Sunday, December 25, 2011

The King in a Manger

"And while they [Mary and Joseph] were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." (Luke 2:6-7)

Today as I was preparing to lead the liturgy at church, the quiet wonder of the birth of Jesus dawned upon me. The "firstborn over all creation" through whom all things were created (Colossians 1:15-18) could've arranged to be born in a penthouse at the Hilton. At the very least he could've sent his angels to the Bethlehem Inn ahead of time to make reservations! But no, Jesus laid aside his glory and deigned to be born into a messy stable and placed in a feed trough.

How often my life feels like a messy stable! We've been preparing for our first child's imminent birth, trying to get ready at school for long-term substitutes, cleaning our home, and trying to enjoy our last days together as just "the two of us." On top of that we have the daily struggles against selfishness, unlove, pride, and faithless anxiety and despair. And as we look forward to raising children over the years to come, we know that our desires for peace-through-control will be met with only greater chaos and frustration.

Yet into the middle of our mess, Jesus gladly comes without complaint. The old hymn reminds us, "Pleased as man with men to dwell / Jesus, our Emmanuel." The very nature of Jesus is God-with-us, God-in-our-crap, God-among-sinners, God-beside-imbeciles. It's who he is. Not that he has to be, but his love impels him to be. Christmas, the coming of the King into our mangers, can happen every day of our lives. This gives me a tremendous amount of peace. Jesus is just that loving, that compassionate. Even when my life's at its messiest, he's right at home.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Expecting

It's said of pregant women that they're "expecting." As Olivia and I have journeyed through our first pregnancy together--now at thirty-eight weeks--most of this season of expectation has seemed distant to me, far off. Maybe it's because those forty weeks seemed like such a long time. Or perhaps it's because I didn't actually have a needy human growing inside me, using me as a punching bag. Either way, judging by my slow pace of preparation, I don't think I was really expecting the baby to really arrive!

But now that Olivia is considered "full term," we realize that labor could begin at any moment. With every one of her body's practice contractions, we wonder, Could this be it? It's both scary and yet exciting.

As Advent wraps up and Christmas draws near, the any-day-now reality of our child's entrance into this world has made me think of the appearing of another son, Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man.

At that time the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to another. . . .

No one knows about that day of hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. . . . Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matthew 24:30-31, 36, 42-44)

The imminent arrival of our child has caused me enough trembling; how much more that of the King and Judge of the universe? Do we really expect him to come at any day or hour? Or do we believe it's still something far off, for which we can prepare later?

And yet for those like us who call Jesus King in this life, his coming is good news: "When all these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near" (Luke 21:28). Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.

Friday, December 9, 2011

"Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence"

Advent is usually a time where we await the first coming of Jesus, the long-awaited Rescuer, to his people to deliver them from darkness. But this ancient hymn (which I rediscovered on an Alex Mejias album) leaves the option open to us that the Advent season is as much now about awaiting Jesus' final bodily return to this earth.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six wing├Ęd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

--"Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," from the (Greek) Liturgy of St. James (4th century)

Oh, that we would sing more hymns like this in our churches today! I cannot help but feel the magnitude, the gravity, the splendor of Jesus when we sing of his reign and of his return in glory, his eternal kingdom.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"You shall be the father of a multitude of nations"

I just came across something fascinating today. It's easy to think about Abraham being the father of the Jews, of ethnic Israel. Obviously this the primary reference in passages such as Genesis 15:12-21. But it was always a little more obscure how the New Testament authors could see Abraham as being the "father" of the believing Gentiles.


That is, until, I read Genesis 17 a little more carefully.* "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you" (vv. 4-6). Did you read that? Even in its earliest incarnation, God promised the inclusion of the "nations" into Abraham's blessed offspring.


This is repeated in God's blessing upon Jacob (given through his father Isaac): "God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples" (Gen. 28:3). God likewise later confirms this promise to Jacob, saying, "I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body" (35:11; cf. 48:4). This phrase, "a company [qahal] of nations," could also be translated "an assembly of peoples" or "a church of peoples." Qahal was the Hebrew word for the covenant people of God gathered for worship. In the Septuagint ekklesia is used to translate it, rendered in our English Bibles as "church."


This seems important for two immediate reasons. First, the covenant people of God are a unity both before and after Christ's earthly appearance. There is no division between Israel and the Church. Rather, the Church is the fulfillment and expansion of what Israel was always supposed to become.

Secondly, the claim that the promises of the Abrahamic covenant applied only to a temporal, ethnic, national administration are false. By viewing those among the nations as Abraham's offspring, even from the book of Genesis, the promises given to Abraham must always be seen as also--even ultimately--"spiritual" and eschatological promises awaiting something greater than ethnic Israel's life in Canaan.

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*I discovered this while skimming Meredith Kline's book Kingdom Prologue this morning.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Can Unbelievers and Apostates Belong to the New Covenant?

A question begged by biblical typology (see my previous post)--and several New Testament texts themselves--is the degree to which the church, as the covenant people of God, is analogous to Israel prior to Christ's death and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Listen to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:
I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

Now these things happened as examples [tupoi, "types"] for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. . . . Now these things happened to them as an example [tupos], but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (vv. 1-12)
Note that Paul uses language of the Christian sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper to describe the experience of Israel in the wilderness. He is reading back present-day experiences into the life of ethnic Israel 1400 years earlier, who foreshadowed the global people of God. Despite being delivered from Egypt and sharing in the goodness of God's presence and nourishment, they failed to enter the promised land because they set their hearts on evil desires. Nonetheless, these were those who had been "baptized into Moses in the . . . sea." They were those whom God had saved in the exodus, and they had come under the leadership of Moses and the covenant put into effect through his mediation. Paul seems to be warning the baptized new covenant church, delivered from bondage to sin and under the leadership of Jesus. He warns that if they likewise presume upon their religious privileges and the gifts of God (particularly in worship and sacrament, as chapters 10-11 of 1 Cor. unfold), but do not embody obedient faith and repentance from idols, they will fall under God's judgment (cf. Deut. 29:18-21) and "fall in the desert."

In similar fashion the author of Hebrews issues dire warnings of God's judgment upon those who have experienced Christian teaching, nurture, and worship and have made some profession of faith, and then have fallen away (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 6:4-8; 10:26-31; cf. similar warnings in Num. 15:30-31; Deut. 29:18-21).

The question I have is this: Is this faithless idolater a person who is a member of the new covenant people of God? I think Scripture is clear that all genuine believers are sealed by the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption (Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; 2 Cor. 1:21-22), are kept from stumbling by Jesus Christ (Jude 24-25; John 10:28-29), and remain faithful because Christ's death has secured it (Col. 1:21-23). Apostates are not recipients of the promised new covenant blessings of faith and love towards God, the seal of the Spirit, and forgiveness of sins, because they fail to meet its condition (persevering, repentant faith). But nonetheless in Hebrews 10:29 we read that there are those who've trampled Christ underfoot, who have "profaned the blood of the covenant by which [they were] sanctified" (v. 29), and who belong to God's people and will be judged accordingly (v. 30). Such passages appear to indicate that someone can belong to the covenant and thus set apart (sanctified) to God, at least externally, by virtue of an empty profession of faith (Heb. 4:14; 10:23).

Friday, December 2, 2011

Biblical Typology

As I've been studying Hebrews again the past several weeks, I am amazed at the plethora of Old Testament typology. A type (Greek tupos) is a pattern, example, or mold, corresponding to an antitype (antitupos), the substance or reality. A good way to think of this is when someone casts a bronze figure. First they form a mold, which itself is empty, a relief. It sets the pattern for the true figure, but it lacks the substance. This is the type. When the bronze is poured into the mold or cast and solidifies into the statue or figure, this is the antitype, the substance.

In an almost uncountable number of ways, the Bible uses type-antitype relationships to describe the redemption and life of God's people. For example, Paul says of Adam that he was "a type of the one to come" (Rom. 5:14). He was a representative (federal) head over humanity, and his unrighteousness and curse fell upon all mankind (all who are "in Adam"). Likewise, Jesus is the antitype. By the obedience of the one man Jesus, many were made righteous, and blessing has come to all who are "in Christ" (Rom. 5:12-21).

Elsewhere we see that the tabernacle and the ministry of the Aaronic priests was merely a "pattern" or "copy" (tupos) of the "true things" (antitupos), the priestly service of Christ in the heavenly tent (Heb. 8:5; 9:24). The exodus and wandering of Israel in the desert served as "examples" (tupoi) (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). The flood at the time of Noah was symbolic of Christian baptism, which is now the anticipated antitupos (1 Pet. 3:21).

All that is to say, you really ought to read this article, "The Exodus and the People of God" by James T. Dennison, Jr. It is simply fascinating to see the parallels between the Israel of the Old Testament and the Israel of the New Testament. The more I read about these parallels, the more I see what's going on in the mind of the New Testament's authors, and the weight of what is going on sinks in. Soak this stuff in. Immerse yourself in it.