The Conspiracy of God

The moon landing was a hoax. Chemtrails are poisoning our brains. Roswell is covering up an alien spacecraft. Obama is a secret Muslim. Jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams. The Illuminati run the world.
Everyone knows about conspiracy theories. Most of us don’t believe most of them, of course. (Though most of us do have at least one or two that we think just might be true.) But they do tend to interest our imagination. We see this especially in movies and TV, where we make epic stories based on the idea of great conspiracies. We can’t help but think, “What if there is more than meets the eye? What if everything were connected behind the scenes? Could there be a plan behind all the apparent chaos of life?”
I’ve been working my way slowly through The Commentary of Zacharius Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism as of late. Ursinus was a brilliant teacher, and the Heidelberg Catechism remains one of the greatest, if not truly the greatest, of the Reformed confessional works. The opening question and its answer on their own are a fantastic summary of Christian faith. But recently, they have helped attune me to a peculiar theme in the early Reformation. Here’s the text:

Q: What is your only comfort in life and death?
A: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him. (emphasis added)

I emphasize here the statement that “all things must work together for my salvation.” This wording probably sounds familiar. It’s a lot like Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God.” That’s good stuff. But I’ve only recently realized how sweeping this theme was for the Reformers. For example, in Ursinus’ aforementioned commentary, he does something similar with the first line of the Apostles’ Creed.

When I say, “I believe in God,” I mean, I believe that he is my God, that is, whatever he is and has is all for my salvation. Or, to believe God, speaking properly, is to believe a certain person to be God, according to all his attributes. To believe in God, is to be persuaded that he will make all things attributed to him subservient to my salvation, for the sake of his Son.

For Ursinus, to believe in God is not just to know about the true God. Notice the wording: “he will make all things attributed to him subservient to my salvation.” Faith in God is faith that He has pledged His whole Self to us. And, of course, with God comes everything He has made, all devoted to saving us.
Similar quotes litter every section of Ursinus’ commentary. “To believe in God Almighty, is to believe in such a God…Who is also almighty for my benefit, and can and will direct and make all things subservient to my salvation.” “In short, to believe in the Creator, is to believe that God created me that I might contribute to his glory, and that he created all other things that they might be subservient to my salvation.”
Similar sentiments exist in John Calvin. For example, “God having been reconciled to us, there is no risk that all things will not turn out for our good.” And this paragraph on providence is even more fantastic:

Faith is comforted twice over in relation to God’s power. First, because it knows that he has ample ability to do good. Thus, in order to further the salvation of believers he puts forth his hand to rule and govern all things; heaven and earth are his possession and domain, and every creature depends on his goodwill. Faith is comforted in the second place because it finds ample assurance in his protection, since whatever might do harm is subject to his will, and the devil and his devices are restrained as by a curb. Everything, in short, which might impede our salvation is subject to his control.

The overarching theme here and elsewhere in the Reformers: there is a great conspiracy. There are connections behind what seems random. Everything goes much deeper than the surface. Those with eyes to see can perceive in all the apparent chaos of this life a semblance of order. There is a real conspiracy goes all the way up to the top. We can get “woke” and see what is really going on.
But what is it that’s really going on? God’s love. The Giver of life and Ruler of the cosmos is pulling every last string for us. From the control room of the universe, the Highest Power orders all His angels, every animal and light beam and bacteria and thunderstorm, to work 24/7 for us and for our salvation. It’s like the entirety of heaven and earth is a massive, impossibly complex machine, and at the center it fashions you and I, redeemed and glorified in the image of Christ. This is the picture of providence and grace that drove the Reformers. And it is, I think, the most marvelous source of awe and comfort even today. Praise to the Boss at the top of the infinitely tangled web, who conspires day and night to make us fully alive!

The Mystery of Man Exalted

[This is the manuscript to a sermon I preached a couple of years ago and forgot all about.]

Exposition of Psalm 8

Psalm 8 begins with praise. It starts off talking to God, and that’s something to like about the Psalms. While we need all kinds of stuff in Scripture, the Psalms are really beneficial for us in that we can take them and simply return them to God. The inspiration of the Psalms means that God has called for praise from us, and that He has in fact provided the very praise which we owe to Him. It’s sola gratia all the way down.
But I digress a bit. The Psalm starts with “O Lord, our Lord.” This sounds redundant in most English translations, but a few (like the Holman) will explain it better. The small-capital LORD means Yahweh, the covenant name of God. The second Lord in normal case is just Lord, or Sovereign Ruler. So we start with an acknowledgement that Israel’s God, their covenant God, is Lord. He is master and ruler. Now, back in these days, someone would probably think that this only means Yahweh is ruler of Israel. But then the rest of the verse says otherwise.
According to the Psalmist, Yahweh’s name is majestic throughout the whole earth. It follows that He is Lord of the whole earth. Likewise, God has set His glory above the heavens. This puts Him on top of anything and everything else. His authority is universal; His glory is not limited to Israel, or Israel’s capital, but stands over all things.
We should stop, though, to take a look about the relationship between these two lines about God’s name and glory. They’re an example of the most common device in Hebrew poetry, namely parallelism, where you say something one way and then in the next line say it again in a slightly different way with a different emphasis. So in a sense both of these lines say the same thing: the reputation of the God of Israel, and the authority that goes with it, goes across the whole world. But each line gives a different angle. In the first line, God’s name is majestic. This word for majestic carries connotations of power and fame, or even famous power. There can even be a subtext of fear. Israel’s God isn’t just powerful, and He isn’t just famous. Instead, like Rahab said about her friends in Jericho, everyone has heard about the mighty power of God, and they, to some degree or another, fear Him. His majesty is like a terrible mushroom cloud, or like Queen Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings when she does her whole, “I would be beautiful and terrible as the dawn” speech. God is revealed to the world as terrifyingly beautiful, and that is His majesty.
But again, the second line adds its own significance. The word “glory” has more an inner sense to it, unlike the more outward sense of “majestic.” God’s majesty focuses on His reputation, on how He is seen by men, but God’s glory in this context focuses on His being, the gravity and immensity of just who He is. In and of Himself, God is high and mighty and above all the heavens. He is the utterly transcendent one, the First and the Last who came before and will remain forever after all things. From this totally superior place, all the earth is beneath Him and all people must look up to Him as their source and ruler.
So then, after painting an image of the famously awesome God who is, by the strange particularity that is election, Israel’s God, the psalmist makes a weird shift to talk about something utterly opposite: babies. Basically, the psalmist uses the contrast of human dependence to highlight God’s power. God is so strong that He can create a stronghold out of the babbling of babies, like someone who somehow creates an impenetrable fortress from Q-tips. He is the one who calls forth praise from tiny creatures, weaklings like infants but really including all of us, and lets this praise be enough to destroy all enemies. Those who scorn Israel’s God are rebuked even by nursing infants.
From here the psalmist prepares to move into the center of the psalm by returning the large and magnificent. He gazes up at the night sky to see blazing stars, distant galaxies, and the looming moon. These were impressive enough for him, and in our days they’re even more so. David didn’t know that stars were giant balls of nuclear explosions, or that his camel would take at least 170 trillion years to take him to the nearest galaxy, or that the land on the bright moon is almost 2 thousand times the size of Israel. He saw the heavens and marveled. We ought to see it and be floored. Compared to us men, the world beyond the sky is infinity.
Which leads to David’s question in wonder to God, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” See, for David, the expanse of space isn’t so impressive in itself as much as it is a signpost to an impressive God. It’s not really the universe that makes man look tiny, but ultimately the God who made and owns it. If God is Lord of even the heavens, then why would He concern Himself with ants like us?
This mystery, God’s favor on humanity, is the real focus of the psalm. David has to ask, “If you are so great a God, what is so great about us? Why would you waste your time and attention on mere mortal men?” Indeed, the word for “man” here isn’t one of the more common ones, and it particularly indicates humanity as a race in their weakness and limitation. The sons of men are specks, but dust, compared to the God of the heavens, and yet, as we saw before, this God has chosen to be their God, even Israel’s God.
David moves on from there to describe just how much God has honored mankind. He starts by going back to creation itself. From the beginning, man has been favored. He was made only a little lower than the heavenly beings. Now, depending on your translation, you may see different words here. Some says less than God, some say angels, and some say something like mine, heavenly beings. This is because the word is Elohim, the plural word used for God in the Old Testament, and depending on the context it can mean a variety of exalted things. But in this context the specific meaning isn’t as important as the contrast it makes. Man, although by nature an earthly creature, has been exalted beyond all other earthly creatures by being placed only a little lower than heavenly beings, whether God or angels or anything else. And this is God’s doing. Man could never be anything more than an animal on his own. Only by grace does he touch heaven at all.
From this point, it is added that God crowned humanity with glory and honor. This wording connects back to the beginning of the psalm, which highlights God’s majesty and glory. It hints at what the next couple verses also say: God has given man a share in His divine glory and authority. Humanity alone bears the image of God as a royal crown on his head. In between the earth and God there is man, a steward race who represents God to creation and accounts for creation to God. God has created a whole universe as, to use Calvin’s phrase, a theater of His glory, and then He gave it to us, puny human beings, and said, “I leave you in charge. Rule wisely.” This includes everything, especially all living things. As David says, we have been given dominion over sheep, oxen, beasts, birds, fish, and everything else in the seas. That’s pretty bizarre, though it is also qualified. While man rules over all, God rules over man, so whatever authority and glory we have over creation remains always by grace, a gift, and we are thus responsible for it and limited in derived our authority. Whatever rule we have, we have under God, and so we must remember our place. But even so, it is still all things which God has put under human feet.
This is all rather mystifying for two reasons. One the one hand, man is simply puny and finite. What are we compared to God? Why should the God who made black holes and quasars with literally nothing but a word concern Himself with people who can’t even feed themselves without His providence? And on the other hand, man is sinful. The gracious election by which God chose humanity to be image-bearers and stewards over the world, the covenant which He has made with this race, is something we’ve rejected from the beginning. As soon as we had the chance to share God’s glory and authority, we threw it away so that we could set up our own glory on the ground of our own authority. Yet God’s blessing has not been revoked. The creation mandate where God put us over all the world still stands, because it was by grace and not works. So we can only marvel in gratitude.
And marvel is in fact exactly what David does to conclude this psalm. He isn’t about to answer the “why.” He can’t explain how and why God looks upon us in such a kind way, why He continues to uphold us as the co-rulers of His world. He simply repeats what He said at the beginning: the Sovereign Lord of Israel is majestic. But now the meaning has shifted. It started out as a praise for God’s power and rule over the world as its Creator and Lord, but now it also includes the elements of grace and election. The majestic name which fills the earth is the name of the God who has undeservedly given humanity grace upon grace.

Christology of Psalm 8

And as great as that is, it does leave some things hanging. Even if we had a reason why God would love and honor the human race the way that He has, it’s still questionable how He could do that while being faithful to His own covenant terms. After all, if we’ve broken and spurned everything God has given us, shouldn’t God condemn us and abandon us? This is the mystery which lurks behind the 8th psalm. It’s not just amazing that God has been so kind to us, but it’s also perplexing, bizarre, and even seems somewhat unjust in light of our rebellion. So this mystery can only lead us to one place, the place where God always reveals Himself, namely Jesus Christ, the Word of God. And in fact we don’t have to speculate and connect the dots from Psalm 8 to Christ on our own, because the New Testament already gives us a Christological exegesis of the psalm in—and you can turn there because we’ll be there for as little bit—Hebrews chapter 2, specifically in verses 5-9 and a bit in the rest of the chapter.
So, first the context. Hebrews was written to proclaim the superiority of Christ to the Old Covenant and to warn Jewish Christians not to return to their old ways of Torah and sacrifice. In that sense it is similar to Galatians, but the theological concepts the author of Hebrews uses are different from Paul. In Galatians Paul focuses on justification and adoption, but Hebrews is mostly concerned with priestly concepts like purity, sanctification, consecration, and mediation. But anyway, in chapter 1 Jesus is presented as, by virtue of His being the divine Son of God, superior to the angels. In chapter 2, the focus moves from Jesus’ divine identity to His human identity, and particularly His relationship to the rest of the human race. So I’ll go ahead and read it:

For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

So, the author of Hebrews is using Psalm 8 here, but how? Basically, he takes the human race in Psalm 8 and concentrates it in the person of Jesus. He reveals just who true humanity is: not the race in general, but the Man Jesus of Nazareth.
See, it is not the angels to whom God has given the world to come, but humanity. This fits with what was said in Psalm 8 that all things, even things to come, God has put under our feet. But the problem is that we don’t actually see everything under our feet. Humanity is as much slave as ruler, enslaved to fleshly lusts, to the superior forces in nature, and to demonic powers especially. This is, of course, the result of sin, the same sin that made Psalm 8 so perplexing to begin with. God has put all things under our feet even though we don’t deserve it, and yet these things are still in a certain sense on the loose, not under our feet but often on top of us! But, even though we don’t yet see all things under humanity’s feet, we do see Jesus. He was made like us, human, a little lower than the angels, for a short time. But now He has been crowned with glory and honor in His Resurrection and Ascension as the Lord of the world. The Lordship of Christ means that Psalm 8 was right after all: the world is ruled by a human being, and His name is Jesus. And what Hebrews 2 reveals to us is that the destiny Jesus has accomplished is actually the destiny of the wider human race, because Jesus earned this right by suffering death—not for Himself—but for everyone.
This all means that Psalm 8 is fulfilled in Christ. Jesus rules the world as God, sure, but also as a human being, and His human Lordship is for us all. We don’t see all things subjected to us, but by faith we see all things subjected to the resurrected Christ. God’s plan for humanity at large has already been fulfilled in the humanity of Jesus, and that is the promise that it will be fulfilled for us all. Because the truth is that humanity is defined by Jesus, not the other way around. In a certain sense, there is no human race beyond Jesus of Nazareth. He is the true Human. All the rest of us are only truly human by our union with Him, and without that union we are less than human, more like the animals put under human rule than the ruling human race which is exalted above even the angels in Jesus Christ.
This, then, solves the problem of Psalm 8. God is just and reasonable in exalting humanity because the only humanity that counts to Him is Jesus. Jesus on the Cross already suffered our due for our rebellion, so before God the human race is purified and glorified as represented by our High Priest. In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection He freed humanity from the enslaving powers of the flesh and the devil so that in Him we could march on toward the glory we see God has planned for us in Psalm 8. Because Jesus rules as a man, the rest of us will share in His rule over the world to come. We will be crowned with His glory and His honor, which are ultimately God’s glory and honor. And even while it solves the problem of Psalm 8, it does leave the mystery of worship: that God would love mere men enough to become one of us and exalt us like this. And for this, we are called to praise. This is actually precisely the depth of the praise at the end of the psalm. The majestic name of God will fills the earth is actually the majestic name of Jesus, who is God and man united. So God names Himself across the globe as the one who suffered for us. And of course, the reputation you make for yourself says the most about who you are. How you glorify yourself says everything about you. And in Christ we see that God has chosen to glorify Himself by suffering to share His glory with us. That’s the Gospel hidden in Psalm 8 but revealed in Jesus.

Application

With this Gospel in mind, then, let’s look at what it means for our lived lives. If God has put everything under our feet in Christ, how ought we to live? I think there are four things which come to mind.
First, we have hope. A lot of times you see people, maybe on Facebook or Twitter, who complain about how there’s no hope for humanity. But the problem is: they’re not thinking through Jesus. What Psalm 8 shows us is that God promises everything to us, and what Jesus shows us is that this promise has been and will be fulfilled. However bad, however bleak, our human situation gets, no matter what wars we start or presidents we elect or disasters we can’t stop, there is hope for humanity because we have already seen the end of the story in the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. So we can never despair. Our life is hidden with Christ in God now, and it will one day be revealed to our salvation.
Second, we are called to humility. This is the paradox and irony in God exalting us. Even though we share in the glory of God through Jesus, and even though we stand even higher than all creation, even the angels, this is by grace alone. Nothing in man deserves this. Nothing in us could ever earn this position or even kind of qualify for it. Apart from God’s sovereign choice to enter our race and bind us to Himself in Jesus, we really would just be advanced animals and would remain far, far below the angels. Apart from God’s forgiveness and mercy, we would be more hopeless than all other creatures. So it may be true that man has glory, but it is more important that God has gifted that glory to us. Man has no glory at all but the glory of God freely given to him in Jesus Christ. This should keep us humble. This should remind us that when no matter what we do or accomplish, if we are not doing it in Christ it is really no more significant than what the show animals at the zoo do. All of our own attempts to make to a name for ourselves by human strength, talent, or cleverness are worthless dung, to apply Paul’s image, outside of a right relationship to the God who has created, blessed, and sanctified our human lives. No winning arguments, attractive appearances, popular blogs, good reputations, moral stringencies, hipster identity, well-raised children, high social status, standing ovation performances, hefty promotions, or any awards or credentials can raise us over the heavens. Only Jesus can do that. So when we waste our time and energy trying to make ourselves look good, to ourselves or anyone else, we’re actually degrading ourselves. Our only possible glory is the glory of Christ, so when we try to make our own glory we necessarily become less than we ever could be by selflessly submitting to Jesus.
This is actually something I want to address very directly and practically, too, since pride really is at the source of so much of our daily sinfulness. I know it’s the case for me. I feel it all the time. Whether it’s self-consciousness around other people, trying to prove all my arguments right, or defending myself hysterically against any criticism at all, I give pride too much daily space. And whatever space I give for pride is space I lose for the glory of Jesus living in and through me. So I specifically want to challenge all of you to make this specific and personal: where does pride rear its ugly head in your own daily life? Do you have to win all the debates? Do you have to keep up a certain image with your friends? Do you pretend to be more spiritually put-together than you really are, or maybe on the flip side of that, do you wear your flaws as a badge of pride in being “authentic”? Do you defend yourself against anything negative anyone might say? Are you really self-conscious, more concerned with how people see you than how you can bless them? Are you critical and judgmental? Do you get most of your kicks out of belittling other people? All of these are deadly poison that pulls us away from our only source of real and lasting glory. They promise the fulfill us, but instead they enslave us. So think about it, find the pride in your daily life, confess it to God, and kill it.
A third application I want to highlight briefly is the responsibility which comes from being in charge of God’s creation. Even though we don’t yet see all things under humanity’s feet, God has put them there, and we already have a lot of sway over the creation around us. This means on the one hand that we are called to use this power, particularly in a way that glorifies God. Our physical space, time, and matter are a gracious stewardship from God, and He has charged us with being in a certain sense co-creators with Him. We have the job of taking the works of God’s hands and using our hands to accentuate their testimony to God’s glory. And that’s a job that can take many forms. We can use basic matter, just stuff, to make things, whether buildings or art or technology. We can use our brains to investigate creation and testify to the brilliant and comprehensive order God has given it through scientific study. We can glorify God through the animals He has made, maybe training them to do the most amazing things God has made possible, or preparing them as the food God kindly provides every day. There’s almost no limit. So in a certain sense, by reminding us of our position over creation, Psalm 8 tells us to get a job, a hobby, and a life! Doing these things, whether we do it in a way that spells out Jesus’ name or not, we glorify the God who made the world and gave it to us. But of course, the fact that ultimately it is God who rules, and that we only have a part by grace, means that we are responsible to Him, too. Creation is ours, sure, but kind of like my first car was “mine.” They may have let me use it, with few restrictions at all, but their name was still on it and I was accountable to them for how I used it. So the space, time, and matter that we use in this world are still ultimately God’s before they are ours, and this means we are not allowed to waste them, abuse them, or use them against Him. We are responsible to treat creation respectfully in its every part, whether rock, deer, spider, forest, or even space and time. We are rulers in Christ alone, so when we try to act like rulers without Christ we invite disaster on ourselves.
And so, the fourth and final application I want to mention is our job of proclaiming God’s praise. The psalm begins and ends with praise about God’s universal majesty, and for good reason. A God so powerful and so gracious to all of us deserves our praise. God has exalted us even though we don’t deserve it, so it’s only fitting that we exalt Him who does deserve it. And I don’t just mean personally. I’m not just saying sing songs in church or praise God in private prayer. I’m talking publicly. The majestic name of Jesus resounds throughout the earth, but many people will never hear the sound unless it comes through the voices of His people. So the final application here, as almost always really, to tell others. If the only glory humanity can have is the glory of God in Jesus, then a world full of people who try to find some other glory on its own terms is killing itself and needs to hear the truth. So again, I offer the challenge of being specific: in the next week or so, how can you, and I, tell someone specific about the majestic God of love and the glory He has prepared for us? My hope and goal, though I know I may be reaching, is for us all to have a story about this very soon.

Story’s End: Eschatology and What the Bible is About, Pt. 5

[This series is going long. Here are parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.]

The Big Picture (Continued)

The Son of David and the City of David

Everything that Jesus was up to led Him to Jerusalem at the climax of His ministry. The royal city of David with the Temple of Yahweh: a fitting destination for Israel’s king, the Son of God. So it all came down to how Israel, gathered in God’s chosen city, would receive God’s chosen Messiah. Would they embrace Him and inherit the kingdom? Or would they doom themselves to an irreversible and final judgment? In a final confrontation, Jesus would now bring His sword to divide the people and to cut open the secrets of Israel’s heart.
At first, the signs looked good. Jesus was cheered and greeted as the Son of David. Despite the protests of the scribes and Pharisees, the crowds were enthusiastic to bless Jesus as in Yahweh’s name. From the outside, this looked like the moment. But Jesus knew better. Before He even entered the city, He wept over His people. They were excited enough by His miracles, His teachings, and the prospect of God’s kingdom coming, but they were not prepared to follow Him. Especially not to death.
Quickly, Jesus headed to the Temple. It was one of the king’s jobs to maintain Yahweh’s house, so Jesus did just that. The money changers represented everything wrong with Israel’s leadership. They were greedy, they got in between the poor and God’s presence, and they occupied the court of the Gentiles. Though God had meant the Temple to be a house of prayer for all people, it was a den of ruffians. Though God had meant Israel to be a light to the world, she had become a violent and exclusionary rabble. Cleansing the Temple brought everything to a halt, and it perfectly imaged what Jesus was about to foretell.

Coming Wrath

The Temple was like a miniature Israel, and cleaning house like Jesus did symbolized what was coming for the whole nation. Then Jesus turned a little more straightforward. He promised that the Temple was on track for destruction. Of course, His disciples asked Him about this, and about how it relates to His coming with the kingdom. Jesus answered their questions with a prophecy that sounded a lot like the prophecies from the Old Testament prophets. Most of those talked about how Babylon or Assyria or someone else was coming to torment and conquer Israel. But they usually said this with earth-shattering images and symbols of the heavens shaking and the world falling apart. Jesus did the same.
In no time at all, Jesus explained, war and disease and trouble and persecution would break out. This wouldn’t mean too much yet. That would be a time for faithful witness before scribes, priests, rulers, and high courts. It would be a time to take the Gospel to the farthest reaches of the known world. But the conflicts and the wars would increase. He warned them to run for their lives when they saw the right signs. For Jerusalem was coming down. Before everyone there had died, the Temple would die. God would judge His people and put an end to the nation of Israel.
But this was not meant to be the end of God’s people or His promises to Abraham. The judgment of God’s rebellious people had always been the salvation of His faithful remnant. With the coming judgment, Jesus’ claims would be proved, His enemies defeated, and His kingdom glorified. The Son of Man would be publicly glorified as a true prophet, the true Messiah, and God would reveal that Jesus’ people were justified in following Him all along.

Jesus Dies

But the road to glory did pass through the hard hearts of God’s people. After the Temple cleansing, there was enough momentum among Jesus’ enemies to bring Him to trial. Jesus’ teachings and predictions about the future of God’s people didn’t sit well with any of them. It exposed the deep sin in all of their hearts, and the fault lines in Israel as a whole. So He had to die. Better the one man should die than the nation be proved guilty and damned.
Jesus, of course, was no fool. He knew what was coming. So He celebrated Passover with His disciples, but with a twist. The covenant they were ostensibly celebrating with the Passover meal was coming to an end. He took bread and wine, said they were His body and blood, and told them that it was time for a new covenant. He would soon be broken and poured out for them, and a new testament would go into effect. The Holy Spirit would come, and Jesus would lead them to the Father. They didn’t really understand, but soon they wood.
So then Israel’s leaders executed their plan. They took Jesus with Roman help, accusing Him of the same violent dreams of rebellion which Israel as a whole had deep in her bones. He was cruelly and illegally tried, yet remained silent in His defense. Let them dump all the worst of their evil on Him: He trusted in His Father. So they nailed Him to the cross, accusing Him of idolatry and revolution, the respective chief sins of the very Romans and Jews who condemned Him. And there He died for the sins of everyone but Himself.
But then, it seemed that the world itself was falling apart. The sun went dark, the earth shook, graves opened, and the veil in the Temple tore from top to bottom. What could it all mean? What would God do next?

Psalm 96 Sermon Outline

I preached last night. I don’t have a recording, but I do have an outline, along with a slideshow and notes pages.

Intro

  1. Just finished VBS
  2. Glad to see fruit (not just pie in the face or reptile pictures)
  3. Thinking about the praises
  4. Thinking about the purpose
  5. Connects to a great Psalm
  6. We must call all nations to bring praise to Jesus before judgement.
  7. Sing Psalm 96
  8. Read Psalm 96
  9. We don’t always think about songs
  10. Sometimes we should, esp. when inspired

Israel and the Nations

  1. Repeats the name LORD
    1. LORD = Yahweh, God’s covenant name
    2. As in 1 Chronicles 16, it’s Israel’s God
    3. One nation’s God claims the whole world?
  2. Addressed to the nations, to the earth
  3. Background: Israel v. the nations
    1. Babel: All humanity rebelled again
    2. All of them went after idols
    3. Not mere fake gods: spiritual usurpers
    4. All of God’s design for humanity needed Him
    5. One family restored to God: Abraham’s
    6. Simple goal: glorify God and bring the nations back to Him
  4. Israel’s call had two parts
    1. Worship Yahweh and no other gods
    2. Embody right living
    3. Summary: Let their light shine before men to glorify the Father in heaven
    4. Same calling in our own lives: adorn the Gospel with good works
    5. We must call all nations to bring praise to Jesus before judgement.
  5. Psalm 96 comes near the height of this
    1. David was king, Ark on the way to Jerusalem
    2. Israel doing her job, calling the nations to turn to their Maker

Goal and Danger

  1. The result: Psalm calling all peoples to praise Yahweh
    1. Sing a new song, from each people
    2. All the earth/peoples/nations
    3. God made the heavens, unlike the usurpers
  2. Everyone is called to praise, to fear, and to bring offerings
  3. Everyone is called to acknowledge God’s superiority
  4. What happens if they listen?
    1. A globally faithful future
    2. The heavens will be glad and the earth rejoice
    3. The sea will roar
    4. The field and grass will exult
    5. The trees with sing for joy
    6. This is why we must call all nations to bring praise to Jesus.
  5. Takes us back to the original design for creation
    1. God made the world good, but with room for more
    2. It was like a beautiful chalice or goblet
    3. It waited to be filled with the fullness of His presence and glory
    4. God would do that through His image-bearing priests and kings
    5. Everything would harmoniously glorify God, with humans as the voice
    6. Now, suffering under sin, the creation longs mournfully for this
  6. When God is known and praised by all the earth, everything will come to life
  7. But there is a dark side to this coming day
    1. When God comes, He judges the earth
    2. The rebellious spirits are cast down
    3. Their followers have the same fate
    4. Their only hope: turn to Yahweh before then
    5. But even this judgement is good news: judging with faithfulness
    6. Good news = objective, not subjective
    7. Judgement means deliverance for God’s people and freedom for creation
    8. Judgement is the great surgery against sin’s cancer
    9. We must call all nations to bring praise to Jesus before judgement.

Our Task

  1. What does this Psalm tell us about our role today?
  2. A lot has happened since David and the Ark
    1. Key turning point: Jesus
    2. The Temple is no more
    3. Sacrifices are replaced
    4. The gods have been largely overthrown
    5. Nations have pledged allegiance to Christ and turned back
  3. What does this actually change?
    1. Allegiance to God is through Jesus the Messiah
    2. Jesus is Lord
    3. Idols remain a threat in some places
    4. But where Christ has been, they are mostly gone
    5. Things aren’t perfect: now men rebel in their own strength
  4. We must call all nations to bring praise to Jesus before judgement.
  5. Three aspects
    1. We witness by our faithful worship
      1. Who? The true God who made the world
      2. It is He who made us and not we ourselves
      3. The world thinks we really do make ourselves
      4. Worship the Creator instead
    2. We witness by our faithful obedience
      1. The new offerings our primarily ourselves
      2. We are living sacrifices
      3. Per the prophets, sacrifices that bring glory to God require ethical sourcing
      4. Lives that look just like the world’s are worthless to God
      5. People will only glorify our Father in heaven when they see our good works
    3. We witness by our faithful labor
      1. The original plan: we work with God to fill every part of creation with His glory
      2. This includes every part: the farm, the woods, the museums, the city, the Internet, the home
      3. All of our work can be part of our witness
      4. We must simply do it with prayer, thanksgiving, obedience, virtue, and excellence
  6. Three-fold witness glorifies the Father through the Son in the Spirit
  7. By this we invite the nations to join in
  8. The goal is a creation alive, full of glory, being happy children of God
  9. But this witness needs hard work
  10. Lots of people are on track to be judged
  11. Missions and Christian formation the key
  12. By these, we must call all nations to bring praise to Jesus before judgement.

Concluding Prayer

Grant, Almighty God, that the words we have heard this day with our ears may, by your grace, be grafted into our hearts, so that they may bring forth in us the fruit of a righteous life, to the honor and praise of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Story’s End: Eschatology and What the Bible is About, Pt. 4

[This series is going long. Here are parts 1, 2, and 3.]

The Big Picture (Continued)

Jesus Arrives

The climactic stage of God’s plan to reclaim the nations from idols finally arrived. By God’s Holy Spirit, the virgin Mary conceived a son. She named Him Jesus, Yahweh saves, for He would save His people from their sins. Right from the start, the works of Jesus and Yahweh are interchangeable.
So Jesus grew up, and He demonstrated superior wisdom and virtue as He did. But He did so quietly for years, until He was 30 years old, the age of priesthood. Then His ministry began. He submitted to John’s baptism, stepping into the shoes of rebellious Israel as her leader into repentance. He was confirmed by the Father and filled with the Spirit, and He immediately went to the wilderness. The climax of everything had begun.
For 40 days, Jesus fought all kinds of temptations. He resisted the desire to use His power on His own terms, to His own advantage, to bypass the hard work God had ahead of Him. In the end, He was offered the rule of the nations. What God sent Him to acquire, Satan held out to Him in arm’s reach. But had He given in and worshiped Satan to gain the world, it would ultimately mean the world remained in Satan’s hands. Jesus resisted the easy “victory” that would really be defeat. He would rather die.

Jesus Fights

Rather than take Satan’s treaty, Jesus began His own campaign. Satan ruled the nations through his idols. As the Accuser he held Israel—the only witness to the true God—over the brink of destruction for her crimes. So Jesus began to free Israel. Most directly, of course, He cast out demons. But He also chipped away at Satan’s accusations. He purified the sick and the unclean, who had been cut off from worship. He gave out God’s forgiveness without the Temple and taught the people God’s will. With His wise and piercing account of the Torah’s true meaning, He led myriads to repent of their self-serving plans for the destiny of Israel.
In doing all this, Jesus planted the seeds of a fresh Israel. He even chose 12 apostles, like Israel’s 12 tribes. To them and His other followers He promised the kingdom of God and the inheritance of Abraham. God was conquering back the nations, and they would have seats in the new regime.
The message for everyone else wasn’t so good. God had to clean house with His own people before He set the nations right. But most of the leadership wouldn’t accept Jesus as God’s way forward. Instead, they kept lobbing accusations against Him. Of course, they also accused His followers, along with Israel’s masses. They were following in the footsteps of the Accuser, so Jesus rightly called them children of the devil. He promised that these people, and Israel as a whole if she followed their lead, would be judged and destroyed in the near future in order for God to fully establish His kingdom.

Jesus and the Kingdom

And this kingdom was chiefly Jesus’ message. The kingdom of God. What was He saying? This is where the ongoing story is important. God made humanity in His image. They were to bring His glory and presence to creation as kings and priests. But they went off-track by obeying the Serpent. Humanity started serving rebellious spirits, and God formed His own people to be a faithful outpost of humanity under the true God. Eventually cured of idolatry, Israel stood as the one kingdom devoted to the Creator amidst a horde of nations loyal to rebel gods. The key question left was how God was going to restore His worship among those nations. And in the first century, the pagan nations were summed up by the Roman Empire, which dominated most of the known world and loved all kinds of idolatry, even worship of Caesar.
This context gives meaning to the message about the “kingdom of God.” False gods ruled the world through their worshipers ruling the nations. The time for that was over. The true God was going to take back the world and rule it through His worshipers. This is what Jesus declared, and He claimed that it would start with Him. But how? How would Jesus build the kingdom of God?
There were a lot of ideas in Israel about how God’s kingdom would come. Some of the most popular ideas involved the Messiah winning a military conquest against Rome. The great pagan empire would fall to an Israelite empire led by a king on David’s throne. Not everyone agreed. Some people thought that Israel’s situation was too bad for that. Rather than men, God would do it Himself. Rome (and all God’s enemies) would fall by spectacular divine judgments, and God’s faithful would take over.

The Way of the Cross

Now, Jesus, for His part, was closer to this latter view. The time for military conquest was over. The stakes were higher than Joshua’s day, and the war needed weapons much stronger than steel. There would still be fighting and death, but of a different kind. Rome could not be conquered by flesh, but would be conquered by the Spirit.
This was a key theme of Jesus’ preaching. He told God’s people to love their enemies, to submit to authorities, to do good to Gentiles and Jews alike. Rather than preserve their lives and wealth and status under the present order, He encouraged them to give all of this away for better gifts under the coming order. Only people ready to live and die like this could have a share in the coming kingdom. Only this would conquer pagan rulers and their gods, for the only unstoppable army is that which fears no death. A people trusting in God, giving away their lives in hope, doing good to even their enemies: the martyrs’ army of faith, hope, and love would win the victory.
Moreover, this new army would have the powerful advantage of God’s presence. Jesus offered, apart from the Temple and ritual purity system, direct access to forgiveness, grace, and the power of the Holy Spirit. These would be essential to the life of God’s people moving forward. But how exactly could this go on? How could these people, unclean and guilty as they were, be cleansed for God’s presence in the Spirit? Would role would the Temple play in this new vision for Israel’s future, where Israel previously acquired forgiveness and access to God’s presence? All of this will lead to the climax of Jesus’ mission.

Story’s End: Eschatology and What the Bible is About, Pt. 3

[This is a direct continuation of my previous post. Before that, part 1.]

The Big Picture (Continued)

A Time of Uncertainty

Now back in the land, God’s people entered a strange time. They rebuilt the Temple and Jerusalem, but the glory cloud never came back. David’s city was restored, but David’s throne was empty. Pagans still ruled the world. Other gods were still robbing God’s praise for themselves. And then came disaster. As Daniel had prophesied, the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the new Temple with an unclean, pagan sacrifice. God seemed to give them victory when they responded, but without a word through any prophet.
Even the victory the Jews won didn’t go that far. Before long, they were still subject to pagan powers. What was happening? Didn’t God promise a kingdom? These questions lingered and intensified. God’s people handled it different ways. Many groups thought Israel was too sinful to inherit the promises. To deal with that, some groups went into seclusion, waiting for God to show up, judge everyone else, and reward them for their faithfulness. Others made themselves comfortable in the pagan order. Still others tried to correct and teach the masses of Israel. And then there were those who favored violent revolution. If the kingdom were to come, they thought, God would bring it through their fight, like Joshua of old.

Recap: Presence and Power

We could look at the issue from another angle, going back to the beginning. The story of God and His people ties into the story of God and His presence. God had made the world like a chalice, or a vessel, for His glory. So when He made Adam and Eve in Eden, He set up a home base. From there His children, as priests, could dwell in His presence and spread it to the ends of the earth. But since they failed this task, God had to withdraw His presence, lest it destroy both sinners and their sin.
In God’s “absence,” humanity turned to rebellious spirits who were quite willing to be present in exchange for worship. But their glory was a sham and their presence a stain. So He called His own people and gradually replanted His presence in the world among them. He marked a portion of the world, a deposit, as His own holy land. He evicted the false gods and their people to fill it with His own glory. But Israel kept alienating God with her sins and by inviting the idols back into the land. So her history became a struggle with God’s presence, trying to live with God in her midst.
Eventually, God’s presence left them in the land, which let the pagan presence they had courted refill it. But then God was present with them in exile and finally brought them home. Many of the signs of His presence returned, but so did signs of His absence.
How would God’s glory ever fill the earth like He intended? Why was it instead filled with demons and idols and death? And how could the final goal ever come about if God’s own people seemed unfit to bear His presence?

A Man Sent from God

This brings us to the first century AD. The world outside Israel was largely still pagan. Most of the known regions were under the sway of the Roman Empire, a kingdom of pluralistic paganism and even emperor worship. To most of the Jews, this was a terrible situation. The kingdoms of this world belonged to Satanic forces, and the actual Creator’s honor was hardly anywhere to be seen. Surely it was time for Him to act. Many waited with bated breath to see God deliver His people (only, of course, the faithful), overthrow the pagan empire, and establish His rule over the nations which had one been allegiant to false gods. Perhaps this would even be the endgame. The dead would be raised, a final judgment would ensue, and history would come to a close.
It was in this charged atmosphere that God did, finally, break His silence. He sent a prophet named John to announce that He was coming back to His people. Yahweh was returning to Zion. The kingdom was at hand: soon God would take back the world that had defected to rebel spirits. Soon His presence would live with His people again, and after a healthy cleansing, it would fill the world.
But there was a catch. John declared that nearly everyone needed to repent. All of Israel was on the wrong track and would need a fresh start to get in on God’s coming victory. He made them be baptized, a sign of a pagan converting. The message couldn’t be more clear: the people of Israel had gone a hundred wrong ways, and they all needed to turn around and prepare for the way of the Messiah. Otherwise they would go the way of the pagans and be soon destroyed.

The Coming Messiah

Now, during the long silence between the last prophets and the days of John, Israel had much time to think. Reflections on the Torah and the Prophets formed a vague but potent impression: sooner or later God would send a new leader. He would be heir to David’s throne, and as the rightful king of Israel, lead God’s victory over the pagan kingdoms. In the name of the true God, he would conquer the nations, dethrone Satan’s regents, subdue Israel’s enemies, vindicate God’s faithful people, and lead a new age of worldwide honor for God’s name. Finally, through his work, the earth would fill with God’s presence and glory, like God had always intended.
There were many spins on this idea. Some people simply didn’t believe it, and every sect who believed it had their own twist. But the gist was popular enough that everyone knew what John was announcing. The kingdom was coming, and so was the king. After John would come the Messiah.
Now, all along, God had been performing His plans though humans. This was the point of making us, after all. But all of them had made major failures. Adam fell, Noah fell, Moses fell, Eli fell, David fell, Solomon fell, and so on. But each chosen leader made it further than the last. Each brought more glory to God and to His people. What would make the final difference? If God was finally to push through the last stage, finally to bring His people to the climax of their purpose, and finally to ensure the victorious glorification of His name before all nations over all gods, it seems He would need a perfect man. Some had seemed close before, but in the end, as the saying goes, “If you want something done right…do it yourself.”

Story’s End: Eschatology and What the Bible is About, Pt. 2

[This is a direct continuation of my previous post.]

The Big Picture (Continued)

A Son to Reign

Israel continued lapsing into idolatry, despite all the seers and judges God had given her. But for each of them, Israel did fairly well during his lifetime. It was generally only at death that the slide back into unfaithfulness began. There was also the problem of the tribes. Even if some tribes tribe was righteous under one judge, not all of Israel was on the same page. All of this, then, pointed in a certain direction. The new direction, however, was compromised from the beginning.
The Law God gave Israel had provisions for a king, and God did intend to give one at the right time. But Israel asked for a king, and this for the worst possible reason. She wanted to be like the pagan nations. They imagined a king like a totem, a visible Lord they could rely on. God granted their wish, but in Saul they received a king as bad as any pagan. So they paid the price for their demands.
Fortunately, God was still determined to save and bless His people. He would still make them great and glorify His name though them. So He chose another king, David. To David He promised an everlasting dynasty, a potential solution to the problem of faithfulness waning every generation. Rather than a judge dying and the people falling away, David the faithful king would leave behind another faithful king to lead the people. In this way, God, though His chosen king, could teach every generation true worship and justice. God would name the king as His son. He would be like God and follow God’s heart. God would grant him a share in His honor and rule the world through him. The glory of Israel’s godly, powerful king would exalt Yahweh’s name in all nations.

Royal Failure

Once again, however, the next stage in God’s plan brought new trouble along with the new glory. David was, on the whole, a godly man and a wonderful king. But more than once he committed grave sins. His adultery, murder, and other errors lead to the downfall of the ill-conceived child Solomon. Though by God’s mercy and faithfulness, Solomon achieved Israel’s highest glory yet, he did not end well. He followed his father’s adulterous example. But rather than physical adultery, he committed spiritual adultery. He pursued women who pursued other gods and brought idolatry back into Israel. And where idols are invited, Yahweh departs.
This was a pivotal moment. God had glorified Israel wonderfully. He made her rich, safe, and influential. He lavished all the blessings He had promised in the covenant. And at her height, she broke that covenant. So began a rapid downfall. The promised blessings were gradually replaced with promised curses, and the kingdom was divided, just like the hearts of its people. But even this division served God’s purposes. While the people of the Northern Kingdom flung themselves headlong into becoming new Canaanites, the Southern Kingdom did not fall so far, so fast. In Judah, God preserved His worship to an extent. From this remnant, He would purify His people, maintain David’s throne, and prepare the way for a new kingdom. Israel was shortly wiped out. Judah, however, lived on.
Sadly, not even Judah could resist the lure of other gods. Some kings were faithful. Some were awful. They went back and forth, with occasional revivals. But in the end, they went too far. God packed up and left, destroyed the Temple, and sent them out of the land.

God among the Kingdoms

When God left Jerusalem, He did not leave His people. Instead, together they went to Babylon. Babylon ruled most of the known world, and God was wise. What appeared to be defeat was a strategic move. Many Jews remained faithful to Him in exile, and God planted them in the center of pagan civilization. There, He would bring new honor to His name through His displaced people. The figure of Daniel became chief here. God exalted him into the courts of many kings, even as empires passed. From there he repeatedly brought the pagan kingdoms to confess the glory of the true God of heaven and earth.
The exile did wonders for God’s people and God’s plan. It was a punishment, but a cleansing one. Daniel, Esther, and others glorified God in the most powerful courts in the world. The Jews, now a displaced minority, learned to cling more tightly to Yahweh. By God’s grace, His people were cured of idolatry. Though the sin had beset them for centuries, now they worshiped God alone.
This new witness of loyalty to the true God drew many around the pagan nations to faith in Him. It took casting Israel from her own land of promise, but God was spreading His honor to the nations. All that was left was for the exile to end, Israel to return home, and the pagan empires to finally give way entirely to God’s kingdom.

A New People

God soon brought the Jews back from exile to their homeland. This was not without difficulty, of course. But God was with them, and He disposed even the pagan kings to permit the rebuilding of Yahweh’s house. Israel returned less glorious than she left, but in many ways she was greater. She no longer served idols; she had a new heart and new spirit. With a renewed people, God could renew covenant with them. He promised a new era with a new future.
But not all was perfect. The people still had to struggle with trusting God’s provision and protection. They still had many enemies. More seriously, the empires were still largely pagan. Though they had acknowledged God a few times, they did not finally give up their allegiance to the rebel spirits. And most concerning, perhaps, is that the glory cloud never returned to the new Temple. Was God still with His people? What happened to their former glory?
Then there was the problem of intermarriage. Many of the Jews had taken pagan wives during the exile. The sin by which Solomon split the kingdom now threatened the whole community of returned Jews. But after the reading of the Law and the deliberation of the elders, they broke with Solomon’s example and put away their pagan wives. Israel took another step forward. She would worship no one but Yahweh this time.
[At this point, even this post is starting to go on too long, so I’ll save the end for a third part.]

Story's End: Eschatology and What the Bible is About, Pt. 1

The Problem with Wrapping Up

As any writer will tell you, it’s hard to bring a good story to an end. No proof of this should be necessary; TV has enough examples. Look what happened to Lost, Haven, or White Collar. A good ending usually has to conclude great conflicts, deal out deserved fates, drive home important motifs and themes, and connect itself deeply with the preceding story. This is no easy feat. So it’s no wonder so many fail.
Now, when it comes to the Bible, we’re dealing with the story of the world. We have the creation of heaven and earth all the way to their final transfiguration. Much of the New Testament is about how this story ends. The Bible tells a great tale about God, Israel, the Gentiles, the Church, and the world. And even though this is the story of real life, the Bible discusses how it will turn out. We have spoilers. Revelation, among many other texts, foretells the final scenes.
But, unlike with many other books, the ending to the Bible is highly complex and controversial. There are different schools and interpretations, some radically opposite to others. So we have an infallible description of how the story ends, but we debate what the ending really is and means. My intent in this post is thus simple. I’ll give what I believe is the best biblical answer to the great question: How does the story end? And in order to do that, I’ll have to talk about just what the whole story actually is.

The Big Picture

Prologue: Creation and Mutiny

In the beginning, God made everything. He made man in His image to be His priests, prophets, and kings in the world He had made. They would serve in the visible realm as His angelic council served in the invisible. Since the angelic council was mature from the start, they would take care of and lead mankind forward. But, sadly, this immediately went awry. Angels rebelled. Man rebelled. And so the world was thrown into chaos and violence.
This got bad enough that the world had to be remade through a flood that wiped out the old. A more righteous world starting with a second and better Adam began. But once again the world fell apart into sin. The rebellious angelic council members took this as their chance. They encouraged mankind, now so distant from God, to worship them as gods instead. “Pray to us for rain, crops, fertility, since God has kicked you out of His presence.” Eventually, God scattered and disinherited all the nations for this treachery.
But God was not done with the world. He called Abram, and made him from him a new humanity. This people would be devoted to true worship and live by His name. He made a covenant with them and swore to bring to pass the blessings He intended for humanity to them and, through them, to the world as a whole. On their part, they would restore His honor among the nations as His priests, prophets, and kings. He would be their God, and they would glorify Him as the one true God against all the idols. They would be His people, and He would vindicate them as His true people against all rebels. And so came to be God’s people Israel.

People, Place, and Promise

In order to carve out a space for Israel and God’s purposes for her, she needed a distinct identity. God gave this primarily by Land and Law. By rituals and ceremonies with a unique symbolic flavor, by wise and just laws, and by a central location in the ancient world, God made Israel a beacon. But this came by sharp conflict. She had to face off against powerful pagan nations and, more importantly, their gods.
So right from the start of Israel’s existence, she was under assault. The rival gods knew it was a threat for God to have His own people publicly manifesting His goodness, truth, and beauty. They inspired the kings and people who served them to conspire against God and His people. This was a mistake. God was truly on the offensive. He used these battles to establish His kingdom among pagan rivals and glorify His power and mercy through His people. The number one example, and the most important to Israel’s early history, was the Exodus. Yahweh asserted His power over all Egyptian gods. He rescued His people from a mighty pagan nation, publicly vindicating them for their trust in Him.
This happened over and over as God moved Israel into the promised land. God beat down the rebel gods by demolishing their hero offspring, the Anakim and Nephilim. He tore down proud, inhumane tribes devoted to these wicked beings and set His own people in their place. The crossroads of the world became the site of the true God’s glory. God’s kingdom was coming. Israel would be a city on a hill. Her faithfulness and justice would shine before men. The nations would see her good works and glorify the true God. All idols would be exposed, and God would reign over all.

Idols’ Revenge

Alas, Israel did not live up to her calling. Though God had made an everlasting covenant with Abraham, Israel broke her terms. It started with seemingly minor ingratitude. She complained that God was not treating her well enough. But this discontent only grew. Before long, ingratitude turned to rank distruth and unbelief. God could not meet Israel’s needs, she imagined. And what of the prosperous pagan nations? They seemed well off.
So this turned to worst offense: Israel joined cause with the rebellious gods. Rather than becoming a beacon of Yahweh’s light to the nations, she embraced the idols of the nations. This undercut any point to her existence. Why should the true God have a people for His name if they will only shame Him by joining the coup against Him? They deserved to be destroyed.
But God made a covenant, and He was intent on reclaiming the world. So rather than simply end Israel, He gave her leaders and mediators. They helped lead Israel into faithfulness, and even in her unfaithfulness, they helped avert God’s wrath. Even when God’s wrath broke out, they helped Israel find forgiveness and new life. So Israel’s history became a series of deaths and resurrections. Gradually, God worked to purify His people. He sent Moses, then Joshua, then the judges, and then Samuel. With the death of each of these, however, Israel would return to her old ways. Was there no way for Israel to get and stay on track? Would God’s name be forever dishonored as all the nations—even His own—gave themselves entirely over to idolatry?
[The story will continue in a second part, because this will get pretty long otherwise.]

Voice of Nature, Voice of God

The Silly Little Crowds

Just because everyone says something doesn’t mean it’s right.
The crowd can be wrong.
What the culture says might be different from what God says.
For orthodox Christians, we say and hear sentiments like this all the time. And they are true enough. What most people around you believe about lots of things just isn’t true. If you run around America and ask, for example, what life is about, very few of the answers will match the truth. Who will say we we are made to be God’s sons and daughters, glorifying Him in our words and works? If you were to poll ancient Rome, more people than you’d think would have accepted infanticide. And for much of history, most people have been polytheists.
But I am increasingly persuaded that we need to be careful here. Truth is not a democracy, to be sure. And majorities can err. But that’s not all there is to say. Most of our ideas about the “majority” are not the real majority of humanity, but most of a smaller group. We think of the majority of modern, affluent, Western people. That’s really not that many people. At other times, the “majority” under discussion was most Romans in the first century, or most ancient Israelites, or something else. In the big picture, these are but slivers.
The real majority of humanity—spanning all times, places, and cultures—is different. Thanks to original sin, all peoples everywhere have believed very many wrong things. But they haven’t always believed the same wrong things. Some groups are too individualist, others too collectivist. There have been warmongering tribes and cowardly ones. Prudes live down the street from prostitutes.

The Wise, Massive Crowd

So, with all this variety, any belief which the overwhelming majority of all humans has held—from modern Americans to medieval Chinese to ancient Phoenicians—is special. It’s hard to get ten people to agree on something, much less tens of millions. The only way for so many people to agree on something is for it to be so obvious that no sane person can deny it. Everyone believes in the sun, for only the blind man or the lunatic can do otherwise.
Now, this applies just as well to less physical truth. Visible or invisible, a fact that inspires so huge a consensus must be an unavoidable pillar of reality. Morality is like everything else here. For example, nearly everyone in every time and place has known that human life has some kind of value. To waste human life is, in some way or sense, wrong. People who think bloodshed is no big deal are few and far between in every culture. The biggest disagreement between peoples is just what exceptions they believe in.
Likewise, all cultures believe in some kind of fairness or justice. Nearly everyone agrees that you shouldn’t take advantage of other people. Most cultures know you shouldn’t treat others in a way you would hate to be treated. Obviously everyone doesn’t follow this common law. But they nearly all know it.
If you doubt that there is such widespread agreement, C. S. Lewis has a good response. He compiled strong evidence for it in the appendix to his superb little book, The Abolition of Man.[1. C. S. Lewis, “Appendix – Illustrations of the Tao,” in The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperOne, 2008).] But the proof of any specifics is somewhat beside the point. The principle of the thing should be clear.

The Ubiquitous Teacher

This brings me to my actual point. If everyone believes something, the simplest explanation is that they all learned it from the same place. The only true common teacher of all people is nature. Everyone lives in the same world. We see the same natural order at work. And this is the work of God, His general revelation. Ultimately, the only source of truth that speaks to everyone is God’s revelation in nature.
The Bible teaches this, of course.

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.[2. Psalm 19:1-2 NRSV]

We have to understood that nature is a tool of God. It is the direct working of His hands. He uses it to teach us and express Himself. Thus even Calvin was able to say:

I admit, indeed that the expressions “Nature is God,” may be piously used, if dictated by a pious mind.[3. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.5.5.]

He does, of course, go on to hedge this point. Nature is not God in any literal sense, and it can be dangerous to conflate the two. But, on the other hand, we can’t forget that God is both nature’s Maker and Wielder. Whatever it does is for His purpose. Whatever it speaks is by His Word.

The Divine Consensus

This leads into a great bit from Richard Hooker. In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, he spends a lot of time talking about, well, law. One of the best parts is his account of natural law. This he calls the “law of reason.” In explaining it, he mentions how much humanity universally learns from God’s natural, general revelation. I will quote the relevant paragraph in full:

There are many signs and marks by which we can recognize goodness, some more certain and some less. The most certain mark of goodness is the general conviction of all humanity.

[Quick interjection. This bit sounds weird, but it follows ironically from original sin. As I said earlier, all peoples go wrong in many different ways. Sin comes up with innumerable ways to pervert the truth. But there is only one truth. So while there is lots of variety in error, the constant admission of all people can only be a response to constant truth.]

Therefore a commonly-held falsehood is not refuted until we go from signs to causes, demonstrating that there is a common confusion at the root of the error that explains why so many men have been led astray. In such a case, surmisings and probabilities are not enough to refute it, since the universal agreement of men is the best of these kinds of proofs that we can offer. Times change, and what one man happens to think will not often be thought so forever. Therefore, although we may not yet see why, we know there has to be some necessary reason when nearly all men at nearly all times agree on something, especially on matters of natural philosophy. It is agreed that things acting according to their nature all keep to the same course. The general and perpetual voice of mankind is as the judgment of God Himself, since what all men at all times have come to believe must have been taught to them by Nature, and since God is Nature’s author, her voice is merely His instrument.[4. Richard Hooker, Divine Law and Human Nature: Book I of Hooker’s Laws: A Modernization (Lincoln, NE: Davenant Trust, 2017), Kindle, ch. 8§3.]

And this is it, folks.

The Point of the Matter

Why point out that the unanimous beliefs of humanity are almost certainly true? Even if I’m right, so what? Well, the implications are actually pretty practical.
Take that the general consent of the human race is a sign of truth. If so, then when one small group comes up with an idea that contradicts what nearly everyone else has ever thought, we should take it with a grain of salt. We have good reason to believe that the “standard” view on the matter is something humanity learned from God, by His general revelation in nature.
These days, we probably most need to remember this when it comes to sex and gender. While the world has always had lots of deviant ideas on the subject, some things have always been recognized. Some degree of heteronormativity is appropriate. Men and women are different. The nature of authority is more naturally associated with masculine than feminine virtue. Sex and gender are not free choices but givens of the body and society. Ideas along these lines have been common sense to most people in most times and places, with very few exceptions. And when there were exceptions, they often knew it. Now, one tiny minority, a sliver in the human race of all ages and places, is trying to change the paradigm. We can be fairly assured that they’re wrong.
I would not, however, want to make this only about gender. In reality, this applies to all kinds of things. What the bulk of humanity has always known is usually right. What most people in a few 21st century, first-world cultures think may not be. We should pay attention to the majority voice. It is an echo of nature’s own voice, which is at root the voice of God.

Rules Aren't Legalism

This post will be short, as I only mean to make a quick and simple point.
Some people lump rules in almost any sense with legalism. Others count all rules beyond the clear moral law legalism. Both of these are misguided.
Properly speaking, legalism refers to two possible mistakes. The first error is about salvation. A deadly kind of legalism makes rules, whether God’s rules or man’s rules, a means of salvation. If we follow the rules, we can get to heaven, and if we break them, we run the risk of hell. This is obviously heretical. Salvation is sola fide and sola gratia, through faith alone and by grace alone. No amount of rule-keeping or rule-breaking can make or break our relationship to God. Christ takes care of that.
The second possible error is about Christian teaching. Legalism also can apply to declaring moral rules that simply aren’t from God as though they were. When we say that God condemns what He has never prohibited, or that God commands what He has never required, we are guilty of legalism. A common example of this kind of legalism is the idea that drinking alcohol is a sin. An example of the flip side is saying that God morally requires us to adopt certain particular political positions, like a carbon tax or a border wall. Where we cannot show from sound Scriptural interpretation or clear reason from nature what proves something necessarily right or wrong, it is legalism to make rules that God commands or forbids it.
So, I said at first that not all rules are legalism. What kinds of rules do I mean? These are rules which church or legal authorities make that don’t claim to affect your status before God or define His will. They have other reasons or explanations, like the common good or keeping order. Indeed, you can have tons of such rules without legalism as long as no one claims that they express God’s own judgment.
The upshot of all this? A church body or even a government can make rules that affect the Church without being guilty of legalism. Some of these we already accept without question. Setting service times and lengths are rules, but not the bad kind. Lots of other possible rules are, however different, of the same nature. Now, when you multiply rules over God’s people, there are lots of other ways to go wrong. But legalism isn’t necessarily one of them.