Monday, August 22, 2011

The Lord's Prayer is Reproof

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name...

Excepting Psalm 23, no other passage of Scripture is more apart of our common memory than this one. Though it has long been entitled “The Lord’s Prayer,” that title lacks accuracy since it is our Lord's instruction on prayer to His disciples. So, we may prefer “The Disciples’ Prayer" as a heading, though it is doubtful that will ever enter popular recognition.

This misnomer does tell us that we may not have understood the point of the Lord's Prayer. If we only observed its use in catechisms, in lessons for children and in repetition in corporate worship for centuries, we might get the impression that the Lord ascended to His sermon just to impart some new liturgical method or write a new prayer-book for Christians. So it is something of a surprise to reenter the context of the Sermon on the Mount and find that Jesus' purpose in the Lord's Prayer goes far beyond even the topic of prayer itself.

The Lord's Prayer is not the model for prayer - certainly our Lord prayed from the Psalms as well? Nor is it even a mandated protocol or formula of prayer for Christians. In short, the Lord's Prayer is a rebuke. A reproof. A removal of our false sense of righteousness to view the inner corruption of our hearts before the holiness of God Himself. To say the Lord's Prayer is a rebuke really shouldn't surprise us. That is essentially the point of the entire Sermon on the Mount and certainly no less that of Matthew 6:9-13.

The Sermon on the Mount

Our Savior began His sermon by pointing to the character of spiritual blessedness (5:3-12). Including those who are of a poverty of spirit, a personal mourning, a believing humility, and desperately hungering and thirsting for righteousness. What is the reason for their spiritual pangs and pantings? The standard to which they must be held accountable:
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (5:20).
That is unsettling for at least two reasons. First, Jesus told His audience they have to be holier than the holiest men they knew to enter the kingdom of heaven. Second, even the holiest men they knew were not entering the kingdom of heaven!

Pharisaic tradition had lowered the bar of righteousness so that sinners might actually feel they were righteous without a twinge inconsistency. They assiduously avoided placing themselves in the category of “sinner,” even incredulously asking Jesus’ disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt 9:11). Or accusing a once blind man, “You were born entirely in sins!” (John 9:34). Were they really any different? Well, they thought so. Pharisaic tradition instructed people to be those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). So our Lord begins His public ministry by disabusing them of such notions.

The Context of Chapters 5-6

Jesus gave six contrasts in 5:21-47 to illustrate the impeccable righteousness of God as:
  • Peaceful appreciation of each life, even those with whom you conflict.
  • Purity in thought and desire, even if your body is not involved.
  • Fidelity in marriage, even when you complete the protocols and paperwork for divorce.
  • Honesty in speech and commitments, even if you allowed yourself a loophole.
  • Sacrifice and suffering in love, even if people persecute or oppress you.
  • Universality in whom you love, even toward your enemies and those who hate you.
Or, in a word, perfect. “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).

And the perfection of God’s standard is still the Savior’s focus into chapter 6. Except, instead of addressing self-righteousness in moral issues, He narrows upon religious ones. Every Pharisee then – and since! – should be sweating at this. Not only are you not as morally blameless as you think you are, but you are not even as religious as you think you are! Actually, your religion is hypocrisy (vv. 2, 5, 16). So, the Lord offers three examples to prove His point - notably, the three main acts of Jewish piety. He taught that true and righteous religion:
  • Is not giving for gratitude, but giving before God (vv. 2-4)
  • Is not praying as performance, but praying in private (vv. 5-6)
  • Is not fasting for fanfare, but fasting before the Father (vv. 15-17)
With each example, our Lord reproves hypocritical practices with the nature of true religion that is rewarded by our Father in heaven. It is no less a rebuke than chapter 5 and may be even more so, since we especially love to deny our depravity in our acts of devotion. And this is the context for the Lord's Prayer.

Our friend and mentor, Robert Murray M’Cheyne is reported to have said, "A man is what he is on his knees before God, and nothing more." That was Jesus’ point.

What and how we pray tells us who we are, in truth. Just ask this Pharisee (Luke 18:11-12). The Lord's Prayer is impossible for sinners. Just as we have no hope of exceeding the righteousness of a scribe or Pharisee (5:20), and even less hope of attaining the perfection of the Father (5:48), we have no hope of ever praying the Lord's Prayer with full integrity. And that is precisely the point. The Lord’s Prayer is a rebuke.

We will try to unpack our Savior's reproof a bit further this week - and unfold the refuge that we must find Him, lest we be forever barred from the Kingdom.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Do Not Lose Sight of Christ!

For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).

Great exhortations to preachers from a wise steward, Sinclair Ferguson, in A Preacher's Decalogue. Particularly, "Don't Lose Sight of Christ."
What do I mean? Perhaps the point can be put sharply, even provocatively, in this way: systematic exposition did not die on the cross for us; nor did biblical theology, nor even systematic theology or hermeneutics or whatever else we deem important as those who handle the exposition of Scripture. I have heard all of these in preaching . . . without a center in the person of the Lord Jesus.

Paradoxically not even the systematic preaching through one of the Gospels guarantees Christ-crucified centered preaching. Too often preaching on the Gospels takes what I whimsically think of as the “Find Waldo Approach.” The underlying question in the sermon is “Where are you to be found in this story?” (are you Martha or Mary, James and John, Peter, the grateful leper . . . ?). The question “Where, who and what is Jesus in this story?” tends to be marginalized.

The truth is it is far easier to preach about Mary, Martha, James, John, or Peter than it is about Christ. It is far easier to preach even about the darkness of sin and the human heart than to preach Christ. Plus my bookshelves are groaning with literature on Mary, Martha . . . the good life, the family life, the Spirit-filled life, the parenting life, the damaged-self life . . . but most of us have only a few inches of shelf-space on the person and work of Christ himself.

Am I absolutely at my best when talking about him or about us?
Great question for Saturday night sermon-review: Is this about Him or about us?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

When Doctrine is Unsavory

... and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus... (Acts 18:25)

When is the doctrine of God's Word unsavory? When it is taught absent personal zeal.
Doctrine without zeal is either like a sword in the hand of a madman, or else it lieth still as cold and without use, or else it serveth for vain and wicked boasting. For we see that some learned men become slothful; other some (which is worse) become ambitious; other some (which is of all the worst) trouble the Church with contention and brawling. Therefore, that doctrine shall be unsavory which is not joined with zeal.

- John Calvin, Commentary on Acts, 2:154.
An armed lunatic. An impotent craftsman. A wicked braggart. A slothful steward. An ambitious cleric. A contentious churchman.

Do not despise the zealous preacher... there are many options that are much worse.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Family Worship = Family Fun?

Well, why not? In Second Thoughts on Family Worship, Jerry Owen outlines some thoughts on family worship:
  1. Family Worship Isn't Required by the Bible (Owen explains what this means)
  2. Family Worship, If Done, Is Not the Most Important Spiritual Thing You Do (the Church!)
  3. Family Worship Should Be Delightful for Everyone
It is his last point that I found to be most helpful:
My biggest concern for parents [that] are gung-ho on family worship is the tendency for it to be very “serious” and therefore unengaging and often no fun for the kids. This means that the most “spiritual” time the family spends together, supposedly the most important, the time spent talking and learning about God, is in fact the time that is least like experiencing Him
Reread that last line with your Bible open to Psalm 16:11 (okay, just hit the link).
There is a reason kids loved to be around Jesus, and it wasn’t because he was lecturing at length about the Torah or the Five Points of Calvinism. I love the Torah and the Five Points, so I try to make them digestible to my three year old so she can love them too. Good news should feel like it. This might mean singing one verse of a song, or just one song. It means all sorts of things for different situations, for people of different ages, for parents with different abilities. We need to be open to the idea that less is more. Better one verse read, enjoyed and digested, than 30 painful pious lecture minutes.
Read the entire article here. As one who also loves Torah and the doctrines of grace, I am grateful for Owen's liberating counsel. I say it is liberating because my hunch is that many households avoid family worship owing to wrong conceptions of how they assume it must be conducted.

All parents - especially fathers - take encouragement that a time of family sanctity need not be a time of family severity. Family worship should be like the Gospel of Jesus... good news.

Friday, August 12, 2011

No Faith Without Struggle

... and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10:5)

From vol. 1 of Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics:
It remains the duty of every person, therefore, first of all to put aside his or her hostility against the word of God and “to take every thought captive to obey Christ” [2 Cor. 10:5]. Scripture itself everywhere presses this demand. Only the pure of heart will see God. Rebirth will see the kingdom of God. Self-denial is the condition for being a disciple of Jesus. The wisdom of the world is folly to God. Over against all human beings, Scripture occupies a position so high that, instead of subjecting itself to their criticism, it judges them in all their thoughts and desires…

A Christian believes, not because everything in life reveals the love of God, but rather despite everything that raises doubt. All believers know from experience that this is true… There is not a single Christian who has not in his or her own way learned to know the antithesis between the “wisdom of the world” and “the foolishness of God.” It is one and the same battle, an ever-continuing battle, which has to be waged by all Christians, learned or unlearned, to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

Here on earth no one ever rises above that battle. Throughout the whole domain of faith, there remain “crosses” (cruces) that have to be overcome. There is no faith without struggle. To believe is to struggle, to struggle against the appearance of things.

- RD, 1:440-42. (HT: Kairos)
Good to remember when you're preparing to preach a verse like this. We never rise above the battle here, but it has been victoriously won. And one day, our striving will cease.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Prayer is an Invitation for Realignment

Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven
(Matt 6:9-10).

An excellent clarification of the purpose of prayer from Michael Lawrence in How Prayer Transforms Prep:
We live in a culture and age that values self-expression above all else. When we pray, we're keeping it real with God; we're telling him what's on our mind, what we're concerned about, or what we need. And that's a problem, because in Scripture pouring out our hearts to God is never the essential point of prayer. The point of prayer is realignment, as our hearts assume a posture of dependence and humility before God. Prayer places our needs in the perspective of God's sufficiency, our problems in the perspective of his sovereignty, and our desires in the perspective of his will. Prayer is not a monologue. Rather, prayer invites God to have the last word with us, and for his Word to shape and define us.
Read the entire article here.

What a necessary clarification! Prayer is not "keeping it real with God." Even a cursory reading of the Psalms and other biblical prayers demonstrate that these men were not just pouring-out their hearts. They were - as we are thereby instructed - realigning themselves under God in prayer. It truly is an invitation for Him to shape us.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Prophets Live in a Separate World

He who hears, let him hear; and he who refuses, let him refuse; for they are a rebellious house (Ezek 3:27).

In his superb commentary on Ezekiel, Daniel Block offers this summation of Ezekiel's initiation into the prophetic office in chs 1-3:
Thus the curtain falls on the final act in the call of Ezekiel. He has been initiated into his office. The roles of the various participants in the ensuing drama have been delineated, and the prophet is left completely isolated from his compatriots. The recorded oracles that follow will confirm this alienation.

Ezekiel is never seen out on the street or in the marketplace. No hint of the daily life of the exiles intrudes the prophecy. The prophet lives in a separate world. Others may drift in and out of that world, but they remain merely shadows, with little direct contact. The only recorded conversation between prophet and audience comes by the command of Yahweh in 24:18-24.

Accordingly the book of Ezekiel is a spiritual diary of a man's encounters with God. His experiences move the reader to weep for him - though he never weeps for himself.

- The Book of Ezekiel, vol. 1, p. 161.
It is sobering. Ezekiel did not weep for himself nor his wife (see 24:18); though there was more than enough for him to shed a tear. We recall not only the loneliness of other prophets - like Micah (see 7:1-2) - but that of our Savior, who would likewise utter these words of warning to a recalcitrant generation, "He who has ears to hear..." (Matt 11:15).

The pathos of Ezekiel's call to prophetic ministry breathes of God's brilliant holiness, humanity's sinful sorrow, and unbelief's utter foolishness. And, for the prophet himself, the basically unenviable position of speaking the truth of God to a world that mocks it and its prophets. Anyone who stands to speak for the Creator will stand "in a separate world" alone.

Ministry - be it pastoral or otherwise - has actually little to do with other people, though people are the obvious arena. Ministry is successive encounters with God Himself. It is a commission to confront the shame of the world, without weeping for yourself.

Ministry is walking coram Deo - and only that - even as it is walking among others.

N.B., Daniel Block is one of the great Christian scholars of our generation, for which we give thanks. If he has written a commentary on a book, it is probably one of the best treatments you will find on the market. Judges / Ruth is excellent (and we eagerly await his forthcoming commentary on Deuteronomy in the NIVAC series).

Yet, Block's work on Ezekiel in NICOT is quite possibly the most satisfying commentary I have read on any book of Scripture. At nearly 2,000 pages of detailed exegesis, it is not only a trove of textual and biblical-theological information, but he has written it in a spiritually-mature and a self-consciously Christian prose. Those qualities are unfortunately rare in commentaries!

I do not often recommend commentaries to folks, but if you are a serious Bible-student and diligent reader, Block's two-volume Ezekiel will not disappoint.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Tradition of Translation Timidity

...not the smallest letter or stroke... (Matt 5:17)

When we confess plenary and verbal inspiration of Scripture, we mean to say that we care about the details. So, I have been long supportive of the textual suggestions given by noted text-critic and Greek grammarian, Dan Wallace. He repeated them recently in part 3 of a review of NIV 2011. Wallace offers a helpfully succinct summary of why passages like Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 are still in our English Bibles (when they really shouldn't be):
... along with virtually every other translation on the planet, Mark 16.9-20 and John 7.53–8.11 are found in the text, even though (almost) all the translators considered them to be inauthentic. But the NIV 2011 admirably puts them in a different font and has an in-text note to show that they are rather dubious. The reasons translations keep these verses in the text even when the translators themselves do not consider them authentic is due to a tradition of timidity. But with the publication of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus (2005), a popular book on the transmission of the New Testament text, the cat is out of the bag. Most biblical scholars—including evangelical scholars—have long recognized that these passages are most likely later additions. We do the living church no service by not fully admitting this fact in our translations. But because these two passages have a long history in printed Bibles and even in the manuscripts, they should not be eliminated altogether. Placing them in the footnotes would seem to be the best policy.
Read his entire article here. Though I am decidedly not changing English translations to NIV 2011, I am encouraged to hear of the progress being made in how these passages are treated.

In an earlier article, Wallace addressed this further in respect to Ehrman's "revelations" (i.e., his attempts to make money and gain prominence by sensationalizing what has been widely-known and public for centuries):
As I noted in my review in JETS [see The Gospel According to Bart], keeping these two pericopae in our Bibles rather than relegating them to the footnotes seems to have been a bomb just waiting to explode. All Ehrman did was to light the fuse. One lesson we must learn from Misquoting Jesus is that those in ministry need to close the gap between the church and the academy. We have to educate believers. Instead of trying to isolate laypeople from critical scholarship, we need to insulate them. They need to be ready for the barrage, because it is coming. The intentional dumbing down of the church for the sake of filling more pews will ultimately lead to defection from Christ.
Read Wallace, "My Favorite Passage That's Not in the Bible."

I have long been persuaded that Wallace's approach is discerning and pastorally necessary. Isolation is always the wrong approach; we must equip, educate and "insulate" the Church from the attacks of the evil one. You know, something like "destroying speculations" or preventing Christians from being taken "captive through philosophy and empty deception." Radical concepts, but maybe they're worth trying?

To be sure, every translation committee must consider "ecclesiastical usage." That is, how the Church has read the Bible. This is why, for example, ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) is consistently translated "church," rather than "assembly" or "congregation." Even though our word "church" is properly derived from κυριακός [kuriakos], "of the Lord" or "the Lord's" in 1 Cor 11:20; Rev 1:10 (the Scots are closest with "kirk"). William Tyndale had ἐκκλησία right the first time with "congregation."

Nor is ecclesiastical usage always improper. I, for one, am not eager to see ἱλαστήριον, hilastarion rendered by anything other than "propitiation" (e.g., Rom 3:25).

So though ecclesiastical usage has its place in Bible translation, it must not drive textual or translation decisions. Leaving passages like Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 in the same flow of the canonical text - just because the publisher does not want to handle the deluge of angry e-mails that are sure to follow their exclusion - just seems irresponsible.

Furthermore, this practice actually undermines our confidence in the inerrant text and undoes all that was accomplished in the Reformation's call to sola scriptura. For a vigorous application of "ecclesiastical usage" amounts essentially to a Roman Catholic view of binding authoritative tradition.

By not distinguishing these inauthentic passages - something like Wallace's footnote proposal - we are truly doing a great disservice. By offering a more transparent admittance of what we have known (for centuries!), we give greater witness to the text of Scripture and greater credibility to the preaching and teaching within the Church.

(NB, MacArthur's recent sermon, "The Fitting End to Mark’s Gospel").