Friday, June 24, 2016

Is Your Worship Service Upside-down?

"Our church worship gatherings ought to be welcoming and comprehensible to unbelievers who are present, but many churches actually structure the entire worship service around them." 

read the rest

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Horsemen of Revelation 6

by Peter Leithart

Who are the horsemen riding the white, red, black, and green horses that are summoned when the Lamb breaks the first four seals? (Revelation 6:1-8).

Perhaps a grammatical/syntactical observation will help. Nowhere in the Old Testament is anyone said to “sit” on a horse. People “ride” horses, or don’t ride, as the case may be (Genesis 49:17; Exodus 15:1, 21; 2 Kings 18:23; Jeremiah 17:25; 22:4). Outside Revelation, no one in the Bible ever “sits” (Greek kathemai) on a horse. There, it is said frequently that so and so sat on a horse (6:2, 4, 5, 8; 9:17; 19:11, 18-19, 21).

We might get a clue just there: By the time we see the first horseman “sitting” on his horse, we’ve already heard about a “sitting-one” seven times (4:2, 3, 9, 10; 5:1, 7, 13), not to mention the twenty-four enthroned elders (4:4). God sits on His throne; riders are enthroned on their horses. Perhaps “riding” a horse is an act of ordinary mortals and soldiers; but “sitting” on a horse is the act of a king.

Further: In Revelation, further, the word “horse” (hippos) is used sixteen times, nine times in the plural (9:7, 9, 17 [2x], 19; 14:20; 18:13; 19:14, 18) and seven times in the singular (6:2, 4, 5, 8; 19:11, 19, 21). In every case, the rider on the singular horse is said to “sit” on the horse. (An interesting aside: The armies of heaven “follow” [akoloutheo] rather than “sit” on their horses, a term used throughout the New Testament for discipleship.)

In three cases the one who “sits” on a singular “horse” is clearly Jesus, the Faithful and True, who fights with a sword from His mouth (19:11, 19, 21). In 19:11, Jesus rides a white horse, which takes us back to the first of the four horsemen of chapter 6 (v. 2).

What can we conclude from this? Most simply, we can conclude that the horsemen are royal figures, kings who “sit” on horses as if they were mobile thrones. It seems pretty certain that we should identify the first horsemen on the white horse with Jesus. But then who are the other three? The most daring interpretation is to say that they are all Jesus too: The horsemen represent Jesus in various guises, as Victor, as Divider, as Depleter, as Lord of Death, Jesus the White, Jesus the Red, Jesus the Black, Jesus the Green.

This may be supported by the fact that each of the horses is summoned by a living creature. The Lion-Lamb displaced the living creatures as the throne (5:6); He is the true cherub. As the living creatures call Him, He comes out, enthroned on horses, as a series of horse-man combinations, which correspond to the four creatures.

It’s only a clue, but perhaps it’s a helpful clue.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

What is an “Accurate” translation?

A friend asked me this question the other day, and I thought I would take this opportunity to flesh out what I think the answer is.

The standard answer is that a “literal” Bible is the most accurate, and by “literal” they generally mean word-for-word. If the Greek has a verb, the English should have a verb. If the text uses the same Greek three times, the same English word should be used three times.

This understanding is seriously flawed at two levels.
First, the English word “literal” has to do with meaning, not form. Webster gives these three definitions of “literal.”
  1. Involving the ordinary or usual meaning of a word
  2. Giving the meaning of each individual word
  3. Completely true and accurate: not exaggerated
Meaning 1 and 3 are purely about meaning. A “literal” translation of a hyperbole is a hyperbole. A “literal” translation of a sentence is one that says what the original means and not exaggerating it.
Even meaning #2, at second glance, has to do with meaning. It doesn’t tell you how to give the meaning of each word. Maybe the best way to give the meaning of a single word in Greek is with a three-word phrase in English. Try translating any of the σύν verbal compounds with one word: συνακολουθέω.
Secondly, this common understanding is a misunderstanding because all translation involves meaning. Even the most word-for-word translations of the Greek know this. Other than an interlinear, all translations seek to convey meaning. Let me give you a couple examples.

The ESV says that Jesus “is the propitiation (ἱλασμός) for our sins” (1 John 2:2). Is that a “literal” translation? If you don’t know what “propitiation” means, then I would argue that it is not “literal” because it doesn’t mean anything, and how can something that doesn’t mean anything to 99% of the English readers be a “literal translation.” The NIV’s “atoning sacrifice,” with which I had nothing to do, unfortunately, at least means something, and I would argue is a more literal translation since it conveys meaning. I know the counter argument; you can always look “propitiation” up in a dictionary. But then the question becomes, how does that qualify as a translation?

Or how about πόλις. It occurs 163 times in the NT. I believe the NASB, every time, translates it as “city.” The problem of course is that the “city of Nazareth” had about 600 people in Jesus’ day. No one today, in the US, would call Nazareth a “city.” It isn’t. It is a “village,” perhaps. But the point is that in the NASB’s victory of form over meaning, it seriously mistranslates by ignoring the meaning of “city” and πόλις.

This is a debate that will go on for decades, but can we at least agree on two things?
1. Please stop using the word “literal” with reference to form. It simply is not what the English word means.
2. Can we become a little more nuanced in our discussion, recognizing that accuracy has to do with meaning?

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Real Reason You Can’t Date Jesus

When it comes to 'boyfriend' language, we draw the right conclusion for the wrong reasons.

Sometimes we can be right for the wrong reasons.

As a charismatic pastor, I have probably heard the statement “Jesus is not our boyfriend” a hundred times. (I don’t recall ever hearing someone say he is our boyfriend, by the way, but that’s another story.) Obviously, this is true: no one is dating Jesus, and Jesus doesn’t want to be our boyfriend, or relate to us like one. Yet the statement is true for very different reasons than the ones usually given.

When it comes to Jesus, we’re understandably anxious to ward off any notions of romance, intimacy, or sexualized imagery. There are too many worship songs that descend into adolescent mushiness and sentimental schmaltz. There are too many churches where immanence is everywhere and transcendence is nowhere. All these aspects of modern church life are problems. But the biggest problem with thinking of Jesus as your boyfriend is not that the image is too intimate. Actually, it is not intimate enough.

Biblically speaking, Jesus is our bridegroom (John 3:29). We are not dating him because we are already betrothed to him (2 Cor. 11:2). The relationship between Christ and the church is compared not to a boyfriend and girlfriend but to a husband and wife (Eph. 5:22–33). At the end of the biblical story, the curtain comes down to the sound of a wedding feast (Rev. 19:6–9; 21:2).

There are other flaws with the boyfriend imagery. First, Western evangelicals often see their relationship to God in an individualized way: Jesus is one party, and I am the other. Yet the Scriptures see the relationship corporately, with Israel or the church as the other party. A boyfriend has just one partner, whereas Jesus takes an entire “people for his name” (Acts 15:14).

Second, when people are dating, they are still exploring possibilities, and the life commitment is yet to come. Yet in marriage, the commitment—much like repentance, faith, and baptism in the life of the believer—has already taken place.

Third, marriage is permanent. It’s a covenant till death us do part, as opposed to a relationship that’s Facebook-official at the moment but might not work out in the end. In each of these ways, the marriage metaphor represents an upgrade, not a diminishment, of intimacy.

Many writers have argued that even the aspect of marriage we find strangest to relate to God—the sexual aspect—is biblically appropriate. Countless patristic, medieval, and Reformation Bible commentators, as well as many modern ones, read the Song of Songs allegorically, as a picture of the relationship between Jesus and his people.

To be sure, that sort of reading is often dismissed as premodern prudery, a desperate attempt to save the Scriptures from speaking so explicitly about sex. Yet when we consider the whole sweep of the Bible, in which sexual union is a picture of spiritual union from Eden to the New Jerusalem, it does not seem so outlandish. Solomon’s song is mainly about sex and marriage, not Jesus and the church. But then again, sex and marriageis mainly about Jesus and the church.

If we reject the idea of Jesus as boyfriend because the language of intimacy bothers us, then we have reached the right conclusion, but for the wrong reasons. The problem is not using intimate language for the Christian life—the Bible certainly does that—but taking union with Christ too lightly. We neglect the corporate, covenantal, and permanent dimensions of marriage. We trivialize a relationship in which two become one, forever, enjoying all things in common. We miss the many ways in which Christian marriage symbolizes our relationship with God: the exchange of promises, the turning away from old commitments, the vow to forsake all others, the covenant signs and seals, the white dress of purity, the legal commitment, the sharing of everything, the physical union, right through to the way the bride traditionally takes the groom’s name. These things are “a profound mystery,” said Paul—“but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32).

So Jesus is not your boyfriend—but he is your, our, bridegroom. One day, the wedding will come, the celebrations will begin, the wine will flow abundantly, and the union will be complete. The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”

Sunday, June 5, 2016


If Christians are confused about the Gospel, they are flummoxed about the law. Many of them know a few biblical texts that have become dismissive catchphrases: “You’re not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). “We’re free from the law” (Rom. 8:2). “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). “Christ is the end of the law” (Rom. 10:4). Armed with these and a few other texts, they see the law as at best obsolete and at worst, harmful. Jesus came to get rid of the law (Jn. 1:17), and that is that. The New Testament (NT) writers (they think) have given us some instructions for life, but it has nothing to do with the law.

This dismissal is woefully one-sided and in fact, flat-out wrong. This post won’t permit anything resembling a complete discussion of the Christian law,[1] but let me make a few points to exhibit in summary form simply the blessing of the law as the Bible depicts it.

Holy, Righteous, Good
First, the law is holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12). How could it be anything else? The law is a reflection of God’s character. We read in Leviticus 20:7–8,

Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you.

“Be ye holy, for I am holy.” We must be holy like God is, and to be holy is to obey God’s law, for God’s law exhibits his character. To know the law of God is to know the character of God, in other words, to know the law is to know God. Some Christians might chafe at this description. Isn’t the law opposed to the grace of God, for example? And don’t we need to know the grace of God in opposition to the law of God? We do not. If the law of God is a reflection of his character, the law reflects his grace. This is why in Exodus 19:4–5, before he gave Israel the Mosaic law, God points out how gracious he is to his people in giving that law. The law exhibits God’s grace.

Moreover, when Jesus died on the cross, God was fulfilling the terms of his law.[2] The cross demonstrates the love of God because it demonstrates the law of God (Gal. 4:4–6; Rom. 5:6–11). God loved us so much that he gave up his own Son to the law’s justice. Remember that the only law to which God’s grace is antithetical is a manufactured, homemade law apart from Jesus Christ. But that’s not the proper use of the law. If you want to know what God is like, read the law. If you know want to know what God is like, look to Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:9), whose life and death fulfilled the law (Gal. 4:4).

Second, the law promises life (Rom. 7:10). This statement might perplex us, since Paul writes that the law doesn’t bestow life (Gal. 3:21). Only the Messiah can bestow life. However, the law does promise life to those that live within it (Dt. 30:1–16; cf. Rom. 10:5 –13), because if we live within it, we won’t rely on ourselves for salvation, but on Jesus Christ. This is another clue that many of Paul’s opponents weren’t following the OT law but a twisted, Christ-less, grace-less, faithless version of it. Not only will we know God if we live within the law. We’ll also be led into life. To live in this sphere of the law is to gain life. The law doesn’t bestow life, but the law points us to the One who does, Jesus Christ, and in him alone we should trust.

In addition, when we’re united to Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit leads us to obedience that elicits God’s blessings. If we obey, God blesses us. If we disobey, God judges us (Gal. 6:7–8). If we completely and finally turn our backs on God, he expels us from his kingdom (2 Pet. 2:17–22). What are we to obey? We are to obey God’s law. This is why the law promises life. To live within the law is to live within absolute trust in Jesus Christ and in obedience to him.

Third, the law bestows liberty (Jas. 1:25, 2:12). This is counterintuitive to many Christians today. For them the law is heavy and burdensome. They might get this idea from Acts 15, which tells of the Jerusalem council, where Peter identified the law as a heavy yoke (v. 10). But it seems they might have missed v. 1. The great error being combated at the council is the teaching that one must keep the law as a way of salvation. Of course, this is precisely what the law was never intended to do. When the law is turned into a system of works-righteousness, it does indeed become a yoke and a burden. This is a pharisaic and Judaic perversion of the law.[3]

The yoke the Lord Jesus imposes is easy and his burden is light (Mt. 11:29–30). Why is this? Because God is our Creator, he knows precisely how we are to operate within his world. His law, his instruction, is suited to man as the earth-bound creature made in his image. We might say that the law is the instruction manual for humanity. And this isn’t limited to the Mosaic law, but includes God’s entire word, which instructs us (1 Tim. 3:16–17). It is in the sense that we could say that the entire Bible is law.[4] It’s God’s revelation for how we should believe and live. God knows how we should live much better than we do. That’s why he gave us his word, his law. To turn away from God’s law is to turn away from the only truth that will help us to live with great blessing and profit in God’s world. We live in a God-rigged universe. Far from being hard and onerous, God’s law shows us how to live within our environment with the greatest of light and blessings.

Fulfilled in Believers
Fourth, the law is fulfilled in us (Rom. 8:4). If we ask the question, Can anybody fulfill or obey the law, the answer is, No and Yes. No, everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), and if we break one commandment we have violated all (Jas. 2:20). However, believers, by the power of the Spirit, can fulfill the law as much as a redeemed sinner can. This is why 1 John tells us that everyone sins (1:8), but also that we must not live within the reign of sin (2:4–6), which is a violation of God’s law (3:410). In other words, to live by the Spirit’s power is to live in obedience to the law. In this sense, we can keep the law. No, not flawlessly, but nonetheless faithfully (see Gen. 26:5; 1 Kin. 11:24; Lk. 1:6; Jn. 15:10). In a post-Fall world, the issue is not whether a person can be flawlessly sinful. It’s whether a person can live a life dominated by righteousness. He certainly can — and must. “In the natural man sin is the essential element, but in the new man sin is an alien element.” [5] Therefore, the most faithful Christians are those who’ve most faithfully kept God’s law. The best Christians are the best law-keepers.

In Harmony with the Gospel
Finally, the law is not contrary to the Gospel promises (Gal. 3:21). Paul makes this point quite emphatically (see vv. 21–29), and if we understand it, we might never again have a problem reconciling the law and gospel, law and grace, law and promise.[6] The Mosaic law was given to Israel subsequent to the Abrahamic promises. The promises are promises of eternal life. The law was never given to impart eternal life. It has given, as we have seen, to lead us toward eternal life, that is, toward the Gospel promises (see v. 24).[7] The law is not against the promises, precisely because they serve different functions. The promises tell us what God has accomplished, is accomplishing, and will accomplish in Jesus Christ. The law tells us how we are to live in relation to Jesus Christ. We are not saved by keeping the law, and no one was ever saved by keeping the law in any era.[8] In addition, no one was ever led to please God without the law. Hebrews 11 tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God (11:6), and then it moves on to tell us how that faith led the great OT saints to great exploits of obedience, in other words, law-keeping. To perceive the law as a means of salvation or justification is to pervert it. To see it as a means of pleasing God is to see it precisely as God intends.

How to explain the verses that speak disparagingly of the law is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say that swiftly dispensing with God’s law is a contra-biblical move.

[1] For exegetical and theological evidence for the general viewpoint I espouse, without agreeing with their view of the law on certain points, see Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977, 1984); Karl Barth, “Gospel and Law,” Community, State and Church (Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1968), 71–100; Heinrich Bullinger, A Brief Exposition of the One Eternal Testament or Covenant of God, in Fountainhead of Federalism, Charles S. McCoy and Wayne Baker, eds. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 99–138; C. E. B. Cranfield, “St. Paul and the Law,” New Testament Issues, Richard Batey, ed. (New York and Evanston; Harper & Row, 1970), 148–172; Robert L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 458–462; Daniel P. Fuller, Gospel and Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), ch. 4 and “Paul and ‘The Works of the Law,’” Westminster Theological Journal, 38 (1975-1976): 28; Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “God’s Promise Plan and His Gracious Law,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 33:3 (September 1990): 289, and Recovering the Unity of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 160–162; Robert S. Rayburn, “The Old and New Covenants in the New Testament,” unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, University of Aberdeen, 1978; Norman Shepherd, “Law and Gospel in Covenantal Perspective,” Reformation & Revival Journal, 14, 1: 73–88 (2005); and C. van der Waal, The Covenantal Gospel (Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada: Inheritance Publications, 1990).
[2] Leon Morris, The Atonement (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 192–196.
[3] Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 130.
[4] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2008), 176–178.
[5] Donald G. Bloesch, Theological Notebook (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 1:16.
[6] P. Andrew Sandlin, Wrongly Dividing the Word (Mount Hermon, California: Center for Cultural Leadership, 2010).
[7] Paul declares that the law no longer serves the function of a schoolmaster, since it has brought us to Jesus Christ. He doesn’t mean the moral law is unnecessary; he means that the law’s function as a schoolmaster is no longer necessary.
[8] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “The Law as God’s Gracious Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness,” in The Law, the Gospel and the Modern Christian, Wayne G. Strickland, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 190–192.