KERUX: A JOURNAL
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ISSN 0888-8513 Vol. 5, No. 1
Resurrection of Believers
A Sermon on Ephesians 2:4, 5
by Geerhardus Vos
Translated by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.
In the 37th chapter of his prophecy, Ezekiel describes for us how the hand of the Lord was upon him, and how he was led out in the Spirit and set down in the middle of a valley full of bones. There lay parts of human skeletons spread over the ground in such great numbers that the prophet had to walk around them in order to view them all. Then came the voice of the Lord with the question: "Son of man, shall these bones live?" Ezekiel answered: "Lord God, you know," as if to say, "For men this is impossible; if it is to come to pass, you, the Lord God, must do it." And in confirmation of this answer, he received the task of prophesying to those dry bones: "You dry bones! hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God: 'Behold, I shall cause breath to enter you, and you shall become
The prophet did as commanded, and, as if the bones had understood his words, there was noise and commotion among them. At first it seemed impossible to detect any kind of order in the agitated mass, but before long they drew near to each other, bone to bone; what had just been scattered about in pieces now became articulated human skeletons. Look! The dry bones were clothed with flesh, and the prophet saw how delicate tendons intertwined among these bones and a pale skin was laid upon them so that the hideous skeletons changed into well-formed bodies.
Still, with that the prophecy was not yet fulfilled because there was no spirit in those bodies. Therefore, the command of the Lord again came to Ezekiel: "Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, son of man! Say to the spirit, 'Oh spirit! come from the four winds, and breathe into these dead that they may become alive'." Hardly had this taken place than a mighty rustling was heard among those pale dead, the breath of life flowed over their lips, warm blood colored their cold cheeks red, dull eyes began to sparkle with the light of life, they stretched out their arms, and rose up on their feet—a well-prepared people that God had fashioned for himself out of dry bones through his mighty power.
All this, my hearers, was a symbolic prophecy of the national re-creation of God's covenant people, who mourned in exile. Those bones were the entire house of Israel. The Lord would open their graves, raise them up, and bring them back to their land. At the same time, however, it is a striking image of the resurrection of the spiritual Israel out of the graves of its sin and impurity, which we wish to speak to you about today, according to the word of the apostle in Ephesians 2:4,5: "But God who is rich in mercy, through his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through transgressions, has made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)." It is, as was just observed, "the spiritual resurrection of believers," which demands our attention. We will endeavor to consider it under the following points: (a) What it flows from; (b) What it
presupposes; (c) How it is accomplished; (d) What it obliges us to.
According to our text, it is God's mercy and love out of which salvation is born. These two are the springs out of which it wells up, and therefore its entire character must correspond to this source. What springs from the bowels of God's mercy and love must in its entire course overflow with love and mercy. What comes from God, without our being able to prepare for or take away from it in any way, cannot in its duration be dependent on us but is, like God himself, unchangeable and eternally faithful; "I the Lord do not change, therefore, O children of Jacob, you are not consumed."
It is to a rich mercy and a great love that Paul points the Ephesians, as the source of their resurrection. And that is so as the latter is the foundation for the former. God was rich in mercy through his great love. Not until we rightly understand this will there be opened to us something of the riches that brought these glorious words of thanksgiving to the lips of the apostle.
What then is the situation? Imagine for a moment that the text read: "God, who is rich in mercy, has made us alive together with Christ," and that the words, "through his great love with which he loved us," were omitted. What a different outlook on the matter would immediately result! It would then say: God saw us in the misery of our sins and was moved in mercy to save us in Christ. Thus the foundation of our salvation would be nothing but a natural feeling of pity in God because of the wretchedness of his creatures.
To be sure, that alone would already be inexpressibly much. When the holy God has dealings with sinful creatures such that he is moved to pity and mercy towards them, that is such a miracle of divine grace that it constrains us to kneel in adoration before him who accomplishes it.
But the great love leaves the rich mercy far behind and is at once distinguished from it. That can be easily grasped. Suppose yourself to
mortally ill without nursing care and someone comes who, out of pure mercy and moved by your pitiable state, cares for you. What do you think, would the hand of that person make your bed as gently as the hand that a loving father or mother or spouse would extend to you?
Well then, the situation in our text is no different. It makes a great difference whether a redeemed person must say: God saw me in my misery and therefore he said to me, live, or whether, along with that, he may voice the glorious thought: God has loved me with an everlasting love, therefore he has drawn me with cords of loving kindness.
This great difference, which we immediately sense, may be given a satisfactory explanation. In order to grasp the proper relationship in which mercy and love appear here, we will look briefly at the respects in which they are different.
First, love has a more noble origin, provided it is born of the one who loves. Mercy is different. There the reason why one shows mercy comes from outside, prompted by the wretched situation of the object. Where there is no misery, there is no place for mercy, and as soon as the distress has subsided your compassion for the sufferer ends. Dependent on external circumstances and temporary in origin and duration, mercy cannot be compared with love. What if we had to think that it were only our sins which had moved God to save us? Oh no! It was love, which was not aroused by us but was grounded from eternity in the depth of divine being, whose length, breadth, depth, and height cannot be measured by our finite comprehension but by the infinite comprehension of God. It never ends, even as it never had a beginning.
Moreover, a distinction has to be made between divine and human love. The latter loves because it beholds and admires something beautiful and loveable in its object. Not so with God. He loved his own before the mountains came to be, before the earth and the world were brought forth. It was not at all that he knew, by virtue of his
eternal foreknowledge, that they would be loveable. Oh no! All that they would be in this respect, he himself had decided to make them. He saw them dead in their sins and crimes, without form or glory, covered with their own blood. This is the great mystery that no man can solve—how God could love sinners, without there being anything in them worthy of his love. Mysterious, eternal love of God, you are beyond comprehension!
Secondly, love has a nobler nature. It is the firstborn of all God's virtues. "He who does not love, does not know God, for God is love," testifies the apostle John. God's being consists of love, and therefore when it is said that he loved those who were his in Christ Jesus, that means that his whole being expressed itself in that love and carried over to its objects. It was not a part of his affection that he bestowed upon these who were loved from eternity, but the fullness of his own blessed being. He did not purpose for them a gift located outside of himself, but his love was so great and rich that it was satisfied with nothing less than giving itself: God gave himself in Christ Jesus, his only begotten Son, who is the reflection of his glory and the express image of his substance. Precisely because in this deed God gave himself for sinners, the Scriptures call this the greatest revelation of God's love, which includes all others. "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends," testifies the Savior. And the apostle asks: "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him give us all things?"
Thirdly, the distinction is seen in the object to which both reach out. Mercy is a common emotion, inherent in our nature, but love is something personal, the affection of a person for a person. Precisely this constitutes the richness of the faith of God's children, that every one of them can say with Paul: "He loved me, and gave himself for me" It is a discriminating love, which, although it encompasses the whole church, still has a personal relation to each one and knows everyone of its own by name. The Scriptures compare it to the love of a man for his wife, a bridegroom for his bride. It follows its objects their whole life through with a care that protects, leads and blesses. It
sets apart a Paul from the womb for his worldwide task, but the tears of even the least among God's children are numbered in its bottle, and none of them is forgotten by God. Its greatness condescends to the smallest, who through such exertions is made great. The blood of his own is precious in God's sight. So unique and personal is this relationship between him and those he loves that he himself declares: The one who touches them, touches the apple of my eye. In an their oppression he is oppressed, through his love and through his grace he delivers them; he takes them up and carries them, now as in days of old.
From these observations the meaning of our text becomes clear. Before all else, the apostle intends to say that love precedes mercy in order. In the second place, because that love was so great, mercy became so rich. Through his great love, literally, for the sake of it, God was so rich, so wonderfully merciful. That love desired to express itself and did so in a wealth of mercies. In spite of their unsightly form and their impurity, this love still declares: "They are my people, children, whose lineage will not prove false. Thus he has become a Savior for them." For God, too, has a love that desires to work. Where he creates children for the glory of his great Name and pours out on those children his tender mercies, there is a love that is impelled, a love that must disclose more and more of itself. Therefore it is absurd to think that he could let them go and consider them sufficiently blessed, before he had communicated to them an the riches found in his divine fullness, before he had raised them as high as they could go and endowed their being with that perfection of which it was capable. For although he works all things according to his will, what is divine in that will is that the highest object of his glorious good pleasure is at the same time the greatest good of his children.
This mercy, enriched and made tender by God's love, had an ample area in which to display itself. It found its objects, according to our text, "dead in transgressions," that is to say, in the most wretched
condition that one could imagine. And, what is most remarkable of all, this condition, however miserable in itself, was not such that, seen from a human point of view, it appeared capable of evoking mercy. Only when we clearly comprehend this will we in some measure have plumbed the deep meaning of Paul's words. To that end, in the second place, we must consider what this spiritual resurrection presupposes, in other words, what the expression "dead in transgressions" means.
On the surface it seems easy to say what "death" is. It is the opposite of "life," one will immediately answer. But just here lies the difficulty. The greatest wise men in this world have never been able to explain what life is and how it originates. And therefore the difficulty in clarifying the opposite, apart from God's Word.
Scripture, however, gives us an unambiguous answer to the question of what "death" is, and it does so by showing repeatedly in the clearest light what it would have us to understand by "life." In the first place, according to Scripture, life is an attribute of God. He alone has true life in and of himself In the second place, Scripture teaches that all creaturely life is derived from God and is nourished only in fellowship with him. So, at the beginning of all things, after the first creation, darkness covered the abyss and the earth was desolate and empty, a dead, formless mass. But as soon as the Spirit of God brooded, hovering over the waters, there was light and movement, the mass began to seethe and ferment, life originated in it by its contact with God. Again, when the Lord God had formed man out of the dust of the earth, he lay there like a dead man, lifeless and cold, until God blew into his nostrils the breath of life; thus man became a living being. From this it is plain enough that Scripture makes all life dependent on fellowship with God. Conversely, then, death can be defined as being cut off from the source of life. When we speak of temporal, spiritual and eternal death, repeatedly this thought lies at the foundation. In temporal death it is the body that is cut off from the source of its life, that is, the soul, and it slowly dissolves, there is no longer a living, animating principle that keeps it together; it returns to dust, from which it was taken. It is no different with the
soul. In spiritual death it is cut off from the fountainhead of its life, the living God, and, accordingly, it dies, is completely torn from its context, looses its unity, perishes. Eternal death is the total separation of both body and soul, when these will one day be reunited, from the fellowship of God. In the outermost darkness, where no ray of divine light any longer penetrates, this alienation from God reaches its zenith and its most dreadful revelation.
From this it is immediately clear to us why Paul announces to the Ephesians that they were dead "in their transgressions." Sin is nothing other than renouncing, abandoning God's fellowship, turning away from him and choosing one's own way. If, then, there is life only in this fellowship, for those who abandon it death must enter immediately. "The mind of the flesh is death." And so it came to pass. As soon as Adam ate, that is to say, as soon as he severed the thread of conformity to God's law and the blessed fellowship with his creator, in that same moment he died the death.
We must, however, go a step further and examine not only the cause of death but also its manifestations. Here again what we see happening in every temporal death can provide us with a starting point. The first thing that strikes us in a dead person is that he lies there stiff and motionless. That same body that was formerly animated and suffused by the soul and in its most delicate fibers and nerves willingly lent itself as a tool to the soul, is now rigid and immobile, cold as a piece of marble. Not only has the activity of the soul upon the body ceased, but the body itself has lost the ability to obey that influence. It no longer receives impulses from the soul and shows no indication of being susceptible to them. A power is certainly still at work in such a body, but no other power than that which works in all matter, the natural power that leads to dissolution.
We also find all these characteristics in spiritual death. Here the same thing happens to the soul that we just saw taking place with the body. As soon as God takes away his Holy Spirit and withdraws his fellowship, the soul becomes insensible and hardened, spiritual numbness overpowers it. Where life is present, you will notice how it
courses through all the parts of the body: it beats in the heart, throbs in the pulse, hovers in the breath, gleams in the eye, and makes itself known by numberless marks. All this is missing in a dead person. Likewise, in a spiritually dead person one searches in vain for the heart throb of faith, the pulse beat of prayer, the breath of love, the look of sympathy—for any expression of a hidden, inward life. The person dead in transgressions is a person, just as a dead body is a body, and yet, when you yourself possess spiritual life, you will feel the distance between yourself and that person, in the same way as living persons naturally recoil from the dead. You miss the image of God in their features, just as the image of the soul is missing in the face of the deceased. And just as death often leaves its stamp on the pallid countenance in misshapen and distorted lines, so the spiritual death of sin puts its horrible marks upon the destroyed soul.
But not only is the spiritually dead person incapable of moving and developing any power of himself, receptivity to impressions from the outside is also lacking. All life has these two sides: it makes impressions and receives impressions, and in so doing develops and grows. Both of these are lacking in the sinner in his natural state. He does not seek God, and when God comes to seek him, he does not answer, gives no signs of life, and remains insensible. When the Word of God, from which all spiritual life draws its sustenance, is brought into contact with him, his eye does not see it, his ear does not hear it, his heart does not give assent to it, it goes by him like an idle sound. "The natural man does not comprehend the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned."
But there is more than this. In a dead body the powers by nature inherent in all matter are at work, decompose and dissolve it. They were already present earlier, but were countered and made harmless by another, higher power. The life-power of the soul did not allow it to perish However, as soon as that life-power receded, those natural forces were given free play, immediately began their work, and did not rest until the body was turned to dust. It is no different with a sinful
man. The love of the world and selfishness work within him. As long as love and God's fellowship lived in him, they controlled all lower forces and led them in the right direction so that they could not harm him. But look! As soon as the person was cut off from God, and the life-power from God no longer exercised control in his soul, in that same moment the love of the world and selfishness began their horrible work, ruined the soul, and brought it unavoidably into destruction. It is impossible that a man who is "dead in transgressions" should remain what he was. One would expect with just as much right that a dead body should remain as it was. So, if anything is clear, it is that sin makes man more and more abominable, and finally must be so displayed that all turn away with abhorrence and loathing. Although this may be less evident in some than in others, the principle of death is present in all and that principle, if it continues its work, can lead to nothing but open enmity against the Almighty.
Only when viewed in this light is full justice done to the expression of the apostle, "even when we were dead in transgressions." Even then still he has made us alive. That can only be explained by God's great love. Were our spiritual death nothing more than a pitiable illness, the situation would be easily understandable. Were it no more than cold indifference, even then it would be thinkable. But now that it has developed into direct, straightforward enmity towards God, there is no alternative to solving this mystery of God's divine mercy than to assume that an eternal, mysterious love was at work behind it, was its foundation, and was expressed in it.
Imagine for a moment that you seek the good of someone with whom you do not have a relationship, that you do everything in your power to advance his welfare; you sacrifice yourself for him. But look! Instead of thankfully acknowledging that, he remains indifferent, begins to hate you, and ends up by cursing you. What do you think? Would the miserable condition of such a person be likely to evoke your mercy?
But now, imagine for a moment that all the circumstances just mentioned are the same, except that this time the scoundrel is not a
stranger but your own son. Could you stop loving him because he hates you? Could you cease praying for him because he curses you? Could you restrain the urgings of your fatherly mercy because he has seared his conscience? I think not! You will say: He is still my son, whom I have carried in my arms. The more such a rogue causes you shame and heartbreak, all the more will you watch, moved by deep pity for him, how he willfully throws himself into ruin.
Where now is the distinction? Why can't you show mercy to a stranger who behaves like this but can towards your own child, although he may be ten times more vile than the stranger? The answer is simple: in the first case, no love drove you to pity; in the second, a great love had to be expressed in rich mercy.
Our case is no different. In themselves sinners are not objects of mercy but vessels of wrath. Sin is enmity and enmity as such does not fall within the scope of pity. But from eternity God had loved those sinners, those enemies, those spiritually dead, with a fatherly love. This love was the foundation of everything and was before everything. It is useless to ask after its origin. It came from the inscrutable being of God and embraced the objects of its free choice even before they had existence. It determined to make them in such a way as to reflect that love. And look what happened! Those children fell, sank into sin and death. Instead of sons they became devils. Love was answered with hate. Nevertheless—and here lies the precious core of our text—all this was not able to extinguish that love, because it is impossible to tear the son from the heart of the father. On the contrary, it now first came to light clearly that it was love and not just kindness. Where the latter would have stopped it went further and emerged triumphant. It did not love the righteous and virtuous, but the godless. In this "God demonstrates his love toward us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." This is the deepest reason why Paul knows to ascribe to no other cause than a great, divine love the fact that those who lay in the midst of sin and death and were enemies of God were nevertheless endowed with the greatest benefits that could befall them, namely that God, according to his rich mercy, made them alive
together with Christ, the Lord.
If we have clearly understood all this, then it is also immediately evident that only a divine creation, a new birth is capable of changing the sinner, for he is dead. This is no metaphor, but a reality. A dead person is no more insensitive and motionless in the natural domain than a sinner is in the spiritual sense. Where death has entered, all human help and advice ceases. Go to a dead person and see whether in a natural way you can call him back to life; use all available means. In fact, if necessary, bring back warmth to the departed one, restore breathing, cause blood to flow through the veins—all that will do you no good; the attempts of all the doctors combined are not enough to restore life to one single dead person.
But suppose that Christ the Lord comes, and by a word of power recreates the departed principle of life in that dead person. Then you can use these same means and the outcome will be that the dead will live again, and before long he win show by signs of life that his soul has returned.
In the spiritual sphere it is just the same. Here the dead person is the sinner. Here at the same time is the means God has given us to use: the Word of God—a brightly shining light, a life-nourishing power. But it is impossible for the spiritually dead person to open his eyes to see that light and to open his mouth in order to ingest that nourishment, unless a higher power has caused him to awake from the slumber of unrighteousness.
But if in the inmost being of such a person God, the Holy Spirit causes his irresistible call to be heard: "Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ win shine on you," then the blind eyes are immediately opened, the deaf ears unstopped, and the hardened heart begins, with a lively interest, to seek after God and his fellowship. When the dry bones hear the word of the Lord, and the Spirit blows among them, look! There is noise and movement, they approach each
other, bone to its bone; these receive sinews and flesh, and a skin to cover them and a spirit within them, and a human form appears.
Such a creative deed, therefore, is necessary. A question, however, arises: Is this possible? Can God justly bestow this benefit on a sinner, dead in transgressions, by creating a new life in him?
The answer to this must be a decisive "no." God cannot do such a thing. It is true that his love is great and his mercy rich, but his justice is inviolable. It requires that the sinner be punished and that only the one who fulfills the demand of the law be rewarded. Justice draws its rigorous line without making distinctions between persons; on the left it assigns eternal death to the transgressor of the law and on the right eternal life to the keeper of the law.
If a person dead in transgressions is to be raised up, two conditions must be met first. In the first place, he must be relieved of the burden of his guilt which rests on him because of his sins. He must bear the threatened punishment and empty to its dregs the cup of God's holy displeasure. As long as this does not happen, despite God's great love and rich mercy, there can be no talk of God showing favor to the sinner.
But suppose that the punishment has been borne, the cup emptied—even that by itself is not enough. The justice of the law must be fulfilled, that is to say, it must be perfectly obeyed and observed. Only to the one who does this can God restore life and impart his Holy Spirit.
To understand this clearly let us imagine a criminal who must bear the punishment of imprisonment designated by the law. When he is released after serving his sentence, the law has been satisfied. But is the criminal's honor restored, have his civil rights been regained, can he count on all the privileges granted to someone who keeps the law without punishment? Of course not. Although the law cannot further require penal satisfaction from him, for the most part and all too often he finds himself without civil rights and honor, disgraced and an outcast in the midst of society.
Exactly the same justice applies in the kingdom of God. Assume that the sinner is able himself to bear the punishment of his transgression, by bearing it completely so that nothing remains to be borne. This is not the case, but assume it for a moment. What then would follow? Would this be the end of the matter for the sinner? God's wrath would be removed, but his favor would not be regained. The person would still be without citizenship and rights in God's kingdom, he would still remain a beggar who has no claim to anything. The unyielding law, with its "Do this and you shall live," would still stand—with its accusation that it has not been fulfilled and its strict prohibition against giving life to the sinner.
You can immediately see where the great difficulty lies here. The law must be satisfied, because apart from keeping it there is no life. As far as we know, God does not grant eternal life to either angels or men on any other condition than perfect keeping of the law. But man cannot keep the law, he is dead in transgressions, spiritually impotent. If he is ever again to attain to keeping the law, it must be preceded by a creative act of God, by an infusion of life from God, whereby he is again put in a position to live according to the commandments of God.
Thus, two things are firmly established: (1) God cannot make man alive from his spiritual death in sin, unless he has first fulfilled the law. (2) As long as God has not made man alive, he cannot fulfill the law.
This crying contradiction demonstrates how hopeless the situation with man was. There was no solution in sight and it seemed there was nothing left for God to do but to abandon man to his miserable fate. And, indeed, if help would have had to come from man's side, it would not have appeared, not even in an eternity!
But through his great love God knew how to find a solution. He solved the riddle in a way that caused the angels to stare in wonder and the congregation on earth, in turn, to venture in joyful rapture before the heavenly authorities and powers. When the eye of God's love could find no resting place in all of sinful humanity, then it rested
upon Christ Jesus, his only begotten Son, and saw in him the possibility of unraveling the sad riddle.
The Lord could not make us alive. We had forfeited the right to be made alive. There was no one who was worthy to be made alive—unless it be that the Son of God became man, and by becoming such, restored the possibility that man be made alive and be saved. To make us alive with Christ—that was the answer that God's great love gave to the question raised by his mercy, otherwise there was no means by which sinners could be rescued from eternal destruction.
The two conditions just discussed were present in Christ. He was able to wipe out the debt, and he did. At the same time, because he was not dead in transgressions, by his perfect keeping of the law he acquired the right to eternal life. Him God could raise up by his sublime power and bring back in immortality. And with that the great work was accomplished in principle. Certainly there was but one point of departure found for the spiritual resurrection, but that point lay in the Mediator Christ Jesus. With Christ it is therefore possible for God to raise us up also. He took upon himself the curse and the demands of the law, we reap the fruits together with Him. In his resurrection from the dead ours is given in fact and guaranteed by right. That new life, which he received as the reward for his obedience, passes over from him, by the working of his Spirit, to all that belong to him, so that they, awakened from the sleep of sin, let Christ shine on them, say "Amen" with a living faith to all God's words of life, hunger and thirst after the righteousness of life, and end by praising God's rich mercy, which, because of his great love, even when they were dead in their transgressions, made them alive with Christ, the Lord.
Finally, we must come to the recognition that nothing but God's love has accomplished this. In his final words the apostle draws the conclusion of our text and it is very simple: "By grace you have been saved."
The origin of this spiritual resurrection was an eternal mysterious love, welling up from God's being. The objects to which it was applied were the spiritually dead, in whom not even the slightest spark of life glowed in the ashes. Its point of departure could not even be found in man; God had to make us alive with Christ, since he could not make us alive in ourselves.
Where then is boasting? It is excluded! All who with Paul's eye survey the plan of redemption from its ultimate origins in God's eternal choice to its final unfolding in a glorified soul, and all who with Paul's faith hold fast to his Jesus, will not be able to do anything other than testify with Paul: "Free grace has saved me; for me Christ Jesus has become wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification, and complete redemption."
This spiritual resurrection compels such humble acknowledgment. God does not grant us his work of grace so that we should glory in it as our own. Therefore he so arranged it that it would manifestly be his work from beginning to end, a divine work, and he desires to be glorified in it.
Here lies the deepest purpose that God had in raising us with Christ. It was not merely impossible for it to be otherwise, but alto magnificent and worthy of God that it took place in this manner. Just because it happened this way every possibility is cut off for the believer to nurture in his heart the unholy thought that there was still something of his own work involved.
That your guilt is atoned for in Christ is easy to see. This fact is so clear that no one who is truly Christian dares or is able to deny it. The danger, then, of self-righteousness creeping in does not lie here. It is, however, to be sought on that other side. How easy, how natural, how seemingly innocent, how tempting it is for you to suppose that, after your guilt is atoned for in Christ, you then have life of your self, that, where your Surety has accomplished the first half by bearing your affliction, you can achieve the second half in your own power by earning eternal life for yourself.
This, in fact, is what Rome teaches us, and with such teaching it wrests the crown from God's work of grace. But God knew what sort of creatures we were, and that is why he has barred the way to this terrible error for every one who truly fears him, by not making us alive in ourselves but by making us alive in Christ. First Christ, then, by his Spirit, we out of and with him.
As long as a believer fastens his eyes of faith on Christ Jesus, as long as he holds fast to the Mediator, he can do nothing else but testify with Paul: "By grace I have been saved," and, "It was God's gift."
By that faith life flows from Christ to the believer. He not only knows that but feels it. "Outside of Jesus there is no life," his soul says to him. Or it repeats after Paul: "I live, yet no longer I, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."
The unavoidable conclusion from this is that this life was in Christ before it came to us, that, consequently, it was not earned by us but acquired by him. He possessed it, long before we had performed any works; it was not manifested in us until we, by faith, came into contact with him, the living Christ.
Thus our faith becomes an unimpeachable witness, which, with every drink we take from the cup of God's redemption, cries out: "By grace you have been saved!" Thus it becomes an ever-flowing stream, whose incessantly rushing waters do not cease mentioning: "Not of yourselves, it is God's gift!"
Everyone who understands this language bows in humility in order to repeat it from the depths of his soul and thus respond to the glorious purpose of God, who created him as his creature in Christ Jesus, for good works, so that he might show in the ages to come the riches of his grace, through his kindness toward them in Christ Jesus.
And now, my hearers, what does this language say to you? Does it appear to you as the narrow-minded expression of a dead and
deadening doctrine, or as the most intimate core of the precious truth, that man is saved by pure grace, without consideration of anything in him?
Seen in this light, does not the truth about which Paul boasted have another complexion than that to which we are interminably pointed, namely that it makes the door of salvation so narrow that only a few are able to enter, that it limits the free Gospel and robs his preaching of power?
Where, then, has the apostle ended with his teaching? In an anxious concern as to how far he dared to go with the Gospel of Christ? Oh no! The opposite was the case: He ended in glorious praise of the matchless, unsearchable love of God, whose kingdom is in all and over all, and with that glorious message he went from Antioch to Rome, and, wherever he came, his Gospel was not in words but in power.
And with that we shall have to end. God's purpose with us in presenting this teaching in his Word has never been that we should sit down and attempt, by brooding, to find out whether we, too, are numbered among those who from eternity are loved in Christ Jesus. That is a hopeless task, my hearers! It is like arithmetic without numbers. God has not put any data at our disposal by which we can determine the outcome as either "yes" or "no". Such an approach would be an atrocious abuse, a turning of what is meant for God's glory into our destruction.
It is only in Christ Jesus that you can obtain certainty about this matter. Here also you must begin with him and end in him. If you are loved, it has been in him, as a member of his body. Therefore look to him! Only when he turns you away will you have the right to say that God has not loved you with an everlasting love, but not until then.
The most absurd conclusion that can ever be drawn from this truth is that it gives you the right to sit still. The opposite is true. In its deepest grounding this truth comes down to the fact that you are completely powerless, that you are wholly dependent upon God, that
in yourself you are irretrievably lost. To what must such an awesome thought now lead you? To continue sleeping calmly upon the dregs of idleness? Or, with holy trembling, to call upon that God from whom alone your help can come?
You will want to agree to the latter. If you rightly feel your own helplessness and impotence, you will cry out to the mighty One of Jacob for mercy and will not cease until it is granted. For a sinking and perishing sinner who feels that he is slipping away it is impossible to keep still. He will cry out until the waters of destruction close over him.
But that cannot happen. No one who cries out for mercy is turned away. "The one who comes to me I will in no wise cast out," the Savior says. Oh, try that and you will discover that his word is truth!
And for you who perceive that life-giving power of Christ in your own soul, this truth must be a new stimulus to humility and meekness. Your life came from Christ, it continues to be hid with Christ in God. You must draw all your lifeblood from him, so that the excellence of the power may be from God and not from you. Do not look for it anywhere else but from him. Let Christ dwell in your hearts by faith, so that you may be rooted and grounded in love. The more that happens the less you will become and will sink away deeper in your insignificance. God, on the other hand, will become greater and more glorious, and the more the language of your life will become that beautiful word of the apostle, in which prayer and thanksgiving fuse together: "Now to him who is powerful to do more than abundantly, above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to him, I say, be the glory in the church, through Christ Jesus, in all generations, forever and ever." AMEN.
(A translation of De Geestelijke Opstanding der Geloovigen. Leerrede Over Ephese II:4,5 [Grand Rapids: J.C. Melis, Drukker, n.d.])
Dr. Gaffin is Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The New Heavens and the New Earth
Charles G. Dennison
Is the world too much with us? Now I don't intend to go down the lines Wordsworth pursued with that sentiment, but still the issue is well set before us. Have we Christians lost sight of the goal of our redemption? Is our vision blurred? obscured? diverted so that we are not looking where we should?
Despite the current rhetoric, the Christian church has traditionally trained her eye upon the world to come. In fact, the conclusion of her message, the end to which she pressed, has been the note upon which she began. So she preached the text, "...and whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life."
Those of the Reformed church would do well to reread Book III
of Calvin's Institutes especially the section known as "the golden booklet of the Christian life." I fear many present-day Calvinists are embarrassed by the reformer's longing for heaven. Such an eschatological orientation also dominates the work of the Westminster Assembly if we take the Shorter Catechism as a key. Glorifying and enjoying God forever (Question 1) and being made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to an eternity (Question 38) set the tone at Westminster Abbey.
There is a world beyond! This destiny is laid before us. Truly, the present world will end, and the heavenly world will endure in which the saints, presently graced by Christ, will enjoy full, unending, perfectly satisfying communion with God. In the simplicity of our faith we speak of moving to the realms of glory, to a heavenly residence.
I'm well aware of how this perspective is maligned and caricatured. Pure sentimentalism, mysticism, irresponsible world flight, a kissing cousin to the beatific vision. What's "up there" anyway? We with our airy bodies, sitting on clouds playing harps throughout eternity? What could be more boring!
There is, however, another side of the story. While a heavenly perspective and vision has been obscured, even lost, we have witnessed the rise of an earthiness, what you might call a Christian worldliness, and the development of Christian activism that sets its sights upon the world and the world's renovation. We have been especially infected by a vain optimism, by millennial dreams, even by a utopianism—the perfection of our world. Serious Christian thinkers, maybe Christianity's most serious, seem bent by these winds.
You probably don't spent your time the way some former seminarians do—reading seminary ads in periodicals. My favorite appeared a few years ago in Christianity Today entitled "Make a Difference." Pictured was a well-known professor in teaching pose. Beneath him ran this quote: "The point of theology is not merely to
understand the world, the truth and doctrine; the point of theology is to change the world." The sad truth is that this man, an anabaptist, expresses the near-unanimous opinion of present-day theologians, even those that have no sympathy for his basic anabaptist position.
Ironically, this age of Christian worldliness and activism, therefore supposedly "out-faced," is also self-absorbed. Ours is a particularly selfish age, and Christians are not doing well at distancing themselves from it despite their well-publicized exercises in caring and sharing. As the course of modern literature has proven, the rise in our sensitivity and our development of what Edmund Fuller has called the "new compassion" are linked to a blatant inwardness. Erich Kahler quite convincingly described this trend through the close of the eighteenth century when he wrote on "the inward turn of narrative." Anais Nin tells us the only future for the novel is the exploration into the subconscious.
Preoccupation with the stream of consciousness may distress us but can hardly surprise us. The world of man triumphs and man's interior world grows in importance to the point that some have labelled us narcissistic. Are we "stuck on ourselves?" Are we caught in the trap of endlessly reviewing our own emotional responses, cataloging our positive features, reassuring ourselves about our self-image, and demanding our needs be met? "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?"
A worldliness, yes, even a Christian worldliness devotedly activist, millennial, and tragically selfish, has landed us in a situation in which heaven—the age to come, the world above—is anything but the chief concern for the Christian community. We are hardly in a position to lose our lives in this world in order to gain them for the next. As one pastor put it, "Heaven ain't what it used to be." It simply doesn't interest us.
Of course, we still half-seriously appeal to heaven as an answer to the interminable anguish of this world. We jokingly say, "I can't wait to get there, because then I won't have to experience these problems."
But basically we identify heavenly orientation with world-flight and the abdication of responsibilities here. We fail to see at the center what the apostle Paul longs for; namely, his "dwelling from heaven." O. that I might be with Christ, that my faith might be sight (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:7,8).
How obviously lacking this passion is in much Reformed thinking today. We sanctify our worldliness under the guise of a doctrine of restoration. What is the doctrine of restoration?
Here is how one Reformed leader explained it: "The Bible teaches us how God is moving to restore man to the Garden of Eden and to his place as vicegerent in God's world." You might not understand the term vicegerent. It means a sort of deputy, an administrator, even a junior king, a prince with the responsibility of taking care of the affairs of the realm.
Those who embrace this doctrine ten us the Bible teaches how God is committed to restore man, the Garden of Eden, and this world to their original order—the order they had before the fall. We who are elect will be living in the garden again. And this time we're going to get it right! We win subdue, or hold in subjection, the creation. There will be changes, of course. For instance, we will no longer die, no longer be subjected to sin. But our tasks will be in line with the tasks that Adam had—the patterns of which we can still see in the created order. You're a scientist? You will be a scientist still. You're a farmer? You will be a farmer still. Your pursuits will be in line with the nature of the restored earth.
But are not the problems of this position clear enough? First of all, it seems that many will be out of work in the restored world. Do all jobs have a carry-over? What will happen to lawyers and insurance agents? or theologians for that matter? How about doctors and nurses?
Much more seriously, though, the restoration doctrine suggests an
eschatology even within the eschatological state; in other words, man's job will not be complete and he will still be facing a future. In fact, the sense of incompletion can so dominate the vision of the restorationists that they have difficulty delighting in what they already have in Christ.
Furthermore, do we truly believe our hope to be a mere restoration to Adam's pre-fall state? Actually, the position so emphasizes continuity between what is and what will be that it glorifies this world and man's work in it. Eternal, full, perfectly satisfying communion with God seems to be lost from view.
That's the picture as preached and pursued by many, including many Reformed people. But we'll have to do better than simply take verbal jabs. Hopefully, a look at Hebrews 12:26-29 win help. I trust that, as we move through this passage, we can at least make a beginning at answering restorationism and better understand our hope.
Hebrews and Haggai
Now, how do you do with the Epistle to the Hebrews? Is it one of your favorite books? No! Does its difficulty keep you from delving into it? Admittedly, it's tough going and our passage is no exception. It bears the stamp of the epistle as a whole. But let's make an effort at grasping it.
In verse 26 the writer quotes a passage out of the Old Testament—Haggai 2:6. You may know that Haggai was a prophet from the time of the restoration of the Jewish people from Babylon. In the sixth century B.C. the Jews had been taken off into captivity in Babylon, and after a time in which they were chastised by the Lord they returned to their homeland and to Jerusalem. Haggai is a prophet of the period of the restoration.
Isn't it interesting that this period is known as the restoration? Remember what we said earlier about the doctrine of restoration and people who want to get us back to the garden. But there has already been a restoration movement in the history of redemption. Its design
was to get the people back to the land of promise, the inheritance, to Jerusalem, the city of God, and to the rebuilt temple.
Haggai, however, speaks to these people about what has become all too obvious—this restoration isn't good enough (2:2,3). The problem was that as yet God had not shaken "the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land" (v. 6). There remains a shaking of all the nations, a day in which God's temple will be filled with glory (v. 7). "And the latter glory of this house will be greater than the former" (v.9).
Hebrews and Heaven
In the New Testament, the writer to the Hebrews contrasts the former days in which God spoke to us by the prophets, like Haggai, with these present times in which he speaks to us in his Son (1:1,2). He also tells us about the true sanctuary (8:2), "the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation" (9:11). Into this sanctuary Christ has now entered.
God's recent and final revelation explains his previous disclosures. Thus, Haggai, the prophet of the restoration, is explained by what God has now made clear. The prophet's vision of the temple's latter glory is explained by opening up to our view the heavenly sanctuary. Likewise, in the case of the yet future shaking. The fact that the Lord will shake not only the earth but also the heavens must now be explained through what God is doing in Christ.
For both Haggai and the writer of Hebrews the first shaking occurred with the establishment of the first covenant. This is clear from Haggai 2:5, "As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt...." Hebrews 12, as you read from verse 18 on, presents the same thought through a description of God's appearance at Sinai. The blast of the trumpet and the sounds of God's word terrified Israel (v. 19). God's voice shook the earth as he spoke "on earth" (v. 25).
But this first shaking was merely preparatory. A further and final shaking is at the center of the second covenant. No mountain "on
earth," no mountain in this creation stands before us here. Instead we are brought to Mount Zion, to glory, to the mountain above (v. 22). Indeed, God spoke on earth from Sinai, but now his Son speaks from Zion in heaven (v. 25). This time, when the divine voice is heard, not just things on earth but the entirety of the created order is affected. Everything is shaken to its very roots, at its foundation.
In Hebrews 12:27, the writer exegetes from Haggai 2:6 the phrase, "yet once more." He reads it in terms of the finality of all things. Haggai promises a shaking beyond which there will be no more. Nothing can be greater. His language brings in view the seismographical significance of that event. Things will not be merely rearranged—reordered as if they're out of place, as if they're a deck of cards picked up and put together in suit and sequence. Actually, the promised final shaking removes and dissolves. It has as its end-point the fact that "our God is a consuming fire" (v. 29).
Dissolution and Removal
But what is removed or dissolved? Now, the writer does not use easy language. He talks about "those things which can be shaken, as of created things..."(NASV). Text translations seem to make little difference at this point; e.g., it doesn't matter whether you read the King James or the New American Standard or the New International Version, the sense of the matter is easily missed.
To begin with, the things dissolved and removed are specifically those things capable of being dissolved and removed. In other words, all that can be shaken, all that can be removed and dissolved shall be. But the problematic phrase that follows—in the NASV "as of created things"—doesn't read well; it doesn't read naturally to us. We know it explains what can be shaken. We also know it speaks of these things as specifically created. Furthermore, we know the writer cannot mean that createdness per se designates something for removal, since we are created and assured we shall endure.
What then does the writer mean? His meaning is grasped if we understand he is contrasting two orders. One is specifically characterized by the words "created things." Not only is this order capable of being shaken, it is, in fact, destined to be shaken. As created it can be and shall be removed. Such is the case irrespective of the question of sin and its consequences. From the beginning these created things, these things of this creation (cf. 9:11), were provisional and were meant to give way to something else, something better still.
The other order is spoken of at the end of verse 27. The writer tells us the things shall be shaken in order that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. In verse 28, the other order is called a kingdom. The kingdom, you know, cannot be dissolved. It cannot be destroyed. It is eternal And as if the mere unveiling of this enduring order were not glorious enough, we are told that it is being given to us as a gift!
Now this gift is inseparably bound to the finished work of Christ; that is the point throughout Hebrews. The eschatological shaking commences in his death and resurrection. Matthew makes this point by telling us of the earthquakes at the crucifixion (27:51) and resurrection (28:2). Thus, the eternal kingdom already asserts itself.
Sadly the church in our time refuses to start here. To the extent she refuses to do so, she abandons grace. The eternal kingdom is a gift, not the product of Christian activism, millennial frenzy, or exercises of self-love for recovery of our self-image. How well the writer to the Hebrews communicates this in calling us to gratitude (v. 28)!
Far from generating a spirit of indifference or world abandonment, such gratitude leads us to willing service and appropriate worship in the world. As the writer says, "May we offer to God an
acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire" (vv. 28,29). Having received the kingdom—this superlative, unshakeable, eternal, heavenly order, we must not live as those who belong to the other order destined to be dissolved.
As chapter 13 goes on to make plain, the acceptable service spoken of in 12:28 means continuing in brotherly love (13:1), showing hospitality to strangers (v. 2), remembering the saints in prison (v. 3), holding marriage in honor (v. 4), and being content and free of the love of money (v. 5). It includes doctrinal faithfulness, willingness to accept suffering in keeping with our pilgrim identity, doing good and sharing, and obeying those leaders who keep watch over our souls (vv. 7-17), since we live for that one who has an indestructible life (cf. 7:16), in whom the indissolvable, eternal, heavenly order is realized—Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever (13:8).
How this perspective permeates Hebrews! The keynote of the epistle is chapter two, verse five: "For [God] did not subject to angels the world to come concerning which we are speaking." Here he states his subject; namely, the world to come or as it is called in the twelfth chapter "a kingdom which cannot be shaken." Hebrews 9:15 speaks of the called receiving "the eternal inheritance." Hebrews 10:34 tells us how Christians accept joyfully the seizure of their property knowing that they have for themselves "a better possession and an abiding one." What about 11:10? This passage finds Abraham "looking for the city which has foundations whose architect and builder is God." That city is joined to a country in verse 16: "But as it is, they desired a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God. For he has prepared a city for them." Turning to Hebrew 13:14, we hear our theme once more: "For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come."
There it is. From these few passages the two orders are laid out before us: the created order that from the beginning was destined to be transcended; and the eternal, heavenly order that shall endure.
Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, has gone before us and now presides over the heavenly order so that we might have access.
In conclusion, let me just underline for you what I have been saying. The doctrine of restoration, as developed by many, is flat wrong. This is no minor point since holding to the contrary invests the original creation with a permanence it was never intended to have. Hebrews 12:26-29, as the epistle as a whole, lays before us the fact that the created order, the original heavens and earth, was provisional, capable of being shaken, intended from the beginning to give way to something better, that is the eternal, transcendent order of the everlasting kingdom. We do not live for mere restoration but for establishment in the eternal order of glory with God through Christ, a high priest who mediates presently the blessings of that order for our salvation. Amen.
Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Building the Biblical Theological Sermon
Part II: Text and Context
James T. Dennison, Jr.
The few, by
Nature form'd, with Learning fraught
Born to instruct, as others to be taught,
Must study well the Sacred Page; and see
Which Doctrine, this, or that, does best agree
With the whole Tenour of the Work Divine.
—John Dryden, Religio Laici (1682)
Traditionally, the preaching moment has been the result of a syncretistic or integrative process. The preaching event has attempted to integrate or pull together the interrelated areas of the theological encyclopedia: Old and New Testament Introduction, Apologetics, Systematic Theology, Exegetical Theology, Church History, History of Doctrine, Ethics, Practical Theology. To a greater or lesser extent, elements of each of these aspects came together when the pastor sat
down in his study and began to consider how he was going to proclaim a particular portion of the word of God to the people of God.
As in the preaching task generally, so in biblical-theological preaching particularly. The biblical-theological sermon is integrative—it pulls together text and context. The dynamic here is twofold: (1) the text in its immediate context; (2) the text in its redemptive-historical context. Therefore when you attempt to construct a biblical theological sermon, you must face two questions. First, what is the relationship of the text to the book in which it appears? Second, what is the relationship of the text to the on-going history of redemption? The relationship of the church to the text will be found in her identification with the dynamic revealed in the passage—both the dynamic of the immediate context and the dynamic of the redemptive- historical context.
The Text in its Context: The Gospel of John
Every biblical-theological preacher wants to integrate his particular text/pericope with the scope of the book of the Bible in which that text/pericope is found. Thus he asks himself questions about the purpose, goal, intent, destination, etc. of that particular book. Let me provide a specific illustration of this point. The first section of the gospel of John is called the Prologue (1:1-18). As you examine the basic structure of the gospel of John, you will observe that there is also an Epilogue to the gospel. The Epilogue begins at chapter 20:30 and proceeds to the end of the gospel (21:25). The substance of the Epilogue is the lakeside encounter with Peter. In between the Prologue and the Epilogue (the introduction and the benediction), lies the Body of the gospel.
Admittedly, this is a simplistic structural analysis of the flow of the gospel of John, yet it is very much in accordance with a type of literary analysis which reaches all the way back to Aristotle. In his Poetics (7.1-7), Aristotle observes that every literary work has a beginning, a middle and an end. Indeed John has organized his gospel around a beginning (the Prologue, 1:1-18); a middle (the Body of the
gospel, 1:19-20:29); and an end (the Epilogue, 20:30 21:25).
Incidentally, if this suggestion about the basic structure is correct, it gives the lie to redaction critics and form critics who say that the Epilogue (namely the 21st chapter of John's gospel) was an addendum, i.e., it was added by a later editor on behalf of the early Christian community to reflect the primacy of Peter. If my suggestion about the broad structure is correct, then I trust you will notice that the integrity of the gospel is reflected in that structure. If you break off the Epilogue as an after-thought or as a later addition made by a redactor (editor), you have destroyed the symmetry of the gospel and the unity of the text.
Therefore, the Prologue is part of the broader context of the gospel. It forms the introduction to the Body of the gospel while balancing the concluding Johannine "Great Commission" (i.e., the Epilogue). The biblical-theological preacher is conscious of this integration of the text of the Prologue with the context of the gospel as a whole.
The Text in its Redemptive-Historical Context
But what about the redemptive-historical context? How does the Prologue of John relate to the on-going history of redemption? Consider the following analysis.
The Prologue commences, "In the beginning." The phrase reminds us of Genesis 1:1. In fact, the first two words of John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1 are exactly alike in the respective Greek versions. Why? It is in fact a new creation, isn't it? What the apostle is telling us by that en archê ("in the beginning") is that he is going all the way back to the first creation so that he may say: "This is the beginning of the new creation; this is the beginning of the gospel of Christ; this is the beginning of all things being made new." In the ensuing verses of the Prologue, John unfolds this creation imagery. He talks about light, doesn't he? Light shining in the darkness! He talks about the Word as
the Creator, doesn't he? Finally at the heart of the Prologue, he says that whoever believed on him to them he gave power to be sons ("children," cf. tekna in John). What is the denomination of Adam in the genealogy of Luke's gospel? He is the "son of God" (Lk. 3:38), isn't he? Thus the whole concept of "sonship" is a creation image. Adam was made a child of God, a son of God. Jesus (according to the Prologue of John) gives those who believe power to become sons of God. How do they become "sons of God"? Notice the emphatic negatives repeated three times in John 1:13 ("not..., not..., not..."). "Born of God" is a creation motif. It is John's regenerative creation motif (cf. John 3). Thus we have sonship through (re)birth—childlike relationship through a new creation. All this has become possible through the one who is incarnate—tabernacling (1:14, eskênosin)—the one who comes to dwell in the midst of his people (even as God came to dwell with his first "son" Adam in the garden).
Backwards and Forwards
The themes of the Prologue take us back to the creation, reminding us of creation imagery. We are led to integrate John 1 with Genesis 1 and to pull together the retrospective redemptive-historical pattern: creation/ new creation. However, John also asks us to look ahead—to look ahead to the way in which motifs from the Prologue are developed subsequently by the gospel. There is a prospective aspect to the material in the Prologue. John has introduced his gospel with the Prologue because he wants to introduce the gospel in the Prologue. Thus when we read Jesus' dialogue with Nicodemus (Jn. 3), the center of that dialogue is: "How does one become born again (born from above)?" John is fleshing out one of the themes of his Prologue. He is elaborating and expanding upon the theme of rebirth in the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. Thus the Body of the gospel develops, expands, draws out the themes that have been laid down in the Prologue. The Prologue is a prospectus of the gospel itself.
What about the image of light (cf. 1:4,5,7-9)? We have already
noted the retrospective creation motif of light (Gen. 1:3-5). However, notice also the prospective dimension. On two occasions, Jesus calls himself "the light of the world" (8:12; 9:5). The second occasion is the healing of the man born blind, where John integrates light-dark/sight-blind motifs in a way which suggests creation-new creation (or creation-[re]creation). In John 8:12, the context is the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. 7:2,14,37 and the omission of the story about the woman taken in adultery, 7:53-8:11). Here John's purpose is the displacement and replacement of light peculiar to Israel in order that the new creation-light may extend to Jew and Gentile alike (i.e., the "world"). The so-called "lighting ceremony" occurred on each day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Huge menorahs (lampstands) were erected in the Court of the Women in the Temple complex at Jerusalem. At dusk each evening, the lighting of these menorahs cast a glow throughout Jerusalem "lighting each corner of the city." On the last day of the Feast, Jesus said, "I am the light of the world." During the Feast of Tabernacles, when light reminded Israel of the theophanic pillar of fire in the wilderness (Ex. 13:21)—light itself emblematic of the glory-light reflected in the first day of creation (Gen. 1:3-5)—Jesus claims to be the light! And not only the light of Jerusalem, but the light for Jew and Gentile alike (the "world").
The Jesus of John's gospel is saying that the Jewish character of the Old Testament is being replaced and displaced by himself because it is being fulfilled in him. Do you want light? I am the light of the world. Do you want the birth, the new birth? I am the one who comes down from above with the (re)birth of the new creation. From Prologue to Epilogue, the gospel of John proclaims the displacement and replacement of the former era by the "better things" of the age to come. If the age of Moses was glorious for the law, Jesus is greater than Moses because he brings the fullness of grace and truth (1:17). If the former era was filled with ritual purifications, Jesus brings an age in which that water is replaced by the wine of the gospel era (2:1-11). If they ate bread in the desert under Moses and died (Jn. 6), the living bread will satisfy the hungry sojourners of the end of the age to eternal life. If the era of father Adam is the era of the curse and death,
then Jesus calls the dead to life and removes the curse from his loved ones (Jn.11). Jesus comes to fulfill the Old Testament by completing it with himself and the surpassing riches of his glory. This fulfillment is anticipatory and prospective in its own right. There is an arena where life and light endure forever—an arena where former things are passed away—an arena where all is a new creation. This heavenly arena is the dwelling place of our Savior—the place to which he has gone in order to bring us unto himself. The heavenly banquet here is spread with living water and living bread. The feast is like a wedding celebration, but Christ is not a guest—he is the host-bridegroom. And the guests in that eschatological banquet had have no mark of the curse and death upon them—they possess the resurrection-life of their Lord who raises them up both now and at the last day.
Again, the Body of this gospel is arranged around the themes of the Prologue. Several scholars, who have called John the "signs and discourses" gospel, have recognized this pattern. Many of Christ's miracles in John's gospel are followed by discourses. The purpose of the discourses is to draw out the meaning of the miracles (semeia, cf. English "semaphore"). Hence the miracles and the discourses are an exegesis of the incarnation of the Word, i.e., a display in word and deed of the creative power of the Son. Healing the nobleman's son is an instance of the life Jesus brings. The cure of the lame man displays the eschatological character of Christ's heavenly kingdom—this man walks as an anticipation of that arena where there are no lame, no sick, no helpless (cf. Rev. 21:4; 22:3). As noted above, the healing of the blind man and the resurrection of Lazarus are both exegetical of the new creation announced in the Prologue; they are also previews of the eschatological kingdom itself—in Christ Jesus, no more blindness, no more death!
In like manner, the dialogue with Peter in the Epilogue (chap. 21) is a reflex of the life/light motif of the Prologue. It is the risen Christ (who is the Light) who commissions Peter to "feed" his lambs. From out of the darkness of the tomb, the risen, glorious Christ directs the apostle (and the church through the apostle) to proclaim the light and
life of a new creation. The struggle of the light in the darkness of the Prologue is taken up by the church. Peter will be crucified as his Lord was crucified. The church suffers through conflict with the darkness, as Christ, the incarnate Word, suffers. After the resurrection, in the Epilogue, that suffering comes to expression in the apostolate and in the church. The children of God will not escape the hour of darkness and the power thereof, even as their Lord did not. Will the church love her Shepherd-Lord even unto death? The Epilogue poses the question as an outworking of the content of the Farewell Discourses (14-17) and resolves the question with the same tender assurances.
Thus the integrity of this gospel is preserved in reflexive patterns—reciprocal patterns, supporting itself backwards and forwards from Prologue to Body to Epilogue. If any one chapter or section is abstracted from the overall purpose of the gospel, you may end up with a nice little lesson for Sunday Morning—you may have a nice moral for your congregation (you may even give them a shopping list of spiritual prescriptions to pick up for the coming week), but you haven't preached the text. You may have preached your agenda, but you haven't preached John's gospel. You may have preached your list, but you haven't preached the passage in terms of the intent of John and God's revelation through John. Christ Jesus is the center of John's gospel. If you haven't preached Christ, you haven't preached John. If you do not preach this gospel so as to place Christ at the center, you have gutted the book, despoiled it, used it for your own private purposes to advance your own private agenda.
Thus the biblical-theological preacher consistently relates his text to the plan of the book as a whole. And he also relates his text to the retrospective and prospective scope of the history of redemption.
Questions about the Text
Placing your text in its context means that some preliminary work must be done. Answers to the following preliminary questions must be formulated: what is the purpose of the book as a whole? What is the nature of the time in which it was written? To whom was it written
and were their circumstances peculiar? What does the writer record that others do not? Why has he selected his particular focus if he is featuring a distinctive facet of God's revelation?
For example, why does John tell us about the miracle at the wedding at Cana and the synoptic writers do not? Or why does John describe the resurrection of Lazarus when Matthew, Mark and Luke do not even mention Lazarus? These are questions which you must ask because they put you on the trail of the unique focus of God's revelation through the various Biblical authors. John has a particular goal and purpose under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. His gospel is not a duplicate of the synoptics. He provides his own complementary (not contradictory) record of the person and work of our Savior. By the same token, Matthew, Mark and Luke have features and goals peculiar to each that are not found in John. Thus we begin by asking ourselves, "How does my text for this Lord's day relate to the purpose of the book on which I am working? What is the theological purpose, the distinctive style, the unique aspect of this book of the Bible?" Locate your text in terms of its (book) context Then ask yourself the broader, more far-ranging questions, "How does my text draw upon themes and images from the past and future history of redemption?" Locate your text in terms of the organic continuum of the history of redemption as it stretches from creation to consummation.
As you begin to integrate the text, immediate (book) context and broad redemptive-historical context, you will begin to understand why this revelation has been preserved in the written Word of God. Revelation is to draw us to God the Father, through the work of God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit. John writes so that each pericope of his gospel will draw us to the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. Text by text, we are brought to God; or, better, God brings us to himself Whether with the disciples we "come and see" the Lamb of God/Christ-Messiah/Son of God/King of Israel/Son of Man (Jn. 1); whether with the nobleman, we find Christ to be life for those on the brink of death (Jn. 4); whether with Mary, we find him the object of our lavish love and devotion (Jn. 12); or whether we
stand at the foot of the cross and behold our dying Lord (Jn. 19)—each text of John's gospel draws us into itself, draws us into Christ Jesus, draws us into the life of the new creation. Each text applies itself—as with the incarnation, God comes to identify with us; so the application of John's gospel is in identification—our life in the text—our life in Christ.
The Text in its Context: Haggai
Let me reinforce and balance my remarks with some additional comments about an Old Testament book—Haggai. The theme of the book of Haggai is the rebuilding of the Temple. (It is often quite handy to have thumbnail summaries of each book of the Bible at the ready. Perhaps a sentence or two about the heart of each book: Genesis—beginnings and endings [protology and eschatology]; Exodus—redemption and sojourn [grace and law]; etc.) Now it seems to me that the minor prophets are particularly bothersome to us. Nobody pays much attention to them, for if we preach the minor prophets, we are going to have to do some work! We are going to have to study some history! And who knows? They may threaten our comfortable lifestyle! After all, they are talking about social justice. What are we going to do with our upper-middle class lifestyle. They are talking about the oppression of the poor. And so you see, the Reformed pulpit doesn't do well with the minor prophets as a rule.
Hence we begin by placing Haggai in historical context. Let's put Haggai on a time line. We will imagine it to be a linear as well as a redemptive-historical time line. On our time line, Haggai comes after 539 B.C. That is the date of the decree issued by Cyrus the Great. You remember, Cyrus had conquered the Babylonian (or Neo-Babylonian) empire. Following his conquest of Babylon, he issued a decree that the Jews (among others) could return to their homeland. Here is where we place Haggai. But let's move along our time line to the years before 539 B.C. Immediately before 539 we have the Babylonian captivity, don't we? The Babylonian captivity was underway by 586 B.C., but was in process from Nebuchadnezzar's initial invasion of
Palestine in 605 B.C (cf. Dan. 1:1). What major event comes next as we move backwards? The division of the united kingdom (ca. 930 B.C.). Then comes Solomon's temple (ca. 967 B.C.) and then the Davidic monarchy (ca. 1000 B.C.). Before that is the magnalia Dei in the Old Testament. The mighty act of God in the Old Testament, the definitive mighty act of God's grace in the Old Testament is the Exodus from Egypt (ca. 1447 B.C.) together with the sojourn to Mt. Sinai. Summarizing the pattern of our time line, we have: Exodus, Sinai, Davidic monarchy, the temple, the exile and now Haggai.
The Text in its Redemptive-Historical Context
Now why have I suggested we think about these things? Because in the book of Haggai every one of those events is mentioned. In the book of Haggai, he talks about the book of Exodus (Hag. 2:5) and he links the exodus to the Babylonian exile and the return from exile. In fact, he describes the return from captivity in terms of a new exodus. He uses imagery reminiscent of the giving of the law at Sinai with its attendant theophanic display of glory and awe. He describes the destruction of that first temple (Hag. 2:3) and he links that temple to what is happening in his day—there is going to be the erection of a new temple (2:9). He describes the ruler of the eschatological people of God in terms reminiscent of the Davidic monarchy (cf. 2:22,23). Haggai has this retrospective dimension. He is casting his eye back over the history of God's mighty acts and reflecting upon them and their meaning. Then he positions his own message, his own proclamation of the word of the Lord, in relationship to what has gone before in the history of redemption. But that's not all he does; he doesn't stop there. It's not enough to look back. He indicates there is a new day coming. He says that we see in a sense the accomplishment of some of these past acts in our present moment. But those of you who have seen the glory of that first temple know that yet once more the Lord will shake the heavens and the earth and the latter glory of this house will be greater then its former glory. That little shed that
was built in Jerusalem in the days of Haggai was in no way comparable to the glory of the first Solomonic temple. Here is what Haggai is saying, "There is a new temple coming more glorious than this, and there is a new David coming more glorious than the former, and there is a new exodus coming more glorious than that under Moses and there is a new Sinai coming more glorious than the former—I'm going to shake the heavens and the earth once more!" We, upon whom the end of the ages has come, we have the Christ-event, we have the cross, we have the resurrection, we have the eschaton. We have what Haggai projected.
Hence we see Haggai in relationship not only to the mighty acts of God in time past, but to the eschatological acts of God in time future. In fact, Haggai uses the images of the redemption of God in the past and transfers them into the future. He takes those former patterns and projects them into the eschatological future and he says, "Yes, once more God is going to shake the heavens and the earth—Yes, once more God is going to erect a tabernacle, a temple whose glory will be greater than the former glory—Yes, once more he's going to send a Davidic scion and that scion will be more glorious than David's son—Yes once more he's going to bring his people out and they will never be slaves again." Though he never saw it, yet Haggai projected it. Praise God that you and I have seen it! We have seen the fulfillment. Can you preach Haggai without preaching the fulfillment? Moralistic discussions about lavish homes and caretaking for the church simply do not begin to penetrate the dynamic meaning of Haggai's words, nor their organic connection with what God was about to do in the latter days. You need to go backwards and forwards so that the power and vitality of this little book may grasp you and the people of God of these last days.
Having drawn out the contextual and redemptive-historical patterns in Haggai, the people of God of these last days should be drawn into the dramatic pattern of fulfillment revealed in this prophet and in the eschatological prophet. The exodus picture is appropriate to those who have been drawn out of bondage into the liberty of the
sons and daughters of the Most High. The people of God of the end of the ages have not come to a mountain smoking and burning with fire; rather they have come to a mountain-city whose builder and maker is God—a city alive with grace and righteousness and a new covenant. The lambs of the eschatological Shepherd are become the flock of the pastor-king of the end of the age—they are the sheep of a Davidide whose title is "Prince of Peace". The congregation of these last days has not come to a building of brick and stone, but to a living temple built upon the chief cornerstone—the Lord of Glory, the Resurrection-Temple of the end of the age. In him, they are free, they are made new, they are "living stones".
Helps, Tools, Books
Such preaching as we are suggesting cannot be accomplished without tools. The specific tools I have in mind for help with (book) context and redemptive-historical context are materials which provide an overview of a particular book of the Bible. As one understands the issues of background, audience, historical events, archaeological investigation, geography, literary genre, the matrix from which a particular biblical book has arisen begins to come alive. There are numerous tools to facilitate the process, but I will suggest a few which I think are helpful and should find a place on the pastor's or interested layperson's shelf.
The most current encyclopedia of the Bible is the newly revised International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979-1988) in four volumes. This massive revision of a familiar standard is still basically conservative, thorough and suggestive. Virtually every word, topic, person and book of the Bible is covered. Historical, archaeological and literary surveys are included as well as a complete discussion of all Biblical occurrences of a given topic. Maps, illustrations and bibliographies make the set even more valuable. It is at present the most exhaustive, up-to-date Bible encyclopedia in print.
For those who want something easier to handle as well as more succinct, the one-volume New Bible Dictionary (revised edition,
Tyndale, 1982) is my choice. Based on the former conservative standard (which famed archaeologist William F. Albright hailed as the finest one-volume Bible dictionary), this revision combines some of the features of the larger, three-volume Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Tyndale, 1980). For pastors and laypersons wanting a handy summary of the relevant background information, this is an excellent choice.
Additional help with historical material will be found in: (for the Old Testament) Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel's History (revised edition, Zondervan, 1986)—a conservative treatment; and John Bright, History of Israel (third edition, John Knox/Westminster, 1981)—a more liberal point of view. For the New Testament, F.F. Bruce's, New Testament History (Doubleday, 1972) is still unsurpassed.
It should be noted that most modern commentaries contain excellent introductions to the particular book under discussion. Date, authorship, audience, historical context, theological point of view are all covered in summary fashion. A new feature in many commentaries is a section of excurses or specialized discussions of matters central to the development of each book. Thus, the preliminary portion of most new commentaries may provide a wealth of theological and historical background material.
With respect to the gospel of John, Raymond Brown's Anchor Bible commentary still deserves pride of place (two volumes, Doubleday, 1966-70). Although critical and liberal, when used by the discerning pastor and student, this commentary provides theological stimulation and insight. More recent tools supplement and, in certain areas, surpass Brown, but his volumes will unlock the biblical-theological dimension of John in a fresh and invigorating manner. For a brief and remarkable survey of John, see Robert Kysar, John's Story of Jesus (Fortress, 1984).
Turning now to the prophet Haggai, a fine overview is found in Stephen Winward's, Guide to the Prophets (John Knox/Westminster, 1976). H.L. Ellison's, Men Spake From God (1958) may be compared
to Winward. Two fine conservative commentaries are available on this small prophet: Joyce Baldwin, Haggia, Zechariah, Malachi (Tyndale, 1972) and Pieter Verhoef, The Books of Haggai and Malachi (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987). Both contain excellent surveys of the historical and theological content of the book From the liberal and critical point of view, the new Anchor Bible commentary by C.L. and E.M. Myers, Haggai, Zechariah 1-8 (Doubleday, 1987) and Hans Walter Wolff's, Haggai (Augsburg, 1988) may be consulted. Wolff always helps the Christian preacher with concrete suggestions, even though his critical position destroys the unity of the book.
In previous issues of Kerux, we have discussed the value of additional tools—Old Testament Abstracts and New Testament Abstracts (Kerux 2:3 [December 1987], 42-46), Kittel's, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (3:2 [September 1988], 36-45), Leon-Dufour's, Dictionary of Biblical Theology (2:2 [September 1987], 41-45).
Finally, every pastor interested in biblical theology must have language tools, especially concordances in order to trace themes through the Scriptures. An English concordance is essential. For the Greek New Testament, there is the superb Computer-Konkordanz (1980)—a state-of-the-art tool. The older Moulton and Geden (1897) and Wigram/Englishman's (1839) are now dated (due to newer manuscript discoveries). For the Hebrew Old Testament, there is Lisowsky (1958), Mandelkern (1925), Wigram/Englishman's (1843) and Evan-Shoshan (very difficult to use, 1985). For the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), there is Hatch and Redpath (1897) and Morrish (inadequate for thorough work). Our readers should be aware of the revolution in concordances being brought to Biblical studies by computers. Several English and Greek (New Testament) concordances are presently available with Hebrew Old Testament versions promised within a year.
The range and quality of resources has never been so great. It is an exciting time to be a student of the biblical-theology of the Scriptures, whether as a pastor or interested layperson. The materials
are available for congregations to hear creative, lucid, dynamic and passionate biblical-theological preaching.
Westminster Theological Seminary
From the Librarian's Shelf....
George Mlakuzhyil. The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel. Rome: Pontifico Istituto Biblico, 1987, 370pp., $38.00 paper, ISBN:88-7653-117-3. (Distributed by Loyola University Press, 3441 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago, IL 60657)
Ever so often, a book is published which changes the course of things. This is such a book. For approximately 30 years, commentaries on the gospel of John have elucidated the gospel from virtually every possible angle: Raymond Brown's superb Anchor Bible commentary, so theologically stimulating even if being too critically myopic; Leon Morris's evangelical effort, somewhat pedantic, but useful; Rudolf Schnackenburg's massive undertaking with its marvelous excurses; G.R. Beasley-Murray's recent reprise with its judicious, if sometimes bland, handling of the central issues. We appear to have run the gamut of commentaries using or responding to form and redaction criticism, while at the same time featuring the theological meaning of the fourth gospel. The gains from this fertile period have been more important than the loses. If commentators are still too much bound by the critical approaches of the past, nonetheless the theological riches of John have been unfolded thirty, sixty, a hundredfold.
Coincidentally, new ground has been plowed in several monographs. Robert Culpepper (Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel) has asked for a dramatic-literary approach to John. Paul Duke, one of Culpepper's students, has released a significant study of one such literary technique, Irony in the Fourth Gospel. And Peter Ellis has attempted to incorporate the new literary approaches into a brief and readable commentary (The Genius of John)—not always successfully. The new direction in Johannine studies is in literary and narrative technique; synchronic rather than diachronic approaches.
Enter Mlakuzhyil. The professor from Delhi, India has attempted to integrate the theological approach to the gospel with a careful analysis of its literary structure. His conclusions are refreshingly orthodox and conservative, i.e., ontic Christology and literary unity. The much controverted 21st chapter, regarded by many as a non-Johannine addendum, is defended as essential to the unity of the author's literary design. Although he leans towards a redactor as the source of chapter 21, Mlakuzhyil does not rule out the possibility that the evangelist himself wrote it. Unfortunately, his literary insight has not detected the parallels between chapter 21 and chapter 1 (in this reviewer's opinion, a strong argument for Johannine authorship of both), i.e., the discipleship motif ("follow me," 21:22 with 1:37,38,40,43) and the (re)commissioning of the disciples (i.e., John himself, Peter and Nathanael, 21:2 with 1:37,41,46-49). The focus on the disciples after the resurrection is central to John's story. The symmetry of their original call is duplicated in the post-resurrection encounter. As they are initially called against the background of the last Old Testament prophet (John the Baptist, chapter 1), so they are commissioned by the risen Christ to follow him into the eschatological era of the gospel and the church (chapter 21).
By painstaking analysis, Mlakuzhyil examines the Greek text of the gospel for literary patterns. His eye searches for: parallelism, key-word repetition, chiasm, inclusio. What he finds is convincingly outlined and, in most cases, compellingly argued.
The book begins with a thorough review of attempts to describe
the structure of the gospel. This survey of the literature is exhaustive, enabling the reader to grasp the issues at stake, while noting the inadequacy of previous suggestions. Next, our author provides a chapter on criteria for the structure of John. Here is an excellent introduction to literary, dramatic and structural technique. If much of the vocabulary—inclusio, leitworter (key-word), hook-word, synthetic and antithetic parallelism, chiasmus, concentric—is new to the reader, Mlakuzhyil provides crisp definitions, pertinent examples and ample bibliography.
We have come to the heart of the book. Mlakuzhyil has analyzed the deficiencies of structures previously suggested; he has established the groundwork for his thesis by preliminary definition of terms together with pertinent illustrations. Now he applies his criteria to the structure of the gospel There are four basic sections to John: Introduction (1:1-2:11), Part I—the Book of Jesus' Signs (2:1-12:50), Part II—the Book of Jesus' Hour (11:1-20:29), Appendix (21). The overlap between Parts I and II is due to what Mlakuzhyil describes as a "bridge-section" (chapters 11 and 12). The symmetry and dramatic structure of each section is discussed, diagrammed and defended. Central to Mlakuzhyil's case is his work with the Greek text. Each conclusion he reaches is derived from his work with the original text. This is his great advance over previous research which all too often has depended on artificially imposed, thematic similarity. It may be noted that all the Greek is transliterated making it possible for even the industrious layperson to make use of the book.
Mlakuzhyil now elaborates this overall structure of the gospel with a 70-page detailed defense of his thesis. This material provides the meat of his case. Parallels are mapped in chapters 2-4, 5-10, 13-17 and 18-20. The most impressive of his arguments, in this reviewer's opinion, involve the symmetrical unity of chapters 2-4 (note the inclusion of location, i.e., "Cana" in 2:1 and 4:46). Some of his suggestions seem forced, i.e., the parallelism between the foot washing (13) and the high priestly prayer (17).
But Mlakuzhyil is not finished. He adds several marvellous
theological discussions of major Johannine themes: Christ/Messiah, Son of God, signs/miracles, disciples, believing, (eternal) life. Finally, he synthesizes the results of all this preliminary work in a section entitled "Christocentric Theological Sketch in the Literary Structure." Here the rich Johannine theology is related to the literary structure and progress of the gospel. There are theological insights here which will enrich the preaching of the gospel at every point. In fact, this section is a model theological commentary on the entire gospel in nuce.
I cannot commend this volume too highly. It will change the way you preach and study the gospel of the beloved disciple. Although the price is high, the investment will be amply repaid in fresh insights into a favorite gospel. The volume is itself a commentary. Anyone returning to the gospel of John will return to Mlakuzhyil. I assure you that the volume will not gather dust on any pastor's shelf who is serious about drawing his congregation into the Christocentric drama of the fourth gospel. Buy it! You will not regret it!