His grace is his glory

Last night we studied Exodus 33-34 in our Youth Group. It is a fascinating study, especially on the background of Israel’s naked dance around an Egyptian god. Moses is seen foreshadowing Christ’s mediating work in a beautiful way. Because Moses had found favor in the eyes of the Lord, God would ‚change His mind‘ and dwell in the midst of the congregation, instead of the tent of meetings outside of the camp. Israel gets a completely fresh start as a result of Moses‘ intercession. The ten commandments are given again, the covenant being renewed, the former plans of the tabernacle taken up again.

What an encouragement! For we are all idolaters. We all have turned back to Egypt in our hearts at times, we all have – secretly – carried some gods of Egypt with us on our journey with Jesus… Through the mediating work of Jesus – Christ as the High Priest – we all can have fresh starts. I think it is important to understand what Jon Courson points out: It is not Jesus‘ words, with which he intercedes for us, but his wounds. When it says in Hebrews 7:25, „Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.“, it is not to be understood in a technical sense. I think that at this point we often make the mistake that we base a certain doctrine on one verse alone, which is never a good idea. When Christ intercedes for you and me, he doesn’t need to lose any words. „…he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. (…) But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.“  (9:24; 26) The Holy of Holies was not a place of prayer, it was a place of atonement. Jesus is not before the throne of grace pleading our case with words. It is his blood: „…Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.“ (12:24) To say that on top of the fact that he will always be as a lamb that has been slain, he would still have to add words of prayer and intercession takes away from the atonement. It is to say that his blood isn’t enough, he has to add words. So this thinking is not biblical and it is not logical, because we know that his blood is enough.

Well, anyways…actually I wanted to share something else. In verse 18 Moses asks: „Now show me your glory.“ Up to this point, God had been speaking to Moses through an angel. Even though that is not in the text here, the Rabbis always understood it this way and it is stated three times in the New Testament (Acts 7:38; Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2). Moses wasn’t satisfied to be lead into the promised land by an angel, he wanted God in their midst. He wasn’t satisfied to only hear from God through an angel. He wanted to see God.

Now he had seen alot of God’s glory, in the sense of the miraculous demonstrations of supernatural power and majesty. So what was he asking for? I believe he just wanted to go deeper. He wanted to know God in a deeper way. Which is remarkable, especially on the background of everything he already had experienced in the past. Many of us would be satisfied to see God work or manifest himself in supernatural ways. Moses didn’t want to see what God could do or even would do – he wanted to see God.

„Only do not let us make Moses talk like a metaphysician or a theological professor. Rather we should hear in his cry the voice of a soul thrilled through and through with the astounding consciousness of God’s favour, blessed with love-gifts in answered prayers, and yearning for more of that light which it feels to be life.“ (Alexander Maclaren)

God told Moses that this was not possible in the fullest measure, because that would simply put Moses to death. But in his love he was willing to show Moses as much as was possible. Now check out what God shows Moses as an answer to his request to see God’s glory, his beauty: „I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mery on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. (…) And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.“

Now without wanting to ellaborate much further, the observation is clear. Moses wants to see God’s glory, and God shows him as much as possible of that glory of His. He does it by a self-revelation, not to the eyes but to the ears of Moses. He doesn’t show Moses what he can do, but he tells him who he is in his relation to human beings. And I just think that this is God’s glory, that is his beauty. We are saved to the praise of the GLORY of his grace. To me, that is the most glorious thing I could ever imagine…

God – speaks Greek to me?

„Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tabets of human hearts. Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.“ (2 Cor. 3,1-6)

Yesterday I had another conversation with another friend of mine. He studied koine Greek at a Theology School and we talked about how to use or not to use Greek word and/or grammar studies for a regular Biblestudy. In his „Lectures to my students“ Spurgeon wrote, that in his opinion, preachers only quote the Greek to impress their hearers. So my friend and I talked about the tendency to do that and asked ourselves in how far it really does benefit the hearers.

One thing that is often overlooked among us evangelical lay preachers/theologians is the fact, that koine Greek is a dead language. That means that we depend on findings of other writings to give us insights on when which words or tenses were used. The more writings we have to compare, the more we will understand the language of the Bible. Now that means that we understand the language of the Bible today better than 50 years ago. Which is a real problem when my Greek lexicon is that old… It also means that we will understand the language of the Bible better 50 years from now then we do at this present time. So we should be careful not to build our theology on word studies in the Greek. We don’t have a holy language, like the Muslims do, because our book did not come down from heaven completed. It was rather a beautiful, God-in-time-and-space-kind-of-organic-process, we call it inspiration.

Which language does God speak? Does he speak Hebrew, Aramaic or koine Greek? Yes and No. God is Spirit. His language is not a human language, but a spiritual language. He uses human language, but a language can never embody the truth like the person of Jesus Christ. Everything human is earthly. Everything earthly is temporal, imperfect. Just as God cannot and does not live in a building build by human hands and is not served by human hands, he cannot be fully contained in human language. Not even the Bible languages. But also generally speaking are the thoughts, ideas and realities behind the words bigger and better than the words themselves. Words are only shells. Even Bible words.

George MacDonald writes in the Chapter „Truth is of the Spirit, not the letter“: „God has not cared that we should anywhere have assurance of his very words – not merely because of the tendency in his children to word worsip, false logic, and corruption of the truth, but also because he would not have his people oppressed by words. For words, being human, therefore but partially capable, could not absolutely contain or express what the Lord meant. No matter how precise the words used, to be understood the Lord must depend on the spirit of his disciple. Seeing it could not give life, the letter should not be throned with the power to kill. It should be only the handmaid to open the door of the truth to the mind that was of the truth.“

For this reason the early Christians were somewhat sceptical when they first heard of the idea of a Christian Scripture Canon. For them, this was one of the differences between the Old and the New Covenant. The Christian Faith was something that was passed on and lived out by the believing community of Jesus followers. Why would we want to go back to serving the letter? But in order to defend orthodoxy against heresy, the church fathers rightly judged that clear definitions of what Christians believe and what they reject were necessary.

William Law writes: „…every kind of virtue and goodness may be brought into us by two different ways. They may be taught us outwardly by men, by rules and precepts; and they may be inwardly born in us, as the genuine birth of our own renewed spirit. In the former way, as we learn them only from men, by rules and documents of instruction, they at best only change our outward behavior, and leave our heart in its natural state, only putting our passions under a forced restraint, which will occasionally break forth in spite of the dead letter of precept and doctrine.“ He goes on to say, that this is still the first stage in spiritual growth, just as the law (the letter) was a schoolmaster to the gospel. And that after all Scripture cannot do more than point us to the living Word. Words in themselves are dead. Even written words. Even New Testament words – apart from the life-giving and life-changing Spirit.

Andrew Murray comments on this: „In answer to the scruple that this appears to derogate from Scripture, we are reminded of the difference between Christ, the living Word, and the letter of Scripture. We are told that this is the very way to exalt Scripture when we own it to be the faithful and only direction to Him who is the true light of men. Just as the highest honor a disciple of John the Baptist could confer on his teacher was to leave him and go to Christ, so the Scriptures, the more we study and rejoice in them, will only have their full effect upon us as they daily point us to Christ.“

E. M. Bounds writes: „The preaching that kills may be, and often is, orthodox – dogmatically, inviolably orthodox. We love orthodoxy. It is good. It is the best. It is the clean, clear-cut teaching of God’s Word, the trophies won by truth in its conflict with error, the levees which faith has rasied against the desolating floods of honest or reckless misbelief or unbelief; but orthodoxy, clear  and hard as crystal, suspicious and militant, may be but the letter well-shaped, well-named, and well-learned, the letter which kills. Nothing is so dead as a dead orthodoxy, too dead to speculate, too dead to think, to study, or to pray.“

I wonder how much I have fallen into the same trap as the scribes, who wouldn’t accept the living Word when it came to them, because it didn’t fit their interpretations of the written word. Jesus is everything the Bible reveals him to be. And it is – in one sense – all we need to know about him. But yet Jesus is bigger than the Bible. That might sound shocking or even heretical. But in reality, everyone who doesn’t agree with that statement is an idolatrer – because he doesn’t only worship the Jesus of the Bible but Jesus and the Bible. And that’s wrong. The Bible is only means to an end. And that End is God.

Let it hit you

Last wednesday I had a conversation with a friend of mine about heaven and hell and who goes where and why. We both share the same view, but I have certain questions that haven’t been answered yet. After over one hour of talking on this matter we came to this conclusion/application:

It is possible and common to keep the reality of a certain doctrine at a safe distance. We think we ‚understand‘ them, intellectually, and we are afraid to ask more questions or to think longer about all the implications. We stop at: this is what the Bible says, believe it, accept it. But we don’t really let it hit us, because we are afraid that we will end up with more questions or doubts and by chance wreck our faith.

What we need is a stronger faith in the person of Jesus Christ, which allows us to be hit by certain realities (brought to us in the form of doctrines), without these kind of fears and worries. We are not more convincing to the unbeliever if we keep certain doctrines in ‚intellectual quarantine‘. I believe the opposite is true: they will know that we do think, which is why we do struggle, but that our trust in Jesus is so strong that we can handle to follow him and actually live with certain questions.

So let the reality of heaven and hell, the reality of saving grace and the reality of Christ’s indwelling hit you today! Let it overrun you, overwhelm you, churn you. Deal with it as a holistic being – spirit, mind and emotions. Come and marvel.

Question: Is uncertainty spiritual?

I read something else which I feel balances what I wrote before. It is from P. T. Forsyth’s book „The person and place of Jesus Christ“, Lecture 1: Lay Religion.

„The root of all theology is real religion; of all Christian theology, and even apologetic, it is Christian religion, it is saving faith in Jesus Christ. It is justifying faith, in the sense of faith in a forgiving God through the cross of Jesus Christ. But this religion cannot be stated without theology. If theology can be shewn to be irrelevant to a living and evangelical faith, then the Chruch can afford to treat it with some indifference, and to leave its pursuit, lie philosophy, to the Universities. But the Christian religion is theological or nothing. We are but vaguely and partially right in saying that Christ is the Gospel. Years ago to say that was the needful word; but it is now outgrown and inadequate.“

A question I ask myself at this point: Is it enough to say that Christ is the Gospel at this point in time? In my culture? The first edition of this book came out in 1909.

„The Gospel is a certain interpretation of Christ which is given in the New Testament, a mystic interpretation of a historic fact. It is the loving, redeeming grace of a holy God in Christ and His salvation alone. Theology, it is true, does not deal with thoughts but with facts. That is the great note of modern theology. But the Christian fact is not an historic fact or figure simply; it is a superhistoric fact living on in the new experience which it creates. The fact on which Christian theology works is the Christ of faith and not of history only, of inspiration and not of mere record, of experience and not of memory. It is the Christ of the Church’s saving, justifying faith.

A Christianity without such faith is not Christianity. Spiritual sensibility is not Christianity, nor is any degree of refined unction. A spirituality without positive, and even dogmatic, content is not Christianity; no are gropings when stated as dogmas; nor is a faith in the broad general truths of religion. Christian faith must surely dogmatise about the goodness of God in Christ, at the least. A conversion which is but a wave of spiritual experience is not the passage from death to life. Religion can only be made more real by a deepened sense of the reality of the salvation. An access of religion which does not mean, first or last, a deeper repentance and more personal faith in Christ’s salvation may be sincere enough, and it is certainly better than worldliness and unconcern; but it is not believing unto life. It is not New Testament Christianity. And, tender as we should be to it as a stage, we must be very explicit when it is offered as a goal. Gentle as we may be to it as a search, we must be quite plain with those who proclaim it as the great finds.“

A clear warning and call to only accept uncertainty about who Christ is and what he’s done for us as a stage but never as a goal. That would fly in the face of all who are trying now to promote even uncertainty about Christ’s nature as a higher form of spirituality. It is not. Even though the disciples started out that way, Christ was constantly teaching them and revealing himself to them – all his revelations centered on himself as a person.

I understand that this teaching might be a reaction to the over-emphasize on the new birth as a „at-one-certain-point-experience“. Now while of course a birth by itself is a one-time-event and not a process, there is a whole process leading up to that point (pregnancy) and another process starting at that point (growth).

So is uncertainty spiritual? No. But if this uncertainty leads you to seek, knock, and ask, it can be helpful in leading to a deeper understanding, a deeper trust and a closer walk with Jesus. There is some things which we can never know in an intellectual sense. But that doesn’t mean that we should look up to a state of ignorance as something noble. Blessed are those who don’t see (intellectually), but yet believe.

Question: Do you have to accept evangelical Christology before you can start following Christ?

…or: does accepting the full biblical revelation of who Christ is equal the beginning of someones ‚journey with Jesus‘? If I think about the disciples, I know that their life with Jesus did not begin with agreeing to a doctrinal statement Christ made about himself. Of course, as they walked with him, he started to reveal himself, but he wanted to reveal himself to their hearts & not only to their minds. Because he knew, that they couldn’t handle certain things yet, his self-revelation was progressive.

So if this conclusion is true, this would mean two things:

a) Wanting to make people Jesus-followers (making disciples) does not primarily mean to convince someone of everything Christ ever said about himself. As Spurgeon said: Christ is known better by what he himself says, than by what his friends say about him. I don’t have to make converts to theology.
b) Rather, I should encourage people to start following Jesus (by listening to him and obeying him), even when they still have questions, doubts and even wrong opinions. When the disciples started following Jesus, they followed him as a travelling rabbi, not as the Son of God. That makes evangelism and discipleship synonymous. It also makes it more a matter of faith, obedience and experience, rather than of knowledge, intellect and arguments.

Question: Should we question our faith?

As part of the whole emergent conversation, this is one of the hot issues: can or should a Christian question his or her faith? While I believe that the line that can be crossed is very thin, I would generally say „Yes“ to this. As long as we turn to the Bible for answers. Now I am aware that this very thing might cause not only more but bigger questions. What we must be careful to maintain is the attitude of complete trust in the character of God. He is good, loving, just, fair. But isn’t that exactly where our problems start? We know we ought to see God thus, but we stumble over doctrines which seem not to be reconcilable with who we believe God to be – the Father of our Savior Jesus Christ.

I just read again in George Macdonalds book, and I came across this excerpt of The Curate’s Awakening:

„And if any man would still say that because of my lack of absolute assurance I have no right to the sacred post [that is, as a pastor], I answer, let him cast the first stone who has never been assailed by such doubts as mine. And if such doubts have never been yours, if perhaps your belief is but the shallow absence of doubt, then you must ask yourself a question. Do you love your faith so little that you have never battled a single fear lest your faith should not be true? For what are doubts but the strengtheneing building blocks toward summits of yet higher faith in him who always leads us into the high places? Where there are no doubts, no questions, no perplexities, there can be no growth into the regions where he would have us walk. Doubts are the only means through which he can enlarge our spiritual selves.“

I remember reading in Tozer’s „The root of the righteous“ a similar statement. Doubts, questions and perplexities are not the enemy of faith – if they are not used as an end in themselves – as some do because they think that the questioner and doubter is per se superior to the one who can say „I am convinced“. Now that is of course not a Christian mindset. But we hurt ourselves if we are afraid to think and to question. Here is a quote that helps me tremendously, and with this I must end now:

„If the observed and the revealed seem hard to be reconciled, it is because we know too little, not too much.“ (Derek Kidner)

Don’t be afraid.

The cunning self will deceive us if it can

„We must be jealous for God against ourselves and look keenly to the cunning and deceitful self – ever cunning and deceitful until it is informed of God – until it is thouroughly and utterly denied. The self will attempt to have its way with us until God is to it also All-in-all – until we have left it quite empty of our will and our regard, and God has come into it, and made it – not a shrine, but a gateway for himself.“

That last part of the sentence just strikes me. Because the temple under the Old Covenant was not a shrine, but the means to fulfill God’s desire „to live among his people“. So we as Holy Spirit temples are not shrines, but gateways through which God can live and move among the people around us. But here comes the part that really reveals the depth of human depravity and selfishness. The roots go deep:

„Until then, the self’s very denials, its very turnings from things dear to it for the sake of Christ, will tend to foster self-regard, and generate in it a yet deeper self-worship. While self is not denied, only thwarted, we may, through satisfaction with conquered difficulty and supposed victory, minister yet more to its self-gratulation.

The self, when it finds it cannot have honor because of its gifts, because of the love lavished upon it, because of its conquests, and the „golden opinions bought from all sorts of people,“ will please itself with the thoughts of its abnegations, of its unselfishness, of its devotion to God, of its forsakings for his sake.

It may not call itself a saint, but it will soon feel itself one, a superior Christian, looking down upon the foolish world and its ways, walking on „high above“ the crowded byways of „average“ Christians – all the time dreaming of utter folly, worshiping itself with all the more concentration that it thinks it has yielded the praises of the world and dismissed the regard of others; even they are no longer necessary to its assurance of its own worth and merits!

In a thousand ways self will delude itself, in a thousand ways befool its own slavish being. Christ sought not his own, sought not anything but the will of his Father. We have to grow diamond-clear, true as the white light of the morning.

Hopeless task! – were it not that he offers to come himself and dwell in us.“ (George Macdonald)

When we see how deep into our souls, our hearts, our beings, this selfishness goes, we realize how desperate our lost and wicked condition is, and how we really need a savior, not just a teacher.