to separate the boy and his family from the love of God. They were supposed to shake the fist at God and ask, "Why him? Where is your power and justice?" Satan wanted them to ignore the fact that they lived in a world broken by the sin of man himself. Instead, the boy and his family were only drawn closer to their God. Even before the doctors changed their diagnosis and said it was not cancer after all, the family had learned anew that Christ had conquered all the powers which seek to separate us from God. All pain, all tears, all oppression, even death itself is disarmed of its ability to separate. The conquest is not that suffering is removed from our lives, but that the suffering has lost its power over us. In the cross, everything which we would cling to has been put to death. The world may say with Nietzsche, "What does not kill me only makes me stronger"; but the believer says with Paul, "To live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21). What I suffer only draws me closer to him.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. The rulers and authorities have been subjected to God's rule in the cross of Christ. Or is it that you still feel separated from God? Are you aware of what this means? If you feel separated from God's love in Christ, then the powers of this evil age are still your gods. Are
you ruled by your pain and sorrow so that it shapes and controls your life? Do conflict and fear tell you what to do? Are you ruled by poverty so that need forces you to compromise your principles? The only way you can conquer them is through the cross of Christ. It is not only a knife to treat your sin, it is a sword to subdue all the consequences of sin you may face.
Presbyterian Church (PCA)
Life, Light, Lamb… and the Logos
JAMES T. DENNISON, JR.The Prologue to this majestic gospel declares the advent of the Logos. It is an advent with cosmic consequences. "In the beginning . . . ." We are thrust back to the beginning of the Cosmos and the dramatic declaration that Logos is Creator (vv. 3,10). Cosmos finds its origin in Logos. The advent of this cosmos-maker is expressed in creation language. Notice how creation motifs are woven into the vocabulary of vv. 4,5,12,13: life, light, darkness, sonship. The Prologue contains cosmic language, creation language, advent language.
But further, the Prologue contains language of the herald; language which speaks of a harbinger–a prophetic harbinger; a witness to the Logos–a testifier to the Word; a camel-shirted, leather-girded desert rat! Elijah! Elijah redivivus! Here is the voice of the prophets, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord." Prepare? prepare for the advent of the light. Behold the light! cosmic light (yet in the world); light for the nations; light for the dwellers in darkness–darkness of the shadow-land–shadow-land of death! Dawning light is this dayspring. Rising light is this sun of righteousness. Voice of the prophets? all prophesied until John. Now–incarnation! Now–prophetic word incarnate!!
Still further, the Prologue contains language in which the times turn the corner. The Prologue contains language which demarcates looking ahead from looking back. Moses looks ahead. The Law looks ahead. The tabernacle-temple looks ahead. The hovering glory-cloud–glory-cloud hovering over tent and stone–looks ahead. Receivers of the fulness look back. Logos tabernacles. Logos pitches his tent. Receivers of the fulness look back, for Logos dwells with us. Logos is Immanuel!
Logos unveils his glory. Logos reveals his glory. Receivers of the fullness behold the glory. Yes, receivers of the fullness possess the glory. Logos is glory incarnate!
Logos and New Creation
The advent of the Logos is the transition from the old to the new, from the former times to the last times. The advent of the Logos is the transition from old to new creation; the transition from Moses to one greater than Moses; the transition from the age of the prophets to the one of whom the prophets spoke. John's gospel is the record of the surpassing excellence of the gospel age as it unfolds relative to the age of the law and the prophets. How we ought to praise God daily that we live here in this gospel age realizing, grace and truth through Jesus Christ.
The themes announced in the Prologue will be drawn out in the gospel. John's witness to Jesus is an expansion of his introduction to the Logos. Once again, notice the creation motifs. The advent of the Logos is the advent of a new beginning. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. . . ." "In the beginning was the Word . . . . " Genesis 1:1 is followed by John 1:1. Creation by the Word ("and God said . . ."); new creation by the incarnate Word. God said, "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3). The Logos said, "I am the light . . ." (John 8:12; 9:5). God said, "Let the waters and the earth bring forth living creatures . . ." (cf. Gen. 1:21,24). The Logos said, "I am . . . the life" (John 11:25). God said, "Let us make man in our image; male and female; sons and daughters of God; begotten after our image and likeness" (cf. Gen. 1:26,27). The Logos said, "I give you the right to be children of God; begotten not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man–but born of God" (cf John 1:12,13). Notice the new creation motifs which are announced and unfolded in the gospel of John: "you must be born again" (3:7); "I am come that you may have life" (cf. 10:10); "I have come as light into the world, that everyone who believes in me may not remain in darkness" (12:46).
But why is a new creation necessary? because of the darkness; because of the death; because that which is born of the flesh is flesh. The created order is under the curse and men are lovers of the darkness; abiders in the realm of death; sons of the devil. So too were you and I by virtue of our union with the old man–the man of the former (fallen) creation.
But this Son of man; this man from above; this new man–this God-man–overcomes the darkness. "He who follows me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life" (John 8:12). This new man–this God-man–is the death of death. "I am the resurrection and the life; he that believes on me is passed out of death into life" (cf. John 11:25 and 5:24). This new man–this Son of God–becomes man that we who are men may become sons of God. "Beloved, now are we the children of God . . ." (I John 3:2).
Logos and the Age of Moses
The themes announced in the Prologue will be drawn out in the gospel. Again notice the themes from Moses and the law: a lamb from God–victim for the slaughter; Paschal victim–atoning victim–penal victim! In the Logos, "Behold the Lamb of God!" A serpent is lifted up; brazen deliverer from death–death with its fiery sting; a bronze serpent openly displayed. The Son of Man is lifted up, removing the sting from death, crushing the serpent as he hangs upon the tree. He climbs the tree openly triumphing over the serpentine principalities and powers who first convened at a tree to defeat the son of man.
This gospel recalls Moses and the manna–angel's food in the wilderness; bread for the Israel of God in the desert. But now the Bread of God comes down out of heaven; living Bread–Bread of Life! O Israel of God, eat, live, never die!
Moses writes, "A prophet from the midst of Israel will arise" (cf. Deut. 18:15). Moses testifies that the Lord will put his words in his mouth. This new Moses will speak the Word of God. With Moses, God spoke face to face on the mount. This one; this Logos: he is eternally before the face of the Father. He is the Word springing from the face of the Father. This one is the only begotten; the eternally Begotten! This Word–the Father's "uncreated birth!"
Logos and the Age of the Prophets
And the Old Testament prophets? Their testimony is summed up in the witness of the last one of their number. "Are you the Christ?" they asked him. John replied, "I am not the anointed one. I am not Messiah." The one whom the Spirit anoints; the one baptized with the Spirit; the one drenched with the Holy Ghost, he is the Christ. This one upon whom the Spirit of God rests, hear him! His Spirit is the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and
might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord (cf. Isa. 11:2). Not a bruised reed will he break, not a dimly burning wick will he quench (cf. Isa. 42:3); not one of those who mourn will he leave comfortless. "Not I," says John. This one–this one is the Son of God.
The Old Testament prophets? They speak of a great marriage feast. They speak of a day on which the Lord will betroth his Israel unto himself in faithfulness. They project a day on which the Lord will rejoice over his people as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. On that day the Lord will clothe her with garments of salvation. The Lord will cover her with robes of righteousness. The Husband of Israel will marry her unto himself in a covenant of everlasting love.
The last of the Old Testament prophets–John the Baptist–declares: the bridegroom has come for his bride. The friend of the bridegroom rejoices, for the voice of the bridegroom is the voice of love–love for his bride. The preparation is over; the making ready for this day is done; bride and groom have come to the wedding feast. The friend of the bridegroom withdraws (cf. John 3:29). Let the marriage begin!
John maps out other prophetic motifs. The eyes of the blind are opened (cf. John 9 with Isa. 35:5). The lame man leaps as an hart (cf. John 5 with Isa. 35:6). The dead are raised up (cf. John 11 with Isa. 26:19). The King of Israel comes riding on a donkey (cf. John 12 with Zech. 9:9). He has salvation and speaks peace unto the heathen. Yes, the heathen–Samaritans and Greeks–hear him gladly (John 4; 12:20). The spirit of grace is poured out upon the house of David. They look upon him whom they have pierced and mourn–mourn at the foot of the cross (cf. John 19:37). Indeed, the true Israel mourns at the foot of the cross.
The Logos and You
You have heard the Prologue of John's gospel. From creation to the prophets; from Moses and the law to John the Baptist: all bear witness to the Logos. He fills them full! Logos fulfills the Scriptures! John's focus is Christ; for Christ is the heart of the law and the prophets. "These things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God" (John 20:31).
How will you preach?–you who preach. Will you preach yourself: your experiences, your finesse, your program, your successes? John's focus is Christ. From beginning to end, from Prologue to Epilogue, John's focus is Christ Jesus.
How will you preach?–you who preach. Will you preach yourself: your personal anecdotes, your family incidents, your accomplishments? "Moses wrote of me," Jesus says (John 5:46). Moses preached Christ. Whom will you preach?
How will you preach?–you who preach. Will you preach yourself? "We have found him of whom . . . the prophets wrote," cries Philip (John 1:45). The prophets preached Christ. Whom will you preach?
How will you preach?–you who preach. Will you preach yourself? "He must increase, but I must decrease," says John the Baptist (John 3:30). The Baptist preached Christ. Whom will you preach?
The final scene in John's gospel finds Peter before Jesus (John 21:15-17). "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me . . . ?" "Yea, Lord: thou knowest that I love thee." "Feed my lambs." The Good Shepherd says, "Feed my sheep." Feed them from the streams of living water; feed them on the meat that never perishes; feed them on the bread which will cause them to hunger no more. You undershepherds of the Lamb, feed his lambs.
What will you possess?–you who stretch forth your hands. John's gospel invites you to possess the light. There is no more darkness for you in him.
What will you possess?–you who stretch forth your hands. John's gospel invites you to possess life. There is no more death for you in him.
What will you receive?–you who reach out in faith. John's gospel assures you of sonship. There is no more illegitimacy for you in him. Rather he delights in naming you sons and daughters of God.
When you believe the witness of John, you possess the Lamb of God; Living Water; the Good Shepherd; the Son of God.
You are part of a cosmic drama–a new creation! You have turned the corner of the ages. The Prologue of John's gospel is yours–the Logos is yours!
The Church and Proclamation
MATTHEW 3: 1-12
In the gospel according to Matthew, the writer's purpose is to press the question, "Who is Jesus of Nazareth?" "Who is Jesus?" is the great question to be decided in the courtroom of God's covenant lawsuit against his people Israel. It is this question which will be prosecuted against the Jewish nation. Jesus himself says, "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all nations and then the end shall come" (Mt. 24:14). The desolation of the temple and the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70 are the result of covenant wrath fallen upon the nation of Israel because of their rejection of the gospel. It is the prosecution of this covenant
lawsuit against Israel that determines the mission strategy of the apostle Paul in his concern to preach the gospel to the Jew first and then to the Gentiles throughout the world that surrounds the Mediterranean Sea. With the close of God's covenant lawsuit against Israel as his special people, that lawsuit is now to be prosecuted against all the nations of the earth. The question at issue is the same. To the four corners of the earth, to every tongue, tribe and nation, the test of all humanity, by which all men shall be judged, is the question, "Who is Jesus?"
In his gospel, Matthew is especially concerned for his own countrymen before time runs out for the Jewish nation. He longs for them to see in Jesus of Nazareth the long-promised, the long-awaited deliverer and King of Israel. Matthew wants his readers to see Jesus so as to recognize him and receive him by faith and, as a result, to find life in his name. Matthew longs for his people to join Mary and Joseph and the pagan wisemen from the east. He yearns for them to recognize Jesus as the Christ and believe in him and thus join the ranks of all those who, like Peter and the disciples, confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Mt. 16:16).
For Matthew, the evidence in this court case was abundant. The evidence was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. This evidence could not be received on the basis of appearance however; it had to be received on the basis of faith. The failure of the Jews to recognize Jesus was not because there were no signs. It was not because the Jews were unprepared to receive them or were uninformed. The failure was due to the fact that they had their own ideas about what those signs would look like when they came. When the wisemen inquired into the birth of the King of the Jews, the chief priests and scribes knew the answer. They knew the Micah prophecy, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet" (Mt. 2:5). But for the birth of the King of the Jews to occur without their knowledge was unthinkable. After all, they were the aristocrats of Israel for whom the coming of the Messiah would be payment for their righteousness in keeping the law. That the Messiah might be born and they be left
uninformed, not invited to share in the event; for the King to be born outside their circles implied that the Messiah's coming was not good news for them. It would imply God's displeasure with them and his rejection of them. The Jews fail to accept the signs and recognize in Jesus the Messiah because the signs do not fit with their desires.
Peter's classic confession of Jesus as the Christ comes when others are uncertain about Jesus' identity. Jesus the Messiah, who will save his people from their sins, is not recognized and received by sight, but only by faith. "Blessed are you Peter, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 16.17).
The Church's Position
The position of John the Baptist is strategic for the Jews in order that they might recognize Jesus as the Messiah. In Matthew 3, the author records another sign by which Jesus' true identity might be understood. The Jewish nation was well aware of the prophecies that the promised deliverer-King would be preceded by the promised herald. In Matthew 3:1, the evangelist introduces John the Baptist. "Now in those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea . . . . " The word "preaching" means to proclaim as a herald. The herald's job was to announce the arrival of the king and to make sure everything was in readiness to receive him when he came. His job was to prepare everyone and to focus everyone's attention upon the coming king. The Old Testament promised that when the Christ came, he would be preceded by the herald. The Jews were well aware of these prophecies. The last book of the Old Testament speaks about the herald and the coming of the Lord. Malachi states that there will be a final appearance of two messengers of the covenant (the "my messenger" and the "messenger of the covenant" in Malachi 3:1). These two messengers will deliver an ultimatum to Israel. An ultimatum is a final message and warning that time has run out and that judgment is about to come. John the Baptist refers to this ultimatum when he says to the Pharisees and Sadducees that "the axe is already
laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Mt. 3:10). The coming judgment will purify and refine the nation like "refiner's fire and like fuller's soap" (Mal. 3:2). It will be a time when God draws near to the nation for judgment (Mal. 3:5). But before this day of judgment arrives, we read, "Behold I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord . . ." (Mal. 4:4).
The Jews were well acquainted with the promise of the herald who will precede the coming of the Lord. It is clear from the gospels that public opinion in Israel was seeking to discern the identities of John and Jesus. Is John the Messiah? Is Jesus Elijah or a prophet? In the gospel of John, the people ask the Baptist, "Are you the Christ?" John answers, "I am not the Christ" (John 1:20). They ask him if he is Elijah (the forerunner) and John's answer takes us by surprise. He says, "No" (John 1:21). What do we make of this, especially in light of Matthew 11:14 where Jesus explicitly calls John, Elijah?
In John 1, John the Baptist is denying that he is Elijah in the sense held by the Jewish expectation. The Jews expected the prophet Elijah, who never died but was taken directly to heaven, to reappear. John denies being Elijah in that sense. He affirms however that he is the herald, the forerunner that was prophesied. "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord" (John 1:23).
Matthew directs his Jewish countrymen to the long-promised and long-awaited Messiah. The promised Messiah would be preceded by the promised herald. In Matthew 3:3, the apostle quotes Isaiah 40, one of the great scripture passages dealing with Messianic hope and expectation. The passage announces the end of Israe1's bondage and captivity in Babylon. But beyond Babylon, it also foretells Israel's liberation from their deepest need, their deepest slavery: namely liberation from sin and death. The accomplishment of God's redemption of his people is preceded by the announcement of it. "A voice call-
ing, clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God." The coming of God's great redemption of his people is preceded by the work of the herald. And so it is that the coming of the Lord Jesus and the kingdom of blessing and salvation which he inaugurates is heralded in the preaching of John the Baptist. This is a sign to the Jews whereby they might recognize Jesus as the Messiah and believe in him.
Throughout this New Testament age, the coming of Jesus and the great kingdom of salvation that he brings continues to be heralded in the preaching of the gospel. The church now stands in the position of the herald. The Lord Jesus is coming again in a final demonstration of salvation and judgment and it is the preaching of the cross that alone heralds his coming. If anyone in this age is to come to know Christ and the gift of God's grace revealed in him for the forgiveness of sin and eternal life, they must come to that knowledge by means of the proclamation of the gospel. It is this proclamation of the gospel which is the only sign that is given by which men might believe in him. The preaching of the death and resurrection of Christ is the sign to our whole age whereby men might recognize and receive Jesus as the Christ and find life in his name.
As the church of Christ, let us give ourselves diligently and wholeheartedly to this task of proclamation. Let Christ–and him crucified and risen–be lifted up as a signal to the nations, a rallying point seen all over the world, to which people from every tongue, tribe and nation will be gathered. Let Christ–and him crucified and risen–be lifted up for all to see as the sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God.
The Church's Project
The church is in the position of the herald to proclaim the coming of the Lord. It has before it a challenging project. It is not coincidental that both the ministry of John and the ministry of our Savior begin
in the Judean wilderness. There is a deep significance to the idea of the wilderness in scripture. The wilderness is a picture of abandonment under the curse of the covenant. The thing that impresses us about the desert is that it is a "God-forsaken place." It is forsaken in the sense that no one lives there and very little life of any kind can survive there. It is a place which heaven has overlooked or ignored for it is devoid of life and fruitfulness. It is a symbol of the curse–of total abandonment under the curse.
In the Old Testament, when Israel was captive in a foreign land, under the oppression of an enemy and shamed by them, Israel was experiencing, in those times, the covenant wrath of God. Because of their departure from the covenant, they were exiled from the land and held captive by foreign nations. They were abandoned and they are pictured as those who languish in a wilderness. They have been cast out of the garden, the land flowing with milk and honey, the place where there is communion and fellowship with God.
It is to those who sit in the wilderness that deliverance comes. When John and Jesus come on the scene to announce God's salvation, they inaugurate their ministries by rising up out of the wilderness–the symbol of captivity and abandonment of the Jewish nation. Just as Moses appeared out of the Sinai wilderness to captive Israel in Egypt to deliver them from their captivity, so also Christ's public ministry is inaugurated from out of the wilderness, to lead God's people out of their bondage to sin and Satan, and into a life of blessing and glory. Later in Israel's history, the prophet Elijah comes across the Jordan River from out of the wilderness where he had been hiding. He comes to Israel which had been turned into a desert by a three-year drought. He comes to lead the people out of their captivity to Baal worship. After the prophets of Baal were slain, it rained again in Israel and the land experienced redemption and the renewal of life. It was Moses and Elijah who appeared with our Lord when he was transformed on the mountain in the presence of Peter, James and John. In Luke 9:31, we are told that they spoke together of the "departure" or the "exodus" that he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Moses
and Elijah, the two major exodus-leading figures in the Old Testament, speak with Jesus about the exodus he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem by means of his death and resurrection. His exodus is the fulfillment of the deliverance which Moses and Elijah had only foreshadowed. Jesus is the deliverer who has come to lead an exodus of his people from their captivity, to lead them out from under the curse, out of the wilderness and into a new and glorious life of fruitfulness to God.
And so it is that the heralding of the gospel takes place in the wilderness. It takes place in a land which is barren in terms of fruitfulness to God. The church has its existence for now in the midst of the wilderness. We minister among the nations of the earth, among people and cultures that sit in darkness and the shadow of death. The work of the church is therefore difficult. We know how difficult it is to get anything to grow and come alive in a desert. But we are encouraged by the understanding that God's redemptive purpose specializes in turning deserts into fruitful places of worship and service to him. It is God who can make the desert blossom, who can also turn the wilderness of our hearts and lives into fruitful service to himself. The mighty power of God can make what is dead alive. God will come again in his Son Christ Jesus through the wilderness of this world and someday make a whole new creation that blossoms in a rich harvest to him.
Though the church finds itself with a difficult project, we have the promise of God. The desert will bloom again by virtue of the outpouring of God's Spirit. In fact, it already has. The Spirit has been poured out, the new creation is already underway in the church which offers the fruitfulness of its worship and service to God throughout the age and until Jesus comes again.
The Church's Privilege
The ministry of John the Baptist helps us to see the way in which
the church's proclamation in the wilderness paves the way for the coming of Christ. The herald crying in the wilderness prepares or readies the way of the Lord. In other words, in the work of heralding, a path is cleared, a path is opened in the wilderness by which the Lord comes. Just as a red carpet is rolled out to welcome a "VIP" and over that carpet the dignitaries arrive, so also the herald makes a path or clears a path by which the king comes. That path is the path of repentance.
In their history, the Jews knew that the periods of their slavery and captivity were periods of indignation. God's righteous anger had fallen upon them on account of their disobedience. Israel knows that when they are captives of another nation, it is due to their unfaithfulness in the covenant and that they are being punished. Furthermore, it was understood that what paved the way of the Lord's coming to deliver them from their bondage was repentance; their crying out to God in the fiery furnace of their affliction; their confession of their sin and turning to rest and trust in him.
We remember Daniel's prayer from Babylon recorded in Daniel 9. The Jews are in exile and Daniel, from his reading of the prophet Jeremiah, understands that the 70 years of exile must be about over. Daniel 9 records the prayer Daniel offers as a result. It is a prayer of confession of sin and repentance on behalf of the nation. We read in verse 20, "Now while I was speaking and praying, and confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my supplication before the Lord my God in behalf of the holy mountain of my God, while I was still speaking in prayer, then the man Gabriel . . . came to me . . . ." It is in conjunction with Daniel's prayer of repentance and confession of sin that Gabriel appears with the message of deliverance from the exile. Repentance is the path unrolled in the wilderness over which the Lord will come in deliverance.
John the Baptist is the promised herald who prepares the way of the Lord by calling for repentance. He proclaims, "Repent for the
kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 3:2). Matthew's Jewish countrymen know that repentance is the necessary way by which to prepare for the coming of the King. The scriptures abound with the witness that God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble; that the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit–a broken and a contrite heart. The cry of the herald in the wilderness is a call to repentance. Repentance is the path over which God comes to save us and deliver us from our sin. The need is for repentance; a humbling of ourselves and a turning to trust in the grace and forgiveness of the King.
This repentance must be genuine and accompanied by the demonstration that our lives have changed. We read in Matthew 3:5,6 that "Jerusalem was going out to the Jordan and that they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sin." In verse seven however, we read that the Pharisees and Sadducees were also coming to him to be baptized. These were the aristocrats of Israel, the people with circumcision in their flesh and with Abraham's true blood in their veins. They were the people who were ready to break their bodies and shed their blood to give heaven a little peace. But they were the people who were unwilling to recognize and receive heaven's peace–the peace of Christ's body broken for them and his blood shed for them. Since they are unwilling to humble themselves, their desire for baptism is nothing but a pretense of virtue while at bottom nothing would ever change in their lives. Therefore, "when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, you brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with your repentance" (Mt. 3:7,8).
The day of the Lord is a great and terrible day. For those who genuinely repent, whose confession of sin is adorned with fruitfulness of life to God, it is the day of salvation. For those whose baptism is a sham, who in baptism confess that the old man has died and the new man has come alive, and yet nothing really changes, it is a day of wrath and vengeance. John the Baptist refers to this sifting and sorting out of the genuine and the false, the wheat and the tares in
Matthew 3:12. In the coming of the Lord, "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will thoroughly clean his threshing floor; and he will gather his wheat into the barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Always remember that the call to fruitfulness is not a contradiction of grace, but rather a confirmation of it. Fruit does not call attention to itself as the basis of its life. It doesn't produce itself. Fruit is the result of a good tree, good soil and a wise and skillful gardener. If the wilderness of our lives and of the world we live in is ever to blossom again, it will be the result of God's grace at work. Fruit never points to itself, but rather always points to the source and creator of it. Fruit shows that a tree is alive but it does not point to itself as the basis of its life. So also our confession of sin and our repentance must be adorned with fruit. But we never point to that fruit as the basis of our life; we point only and always to Christ and his work–the work he has done for us and continues to do in us.
It is the church's privilege to prepare for the Lord's coming. It is our privilege to prepare the hearts of men to receive him and our privilege to prepare the whole world for his coming again and the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth. It is our privilege to be a part already of the new creation, blooming with worship and praise to God both with our lips and in our lives. It is our privilege to encourage one another in our journey through the wilderness and to provoke one another to hold to that path that leads to eternal glory.
The church also awaits the arrival of the Lord Jesus from heaven. Our waiting is not one of inactivity, but rather we wait by seeking to order our lives to please the King when he comes. To Matthew's fellow countrymen and to our world also, signs are given that men might recognize Jesus as the Messiah and that in answer to the question, "Who is Jesus?," they might reply, "He is the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Our desire for our fellow man is that he will recognize and receive
Christ by faith by the means of the proclamation of the gospel. The question now before every man is, "Do you recognize Jesus?" The day is coming soon when the question will no longer be, "Do we recognize Jesus?" but rather, "Does Jesus recognize us as his disciples and claim us as his people?"
Orthodox Presbyterian Church