The Faith of a Foreigner
Ruth 1; Hebrews 11:1, 2, 13-16
Our story! Yes, notice the possessive plural pronoun "our"for this is indeed our story. A story about the people of God; a story to and for the people of God . . . for the church. Although admired throughout the ages by both saint and worldling, the book of Ruth is above all things a redemptive-historical story. A love story full of drama, compassion and tenderness? Yes. An idyll complete with all the warmth and charm of pastoral scenes? Yes. An artistic masterpiece comprised of all types of literary devices such as chiasm, inclusios, irony, foreshadowing and wordplays? Yes, the book of Ruth is all of these. And like all stories, the book has a beginning, a middle and an end. The book moves from conflict to resolution, from tension to relaxation, from emptiness to fullness.1 It is a wonderful story. But rather than dealing with an overview of the whole book, I have limited myself to the first chapterto the beginning of the story.
In chapter one, the narrator positions the historical setting of the book of Ruth in the time of the Judges. This is significant. The period of the Judges was a very dark hour in the history of Israel. For approximately 330 years, Israel repeatedly fell into an ever downward spiraling pattern
1 Cf. D. F. Rauber, "The Book of Ruth," Journal of Biblical Literature 89 (March 1970): 27-37.
of disobedience, oppression, repentance and deliverance. Each increasing apostasy is a heightening of intensity and moral degradation. With the bleak and often times horrific disobedience of Israel as its background, the book of Ruthwith its themes of faith, hope and God's covenantal and providential dealings with his peoplestands out even brighter.
There was a famine in the land. In the land of Bethlehem, in the house of bread, there was no bread to be found. The skies that once brought clouds full of rain and shade have now turned to iron. The ground once rich and fertile is now as hard and unyielding as bronze (this is the language of Leviticus 26, language of the covenantal curse). The fields that once produced wheat, barley, olives, almonds and grapes are now barren, fruitlessempty.
So Elimelech (whose name means "God is my King") takes his family and leaves. He leaves the domain of the King. He leaves the realm of the King. He leaves the promised land, the kingdom of God on earth and goes to Moab, that land of incestuous roots. Don't think that Elimelech's sojourn to Moab is merely the innocent migration of an Israelite family in search of food, following in the pattern of their patriarch Abraham. It can't be! Redemptive-history has progressed; Israel is in the land of promise. But Elimelech is a man of his times. And as the last verse in the book of Judges tells us, they were times when there was no king in the land and every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
But the book of Ruth is not about Elimelech. Elimelech passes from the scene and Naomi becomes a widowleft with two sons. Though absent a husband, she remains half-full.
The narrative quickly moves to the marriage of her two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, suggesting (possibly) that the loss of her husband will quickly be forgotten and replaced with the new joys of an extended family. But as the meaning of their names suggests (Mahlon, "weakly"; and Chilion, "pining away") that hope is short lived. And they, like their father, disappear from the narrative.
Although accompanied by her daughters-in-law of ten years, Orpah and Ruth, Naomi now mirrors the land she left. She, like the land of Bethlehem,
the land of Judah, is now barren and fruitless. She has become empty. With the absence of Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion, Naomi becomes the subject of the action verbs, intimating the main role she will play in the ensuing dialogue.
She is bereaved of her two sons.
She has lost her husband
She has heard that the Lord has revisited his people in giving them food.
She departs with her daughters-in-law to return to Judah.
Thus the author, in describing the events that take place before the main action, has taken us full circle. We began with a family, complete with father, mother and children. A full and fruitful family leaving an empty, vacant land. But there has been a reversala reversal that has changed a once barren and desolate land back into a fruitful oasis. A land that once languished under the judgment and frowning providence of God has now been revisited by God. Judgment has been lifted, the curse removed and life is once again restored. The fields are replenished bringing forth the abundance of the earth. The blessing of God has returned.
But that is only one side of the reversal. Coming back to this fruitful land of plenty is one who, like the land, has been stricken. Naomi returns in the condition of the land she leftempty.
The stage has been set. The characters are in place and that which has been implicit now becomes explicit. Naomi speaks. In verses 8 and following, the pain that was abstractly and almost impersonally described in the introduction, now becomes internalized and expressed as Naomi vents the latent anguish of her soul. She says to her daughters-in-law:
Go, return each of you to her mother's house
May the Lord deal kindly with you
as you have dealt with the dead and with me
May the Lord grant that you may find rest
Each in the house of her husband.
Notice the chiastic arrangement of v. 8 and the first part of v. 9. At the beginning of v. 8 and the beginning of v. 9, you have the statements about "her mother's house"; then in v. 9, you have the statement about the "house of her husband." Moving toward the center, you have the parallel lines, "May the Lord deal kindly with you;" and "May the Lord grant that you may find rest." In these two lines, there is the subtle suggestion, a subtle hint, that reveals Naomi's heart. "May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and me." In other words, it is not the Lord who has dealt kindly with Naomi, but her daughters-in-law. Naomi's attitude toward God, which is somewhat cloaked in this verse, later becomes plain in vv. 13, 20, 21. But these two lines bring us to the center of the chiasmto the heart of what the author wants to communicate to us about Naomi.
Why does Naomi want her daughters to leave? Why does she want to be left alone? Why does she tell them to go? Because though she lives, she considers herself to be dead. Naomi identifies herself with the dead! "As you have dealt with the dead and with me." As a woman in the Near Eastern culture, to be widowed, much less to be childless and without a male relative, is to be in the most dire of situations. In Naomi's mind, even the warm sincere embraces and affections of her daughters-in-law cannot restore, cannot replenish what has been lost.
But her daughters-in-law persist. "No, but we will surely return with you to your people" (v. 10). But they don't understand. They don't realize what Naomi knows full well. "Return my daughters! Why should you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?" (v. 11). Naomi understands the Levirate institution. She understands the custom that God established on the occasion when a man dies without leaving behind an heir. The nearest brother becomes obligated to see that his family line continues by having relations with his deceased brother's wife. And if there is no brother, it becomes the obligation of the nearest relative. The irony in Naomi's words is that this is the very means that God uses to restore the family line of Elimelech, the family of Naomi. For in the shadows of this story stands Boaz.
Naomi persists in her desire for them to leave her and return to their land, their people, their families. She explains to them the futility of thinking that
they will have any type of future if they follow her. Notice the progression of improbability as Naomi attempts to reason with her daughters-in-law in explaining to them her inability to provide them with husbands again. "For I am too old to have a husband. Even if I had hope and imagined that I could have a husband tonight and conceive, even then, my daughters, would you wait until they were grown? Would you refrain from marrying and wait for them?" (vv. 12, 13). Of course not! This is an impossibility to Naomi because ultimately behind all of the pain, behind all of the loss, she blames God"the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me!" (v. 13).
Up to this point Naomi has dominated the story. Her thoughts, her words, her actions, reactions and decisions have been at the center. But now the story takes a change in direction. With incredible brevity and economy of words, the author describes the acitons of Orpah and Ruth, "Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her" (v. 14).
Throughout the story Orpah and Ruth have been characterized in the same manner. They both have become widows. They both have expressed loyalty and devotion to their mother-in-law. But now, once the reality of Naomi's words have settled in, once they both realize the bleak and unpromising future that is theirs if they remain with Naomi, now they make their decision. Orpah does the expected; Ruth the unexpected. At first responding identically, they have at last chosen differently.2
Orpah's decision is praised by Naomi and she urges Ruth to emulate it. "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law" (v. 15). Return, back to your gods? Is this the wise covenantal counsel that we should expect from an aged Ephrathite of Bethlehem? Indeed, the ten years in Moab had taken their toll on Naomi!
Nevertheless, Naomi holds up Orpah as the example, the paradigm, of that which is sane and reasonable. Orpah acts according to the structure and customs of her society. She acts according to the culture around her. Her
2 I have borrowed some of Phyllis Trible's analysis of the contrast between Orpah and Ruth from her article, "A Human Comedy: The Book of Ruth," in Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives, ed. Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982) 161-190.
decision is by all appearances sound, sensible and secure. She does what is expected and consequently disappears from the story.
But Ruth, in her response to Naomi's persistence, utters those most famous words in vv. 16 and 17: "Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me."
From a cultural perspective, from an earthly perspective, Ruth has chosen death over life. She has disavowed the solidarity of family; she has abandoned her national identity; she has renounced her religious connections to the god of Moab, Chemosh. She has forsaken the security of her mother's house, the possibility of remarriage and fullness in Moab for what appears to be certain insecurity and emptiness in the land of Judah.
And why? Why should she abandon her family, land and faith? What is the difference between Ruth and Orpah? Is Ruth simply more altruistic? Is it that she is simply more devoted to Naomi than Orpah? Is Ruth simply functioning in this story as an example of loyalty and devotion to family?
No! A thousand times no! Ruth clings to Naomi, Ruth vows to go where Naomi goes, to lodge where Naomi lodges because in clinging to Naomi, in embracing Naomi, in holding fast to Naomi, Ruth is clinging to God! She is clinging to the Kingdom of God. She is clinging to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. She can do no other. She has been apprehended by the grace of God. She, like her forefather Abraham, is now looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. She takes her place among the Old Testament people of faith in Hebrews 11:13-16: "All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to
return. But as it is they desire 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." Ruth had opportunity to return. But Ruth had taken hold of the substance of things hoped for. She herself had been captivated, she had been apprehended by the evidence of things not seen.
Ruth clings to Naomi out of hesedout of the lovingkindness, the hesed that the Lord has poured out in her own heart. Yes, the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings she has found refuge (so beautifully described by Boaz in chapter 2)the Lord has found Ruth. Ruth has come into the covenant and has become a partaker in the rich covenantal relationship with Yahweh and his people. This relationship of refuge and intimacy is so beautifully described in the Psalms:
How precious is Thy lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Thy wings (Ps. 36:7).
Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me, For my soul takes refuge in Thee; And in the shadow of Thy wings I will take refuge, until destruction passes by (Ps. 57:1).
Let me dwell in Thy tent forever; Let me take refuge in the shelter of Thy wings (Ps. 61:4).
For Thou hast been my help, And in the shadow of Thy wings I sing for joy (Ps. 63:7).
He will cover you with His pinions, And under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark (Ps. 91:4).
Yes, Ruth, a wild olive branch, has already been engrafted into the covenantal tree of God's people. By the end of the book, Ruth takes her place among the branches of the patriarchal tree; the branches of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. Ruth stands before us like Rahab, foreshadowing the inclusion of the Gentiles, the glory of the New Covenant, wherein there is neither Jew nor Gentile, but one new humanity, one new man in Christ Jesus.
So we identify with Ruth. Our hearts resonant with the faith of Ruth. We too, in having been made alive in Christ Jesus, do embrace him, cling to him. And in clinging to him, we confess that we are strangersaliens, yes foreigners here on earth. We confess that our citizenship rests in heaven not on this earth. But how much more real and satisfying is this to us. We who have already "tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:5). We who now already have been "sealed in Christ with the Holy Spirit of promise who is given as a pledge of our heavenly inheritance" (Eph. 1:13, 14). We who now know the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and the sweet communion of the Father and the Son. The promises that were far off for Ruth have been brought near in Christ Jesus in whom all the promises of God are Yes and Amen.
But we have to come down. We have to leave these heights of faith and confession. We have yet to finish the chapter. The beginning of the story is not yet over.
What about Naomi? When she recognizes Ruth's resolveher determination and vow to stay with hershe says nothing else to her. They go to Bethlehem in silence. And as they approach the gates of Bethlehem, the women of the city come out to greet them; and then come Naomi's poignant words, "Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?" (vv. 20, 21).
Look and listen to Naomi's confession. What a contrast to Ruth! But what of Ruth? Did not Ruth have as much reason or cause to sink into hopelessness and despondency? Did not Ruth also lose a husband? Did not Ruth live in Moab with Mahlon for ten years only to have him die, leaving behind no seed, no offspring, only barrenness, only emptiness? Did not Ruth, in following Naomi, virtually relinquish the possibility of remarriage and children?
No, we can't follow Naomi. We identify with her sorrows, but our sorrows, like Ruth's, have been transformed by the grace of God. Ruth and Naomi
stand before us as a contrasta contrast between the two ages, between the old and the new. Ruth's faith is a proleptic anticipation of the depth and profundity of New Testament faith. Her faith is like the faith of her father Abraham when Jesus said, "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (Jn. 8:56).
Listen to the nature, reality and power of saving faith as it is described in the context of suffering by the apostle Paul: "For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort tis abundant through Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body" (2 Cor. 1:5; 4:7-10). And the apostle Peter: "and though you have not seen him, you love him, and though you do not see him now, but believe in him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory" (1 Pet. 1:8). Did not Paul say "that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom. 8:18)?
The reversal from emptiness to fullness comes in Naomi's life when the son of Ruth, the son of Boaz, is laid in her lap. But how much more for youyou who embrace Ruth's greater son, David's greater sonyes, the Son of David, the Lord of David, the Son of God. Christian, you are not barren! You are not fruitless! You are not empty! For in Christ, you are complete. In him, you are full! For in possessing Christ, you possess all things. Thus the apostle Paul can say "whether . . . the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God" (1 Cor. 3:22, 23). Christian, you are not empty, but you are fullin him!
Our Citizenship is in Heaven
Our teachers in the Reformed tradition have taught us to see in the Scriptures the "already and not yet character" of the Kingdom of God. Here in Philippians 3, the already and not yet character of the believer's present existence in Christ lies on the surface of the text for all to see. In these verses, Paul keeps speaking about gaining things that he already has.
For example, in verses 8-11, Paul's subject is the righteousness that comes to him by virtue of faith in Christ. In the previous verses, Paul renounces the former confidence for righteousness that he placed in the flesh, a righteousness of his own effort and of his own making. In place of all that, he says in verses 8 and 9 that the only thing that matters to him is gaining Christ: "to be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith." All that matters is his union with Christ. All that matters is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. Jesus' resurrection declares him to be righteous. All who are found in him have been raised with him; and his resurrection power gives us the resurrection-life of Christ and the righteousness of Christ. Paul's righteousness comes from his knowing Christ
A sermon delivered at the opening worship service of the 64th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, June 4, 1997.
and it comes from Christ's resurrection. Paul in his conversion already partici-pates in the resurrection of Christ as a gift of God's grace. Then in verse 11, he adds that he longs to attain to the resurrection from the dead. He is already resurrected, while he also looks forward to the resurrection. The apostle seeks to gain what he already has.
Another example is found in verses 12-16. The mention of the future final resurrection, in the previous verses, leads him into the subject of perfection or maturity. In verse 12, he says that he has not already attained perfection, that he has not yet laid hold of it. He is currently pressing toward that goal. Paul, however, cannot leave the subject without reminding his readers that we are already perfect (in Christ) and he urges them to keep living by the same standard to which they have attained. He is not yet perfect, but he is already perfect by virtue of the gift of God's grace. He lives out of that status of the perfect, and presses on in order to lay hold of that which has already laid hold upon him through Christ Jesus. Again he presents this pattern of Christian existence in which the believer seeks to gain what he has already been given.
This pattern of thought is obviously very important to the apostle. It forms the substructure of all he has to say. And here in Philippians 3, it lies on the surface of the text and is easy to see. The already and not yet is also at the root of his final comments in Philippians 3:20-21.
Our Citizenship is in Heaven
In the first part of v. 20 you find the already. Paul describes the present blessings of believers: "for our citizenship is in heaven." The believer's present existence is as a citizen of heaven. In a certain sense, we have already been brought to heaven. We belong to heaven.
The idea of citizenship is important in this letter. The city of Philippi was a Roman colony. Retired Roman military personnel lived there. For distinguished service to the empire, they were given grants of land there as well as Roman citizenship. The inhabitants of Philippi enjoyed the same rights and privileges as those who lived on Italian soil. The inhabitants prided them-
selves on their citizenship. If you remember, this civic pride enters into the story of the founding of that church (cf. Acts 16). While Paul's letter to them glows with joy and gratitude to God for their faith, his joy however is not complete (Chapter 2:2) because he knows that there is strife and disharmony among them that is born out of pride. Pride in Roman citizenship seems to have been carried over into the church. Their earthly citizenship has them thinking and acting in a certain way. Therefore, the apostle determines to remind them of their higher citizenship, of their heavenly citizenship and the behavior and conduct that is appropriate to it. It is not just Gentile pride in earthly citizenship that is causing problems. The Jews do the same. The church in Philippi is troubled by Judiazers who deny the sufficiency of Christ and his work, and who contend that to to be saved, to reach heaven, one must not only believe in Christ, but one must also become a Jew and bear the mark of Jewish citizenshipcircumcision. Therefore, Paul is declaring to both Gentile and Jew that they have a citizenship that transcends all earthly citizenship. A citizenship in heaven, granted to them as a gift of God's grace.
Our citizenship is in heaven. The apostle can make this affirmation because of our union with Christ. Jesus as the second Adam has the mission to bring the many sons of God to glory. Our Savior pioneers the path out from under the curse and into the promised blessing. In union with him and benefiting from his work are all his people. You are familiar with Paul's language. We are crucified with Christ, we are buried with Christ, we are raised with Christ, and we have ascended with Christ to heaven. The gates of heaven only open to the king, the one who is of clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to vanity nor sworn deceitfully (Ps. 24). And as our king passes through those gates, chained to his chariot are all those for whom he has died and upon whom he bestows all manner of blessing. We who were dead in our transgressions have been made alive together with Christ and have been raised up with him and seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:5-6).
By virtue of faith in Christ, the lives of believers have been removed to heaven. Heaven is the realm of light. God has delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col. 1:13). Heaven is the realm of life. In Christ we have been passed from death to life
(John 5:24). We already belong to the new existence, a heavenly one. Our citizenship is there, and heaven is the country to which we belong. By God's grace, we have been birthed into that kingdom. Our names are written in heaven. The law that governs us is heavenly. God is our king, and heaven is our home country. The church exists in this world as a colony of heaven. While we are temporarily here, we are to reflect honor upon our king and our home country, and in the words of Peter, "to keep our behavior excellent in order that we may show forth the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet. 2:9).
Our lives have been removed to heaven. In our Savior's ascension, we behold our own. The covenant goal has been realized. On resurrection day, our Savior prepares to ascend to the Father and he sends the message to his followers: "I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God" (John 20:17). God is our God and we are his people. We enjoy eternal communion and fellowship with God. Our whole life is set in heaven before God's throne. "If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:1-3).
Paul always begins from this perspective. For him, everything else he has to say proceeds from here. Faith in Christ makes us citizens of heaven, and the church must see and judge itself in this way. Paul disciplines himself to see the church in this way and to treat it accordingly. The members of the church are saints, consecrated to God, holy in Christ, definitively sanctified. He sees everything in his own life from the heavenly perspective. For him, this is the basis for all Christian conduct and behavior. It does not render the believer an escapist from this world. We are in the world, but in it in a certain wayin it but not of it. We are of heaven. Formerly, in our sin, we were strangers and aliens to the commonwealth of Israel (Eph. 2:12). Now, we are citizens of heaven and strangers and aliens in this world (1 Pet. 2:11). We pilgrim in this world. We remain in all the ordinary and righteous callings and relations of life in this world, but our citizenship in heaven means we do them for Christ and before Christ. It also means that we are always ready to surrender them in the interests of the higher concerns of the kingdom.
If this pattern of thinking is so important to the apostle, then certainly we may not judge it as irrelevant for us, for the church, for its leaders and its people. Isn't he placing before the church an example to follow? Certainly! In fact he says exactly that here in Philippians 3 when after asserting the believer's perfection in Christ, and urging them to keep living by that standard to which we have attained (v. 16), he says to them, "Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us" (v. 17). He then warns them about the enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things" (vv. 18-19). In contrast Paul asserts, that the believer's citizenship is in heaven, that our end is life, that our appetite is to do the will of God, that our shame is when he is not glorified, and that our minds are set on heavenly things.
Let us follow the example of Paul in our own ministries. When we address the people of God, let us follow the pattern of Paul. Let us approach them from the position of their present blessing in Christ. Let us continually set before them their position in Christthat in him, they are already citizens of heaven. Failure to approach them this way means we defraud the saints of the prize that is already theirs in Christ and discourage them in their pressing to that prize which is yet to come.
Waiting Eagerly for a Savior
Our Savior has removed our lives with his to heaven; we live our whole life before the throne of God. As citizens of heaven, Paul describes believers as seeking to gain what they already have. They already belong to heaven, but there is more of heaven to come. Believers live waiting for the return of Christ, waiting for the end of the age, for the consummation of all things. We wait for the day of Christ's return and for the resurrection of the dead and for the day when Christ "will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory" (v. 21).
Our salvation is not yet complete. Our citizenship is in heaven, but also, from heaven we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Our salvation itself partakes of the already and not yet pattern. Salvation is totally from
Christ and results entirely from his power. But not all of Christ's power unto our salvation has yet been exerted. Our salvation is not complete until we are conformed to the image of Christ. This involves our being made over in his image, both in the inner man and in the outer man, that is, in our bodies. Our Savior has a glorified body and our salvation is incomplete until that day when Christ returns and when the dead in Christ are raised and are given glorified bodies like his. Even in the intermediate state, the saints in heaven are pictured as waiting for that day (Rev. 6:9-11). The completion of our salvation has not yet been reached. It will arrive when the Savior comes from heaven. It is not an uncertain hope. It is all accomplished by Jesus. It is applied to us in stages, in our justification, our sanctification, and our glorification. Paul says: "For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you, will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6).
Until the time when Christ returns from heaven, between the already and the not yet, the church's present existence is described as waiting. We are waiting for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul summarizes the content of our Christian existence in this world in many ways. Here, he describes it as "waiting for God's Son from heaven." In other places, he refers to it "as awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thess. 1:10; 1 Cor. 1:7). So the church lives waiting eagerly for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. This waiting is anything but passive or inactive. When you wait for loved ones to arrive for the holidays your waiting is full of expectation and anticipation. There is much activity in your home as you wait for them to arrive, as you prepare to welcome them.
Waiting for Christ's return means that our present lives in the present time are directed towards heaven. "Our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." The Savior will come from heaven. As we have the promise of his coming for us, we also incline our lives towards him. As we wait for Christ to return, all eyes are fixed upon him who is seated at the goal in heaven. We have our minds, our hearts, our eyes directed heavenward. Our Savior will bring us to the goal, but at the same time, like runners, we are stretching every nerve in that direction. As we run, our eyes are on Jesus who is seated at the right hand of the throne of God and who is scheduled to return form heaven. Believers now, between
the already and the not yet, live lives that are directed out of themselves, forward and upward to Christ in heaven and the promise of his coming. Our joy continually is to hear about himhow he came for us, how he died for us, about his resurrection and ascension for us and how he is coming again for us. We want to be found in him when he comes. We want to be reaching forward to what is ahead. We want to be pressing to the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ. The people of God should live self-consciously in this awareness. What a joy! How refreshing! Outward to Christ, not inward to ourselves. Forward in the age of fulfillment, not backwards to return to the past. Minds and hearts and souls striving upward to heaven and the things above, not preoccupation with that which is below. All this outward and forward and upward disposition is described here by Paul as waiting with our eyes fixed on heaven. We are waiting for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. In the period between the already and not yet the church waits for the return of Christ, who comes from heaven to complete our salvation.
Our salvation is incomplete and so we wait for a Savior from heaven. But this also motivates the church to the Christian life. This orientation towards heaven does not make us careless or indifferent towards our present life in this world. The perspective that starts with our citizenship in heaven, that we live our lives in the presence of God and before his throne, is a powerful incentive to live in an appropriate manner. And this is always Paul's approach. You are God's family, now live like his family. You are the body of Christ, now act like it within the church. You are the church of God, now stop behaving like the world. You are light, now walk like children of light. You have been called onto God's side, now walk worthy of your calling. Here in Philippians 3:20, he tells them that their citizenship is in heaven. But back in chapter 1:26, he speaks about his hope for release from his imprisonment and of his coming again to see them. Then in verse 27, using a form of the same word, he tells them to act like citizens of heaven: "Conduct yourselves (exercise your citizenship) in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel." This is fascinating! Do you see what the apostle is doing with the Philippians? He incites them to proper conduct in anticipation of his coming to them. Let the prospect and the anticipation of his coming determine their
conduct even while he is absent. Paul not only preaches Christ to them, he also self-consciously patterns his conduct and behavior so as to exemplify Christ. Let the church's conduct be proper in anticipation of Christ's coming. What Paul longs to see when he return to visit the Philippians is what our Lord longs to see in his church. A people who are waiting for him to come by "standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving for the faith of the gospel."
May God grant to us that we remember our heavenly citizenship and the transcendent character of the church. May we be governed by the prospect of our Savior's coming from heaven. That when he comes, he will be pleased with us, and find his church standing firm in one spirit, with one mind (the mind of our Savior himself revealed to us in his word) and striving for the faith of the gospel that was received by those before us and has been faithfully delivered to us. Let our waiting for our Savior from heaven determine our conduct in these ways. Our Savior's return from heaven is a powerful incentive to us to be faithful to that faith and life that answers to our calling as citizens of heaven.
But Paul's characterization of the content of the believer's present existence as "waiting" also brings into consideration the idea of perseverance unto the time of the coming rest. Because we are to wait by striving for the faith of the gospel and by pressing towards the mark; because our present life in the flesh involves all kinds of trouble, trials and hardship, Paul often sets before the church the future rest that awaits us in heaven. Paul writes this letter while a prisoner for the sake of the gospel. He has already endured much hardship in the cause of the gospel. You can hear his longing for his earthly pilgrimage to be over in chapter 1:21 where he says "For me, to live is Christ, but to die is gain." To die is gain because it means the time of suffering and hardship is over. This causes a certain ambivalence in him. "But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which one to choose." Though the apostle longs for heaven, even still, that prospect of rest does not determine his choice. A self interest, even for rest from his labors, will never be the driving concern for Paul. In fact he chooses to remain because he knows that if he remains that this will mean fruitful labor for him among the Philippians and for the church at large. The church eagerly waits for Christ to come from heaven and for the end of the present existence. As it
looks towards heaven for Jesus to come, it sees the Savior seated there as King, as the lion of Judah but also as the Lamb with the marks of his slaughter upon him, the marks of his fruitful labor for his people, the marks of his sacrifice and service on behalf of the church. Paul's pattern for existence in this world will follow the pattern of the Savior himself. The church must do the same. "Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us" (3:17).
Our Humble State
We are already citizens of heaven. Our lives have gone to heaven with Christ. Our present life in this world is characterized as eagerly waiting for our Savior. Waiting for the day that is yet to come determines our present life of pressing towards the goal and works faithfulness and perseverance in us as we look for the rest to come and to the day when our Savior "will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of his glory."
Paul's statement in verse 21 also sheds light on the church's present life and blessing. The body of glory is in the future. It is yet to come. The state of the believer in the present, between the already and the not yet, is that of humility. Our present bodies testify to that. We are already raised from the dead. Therefore we are people who are alive from the dead, but who still dwell in mortal bodies (Rom. 6:11-12). Our Lord's taking upon himself our human nature marks for him his state of humiliation. We confess that the point of transformation for him was his resurrection from the dead and his possession of his glorified body. The pattern of existence of our Savior was first humiliation, then exaltation. The apostle sees the pattern of the believer to be the same. Saved by faith in Christ and united to Christ and to his resurrection means first a resurrection union with Christ in his humiliation and in his suffering. This is exactly what Paul repeatedly says even in this letter. In chapter 3:10, he writes, "That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death." In chapter 1:29, Paul states, "For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake." The present life of the believer, between the already and not yet, is a humble one. Christ's state of
humiliation precedes his state of exaltation. Paul concludes that the same is true of Christ's church.
We are to follow the pattern set before us during the time of the Savior's humble state, who shows citizens of heaven the attitude that they are to display. Roman and Jewish citizens are proud and used to exerting their rights and putting forward their prerogatives, each seeking for himself his own importance and his own interests. But Paul's concern is to remind them of their higher and heavenly citizenship and of an entirely different conduct as citizens. He sets it before them in the famous words of chapter 2. There is something lacking in his joy over them. He writes: "make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; so do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (2:2-8). Our Savior emptied himself of all his divine rights and prerogatives to be worshipped and served as God. Are not we, who are riddled with sin and who only imagine ourselves to be great and are insistent on all manner of rights and privileges, to empty ourselves to become the servants of God, and servants in the church, and servants towards one another, and even servants in the world? We live now between the already and not yet, in the body of our humble state. Christ humbled himself to the point of death on the cross. Does not our Lord himself direct all who would follow him to deny themselves and take up his cross daily and follow him (Lk. 9:23)? To be a citizen of heaven means that we share in the new life in Christ. It also means that we share in Christ's suffering. Not his atoning and redeeming suffering, but our own cross-bearing, our own dying to sin and crucifying our old nature.
Geerhardus Vos has written a sermon entitled "Christ's Deliberate Work" on the text in Mark 10:45: "For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." Vos states:
"The passage speaks of our Lord's atoning death and yet is intended to place before the disciples an example to be followed by them in their own conduct of life. At first sight this might seem to involve an impossibility because the case of Jesus was so peculiar and unique as to be by its very nature and purpose inimitable. How can a weak, sinful man, even though he is regenerated by the grace and controlled by the Spirit of God, even attempt to reproduce this in his character and conduct? Though the concrete circumstances are unreproducible in our case, this not only does not hinder them from being but is the very cause of their becoming the most powerful incentives to us to make our self-denying service of others as unlimited and unqualified as it is possible within the range of our powers and opportunities to make it. What limit would we dare set upon the poor little self-denial which the conditions of our earthly life enable us to practice?"
As citizens of heaven, who wait eagerly for the return of our Savior, the constant object of our vision is Christ who is set before us in all the uniqueness of his person and work and who also sets before us the pattern of humility to follow. The character of the life of the citizen of heaven now, between the already and the not yet, while we walk this earth, is the pattern of our Savior's life of humility and service when he walked this earth.
This is the Christ that the apostle Paul sees enthroned in heaven and who is the constant object of his vision. The apostle's conduct as a citizen of heaven is patterned after Christ. Again, he urges us in chapter 3:17 to "join in following his example and to observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us." It is the pattern of the cross. There are those who are enemies of the cross of Christ. This is not enmity directed against the cross as the tree on which Jesus was hung. Even the Judiazers embraced the cross. The enemies of the cross stand against the life-directing pattern of the cross. The cross of Christ is indeed the place to which all men must come to have their burden of sin and guilt removed and to have peace with God. But the cross is not a place that we just visit. Rather we also journey, now, between the already and not yet, in its light.
We are citizens of heaven. We live our present lives before the throne of God. This is exactly where we need to continually place the people of God. We think that to motivate them and to spur them on to faithful Christian living, that we have to be continually rebuking them, critiquing them, telling them how bad they are, and how deficient in everything they are. That is not Paul's approach. He never delivers imperatives to the people of God until after he has told them of all the present blessing that they enjoy already in their Savior. They must see that they are already citizens of heaven by God's grace. They live their lives there. There is no greater motivation for Christian living then to realize that our lives in their entirety are lived before God.
We wait for the day of Christ's return and for the time when our present humble bodies will be transformed into conformity with his own glorious body. The character of the lives of the citizens of heaven as we sojourn in this world is that of humility and servanthood. This is what the New Testament is unfolding to us in all its teaching about our lives in this world. We haven't touched the heart of Christian marriage, for example, when all we have done is sorted out the respective duties, authority and position of husbands and wives. Let Christian spouses preach Christ to one another in their self-denying love for one another. Let our young people learn to die, to lose their own lives, and in doing so to find life. Let us preach Christ and him crucified to a lost and dying world. It is the cross that has transforming power. It is the cross that makes us new creatures. It is the cross that makes us citizens of heaven. It is the cross and the resurrection that produces at the end of this present age, the transformation of the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of Christ's glory, by the exertion of the power that he has, even to subject all things to himself.
The already and the not yet are pictured beautifully for us in the Lord's Supper. As we celebrate the sacrament together the focus on Christ and heaven is represented to us. As citizens of heaven, we look away from our selves and outward to Christ. It is not our broken backs or our blood, sweat and tears that saves us and brings us to heaven, but rather Christ's body broken, his blood shed. The supper inclines us forward to the goal. This is spiritual food for
strength for our journey in this world, for our pressing towards the mark, reminding us that it is Christ in us who will bring us safely to our destination. The supper directs us upward, for the feast is but a foretaste of that wedding supper of the Lamb which is yet to come, when we will eat it in the consummated kingdom, home in heaven, where we will be able to reach out and touch our Savior, with a glorified hand.
Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
Abraham: The Prophet
Perhaps a large group of young children would read this story and say in mockery to Abraham, "Liar, liar, pants on fire!" Such a response can be expected from children, but adults who read this passage are also captured by Abraham and Sarah's "lie" to Abimelech. Everyone seems perplexed by their ethical conduct. Why would they "lie" about Sarah being Abraham's sister when she was his wife? Well, there are many possible reasons. Let me share two.
In the first place, perhaps they reasoned, "It worked once, why can't it work again?"a good pragmatic reason to try it once more. After coming from Ur of the Chaldees, Abram and Sarai moved into the southern part of Canaan, the Negev (Gen. 12:9). When famine hit the land, they went into Egypt. On that occasion, Abram told the Egyptians and Pharaoh that Sarai was his sister (12:19). When the Egyptians hear of this, Pharaoh brings Sarai into his palace (12:15); he then gives Abram many gifts. The Lord, in turn, brings a great plague on Pharaoh's house. Thereby, Pharaoh discovered the deception of Abram and kicked him out of Egypt (12:20). Now, just as they had been surrounded by foreigners in Egypt, they are in the presence of foreigners againAbimelech and his people (Gen. 20). Since their "lie" worked once, why not use the same scheme again? In fact, it worked so well in Egypt
that Abram made out like a bandit; he received sheep, oxen, donkeys, camels and male and female servants from Pharaoh (12:16). Also, in spite of their "lie," the Lord came to their aid by punishing the Egyptians with plagues. So there seems to be a good reason why Abraham and Sarah thought that such a "lie" was a safe means of protection for their lives as they faced Abimelech. However, even in light of their success in Egypt, perhaps the aforementioned explanation is not the best interpretation of Abraham and Sarah's action with respect to Abimelech. Perhaps one should go in another direction.
In the second place, permit me to suggest that God may be using their "lie" in order to show us their weak faith, and in so doing God provides encouragement to our faith. In the infant stage of their faith when God brought them out of Ur of the Chaldees, God protected them in their weak faith for the sake of the covenant of promise in Sarai. But now, in Genesis 20, Sarah, who is past the age of bearing children, and Abraham who is old, both have laughed at the prospect of bringing forth a child of the promise. Now they are in the midst of these foreigners in Gerar and they take steps to preserve their lives so they can eventually see their child. Hence, the questions arise: do they really trust in God's promises? Are they really children of faith? They do not seem to be the best models for us. Fear entices them. They deceive and "lie" in order to save their own skin so that they can live in the surrounding country and see the birth of their child. Are you not sympathetic with them? Would we not take the same action? Does it not seem odd, or even impossible, for the child of the promise to be born after the time for child bearing? Well, even if it seems impossible, is it not a natural human reaction to do everything you can to preserve the day of that child's coming? So, perhaps God is showing us that a weak faith can be seen in all believers, and that we must remain strong and go forward in spite of our weakness. Trust in the Lord and he will exalt you!
Are these explanations, therefore, the best reason for explaining why Abraham and Sarah "lied" to Abimelech? Indeed, they may seem to provide some insight into the text: it seems possible that Abraham and Sarah used the "lie" to preserve their lives, and it does seem that God is preserving the covenant in spite of their human weakness. Let us look more closely at Abraham and Sarah's use of the "lie" to preserve their lives: one could argue that their action is justified, or one could even argue that their action is not a "lie" at all.
How could one argue that their action is justified? One could argue on the basis of the cultural surroundings they faced. It seems that the practice of heathen kings of the time was to take the wife of another man, add her to his bounty, and then kill the husband. On the other hand, if one is a sister, he may add her to his bounty, but not kill the brother (20:11). Abraham and Sarah tried to take advantage of this practice. Abraham said of his wife, Sarah, "She is my sister" (20:2). They knew exactly what they were doing (20:11-13). In fact, this was their routine (12:11-13); they made a pact with each other as soon as they left their father Terah's home that such action would be their routine (20:13). Did you catch that?"Their father Terah's home." You see, in reality Abraham and Sarah had the same father (Terah), but they did not have the same mother. So technically, Sarah is Abraham's half-sister, and hence Abraham says to Abimelech "Sarah is my sister" (20:12). So one could argue that Abraham is not lying at all since Sarah is a half-sister or stepsister. Perhaps we should say that Abraham and Sarah are dealing in "half-truths" or "white lies."
Oh Church of Jesus Christ, are you hung up on these ethical issues with respect to Abraham and Sarah? If you are, then you are going outside the text. The text is not concerned about justifying Abraham and Sarah's actions in light of the cultural surroundings; it is not concerned about the ethical question of whether Abraham and Sarah are engaged in half-truths. Simply put, the text is not concerned whether Abraham and Sarah used a "lie" to preserve their lives. How do I know that? Because nowhere in the text does God directly confront or condemn Abraham and Sarah's moral activity. In fact, the person whose activity is directly confronted and condemned is Abimelech! How is this fair? How can Abimelech be blamed for his action? After all, Abimelech is told that Sarah is Abraham's sister, and yet, he is judged for taking another man's wife! How would he know? What kind of God would hold such an action accountable? In fact, contrary to our human sentiments, God comes to Abimelech (not Abraham!) in a dream and confronts him. God says to him: "You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken;
she is a married woman" (vs. 3). In response to the Lord, Abimelech cries out that he is innocentthat he has a clear conscience and clean hands (vs. 4, 5). Hence, we see the just response of the Lord by acknowledging that Abimelech has a clear conscience, and for this reason God himself kept him from sinning against the Lord (vs. 6)! But even so, something odd appears in the text: Abimelech is still within the grasp of God's judgment! He must return Sarah to Abraham, and have Abraham pray for him so that he will live and not die, because Abraham is a prophet (vs. 7)!
The Covenant to the Nations
Perhaps now, the meaning of this text begins to reveal itself to us. Perhaps, we are getting the picture! Indeed, God is preserving his covenant oath to Abraham and Sarah in the face of Abimelech, and yet there is not any indication in the text that the central idea of the passage is that the Lord is encouraging us in the weakness (or sin) of Abraham's faith. Oh people of God, Abraham is being confronted with the oath of God's own covenantal word as it is sovereignly declared, sovereignly established, and sovereignly executed by his providential hand. The covenant which God has made with Abraham not only looks forward to a day in the future when it will be fulfilled and consummated, but God provides a glimpse of the future completion of his covenant to Abraham in his own life. Abraham will experience the fulfillment of God's covenant, although the fulfillment of the covenant will be reflected dimly before him.
We must keep in mind that in the process of revelation, we are in the era of the patriarchs, many years prior to the formation of Israel as a separate and distinct nation. The patriarch, Abraham, lives as an alien and stranger in Canaan as the nations encompass him. At the same time, God has promised that the nations will be blessed through him. But how will the nations be blessed through him? It will be through the seed of the covenant, i.e., the seed of redemption coming forth from Abraham and Sarah.
You recall the covenantal oath of our God: "I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will bless those who bless you, and whoever
curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (12:2-3). And when God changed Abram's name, he said, "No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I will have made you a father of many nations" (17:5). God will enable Abraham to taste the temporal fulfillment of this covenantal oath to him in his confrontation with Abimelech and his family. In this incident, we will see the essential story of redemption for the nationsin their father, Abraham.
But the drama played out in the midst of the nations is not a smooth narrative. As Abraham bears the name that means "father of many nations" (17:5), he is immediately confronted with Sodom and Gomorrah. Will Abraham truly see the nations blessed? In fact, in the context of God's own covenant oath to Abraham, God questions whether he should allow Abraham to see what he is about to do to Sodom and Gomorrah (18:17). Even in light of that situation, God reassures him that the nations will be blessed in Abraham, but not Sodom and Gomorrah (18:18). But for the sake of the righteous, Abraham, the prophet of the Lord in the midst of these nations, attempts a priestly intercession for the whole citythe home of his nephew Lot and his family. He attempts to intercede from fifty to ten righteous people. But Abraham cannot intercede since there do not exist ten righteous people in Sodom, and their sin is exceedingly grievous against the Lord (18:20). The judgment of God is now upon them, and thus, these people of the nations are lost forever!
Herein lies the challenge of God to Abraham's faith. The Prophet, Abraham, has failed to intercede for Sodom and Gomorrah. By this I mean that the prophetic voice of the Lord's servant did not witness repentance and restoration on the part of the wretched sinners living in those cities. Abraham, whose name now embodies the covenant promise of the Lord"father of many nations"does not see the people of this nation come to the living and true God. In fact, they have been utterly consumed and extinguished by the "wrath of God." After what he has just witnessed, can Abraham truly affirm that he is the father of many nations? Herein lies the true test of faith for this prophet among the nations.
Abraham and Sarah in Gerar
Eventually, God places Abraham and Sarah in Gerar, in the presence of Abimelech. And remember, God is the principal actor here. It is God who really protects Abraham and the purity of Sarah. It is God who holds Abimelech accountable for Sarah. For in this event, God will unfold the blessings and the reality of his covenant to Abraham, i.e., that his covenantal name bears God's truthful word in that Abraham is the "father of many nations!" Abimelech, king of the nation Gerar, behold the prophet of the Lord before you! Abimelech, you are as good as dead; indeed, you are as good as dead, if he does not pray for you. Abimelech, you and your household need the priestly intercessory prayer of this prophet or else you will see the extinguishing wrath of Almighty God, since no more children will come from your household (20:18). In this case, however, Abraham's intercessory prayer is effectual! Abraham prayed to God for Abimelech, and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his slave girls so they could have childrentheir lifeline is restored! This nation, this king, and his family are restored through Abraham's prayer. The sovereign Lord enables Abraham to see the fulfillment of the covenant promise made to him in his own lifetime"father of many nations."
We must keep in mind, however, that the execution of God's sovereign covenant of grace is only through the seed of the promise. Those who are direct descendants of Abraham can only be blessed as they participate in the blessings of his seed. Likewise, the nations can only be blessed as they participate in the blessings of Abraham's seed. Because that seed is to come forth from Abraham and Sarah, and because the Gentile king Abimelech's restoration is dependent upon the promised seed of the covenant, God would not allow Abimelech to even touch Sarah (20:6). More specifically, it is in Abraham's son, his seed, that the nations will be blessed. Yet the Scriptures do not interpret Abraham's "seed" to be Isaac as the one who will save the nations; rather the apostle Paul points out that the "seed" (singular) is Jesus Christ the one who will covenantally bless the nations (Gal. 3:16)
Even so, before the arrival of Isaac and the coming of Jesus Christ, Abraham represents the federal headship of the covenant that bears his name; he is essentially the seed of the promise that bears his name. Healing and restora-
tion to this king, Abimelech, and his household, who were born in sin, are experienced through the priestly, prophetic Word from the initial propagator of the seed, Abraham. We must remember, however, that the effectual work of God in Abraham is only possible because of the presence of Christ in Abraham, i.e., the presence of Christ as the true healer of the nations, as the true Redeemer of the sins of the world and as the true Prophet who offers up intercessory prayers for his peoplethe one in whom the promised seed of redemption is consummated through death and resurrectionthe one who enables those who are as good as dead to live!!
Oh yes, even in this event Abimelech is confronted with the future messianic words of Psalm 2, as that messianic revelation is embodied in Abraham:
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and rejoice with trembling
Kiss the Son [Christ in Abraham], lest he
be angry and you be destroyed in your way
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
In essence, Abimelech kissed the Son, the Christ, as he embraced the effectual prayer of Abraham, and hence restoration comes for himself and his household.
Oh people of God, Abraham witnessed before his own eyes the faithfulness of God's covenantal love for him in this historical event in the land of Gerar. As the Church of Jesus Christ, who understand the story in the fullness of God's revelation in his Son, do we not understand the continuing promise and task of the Churchthat the prophetic word of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ must go forth; that the intercessory prayer of Jesus Christ on behalf of the Church, and by the Church must be offered (Jn. 17:20-26). Only through the intercessory prayer and work of the Mediator can Abimelech and the nations share in the heavenly Jerusalem, the freedom of the gospel found in Jesus Christ, the wealth and riches of the inheritance of the covenant
(Gal. 4:30). Are we a Church that is praying in earnest that the "full number of the Gentiles has come in" (Rom. 11:25)? We must! The healing of the nations is our continual prayer! Witnessing the addition to the elect is our constant joy! For we know thisthat anyone who is added to the Kingdom of heaven is an alien and stranger on the earth, "looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10, 13-16; 1 Pet. 1:17)the heavenly Jerusalem. And those who are therethose who even now dwell in that city realize that they have experienced the effect of going from death to lifelife in covenant with God through the death and resurrection of our Jesus!our Savior!
Lookout Mountain, Georgia
Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation Past and Present. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996, 608 pp., cloth, $34.99. ISBN: 0-8308-1880-4.
In 1885, Frederic W. Farrar delivered the Bampton Lectures under the heading History of Interpretation. In 1948, Robert M. Grant published the first edition of A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible (revised 1963). Farrar's well-written survey of the hermeneutical issues into the late nineteenth century is as wordy as Grant's volume is succinct: the former a model of Victorian style; the latter the epitome of crisp, pithy condensation. Now comes Gerald Bray with an up-to-date survey which is more thorough than Farrar (though not as interesting stylistically), yet more satisfying (because more extensive) than Grant. While it may be premature to suggest that Bray's will be the standard work into the next century (a la Farrar), it is safe to say he has provided an impressive overview of Biblical interpretation from the apostolic to the contemporary era.
Of particular note (though not unexpected, given the imprintIVP) is the sympathetic treatment Bray accords evangelical interpretation. His judicious summary of twentieth century evangelical scholarship is a road map to issues, personalities, potentialities and, inevitably, traps and pitfalls. In the process, we are introduced to the opposition from contemporary higher criticism, i.e., classic liberalism, form criticism, redaction criticism, canon criticism and more. One of the most helpful features of the volume is the running "list of players." Bray provides names, dates, a (too) brief biographical note
on each influential scholar or commentator together with a select list of the individual's most significant writings. The Index of Names provides quick reference to more than one thousand persons who have helped shape the hermeneutical landscapepast and present. This is a mini-encyclopedia of the history of interpretation! Each section concludes with a "case study" of a particular Biblical passage derived form the comments of the major players of that era.
But grant the thorough coverage of the history of interpretation from the patristic to the modern era; kudos for the encyclopedic vade mecum of persons and their works; cheers for the sympathetic treatment of evangelical scholarship; thanks for the case studies of specific Biblical textsis the book a safe guide to the discussion of hermeneutics as it has evolved down through church history? In the main, Yes! This book will likely become a "textbook" for many classes in the history of biblical interpretation especially in evangelical circles. It is the most helpful survey of the issues in print and should be required reading for all serious pastors, seminarians and interested laypersons. They will certainly know the "lay of the (hermeneutical) land" when they finish the book.
And yet, however much he appreciates and commends historic orthodoxy in hermeneutics, Professor Bray betrays slight leanings to the left of the theological spectrum. For example, when discussing the Christocentric and eschatological perspective of the apostolic writers (pp. 64ff.), he nevertheless resorts to Jewish rabbinical methods of interpretation such as pesher and midrash to account for the background and distinctiveness of the New Testament. If this seems somewhat reminiscent of left-wing "evangelical" Robert Gundry, note Bray's ambivalence about the Westmont professor's methods (pp. 549-50). Without denying the Semitic substratum of the New Covenant documents, it remains highly speculative to suggest that Paul's method of interpreting the Old Testament (to single out the great apostle) is virtually a first century summary of Strack-Billerbeck (cf. pp. 66-69). The old Reformation principle of interpreting Scripture with Scripture (Scriptura sui intepres) is a safer guide than resorting to Jewish techniques anchored in Qumran or the Talmud. I, for one, remain unconvinced by the literature that suggests that every New Testament allusion to the Old Testament is enlightened when
filtered through Qumran or the Talmud. Qumran (Dead Sea Community) remains sectarian Judaismnot mainstream Judaism. To measure the New Testament (or the Old Testament for that matter) by Qumran would be like measuring orthodox Christianity by the Watchtower of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Mainstream Christianity is found in the New Testament and the New Testament writer's use of the Old Testamentnot intertestamental or rabbinic Judaism. The critical search for the roots of the historic New Testament should end in the mind of God as revealed through his inspired apostles as they record the fullness of the times through the life, death and resurrection of the second person of the ontological Godhead, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. In particular, Bray's case study for his section on the New Testament period (pp. 70-76, the epistle to Hebrews) blithely ignores the magisterial third chapter of Geerhardus Vos's The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews. That chapter, "The Epistle's Philosophy of Revelation and Redemption," is a safer guide to the mind of God than Bray's excursus.
The section on patristic interpretation (pp. 77-128) rightly focuses upon the contrast between Alexandria and Antioch (Origen versus Theodore of Mopsuestia)allegorical versus literal exegesis. Noting that allegory does not need historicity, Bray trenchantly observes that the former "quickly slides into moral exhortation" (p. 101). Counterpoised to typology, which necessitates historical continuity, the canard that types degenerate into allegory is only true for those who have vaporized the horizontal in favor of the mystical. Typology is no more typology when the historical vector has been ignored. Yet typology enriched by the eschatological or vertical vector (i.e., the vertical-horizontal hermeneutical interface) anchors historicity while gathering the pilgrim people of God (cf. the main themes of the epistle to the Hebrews) into participation with the eschatological intrusion. In short, history is a vehicle of supernatural revelation and self-disclosure because God's redeemed creatures are historical persons whom he has been pleased to unite with his eschatological self and arena. The patristic struggle with typological history and recapitulation was a "feeling after" the biblical-theological perspective, even though falling short in a tragic allegorical/literal antithesis. One exception receives scant attention from BrayMelito of Sardis and his profound Pascal Homily (cf. Kerux 4/1 [May 1989]: 5-35). The solution to Alexandria versus Antioch is found not in polarization, but in transcending and
eschatologizing patristic exegesis. Back to Paul and John and Luke and Peter, etc. for the resolution of the tension between spiritual (allegorical) and literal (historical) hermeneutics. We can never be bound by the church fathers however much we may benefit from them. Our hermeneutical canon is the Bible and the Bible alone.
Additional strengths of Bray's patristic section include: a summary of the famous rules of Tyconius (pp. 107-8) as commended by Augustine. These principles dominated hermeneutics well into the Middle Ages (witness their use in the most famous Bible commentary of the medieval period, Nicholas of Lyra's edition of the Biblia sacra cum glossa ordinaria ["Sacred Bible with the standard gloss"] together with Nicholas's postilla or expository comments). All students of biblical interpretation should understand the role of Tyconius's rules. Bray provides a bibliography of the era (pp. 111-15) which is up-to-date including the very important recent works of Simonetti and de Margerie. Finally, the case study on patristic interpretation of Genesis 1 provides insight into the variety of interpretations of the "days" of this passagea variety which should give pause to the exegetical tyrants of the present day who seem more interested in their own myopia than the tolerant liberty which has enabled brethren to "dwell together in unity" on this issue from the time of the fathers to the present. Is it too much to expect charity from those whose spirit seems to breathe the intolerance of fundamentalism than the "liberty with which Christ has set us free" with respect to this disputed question?
The most disappointing section of the book is Bray's discussion of medieval hermeneutics. Acknowledging that the period has received inadequate treatment (especially from Protestants who tend to skip over it), Bray falls into the same pit by giving short shrift to a complex and difficult period. By devoting only 35 pages to one thousand years of Biblical interpretation, Bray betrays his ignorance of the recent explosion of interest in medieval interpretation (witness the appearance this year of an English translation of the first volume of de Lubac's standard French work, L'exégèse médiévale: les quatre sans de l'ecriture = Medieval exegesis: the four senses of Scripture [Eerdmans]). Add to this the massive Cambridge History of the Middle Ages and the Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (both of which are multi-volume sets in progress) and one realizes Bray's brief section is
hardly adequate. The medieval era was a search for codification (i.e., one hermeneutical authority for the entire church), but that quest for standardization was fraught with variations ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. We must recall that in the providence of God there could be no Reformation without the Middle Ages. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli reactbut they react out of minds informed by the pasta past that drives them ad fontes ("to the sources"), namely sola Scriptura.
Once possessed by the Christ of Scripture, there was no going back to patristic or medieval exegesis for the Reformers. The way forward was solely through faith in Christ. The Reformation was a Christocentric revolution as much as a Biblical revolution. From Luther's sola fide to Calvin's covenant theology, Christ remained the heart of the text. This is why the works of sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestants continue to warm the hearts of God's children. The Christ of grace and the grace of Christ are central to their devotion. How far the modern Protestant and Reformed church has deviated from this Christ-centeredness! Topical drivel, doctrinal boredom, moralistic motivationalism, uninformed (because unresearched) messages, superficiality which requires no penetration into the mind of the Biblical writer, let alone the mind of Christ: all these have trivialized modern evangelical and Reformed homiletics. Contemporary Reformed preachers are sophomoric, dull or neo-charismatic. They lust after relevance searching for "connections" everywhere but in the Christocentric aspect of the text. Without the unique Christocentricity of the original Reformation, the modern Reformed pulpit is doomed to drift, their churches certain to be pop culture mirrors, their leaders power brokers and agenda setters. The future of such Protestantism is the very liberalism which swallowed up the culture of the eighteenth century. That piranha we call the Enlightenment.
Bray is superb in describing the results of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and its historical-critical hermeneutical liberalism. If he is too analytical, he at least tells us the story of this horrible downgrade of anti-supernaturalism and anti-Christocentrism. Modern churches hankering after relevance for the contemporary culture are on the same track as classic Enlightenment liberalism. If the reader doubts the previous sentence, he need only read Edward O. Wilson's recent article on the Enlightenment in the March Atlantic
Monthly. Wilson's gospel is the gospel of the philosophes, the gospel of the supremacy of man, the gospel of powerpersonal and state. It is no coincidence that the tyrants (political and personal) of the last three centuries regard themselves, like Wilson, as children of the Enlightenment.
Biblical hermeneutics shifted with the culture of the eighteenth century. Bray demonstrates that we have not recovered yet from that devastating legacy. Unwitting evangelical and Reformed pastors who eschew Christocentric biblical-theological preaching are indistinguishable from their (enlightened) liberal peersthey only wear different hats. But they use the same methodreduce the text to practice, application ("the sermon doesn't start until the application begins"), telos, moral improvement. This regimen is "wood, hay and stubble" of the worst kind because it robs the children of God of Christof graceof life in the heavenliesof covenantal inclusion in the life, death and resurrection of their federal Head. Contemporary evangelical and Reformed churches have sold their Protestant birthright for a mess of pottage. They are closer to liberal fundamentalism than they realize.
Bray's singular weakness in this largest (and most informative) section of his work (pp. 261-460 for the historical-critical method) is the lack of detail about underlying philosophical presuppositions in post-Enlightenment hermeneutics. He analyzes terms ("form criticism," "redaction criticism," "quest for the historical Jesus") without penetrating the philosophical inspiration bolstering the terms. Hence, we learn about De Wette, Strauss, Schweitzer, Gunkel, Dibelius and Bultmann without learning how they were "men of their time," enchanted by the philosophy and culture of their day from classic rationalism and liberalism, to idealism and positivism, to existentialism and linguistic analysis. How much more devastating to understand Reimarus as a bigoted rationalist; Strauss as a narcissistic idealist; Bultmann as an arrogant existentialist. The system which has driven Biblical hermeneutics since the eighteenth century has not been the text of the Wordit has been the prevailing philosophy of the day. It is not the Christ of Scripture who shines through the higher critical fundamentalists of the left; it is the Christ of the philosophersa Christ refashioned in the ever-shifting image of the prevailing Weltanschauung. Albert Schweitzer saw this in the nineteenth century quest for the historical Jesus. He said that we learn more about the authors of the
quest (Strauss, Renan, etc.) than we do about the Jesus of Scripture. More's the pity that Schweitzer himself fell into the same pitshaping Jesus in his own humanitarian image. Bray's volume would have been significantly strengthened had he laid bare the foundational philosophical presuppositions of post-Enlightenment Biblical hermeneutics.
The following are some minor quibbles. Spener's famous book is mistranslated Pious Requirements (p. 241). The Latin title (Pia Desideria) is straightforward and means Pious Desires. Reimarus is dismissed from his role in inaugurating the quest for the historical Jesus (p. 243)certainly news to Albert Schweitzer, whose most famous book about the quest of the historical Jesus (its actual title in English) is Von Reimarus zu Wrede. Strauss's Leben Jesu (p. 330) is certainly not regarded as preferring a "supernatural" interpretation of Jesus. This is stunning news to all the opponents of Strauss who labeled him the "Nineteenth Century Judas." Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth, two of the most radically liberal Old Testament scholars of this century, are treated innocuously. Their reconstruction of the early history of Israel based upon the amphyctiony (tribal confederation) of the ancient Aegean world relegates the patriarchs and the exodus to hoary myth. Though mentioning the amphyctionic theory (p. 381), Bray seems naively unaware of its devastating results when applied to the text. Our author's suggestion that Gerhard Von Rad is the source of redaction criticism (1938) is a bit anachronistic. The term was coined by Willi Marxsen, a New Testament scholar, in 1954! Von Rad is more accurately an advocate of form criticisman agenda he does indeed positively advance. J. Gresham Machen's powerful anti-liberal apologetic is incorrectly identified as Liberalism and Christianity (p. 545). Machen knew the priority which belonged to orthodox Christianity; liberalism was another religion. The most serious blind-spot in Bray's presentation is his hagiographical treatment of John Bright (The Authority of the Old Testament, p. 410). What utter nonsense! Bright was a brilliant neo-orthodox biblical-theologian, but was vehement in his rejection of the inerrancy and historicity of the Old Testament.
With respect to the final section of the book ("The Contemporary Scene," pp. 461-588), we learn much. "Evangelical" is a term almost impossible to define at the end of the twentieth century (an observation Harold Lindsell,
former editor of Christianity Today, made more than ten years before his death in January of this year). We are introduced to Eric Auerbach, a name virtually unknown in Reformed seminaries. Every student and pastor should be required to read his remarks on figural interpretation in his book Mimesis. Bray is also aware of the contributions of Hans Frei and Northrop Fryetwo other penetrating authors not found on most Reformed seminary reading lists (though the revolution they inaugurated in narrative studies is now more than twenty years old).
Yet another quibble: Bray regards Richard Bauckham and W. G. M. Williamson as conservative evangelicals. In fact, they are left-wing evangelicals of typical middle-of-the-road British stripe, who are more comfortable smoozing with higher critical positions than traditional orthodox ones. Bauckham is certain the author of the fourth gospel is not the "John" of the book of Revelation. Williamson is comfortable with more than one IsaiahIsaiah of Jerusalem and the so-called Deutero-Isaiah (cf. his The Book Called Isaiah). We discover that Antony Thistleton, who took the evangelical world by storm some years back, is in fact an advocate of the "new hermeneutic" (p. 488). And while we are introduced to Julicher, Dodd, Jeremias and Blomberg on the parables of Jesus, we are not informed of Herman Ridderbos's monumental treatment in The Coming of the Kingdom. Nor is Richard B. Gaffin listed on Paul or Meredith G. Kline on covenant. True, Geerhardus Vos and Old Princeton (Warfield, Davis, Machen) do receive attention, but Bray seems unaware of the torch carried on from Vos by the above two contemporaries.
Bray is absolutely right about the fragmentation in contemporary evangelicalism (p. 584). In Reformed circles also, more interest is vested in tyrannizing the conscience than in granting the liberty of the animus imponentis ("prevailing mind ") of the Reformed denominations. Modern conservative Reformed Christians do not seem to comprehend the liberty of "actively concur, passively submit, peaceably withdraw." Instead, modern factions insist on flexing their muscle in displays of tyranny every bit as brutal as those of liberal fundamentalists. Reformed theology has always endeavored to maintain the fellowship of the fundamental articles while providing liberty on matters not yet definitively determined. Sadly, our generation is witnessing a self-ish dominance of conscience apart from due process. Unity is slipping
through our fingers because of legalistic oppressors who flaunt their power to define orthodoxy based upon their own private agendas.
Sadly too, Bray doesn't seem to grasp the central heart of the biblical- theological method. If the preacher's task is to discover a "message of spiritual power" (p. 587), then the Enlightenment has triumphedeven in Gerald Bray's system. His concluding plea for applicatory preaching is the very basis of liberalism's anti-supernatural and anti-Christocentric bias. Liberalism regarded such supernatural and Christocentric orthodoxy as irrelevant. Is Bray leaving us with the "same old, same old"? Hopefully, readers will catch the salient warnings and well-defined pitfalls outlined in these pages so as to avoid reducing the Bible to application. Dear reader, the Bible is about Christ and the true application is living en Christo ("in Christ").