The Book of Numbers

 

The fourth book in the Bible, the book of Numbers, is the saddest…if I may use the inelegant expression, perhaps the baddest book in the whole Bible.  I made a list of the contents of the chapters and just about every one contained something unhappy.  To mention nothing else, everyone that was living at the beginning of the book was dead at the end of the book, save Caleb and Joshua.  That included a lot of people, at least 1 million of them.  Literally they were the lost generation.  A handy thing to remember is the Book of Numbers is about the 40 years in the wilderness.  And literally they got nowhere, they went round and round until finally they all died.  The Bible summarizes this sad book in two places, the first of which is I Cor. 10 and the second is Hebrews 3:7-19.

The word “Numbers” may seem inadequate to describe any book of the Bible, specifically this one.  “Genesis” says something – origin, beginning.  “Exodus” means the departure from Egypt with all its drama and Leviticus is about the law.  But Numbers seems so meaningless.  True, it starts off with a census and it ends with another enumeration, the second generation.  And there are no duplications or charter members who appear in the second census except for Caleb and Joshua. And then there are lists of names in connection with order of march in which they would bivouac around the tabernacle.  The book does have a lot of enumerations but there is a more basic reason why the book is called that and we discover that when we first talk about the nature of this lost generation.

We see that Numbers really fits when we talk about this 40 year period.  The basic character of this time and this people is really indicated by that simple word “Numbers”.  Because “Number” means three things:  First, it means limitations.  If we say of a certain man, “His days are numbered,” we mean they are few.  When I was born my days were numbered and so were the days of Methuselah, but that isn’t what we mean when we say, “The days of our country are numbered.”  We’re talking in solemn, apocalyptic tone.  They aren’t very many.  There is an awful solemnity in the writing on the wall of Belshazzar.  “Numbered.  Weighed and found wanting.”  They are being counted out, tick-tock.  It’s the countdown.  That’s the idea.  And in that sense these people could be described as numbered.  God had promised that their descendants would be innumerable like the stars or sand.  But this generation, for all their large number, they are countable, not innumerable, they are all listed in a census and their days were numbered. Forget the people now, their days were numbered.  Suppose I were to say that all the people in a given congregation would be dead in 10 years. The inexorable nature of that would frighten…10 years!  They knew that not a one would leave the wilderness.  Moses, Miriam, Aaron, the princes of each of the 12 tribes, all of them would be dead before the 40 years were over.  And there was a special solemnity in that the year was 40.  Why that seemingly arbitrary number?  One year for every day that the 12 spies were looking around in Palestine.

There is a second reason for Numbers and that is that it is impersonal.  That is what prisoners hate about jail.  That is what’s so Orwellian about social security.  I think that is unconsciously part of the shame or anger provocation when a basketball player is called for a foul.  “Foul on 21.”  I think unconsciously the player is thinking, “I’m somebody, I got a name.  Don’t call me 21!”  That number they carry with such pride.  “Don’t identify me as a number.  I’m somebody.”  Even when we die we put the person’s name on a tombstone.  We don’t put number such and such.  Though he is gone from this world we perpetuate his identity by carving into stone, “Here lies the body of so-and-so.”  But here, in Numbers, no tombstones, no acres of crosses or markers, nothing but sand.  All buried in the sand and forgotten.  A whole generation, the whole of it lost.  Like the doleful dirge in Genesis, “so-and-so lived so many years, he bore so-and-so, he lived so many more years, and then he died.”

But worse of all, number is nothing.  Mathematicians tell us that zero is something and just as much as any number for sure.  But all numbers are basically nothing, a pure abstraction.  Accountants, I’m sure, are good at their jobs, but I would never want to do what they do, sitting all day running numbers on things.  They couldn’t care less what the numbers represent, it is just a pure abstraction.  That’s all a number is.  If I say, “2+2 is 4”, we accept that as a universal truth.  But you would say, “2 what?  4 what?  Apples? People?  Dollars?”  That makes a world of difference.  This book is numbers, that’s all.  Pure abstraction.  So the fourth book of the Bible, this lost generation, is well described by that providential title.  That’s their nature… lost, nothing, impersonal.

But now, what qualifies them for that dubious distinction.  They didn’t have to be a lost generation, a cypher, a mere number.  It was contrary to the will of God, this 40 years.  It’s regrettable enough when through no fault of its own there is a given group of people who are just lost, erased.  Those of us who have lived through World War II were told to remember Lidice, a town in Czechoslovakia that for the sake of psychological warfare was just wiped off the face of the earth; fathers, mothers, children, all obliterated.  A lost generation.  A town in the United States renamed themselves to perpetuate the name of that unfortunate town that was lost.  I say that is regrettable enough – or like the Depression generation was sometimes called “the lost generation”, or the protestors of Viet Nam were sometimes called “the lost generation” – but that was all our fault.  That was not the fault of the victims, but this was something that they deserved.

First of all, because of their ingratitude.  I say this deliberately and advisedly; no people in all of history had been so endowed with divine benediction.  Movies have been made about them like “The 10 Commandments”.   No people had more miracles, like the plagues or water out of the rock, and yet all they did was gripe and complain.  In the Book of Numbers it says, “Ten times you have come to me with this complaint…”  When you read the story instinctively you think how is it possible that a people could have so much but complain so greatly?  It shows that if you want to complain there will always be something to complain about.  If you don’t want to be grateful then no amount of benediction, joy or blessings is going to make you grateful.  They single out the most insignificant annoyance.  And they exaggerated the good old days in Egypt.  It would be one thing if they said how much they missed T-bone steaks, but instead you read “Oh how we miss the onions and garlic..”  Grasping at straws, “We’re so tired of this manna.”

They were preoccupied with themselves, that was basic or their big fault.  There is one central theme to all the sorry incidents that I’ve listed here and that is self-centeredness.  It is cut across the entire population, from the highest echelons with Miriam and Aaron, and then other leaders of the tribe with Korah, Dathan and Abiram  (Numbers 16) and it filtered down to the lowest levels until finally the people were picking up stones to throw at Moses.  There was no reason for it other than their pride, which is false humility in disguise and vice versa.  Pride and humility are the two faces of self-centeredness, being preoccupied with yourself.   So these same people who were saying, “Who do you think you are, Moses,” come to the gates of Canaan and say, “Oh, we’re just nothing.”  Because they were looking to much at themselves.  In themselves they were nothing but if they had frankly faced that fact that in themselves they were nothing then like Caleb and Joshua they could have said but “with God we are everything” and they would have been, which is a lesson for us.

They lacked trust, which is another way of saying they weren’t looking to God.  They didn’t believe His implicit promises.  God not only said He was on their side but He showed it time after time.  If they had any problem He just took care of it with a miracle. He was almost a magic man in their presence.  Fire by night, cloud by day, water from the rock, shoes that never wore out.  And then when they get into any new problem, and I see myself in that, some novel problem they say, “Oh God can’t solve this one.”  Or if He can, “I’m sure He won’t.”  They did not enter, says Hebrews, because of unbelief.  That alone was enough to disqualify them.  And because they didn’t, God stopped talking.  And there is a clue to that story of Balaam and his talking donkey.  God says, “You won’t listen to me, you listen to an ass.  I’ll make the donkey talk to you.”  The people weren’t listening to God or to Moses, so God sent a false prophet who was later killed for his immorality.  He spouted forth divine revelation.  Just like the Pharisees wouldn’t praise Jesus on Palm Sunday and he said, “Out of the mouths of babes and nurslings I’ll get my praise.”  And Isaiah says when they didn’t praise God and listen to his prophets, “By men of strange tongues will I shame you.” That is what happens here.

And then they were disobedient.  That is unbelief in action.  God had laid out their lives clearly.  He told them exactly what they should do.  Moses, in his farewell address in Deuteronomy said, “You could never say back there in the wilderness that ‘We couldn’t figure it out, it was too hard for us. God was to obscure.’ It was right there, big as the nose on your face. The word is right in your mouth.  Don’t say it was too hard.  A child could have done it.”  They didn’t have to dam up the Jordan when they came there.  All they had to do was start walking.  God would take care of it, just like the Red Sea.

When you fail to do the good, that is when you are going to do the bad.  So we read in Numbers about the Moabites, the descendants of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters, who approach the Israelites.  Next thing you know there is all this immorality in the camp.  If they weren’t going forward in faith, then they were going to be sitting around and getting in trouble, which is what we see in the Book of Numbers.  Satan finds things for idle hands to do.  And not just hands but minds and the rest of our bodies.

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

Now the most important part is that of it’s repetition, it’s recurrence. It’s duplication today.  You know it is tragic when something happens like a train rail breaks and the train rolls, but if it happens again next week we think that they need to throw somebody in jail for not keeping up the equipment.  Someone is a fool if they make the same mistake twice and that is our problem if we don’t profit from this.  Paul says in I Cor. 10 “these things happened onto them for our example…on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.”  We think that the Israelite trip they took was very real.  You could go there today and find where they camped and marched, that was real and now our life is kind-of like that. “No!” says the Bible.  That is done and is history.  That is all forgotten so to speak, but the real is the Christian life of which that is just a picture.   A textbook to teach you something.  God made it to come off that way, the way I just told you now, so that we wouldn’t make the same mistake.  Here it is:  Egypt is a picture of sin, of slavery and Satan, the condition of the natural man, call it total depravity of whatever you want to, and the Red Sea is our conversion or baptism into Christ.  At this point there was no need to cross the river Jordan, to wander around for 40 years.  They could have gone straight up into Canaan and God could have taken care of all their enemies, wiped them out or made them sue for peace.  They didn’t have to go in the back door so to speak over the river Jordan.  That was the second best.  They had to be baptized again, see this miracle.

Canaan is not a picture of heaven.  That’s a common misconception.  There are songs that talk about Jordan as death and then we get to Canaan.  Eden is a picture of heaven.  Paradise and Eden way back in Genesis, that is a picture of heaven.  Canaan is a picture of the here and now.  If we want to, we will enter in, into the land of happiness, blessing, fullness, abundance.  Battles, sure, it wasn’t going to be a pushover.  There was work to be done.  They weren’t going to lie around the grape arbors.  It was going to be life, but life more abundantly.  That is what they were going to enter into and that is what God wants us to enter into.  Not when we die, but right now.  God wants us to enter directly from conversion into Canaan.  Some of us spend half our lives wandering around getting nowhere, on a spiritual treadmill.  One year is no better than any other.  Are you growing in grace?  The wilderness is a picture of self-effort, trying to get somewhere by myself.  The same God that said, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt…”,  we all believe that, that salvation is by grace alone. He says, “I want to bring you to the promised land.  To wholeness, to life abundant.”

 

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The Lord’s Supper (conclusion of The Sacraments)

Besides calling attention to Christ’s ongoing life (instead of his death alone), the Lord’s Supper goes beyond baptism by representing comm-union.  Protestantism does not believe in celebrating  the Lords’ Supper in solitude.  The Lord’s Supper, as said before, symbolizes the ongoing nature of that fellowship, plus the ongoing unity of all believers, like the several members of of a human body, in the one Lord Jesus with whom they died and now live.  Baptism is administered individually, denoting personal entrance into Christ’s fellowship.  And here is where we go wide awry in this whole matter of “preparation” and self-examination, which is kind of a carry-over from the Catholic custom of “going to confession” before taking communion, and even there, the horizontal reference is involved – namely, ones relation to fellow-communicants, rather than between the communicant and God, for I understand that a Catholic may attend mass and not take communion, without going to confession.

The custom of preparation and self-exam also stems from “fundamentalistic” influence, which believes that a Christian can be saved today and lost tomorrow.  True, every Christian has his spiritual ups and downs, but that is one of the very reasons for which the Lord’s Supper has been instituted and is intended, namely, to strengthen weak faith, by drawing on the Lord Jesus.  Much like prayer, when we need the Lord’s Supper the most we might feel the least worthy of it, which is a good reason why we should participate.  Spiritual weakness is a reason for going to communion, not for staying away.

As regards the touchy question of admission to communion on the part of non-members, we are guilty in this regard often of giving greater importance to a picture of God’s truth than the inspired truth itself.  Any one who presents himself before the preaching of God’s Word is surely adding to his condemnation if he responds negatively, and yet we encourage such persons to keep coming.  Consistency would recommend that if we bar some people from communion we ought to bar them from the two-edged “sword of the Spirit.”  In practice this means that groups like the LDS have some clear thinking and principal behavior when they open their “tabernacles” to all who wish to enter, but limit the temples and the worship therein, with the sacraments, to members.  We try to worship and do evangelism simultaneously , which is difficult in a normal service, but it is unChristian and discourteous to invite unchurched neighbors to any and all of our public services only to tell them politely that from one of the ceremonies they must abstain.  As regards our long-suffering children, who sit through long communion services in the hope that we may provoke them to a holy jealousy, it were better that a separate service be held for non-communcants; no part of a congregation should ever be told, “This part is not for you.”

Apart from that, by what criterion is one to examine himself to see just how sinful and miserable he is or isn’t?  Just how much faith should he have in Christ for salvation, and how can that be measured?  How strong must be the resolution to live the Christian Life (presumably by one’s own efforts)?

The Bible assumes (and so should we) that every member of Christ’s body is always “worthy” to take part in the Lord’s Supper;  readiness is something that should mark him constantly, not just at inspection time.  In the classic passage where Paul says we should “examine ourselves” he is not talking at all about the participants worthiness; you and I might have had our doubts about some of them on that score, and think that Paul should have scolded them.  To the contrary, he says that they were not celebrating the meal in a proper way, and they should give thought to that.  “Either celebrate it with the right attitude toward the meal and others, or stay at home,” he says.

When he says, “You eat and drink judgment upon yourself because you do not discern (see in this meal and its celebration) the Lord’s body” he is certainly not saying that they weren’t thinking about Jesus and his “physical” body; that was part of the problem.  They were not thinking about fellow-Christians, that body of Christ.  They were thinking only of “Jesus and me.”

Paul is saying nothing more nor less than Christ did when he talked about leaving our sacrifice on the altar (the Lord’s Supper on the table) until we are “one” with our fellow-Christian.  On that score we can and do “fall out of grace” between Lord’s Suppers.  That was the sin of the prodigal’s older brother, for the likes of whom the parable was told  – not a rescue mission story.  If the crash programs of family-visits that some churches have prior to the Lord’s Supper lay stress on that aspect of our Christian life, well and good.  But let us not let our reconciled state with God be an object of quarterly or even weekly analysis and anxiety;  that is not entering into God’s “rest”.  A nervous stomach is bad for digestion, either physical or spiritual.

Other weaknesses in the Lord’s Supper celebrations which confuse its participants as to purpose and meaning include:

  1. Inexact typology in one of the forms says that just as a great many berries are squeezed into a single container of wine, or many kernels of wheat are mixed  into one loaf of bread, so are all the members of Christ’s church molded by his Spirit into a unified whole.  This is a pretty picture, and we are allowed to make up such illustrations of our own as “types” of spiritual truths.  In this case, however, the analogy is not found in Scripture but, in fact, is exactly the reverse of what the Lord’s Supper intends to depict, mainly , that from the one to the many, we who partake of the one Lord Jesus Christ find our unity, despite being as “different and apart” as members of a human body, in Him as our single source, life-giver.
  2. Similarly, the breaking of the communion loaf (a symbolism to be preferred to the mechanically-cubed pieces) does not, as we said before, depict the fracture of Christ’s body in crucifixion, but, in symbolizing the death of the believers with Christ, may well depict also the fact that they must be “broken” and “poured out” in order to feed others in turn, first of all their own physical “flesh and blood” (relatives, families).  We are not simply to be served, but to serve; not only dine, but work; receive life, but to give it (by dying to self, as a mother “dies” to reproduce life).  Paul makes the startling statement that he “fills up” the sufferings of Christ by means of his personal sufferings in behalf of the gospel and its dissemination.  In Scripture the picture of wheat-kernels is not that they are ground up to make one bread, but that they are buried and die in order to re-create countless others.
  3. That, in turn, reminds of the un-communionlike controversies that ironically have fractured the fellowship within single congregations over the pictures of truth instead of the truths themselves; bad enough that we create denominations over disputed doctrines; the height of heresy (which basically means “trouble-making”) is to quibble over symbolism.  In the case of baptism it has taken the form of immersion vs sprinkling, but that quarrel can be understood because the reality behind the picture is at issue; two or more things are thereby being represented.  In the case of the Lord’s Supper, individual congregations (the basic unit of the church) have split over the question of individual versus common cups, and wine vs. grape-juice.  Both quarrels arose from failure to understand typology; it’s the common drink, not the container(s).  It’s the color and form of that drink, not the material, which is the point of comparison.  Would those who insist upon wine be agreeable to the white variety? So, a red soft-drink is acceptable (to say nothing of grape-juice) as in many (overseas) communions.  Perhaps not even color is significant; wine (or grape-juice) was the “coffee” of the culture in which Jesus lived and died.  It is not without significance that Jesus did not speak of that after-dinner beverage by name, but he and Paul consistently referred to it as “the cup.”
  4. It is the “cup of blessing” (or “thanksgiving”) which is the term the Israelites had used for 1400 years previously.  The pastor’s hand of benediction upon it is harmless enough, but it is we who do the blessing (praising), not God; we bless Him for it!  Much better that the cup of celebration be raised (by one or all) in tribute and toast to the host and the King.  Let’s let God’s pictures be picturesque!

The Lord’s Supper, Part II (Sacraments, cont.)

Editor’s note:  This is the 100th posting on this blog.  If you have found it to be educational or a blessing and you don’t mind taking just a minute, post a comment to let me know there are readers out there who enjoy following this. Thanks in advance for the encouragement.  

The Lord’s Supper is obviously a meal.  This would seem to be so obvious as not need mention.  But at this point we make the mistake of thinking that we are symbolically dining on Jesus’ crucified body and drinking his disembodied blood, much like a bunch of cannibals.  One of the Lord’s Supper liturgies speaks of eating Christ’s “broken body and shed blood”, a phrase for which there is no Scriptural warrant (showing how closely we ought to stick to the Word in our attempts to improve upon it).  Many people think that the breaking of the communal loaf symbolizes the separation of Christ’s soul from body or perhaps the rupture of his heart, but Scripture is quite insistent that Christ’s perfect atonement involved a physical wholeness of body, which was not broken either in death or as a coup de grace.  (The passover lamb was not to be carved up in the fashion that we do with a pork loin, but roasted in one piece.)

It would have been unthinkable for any Jew, albeit a “fulfilled” (Christian) one, to dine even in symbol on a dead body or drink the blood of a corpse.  This was the intent of the prohibition against meat with the blood in it, a custom in Judaism extending to the present, and which an early Christians council confirmed (while all other dietary customs were called kosher) in order to remove any grounds for the crazy accusation that the first Christians were in superstitious, heathen fashion trusting in a ritual that supposed anybody could get life and strength  from anyone’s death.  (On what other grounds do we feel today that the proscription against blood-wurst does not apply to us? As regards a general distaste for such food anyway – like drinking blood mixed with camel milk –  compare with the general reluctance in “civilized” countries to use blood from cadavers for transfusion even though it is identical to that of a living person.  As regards the prohibition in Acts 15 against fornication, this is not a Puritanic overemphasis on sex sins, but a caution against incest, so prevalent in worldly society of those days,  like the Herods and Caesars, and which was once permitted to their own believing forbears, like Abraham.)

When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” he certainly included his sacrificial death, but certainly more than that, particularly his eternal reality in glory right now which we are so prone to forget with all our pitiful pictures of Christ’s life here upon death, from mewling baby to bloody corpse.  Paul says of all that, “From now on I no longer know Christ Jesus after the flesh.”  When Jesus said, “This (the Lord’s supper) is my body”, he was very much alive, and, of course, he was talking neither of his body of that moment nor what it would become in the next hours, but of the eternal life-giving energy of which “body and blood” are to us symbolic.  “Remember me as I am, now, not as I was”, is what Jesus wants us to do today.

Christ was only doing in graphic fashion at the Lord’s Supper, what he taught in John 6, after the miracle of the feeding of 5,000, when he said, “You have to eat my flesh and drink my blood”, participate in my eternal life, be ingrafted into me and take me into yourself.  If he were to repeat that “sermon” today he would likely use the illustration of a transfusion, in which the very literal life of a vibrant person flows into a desperately weak one.

This point should really have not required all this wordiness.  To put the whole matter in terms of the reality instead of the type, every mature Christian knows that we are not made alive through Christ’s death; that took care of our sin, our guilt.  (“The wages of sin is death.” “God made him to be a sin-offering for us, that we might become the righteousness of God through him”, and made righteous by his life.)  He was delivered up for our transgressions, and raised (made alive) for our justification – to make us righteous.  In the Lord’s Supper we do not dine on Jesus’ death, but on his life, and not the life of that tired, destructible, mortal body he wore from Bethlehem to Calvary, but that immortal, glorious, eternal life he is living right now.  In that sense he is both the meal or food on the Lord’s Supper table and at once the host at its head.  And because of our participation by faith, he is even within the hearts of the communicants, who are veritable “temples” of Christ’s very Spirit.  A Reformed catechism puts it succinctly, we are bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

It hardly needs pointing out that if this conception of the Lord’s Supper would grip us our entire celebration(s) of it would radically change.  Somehow we have the idea it is a meal comparable to the refreshments served after a funeral/burial, and while we are not quite as forlorn as at the grave-side, our joy must be pretty tempered and rather soberly expressed.

Not so.  This meal is comparable to a Thanksgiving feast which a father (and mother) have prepared by literal “blood, sweat and tears”, but do either they or the guests remember that?  It is a “birthday party”, with the honoree bringing all kinds of gifts in addition to the meal, such priceless gifts as love, joy, peace, etc.  Do you see any reason for long faces, melancholy music in that?  It is a home-coming, comparable to the feast for the prodigal son, though it ought immediately be added that such a party is not given if the guests honor should run away after every one and expect another upon his return. (This in reference to the impression that is often left that we have done just that between almost every communions.)  We speak of “celebrating” the Lord’s Supper; celebration denotes singing, dancing, joy.  Quite out of place are such songs as we have in our hymnals for “mission” meetings, with which to invite the unsaved;  Just as I am – poor, wretched, blind.  More on this in the conclusion on this topic.

The Lord’s Supper, Part I (“Sacraments” cont.)

In the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we also easily settle for some superficial meaning and significance, although truer ones are equally obvious.  In a sentence, the Lord’s Supper is usually thought to represent Christ’s death and, secondarily, our life or salvation on account of that.  Closer to fact is the statement that it represents OUR death (in and with Christ), and his life now, in us.

If the Lord’s Supper represents primarily or only the death of Christ on the cross, it is almost superfluous, like a photo of a person who is very much alive and right beside us.  For one thing, we have the written Word with its detailed description of Christ’s death and its significance for us.  In addition to that we are surrounded by countless duplicates of the cross on which Christ gave his life, which is certainly more apt a reminder than a bit of food and drink, which connection has to carefully explained or be meaningless to the uninitiate.  (A picture should be self-evident to any viewer, and not have to be entitled or described in order to be “intelligible”, as in the case of a bunch of purple triangles with the label “Nude descending staircase.”  The fact that it takes far longer to read an explanation of the Lord’s Supper than it does to celebrate it makes one wonder as to whether our explanation is the correct one.)  The cross on which the Lord was “lifted up” has literally been lifted up around the world and in every age since his crucifixion; who can escape its testimony in the civilized world?  It is exposed to the public far more than the Lord’s Supper ever is, which is more of a testimony to oneself and fellow-Christians than to the unsaved.

And if Christ’s death is the prominent truth depicted in the Lord’s Supper, its celebration is of doubtful timeliness at, say, Christmas time, one of the most favorite times for its observance.  Good Friday or Maunday Thursday is appropriate, but a birthday anniversary is a bit incongruous for a death-memorial observance.

A sacrament, after all, is not designed merely to portray objective fact, but to communicate understanding and to elicit the observer’s participant’s involvement.  (Here is where the cross, as a symbol, just because of its very familiarity, has lost much usefulness, can even be counterproductive.  Perhaps an Old Testament comparison would be the brass serpent, a very-real type of Calvary (see John 3:15) which at one time was a God-given means of healing, but later became an an idol through whose veneration people lost their souls.  At one time the cross around a person’s necks was a reminder to the wearer rather than an attractive form of jewelry.  Also with a thousand other forms and uses, including acres of markers over the graves of blatant atheists and profane military people.)

As in the case of baptism (for the two sacraments reinforce one another by having points of similarity as well as difference in typology), the Lord’s Supper is intended to denote and to  assure ourselves of our personal participation in Christ’s death.  That is to say, not just the indisputable fact that an historical Christ, the perfect God-man, once died, (who is so stupid as to challenge that?) nor even that he died in my place (which we believe better on some days than others), but that when he died I died, with him and in him (much like I was in Adam and creation from the very beginning; God added no new molecules or genes to creation after his “rest” on the “seventh day”).  The Lord’s Supper is a picture of Gal 2:20, Romans 6:3,4; Col. 2:20; 3:3.

“As often as you do this,” said Paul in I Cor. 11, “you do show (demonstrate, exhibit) Christ’s death until he returns.”  What he means is that we exhibit, by our participation in that memorial meal, Christ’s death in us.  This is even clearer when he says, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which I am crucified to the world and to me.”  To the same Galatians he also writes categorically that Christ had been displayed before them as crucified.  Paul did not mean that he drew any pictures or had celebrated the Lord’s Supper with them, but that he, though very much alive physically, was a walking demonstration of death to self, death in Christ.  It will come as a surprise to most Christians that the Bible talks more about the Christian’s crucifixion (in the number of times it uses the word) than of Christ’s, who himself repeatedly said that unless we take up our cross and follow him (to Calvary, symbolically) we cannot be his disciple.  That congregation of Christians was inspired which put the letters S E L F on the cross at the back of their pulpit.  This was no offense; we do that by adorning it with jewels and drapes, even finishing finely the crude, splintery log that the original tree must have been.  The cross is incomplete, has not performed its saving purpose, until each of us is nailed upon it.

Baptism, continued (The Sacraments, Part II)

Baptism “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” can also mean nothing more than the washing away of sins, which for many people is all that salvation amounts to; a kind of ticket to heaven, which is about what the word “sacrament” really means.  It is better to use such a word as “ordinance”, a practice or ritual which our Lord ordained, instituted.

Again, if this is all that baptism represents, it might be well if we were baptized more than once, for we all keep sinning even after our regeneration, all of which sins have to be forgiven.  Some early Christians put off baptism until death was imminent (since repeated baptism was not allowed then any more than now), and the Catholic custom of extreme unction, a form of baptism or anointing at the end of life, has something of that early Church idea behind it.  (Accuracy recommends stating that this 7th of the Roman Catholic sacraments originated in the good advice of James 5:15 as to anointing the sick.  This practice is sadly neglected in all communions.)  Jesus indicated our need of repeated or continuous washing in his example of foot-washing in the Upper Room (same hour that he instituted the Lord’s Supper), and it may seriously be considered whether that pious practice on the part of some churches ought not be a third sacrament for all of us.  The Bible does not say how many sacraments there ought to be, or what constitutes one.  If it be said that sacraments have to do with our relation to God, the answer is that the Lord’s Supper has a horizontal dimension as well, and most sins, for which we have to be forgiven, are committed against our fellow human beings. (Without adding another sacrament we might well imitate the Roman Catholic Church by sprinkling ourselves [!] with water at such times as entering worship services.  While this does not depict the reciprocal nature of our repeated sinning and need of mutual forgiveness, it is an apt picture of its continuing persistence as well as God’s ongoing  forgiveness.)

But in that same situation in which Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he said plainly that there is a once and for all cleansing that makes any exact repetition unnecessary and superfluous. (John 13:10)  This was pictured in the Old Testament by the fact that in addition to the daily ablutions of hands and feet by the priests, at their ordination there was an elaborate ceremony in which they were completely bathed, shaved, and put on clean clothes.  It should be remembered – which some of the early Christians forgot – that our baptism, much like the cleansing stream that followed the Israelites in the wilderness, is a continuous thing, constantly washing and refreshing us as we move along through life. (I john 1:9)  In fact, as we all should know, future sins are forgiven by Christ’s one-time atonement as well as those of the past.  In making this point plain the writer to Hebrews asks the rhetorical question, “How many times do you think Christ was or has to be crucified in our stead?”

All this would certainly recommend immersion as a more appropriate mode of baptism than either sprinkling or pouring.  While it may not be warranted to say that immersion is the only permissible mode of baptism, if baptism represented nothing more than complete washing or cleansing from sin, it is a rather inadequate sign (poor picture) to have a baptizee touched on the head with little more than a moist finger, and even that hardly visible  to the “witnesses” outside the immediate huddle around the fount.  Many ministers are making the ceremony more visible, which is the purpose of it all; they should be encouraged to sprinkle the symbolic water on the hands and feet of the recipient as well as the head.  Are we not enjoined to present our entire bodies as living sacrifices, and do we not sing, “Take my hands…. my feet…..”?

But there is something else that the once-ness of baptism (whatever the mode) is supposed to represent, and that is our personal spiritual death and resurrection at the time Christ died and rose again, which is made literal at the time of our second birth and death to “self”, and becomes a matter of consciousness and experience as we reach maturity and discover for ourselves who we are, essentially.  There is no need to argue that for Paul this is the primary meaning of baptism.  (See Romans 6:3,4)  Jesus, of course, spoke of his death as a baptism.  (Cf  II Cor 4:10)

This being so, immersion – which happily symbolizes completeness of cleansing – would seem to be the most preferable mode of baptism on the score of its representation of burial and resurrection.  Certainly the baptismal formula should be stated exactly the way it is correctly written in Christ’s command, “I baptize you into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.  Any child knows that “the name of” is identical with the person who bears it, so that what we are saying at baptism is the person is symbolically engrafted into Christ, becomes one with him and through him with God, as Jesus prayed at the conclusion of the first Lord’s Supper.

In the Old Covenant (Testament) which is a type of the New, the symbolic death of both parties was an important element that we overlook in both the type and its fulfillment.  Parties to a solemn covenant would mix a little blood of each, as pledge of their lives to each other, and invoking death upon either or both in the event of violation.

Next post:  The Lord’s Supper (Part I), a continuation of “The Sacraments”

The “Sacraments” (Ordinances) Part I

So-called sacraments should receive some attention in any course on “preaching” because of the important part they play in worship services and the fact they are New Testament signs or types of spiritual truth which we try to communicate.

Judging from Paul’s and other Scriptural reference to sacraments (I Cor 1:17) it would seem that we either attach undue importance to them or/and are not clear as to their purpose and meaning.  (A few Protestant groups take a dim view of them altogether and leave them optional to their membership.)  Examples of our over-emphasis are the use of the expression “minister of the Word and sacraments” (a non-Biblical addition), and limiting the celebration of the sacraments to the clergy, when they are only the administrants; the officers of the church are in charge of such ceremonies and supervise them.  Protestants as well as Catholics tend to make a “production” of the simple ceremony of the Lord’s Supper by weeks of preparation, long formularies and elaborate liturgies, forgetting that Jesus said, “Do this…”, not “Talk about it,” or “Adorn it.”

And we say that the sacraments are the keys to the kingdom of heaven, reminding of ridiculous caricatures of Peter at the Pearly Gates, but we are inconsistent on that score when we keep a person of uncertain faith from coming to communion and finally may bar him altogether, but do nothing comparable when it comes to the annulment or cancellation of a person’s baptism, by revoking it as having been invalid.  In reciprocity or recognition of other communions we are equally inconsistent.  Most “denominations” (a word that is not found in Scripture) recognize one another’s administration of baptism, but many do not let members of sister (!) fellowships sit down at the Lord’s table unless they subscribe to the peculiar doctrines of the host church.  (No one thing has obstructed the ecumenical movement – not even doctrinal differences – as much as differences in the Lord’s Supper and the ordination of the clergy – a related matter.)  It is the height of irony to recognize, as we should, that there is only “one baptism”, when that is an individual and personal relationship, but not the fact of one comm-union!

Baptism

The most immediate and superficial meaning of this symbol is discipleship.  There were many baptizers in Jesus’ day, some within his fellowship and others not.  This explains the re-baptism of some believers in Ephesus during Paul’s time, see Acts 19.  This seems to be the meaning of baptism in Matt 28:19, where Jesus commands his disciples to make others, baptizing them.  It had this kind of meaning for the Corinthians, who even thought they could be baptized “in the name of ” Paul.  As said above, Paul did not commend those who said they were “of Christ” (versus those of Apollos, et al.), but said they were all deficient in thinking that baptism made them only followers of any one, even Jesus.  (Perhaps this is one way to explain the baptism of the Samaritans by Philip and their later realization as to what it meant. Acts 8)  Paul refrained from baptizing not merely because of the danger of his becoming the spiritual guru to his converts, but lest even Christ, whom Paul preached, be one more, even if the best, of messiahs or religious leaders.  The “Christ” party in Corinth should not have said, “We are OF Christ,” but all of them should have said, “We are IN Christ.” (The NIV wisely translates I Cor 1:12, “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Christ.”)

We make a great deal of the fact that  the baptism formula ought to include the words, “…the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, in order to assure the deity of Christ (in contrast to the point made immediately above).  (The Early Church, it seems, often baptized only  “in the name of Jesus”.)  Of equal importance in the baptismal formula is the little preposition, which is supposed to be “into” –  more on that point later – instead of the familiar “in“.  All that the latter expression means is “on one’s authority”, be it the law, the army, or some individual,  For example, the Trinitarian phrase is found in many wedding ceremonies (which the Catholics call a sacrament), and is of very dubious significance, since everything that any Christian does is supposed to be “in” the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Col 3:17), and every marriage ought to be performed in God’s name or on his authority.  (He instituted this wonderful human relationship.)  Anybody, by rights, should be able to perform a wedding (“in God’s name”).  Actually, a clergyman or civil official does not “marry” a couple or even “pronounce” them man and wife.  The wedding couple marry each other, and it is the state (with its license) that declares them to be legally married.

In other words, the baptismal formula as commonly understood, (comparable to the wedding ceremony) means simply “I baptize you on my authority as a minister of the gospel and of God; as an official representative of the church I declare that you are a member of the church.”  (Once more, a baptizee – if an adult – actually baptizes himself; the official is a witness, as he is in the case of marriage.)  Parents of a child should be the ones to baptize their infants, just as they dedicate their children to God and make solemn promises regarding them even before the child was born or conceived.  Our customs tend to confuse membership in Jesus’ body with membership in a visible organization of which a minister is the executive officer.  In some communions an “ordinary” pastor, who himself trained communicants, cannot himself “confirm” them.

Baptism, Part II of the Sacraments, next post.  

Who I Am and What it Means

I am a brand new person; not a forgiven sinner (as seen on bumper stickers) but a heavenly saint.

  1. Naturally (which a Christian is not – Romans 8:9) a person is self-ish (which is the basic human problem and the root of all sin).  And since no one is satisfied with himself the way he is naturally (physically, etc.) we all tend to have a poor self-image.  The only answer is not psyching oneself up (“I’m OK, you’re OK”), nor even making changes in what we are or aren’t, but becoming a brand new person, somebody different.
  2. In order to effect this, all that we are “by nature” has to die, be buried, and forgotten. (Matthew 10:38, 16:24)  The Bible says that happened to us when Christ died on the cross (Romans 6, Col. 3).  Christ was not simply our substitute, who died for us; we died with Him.  It is up to us to believe that and practice it. (Romans 6:11, Col 2:20)  He that would “save” his life will lose it….etc.  He cannot be two persons, one old and one new.  The Christian is only one person; he does not have two natures, like a Jekyll and Hyde.
  3. In place of our “old man” (like a kernel of corn that dies, or a graft on a stump, even baby in a womb) a new self is born.  (John 3, Matt. 18:3)  It began – just as we all “began” physically in Adam – when Christ came out of the tomb, a new man, Second Adam.  It starts – is born – individually when we become Christians.  It is Christ himself in us, the very Spirit that animated Him.  We are Christ-ians!  (Col. 1:27, Romans 8:10)
  4. This new person, the new”you”, is perfect (can Christ be anything else?).  (I John 3)  That is why Christians are called “saints” in the Bible; it is what they are, now.  The new “you” is immortal; eternal life does not begin when we die, but at re-generation. (John 3:36, I John 3 :14)
  5. How then do we explain the “dualism” in a Christian, his sin?  A Christian consists of three “parts” (like the Old Testament temple, even the triune God).  In this way he is a true human being, a real reflection of God; an unbeliever is just body-soul, a refined animal, whose “spirit” is empty like the Holy of Holies in Herod’s temple.  (Matt. 7:23, I Peter 2:10, II Peter 2:12)  The Christian’s spirit is God’s very Spirit (Ezekiel 36:27), the Spirit of Christ; his soul (mind, will, emotions) is “sanctified” gradually by that perfect Spirit (Gal. 5:16–); his body also is bettered because of its controlling Spirit, but is made up of corruptible elements in order to fit its earthly environment, and perfect Spirit.  (I Cor. 15)  A Christian is satisfied with his present body – insofar as it cannot be improved – , knowing it is perfect for its present purposes.
  6. The “struggle” that a Christian has, then, is not a war with himself (the worst kind there is), but what the Bible calls the “flesh” (including soul as well as body).  These “motions of the flesh” are like the “knee-jerks” of a corpse, or coasting of a “dead” auto.  They are not “you” (Romans 7:17).  Romans 7 is not a description of normal Christian life, but the struggles of a moral unbeliever, or carnal Christian trying to improve in his own strength.

What are the results of all this?

  1.  I am a new person NOW (not in some uncertain future).  Cannan in the Bible is not a picture of heaven (and Jordan of death) but a condition of rest and possession that we ought to enjoy right now.
  2. Total forgiveness; sins of future as well as past (don’t have to ask for forgiveness; thank God for it).  God even says he forgets all our sins. (Isaiah 38:17, 43:25, Jer. 31:33, Hebrews 8:12, 10:17)  We must too.  (Hebrews 9:14; 10:2, 22; I John 3:20; Phil. 3:13)  Satan cannot rob us of our salvation, but he can and does rob us of our assurance, which is almost as bad.
  3. We do not have to fear a future judgment.  (Romans 5:1; 8:1,33,34)  If we already died with Christ, we have been judged and all sin paid for.  (John 5:24; 3:18; I John 2:28, 4:17; Hebrew 9:28) Our old sinful self, dead and gone, will not even appear at the Judgment; just the new perfect “you”.  Matthew 25 and John 3:21 indicate that final “judgment” for the Christian is an awards-assembly! (Also see Psalms 26, 43)
  4. We do not even have to fear death!  The old “us” died with Christ already, once and for all.  Eternal life began at conversion.  What we call death is a painless doorway out of an evil world.  True, our bodies die, but that is only an exchange for a new one; good riddance.  (John 11:25; 5:24; 8:51;  I Cor. 5:14;  I John 3:14;  Romans 8:23;  II Cor. 5:1-8; 4:16)
  5. We have the power and ability not to sin; it is a cop-out to say we have to.  (I Cor. 10:11;  Hebrews 2:14;  I John 2:13, 3:8, 4:4, 5:4;  II Cor. 2:14;  Romans 8:37)
  6. We have the ability to live perfect lives.  (I This 5:23;  Hebrews 13:21;  Eph 3:20;  I Cor 1:30;  Eph 2:10;  Phil 1:6, 2:13)  What God commands, He expects and enables. (Matt 5:48;  II Peter 1:3,9;  1:15,16;  I This 4:3;  I John 2:1)  Paul made self an example!  (I Cor. 4:16, 11:1;  Phil. 3:17; II Thes 3:7)

The Means of Realizing this Security

  1. One must want it.  Unbelievably, there are many Christians who do not want it; they prefer selfness (false humility, etc.).  We must be willing.  Eph 3:20.  This requires open-ness, readiness to change.
  2. We must simply ask; God wants nothing more than to give it.  (Luke 11:13, Matt 7:11)
  3. Abandon all self-effort.  We are especially weak here, thinking that once we are Christians, we must “work out our own salvation”, forgetting Phil. 2:13.  Christian life is not one of gratitude, but Christ’s life in us.  So: we are not to ask that God give us love, etc., but that He be our love, wisdom, joy, truth.  Sanctification is not we growing in grace, but more of Christ in us.  (Phil 3:10, 14)
  4. Have the very mind of Christ, so as to know the will of God and God Himself.  (Phil 2:5;  I Cor 2:16;  Romans 12:2)  The way to achieve this is by saturating oneself with Scripture, which is God’s mind on paper; think like God!
  5. Rejoice always!  God operates via the praises of his people (Psalm 22:3.  Note context.)  Jesus did; Paul did.  (Eph 5:20;  Phil 4:4, 6;  Col. 3:15;  I Thes. 5:16,18;  Phil 1:18;  Col 1:24;  II Cor 6:10; 12:9,10.)