C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books”

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

You can read this absolute gem here: http://www.theelliots.org/Soapbox2008/OntheReadingofOldBooks.pdf

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January 10, 2016 · 10:47 pm

Worship God UK – Some final reflections

I have in previous posts written synopses of each day of the conference (see Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 for more details!). In this last post I reflect more broadly on the WGUK 2015 conference as a whole. In particular, these are four things arising out of the conference which I thank God for.

1. “Beholding the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”

“Christ-centered” and “Gospel-centered” are labels which are often bandied about in evangelical circles without much thought; indeed, sometimes we use them as a kind of non-heresy indicator for a particular speaker/book/conference!

But when I say that WGUK 2015 was truly Christ-centered, what I mean is this. From start to finish, from every song that was sung to every seminar taught, from each speaker to every member of the worship team, there was a tangible emphasis on the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the phrase above — “beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” — was a slogan that was oft-repeated by every speaker at the conference. (2 Cor 4:6)

This is perhaps something that — to our shame — one may not always associate with a conference on worship! Too often there is a focus on techniques (e.g. “how to mix the sound well”) or experience (e.g. “how to encounter the Spirit in our worship services”). That is not to say that these are unimportant things, but they pale in comparison to the glory of the gospel. If our worship services do not emphasise the glorious work of Christ in ransoming sinners, why do we bother with corporate gatherings at all?

To quote the Apostle Paul:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Rom 1:16)

The power is in the gospel: the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Our corporate gatherings must be drenched in this good news. Seekers who visit need to hear it to be saved. And believers must be reminded of it so that we may repeatedly behold the glorious grace of our Saviour and be turned more into his likeness (2 Cor 3:18).

2. God’s Glory is Revealed in God’s Word

A second thing which I was so thankful for was the commitment to Scripture’s authority as the Word of God. The songs we sang were drenched in the richness of Scripture and the teaching too was heavily anchored in Scripture.

In particular, we were exhorted to delight in Scripture. Tim Chester said it really well: “The Spirit at work in the hearts of the Bible writers is the same Spirit at work in the hearts of Bible readers, ensuring that the words we read are the Words of God.” Though the daily reading of our Bibles seems unglamorous, even mundane, it is far from it — when we do so we are communing with the very Creator of the Universe Himself, the one who created all things just by speaking His Word.

Indeed, we behold the glory of God in the face of Christ when God speaks to us by His Word. During the Q&A, Tim Chester pointed this out which I found so insightful: when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, his face was shining not because he saw God, but because God had been speaking to Him (Exodus 34:29). And we present-day Christians under the new covenant can expect to behold even more glory than Moses, as we have seen Christ by the power of the Spirit:

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. (2 Cor 3:7-11)

3. Love for the local church

Thirdly, I was so encouraged by the love that the speakers in general had for the local church. Much of the teaching, especially in the small group seminars, was aimed at equipping pastors and leaders (and volunteers!) to serve their local congregations better.

Often after the spiritual high of a conference, one dreads returning to the “real world”. During the Q&A, however, it was emphasised by all of the speakers that no matter how beautiful the worship could be at a conference like this, it cannot compare to the worship at your local church. Why? Because it’s in the “real world”, in the grimeyness of real lives, that God’s glory is displayed all the more. To borrow an example — when you see a single mother whose child is stricken with cancer continue to sing of God as her ever present help in times of trouble, you see the greatness of a true and living God up close.

4. Fellowship of the saints

Finally, I was so thankful to meet and spend time with brothers and sisters in Christ from across the world. As the only participant from my church, and not a naturally outgoing person, I arrived with the apprehension of a schoolboy on the first day at school (“will I make any friends?”). But I didn’t just make “friends”; I found saints whose company I will enjoy in eternity.

Saints’ Selfie (left to right: Tom McConnell, Andy Rouse, me)

I was also deeply encouraged by the passion of my fellow brothers and sisters for the kingdom of God. We might hail from different churches with different backgrounds, but we were united as one body around the beautiful gospel. God is really doing a work in His church here in the UK. (Please Lord continue to deepen our love for you and our boldness for the gospel!) In particular, I was so encouraged by the number of songwriters passionate about writing songs to serve their local churches — not for their own fame or hits on Spotify, but the fame of Jesus’ name.

Last words

In short, I was really refreshed at WGUK 2015, and captivated once again by the glory of God. In many ways the teaching was exemplified by the conference itself — not only were we taught to “behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”, but I believe that we have left having beheld this glory in the wondrous cross of our Saviour. May we never be the same.

Thanks for reading my posts. To be honest when I started blogging about the conference I didn’t think anyone would read my ramblings. I hope that they have encouraged you, and maybe I’ll see you at WGUK 2016!

Soli deo gloria.

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Worship God UK – Day Three

Today was the last day of Worship God UK 2015. Like most Christian conferences, it was difficult to leave — we want the spiritual “high” to be prolonged as much as possible. It is similar to what the Apostle Peter felt when he saw the transfiguration of Christ — he wanted to make three tents to house Moses, Elijah and the transfigured Jesus, because he didn’t want them to leave! (Mk 9:5) In the same vein, we can’t bear to go because we’ve savoured something so sweet; but if we do not go out, we will never fulfil God’s purpose for us to serve the church and the world.

Which is why the themes of today’s sessions were so timely and on point. The first main session was on “Gathering to Edify” led by Nathan Smith, and the second was on “Gathering to be Commission” led by Rick Gamache.

Gathering to Edify

Nathan’s main point was simple and clear: “The finished work of Christ in the Gospel calls us together as the church to live a life of faith, of endurance, and of mutual edification for the glory of God.”

From Hebrews 10:19-25, he noted 3 exhortations, with 2 motivations behind them. The 2 motivations:

  1. We have confidence to enter into the holy places by the blood of Jesus; we have a way to God by the flesh of Jesus (through the curtain).
  2. We have a great high priest — a mediator — who grants us permission to draw near to God.

We have this remarkable access to God by the sacrifice of the sacrificer, our great High Priest whose name is Love. In light of this:

  1. We are called to faith: “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (v22)
  2. We are called to endure: “let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” (v23)
  3. We are called to edify: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (v24-25) 

Our local churches should be communities of faith, endurance, and in particular, mutual edification. Nathan poignantly pointed out: “you can find better preaching than the pastor of your local church on the internet; you can find better music than the worship team of your local church on iTunes; but you cannot find the mutual encouragement that you need on your own.” Are we consumers or contributors in our local churches?

Cultivating a fruitful life in God’s Word

In between the two main sessions, I attended a smaller group seminar with the above title, led by Tim Chester.

Tim exhorted and encouraged us to see the Word of God as more precious than gold and sweeter than honey (Ps 19:10). I found three things particularly helpful.

First, I was so struck by Tim’s candour. To paraphrase Tim: “Don’t you think the Bible is a weird book? If you or I were writing a book, we certainly wouldn’t structure it this way! Why are there all these histories and genealogies? And then we gradually make our way through the Bible and all of a sudden we get to Proverbs — what are we to make of Proverbs?!” Tim really identified with how I often feel about reading the Bible — it is hard work, and it’s often difficult to see how a particular passage is relevant to my life. Which is why the next two points were so helpful.

The Spirit at work in the hearts of the Bible writers is the same Spirit at work in the hearts of Bible readers, ensuring that the words we read are the Words of God. So when we open the Bible to read even the most obscure of passages, we can trust that God is speaking to us through His Spirit. Think about that — God’s Spirit was at work in the writer who wrote the words thousands of years ago; and these words still endure today.

Thirdly, reading the Bible is not about information acquisition, but about communion with God. Tim introduced a very helpful analogy with marriage (or any intimate human relationship). In a marriage, not all our communication is going to be “fireworks” or “candle lit dinners”. A lot of it is going to be ordinary, even mundane. But it is about spending quality time and listening to the other person which deepens the relationship.

So it is with communion with God as we read his word. The Bible isn’t primarily a doctrinal book — it’s a covenantal book. “Just like the voice of a father to his frightened daughter who wakes up in the middle of the night, so the voice of our Father in the Scriptures is the reassurance of His presence with us.

The marriage analogy was particularly helpful when thinking about the practicalities of day to day quiet times. When we’re talking with our spouses, we don’t consciously ask ourselves, “Am I communing with her/him right now?” Likewise, don’t fret about whether or not you’re “communing with God” during your quiet times. Just pray, read, and trust.

This second illustration was even better. Say you’re away from home from Thursday to Saturday and you promise to call your wife every night. So you call her on Thursday, but on Friday you’re completely swamped and aren’t able to call her. On Saturday you manage to call her. After talking to her for a while, would you ever say to her, “Hey give me a moment, I’m going to hang up and call you back, so I can call you twice today to make up for yesterday.” No! In the same way, we shouldn’t be enslaved to our plans for bible reading — it’s not about ensuring we read X amount every day, and catching up on the days we’ve missed; it’s about communion with God.

Gathering to Commission

The final session of the conference was a clear exposition of the letter to the church of Philadelphia in Rev 3:7-13. Like the church in Philadelphia, we have received a similar commission to proclaim the gospel of Jesus — an “open door” to do ministry (cf Acts 14:27; 1 Cor 16:9; Col 4:3).

But also like that church, we need a distinct reminder of who Jesus is and what He has promised us, if we are to withstand persecution and trials.

Our local churches are outposts of the kingdom of light interspersed throughout the domain of darkness. And even though we seem so small, and the odds so overwhelming, Jesus says:

Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

We may be weak, but we have a great God. He promises to vindicate us (v9), protect us (v10), and to hold us fast and secure in Him (v12).

And what a wonderful note to end the conference on. We are fallen and weak individuals, but we serve an awesome God who chooses to display his manifold wisdom through our feebleness (cf Eph 3:10). We are powerless, but He is powerful. And He will one day put all things under the feet of Jesus.

Isn’t that something worthy of our worship?

Isn’t that something worth singing about?

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Worship God UK – Day Two

If I could summarise the conference thus far in one song lyric, it would be hard to find a more suitable line than this: How sweet the sound of saving grace — Christ died for me!

The line is from the bridge of Now Why This Fear, one of the songs which we sang to open the morning session. Indeed, it has been so so sweet to hear the sound of saving grace resounding throughout this conference — in the sound of the saints singing and admonishing each other with songs of God’s great salvation, and in the sound of the gospel message of God’s goodness and grace being preached.

Gathering around the Word

There were two sessions of teaching in the morning. First, Kevin DeYoung encouraged us from Psalm 119 to treasure and delight in the word of God. Kevin started by reading verses 129-136 of the psalm, and noted 131 and 136 in particular:

I open my mouth and pant,
because I long for your commandments. 

My eyes shed streams of tears,
because people do not keep your law.

When we read these verses, do we feel embarrassed at the unadulterated exuberance with which the psalmist displays his seemingly heady love for God’s word? Do we feel cynical — maybe he’s just engaging in hyperbole?

No, this should be the ideal to which we strive. Indeed, if the Bible, if the Scriptures are the very words of God, then how can we not delight in them; how can we not feel indignant at their rejection?

Gathering to Rehearse the Gospel

The second morning session was a brilliant, soul-stirring exposition of Isaiah 6 by Jeff Purswell. Isa 6 is one of those passages that churchgoing Christians tend to be (overly) familiar with. But this usually means that said Christians — myself included — don’t really understand it all that well! So I was very grateful for Jeff, who by the illuminating power of the Spirit, helped us to see more clearly what Isaiah saw in that glorious vision of God.

I was particularly struck by Jeff’s observation in verse 1: “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” Isaiah sees the thone of God, but immediately afterwards he notes this interesting detail — the train of his robe filled the temple. Did Isaiah not notice anything else? No; rather, our God is so big that when we catch a glimpse of Him we can only see the train of his robe. (cf Exodus 24:9f where Moses and the elders of Israel “saw the God of Israel” — the sapphire pavement under his feet!)

Jeff helpfully pointed out that:

  1. All Christians at some point have a vision or glimpse of God;
  2. When we see his utter holiness, we realise that it can only be an act of mercy that can bring us into His awesome, terrible presence. For Isaiah, it was the burning coal which touched his lips, and the pronouncement that his guilt and sin were atoned for. For us on this side of the cross, it is the loving sacrifice of God’s own son which atones for our sins.
  3. We then respond to God’s grace. “When we are captivated by God, we are then unleashed into worship, and into His service.”

True worship is a response to the grace of God, with adoration for God, and service to God.

When we gather in our churches, do we gather to rehearse this great gospel? That we have a great God who forgives great sinners? That we have a God who cannot tolerate our sinful rebellion; that in His great wisdom He sent His Son to take our rightful place on that cross of Calvary; that because of his death and glorious resurrection three days later we can have been reconciled to Christ?

If we don’t rehearse the gospel in our “worship” services, we are really worshiping ourselves or the world. If we do not magnify the gospel, we will inadvertently either magnify ourselves (and our self-righteousness) or belittle our great God.

Afternoon seminars

After lunch we broke into smaller groups for seminars. I attended “Cultivating Godliness in Musicians” run by Bob Kauflin and “Encountering God’s Presence” by Nathan Smith (of Grace Church Bristol). Both sessions were really practical and helpful. However given that this post is getting quite lengthy so I might share what was taught some other time. I shall instead post a photo which I am quite happy about:

Gathering to Sing

The final teaching session of today was entitled Gathering to Sing. Bob Kauflin posed the following question: “Why do we worship God in song at all?” Now, given that we were at a worship conference, I thought this an important question worthy of extended meditation. Why do churches all over the world gather together on Sundays to sing praises corporately to God?

From Colossians 3:12-17 (especially vv16 and 17), Bob explained that the imperative “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” was to be accomplished by these two means:

  • By teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom
  • By singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs

Singing impresses the gospel of Christ on our minds. Somehow, humans are wired to remember truths better when combined with music — singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to one another is a form of teaching and admonishing one another.

Singing impresses the gospel of Christ on our hearts. Bob quoted Jonathan Edwards, who said: “The duty of singing praises to God seems to be given wholly to excite and express religious affections.” What a great gift God has given us, that through singing we might fan the flame in our hearts which burns for Christ.

Singing engages our minds and our hearts; doctrine combines with devotion, intellect with emotion. The best songs, therefore, contain both truth and tunes.

Finally, we ended the night just how we started in the morning — singing praises to our glorious King. To quote Calvin (who was in turn quoted by Bob in the afternoon):

We should consider it the great end of our existence to be found numbered among the worshipers of God.

How true indeed! Lord, we long for the day when we finally unite with the saints throughout all generations, in the glorious new city of our God, where we will finally see you face to face.

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Worship God UK – Reflections on Day One

Phew! What a way to start a conference!

So I’m at Worship God UK, “A conference to equip pastors, worship leaders, service leaders, musicians, singers, songwriters, tech people, and anyone who wants to grow in worshipping God.” (see website here) While I guess I’m primarily a musician, I think I am best described by the last clause — I just want to grow in worshipping God. The conference will span three days, and I hope to write some reflections at the end of each day.

The conference kicked off today with just a wonderful time of worship led by Bob Kauflin and the team from Sovereign Grace Music. I have been so blessed by the songs of Sovereign Grace over the years, and was especially moved when Bob led worship at New Word Alive in 2011. He is just so astute at making the truths of God’s word and God’s character come alive in music and in song, and tonight was no exception.

We started by reading the first 9 verses of Ephesians, and sang the anthem Come Praise and Glorify which is based on that passage. It was such a strong reminder that our salvation, the fact that we were chosen before the foundation of the world, was to the praise of His glorious grace! We also sang my favourite hymn, which speaks of the assurance of our salvation because of our great High Priest:

When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see Him there, who put an end to all my sin
Because the sinless Saviour died, my sinful soul is counted free
For God the just is satisfied, to look on Him and pardon me

Mike Reeves then kicked off the teaching at the conference with his talk entitled Gathering to Behold. He preached on 2 Corinthians 3:1-4:6. What really struck me was his explanation of 3:18, which I don’t think I’ve ever read this way before. The text reads:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

To be human is to be created in the image of God. When we behold Christ, we are becoming truly human, for are being transformed into his image. Our minds, our faculties, are only made truly right — what they were meant to be — when we behold Jesus.

Mike, in his typically contagious way, urged us to making the beholding of Christ the centre of all our worship/music ministry. Behold the God who died to embrace us! God displays His glory by forgiving great sinners – so don’t try to steal his glory by covering up our sins by human effort. Let Him prove Himself as the glorious redeemer.

Musician, worship leader, pastor — stop casting shadows, step out of the way of the light of Christ’s glory. 


 

Finally, I also attended the a pre-conference “intensive” for songwriters — essentially a condensed songwriting workshop run by Steve and Vikki Cook. I have to say I was just so blessed by them. (Incidentally this was when I found out that they were the ones who put the lyrics of Before the Throne of God Above to the modern tune which we all sing and love!)

They went through some practical steps on songwriting, and I find myself really inspired to get started writing some stuff. I have some ideas floating in the ether, so lets see how that goes.

What I found most encouraging from that session though, was the amazing contributions from some of the other workshop attendees. God is doing a work in the local churches in the UK (and Denmark and Austria too), raising up men and women on fire to “sing to the Lord a new song”, to write truth for their local congregations. I am indeed privileged to have met and befriended some of them.

 

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How big is your view of God? Let John Calvin challenge you:

“[I]t is not enough to believe simply that [God] is the only being everyone ought to worship and adore, unless we are also convinced that he is the source of all goodness, and that we must seek for everything in him alone. I am trying to say that we must be convinced not only that he created the world, keeps it going by his goodness, rules the human race with justice, puts up with it in his love and shields it with his protection, but also that there is not an atom of light, wisdom or justice, power, integrity or truth to be found anywhere but flowing from him and generated by him. […] Until people feel that they owe everything to God, that they are protected by his fatherly care and that he is the Author of all their blessings, so that nothing should be sought apart from him, they will never submit to him voluntarily. Indeed, unless they put their complete happiness in his hands, they will never truly have their lives under his control.” (Institutes, 2.1)

I must confess, personally, that I rarely — if at all — think of God in such categories. Rather more the opposite — I tend to put Him in a box, bound by my rules. Perhaps that’s why I lack thankfulness, or prayerfulness? Calvin draws a direct connection between our knowledge of God and how we live:

“The result of our knowledge ought to be first, that we learn reverence and awe and second, that we should be led under its guidance to ask for every good thing from him, and when we receive it to give thanks to him. How can the idea of God come to mind without immediately making us think that since he made us, we are bound by the law of creation itself to submit to his authority — that we owe our lives to him and that we should refer everything we do to him? Otherwise it surely follows that our lives are spoilt, if they are not planned in obedience to him, since our lives should be ruled by his will. Our grasp of his nature is not clear unless we acknowledge him to be the origin and fount of all goodness. This would always lead to confidence in him and a longing to stay close to him, if the depravity of man’s mind did not lead it away from the right approach.” (Institutes, 2.2)

The final sentence of the previous paragraph shows us why we often don’t see God for who He is — because of the fall, sin has corrupted our mind; man’s mind has become depraved. In our fallen state we fail to acknowledge Him and seek to distance ourselves from Him.

But as Christians, we are set free from sin and set free to see God for who He really is: utterly good. Let us then pray that we would not lapse into the old ways of thinking. May we be convinced that he is the “source of all goodness … and seek for everything in him alone”.  

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How union with Christ changes our attempts to resist sin:

“Before being joined to Christ, when I resisted sin I was like a prisoner who tries to escape over the prison wall before his sentence is paid. When sin the jailer catches up with me and tells me to come back into prison, I have no choice but to go, because I am guilty and the penalty is not paid. But when the Christian resists sin he is like a prisoner who is released through the prison gate after serving his sentence. When the jailer threatens him and tells him to return to prison, he need not go. The only power that sin has over the Christian is the power of bluff.”

– Christopher Ash, Teaching Romans (2008) at 229.

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December 2, 2014 · 12:38 am

Baptism Basics – Pondering Jesus (30/08/14)

Over the next few months or so, I shall be reflecting on the Gospel of Matthew and ‘pondering Jesus’ – thinking about who He is, and what that means for us. In so doing, I hope to delight more in my Saviour; and if I am able to help you (reader) to do so too, then even better!


In chapter 3 of the Gospel of Matthew (please access the full text here) we encounter a word which is foreign to our everyday parlance – ‘baptism’. The word (or forms of it) occurs 8 times in the 17 verses within the passage. In our modern context the concept of baptism seems mainly restricted to Christian circles. Or perhaps every once in a while we hear the expression ‘baptism of fire’. But what is ‘baptism’ about? The passage points us to some basics.

John the who?

In the beginning of the passage we meet the character John the Baptist, who is preaching a message of repentance in the wilderness of Judea (vv.1-2). Indeed, John’s ministry had been foretold of by the prophet Isaiah centuries earlier (v.3). In addition to his message of repentance — which means to change one’s mind or attitude — many were coming to him to be baptised in the river Jordan, ‘confessing their sins’ (v.6).

We see from these verses, therefore, two things as regards baptism:

  1. It involves some form of immersion in water. Indeed, the Greek baptizō means “to plunge, dip, immerse” (cf ESV Study Bible)
  2. It is connected with, or accompanied by, a repentance and turning away from sin. 

We must resist the urge, however, to infer from this that this immersion in water itself is somehow able to magically cleanse us completely from sin. “We must not expect that water to act as a charm: we must not suppose that all baptized persons, as a matter of course, receive the grace of God in the moment that they are baptised.” (JC Ryle) John the Baptist himself says to sinners, ‘Bear fruit in keeping with repentance’ (v.8). What this means then, is that even following baptism, one needed to bear fruits of good character and holiness; even after baptism the temptation to live a life of sin and licentiousness still remained. Baptism is therefore an outward sign of an inward resolution to change from a life of rebellion against God, to a life of trusting Him and yielding to His good and perfect will.

Jesus was baptised?

John the Baptist describes Jesus as follows:

I baptise you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me [viz. Jesus] is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (vv.11-12)

Strong words. Which is why it surprising both to the reader, and to John himself, that Jesus comes to the latter to be baptised by him:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptised, immediately, he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (vv.13-17)

Okay, so not only is Jesus going to baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and all the cool stuff mentioned two paragraphs above (vv.11-12) – He is the Son of God! Indeed, this has been definitively displayed by the presence of the other two members of the Trinity at his baptism. I can just imagine what John was thinking as these wondrous events were unfolding before his eyes: “What have you just done, John?! You had no right to baptise the Son of God!”

And John would have been justified in so thinking. As was observed above, baptism is connected with a repentance and turning away from sin. Could it be then that Jesus, the perfect Son of God, was actually blemished and sinful, and needed to repent?

It is clear from various other passages that this cannot be the case (e.g. 2 Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15). Instead, the answer lies in Jesus’ reply to John the Baptist: “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, Jesus chose to be baptised because it was right to do so. For one, in being baptised by John, Jesus endorses and connects himself with John’s ministry which had been foretold by the prophet Isaiah: a ministry to prepare the way of the Lord Jesus. More importantly, though, at the inauguration of his earthly ministry, Jesus chose to identify with the very people he came to save – sinners like you and me.

Jesus, the Son of God, came to die on the cross for the sins of the world — our sins. He came to take what was rightfully our judgment in our place. Our Saviour, who needed neither cleansing nor repentance, saw it fitting to identify with those who desperately needed both.

Jesus the Baptist

One final aspect of this passage needs to be considered. As mentioned above, John the Baptist says of Jesus:

He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

It seems then that John isn’t the only one who will be doing the baptizing. Indeed, while John baptises with water, Jesus shall baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. What does this all mean?

First, it shows that Jesus’ baptism is far superior to John’s. John’s baptism is not able to bring about a true change of heart, nor is it able to bring about true salvation. As was mentioned above, John’s baptism was an outward sign of an inward resolution to follow God. But as we are well aware, no amount of human resolve or effort can bring about a true change of heart. It is impossible to by sheer willpower alone constrain myself to be completely virtuous. Something more is needed.

Thus John’s baptism points towards the superior baptism of Jesus. While John baptises with water, Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of God himself. This makes all the difference. God immerses us in His Spirit such that we are truly changed and empowered to live a life according to His will (cf Ezekiel 36:26-27). Furthermore, as the apostle Paul explains:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4 ESV)

When you place your trust in Jesus, you are baptised into Him, into His death. This means that in this life now, we are dead to sin. Sin no longer has any hold on us. We are free to live, empowered by His Spirit! This also means that at the end of our earthly lives, we will be raised with Him – raised from the dead to have eternal life!

Secondly, it also shows that there will be judgment for those who choose not to trust in Jesus. The language of gathering in the wheat and burning up the chaff evokes notions of judgment. Those who choose to trust in Jesus are the wheat that He gathers into His barn; those who rebel against Him are the chaff that He will burn up with unquenchable fire.

This is a very sobering reminder that there can be no middle ground. The atheistic man and the apathetic man are both equally subject to God’s judgment on sin. Only by acknowledging that we cannot to do anything to earn our standing before God, and only by trusting in Jesus’ power to save through His death on the cross as our substitute, can we be saved from God’s judgment.

Conclusion

Three points to summarise, by way of conclusion:

  • Christian baptism is an outward expression of an inward resolution to follow Jesus.
  • While the immersion itself does not magically do anything, when we choose to trust in Jesus he gives us His Spirit and begins a process of heart change. We are subsequently empowered to live free from sin.
  • Choosing to trust in Jesus also means that we will be raised from the dead with Him (just as we were baptised into His death).

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Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17 ESV)

We are told of the presence of all Three Persons of the blessed Trinity. God the Son, manifest in the flesh, is baptized; God the Spirit descends like a dove, and lights upon Him; God the Father speaks from heaven with a voice. In a word, we have the manifested presence of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. We may regard this as a public announcement that the work of Christ was the result of the eternal counsels of all the Three Persons of the blessed Trinity. It was the whole Trinity, which at the beginning of the creation said, “Let us make man;” it was the whole Trinity again, which at the beginning of the Gospel seemed to say, “Let us save man.”

– JC Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew (1856), at 22-23

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August 28, 2014 · 4:51 pm

Wise men from the East – Pondering Jesus (19/07/14)

Over the next month or so, I shall be reflecting on the Gospel of Matthew and ‘pondering Jesus’ – thinking about who He is, and what that means for us. In so doing, I hope to delight more in my Saviour; and if I am able to help you (reader) to do so too, then even better!

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” […]

After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-2, 9-12 ESV)

One of the most mysterious parts of the narrative of Jesus’ birth has to be the visit of the wise men. The record of their visit can only be found in Matthew’s gospel account (and not in the other three), adding to the mystery. Who were they? Some clues can be gathered from the text itself:

  • They were ‘wise men from the East’ (v1), thus were not likely to be Jews.
  • They were astrologers of some sort – they ‘saw his [Jesus’] star when it rose’ (v2), that being the sign they had been looking for. Furthermore, they followed the star until it ‘came to rest over the place where the child was’ (v9).
  • The footnote informs us that ‘wise men’ is magi in Greek. According to the ESV Study Bible, in earlier times, ‘wise men’ (Greek magi) referred to priests and experts in mysteries in Persia and Babylon, but by this time it applied to a wide range of people whose practices included astrology, dream interpretation, study of sacred writings, the pursuit of wisdom, and magic.

So, in short, these wise men could be easily be described as pagan* sorcerers!

Yet, why did they come? Simply put, they came to worship ‘he who has been born King of the Jews’ (v2). When they saw the child, ‘they fell down and worshipped him’ (v11). And they brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Indeed, when they saw that the star had guided them to their destination (i.e. the house where Jesus was), they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. They were so happy to be able to find and worship the King of the Jews.

The account of the wise men bears much reflection. Might it be too simplistic to say that God, in His grace, reveals His salvation to those who seem to be so far removed from him – even pagan sorcerers? Perhaps. We see nothing in the text to suggest that they recognised Jesus to be the son of God; indeed ‘it is doubtful that these quasi-pagan religious men understood Jesus’ divine nature’ (ESV Study Bible). Besides, it is also perhaps unhelpful to ask whether these wise men were “saved” (cf Rom 10:9f).

However, at the very least we can see that God, in His mercy, and through His creation (the star), points lost people in the direction of His salvation. In other words:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they [all men] are without excuse. (Rom 1:20)

Indeed, we see many examples on this theme even today. I have friends for whom the Christian ideas of sacrificial, other-person-focused love resonates so strongly within them – yet they cannot accept that such sacrificial love for others found its paradigmatic expression in Jesus on the cross. I have friends who are amazed by the wonders of creation in their scientific research – but will refuse to look beyond the creation to the creator. These are friends who, like Herod in Matthew 2, decide instead to reject Jesus’ kingly rule.

Two points of application by way of conclusion.

  1. Praise God for His great mercy, in pointing us in His direction, through his creation (i.e. general revelation), and definitively saving us through His Son (i.e. special revelation).
  2. Let’s continue to pray that many who may be far from God now — “pagan sorcerers” of our day — will see and recognise Jesus, for He is ever looking to draw them into His fold.

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* For the sake of clarity, the word “pagan” here loosely refers to a follower of any of various religions that are based on the worship of nature or the Earth. The usage here is not intended to be pejorative. 

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