Tag Archives: Bible

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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Holy Spirit

The similarity between the Holy Spirit and the wind or breath and air is so close that you could almost say that it is not a simile or a metaphor but it’s a definition.  In fact it’s his name.  Most of us know more Greek than we realize.  I think almost as many words come from the Greek as from the Latin, so we are using them all the time.  One of them is the word for spirit, whether mine or yours or the Holy Spirit, and that is pneuma.  Everywhere in the New Testament where you read about spirit, whether it is what Jesus gave up to God on the cross or the Holy Spirit that came from heaven.  Of course we use it in pneumonia, or pneumatic tools and so on.  Jesus naturally in talking to Nicodemus made use of that figure in John 3 when he says, “You must be born of the Spirit.”  And this is fulfilled beautifully in Acts 2 on Pentecost.

The words wind and breath and air are virtually synonymous.  Sixteen of our high school boys took part in a track meet and talking about their breath they would say, “I’m just winded.”  Or, “I got my second wind.” Or we use the expression, “I got the wind knocked out of me.”  And there was a great amount of wind that was at the track meet that had to be accounted for or reckoned with.  Records can not be established if there is a greater wind velocity than this or that.  But as I started to say, if there is no wind we don’t say that, we say, “there was not a breath of air.”  So there you have all three words, which are virtually interchangeable.  And all three of them are used to describe the Holy Spirit.  There is bound to be some overlapping as we look at these three words, much like ice can become water and can vaporize and become steam.  Just like that is often used as a symbol of the trinity, so too with the Holy Spirit as a symbol of himself, so He is air and wind and breath all at the same time.

Let’s look at the Holy Spirit first as air.  Three characteristics:  It is invisible, and it’s universal – omnipresent if you want to use that term – and it is essential.  And there you have three perfect descriptions of the Holy Spirit who is the breath or the air of God.  With regards to his invisibility, here is something, air now, which is very real. It is one of the most real phenomena in the world.  Yet no one has ever seen it.  We are sitting in the midst of it like a giant ocean but no one has ever seen it, not even with electronic microscopes.  It is just invisible, and isn’t that a perfect picture of the Holy Spirit?  No one will ever see it, at least with physical eyes, and yet we know it exists.  One of the first experiments we had in physics in high school was to weigh air and we had to laugh thinking that air had no weight.  But we found out by weighing flasks that had a vacuum with those that were pressurized that air had real weight.  So here we sit in this ocean of air, we sleep in it, we work in it.  We got to, and how we take it for granted, the way we do God, His Holy Spirit, in whom we live and move and have our very being.

He is also universal.  Water is found in most parts of the earth, but in some parts of the world it is almost nonexistent like the Sahara desert.  Air on the other hand is virtually everywhere.  One couldn’t venture into areas without air unless they had some sort of artificial air. Houdini used to allow himself to buried and through control of his respiration would be able to eventually escape unharmed.  There is air in water.  Fish through their use of gills can extract the air out of the water.  And although water is impressive in its scope with oceans that extend from California to China, it is nothing compared to the universality, the homogeneity, the commonness of air.   So that the air we are “swimming in” today may be half was across the country in a matter of hours and in weeks may be in China.  It is just one, singular.  We demonstrate the unity of the human race by the fact that we are of one blood.  Paul says to the Greeks who were rather snobbish, “God has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth.”  So we can transfuse blood from one person to another and yet there are different types of blood.  But in contrast to that, we all breathe the same air.  The same oxygen goes into our blood.  So it is a perfect picture of the omnipresence of God.  Psalm 139 says, “Where can I go apart from your Spirit.  Where can I go where you are not found?”   We can go without bread and water, which Jesus compared himself to, but we can not go 5 minutes without air.  Is it any wonder that Jesus to Nicodemus talked about his spirit, the Holy Spirit, as air.  It is universal, indispensable and absolutely essential.  And it is free, available, unlike water.  I wonder if there isn’t poetic appropriateness in this age of culture pollution if it isn’t sort of a scientific nicety that our air is polluted, contaminated, irreversibly.  And there is something very appropriate about the statement in scripture, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”

Air in motion is first of all a breath like what we breathe, take in. And here we take in this wonderful ocean of God’s creation that he brought into being in paradise. Isn’t that thrilling too? It’s always new yet eternal. Changing form and reusable, same air as Adam breathed, you might say.  Now we personalize it, individualize it and call it breath.  That’s called God’s breath; the Holy Spirit becomes part of our being, a very part of us.  You don’t have to be a doctor to know that what you breathe in is passed from the lungs to the blood and taken to all the various cells in the body.  Now the amazing thing is that the air all around us wants to get into our lungs.  There is almost something alive about air.  It wants to get into our lungs and we have to repel it, keep it out.  I’m over simplifying now but one of the reasons why we can go to sleep at night and not worry about having to breathe is that it is instinctive to expel air. But it is an impulse of nature to fill our lungs.  Nature abhors a vacuum and so there is a space, a cavity in our body and air rushes in.  Then instinct takes over and we expel it but right away that vacuum is created and in rushes the air.  There is pressure in the world, pressure around us.  The air presses to get in, to be used.  You know why people are lost without the gospel, who are lost for lack of oxygen, for spiritual oxygen now, God’s breath, that He breathed into man in paradise, that he chose to reject? You know why people die?   It is because they hold their breath. They resist the Holy Spirit.  It is as simple as that.  He yearns after all men.  Genesis says His spirit is jealous of us, longs to envelop us, as He does, possess us and indwell us.  We got to pinch our noses and that is why Jesus said in John 16 that when the Holy Spirit is come he will convict the world of judgement.  Why? Because they are such bad people? Walking corpses, because they are spiritually dead? No. It is because they believe not in me, they don’t breathe.  They hold their breath.  They would rather smell the decaying offal of the world.

The wonderful thing is is that we can pass on that breath.  Or really prompt others to breathe since everyone has to do their own breathing.  We can be the means of communicating the very breath of God. In John 20, the first day of the week or actually the new creation, when things first started again as a counterpart to Genesis, Jesus first appeared to his disciples who were gathered together.  And after finishing saying, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you,” he breathed on them.  Didn’t just raise his hands over them, or body to body contact.  He wanted to indwell them, his very breath to possess them. “Receive ye the Holy Spirit.”  We have all heard of artificial respiration but do you know it is relatively modern?  When I was a boy I was in a club much like the cub scouts and we practiced the Red Cross scheme of aiding a drowning victim with them face down and straddling their back with compresses, “Out goes the water, in goes the air,” being the rhythm.  But now that is obsolete and we have improved upon it.  Even the home-made, rule-of-thumb respiration is mouth-to-mouth.  And what is one to say of inhalation therapy that has revolutionized modern medicine. We tend to think of advances in medicine in regards to surgeries or antibiotics or cancer treatments, vaccines, and so on.  But a lot of credit in surgery belongs to inhalation therapy.  Many of us wouldn’t be here without that oxygen that man has learned to can, so to speak.  And so when Jesus said to his disciples, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit,” he was giving them artificial respiration and they would in turn pass it on to others.

This can become power, and that is air or breath in motion.  We know that hot air rises and more recently we have become aware of the movement of air on temperature.  We have known for sometime how humidity can affect the feel of a given temperature, but now we know that the affect of air movement, which we call the wind chill in winter, can have just as much effect if not more on our comfort.  So the movement of air or breath has so much to do with our well being and that is true in the spiritual realm as well.  One of our greatest sources of energy is just this thing of moving air.  I’m thinking of the windmills that dot the landscape in the Netherlands, and it isn’t just that they are quaint and picturesque but they are kept there despite the amount of land that they occupy or require.  They are somewhat crude compared to our American windmills, but they persist in using them not because of sake of tradition but rather because every year they reclaim acres and acres of land for this nation.  Holland is growing because of the windmill.  They move oceans of water through the use of the air.  Farmers get energy to light their humble cottages because of these devices. There is always ongoing studies to figure out better ways to harness moving air, which is wind, of course.  Or air brakes that stop mile long trains just by the application of air.

Now then, applying it to the Holy Spirit who is air in motion, who is breath, who is wind – the only way in which we can be recipients of that power is to be in a right relationship to Him. You have to be in the center of God’s will, or everything that I have said about life, movement and energy and power is moot.  We’re all aware that airplanes’ flight patterns for landing change on account of the wind.  Children flying kites can stand in one direction one day and a different direction the next to get their kites in the air, depending on the wind.  Now, how often are you and I powerless, bucking the wind or rowing upstream to change the figure, just because we are not moving along with the Holy Spirit, capitalizing on His power.  That’s what Jesus was talking about when he was talking to Paul, [sic] “Saul, you are a man of motion, energy and power but you are kicking against the bricks. You should be going along with me. We are at a standstill so to speak, cancelling each other out. You are fighting my work.  Why do you persecute me?”  And then we read this pretty expression “that he who had (been) breathing out threatening” – I think it is very deliberate that the Holy Spirit who inbreathes the Bible use that expression – “breathing out threatening” – like a dragon sort of smoke and fire – “began to breathe out blessings.”

Well one form that we can exert this power, that we can share this life that we have is through prayer.  Prayer is the Christian’s breath, his native air.  And by means that we can reach around the world. We would never think of someone taking down a windmill because he didn’t have enough air to make more than one of them run.  Air is free.  You can have as many windmills as you want.  That is what the Bible means when it says, “Pray without ceasing.”  Why settle for 5 minutes in the morning or 5 minutes at night, if that.  We should always be praying.  It is our very breath.  Whoever thought of just breathing for a little while, getting hyperoxygentated, then rushing to school and holding their breath the rest of the day.  Breathe constantly.  Pray without ceasing.  And you can reach out that little windmill of yours and because you are facing the Lord, you are in tune with His power, you can change people behind the Iron Curtain and behind the Bamboo Curtain that you will never see until glory.  Artificial respiration.  Another form of this is the Word of God, which is the power of God unto salvation.  Why does this book change lives, change people, unlike self-help books that may change your thinking or lifestyle?  Books about racism may change your whole attitude towards others but doesn’t change you into those other races. What’s the difference between the Bible and other books?  The Bible is God breathed, it’s in-spired.  And so when the Gideons are distributing their books into the motels they are breathing out the gift of life.  They are a vehicle, bottled oxygen, containing God and passing it on to others.  It is said that one Bible in a motel room can reach 3000 people.  What power we possess.  We are the spiritual mid-wives for the world.  I say again, everyone has to do their own breathing.  I wish we could breath for others.  We are the spiritual obstetricians that make them spark that first breath, makes them gasp for life.  So say, “Lord,” like Saul, “what would you have me do?”  We are the nursery for the new humanity.  What an honor, what a job.  So we ought to have for our first prayer be the hymn, “Breathe on me breath of God, ’til I am wholly thine, ’til all this earthly part of me, glows with Thy power divine.  Breathe on me breath of God, so shall I never die, but live with Thee the perfect life of Thine eternity.”

Typology, Part I

Definition:  The study and interpretation of types and symbols, originally especially in the Bible. 

Typology is a very important type of expository preaching which, throughout the entire history of the church, has been used profitably by many outstanding preacher/Bible students.  Typology itself, especially in the form of the sacraments (the Word made visible) is an important part of the Christian ministry (leading to all kinds of disagreement as to who can administer them, etc.)

Just as doctrine is often formulated (and distorted) through songs, our theology is weak and even wrong on account of incorrect typology, especially the great doctrine of the “exchanged, new, fuller life” which is ignored and even denied because of misconceptions as to Canaan and the significance of the meaning of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

First of all, the entire creation, God’s general revelation, his Word in the world, is typological.  God built the physical, visible, world along spiritual, “invisible” (even redemptive) lines. (Plato believed this.) Even “numbers” figure in this revelation; Scripture makes a great deal of the symbolism to be found in numbers (but, again, beware of extreme applications); Numerology can become as bizarre as astrology (or palm-reading, which capitalizes on the scientific fact no two finger-prints in human history are identical), but in this area too it is worth observing the difference between Western and Eastern worlds in the very form of numbers, so that the regimented and structured Roman numerals is unusable for higher mathematics, while the fluid, artistic, Arabic “figures” of 1-0 can be used to infinity, have intrinsic attractiveness as to form, and yet are adaptable to modern digital use.

Secret of the Universe is an entire book about the Trinity in Creation.  We practice the principle in this paragraph by using hearts to symbolize love, or flags to represent political entities and inspire patriotism.  “Mere” color has much meaning and psycological significance, and is used accordingly in the Bible. Scripture, accordingly, makes a great deal of the “revelational” character of creation. (See Romans 1:18-23; 2:12-16; 10:18-21.)

The entire Bible is a typological book, whether you use the word parable, symbol, story, or what Paul calls an “allegory” in Galatians 4:21-ff; also called a “figure”.  Entire volumes have been written about the types in Scripture alone.  In a certain sense, the prophecies of Scripture are “typical”; certainly contain types.  This is especially true in the Old Testament, which is God’s “primer”, picture-book of spiritual truth.  Paul sums it:  These things happened and were recorded for us. (I Cor 10:11; Also see Hebrews)

Ordinarily we think of the New Testament as being the fulfillment, the reality, of the truths for which the Old Testament is full of types, or pictures.  But the New Testament, in turn, is crammed full of types, some of present reality, others for the future and/or of eternal significance.  Think of the so-called sacraments (an unfortunate term), over which there is so much disagreement as to meaning.  Think of the “I Am’s” of Christ, plus the literally countless other figures – Lamb of God, serpent in wilderness, and the Rock of Matthew 16:18 (often applied wrongly to Peter and who not).  The Church is symbolized by marriage, a house (forgotten by those who persist in calling a building “God’s house”, as though He and it were some kind of idols), a human body, salt, light, etc.  Miracles are acted-out sermons, and parables, of course, are earthly pictures of spiritual truths.  The Sermon on the Mount is almost nothing but a series of metaphors, analogies, illustrations.

So, true preaching (following the example of Jesus) is basically “typological”, by taking “abstract” truth “visible”, understandable, convincing, and motivating, by means of parallels, “morals”, and illustrations between Scripture and the preaching situation.

There are three basic methods of approaching the Bible, all of which can be “expository” of sort, and all of which, of course, are subject to the pleasures of their users, including “heretics” as well as the orthodox.

  1. There is the “Bible as literature” approach, often used at the Sunday School level, in which the stories of Scripture (and the Bible is undeniably one continuous story, from creation to eternity) are learned, apart from whether they are true and really happened (e..g. Jonah, Job, even Adam), and various lessons are drawn from them as to our temporal and eternal welfare.
  2. An opposite extreme is the systematic theology treatment, in which all the material in Scripture is neatly and logically organized under different doctrines, whether it be Providence (as shown in the lives of Biblical characters) or God (which runs the danger of reading back into the Old Testament what is really revealed only in the New), or Salvation (which often overlooks the fact that Old Testament “saints” were not regenerated and did not go to heaven when they died).
  3. Biblical-theology preaching studies the Sacred record exactly according to the way and the purposes in which it was written, namely, a progressive unfolding of God’s revelation as to himself, man, salvation, etc.  It is, naturally, Christological at heart (in the fashion that all of human history is dated B.C. or A.D.).  It stresses the basic unity of Scripture (as to theme and contents), while still pointing out the drastic differences between the two Testaments.  (Unger sums it nicely: Old Testament is preparation for the Redeemer; Gospels record his manifestation; Acts the propagation of the gospel; Epistles contain the explanation, and Revelation summarizes the consummation of the ineffable plan.)  This does not mean that the only system or sequence by which the Bible can profitably be studied (or read) is from cover to cover (as in the case of other books), but it does mean that every part of all 66 books must be studied in terms of the whole.  Identical words in David’s mouth mean something radically different from Paul saying them (And, of course, it makes a difference whether the same words are in a psalm, an epistle, a prophecy, or historical book.)

 

Expository Preaching

A simple definition of expository preaching is not a running commentary, a verse-by-verse reading and “explaining” of individual words, phrases, and ideas (which can miss the forest on account of the trees).  Usually  (not necessarily) is SERIAL study of the Bible, usually a book at a time (not necessarily in Bible-order); a given unit may be a chapter or part of one (sometimes an entire book of the Bible, even a big one!), with discovery of the key idea in the passage, its relation to the context, the supporting sub-ideas, and the application of the whole to the current listeners.  Despite the virtues of this system and the advantages to a pastor, various pressures make inferior kinds of sermons (topical, “occasional”) more popular.  For this reason we list some arguments in favor of expository preaching:

  1.  Agreed; the Bible should be the textbook for all preaching.  What other textbook is used in any other way than “expository”? (As it is, we use scripture as a recipe-box of slogans, mottoes, maxims, edifying ideas, and unsystematic theology as “texts”.)
  2. Agreed; preaching is (should be) teaching; exposition is simply teaching.
  3. This is the way the Bible was written; not as a book of theology, a catechism or creed, but a progressive unfolding, a revelation, with order, sequence, unity, system.
  4. It is the way that the typical Christian ought to study the Bible for himself; sermonizing (preparation and presentation) on the part of a preacher ought to be a model, example of this.
  5. This was the method by which God’s people in the Old Testament studied the Word of God. (Note the Providence by which Jesus’  “text” in his sermon at Nazareth was arrived at, and the impact that it had on the audience just because it wasn’t artificially selected for the occasion the way we will pick “inaugural” sermons and others. (Luke 4)
  6. Jesus used this method of “preaching”.  Cf. “sermon” on the road to Emmaus.
  7. Paul and the Early Church followed this practice.
  8. The Reformers practiced this system; cf. Calvin’s commentaries, which are his “sermons”.  With their aversion to multiplication of special days, sermons on “Christmas” etc. were not necessarily on nativity texts or subjects.
  9. All times of revival generally and re-emphasis upon preaching have been marked by it.
  10. Church-building preachers have been known of this method; Campbell Morgan, Ian Thomas, Spurgeon, M. Lloyd-Jones, Donald Barnhouse, John MacArthur.  (Versus “name” preachers!)
  11. Today, wherever the church is growing, preaching is usually expository; S. America (Juan Ortiz), Korea.
  12. All the popular Bible-study systems – Navigators, Campus Crusade, Walk Through the Bible – are basically expository (in contrast to devotional booklets with random texts).
  13. The abysmal ignorance of the Bible outside and within the church demands a “return” to this type of Bible study.  (How many “indoctrinated” church members can tell the theme of Colossians, Philippians?  Where to find the Sermon on the Mount? The 7 “I Am’s”?
  14. Such a system will be certain to cover the “whole counsel” of God, instead of constant repetition of a few familiar themes by following the “church calendar” or other.  (As mentioned above, sermons are given added impact because the listeners can never suspect the choice of subject was contrived, self-serving, audience-pleasing or -scolding.
  15. It is really the easiest for the pastor – in terms of subject selection, preparation.  Other systems spend too much attention on form, to neglect of contents.  Illustrations tend to leap from Scripture itself.  (Preparation for the ministry itself is simplified or concentrated on Scripture in the case of expository preaching.  Men like Billy Graham have had only Bible-college training versus expensive liberal arts diversification. The modern minister cannot be expected to be an expert in more than the Scriptures.)
  16. For the Native American, expository preaching lends itself to his synthetic approach to life, versus the analytic, theoretical, abstract, philosophical.
  17. Expository preaching makes long-term pastorates possible (as evidence by men mentioned under Pt. 10, above. (Topical preachers who spent a lifetime in a given church usually had a big turn-0over in their audiences.)  All agree that short pastorates are far from ideal, and do not build up a congregation.  The big reason for the “game of musical chairs” in parsonage and pulpit is that the pastor is “preached out”, (despite the inexhaustibleness of the Scriptures) because of the limited number of ways a minister can preach on a limited number of subjects, be they ethical, doctrinal, or other.

Now is the Day of Salvation

Experts tell us that Paul wrote 4 letters to the Corinthians of which we have two.  In the fifth chapter of II Corinthians he is talking about the reasonable expectation that we can look for new bodies immediately upon death.  I think that sometimes we think we are in kind of a Jehovah Witness state of coma waiting for our bodies, but I think that Paul indicates otherwise in II Corinthians 5.  In the seventeenth verse he says that “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creature, the old has passed away, behold the new has come.”  Paul goes on to say, keep in mind that he didn’t have chapters and verses when he wrote this, in Chapter 6 verse 2, “Now is the day of salvation.”

I suppose most of you think that this will be an evangelistic post.  And that text, “Now is the day of salvation” has often been used for that purpose.  Although I doubt it, I may have used that verse myself in that context, to call people to repentance.  But that is not what Paul is saying here. He doesn’t say, “This is the day of repentance, this is the day to become converted, this is the day to make your peace with God.”  No, he says, “this is the day of salvation” which is something else.  He is writing to Christians.  In fact, the whole Bible is written to Christians. We are to be living epistles who bring people to conversion and then they read the scriptures to be food for their souls.

Like many Christians, the Christians in Corinth were “half-saved” if I may use that expression.  They were carnal, which doesn’t mean that some of them were bad, although some of them likely were or did bad things.  They weren’t wicked; he calls them “saints”. But they were fleshly.  And if that doesn’t make much sense, they were kids, immature, half-grown Christians.  That’s what a child is after all, very fleshly.  It sleeps, eats, does things that we wouldn’t tolerate in a grown up.  And it is perfectly natural in child, but we as Christians need to get beyond that childhood level.  I’m not scolding or trying to wall anybody out, but it is a simple fact that the majority of Christians are carnal.  Now if you think that that is a little strong, keep in mind that what makes a child a child is that he doesn’t know who he is.  Doesn’t know whether he is a boy or a girl, his name, who is parents are or if he is an American.  He or she doesn’t know who they are.  And that characterizes most of Christians.  They don’t know who they are.  Now that sounds strong, but I hope to demonstrate the truth of that in the course of this post.

We talk about being filled with the Spirit and the Bible tells us to be filled with the Spirit, but are you aware that you are?  If we are born again, we are.  But many people don’t realize it, call upon that Spirit of God within them, make use of it, enjoy it.  And that, fellow pilgrims, brothers and sisters, is why many denominations are not growing.  We are not happy, we don’t have assurance.  The perseverance of the saints is one of the 5 points of Calvinism, but our subculture [the church] is often characterized by more depression and self-guilt, fear and phobia than the national average, because we don’t know who we are.

And we don’t have a gospel.  Jesus said “that if I am lifted up I will draw all men unto myself.”  Jesus says, “I want you to have life, and more abundant life,” and “I want your joy and that your joy should be full.” “I want you to have peace, and it should be my peace, my confidence, my serenity.”  Jesus was never shook up, he was never worried. He didn’t have false guilt.  I realize that he was perfect, but my point is is that we are too, in Him.  My big point is that NOW is the day of salvation.  We should enjoy it, use it today, enter into our inheritance.  You may have heard of people that carry so much life insurance that they deprive themselves of food or don’t go on trips or deprive their kids of inheritance.  They are always looking towards the day when their IRA comes due, they have great annuities.  Even if they lived to enjoy that, which a lot of them do not, what a way to mortgage the present in favor of an unknown, uncertain future.  And that describes the Christianity of a lot of us.  It’s “pie in the sky when you die, by and by.”  That is their salvation.

If I were to ask what it means to be saved, many would say, “To have your sins forgiven.”  That’s what people say when they make profession of faith, and you can forgive young people that answer because they are young; that is my point.  They have some growing to do.  But it is all wrong when we as adults say that what it means to be a Christian is that we “go to heaven.”  What did Jesus do to save you?  “Died on the cross.” That’s about it.  That’s the whole sum and substance of our faith, “He died on the cross.”  But that is just the beginning.  Communion too just commemorates his death rather than ingest His life!  And commemorates His death in me, that I died with Him.  The Lord’s Supper shouldn’t be a wake, a funeral meal. It’s a homecoming, a Thanksgiving Dinner, a wedding feast.  You wouldn’t think so by the songs that we sometimes sing at it, but that is what it is.  What does it mean to be saved?  That Christ lives in you, not that he died for you.

Did you know that the Bible talks more about the present than the future?   Even the book of Revelation.  It talks more about money than “the hereafter”.  Whenever you read in the Bible “the Kingdom of Heaven” you can pretty much understand that to be something here on earth.  Jesus says “the Kingdom is within you.”  We are citizens of the kingdom here and now.  Ephesians says that we are “reigning with Christ!”  Eternal life begins the moment one is converted.  And that means we don’t have to die, this thing that we fear.  All our lifetimes, says Hebrews, we are subject to bondage of the fear of death.  All of our phobias are reducible to the fear of death.   Whether it is lack of a job, sickness, accident, they are all reducible to the fear of death, which is why we are subject to bondage.  And now Jesus has rescued us from that basic fear.  We never have to die.  Oh, we call it death, from our side, just like a person who has fallen asleep.  We can talk to them (while they are sleeping) and they don’t hear us, they are “dead to the world.”  But they are very much alive.  So by that same token, someone who is lying in a casket we call dead but they didn’t die.  If they were to come back and we’d ask, “How did it feel?”, they’d  say, “How did what feel?” Death is a painless thing, like walking through a door.  Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me shall never die.”

If we were honest, most of us would have to admit that we read Bible out of sense of duty, that’s our requirement as Christians, our quiet time.  And by that we mean  we have to find out “the will of God for our lives.”  Well that word “will” is a beautiful word.  It is a synonym for legacy, or testament.  And if a will was probated and you found out that you were in it, you would probably look over it carefully, with all its latin words and legalisms.  And that’s the way we should read the Bible, because it is God’s will for you.  His promises, what He has for you, not what he is telling you to do.

So, how do you realize all this, that you could live a perfect life, if you wanted to?  It is just our will.  People will to be about just as happy as they want to be and as wicked as they want to be.  Just remember that you are in Christ. 150 times it says in the Bible that we are in Christ and Christ is in us.  The old person that your mother birthed, that is not you, not truly you.  The Bible has lots of illustrations of this…vine and branches, etc.  But the best one is husband and wife, how a woman takes on her husbands last name.  She is no longer whatever her maiden name was, she is a new person, a new legal entity.  And she “forsakes” her father and her mother to set up a home of her own.  She “leaves and cleaves.”  She is identified with him.  And so, we become new creatures in Christ. He is, as the Bible say, “our husband.”  We have to be who we are, know who we are.  “For me to live is Christ.”   Then you’ll have peace.  You’ll have that security that we are always talking about now days.  We seek it in all forms, be it in marriage, money, job or citizenship, country.  That will give you that “peace which passes all understanding.”  It will give us evangelism, it will give us a gospel.  We beat our brains for new methods and suggestions, we try this and we try that.  But if we knew who we are, the world would take knowledge of us that we were in Jesus.  “I am the way, without me there is no going.  I am the truth, without me there is no knowing.”  By being Christians we can have the very mind of Christ.  This is life, union life, the more abundant life.  “To know him more clearly, to love him more dearly, to be him more nearly.”

Bible

Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible.  It occurs in the longest book in the Bible (at least as far as number of chapters is concerned) and is located in the center of the Bible.  When I teach children how to find books in the Bible I tell them if you want to find Psalms you open right in the middle of the book, right in the center or heart of the word of God.  Verse 33 says “Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end.”  And verse 89 reads, “Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.”  There are many other references throughout Psalm 119.

Without further adieu, I would like to talk about the Word of God and its qualities.  I suppose I could have labeled it its characteristics but I like the word quality because it conjures value.  In the case of God we speak of them as His virtues.  The first quality then is the fact that it is a book.  That may seem to be a truism but we don’t often regard it as a book.  We think of it more as a fetish, an amulet or a charm, to be used in presidential inaugurations when they lay their hand on the Bible.  We talk about swearing on a stack of Bibles and that is the use we often make of it.  We should remember that having a lot of them around the house is valueless.  We need to use it properly and regard it as a book, to be used.  We must be wary of getting hung up on versions.  One might be more comfortable with a certain version but there is much to be gained by studying or reading from the different versions.  A couple of other quick points, which may be superficial, is that this book was written by many different authors, at least 40 of them.  It was written over 1600 years.  The authors didn’t know each other necessarily, there was no collaborations, they had no intention of writing a sacred book.  I mention all this because that is unlike the sacred writings such as the Koran, or the Book of Mormon or the Vedas of the Hindus.  This is a versatile, cosmopolitan book.  And that is what gives it relevance and applicability to all times and to all cultures and ages.  It isn’t that one man at one point in time sat down and wrote this book but that over a millennium and a half, all these different men, rich and poor, young and old wrote it.  It has got something for all of us.

Another quality is that it is errorless.  Now we have not always understood that matter of its infallibility as we should.  We have made the Bible to say things that it doesn’t, such as that the world is only 4000 years old which you don’t find that in the Bible at all.  So it has inaccuracies of our fabrication but for the rest, unlike other human books, it is completely free of error.  It means that God kept these men free from error so that we can depend upon the book, go to it for life and death help.  Which brings me to the most important quality of all and that is its inspiration.  This is something different from its infallibility or freedom from error.  They are related; if a book had error then it wouldn’t be inspired, it couldn’t be depended upon.  But all that being said, there are human books, I’m told, that are free from error.  They try to make the telephone book, for obvious reasons, free from mistakes and history books should be as well as mathematical or scientific books need to be.  They proof read them over and over so that they are free of error, but that doesn’t make them inspired, like the Bible.  We say Shakespeare was inspired, and he was.  Handel said he saw heaven open when he was writing The Messiah.  I think Uncle Tom’s Cabin was inspired.  But this is all kind of in quotation marks.  Inspired means simply that God is in it.  In-spirited.  That is what the word means.  His spirit is in it.  It is a lively book.  That is why Ken Taylor called his version, The Living Bible, which he took from Peter who spoke of it as a vibrant, organic sort of a thing.  (I Peter 1:23-25) James says the same thing in his first chapter.  (James 1:18)  So it has the life of God in it, it is like electricity that can vitalize any wire with which it is connected.  “Is not my word like a fire?” says Jeremiah.  That is how God breaths into us by means of His Word and we become partakers of the divine image.  Just think of it.  Sons of God.  Peter speaks of this in his 2nd epistle.  That’s what it means to be inspired, alive, has God in it.  Jesus was called “The Word of God.”  People refer to it as “The Holy Bible.”  What else do you speak of as being holy besides the body of Christ other than God?  Now you begin to see what Jesus meant when he said, “Heaven and earth will pass away but my word shall not pass away.”  Obviously these Bibles will go up in smoke, so I’m not talking about the physical format when I say the Bible will last forever but the Word of God shall, even in heaven.

This book, because of what it contains and what it is, because it is God in paper, stereotyped divinity, determines the duration of the world itself.  It dominates world history.  Every human being is concerned about the end of the world, whether it will happen in our lifetime or the lifetime of our children, and there are many things that make it seem like it is immanent like natural disasters such as earthquakes and other less natural disasters that are man made or famine.  The reason we think about these things in this context is that they threaten our individual lives.  Jesus says that these things happen in every generation to make them think about their personal finiteness and the end of the world, but he goes on to say  “don’t be all shook up” in Matthew 24.  Jesus says there is one thing that will mark the end of the world and that is the global dissemination of the Word of God.  That is one measuring device that we can calculate and calibrate, like we do when we measure the distance of a trip…we’ve gone so far and we’ve got so far to go.   Sometimes we are looking for the anti-Christ, and John says even in his day that there were many anti-Christs, “we’ve got them already!”  So it isn’t this  matter of a final anti-Christ but it is the translation and the distribution of the Bible.  The simple purpose in prolonging and continuing and extending history is the propagation of the gospel.  This is why it is called the Latter Days.  After Jesus had done everything to save this world, then all that remained – which made it the Latter days, long or short – was to tell it all to all.  Now it doesn’t say that everybody is going to be converted, but that every culture will be confronted.  I thought at one time this meant that every dominant culture will be Christianized, like Russia once was.  But the Bible doesn’t say we can look for that in the case of every last nation.  It simply says that the Bible will be what it was intended to be, a confrontation, a savior of life unto life or death unto death.  So the purpose of disseminating the gospel is to give every nation a chance.  And it is in light of this book that everyone will be judged.  So the obvious implication is that if we want to bring back The King we need to get out the word.

With regards to our personal usage, we need to soak it up.  “Thy Word have I hid in my heart.”  We talk a good game, we have our Bible societies and our Bible schools, Christian schools that are based on the Bible.  But it is all just a waste of time if that is all it is.  We say, “Oh, of course it’s inspired,” but just let it gather dust and don’t learn it and love it, memorize it.  We can theologize and say “we just plumbed the deeps.”  But if we don’t learn the Word with our children and study it, then all the reading that we do of it and paraphrasing of it doesn’t matter if we neglect the Word itself; then it is of no great concern whether it is inspired or not.

Well the hardest part of all is that we have to live it.  Peter says, “[Since you have been born again by means of the word of God] rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.”  Put it all away, be perfect!  He doesn’t say, “Do the best you can. The Lord will tolerate a little bit, 1%, a guy has to have a little fun.” No, he says “all…be like newborn babies, crave spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”  “Then you will become a living stone in the great family in the household of God.”  “Let the Word of God dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in Psalms and Hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in your hearts unto the Lord and whatsoever you do, do it heartily as unto the Lord.”

 

Be Bereans!

Now the Bereans were of more noble character, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.  Acts 17:11

Finding fault with preaching is almost in a class with criticizing motherhood and the flag.  In Christian Reformed circles the sermon has become almost a sacred cow by being identified with church-going and the primary purpose of worship.  Sermons as we know them today are a far cry from the Bible’s understanding of them, John Calvin’s kind, and the catechism “preaching” that our forebears practiced.

Ideally, a sermon should be teaching.  But how much education – in any subject – would a student receive from a one-hour (per week) course at which attendance is voluntary, no preparation is expected nor notes required; no tests or reviews are taken, and the textbook is “studied” in such hit and miss fashion that some parts of it are never considered, while some secondary sections are gone over repeatedly?  But there, basically, you have a description of “preaching” as it is commonly carried out in our day.

All this, mind you, is not criticizing the method or content of contemporary preaching.  Changes certainly can and should be made in those areas.  Preaching should be expository (instead of topical, as is true of most sermons, particularly Catechism) and sequential, instead of taking time out every year for seasonal and occasional messages on everything from Christmas to Communion.  But even changes in this direction would not solve the problem.  The fault lies in the institution itself and its context.  We are expecting something from our preaching that it simply cannot provide.

The primary purpose of our weekly gathering as a congregation is worship, celebration.  God (and the angels) are supposed to be the audience and we, the congregation, are the performers.  But we have made the preacher the primary performer whom we watch as spectators, our “priest” (who does our praying for us, etc.) going through a performance while we watch and half-heartedly hear him “doing his thing” which he has spent most of the week rehearsing.

Put it this way.  The majority of our membership depend upon Sunday sermons for the bulk of their spiritual food.  Very few have personal daily devotions, and the remnants of “family altars” that still exist amongst us have very little pedagogical value.  Meditation of an inspirational sort are the norm, rather than instructional material.  All of this is comparable to a person eating a heavy meal on one day of the week and starving or nibbling on crumbs for the rest of the time.  What this meditation would like to accomplish is that all of us imitate the Early Christians and the newer churches even today by way of small-group or individual Bible study.

As it is, we long-term church members are put to shame by our ignorance of the Scriptures, despite hearing literal thousands of sermons in a lifetime.  Who of us can tell which gospel records the Sermon on the Mount, the visit of the shepherds to Bethlehem, most of the parables, the seven “I Am’s”?  And lest I make preaching the sole whipping boy for our deficiencies, how many Christian school/catechism graduates can give a one-sentence summary of any of Paul’s epistles?

God can say what is certainly applicable to most of us, “My people perish for lack of knowledge”.  And we have far less excuse than those to whom God first said that. In the  Old Testament nobody had a personal copy of the Scriptures.  In the days of the Bereans an important part of the Bible had not even yet been written.  Many of our immediate forebears were unable to read with ease, and naturally had to look to their dominees for Bible instruction and application.

But today we have Bibles in abundance, as well as study helps, tapes, and even sermons in downloadable and video form.  Liberal education is commonplace amongst us.  To whom much has been given, of them shall much be required.  For all our church-going we threaten to be the first who shall be last in the Kingdom of Heaven.

So, back to our Bibles!  Be Bereans!  You will be sure to discover for yourself dozens of important Biblical truths for which the pulpit does not have time and these meditations do not have space.  Then, like the Bereans, you will become a living epistle for all to see and hear.  Moses’ prayer will have been answered, that all of God’s people are preachers.  That is what the Bible says we should be and the Early Christians were, rather than just the man who occupies a pulpit briefly one day a week.