Saturday, June 22, 2013

About Adoption: Have you heard of Augustus Caesar?

My ancient history is pretty weak, and I was just reading recently about the Roman Emperors, or Caesars. I was surprised to discover that the great Augustus Caesar, who was emperor from 27BC to 14AD, and said to be the founder of the Roman Empire, was actually adopted by the Emperor Julius Caesar in his will, and Augustus Caesar became emperor of Rome by virtue of that adoption after Julius Caesar's assassination. So what?

Well, I don't really know how big a deal it was in those days, but given that Augustus Caesar was so important (ie top dog of the whole Roman Empire), I'm guessing people were aware of that fact of his adoption. It made me wonder about all of the apostle Paul's use of adoption language in the Scriptures. As Christians we become adopted sons of God, and co-heirs with Christ. I wonder if Paul thought about Augustus Caesar's situation when he talked about that. Certainly a powerful illustration of what he was talking about. Surely the Christians in Rome would have recognised this real-life example? Here are Paul's words from his letter to the them:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs--heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. [Romans 8:14-17]
You can't get much better than adopted son and heir of Caesar can you? Oh yeah, you can actually become sons of the one true and living God, and if you are already a Christian, then you already are. Yes, that does sound better :)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Psalm 130:4 and John Murray on the Fear of God

In Psalm 130:4 we have a curious and intriguing sentence: "But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared." If it had just said that the LORD may be loved, or thanked, or praised, or worshipped, that may have been more expected. But why "feared"? Often we have a conception of fear which pushes away from rather than drawing us near to God. How does an apprehension of forgiveness lead us to fear the LORD?

I think John Murray's little treatment on "the Fear of God", the last chapter within his book, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics, is helpful here. Murray first distinguishes between two Scriptural senses in which we are to fear God, which he describes in a footnote as: "the fear of being afraid of God and his punitive judgments" and "the fear of reverential awe and adoration". And then he makes this important point which helps us to understand Psalm 130:4...
The fear of God which is the soul of godliness does not consist, however, in the dread which is produced by the apprehension of God’s wrath. When the reason for such dread exists, then to be destitute of it is the sign of hardened ungodliness. But the fear of God which is the basis of godliness, and in which godliness may be said to consist, is much more inclusive and determinative than the fear of God’s judgement. And we must remember that the dread of judgement will never of itself generate within us the love of God or hatred of the sin that makes us liable to his wrath. Even the infliction of wrath will not create the hatred of sin; it will incite to greater love of sin and enmity against God. Punishment has of itself no regenerating or converting power. The fear of God in which godliness consists is the fear which constrains adoration and love. It is the fear which consists in awe, reverence, honour, and worship, and all of these on the highest level of exercise. It is the reflex in our consciousness of the transcendent majesty and holiness of God. It belongs to all created rational beings and does not take its origin from sin. The essence of sin may be said to be negation of God’s fear.
It is only through an apprehension of God's mercy and forgiveness, and the restored relationship that results from that, that we will really be able fear God in the second sense. Without it, we will only turn away from God, and even the first sense of fear will only further push us away from God instead of drawing us closer to him in reverential fear.

I am further reminded of how the Westminster Confession of Faith describes true repentance in turning to God, which must also include a proper apprehension of God's mercy in Christ...
Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ. By it, a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavouring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments.
[WCF 15:1-2]

Friday, June 07, 2013

Why the green grass when Jesus feeds the 5000 (Mark 6:30-56)?

Recently I was preparing to lead a Bible study on Mark 6:30-56, including the miracle of feeding the five thousand and also Jesus walking on water. Especially because we are told that "they did not understand about the loaves", I thought that there must be something more to the significance of the feeding of the five thousand than simple a display of power, another kind of miracle to add to Jesus' repertoire. There must be some common theme or thread that runs through the whole text, linking the accounts together.

With the help of some commentators, I saw that Jesus' compassion toward the people because "they were like sheep without a shepherd" (Mark 6:34) was not coincidental to the following miracle that was performed. This same expression (more or less) is used a number of times in the Old Testament, eg in these passages: Numbers 27:12-23; 1 Kings 22:17, Ezekiel 34:1-31; Zechariah 10:1-12. There is the emphasis that the people needed a shepherd, sometimes that shepherd is a human leader (eg Moses or Joshua or Davidic king), and other times the LORD himself is their shepherd.

And what is one of the significant tasks of the shepherd, if not to feed his sheep (cf Ezekiel 34:2, 34:3, 34:8, 34:13, 34:14, 34:23, etc, also John 21:15-17)? And here the green grass comes in. In the midst of a miracle of Jesus feeding the people, Mark records for us that Jesus "commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass" (Mark 6:39). Although the commentators I read didn't mention it, I couldn't help but be reminded of Psalm 23, where the LORD my shepherd "makes me to lie down in green pastures" (Psalm 23:2; cf also Ezekiel 34:14-15). While the mention of green grass could just be a detail of fact, that is what it was and where they were, within a whole context of Jesus as shepherd feeding the people, how could there not be a connection?

So what then should we "understand about the loaves"? Mark shows us Jesus the shepherd who feeds his sheep (first through teaching, Mark 6:34, since "Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God", Matthew 4:4/Deuteronomy 8:3), and that Jesus is the Christ, in one person the successor to Moses, the Davidic King, and the LORD God himself. This is what we need to understand by the miracle of the loaves.

Throughout the passage there seems to be a question of identity. Who is this Jesus, really? In the walking on water, again the closest Old Testament referent must be the crossing of the sea in Exodus, with the waters parted, a signature miracle of the LORD. So when Jesus says, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid" (Mark 6:50), whether directly or indirectly, he is saying that he is the "I AM", he is the LORD their shepherd. (Cf also the connection between shepherding and walking through the waters in Zechariah 10:1-12 and Psalm 77:7-20.)

So that is why the grass is green!