Archive for category Devotional
Will you practice Lent in 2018? I have practiced in the past; however, it’s admittedly been a few years.
To be honest, Lent (and a strict Christian calendar in general) is something that I struggle to reconcile with apostolic teaching from Paul, who wrote,
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 2:16-3:4).
Paul seems to be instructing that asceticism and calendars are overrated compared to Christ and underwhelming in the battle against the sinful nature. Then, he compels readers to set their minds on their union with Christ in the experience of the gospel; that is, think on heavenly accomplishments rather than earthly shadows for power in the spiritual life.
Before my theological education, I found this liberating. During my education, knowledge of church history, extra-biblical Christian texts, and exposure to a variety of Christians in various traditions caused me to wonder if I was missing out on my historical heritage – I didn’t want to act as if my Christianity was the only Christianity that there ever has been. Having been removed from the academic environment for about 7 years now, I’ve felt pulled in two directions – one existing in my knowledge of the historical expression of the Christian, spiritual life and one existing in my simple, post-conversion liberty found only in Christ and his gospel.
I imagine that some may respond in saying the historical liturgy aims to image the gospel and to orient all of life around it. I can see that, but I can also see how it possibly focuses the mind on shadows of the gospel rather than on the reality itself.
When I turn to the Scriptures for clarity, the only “icons” we’re given are the Eucharist and Baptism. We weren’t given any specific fasts or specific festivals or holy days. In fact, this 2013 article by Nicholas V. Russo casts all kinds of doubt on any solid proto-Nicene Lent tradition. At the most, one can say that the early church employed fasts and certain days as tools to prepare catechumens for Baptism. These lesser things served the people and the true apostolic ordinances.
Today marks the beginning of Lent for many of my brothers and sisters. My hope for them is that they aren’t only living in the shadow but also in the reality of the union we share in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have died. Our life is hidden in Christ with God. I want to know more of this death and life with which I have been united. I’m just not certain that Lent is the way. I’ll remember my Baptism; I’ll sit at the Lord’s table, I’ll hear the word of redemption in Christ; I’ll gaze upon the Head of the church, and try to yield to his Spirit, whose aim it is to conform me to Christ.
Lord, you are so kind,
Each day I find
Your patient grace,
Even in this place
Where shadows darken
Nor does pain hearken,
Yet, your kindness shines.
Lines escape me!
Signs as numerous
As trees in a forest!
Lord, you are so kind,
Each day I find.
Thank you Lord Jesus.
The Word of the LORD in Jeremiah
While studying and teaching the book of the prophet Jeremiah early this year in the student ministry, I discovered a little volume entitled A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah by Andrew G. Shead. It was quite the read. Shead set out to examine every instance in the book in which a reference to the “word of God” was made, and then he proposed a theology for the word of God in Jeremiah and to some extent compared this a theology for the word of God in the whole of the biblical narrative. In Jeremiah, the word of God is a, if not the, primary theme. Just consider here the frequency of use demonstrated in the following chart:
דְבַר–יְהוָהַ or “Word of the LORD” in the Prophets
Hits per 1000 Words
The chart demonstrates that the “word of the LORD” construction makes frequent appearances in the writings of the OT prophets (there are also other phrases that could be examined, but were not included here for the sake of brevity). The top five frequencies are found in Haggai, Jonah, Zechariah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and lastly Zephaniah. It would be interesting to do theology of the “word of the LORD” for each of the prophets in order to discover the similarities and unique traits throughout the prophets. Daniel’s one use of the construction is interesting to this study as it refers to “the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet” (Daniel 9:2).
To summarize Shead—and hopefully do justice to his good exegetical work—the phrase “word of the LORD” is specifically the message of God, which is found in the words of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:1; 26:20; 36:10; 51:64). The “words of Jeremiah” are also “the words of God” (1:9; 15:16); however, when the singular is used in the phrase “word of the LORD,” a specific message with a powerful purpose is indicated. At times in the prophet’s writing, it is as if the “word of the LORD” becomes a person and accomplishes his purpose. It is not too much to say that the “word of the LORD” is the main character of the book of Jeremiah.
The prophet “consumes” the words of God (15:16), and they become to him his delight and joy. The words of God, which contain the message of God, sustain Jeremiah in his lonely, lonely work as the prophet to whom no one would listen. It sustains him so deeply that he could say, “I have not run away from being your shepherd, not have I desired the day of sickness. You know what came out of my lips; it was before your face” (Jeremiah 17:16). Isn’t it true? Judgment was coming upon the people of Judah; they would not listen. Jeremiah had the message of God; yet, he was alone in listening to it. Although he wept at the hard-heartedness of his own people, the word of God sustained him. The message of God became the anchor of his soul, his delight, his joy. Further, although true listeners, like his friend Baruch, were few and far between, he had to proclaim the message. In Jeremiah 20:9, he says, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” He could not suppress or stuff the message of God deep inside so that it never came out of his mouth; he says it was like a fire, burning him up from the inside—he had to open his mouth so that the “flames” could exit and fulfill the purpose of the message of God.
It is to this I would like to turn our attention—the purpose of the message of God in the book of Jeremiah. I find this very powerful, and again, I credit Shead for setting me on the path to discover this insight. Remember that I said earlier, it is as if the “word of the LORD” is a person, the main character, in the book of Jeremiah. I may say further that it is a warrior, sword in hand, to either tear down what needs to be destroyed and/or to build up what must be sustained or rebuilt. The “word of the LORD” is fierce and entirely sovereign in its ability to accomplish this destruction or construction. No one could stop it. No one could prevent it. We are informed of this purpose very early in the book, at the calling of Jeremiah, “Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the LORD said to me, ‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’” (Jeremiah 1:9–10; cf. 31:28 ESV). The prophet Jeremiah would speak the words of God to the people of Judah, from the greatest to the least, and through these words the message of God would destroy and/or strengthen.
The Word of the LORD beyond Jeremiah
Now, let us take what we have learned about the “word of the LORD” or the message of God from the prophet Jeremiah, and consider the rest of Scripture. For example, think about the creation of the world. Do you remember how it was that God created the world?
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 1:3–2:3 ESV).
God created all things by the power of his word. His word “built up” the creation. Perhaps there are some differences between the theology of the word here in Genesis and what we observed in Jeremiah; however, I think it is a mistake to miss the similarity that where the words of God are found, the message of either destruction or construction is also found. Consider the sheer power of the word of God. His word has the power to brings new things into existence, to give life. In light of this, consider the potential power of the word of God in your life. Are you submitting yourself to the destroying and constructing power of the message of God? To the preaching, to the study, to the reading, to the internalizing of the word of the LORD? Surely, we all have things in our lives that need to be destroyed by the message of God. Surely, we all have things that need to be built or strengthened in our lives.
The Word of the LORD Incarnate
Now, Christmas is fast approaching. It is the time of year during which we often think afresh about the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. May I suggest to you that at the incarnation the “word of the LORD” truly and actually becomes a person? Consider the words of the apostle John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1–5 ESV). And again, “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:9–14 ESV). The same word that spoke the creation into existence, from which came all of life, and the same word that speaks to the people of God throughout the history in order to tear down and to build up, this same word has now become a person. John writing later in his first epistle teach us that, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). He came to destroy sin and death, and he accomplished this through his cross. He also came to build. He is building his church, and as the Creator and now Savior, he builds new life through his resurrection, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Ironically, the personified Word, Jesus Christ, who came to destroy and to build up would accomplish these ministries of the “word of the LORD” by he himself being destroyed and built up, “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up . . . But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:19, 21–22).
Father, Give Us the Word This Christmas
Dear Christian—are you believing the “word that Jesus had spoken”? Dear sinner—have you submitted yourself to the destroying and building power of the message of God in the holy Scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ? Are you in the word and in the Word? Everyday, we must allow the message of God in the gospel to be preached to us that our hard heartedness may be destroyed and that new life and obedience may be strengthened and built up. This word is the most powerful thing there is; we must subject ourselves to it. I pray that this Christmas season would be a reminder to you of the great lengths to which God has gone in his love and glory to engage the world with the power of his word.
While the World Wide Web certainly at times ushers garbage into our homes from time to time, I think we also must admit that it is an amazing resource when employed for good. Recently, I was asked to create a list of quality Bible Study Websites that may be of benefit to my students as they grow in the love and understanding for God’s word. I have provided this list below, and I would appreciate it if you would share with me any other websites that you have found helpful for Bible study. Thanks and enjoy!
Bible Study Websites
1. Bible.org is THE site for Bible study assistance. It has everything.
2. Salem Communications seems to have a number of helpful Bible study websites, such as . . .
a. http://www.biblestudytools.com has helpful tools such as concordances for word studies, Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, etc.
b. http://www.godtube.com and search for the Bible Study Methods videos with Dr. Howard Hendricks.
c. http://www.jesus.org focuses on topics surrounding the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and seems to have an apologetic tone to it.
3. DesiringGod.org is another helpful website that provides sermons, articles, some Bible study guides, and much more.
4. http://www.studylight.org is full of resources too! Concordances, original language helps, Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, commentaries. It also has a decent variety of daily devotional materials.
5. http://www.blueletterbible.org is a great place to start for the person who some interest in studying the Bible in its original languages. Yes, you can do some study in the original languages even though you’ve never taken a Greek or Hebrew course! This site is designed with the beginner in mind and is very helpful for those who really want to labor in the text of the Bible.
Marc ends his previous post on “finding better feelings in other communities” with these words:
When they leave home, they realize that they can be “spiritually fulfilled” and get the same subjective self-improvement principles (and warm-fuzzies) from the latest life-coach or from spending time with friends or volunteering at a shelter. And they can be truly authentic, and they jump at the chance because…
3. They got tired of pretending:
Then he explains what he means by the weariness of pretending:
In the “best life now”, “Every day a Friday” world of evangelicals, there’s little room for depression, or struggle, or doubt. Turn that frown upside down, or move along. Kids who are fed a stead[y] diet of sermons aimed at removing anything (or anyone) who doesn’t pragmatically serve “God’s great plan for your life” has forced them to smile and, as the old song encouraged them be “hap-hap-happy all the time”. Our kids are smart, often much smarter than we give them credit for. So they trumpet the message I hear a lot from these kids. “The church is full of hypocrites” [brackets mine].
The idea that the Christian life is somehow a pathway to successful and prosperous living and a life in which you will be finally and fully comfortable and happy could not be further from the truth. This is a lie. A person only needs to read the Gospels and consider the life of our Lord Jesus to find that the way of Christianity is the humble path of the cross-shaped life. Resurrection only follows death. The Christian life is one that will cost you everything. It is only in this life in which we spend our lives for God that we find that he has indeed given us all things. On the other hand, the world is always searching for and never finding. And so some so-called evangelicals in an attempt to woo the world toward Christ, have forsaken the true gospel for a luxurious, false gospel. Young people who have an ounce of discernment take a glance at the Scripture and immediately pick up on the contrast that they see in the life of the Lord Jesus and his apostles as compared to some of the evangelical churches of our day. At some point, they either search for something deeper within the Christian faith, concluding that there must be more to it than this, or they “stop pretending” as Marc concludes.
Again, there is a sense in which I agree with Marc here; however, I feel like he again is missing a deeper issue. I feel that his worry is misplaced, or at least that he doesn’t say enough about what we should do. The local evangelical church’s response to this has to be twofold I think: (1) Teach and understand the doctrine of salvation that begins with the new birth, and (2) teach your church about proper ecclesiology between the young and the old, especially in the context of being a covenant member of a local church. At the heart of what real evangelicalism is, we find the doctrine of the new birth or regeneration. The thought that I as a pastor have to somehow manufacture a congregation in which there is no hypocrisy so that none of our teens get upset and “stop pretending” to be Christians is far-fetched and beyond my human ability. The answer to hypocrisy in the church as well as the answer to what happens when I see hypocrisy in the church is the Holy Spirit’s work in salvation. If a teenager has truly experienced the new birth, then he or she WILL persevere in the faith. The new birth is from the Holy Spirit (John 3) and the New Testament presentation of salvation is that the Spirit’s aim is to complete it (Romans 8:26–30). In the teen that witnesses hypocrisy in the local church, the Holy Spirit is present teaching that teen about things like we find in Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9–11. Not only this, but also the Spirit humbles the born again teen to consider his or her own hypocrisy. To go further, there is a test here for the young person, especially if they sense that they observed hypocrisy in an older saint. I recall teachings in the Pastoral Epistles that should cause pause to the young person who is quick to judge an older saint. I am not saying that what the young person observes as hypocrisy is not hypocrisy, but rather I am rather suggesting caution and humility to be practiced. Certainly, the apostle Paul calls the local churches to judge those who are within their assembly (1 Corinthians 5–6); yet the spirit with which we proceed in such a case should be one of humility, not arrogance or some threat of separation because “I’m tired of pretending.” The body of Christ is a family of sinners redeemed by grace. We eat the Lord’s Supper at a table of grace. Let’s seek to redeem and restore with humility through proper discipline and grace. For the young person to threaten and then actually walk away because he or she is “tired of pretending” reveals more about their own faith and ecclesiology than perhaps it does about their local church.
Just imagine for a moment the “I stopped pretending” young person’s response to God should he ask him or her about his or her reasoning for leaving the local community . . . “they were hypocrites, and I was tired of pretending.” I don’t think that is going to hold up well. IMO, that response will burn like wood, hay, and the like. Our young people (and all of us mind you) need a developed understanding of church membership and commitment to a local body. I’m speaking from what I see written in the Scriptures, especially as I begin a study on 1 Corinthians. Imagine being a member there! Plenty of hypocrisy-accusations to go around. Yet, the idea that leaving the local community is a valid option for any real Christian is absurd. No, the apostle along with the Corinthians sought to grow in grace and in this thing called the Church. I’m also speaking from experience. It was not long ago that there was an “exodus” of people from my very own local church, many of them probably claiming some level of discontent and some making accusations of hypocrisy as they headed off to other local churches that will surely be void of such hypocrisy (cue laughter). What I am discovering is that those who left revealed more about their poor ecclesiology and understanding of local church membership than they did about some kind of impenetrable hypocrisy that they supposed was present and that God was too weak to do anything about. Let be said and done in the local church this way, “rejoice in hope, endure suffering, persist in prayer.” Let it be said to the young person who is “tired of pretending”: Stop pretending. Be a real Christian. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and glorify God in your local assembly. Keep going. Endure. Persevere. If you do, you’ll see God work, and you’ll witness hope spring up in your midst.
Thanks for sticking with me on these responses. I have re-posted my response to #5 Community on the home page, which was written back in April. I was on a fairly consistent pace in my responses until summer ministry activities hit. Now, I’d like to finish responding to the final four reasons that Marc5Solas offers over at http://marc5solas.com/2013/02/08/top-10-reasons-our-kids-leave-church/.
As mentioned in the post title, this reason for kids leaving the church implies that they will find better feelings as they experience the type of community that the world offers. Let me camp here for a moment. This is a false assumption. I feel like it concludes too vastly that all teens are emotionally wired the same way AND it assumes that emotions are only and totally negative. I was not a Christian throughout high school and into my first year of college. Even as an unbeliever, there were experiences about which I had uncomfortable feelings and fears. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my way of life in those years was damnable, but even to a sinner like me, sometimes my emotions prevented me from certain experiences because I was frightened by the consequences that may follow participation.
The reason Marc5Solas gives as the problem in the church contributing to this discovery of better feelings is because, “Rather than an external, objective, historical faith, we’ve given our youth an internal, subjective faith.” I understand what he is saying here and partly concur. There is huge need in youth ministry for students to actually be taught the doctrines, the theologies, the history, and the total story of Christianity. This is something to which they belong as Christians, but it is BIGGER than them. We aren’t the first Christians to walk the earth; nor are American Christians the only Christians on the planet now. Discovering the external, objective, historical faith is huge in the discipleship of the young.
Yet, is Marc5Solas really implying that there is no subjective element to the Christian faith? If so, then such an idea only contributes to our kids looking for a place where feelings, emotions, passions, and affections are okay to possess and are navigated and shaped with hope. Is it not the great desire of any born again Christian to not only know God but to experience God the way in which the Bible indicates that we should? Do not knowledge of God and worship and sanctification touch every part of our human being?
The local church must be a place where a young person can discover that Christianity is about beliefs, a community, a past, and a future that is much LARGER than they are. The local church must also be a place where a young person can bring their emotions and affections – the extreme ones, the bad ones, the good ones, and the oppressed ones – and find direction and hope in their subjective experience of the presence of God in their lives. To exclude either the objective or the subjective realities of human-ness and Christianity is devastating to discipleship among the young.
Today, after meeting with a dear friend from my days at Dallas Theological Seminary, I picked up a copy of More Light on the Path: Daily Scripture Readings in Hebrew and Greek by David W. Baker & Elaine A. Heath with Morven Baker. Obviously, I am only one page beyond the introduction, but I think I am going to enjoy this book! Each daily reading begins with a title, a prayer, and a short passage from both the Hebrew Scriptures (OT) and the Greek Scriptures (NT).
Today’s reading was from Genesis 1:1-2 and John 1:1-2. As I was stumbling over the Hebrew text, I saw something to which I have not given attention in the past. In Genesis 1:2, there seems to be a parallelism between these two statements:
And darkness [was] over the face of the deep,
And Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters [translation mine].
In the past, I have always heard and mostly assumed that the “darkness” was a sort of evil presence. Now, I know that “the deep” and “the waters [of the sea]” can at times communicate the concept of an eerie evil lurking below beyond human vision. However, I am now not certain that “darkness” in Genesis 1:2 is a reference to evil. Rather, just the opposite, I think it may be a reference to the divine presence of the Spirit of God.
There are other places in Scripture where this particular Hebrew term for “darkness” is found to surround the presence of God. For example, HALOT references Deuteronomy 5:23 and 2 Samuel 22:12. The Deuteronomy passage reads,
And as soon as you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders [ESV].
2 Samuel 22:12 reads,
He made darkness around him his canopy, thick clouds, a gathering of water [ESV].
Now, HALOT specifically places the Genesis 1:2 in the category of “cosmic darkness” along with the use of the term in places like Genesis 1:4, 18; Psalm 104:20; and 139:11. However, if there is indeed a parallel connection between “the deep” and “the waters,” may there also be a connection between “darkness” and “Holy Spirit”?
The term was employed in Deuteronomy when Moses reviews the contents and giving of the Decalogue. Israel is called to remember the glorious and great presence of God that consumed the mountain. Out of the darkness (5:23), the voice of God came and delivered the law. In 2 Samuel, the term is again employed, but this time in a song of David “on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul” (2 Samuel 22:1). In verses 2-4, David proclaims the strength of the deliverance of God. Then, he goes on to describe the terrible calamity in which he found himself (vv. 5-6). It was as if he drowning in the sea because death was tugging him under. Death seemed inevitable. But then, David cries out to the Lord out of his distress, and the LORD hears David from his temple (v. 7)! Now, verses 8-16 paint a majestic, jaw-dropping, glory-shot of the descent of the LORD to deliver David from death. It is in the midst of this description of the LORD that the term for “darkness” is used in 22:12. The sight, the sound, the feel, the internal stripping away to bareness that the Lord’s presence causes upon the whole of creation is overwhelming. He will deliver David, and David’s enemies will cower in the presence of his God. It is an amazing scene.
Thus, let’s return to Genesis 1:2, and consider afresh “the darkness [that was] over the face of the deep.” Could it be that we have here a reference to great and glorious presence of God who will subdue the deep by the power of his word and the majesty of his presence? The idea of the “dark” presence of the Lord should create within us a reverence for his transcendence, a proper fear for his immense power, and an embrace of the power of his word.
May God be blessed today.
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
While perusing the Facebook newsfeed one day this December, I noticed a link that a friend had posted from Crossway Publishers that described a dramatic poetry reading from Pastor John Piper called The Innkeeper.1 As I listened, I began to realize where the story was headed, and I discovered two reactions in my soul—first, I was surprised that I had never considered the powerful implications behind the text of Matthew 2:16–18, which is quoted for you above; and second, I was determined to take a deeper look at this text, which has led to the writing of this article in the December 2012 edition of the ScoCaster.
Matthew 2:18 is the fourth2 Old Testament (OT) passage quoted in Matthew’s Gospel, which indicates that the writer establishes early on that he intends to interact heavily with the OT as he writes about the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. I tend to agree with Blomberg and Hagner on the reason for Matthew’s oft quoting of the Old Testament, “Again, in Matthew’s perspective Jesus is understood as summarizing the whole experience of Israel as well as bringing it to fulfillment.”3 For example, the previous paragraph quotes Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Hosea is referring to Israel’s experience of the exodus out of Egypt. Like Israel, Jesus too would be called out of Egypt.
Moving to the primary text of this article, Matthew 2:16–18 paints a grim scene. As we recite Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story this year, we should not skip over this part. The passage can be divided into two parts: (1) The Wrath of Herod upon Bethlehem and (2) The Weeping of Rachel at Ramah.
The Wrath of Herod upon Bethlehem
Remember, Herod was not the the first to order the slaying of young Hebrews. Do you recall what happened in the days of Moses?4 Remember how Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to execute the male Hebrew children? The Hebrew midwives feared God (Ex. 1:17) and refused to obey the command of the king of Egypt. Though I am not sure that I can be certain, I wonder if the Hebrews in their oppression began to remember the promises of God to their fathers, believed that God may send a deliverer to them, and therefore, the midwives feared and obeyed God rather than Pharaoh because they were waiting for a deliverer? We do know that the people of Israel began crying out to God for help (Ex. 2:23–25). In the face of tragedy, God sovereignly raised up Moses in the midst of Egypt to deliver his people from bondage.
The wrath of Herod fueled by his wounded pride brought great tragedy upon the town of Bethlehem.Apparently, it took place nearly two years after Jesus was born. As indicated in 2:16, Herod had calculated the number of years based upon the previous information he had received from the magi, and in calculating the number, he calculated a raw expression of his rage. Every male child two years of age and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding region was mowed down to the grave by Herod’s soldiers. Can you imagine being a parent in Bethlehem at that time? No warning. No refuge. The life of your child taken away—and perhaps your own—because you were the town that made room for the Deliverer. A tender population of your town wiped out because you sovereignly became associated with the Son of God. Bethlehem was not a booming metropolis. Estimates during the reign of Herod suggest that approximately one thousand people populated the town, from which we may gather that possibly “twenty boys would be born in two years, and several of those would have died in infancy.”5 However, even though we are only talking about the slaying of a dozen or so young boys, the tremors of tragedy reach deep into the context of a small town. The whole town feels it, and whether directly or indirectly affected, such a thing became part of everyone’s story. The history books have no record of Herod’s attack upon the children of Bethlehem, but God did not forget and chose Matthew to remind us of the price Bethlehem paid for its association with the new born King.
The Weeping of Rachel at Ramah
While the life and experience of Jesus in Matthew seems to have some parallels with Moses’ day, Matthew 2:17 reveals to us that Matthew primarily has in mind the words of the prophet Jeremiah, which are then quoted in 2:18. Jeremiah 31:15 is the exact reference here. Remember, Jeremiah lived during the tragic days of the Babylonian captivity and the fall of Jerusalem. Besides a brief period of revival and reform under king Josiah, Jeremiah faithfully and painfully proclaimed the word of God to idolatrous Israel. However, Jeremiah 31 is a rare chapter filled primarily with hope of restoration following the captivity. In verse 15, the message of hope digresses for just a moment because the Lord hears the lament of Ramah, the weeping of Rachel as her children are led through the town into captivity. Ramah was a town located approximately 8km north of Jerusalem. Interestingly, Bethlehem was located about 7– 8km south of Jerusalem and was located along the same road,6 even so Matthew’s parallel between Ramah and Bethlehem is more than geographical—it is social, emotional, and theological. Blomberg further highlights the appropriateness of Matthew’s connection between Ramah and Bethlehem—they were both towns familiar with sadness and suffering.7 There is also one more thing that draws these two towns together—Rachel. Rachel was thought to have died and been buried near Ramah (1 Samuel 10:2) while Jacob and his family were on their way to Bethlehem (Genesis 35.16–21).8 Therefore, these two towns have a connection in biblical history, both being marked by the weeping Rachel, the mother of all Israel. Returning to Jeremiah 31, Rachel was heard weeping over her children as they were taken away into captivity to Babylon. She struggles to be comforted even by God’s promise to restore her children. Thus, Matthew once again sees Rachel weeping for her children in 2:16–18 when he compares the pain of the Babylonian captivity to the ruthless slaughter at Bethlehem. This is a fitting comparison, for where else could he have gone but to the darkest period in Israel’s history to describe the pain and mourning of the families of Bethlehem?
From Lament to Life
Just as there was suffering in the midst of the grand promise given by God and proclaimed through the prophet Jeremiah, there was suffering in the midst of the fulfillment of that promise when the Son of God became incarnate. Consider the words of comfort given by the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah to the weeping Rachel:
The LORD says to her,
“Stop crying! Do not shed any more tears!
For your heartfelt repentance will be rewarded. Your children will return from the land of the enemy.
I, the LORD, affirm it!
Indeed, there is hope for your posterity.
Your children will return to their own territory.
I, the LORD, affirm it!
I have indeed heard the people of Israel say mournfully, ‘We were like a calf untrained to the yoke.
You disciplined us and we learned from it.
Let us come back to you and we will do so,
for you are the LORD our God.
For after we turned away from you we repented. After we came to our senses we beat our breasts in sorrow. We are ashamed and humiliated
because of the disgraceful things we did previously.’ Indeed, the people of Israel are my dear children. They are the children I take delight in.
For even though I must often rebuke them,
I still remember them with fondness.
So I am deeply moved with pity for them
and will surely have compassion on them.
I, the LORD, affirm it!
The proclamation of hope and restoration is accompanied by the future repentance and turning of Rachel’s children back to the Lord. God sent them into exile due to their idolatry and rebellion against him. But what are we to make of Bethlehem? Why the slaughter? We know why Judah was taken away into Babylon. But why this tragedy upon Bethlehem? Ultimately, I don’t know. Evil happenings in our world escape the reaches of human reason much of the time. Yet, I do know that they do not escape the reach of my all-knowing God, and I do take comfort in him because of this.
I feel that there is also one other possible explanation (perhaps among many)9 that may speak to us about this tragedy in Bethlehem that accompanied the glory of the Lord’s birth. Bethlehem sovereignly became associated with the Messiah. Which causes us to ask, what does it mean to be sovereignly associated with the Messiah? What a wonderful thought for meditation this Christmas season. Listen to what Dale Allison writes,
Jesus is literally sympathetic; that is, he suffers along with others. His identity as God’s beloved Son (3:17; 11:25–30; 17:5) does not render him immune from agony or despair. He is, on the contrary, especially subject to misfortune and pain: in Matthew’s story, Jesus suffers far more than anyone else. The savior is the innocent victim writ large. Now for those who believe in him, there is surely something reassuring in this. One recalls Heb. 4:14–15 and 5:8, where Jesus learns through suffering and so can sympathize with human weakness. Suffering shared is more easily endured. And as in Hebrews, so in Matthew: the principle has become christological. It is not just that one does not suffer alone, but precisely that one suffers in the company of Jesus, God’s Son. This must mean that the divinity does not remain aloof from suffering, for God knows the Son (11:27) and the Son knows suffering. If the Son is a person of sorrows, acquainted with grief, his Father must likewise be likewise beset by grief and sorrow. This does not, to be sure, do anything to unravel the mystery of iniquity. It does, however, put God on the side of the hapless Rachel weeping for her children, and on the side of the disciples tossed grievously to and fro by persecution. And perhaps that thought matters far more than any rational apologetic.10
Matthew knew very well what it meant to be sovereignly associated with Messiah—it meant he would take a journey from lament into life. You see when Jesus called Matthew to follow him (see Matthew 9), he would have been best described as a publican thug, barred from the temple and the synagogue because of his sins and treason against his own people. However, there is good reason to think that at some point, Matthew developed a heart for God (how else did he know so much of the Old Testament?!). Yet, the religious scene of his day did not allow him to seek God. Then, Jesus comes along and says to him, “Follow me.” Matthew perhaps did not know what was in store for him at that point, but as he followed Jesus, he surely came to realize that to be associated with Jesus meant a life associated with Jesus’ suffering but also with his glory.
I suppose now that Rachel may still be weeping for her children to return to the Messiah. However, perhaps there is also hope stirring in her soul because from afar she saw the birth of a new covenant, she saw Messiah conquer the enemies of her soul, and now she awaits repentance and revival as God promised to her.
What is it to be associated with the Messiah this Christmas? Is it not to believe in him and be saved—the glory of salvation? And is it not to willingly suffer with him and for him in a dark and unbelieving world? Is it not as Paul said, “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29)? At the close of The Innkeeper poem referred to above, the Lord Jesus responds to Jacob’s tears of sorrow and faithfulness with the following,
“I am the boy
That Herod wanted to destroy.
You gave my parents room to give Me life, and then God let me live, And took your wife. Ask me not why The one should live, another die. God’s ways are high, and you will know In time. But I have come to show You what the Lord prepared the night You made a place for heaven’s light. In two weeks they will crucify
My flesh. But mark this, Jacob, I Will rise in three days from the dead, And place my foot upon the head
Of him who has the power of death, And I will raise with life and breath Your wife and Ben and Joseph too And give them, Jacob, back to you With everything the world can store, And you will reign for evermore.”
This is the gift of candle three:
A Christ with tears in tragedy And life for all eternity.
May the love of Christ cause you to rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, and persist in prayer this Christmas and beyond as you follow Jesus to the cross and into glory.
1 You can find the dramatic reading of The Innkeeper on the web here: http://www.crossway.org/blog/ 2012/12/video-john-piper-reads-the-innkeeper/.
2 Craig L. Blomberg, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 8. John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men: How the Master Shaped His Disciples for Greatness and What He Wants to Do with You, (Dallas: Thomas Nelson, 2002), 155– 56. MacArthur writes, “We know that Matthew knew the Old Testament very well, because his Gospel quotes the Old Testament ninety-nine times. That is more times than Mark, Luke, and John combined.”
3 Ibid., 10.
4 Read Exodus 1:1–2:10.
5 Richard Thomas France, “Herod and the Children of Bethlehem,” Novum Testamentum 21, no. 2 (1979): 98–120, ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed December 6, 2012). France does a wonderful job discussing the literary features and historicity of Matthew 2:16–18.
6 Craig L. Blomberg, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 9.
7 Ibid., 10. Also see Isaiah 10:29 and Hosea 5:8.
8 See also Ibid., 9.
9 See Dale C. Allison, Jr., Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 251–64. Allison wrestles with the problem of evil as it is represented in the Gospel according to Matthew. He thoroughly discusses how Matthew seems to attribute responsibility for evil happenings in the world to various sources or explanations.
10 Ibid., 264.
[The Union students] talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria . . . They are unfamiliar with event the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.
In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life [Metaxas in Bonhoeffer, 99].
On September 23 the parents heard their son preach on a theme central to him throughout his life, supporting the accurately earthly, incarnational aspect of the Christian faith against the Gnostic or dualistic idea that the body is inferior to the soul or spirit. “God wants to see human beings,” he said, “not ghosts who shun the world.” He said that in “the whole of world history there is always only one really significant hour – the present. . . . [I]f you want to find eternity, you must serve the times.” His words presaged what he would write to his fiancée from his prison cell years later: “Our marriage must be a ‘yes’ to God’s earth. It must strengthen our result to do and accomplish something on earth. I fear that Christians who venture to stand on earth on only one leg will stand in heaven on only one legged too.” In another letter to her he wrote that “human beings were taken from the earth and don’t just consist of thin air and thoughts” [Metaxas in Bonhoeffer, 80-81].