Sunday, 30 March 2014

What is the Old Testament About?

I suppose if we were to take a sample poll and ask the question, ‘What is the Old Testament about?’, several answers could be given. For example, some might say that the Old Testament describes the past and future of the Israelites, and that answer would be a common view today. What would the apostles have made of that answer? Of course, they would have accepted that the Old Testament mentions important historical details of Israel’s past, but I suspect they would have disagreed that the Old Testament, in its prophetic passages, is mainly concerned with the future of the Israelites. We can read what Peter thought about this in 1 Peter 1:10-12 – he makes it very clear that the prophecies of the Old Testament are concerned with Peter’s readers. Imagine how his readers would have responded when they heard his words. I think they would have searched the Old Testament with great desire.

Another answer that is sometimes given with regard to the Old Testament is that it is about law whereas the New Testament is about grace. Would Peter have accepted such a distinction? He would have accepted that some parts of the Old Testament were concerned with legal matters, such as various details of the Mosaic ceremonial and civil laws. But he would not have accepted that the Old Testament had a legalistic message, and he states very clearly in verse 10 that its message was concerned with the grace that was going to come to his readers.

What is grace? It is God’s merciful attitude to the undeserving. Peter’s readers would have agreed that they were unworthy of the salvation they had received. They knew that only a few years prior to Peter sending them his letter they were living in pagan darkness, worshipping the non-existent deities in the temples connected to their names. They would indeed confess, ‘We are so unworthy. We know that we had not heard the gospel. Still we could look up to the heavens and recognise the handiwork of a great Creator. But instead of worshipping him as the Creator we chose to give the credit to an image that we created. In doing so, we demeaned in our estimation the greatness of God and revealed that we were so unworthy of his blessings. Nevertheless, the great Creator sent the gospel to us. That is real grace.’

A third answer as to what is the message of the Old Testament is that it is about a God of judgement as against the claim that the New Testament is about the God of love. Often those who argue this suggestion depict the prophets as fierce ranters who delighted in describing a God determined to punish. Of course, such a summary is a gross distortion. We only have to read some of the plaintive words spoken by God through these prophets to realise that their message was marked by compassion.

Peter would have also said that the message of the Old Testament is not only about judgement. He would have admitted that divine judgement was part of its message, but he would have also pointed out that there was much more, and he summarises that much more in verse 11 when he says that the message was about ‘the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories’. We can easily see from that phrase  that there is more to the Old Testament than judgement.

A fourth answer that is sometimes given is that there was little of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. Now it is true that a great change occurred in the church’s experience when the Day of Pentecost occurred. The Spirit came in a manner that was unknown previously. But his coming in that way should not make us conclude that he was not present with the messengers of the Old Testament. Peter reminds us that the Spirit was in the Old Testament prophets and that he spoke through them about Jesus.

What effect did the presence of the Spirit have on these Old Testament prophets? It had the same effect as it had on the New Testament apostles, which was that they wanted to know more about Jesus. Look at how Peter describes the response of these prophets: they ‘searched and inquired carefully’ about the promised Saviour. I suppose the searching refers to how they used the Old Testament portions they had, and inquiring refers to the way they prayed for understanding. True, they did not discover as much as can be known through the apostles, but the inability was not in their messages. The messages of the Old Testament prophets were full of Christ.

So the Old Testament is far from being unsuitable for us. Peter makes it obvious that the Old Testament is actually God’s provision for his people, prepared for them long before they were born. How thankful they should be to God for thinking so kindly about them when their forefathers were living in spiritual darkness. Peter tells his readers that Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles join hands in providing God’s people with the gospel.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Michael J. Kruger - The Question of Canon

Review in the Record of the Free Church of Scotland (April 2014)

This volume by the Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, is sub-titled ‘Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate’. The status quo roughly is that the canon of the New Testament was a creation of the church in the fourth century, or a short time before then, and that certain writings from the first century or thereabouts were selected for inclusion while other valid writings were omitted.

The author discusses some evidences that show the first-century church could have known about the canon as we have it. This involves (1) a consideration of the possible expectations of Second Temple Judaism for further divine revelation, (2) of indications in the Old Testament that additional divine words would be given, (3) the new covenant relationship with God included specific written texts from him, and (4) the role of Christ’s chosen apostles in providing or endorsing written scripture.  

The question of a canon of written scripture has also to face the claim that the main means of communication in the early church was oral, which has led some scholars to assume that it would have opposed written texts, especially since some of them have decided that the canon is composed of inferior writings in contrast to the classic works of the period. Moreover, most early Christians, it is said, were unlettered, preferred the direct encounter with a spoken word, and expected Jesus to return imminently, so why would they have wanted a canon?

Kruger points out that the barrier between unlettered Christians and a written text is drawn from modern situations in which educated people find it hard to imagine that a merely oral society could appreciate written texts. This was not the case in the first century in which it was common for many illiterate persons to become familiar with written texts that they heard read in public gatherings – these texts could be government decrees, philosophical opinions, as well as other forms. And the New Testament itself contains several references to the public reading of scripture. Indeed it can be argued that they were written in order that they could be read orally to Christian gatherings. And to this can be added that the early church insisted on retaining the Old Testament scriptures, which would be a strange thing to do if they were averse to writings.

Did the early church expect Jesus to return within its lifetime, and did that expectation affect their ideas about written scripture? If it did, then since he did not come, surely it would assume that he was not telling the truth about his return. Yet there is no evidence that such a possibility caused a crisis of faith, which indicates that the apostolic church did not believe that he must return during that period, merely that he could. The fact is that New Testament books were written during the first century, and were accepted as truthful by subsequent generations of believers even although Jesus did not return in the first century, which indicates that neither the first century church nor subsequent generations believed that he taught he would definitely return at such an early date.

Another issue dealt with by the author is whether or not the New Testament authors were aware that they were writing scripture. He shows that they were conscious that they were writing with divine authority and that they regarded their writings as divine provisions for those to whom they wrote, which is the same as saying they were on the level of scripture. So while they would not have known how many books would be in the New Testament they did know that their writings were authoritative in the church.

Kruger gives a chapter to discussing whether or not the canon was only closed by the end of the second century. He looks at the writings of Irenaeus who around that time refers to most New Testament books as recognised scripture. Of course, if he recognised them, the assumption is that others before him also recognised them because he does not indicate that he was the first to do so. Kruger then notices the way that Theophilus of Antioch argues in a work dated around the year 177 that the Gospels were as inspired as the Old Testament. Kruger also works back through the writings of Justin Martyr, Papias, Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement and others to show that they were aware to a degree of some of the books that make up the New Testament canon. More importantly, the New Testament itself refers to Paul’s writings as scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). This survey, according to Kruger, points to the real possibility that the church by the end of the first century already recognised which books were scripture and which were not.

Of course, many Christians accept the New Testament as Holy Scripture intuitively, an evidence of the divine illumination given to them by the Holy Spirit. Such may not want to read a scholarly book like this, although I do not see why not.  In some places I felt I was in the company of a master detective as he analysed and dismissed the alleged evidence against the existence of an early canon. While this book did not add to my already-existing recognition of and delight in the New Testament canon it did strengthen my conviction that God not only inspired its production but supervised its acceptance throughout the early church. I would recommend it to any who have been troubled by the claim that the canon is merely a creation of the church a long time after the apostles left this world.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The love of Jesus

As Christians learn more about Jesus, they discover many things about his love. In what ways had he shown love for them?

His love for them was a receiving love in the sense that he gladly accepted them before time as a gift from his Father. The Father and the Son entered into an eternal agreement which involved the Son acting in various ways on behalf of an innumerable number of sinners that the Father gave to him. Before he did anything for them, the Son loved them as the Father’s gift to him. So they love him because he received them lovingly in this way.

His love for them was a representative love in the sense that from then on he did everything as their agent. This is a profound mystery and very difficult to understand, nevertheless it is the case that his people were in his mind as Jesus, with the Father and the Spirit, engaged in the works of creation and providence. Each Christian can say that Jesus worked to prepare that individual’s personality and situation. Their genetic make-up is the outcome of generations of development, but Jesus has been in charge of it, all the time having his eye on each of them. The situations in which they found themselves when they met him through the gospel were arranged by him just as certainly as was the character and situation of Levi when Jesus recruited him into his group of disciples. The universe was created by Jesus for them as the location in which he would meet with them.

Of course, his representation of them is more particular in the sense that he came to earth in order to live a perfect life on their behalf and then take their place when he paid the penalty of their sins as he suffered on the cross. Think of the details in the Gospels in which Jesus interacts perfectly with sinners. Then imagine how you would have reacted when you have met similar persons. At one level, Jesus is dealing with them personally, at another level he is keeping the law on behalf of his sinful people, and as they read about how he did so, they love him, even although they have not seen him.

When we turn to the cross, we see that his love was a redeeming love that rescued them from slavery to sin. What matters is not that they never saw him on the cross – after all, many people saw the crucifixion and received no benefit. Instead what matters is that they have received the benefits of the cross, and they include deliverance from sin’s bondage, pardon for their rebellion, cleansing from defilement, and promise of a rich inheritance. As they realise such blessing that came from the one who loved them, they love him in return.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Brotherly Love

Brotherly love has many benefits. In Psalm 133 it is likened to oil and to dew. Like the oil, it is refreshing, and like the oil it spreads. Further, like the dew’s effect on vegetation, brotherly love through the Spirit’s blessing becomes a means of daily growth so that all the flowers that should be in the garden of our hearts will appear; these flowers are described in Galatians 5:22-23: ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.’  In what ways will there be refreshing growth? There are several features of such growth that could be mentioned, but let me mention five.

The first feature of a united group of Christians is forgiveness. This is such an important outlook for Christians that Jesus teaches, in the Lords Prayer, that God withholds a sense of forgiveness from us if we refuse to forgive others. A Christian church is the community of the forgiven. Of course, each believer forgives because God has previously forgiven him and her.

A second feature of a united group of Christians is faithfulness or loyalty to one another. This loyalty is displayed in a number of ways, such as committed prayer for one another or resolving to help one another over the long haul. It is easy to begin a process, but only faithfulness will continue it.

A third feature of a united group is fellowship or sharing together. This can happen in practical ways, but there is more than that to Christian fellowship. We should share with one another what Jesus means to us, what discoveries we have made of him; we can share encouraging promises that we have discovered in the Bible. Our aim is to be like those described in Malachi 3:16: ‘Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name.’

A fourth benefit of a united group is stronger faith or strengthened assurance. Sharing together in the things of Christ stimulates one another. Paul tells the Ephesian Christians that even their words should minister grace to one another (Ephesians 4:29: ‘Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear’). A united church possesses a great basis for mutual upbuilding.

The fifth feature of a united group of believers is that their togetherness is a foretaste of heaven. One of the joys of heaven is the reunion that will occur, of the meeting together of all Gods people down the ages. When a group of diverse ethnic, economic and age backgrounds meet together now in the church, it enjoys the blessing of God in an increased manner because these blessings are foretastes of the heavenly experience.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Listening with delight to God's Word

I was thinking this morning of a hymn that I heard many years ago in which the author was expressing his joy to God. The words he used are very basic but they speak volumes. They are, ‘I am so glad that our Father in heaven tells of his love in the Book he has given.’ I realise that my memory might not be accurate with regard to every detail in that line. For example, I cannot recall if the personal pronoun should be ‘our’ or ‘my’. But since both would be true, my memory slip does not matter.

Why are we going to be in church today? One reason is to listen to God’s Word. As we do so, we can listen to him as a Ruler giving instructions or as a Guide giving directions. Maybe we want something personal from the reading and will feel disappointed if we don’t notice anything unusual.

The words of that hymn remind us of a very important aspect of our church gathering. We meet as a family to hear again what our Father thinks of us, has done for us and has planned for us. No doubt, some of those details will be emphasised in the praise items and the sermon. But as we listen to the Bible being read, may we be ‘so glad that our Father in heaven tells of his love in the Book he has given’.