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Bible read me 2The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 8:1-3

Saul Ravages the Church

And Saul approved of his execution.

And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

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Acts 7 related the apologetic and death of Stephen, the first martyr.

Only his final words and his stoning are in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

Over the past few weeks, I have discussed what he said to the temple court and why.

Stephen, one of the first deacons, was also divinely given the gift of ‘doing great wonders and signs among the people’ (Acts 6:8). He also spoke openly about Jesus in Solomon’s Portico (Porch) at the temple. For this, he was arrested on charges of blasphemy: blaspheming God, Moses, the law and the temple. Acts 7 contains his address and the council’s action against him.

Stephen first got the council’s attention by saying he had revered the same traditions as they and respected the history of the people of Israel. He related the story of Abraham, then of Joseph.

At that point, he accomplished two objectives: holding his audience’s attention and defending himself against the charge of blaspheming God.

As Stephen related his scriptural knowledge of the early patriarchs, he also indicted his audience for rejecting Jesus. His reason for mentioning Joseph was to get them to realise that Joseph’s brothers treated him the same way the Jews treated Jesus.

Stephen went on to discuss Moses scripturally, to show that he had not blasphemed him. He began with Moses’s childhood, then his early adulthood, which included self-exile to Midian. After 40 years, an angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told him he would be going to Egypt to deliver the Israelites.

He then discussed the next part of the apologetic: the Israelites’ rejection of Moses and their turning to idolatry, which was part of their way of life for generations to come. God had left them to their own devices.

What Stephen did throughout his entire apologetic — case for, defence of religious doctrine — was to demonstrate that God’s chosen people had rejected those He sent to them. Similarly, they had rejected Jesus. Stephen exhorted them to consider those rejections very carefully.

Finally, Stephen had to defend himself against charges that he blasphemed the temple. He ended his apologetic by accusing the Jews of rejecting the Holy Spirit. That enraged them and they took him outside of Jerusalem to be stoned.

Among them was Saul, later Paul the Apostle. Acts 7 ends with this (emphases mine):

58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Matthew Henry’s commentary has this analysis:

Now, the stoning of a man being a laborious piece of work, the witnesses took off their upper garments, that they might not hang in their way, and they laid them down at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul, now a pleased spectator of this tragedy. It is the first time we find mention of his name; we shall know it and love it better when we find it changed to Paul, and him changed from a persecutor into a preacher. This little instance of his agency in Stephen’s death he afterwards reflected upon with regret (Acts 22:20): I kept the raiment of those that slew him.

Before I begin with today’s verses, it is also useful to look at the King James Version, which adds to the drama of the reality in Jerusalem.

I will be returning to these in the commentary below:

And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.

And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.

As Acts 8 opens, St Luke tells us that Saul approved of this execution (verse 1). We know how on fire the converted Saul — the Apostle Paul — was for Jesus Christ. He dominates the letters of the New Testament. Therefore, just imagine what he was like pre-Damascene conversion. I’ll return to this later, but he was a powerful man, both as Saul and as Paul.

For now, both Matthew Henry and John MacArthur believed that Saul had a lot to do with Stephen’s death.

MacArthur says:

He was involved from the very beginning of this conflict with Stephen …

And Saul was the leader, and it may have been that right there at the death of Stephen, he got the whole deal organized. “At that same time” it says. He might have pulled that mob around him, and the very seed of bloodshed was Stephen was dying, was the thing that really spawned the group of people that followed this man Saul around to kill Christians.

Henry’s commentary tells us that Paul probably asked Luke, the author of Acts, to insert the part about consent in the first verse as an expiation for his subsequent guilt:

We have reason to think that Paul ordered Luke to insert this, for shame to himself, and glory to free grace. Thus he owns himself guilty of the blood of Stephen, and aggravates it with this, that he did not do it with regret and reluctancy, but with delight and a full satisfaction, like those who not only do such things, but have pleasure in those that do them.

Saul wanted to ensure the Church died, hence St Luke’s mention of ‘a great persecution’ against Her in Jerusalem. MacArthur explains:

Now we don’t have any of the gory details of what Saul did specifically, we only have some general terms. But whatever it was, it resulted in the people being scattered all over everywhere and being driven out of the city. He just drove them out, and I am sure that the ones who were driven out were dominantly the Hellenistic Jews, the Grecian Jews who didn’t really belong there. And it may have been in these early times that the whole movement was still associated with Stephen as a Grecian Jew.

They fled to Judea and Samaria.

Only the Apostles stayed in the city. There were many converts in Jerusalem and they needed the Twelve. No doubt, they were also intent on converting more Jews. It could be that, as the Apostles came from the area near Jerusalem and spent the feast days there that there was a certain comfort level. It is possible that the converts who had lived in or near Jerusalem all their lives felt the same way.

John MacArthur explains that a whole host of dynamics were at work at this time, good and evil. Stephen’s death was a turning point for the Church, and Acts 8 demonstrates that. The Church was now largely leaving Jerusalem — God’s chosen who had rejected His Son — for the Gentile world. Also observe that what Jesus said quickly came true:

Here’s what Jesus says to be the pattern of the expansion of the church: “But ye shall receive power after the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be witness unto Me.” Now here comes the pattern. “Both in Jerusalem and all Judea.” Now, Jerusalem was a city in which, which was in Judea, as a province or country. And so He said “In Jerusalem and all Judea, then in Samaria, and then the outermost part of the earth.” Now there you have the outline of the book of Acts. First in Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, then the world. And so in 8, we’re beginning to move out of Jerusalem, into Judea and Samaria; the gospel extending. And the Samaritans, I think, in the mind of God, formed a perfect bridge to the Gentile world, because the Samaritans were half-breeds. They were part Jewish, part Gentile. And so it was a little extension, then to go smack into the Gentile situation … So chapter 8, then, is the beginning of the church moving out. And it’s a sad thing in a sense, as well as a great thing, to see the gospel move out. It’s a sad thing to see the door shut on Jerusalem.

Therefore, although the Church remained there, Jerusalem was no longer the main focus. It was now time for the Church to expand elsewhere, to more favourable audiences. As we have seen in the preceding chapters in Acts, whenever there was a setback, God and the Holy Spirit gave the fledgling Church more grace and fortitude to move forward.

Here’s MacArthur’s take. I like his analogy of fire, very much befitting a discussion of the Holy Spirit:

The Holy Spirit is in the business of turning negatives into positives, of taking disasters and turning them into miracles. You can’t blockade the Holy Spirit. He likes to take those kind of tragedies and turn them into victory.

If you’ve been with us in our study of the book of Acts, you know what He’s done with Peter and John. Every time they got in a hopeless situation, it just was a greater opportunity to preach the gospel. Every time they got into a negative scene, the Spirit of God turned it into a positive. Every time the persecution arose, the preaching followed right on its heels. And God allowed the gospel to reach into areas and the hearts of people who could never otherwise be reached, other than through persecution. It’s kind of like trying to stamp out a fire, and the harder you jump on it, the more you scatter the embers and start fires all over everywhere. And that’s exactly what happened. They started jumping all over the church in Jerusalem and all they did was send the embers all over the world, because that’s how the Holy Spirit works.

Verse 2 tells us that Stephen had a dignified, religious burial. Our two commentators differ in their interpretation of ‘devout men’.

MacArthur thinks that the ‘devout men’ were, in fact, pious Jews who thought that his stoning was wrong. He reasons this from the wording:

If they were referring to Christians, it would have said “believers,” or “the brothers,” or something. But it says “devout men”. That’s a term that has to do with pious Jews. And what it says is this: “There were some Jews in Jerusalem, though not Christians, who still believed that the murder of Stephen was wrong.” That’s kind of nice to know. There was still some fertile soil for the gospel in Jerusalem. The apostles stayed; devout men carried Stephen.

Under Jewish law, criminals had to be buried, although Jews were not allowed to lament over them. Yet, these men openly and emphatically lamented him:

So in a very real sense – and incidentally it was probably very public. What they were doing there was reacting by protest to the murder of this man. Now here’s some fertile soil for the apostles to reach for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Henry surmised that they would have been fellow converts, which I am more inclined to believe, since Stephen was very holy and had been very visible at the temple during his brief ministry. Also, what Christians would have disowned such a man? Here is Henry on the devout men:

Stephen’s death bewailed by others (Acts 8:2)– devout men, which some understand of those that were properly so called, proselytes, one of whom Stephen himself probably was. Or, it may be taken more largely; some of the church that were more devout and zealous than the rest went and gathered up the poor crushed and broken remains, to which they gave a decent interment, probably in the field of blood, which was bought some time ago to bury strangers in. They buried him solemnly, and made great lamentation over him. Though his death was of great advantage to himself, and great service to the church, yet they bewailed it as a general loss, so well qualified was he for the service, and so likely to be useful both as a deacon and as a disputant. It is a bad symptom if, when such men are taken away, it is not laid to heart. Those devout men paid these their last respects to Stephen, (1.) To show that they were not ashamed of the cause for which he suffered, nor afraid of the wrath of those that were enemies to it; for, though they now triumph, the cause is a righteous cause, and will be at last a victorious one. (2.) To show the great value and esteem they had for this faithful servant of Jesus Christ, this first martyr for the gospel, whose memory shall always be precious to them, notwithstanding the ignominy of his death. They study to do honour to him upon whom God put honour. (3.) To testify their belief and hope of the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

It could have also been a mix of new Christians and empathetic Jews attending to Stephen’s burial.

Verse 3 brings us back to Saul and his vigilance and violence in going house to house to rout Jerusalem of Christian men and women.

The King James Version mentioned above says that Saul ‘made havock’, which means laying violent waste and ruin to something, in this case, the Church. Saul wanted to achieve the wanton destruction of Christ’s holy Bride.

Henry gives us a chilling description of Saul, a Pharisee, by the way:

Paul owns that at this time he persecuted this way unto the death (Acts 21:4), and (Acts 26:10) that when they were put to death he gave his voice against them …

He aimed at no less than the cutting off of the gospel Israel, that the name of it should be no more in remembrance, Psalms 83:4. He was the fittest tool the chief priests could find out to serve their purposes; he was informer-general against the disciples, a messenger of the great council to be employed in searching for meetings, and seizing all that were suspected to favour that way. Saul was bred a scholar, a gentleman, and yet did not think it below him to be employed in the vilest work of that kind. (1.) He entered into every house, making no difficulty of breaking open doors, night or day, and having a force attending him for that purpose. He entered into every house where they used to hold their meetings, or every house that had any Christians in it, or was thought to have. No man could be secure in his own house, though it was his castle. (2.) He haled, with the utmost contempt and cruelty, both men and women, dragged them along the streets, without any regard to the tenderness of the weaker sex; he stooped so low as to take cognizance of the meanest that were leavened with the gospel, so extremely bigoted was he. (3.) He committed them to prison, in order to their being tried and put to death, unless they would renounce Christ; and some, we find, were compelled by him to blaspheme, Acts 26:11.

MacArthur says that Saul genuinely believed he was doing the right thing:

Galatians 1:13 proves that: “Just as you heard of my manner of life in time past, in the Jew’s religion. How that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God and wasted it. And profited in the Jew’s religion above many my equals and mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. I thought I was pleasing God. I was so zealous for my religion.” But he was wrong.

MacArthur calls our attention to the KJV word ‘haling’, the antiquated form of ‘hauling’:

He just hauled them out of the houses. It means dragging, literally. It’s used in John 21:8 of dragging the fishnet in with all the fish. Remember when Peter caught so many fish he just dragged them? That’s what he did. He grabbed them, dragged them out into the street, and threw them in jail.

From this, we can better understand the violence of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9. It had to be that way.

Acts 8 goes on to follow the ministry of Philip in Samaria, which we will encounter next time.

As there are special Sundays coming up for the next few weeks, Forbidden Bible Verses will resume in June 2017.

Next time: Acts 8:4-8

Over the past few weeks I have been running a series of posts on Percy Dearmer‘s 1912 volume, Everyman’s History of the Prayer Book, published by Mowbray.

These are the previous posts in the series:

Percy Dearmer on the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion

Percy Dearmer on the title page of the Book of Common Prayer

Percy Dearmer on the title page of the Book of Common Prayer – part 1

Percy Dearmer on the title page of the Book of Common Prayer – part 2

Percy Dearmer on the earliest church service manuscripts

That last post referenced Chapter 4 of Dearmer’s book. That chapter has so much information in it that it will be the subject of my next few Sunday night posts.

What caught my eye — and is the subject of today’s entry — is Dearmer’s sound interpretation of St Paul’s instruction regarding prophecy and tongues from 1 Corinthians 14. (I use the ESV.)

Dearmer defines both terms for us.

Prophecy:

probably resembling the utterances and prayers which break the silence of a Quakers’ meeting (or of those “quiet meetings” which are now happily being revived in the Church of England), as it is mentioned in 1 Cor. xiv. 1, 29, 1 Thess. v. 20, and in 1 Cor. xi. 4 …

Tongues:

which we see by 1 Cor. xiv. 23-39, were already becoming somewhat of a babel, and are unfavourably compared by St. Paul with Prophecy …

For each, Dearmer went on to explain what St Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 14:34:

the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.

This passage is contentious, especially today with the contrast between certain fundamentalist notions of ‘federal’ (‘male’) headship and women’s active participation in church services, particularly those who have been ordained in certain denominations.

Dearmer provides suitable historic explanations, particular to the Corinthians.

With regard to prophecy (emphases mine):

This passage is interesting because it shows that the Apostle’s injunction, “Let your women keep silence in the churches” (1 Cor. xiv. 34), did not mean that they were not to take any part in the service, but referred to a habit which had grown up amongst the women, of chattering during service time

The men then joined in with tongues:

the men, it seems from the context, interrupted by babbling with “tongues,” or by all prophesying at once

One exacerbated the other:

and then the women increased the confusion by asking questions about what they meant — which is not to be wondered at

Paul gave the Corinthians specific instructions on both in 1 Corinthians 14.

Paul valued prophecy over tongues (verse 5), because prophecy built up, encouraged and consoled the whole congregation (verse 3).

He told those speaking in tongues that they needed to be ready to interpret what they had just uttered, so that the rest of the congregation could understand (verses 13-17).

This is interesting:

18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Remember that, in Acts 2:12-13, about which I wrote in December 2016, the 70 who received the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost began speaking in foreign languages — tongues. Some of the Jews ridiculed them because they did not understand the languages spoken. They said these holy followers of Jesus were intoxicated on new wine.

With that in mind, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to be mindful of what they say and how they say it (verse 23):

If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?

Paul made a clear distinction between tongues and prophecy. Each was for a different audience. Tongues, he said, were for unbelievers’ ears (verse 21, citing Isaiah 28:11, Deuteronomy 28:49). Prophecy was for the believers. Paul says that both, done properly, would have a dramatic effect on the listener:

24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

That is what happened in the early chapters of Acts and what Paul wanted the Corinthians to achieve.

He wanted them to speak in an orderly fashion and maintain silence rather than speak idly (‘Oooh, I wonder what that was about?’):

27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

40 But all things should be done decently and in order.

1 Corinthians 14 also gives us an idea of the worship of Paul’s converts:

26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.

From these early practices — ‘done decently and in order’ — a liturgy began developing which became fuller and more structured as the Church matured. An orderly worship benefited everyone in the congregation.

Next week’s post will describe New Testament Christian worship in more detail.

Holy Spirit as dove stained glassOn May 15, 2016, Christians celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, which is the Church’s birthday.

We call it the Church’s birthday because on the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and enabled them to spread the Good News from Jerusalem to Samaria. St Paul, who was not among the original number because he had not yet been converted, later called people to Christ in Asia Minor and Rome. These conversions, accompanied by miracles, are in Acts. Other apostles, such as Sts John and Peter, wrote letters to their converts. St John also wrote Revelation. Christ’s chosen spread the Gospel message far and wide throughout the known world at that time. Not all of it is included in Scripture.

Past posts on Pentecost are as follows:

Pentecost — the Church’s birthday, with gifts from the Holy Spirit

Lutheran reflections on Pentecost

Thoughts on Pentecost: the power of the Holy Spirit

Reflections for Pentecost — a Reformed view

This year we are in Year C of the three-year Lectionary used in public worship. The Epistle for Pentecost in 2016 is Romans 8:14-17:

8:14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.

8:15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”

8:16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,

8:17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ–if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Earlier in Romans 8, we read that we have life in the Spirit. John MacArthur explains:

The Holy Spirit takes us all the way to glory … He does it by freeing us from sin and death.  We saw that in verses 2 and 3.  He does that by freeing us from sin and death through the wonderful work of…imputation, whereby our sins are imputed to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us.  He has delivered us from the law of sin of death, because Christ has paid the penalty.

With the Spirit’s guidance, we turn from what is worldly to what is holy (verses 5 – 8). The Holy Spirit must dwell in us in order for us to belong to Christ (verse 9). Even though we have fallen short through sin:

the Holy Spirit maintains our no-condemnation status by empowering us in that new nature for victory.  It is according to the Spirit, verse 13, that we are able to put to death the deeds of the body and, thus, to live. 

This brings us to today’s Epistle which describes our adoption into God’s family through the Holy Spirit. MacArthur has a lot to say about the meaning of adoption, especially in the ancient world during Paul’s time. Paul’s message must have been exciting news to the Romans, as we will see.

All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God (verse 14). This explains the importance of receiving the Holy Spirit. The oldest Christian denominations have the ordinance — for Catholics, the Sacrament — of Confirmation. Receiving the Holy Spirit and reaffirming our faith takes us to the point in our spiritual life whereby we recognise He guides us to do what is right and good.

More importantly, however, receiving the Holy Spirit makes us adopted members of God’s family. We can now, with confidence, call Him ‘Dad’ — Abba (verse 15). We recognise Him not as a fearsome Father but as a truly loving one.

When we think of adoption over the past few centuries, it appears to us as a mixed blessing. Orphanages have been and continue to be, in some cases, depressing and brutal places where children wait for parents to come rescue them. Over the past 40 years, psychotherapy has, perhaps mistakenly, encouraged adopted children to talk and write about finding their natural mothers and disparage their adopted families. There is often a tinge of sadness when we discuss adoption.

By contrast, in the ancient world, adoption was a tremendous, positive step for both the adopter and the adopted. It really did mean a new life not only in a family sense but also a legal one.

In ancient Greece, a man who had no sons would seek out a well-bred young man to adopt. The young man would then inherit his adoptive father’s estate and business concerns.

The same custom existed in Rome. A man who had no sons — or sons whom he thought were unsuitable to inherit his estate — went out in search of a young man whom he could adopt. The adopted son had a higher status than the natural sons did.

It was a tremendous privilege to be adopted during that era.

In Rome, fathers had power over their children throughout their lifetimes. They could even kill their sons or daughters. It was legal. Children were under their father’s control — patria potestas — until he died.

MacArthur describes how Roman adoption worked, given patria potestas (emphases mine):

Now obviously this…made adoption into another family very difficult and very serious unless the person was … an illegitimate child or an orphan.  And if a man saw a son that he wanted and that son belonged to another father he had to go through a very formidable operation to get that person to pass out from under patria potestas into his own control.  There were two stepsThe first one was called mancipatio from which we get the word emancipation.  And mancipatio was carried out about a symbolic sort of sale.  If the father would agree to let this son be adopted by another man there was this symbolic sale they went to; they had some scales and some copper and they used this symbolism to carry out sort of a transaction like I’m selling this young man to you.  They did it three times.  Twice the father symbolically sold the son and twice he bought him back and then the third time he didn’t buy him back and the patria potestas was broken.

After the sale there was ceremony called vindicatio and the adopting father went to the Roman magistrate and presented a legal case for the actual legal transference of the person to be adopted into his own patria potestas.  And when all this was complete the adoption was done. 

Adoption in the Roman world signified four things. We can reflect on them the way the Romans who heard Paul’s letter did and relate them to adoption by God the Father through the Holy Spirit. MacArthur says:

First thing that happened was the adopted person lost all relationship to his old family. Everything was gone and he gained all rights to the new family. It’s a beautiful picture of salvation, isn’t it?

Second thing, it followed that he became heir to all the father’s, the new father’s estate. And even if the other children were blood born, it did not affect his rights. He was inalienably the co-heir with them and perhaps even exceeding above them, if that was in the prerogative of the father.

The third thing that happened, according to Roman law, was that the former life of the adopted person was completely wiped out. All his legal debts were cancelled. They were wiped out as if he had never existed. And the adopted person was given a new name and it was as if he had just been born. Sound familiar? When you came to Jesus Christ and were adopted into the family of God, all your past debts were what? Cancelled, and you became a co-heir of all that the born son, the Lord Jesus Christ, possesses.

The fourth thing was in the eyes of the law the adopted person was literally and absolutely the son of his new father. And so, when we were adopted, all these things, no doubt, are in the mind of the apostle and the Spirit, and we know they took place in our adoption. We have cut the cord with the past. We have become co-heirs to God’s kingdom. All the old debts are wiped out and we are absolutely and legally and forever the son of God.

Verse 16 refers to regeneration via the Holy Spirit. MacArthur explains:

Adoption gives us the title to the inheritance. Regeneration gives us the nature of sons and gives us the fitness for that inheritance. Both are important.

This regeneration starts our path of sanctification as the Holy Spirit guides us to do what God wants us to do. We turn away from sin towards accomplishing His will and purpose for us.

Knowing we are full members of God’s family through adoption gives us assurance that we are heirs with Christ, our heavenly Brother. As marvellous as that is, with the promise of eternal life with Him, it also means that we may suffer in this transitory life. We may be called to suffer as He was called to suffer (verse 17). MacArthur tells us:

Suffering is a necessary part of the preparation for glory.

For some Christians this might mean physical persecution or, in the case of death for the faith, martyrdom. For most of us, however, it might mean losing family members or longtime friends. We might find it difficult keeping or finding a job if our managers are set against Christians.

Ultimately, however, we will be glorified as Christ was glorified because we are heirs to the kingdom of God. And the Holy Spirit is with us from now through to life eternal.

MacArthur leaves us with this reflection on the Holy Spirit as Romans 8 describes:

The Holy Spirit frees us from sin and death.  We looked at that in verses 2 and 3.  The Holy Spirit enables us to fulfill the law, verse 4.  The Holy Spirit changes our nature, verses 5 to 11.  The Holy Spirit empowers us for victory over sin, verses 12 and 13.  And then last time, the Holy Spirit adopts us into God’s family as sons, verses 14 through 16.  All of this is the ministry of the Holy Spirit for which we give Him praise and thanks

Now we come to the final point:  The Holy Spirit secures our eternal glory.

In the second half of Romans 8, Paul describes how the Holy Spirit accomplishes His work in us then tells us of God’s everlasting love. These verses are familiar ones:

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be[i] against us?

33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.

38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

May we reflect on these realities and powers of the Holy Spirit and give thanks, not only at Pentecost but every day.

Let us also remember to pray to the Holy Spirit for daily guidance. He will help us in all that we do.

Bartolomeo Montagna - Saint Paul - Google Art Project.jpgThe Epistle for Tuesday of Holy Week in Year C of the three-year Lectionary is 1 Corinthians 1:18-31:

1:18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1:19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

1:20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

1:21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.

1:22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,

1:23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,

1:24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1:25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

1:26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

1:27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;

1:28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,

1:29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

1:30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,

1:31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

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St Paul’s words are just as relevant today as they were at the time he penned them.

A growing number of people in the West find Christianity and its adherents low-information and stupid.

The ancient Greeks also considered it silly. How could Jesus’s death on the cross redeem mankind? It was antithetical to them, a people steeped in philosophy.

Paul cites Isaiah 29:14, which prophesied that God would thwart notional human wisdom and manmade discernment. Matthew Henry’s commentary explains:

They laughed at the story of a crucified Saviour, and despised the apostles’ way of telling it. They sought for wisdom. They were men of wit and reading, men that had cultivated arts and sciences, and had, for some ages, been in a manner the very mint of knowledge and learning. There was nothing in the plain doctrine of the cross to suit their taste, nor humour their vanity, nor gratify a curious and wrangling temper: they entertained it therefore with scorn and contempt. What, hope to be saved by one that could not save himself! And trust in one who was condemned and crucified as a malefactor, a man of mean birth and poor condition in life, and cut off by so vile and opprobrious a death! This was what the pride of human reason and learning could not relish. The Greeks thought it little better than stupidity to receive such a doctrine, and pay this high regard to such a person: and thus were they justly left to perish in their pride and obstinacy. It is just with God to leave those to themselves who pour such proud contempt on divine wisdom and grace.

When Paul was in Corinth, it wasn’t only the Greeks who found the significance of the Crucifixion incomprehensible. Jews also wanted further proof that Jesus was the Messiah.

Even Greeks and Jews who became Christians still carried remnants of the thought processes and views they had learned in their childhood. Greeks were searching for the intellectualism in their new faith and Jews were struggling to discard the idea that the Messiah would bring them a temporal kingdom.

This is why Paul wrote that the cross is a stumbling block to them, yet, the Crucifixion brought about salvation for both Jew and Greek. And what looked weak to them has divine, everlasting power behind it that man cannot comprehend (verse 25).

God took humiliating events and humble people to accomplish His divine purpose through Christ our Lord.

Jesus did not call effete elitists to become disciples. He called fishermen and a tax collector. He asked nobodies to spread the Good News.

To reinforce his message, Paul reminded his converts of their own humble beginnings (verse 26).

God’s ways are not man’s ways. He despises men who boast of their own abilities and learning:

The gospel is fitted to bring down the pride of both Jews and Greeks, to shame the boasted science and learning of the Greeks, and to take down that constitution on which the Jews valued themselves and despised all the world besides, that no flesh should glory in his presence ({cf 1Co 1:29}), that there might be no pretence for boasting.

God in His infinite love and mercy manifested divine wisdom and power in Christ Jesus, whose one and sufficient sacrifice delivers us from sin and brings us to life eternal.

Therefore, if we are going to boast, may we, as Paul wrote, boast in the Lord. Paul cited Jeremiah 9:23-24 to reinforce his point:

23 Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”

Henry’s commentary reminds us:

We are foolishness, ignorant and blind in the things of God, with all our boasted knowledge; and he is made wisdom to us. We are guilty, obnoxious to justice; and he is made righteousness, our great atonement and sacrifice. We are depraved and corrupt; and he is made sanctification, the spring of our spiritual life; from him, the head, it is communicated to all the members of his mystical body by his Holy Spirit. We are in bonds, and he is made redemption to us, our Saviour and deliverer. Observe, Where Christ is made righteousness to any soul, he is also made sanctification. He never discharges from the guilt of sin, without delivering from the power of it; and he is made righteousness and sanctification, that he may in the end be made complete redemption, may free the soul from the very being of sin, and loose the body from the bonds of the grave: and what is designed in all is that all flesh may glory in the Lord, {cf11ul 1Co 1:31}. Observe, It is the will of God that all our glorifying should be in the Lord: and, our salvation being only through Christ, it is thereby effectually provided that it should be so. Man is humbled, and God glorified and exalted, by the whole scheme.

Over the past few years, a socio-political trend has taken root whereby so-called educated and wealthy people complain about fellow citizens whom they label as poor, low-information people.

Similar verbiage appears in arguments between supposed wise, reason-driven atheists and ‘ignorant’, ‘stupid’ Christians.

Pride is a sin. May we never boast of our own power, wealth or abilities. May we boast, as the Bible says, only in the Lord.

We can use Holy Week as a time to pray for the unchurched and the unbelievers that they come to faith through divine grace.

Epiphany is on Wednesday, January 6.

Most churches using the three-year Lectionary for public worship will have used Epiphany readings instead of the one for Christmas 2.

However, for those who missed church or had different readings, what follows is an exposition of the Epistle for Epiphany in Year C: Ephesians 3:1-12.

What follows is the Lectionary reading from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

Ephesians 3:1-12

1 This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles–

2 for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you,

3 and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words,

4 a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ.

5 In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:

6 that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

7 Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power.

8 Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ,

9 and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things;

10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord,

12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

St Paul was put in prison for putting Gentiles and Jews on an equal level theologically. He preached that they were united through Christ.

John MacArthur says that, at the time Paul wrote this letter, he had been a prisoner in for five years with a Roman soldier guarding him every minute of the day during that time. His first two years were in Caesarea, then followed three years in Rome where he was a prisoner in his own home.

Note that Paul does not say he is a prisoner of Rome but rather of Christ Jesus (verse 1). This is because he knew that, whatever suffering he endured, Rome had no real power over him. Via his conversion and ministry, Paul belonged to our Lord, hence he was His captive.

He adds that what he has preached and his time as a prisoner is for the sake of the Gentiles.

He speaks of the commission of divine grace which he was delivering for their benefit. MacArthur explains:

He says … I just want you people to know that this isn’t my idea. This is God’s.

Matthew Henry has this analysis:

He styles the gospel the grace of God here (as in other places) because it is the gift of divine grace to sinful men and all the gracious overtures that it makes, and the joyful tidings that it contains, proceed from the rich grace of God and it is also the great instrument in the hands of the Spirit by which God works grace in the souls of men.

Paul speaks of the divine mystery revealed to him, to which he alluded in Ephesians 1 and 2, albeit briefly (verse 3). Now he will reveal the mystery to them as he understands it (verse 4).

MacArthur interprets this for us:

The word knowledge in verse 4, is the word sunesis. It’s a wonderful word. He says, my purpose is to pass on my knowledge. And the word sunesis means mental comprehension, mental comprehension. And beloved, that always comes before spiritual application. You can’t apply what you don’t know. You’ve got to have a renewed mind … It is when we comprehend with our mind these great truths that they will affect the way we live and we can’t just exhort people to live a certain way unless we give them things to understand.

And so we meet the prisoner of the mystery. A man who so believed in the unity of the church that he literally gave his life for it. First to understand it, then to pass on that understanding, and then to pray that we would implement that understanding.

In verse 5, Paul says that this mystery had not been previously revealed. He means that the Old Testament people, including prophets, did not foresee the age of the Church. Therefore, it is upsetting to the Jews of Paul’s time to hear that they would be united with Gentiles. However, Christ’s presence on earth made this mystery of unity come to fruition (verse 6). Henry says:

This was the great truth revealed to the apostles, namely, that God would call the Gentiles to salvation by faith in Christ, and that without the works of the law.

Paul then says he is but a servant thanks to divine grace which God wrought in him (verse 7) and, of those servants, he is the very least (verse 8). Paul wrote this partly out of his deep humility but rather more because of the persecution he inflicted on Christians prior to his conversion. Despite those sins, now forgiven, God has given him the ministry of preaching of the boundless riches of Christ to the Gentiles and to reveal this mystery of salvation through Him (verse 9).

Henry has this observation about the King James Version text:

… it is an unspeakable favour to the Gentile world that to them the unsearchable riches of Christ are preached.

MacArthur says:

What are the unsearchable riches of Christ? They are all the truths about him. And all that he means to us. And a long time ago I committed myself that this is the priority of the ministry. To preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. And what does it mean? It means to tell people how rich they are in Christ. And that’s why I always talk about preaching the believers position. I’m not here just to browbeat you and make you feel bad and exhort you and club you and tell you to shape up and all that. I’m here to tell you how rich you are.

I believe I’ve been sent by God like Paul and every other man of God to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ. Unsearchable means unfathomable, untraceable, can’t be measured, there’s no bottom. And so I can have the joy of just telling you how rich you are. If you’re a Christian, you are rich. Believe me you are incredibly rich. That’s my task as a minister a servant of Jesus Christ to tell you. In fact Paul says in 1 Colossians “that God had called him to preach and God wanted him to make known the riches of the glory of the mystery among the Gentiles.” He wants me to make known the riches of the glory of the mystery. The mystery is the church. You’re in the church; there are riches. And you need to know how rich you are. And so great part of the preaching of the word of God must be declaring to people the riches of Christ.

Paul says that the founding of the Church enabled this mystery to be revealed to ‘the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’ (verse 10). Both commentators say the Apostle refers here to angels. MacArthur explains:

… the angels can see the power of God in creation. The angels can see the wrath of God at Mt. Sinai. The angels can see the love of God at Calvary, but God says they’re going to see my wisdom in the church. That God could take diverse male, female, bond, free, Jew, Greek and he could melt down all the walls and blend them together in an indivisible oneness all one with himself. One with the father, one with the Son, one with the Spirit, one with every other believer that God could do that kind of miracle of salvation is a wonder beyond wonders of wisdom and causes the angelic host to give him glory.

Paul writes that this was always God’s intention and Jesus Christ was the divine Person through whom this was made possible (verse 11). Furthermore, God the Son is our link to God the Father. Our faith, therefore, gives us ‘boldness and confidence’ in this regard (verse 12).

Henry interprets the final verses as follows:

… that is, “By (or through) whom we have liberty to open our minds freely to God, as to a Father, and a well-grounded persuasion of audience and of acceptance with him and this by means of the faith we have in him, as our great Mediator and Advocate.” We may come with humble boldness to hear from God, knowing that the terror of the curse is done away and we may expect to hear from him good words and comfortable. We may have access with confidence to speak to God, knowing that we have such a Mediator between God and us, and such an Advocate with the Father.

As for Paul’s plight, this wonderful mystery and the Ephesians, MacArthur says:

… if the mystery is so wonderful and the privileges are so incredible, I desire that you faint not at my tribulations for you which is your glory. You see Paul was around preaching the mystery and being a prisoner of the mystery and unfolding the plan and trying to help fulfill the purpose and he was telling everybody the privileges and some of the Christians were sitting back saying, oh, poor Paul, he’s always in jail.

And he says, look, when you understand this incredible truth, of what it is to be in the church and what privilege it is don’t faint at my tribulation. It’s worth it to get the message out. See? It’s your glory I mean it’s bringing glory to you, it’s bringing you the very glory of God. Don’t worry about me being a prisoner, don’t faint because I’m going through all kinds of difficulty, it’s worth it. It’s worth it. And there we are right back at the servant’s heart again, aren’t we?

He always felt that way whatever it cost me to get you the message is a cheap price. Don’t worry about me if I’m a prisoner, if I’m beaten, if I’m stoned, don’t worry about me. Don’t faint at my tribulation; just get the message. It’s worth it.

Do we share Paul’s passion and enthusiasm for this divine mystery of salvation and unity through Christ Jesus?

It is a question worth contemplating as Christmastide draws to a close.

Most churches will be using readings for Epiphany this Sunday, as January 6 falls on a Wednesday.

For this reason, the readings for Christmas 2 — the second Sunday after Christmas — will be used by few congregations that follow the three-year Lectionary readings from The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

The Vanderbilt Divinity Library is a useful resource for Lectionary readings. I highly recommend it. Catholic readings are included.

The Gospel reading is John 1:18, used on Christmas Day, about which you can read more here:

Christmas Day — John 1:14 (with commentary from Matthew Poole)

Happy Christmas, one and all! (John 1:1-17)

This is verse 18, another to remember:

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

The first reading is Jeremiah 31:7-14:

7 For thus says the LORD: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.”

8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.

9 With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

10 Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”

11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.

12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.

13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the LORD.

Jeremiah, John MacArthur explains, prophesied during a horrible period in the history of the Jews, the Babylonian captivity and slaughter:

Jeremiah was 80 to 100 years later than Isaiah. Everything that Isaiah said was going to happen did happen at the end of Jeremiah’s time. Isaiah, you remember, had said that judgment was coming and Jeremiah says it’s here. Jeremiah says the Babylonians are going to arrive and the Babylonians are going to slaughter you. And the Babylonians are going to take you into captivity and that is exactly what happened. Jeremiah stood on the edge of the holocaust. Jeremiah was the prophet of the end of the glory days of Israel.

The late Dr. Morehead said it was Jeremiah[‘s] lot to prophe[s]y at time when all things in Judah were rushing down to the final and mournful catastrophe. When political confusion was at its height, when the worst passions swayed the people’s hearts and the most fatal counsels prevailed to see his own people whom he loved with the tenderness of a woman plunge over the presuppose into the wide weltering ruin, that was Jeremiah’s lot.

Jeremiah was the prophet of Judah’s midnight hour. Isaiah prophesied at 11 o’clock and Jeremiah prophesied at midnight. Jeremiah preached for 42 years, 42 years. During the reign of five kings Jeremiah preached.

Jeremiah might as well have been talking to a wall, because practically no one paid him the blindest bit of attention. Those few who did, loathed his warnings. In fact, MacArthur says:

tradition says Jeremiah died in Egypt killed by his own countrymen. 

Despite this, during his lifetime Jeremiah had God-given hope:

God said the captivity of the people is only gonna last 70 years.  It’s gonna be brief and I’m gonna bring them back.  I’m gonna bring them back.  And there was hope.  And so Jeremiah preached with hope.  There would be a remnant.  There would be some who would believe.  There would be a recovery in the future.  God was not permanently through with Judah.  God had not alienated Judah ultimately.  God had not violated his covenants.  He would bring them back and there would be restoration. 

In Chapter 31, Jeremiah receives God’s message of the covenant to come:

The time when God writes the law in the hearts.  Chapter 31.  Not on stone.  The coming of the new covenant in the Messiah.  The Redeemer … Jeremiah didn’t know how far ahead that was.  He couldn’t see into the chronology of the future.  But that hope compelled his heart. 

Matthew Henry makes these points:

God shall have the glory and the church both the honour and comfort of this blessed change (Jeremiah 31:7): Sing with gladness for Jacob, that is, let all her friends and well-wishers rejoice with her, Deuteronomy 32:43. Rejoice, you Gentiles with his people, Romans 15:10. The restoration of Jacob will be taken notice of by all the neighbours, it will be matter of joy to them all, and they shall all join with Jacob in his joys, and thereby pay him respect and put a reputation upon him …

… in order to a happy settlement in their own land, they shall have a joyful return out of the land of their captivity and a very comfortable passage homeward (Jeremiah 31:8,9), and this beginning of mercy shall be to them a pledge of all the other blessings here promised …

… here is a reason given why God will take all this care of his people: For I am a Father to Israel, a Father that begat him, and therefore will maintain him, that have the care and compassion of a father for him (Psalm 103:13) and Ephraim is my first-born even Ephraim, who, having gone astray from God, was no more worthy to be called a son, shall yet be owned as a first-born, particularly dear, and heir of a double portion of blessings. The same reason that was given for their release out of Egypt is given for their release out of Babylon they are free-born and therefore must not be enslaved, are born to God and therefore must not be the servants of men. Exodus 4:22,23, Israel is my son, even my first-born let my son go that he may serve me. If we take God for our Father, and join ourselves to the church of the first-born, we may be assured that we shall want [for] nothing …

He summarises the remaining verses as:

publishing to the world, as well as to the church, the purposes of God’s love concerning his people. This is a word of the Lord which the nations must hear, for it is a prophecy of a work of the Lord which the nations cannot but take notice of. Let them hear the prophecy, that they may the better understand and improve the performance and let those that hear it themselves declare it to others, declare it in the isles afar off. It will be a piece of news that will spread all the world over. It will look very great in history …

The Epistle is Ephesians 1:3-14:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,

4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.

5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will,

6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace

8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight

9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,

10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will,

12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.

13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit;

14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

MacArthur explains (emphases mine):

I want you to look at verses 3-14 and understand here the idea of the church and what it says about us as the church. Now, remember the word church needs to be replaced in your mind by the word called. We are the called ones. And there are a series of propositions from verse 3 to 14 that define this calling … Starting in verse 3 we’re going to understand our calling and that is synonymous with being a church. We have been called by God. We’ve been summoned by God. We are a gathering of people that have been brought together by divine supernatural power through the work of God in salvation …

In verse 3 blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who’s blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world. We were called before. This association of believing people was called by God initially chosen by God before the foundation of the world

The passage literally tells us, verse 4, he chose us. He picked us out for himself. In eternity pas[t], God chose his church. Here is the first cause of our existence … The first cause of the existence of this church, the first cause of the blessing of this church, the first cause of everything that’s happened in this church is God’s sovereign, independent, unaffected choice.

In verse 5, he predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to himself according to the kind intention or good pleasure of his will. He proorizod us[,] in the Greek. He predetermined. He predestined us. This obviously speaks of the great doctrine of election. The doctrine of predestination. We were called before the foundation of the world in the purposes of God …

In verse 7 in him we have redemption. Through his blood the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of his grace … Called out[,] that’s redemption. We have been called out of darkness. We have been called out of sin. We have been called out of death. We’ve been called out of hell. We’ve are the regenerate church …

Verse 8 talks about the riches of his grace in verse 7, which he lavished on us and then he says in verse 8 in all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will according to his kind intention, which he purposed in him. Now let me ask you a question. You tell me, where has God made known the mystery of his will? Where? Scripture. Scripture. Our relationship to God is a relationship of authority. We are not the authority. We are under authority. We have been called under. All wisdom and all insight has been known to God and revealed to us according to his kind intention and of course it has been revealed to us in scripture. That is the only source of that revelation

Henry also has excellent insights, citing the King James Version:

Another privilege which the apostle here blesses God for is divine revelation–that God hath made known to us the mystery of his will (Ephesians 1:9), that is, so much of his good-will to men, which had been concealed for a long time, and is still concealed from so great a part of the world: this we owe to Christ, who, having lain in the bosom of the Father from eternity, came to declare his will to the children of men …

Union in and with Christ is a great privilege, a spiritual blessing, and the foundation of many others. He gathers together in one all things in Christ, Ephesians 1:10. All the lines of divine revelation meet in Christ all religion centres in him. Jews and Gentiles were united to each other by being both united to Christ. Things in heaven and things on earth are gathered together in him peace made, correspondence settled, between heaven and earth, through him …

… In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, Ephesians 1:11. Heaven is the inheritance, the happiness of which is a sufficient portion for a soul: it is conveyed in the way of an inheritance, being the gift of a Father to his children. If children, then heirs. All the blessings that we have in hand are but small if compared with the inheritance. What is laid out upon an heir in his minority is nothing to what is reserved for him when he comes to age. Christians are said to have obtained this inheritance, as they have a present right to it, and even actual possession of it, in Christ their head and representative

… In this revelation, and in his making known unto us the mystery of his will, the wisdom and the prudence of God do abundantly shine forth. It is described (Ephesians 1:13) as the word of truth, and the gospel of our salvation. Every word of it is true It is the gospel of our salvation: it publishes the glad tidings of salvation, and contains the offer of it: it points out the way that leads to it and the blessed Spirit renders the reading and the ministration of it effectual to the salvation of souls. O, how ought we to prize this glorious gospel and to bless God for it! … The seal and earnest of the Spirit are of the number of these blessings. We are said to be sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, Ephesians 1:13. The blessed Spirit is holy himself, and he makes us holy. He is called the Spirit of promise, as he is the promised Spirit. By him believers are sealed that is, separated and set apart for God, and distinguished and marked as belonging to him.

The Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, Ephesians 1:14. The earnest is part of payment, and it secures the full sum: so is the gift of the Holy Ghost all his influences and operations, both as a sanctifier and a comforter, are heaven begun, glory in the seed and bud. The Spirit’s illumination is an earnest of everlasting light sanctification is an earnest of perfect holiness and his comforts are earnests of everlasting joys. He is said to be the earnest, until the redemption of the purchased possession. It may be called here the possession, because this earnest makes it as sure to the heirs as though they were already possessed of it and it is purchased for them by the blood of Christ. The redemption of it is mentioned because it was mortgaged and forfeited by sin and Christ restores it to us, and so is said to redeem it, in allusion to the law of redemption. Observe, from all this, what a gracious promise that is which secures the gift of the Holy Ghost to those who ask him.

These readings really do resonate and make the meaning of Christmas come alive. May we remember this message throughout the year and reflect on it often.

I realise not everyone has the inclination to read the Bible. However, I hope that John MacArthur’s and Matthew Henry’s explanations give us a better idea of what Christianity and our life in Christ really mean.

As Christmastide closes, I pray that more Christians will read the Bible and use good commentaries in their private study. May the Holy Spirit bless them with wisdom and discernment.

Forbidden Bible Verses will return next week.

In Philippians 3, Paul warns against putting too much faith in our own efforts:

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.

He tells his own story, describing his former identity as a Jew and a Pharisee. He confesses that he persecuted the Church with zeal, thinking it righteous. Post-conversion everything changed dramatically:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

He acknowledges that he is powerless on his own and:

14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

He exhorts the Philippians to do the same:

15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

The closing verses of Philippians 3 and first of Philippians 4 appeared in the June 2015 newsletter of l’Église Protestante Unie de Cannes, in a final written commentary by their pastor Paolo Morlacchetti, who has since been assigned to the Reformed congregation in Nice.

The verses are as follows:

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

4 Therefore, my brothers,[a] whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.

In his commentary, ‘Our city is in heaven’, Pastor Morlacchetti wrote that we can possess the highest human traits and beliefs, but, without faith in Jesus Christ, they count for nothing. Paul saw this in some of the Philippians and, similarly, it is easy for us to recognise such people today:

The enemies of the cross of Christ are those who think they can bypass the cross. They are naturally people who enter one or another of sects which are multiplying in our post-Christian era; they think they can find more and better than the Evangelist [Paul]. Or they think that what the Evangelist said is outdated. These days we need new ideals and a new morality.

The enemies of the cross are also those who believe in humanity, in its faculties, in its achievements without noticing that if humanity is capable of great things it can also commit its worst atrocities. Or they are the indifferent, the great mass of the indifferent, who turn their backs on the cross and obliterate it from their lives.

When the Apostle Paul says that some are enemies of the cross of Christ, he isn’t advocating a crusade against them. He does not say that one must destroy heretics in order to purify the Church and the earth. When he thinks of them, Paul cries (‘with tears’). Yes, he cries with sadness because such people are losing their life by imagining they are saving it.

They have for a god their belly, writes Paul. Their belly, which in that era might have been circumcision or dietary restrictions. It could also be whatever satisfies us morally or materially. It could be moral attributes or a belief system which turns us away from Christ. Any human recourse — false salvation — perpetuates the illusion and enslaves us.

The man who refuses Christ’s cross thinks he can get by on his own efforts; he believes himself to be self-sufficient. But in reality, he obeys this system, this ideology, as if it were a religion and he himself its disciple. He loses his liberty, he allies himself with a foreign power. This is why the apostle Paul directs us to another authority. If we really want to be free, we must choose to submit to this authority, that of Jesus Christ.

Morlacchetti concludes:

As so often happens, we face a choice. No longer putting confidence in ourselves, in our resources and in our own merit … this is the fundamental question which we face our whole lives. Our faith revolves around this decisive choice.

The Apostle Paul understood this well. He ceased putting his confidence in his own personal qualities, however authentic, of being a Jew and a Pharisee. He put his belief in Jesus Christ. When he says to imitate him, he does not say, ‘Follow me,’ he tells us, ‘Follow Jesus Christ, believe in Him’. He directs us to another, not himself.

It is for this reason that we see in him a witness worthy of being believed.

It is useful to read St Paul’s letters not only from a historical perspective but also to discern what they tell us — and the world — today with regard to belief and faith. I’d read this passage before, but not in such a relevant way. Morlacchetti’s interpretation of ‘belly’ was, for me, particularly helpful.

R Scott ClarkReformed minister and professor, Dr R Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary California and Heidelblog is running a series about the Heidelberg Catechism and authority.

The first essay — ‘Heidelberg 104: Authority and Submission (1)’ — is particularly pertinent to Christians who mistakenly advocate Mosaic Law, theonomy and male supremacy.

It is unfortunate that the Reformed churches are affected by these scourges. I suspect it is because a significant number of Americans attending such churches as new members came from highly conservative congregations with erroneous ‘Christian’ teachings.

What follows is a summary of his excellent explanation, supported by the Heidelberg Catechism and Scripture. Emphases mine below.

Mosaic law

Civil punishments prescribed in Mosaic law:

expired with the death of Christ. This is how the civil punishments are interpreted in Reformed theology.

Theonomy:

or the teaching that the Mosaic civil laws have a bi[n]ding validity in exhaustive detail is contrary to the Reformed faith.

And Christianity in general.

The notion of a Promised Land is also no more:

There is now no national people of God and there are no more national promises. There is no earthly promised land and therefore the nature of the promise has changed. Believers are the Israel of God but we have no land promise since Christ is the land, the rest, and the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been broken down (Eph 2:14).

John Calvin’s commentary on Ephesians 6:2 says:

And that thou mayest live long on the earth. Moses expressly mentions the land of Canaan, “that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” (Exod. 20:12.) Beyond this the Jews could not conceive of any life more happy or desirable. But as the same divine blessing is extended to the whole world, Paul has properly left out the mention of a place, the peculiar distinction of which lasted only till the coming of Christ.

Home life

Reactionary Christians have an extreme interpretation of Ephesians 5 and 6 regarding authority in the home.

Clark unpacks what Paul meant:

This is not patriarchy nor the ontological (i.e., as a matter of being) subordination of females to males because Paul warns fathers not to be abusive and instructs them to be gracious and kind and patient with their children just as God has been gracious kind and gentle with us.

As Christians seek to re-assert creational and biblical patterns of living in our late-modern age, it is imperative that we do not over-react as some have done. I have heard and read discussions of “federal headship” of males over females in the new covenant. For example, some have inferred that, e.g., females may not or should not vote in a congregational election. Such an inference requires a series of assumptions that must be questioned. Most of the argument seems to rely on a degree of continuity with the Mosaic (old) covenant that is not exegetically or theologically defensible. Some of the arguments (e.g., that females are inherently inferior) that I have seen and read over the years are not worthy of Christians. These sorts of over-reactions to aspects of modern and and late-modern feminism do us no credit as we seek properly to insist that:

• There is a creational, natural order

• Creational order can be determined by looking carefully at creation

• There are two sexes (male and female)

• The two sexes are distinct and complementary

As for ‘federal headship’:

Paul did not invoke the “federal headship” principle nor did he invoke a male Patriarchy in order to justify his teaching. Christ is the only federal head of believers. A husband is just that, a caretaker. A father may be said to be the head of the house but only as a matter of administration not as a matter of being. As we saw above, for Paul, the father’s role in the house to be like Christ, to lead gently and self-sacrificially not abusively and most certainly not high-handedly.

Church life

Clark makes it clear that certain restrictions on women do not actually exist in Pauline teaching:

he nowhere implies that females may not vote in a congregational election.

As for women’s silence in church:

The problem was speaking up inappropriately. The problem was disorder in the worship service. The solution was order.

Creational order, not extremism

Clark concludes by noting that Paul and Peter acknowledged the order of creation, which we are still obliged to follow, but not to drastic extremes.

On the one hand:

Paul was not a sexist nor was he “hopelessly patriarchal” as one polemicist said in the 1990s. Nevertheless, we should not confuse Victorian prejudices with biblical teaching. Paul does not argue that men are inherently smarter or more rational than females. Peter recognized differences and similarities between men and women (1 Pet 3:7). We are both the heirs of the “grace of life.”

On the other:

Paul, like Peter, does teach a creational order. We are not free to disregard his instruction because it puts us at odds with the Zeitgeist (spirit of the age) or widely held assumptions.

Gentlemen favouring extremes would do well to take it easy on their wives and children.

Be Christlike in family relationships.

j03138821The frequency of Holy Communion in Protestant churches has increased in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Many Protestants have deplored the sparsely scheduled Holy Communion service, which, until recently, had been monthly or perhaps twice-monthly.

However, historically, everything is relative. At the time of the Reformation, most Catholics received the Sacrament once a year at Easter.

Therefore, even a Protestant reception once a month would have been 12 times more frequent than a Catholic one in that era.

The words ‘frequency’ and ‘regular’ have made many Protestants over the age of 50 forget the traditions that we grew up with. I have an Episcopalian friend in the United States who says that every Sunday service has long been one of Holy Communion. Yet, we were both longtime members of an urban Episcopal church which had such a service only once a month. The other Sundays featured Morning Prayer. Granted, as that congregation was a large one, the 8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. services were those of Holy Communion. It seems an appropriate middle way.

Lutherans are receiving Communion much more often, although when I was growing up, my neighbours’ church — along with all the other many Lutheran churches in our town — had such services only once a month. This has been blamed on a shortage of clergy in the 19th century; the infrequency became the norm (see item 7, page 3 of this PDF).

Yet, almost no Protestant church held Communion services more than once a month. To cite another example, Methodists have had varied attitudes towards the Sacrament. As with Lutherans, they, too, historically had fewer ordained clergy and, as such, fewer Communion services. John Wesley advised them to go to the local Anglican church for Communion. Our local Methodist church has monthly Communion; the celebrant is either the pastor, in charge of three other churches in his Circuit, or one of the Anglican priests.

This paper from the Methodist Church in Great Britain describes the history of Communion frequency and what Methodists think of the Sacrament (see page 2 of this PDF, emphases mine):

2 The early Methodists were expected to practise constant and frequent Communion, either at the parish church (although in the first century of Methodism, 1740 to 1840, it was not the custom to celebrate Communion every week in most parish churches) or in their own chapels, receiving Communion either from Church of England clergy or, later, from their own itinerant preachers (ministers). However, in each of the branches of Methodism before the 1932 union, the number of Sunday congregations far exceeded the number of such ministers. This was usually the main reason why the Lord’s Supper continued to be celebrated no more than monthly in the town chapels and usually only quarterly in the villages.

3 Today Methodists vary hugely in their attachment to Holy Communion. For some it is at the very heart of their discipleship, for some it is one treasured means of grace among others and for a small minority of Methodists Communion is not perceived as either desirable or necessary.

Although many today will disagree, there is also a danger in receiving Communion unworthily: not being in the right frame of mind, being unbaptised or living a dissolute life.

In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the 1662 Holy Communion liturgy has a very long prayer in which the priest exhorts members of the congregation to determine whether they are worthy to receive the Sacrament. Although no longer read in BCP services, it is based on Articles 28 and 29 of the 39 Articles of Religion:

The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.  (Article 28)

The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.  (Article 29)

Decades earlier, Martin Luther wrote:

It is useful and good that arrogant, godless blasphemers be so cut off that they should not join in partaking of the holy sacrament, for one should not ‘throw to the dogs what is holy, nor pearls before swine’ [Matt. 7:6] … It is very good and useful that our possession should not be scattered among the unworthy but kept holy and pure among the humble alone. (“That These Words of Christ, ‘This is My Body,’ etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 37 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961], pp. 131-32)

Some of the Reformed (Calvinist) churches required ministers to interview their congregants prior to the Holy Communion service. Worthy Huguenots received a méreau — token — to present at church that particular Sunday. Other Reformed churches had the same tradition in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries:

Participation among communion among 18th Reformed protestants was slim as well. Usually, in the days leading up to Communion, prospective communicants had to go through an inquiry with a minister into the state of his soul before being admitted. They called it fencing the table. If the man passed the inquiry, he received a Communion token. Then on Communion Sunday, he presented the token to receive Communion. At a Presyberian museum in Montreat, NC they have a collection of tokens. Someone named Tenney I think wrote a book about them and included photos.

This provides evidence as to why Holy Communion services and reception of the Sacrament were infrequent.

Catholics themselves only began frequently approaching the altar for Eucharist in the early part of the 20th century:

Lack of frequency in reception of communion was not unusual in that period. In 1905, Pope Pius X, in Sacra Tridentina Synodus,[20] exhorted Catholics to receive communion frequently, even daily.

The ‘regular’ and ‘frequent’ ‘celebration’ of Holy Communion has led to another issue of improper reception of the Sacrament: universal Communion, available in most mainstream Protestant denominations — Anglican, Episcopalian, ELCA (Lutheran) and PCUSA (Presbyterian) among them.

A few years ago, I made a case against universal Communion from Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed perspectives. These historically have stemmed from St Paul’s warning to the Corinthians about improper reception of the Sacrament (1 Corinthians 11:27-30):

27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.[g]

Therefore, receiving Holy Communion should be an awesome and fearsome occasion, done with a reverent mind and humble heart.

It is no accident that the faithful have been receiving the Sacrament infrequently until recent decades.

May we be mindful and prayerful when we approach the Lord’s table.

Continuing on the subject of grace, the Episcopalian theologian and professor Burton Scott Easton (1877-1950) was an internationally renowned Bible scholar and author of several books about the New Testament.

Tomorrow’s post looks at his essay concerning how grace is defined throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

However, it is his summary which struck me, especially for one point made concerning grace and refuting ‘the divine spark’ of some branches of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

By way of illustration, Easton takes for his texts two passages from St Paul’s epistles. The first is 2 Corinthians 12:9:

9But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

The second is Romans 3:24. I have included the preceding verse to place it in context:

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Easton readily acknowledges that certain Protestant denominations reduce the notion of grace to favour ‘as an attitude’.

However, it is, he says, ‘equally disastrous’ to go too far the other way, i.e. with the ‘divine spark’ error. He explains (emphases mine):

Roman scholars, starting with the meaning of the word in (say) 2 Corinthians 12:9, have made Romans 3:24 state that men are justified by the infusion of Divine holiness into them, an interpretation that utterly ruins Paul’s argument.

Precisely.

Easton concludes:

A rigid definition is hardly possible, but still a single conception is actually present in almost every case where “grace” is found—the conception that all a Christian has or is, is centered exclusively in God and Christ, and depends utterly on God through Christ. The kingdom of heaven is reserved for those who become as little children, for those who look to their Father in loving confidence for every benefit, whether it be for the pardon so freely given, or for the strength that comes from Him who works in them both to will and to do.

Three quotes from other theologians who refute the ‘divine spark’ error follow:

We have gradually come to speak of grace as an inherent quality in man, just as we talk of gifts; whereas it is in reality the communication of Divine goodness by the inworking of the Spirit, and through the medium of Him who is ‘full of grace and truth.’— Robert Girdlestone, Synonyms of the Old Testament (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1871), p. 179.

Against a still common view it must be stated that in Paul χαρις does not mean primarily a divine attribute (Wobbe, Charis-Gedanke, 32). It does not mean, in good Greek fashion, God’s graciousness, nor concretely his free love (Taylor). It almost always means the power of salvation which finds expression in specific gifts, acts, and spheres ... —Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. G. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 14.

While we sometimes speak of grace as an inherent quality, it is in reality the active communication of divine blessings by the inworking of the Holy Spirit, out of the fulness of Him who is “full of grace and truth,” Rom. 3:24; 5:2, 15; 17:20; 6:1; I Cor. 1:4; II Cor. 6:1; 8:9; Eph. 1:7; 2:5, 8; 3:7; I Pet. 3:7; 5:12. — Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, 1949), pp. 426-27.

For those who missed them, these are my other recent posts on grace:

John MacArthur defines God’s grace

Understanding more about saving grace

 

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