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Theology

Is it real corporate worship? - a parable

In this time of pandemic, Christians are carrying on a vigorous discussion about the character of corporate worship. When many if not most of the congregation members are watching online, can we really say that we are gathered as the Body of Christ, worshipping Him in corporate worship? I’ve read many of the arguments for and against, and I tend to agree with all of them. My position is basically this: yes, we are gathered for corporate worship. At the same time, it is only a pale imitation of how corporate worship should be. Some speak quite forcefully against calling a live-streamed service real corporate worship, calling it only a “pale imitation.” Others argue quite forcefully that live-streaming is real, corporate worship; the congregation is gathered together in the building and over the internet, and together the Body comes into the presence of the Lord and worships. It may be pale (less than desirable), but it’s not an imitation: it is real worship. A real imitation As I said, in a sense I side with both.  I would like to insist on maintaining the word “imitation.” The word “imitation,” derived from a Latin root, conveys the idea of “copy.” I think of what the letter to the Hebrews says about the temple and the sacrificial system. They were “copies” of the real thing. The real Holy of Holies is in heaven. The temple was a pale imitation of the real thing. But it was the best that was available until Jesus came, died, rose, and ascended, opening up for us a new and living way beyond the veil, past the very real cherubim (not the gold pale imitations), into the very throne room of God. I would argue that something can be a pale imitation, but can at the same time be real, in the sense that it is the best we have available at the moment. So how can live-streamed worship be real, and at the same time a pale imitation? Let me tell you a parable which might convey how these two things might be true at the same time. The parable of the packed and pollinated country wedding Imagine a wedding going on in a country church. The bride’s cousin has unfortunately come down with a bad case of allergies, and is sneezing a lot. The church auditorium is very small and the cousin doesn’t want to sit amongst the guests and sneeze on them continuously, nor does she want to ruin the video with the sounds of her sneezes. So she stands in a separate room, with the door slightly ajar, and she can more or less see the wedding ceremony from a safe distance.  She’s thankful to be there, and to witness the marriage. But it doesn’t feel quite right: she doesn’t sense that she’s participating fully in the event, because she’s alone in a separate room. She has trouble hearing everything and she has a hard time joining in with the singing.  Meanwhile, the bride’s brother has a large family. Their flight was delayed and their rental car took quite a bit longer to arrange than they had thought. They arrived at the church building only to discover that all of the seats are already filled. It’s a beautiful, sunny day, so they find themselves obliged to stand outside the building by an open window and try to participate as best as they can. (They had considered standing in a separate room, but there was a lady in there sneezing away). This family has to crowd around the little window, and, in fact, take turns peeking in to see the ceremony which they can more or less hear. It’s certainly not what they had imagined when they planned their trip to see the wedding of their sister and aunty.  Is the cousin really at the wedding? Are the brother and his wife and children really at the wedding? Yes, they are. They are there, they are witnessing the vows, they are participating in the event, they are trying their best to sing along.  At the same time, their experience is really a pale imitation of what being at a wedding should be. They are there, but they’re not there. They feel one with the gathered group of family, friends, and fellow believers, but at the same time they feel separate. Now, is this a real wedding? It certainly is!  Is it only a real wedding for the people sitting in the pews? Certainly not!  The cousin in the separate room, and the brother and his family standing outside by the window, are witnessing and participating in a real wedding. Real but not optimal I would suggest that when in our Sunday worship, the Bride comes into the holy presence of the Bridegroom, and their vows of covenant love are renewed and celebrated, this is a real Wedding. It is real worship. It is real for the people who are physically there, and it is real for the people who are straining to participate through “a door ajar, or an open window,” or, in other words, through an online connection. It’s real participation in real worship.  But it is certainly not optimal. For those obliged to “look through the window,” it is a pale imitation of the experience they long to have: to be physically present in the gathered assembly of God’s people, singing and participating physically as the Bride communes with the Bridegroom. Addressing one concern Some are concerned that if we say participation via live-stream is considered real participation in real worship, then once the pandemic restrictions are lifted, some people will say it doesn’t matter if they stay home and watch the church service instead. I believe this concern is unwarranted.  Think again of those in the wedding parable, and the one obliged to participate from a distance because of a health condition. God knows the heart. There is no negligence or lack of commitment when a child of God is obliged to watch the live stream because they have to stay home for a lawful reason.  Think of the family watching through the window. They are forced to do so by the circumstances. Everyone will understand this. If, however, there are lots of pews open in the building, but the brother and his family insist on standing outside and looking through the window, this would be at the very least rather strange, if not offensive.  The same goes for participating in worship via livestream. We do this reluctantly because we are obliged by the circumstances, namely the restrictions imposed because of the pandemic. In a normal state of affairs, however, someone staying home to “watch” church of their own volition, when this is not imposed on them as a necessity, would constitute “despising the Word and the sacraments” and reveal a heart not committed to the Lord, His people, and His worship. Conclusion Is participating in public worship via livestream really worship? Are we really worshipping God together as a gathered church? The answer, during this pandemic, is “certainly!”  It may be a pale imitation of the type of gathered congregational worship we are used to, but given the circumstances, it is the very best we can do. And because it is the very best we can do, given the restrictions, we can be certain that in Christ the gathered congregation is certainly meeting with God in real corporate worship.

Rev. Ken Wieske is the pastor of the St. Albert Canadian Reformed Church.

Gender roles, Theology

No, complementarianism is not inherently misogynistic

Complementarianism is the belief that God made male and female different and gave them different but complementary roles in the Church and in marriage. It is also understood as the opposite of egalitarianism, which, aside from acknowledging the obvious reproductive differences, holds that God hasn’t given men and women different roles in the Church or in marriage. Egalitarians will sometimes accuse the complementarian position of being inherently misogynistic. They say, if men are told they are to lead in their marriages and in Church as well, that will puff them up, and get them thinking women are inferior, and then men will feel free to lord it over and even abuse women. Dr. Wm. Dwight McKissic, Sr. is shown presenting this argument in the recent By What Standard? documentary where he puts it this way: “This whole sexual abuse scandal thing is a judgment of God on Southern Baptists, because once you devalue a woman to say she cannot preach on the Lord’s Day…you are telling men it is okay to abuse her, like has been documented.” I was struck by the irony of this accusation coming from a pastor. Wouldn’t this same line of reasoning argue against leadership of any kind? If you put a pastor up on a pulpit and tell him he can preach but his parishioners do not have that same calling, then won’t that get him devaluing his parishioners such that the pastor will feel free to lord it over, and even spiritually abuse, them? It only follows, right? Our example of leadership Or might there be a way for someone called to a leadership role to be able to lead without abusing followers? In her Dec. 10 Christianity Today article, "What if I'm not the 'submissive' type?" Rebecca McLaughlin shows how the male leadership God’s prescribes is the very opposite of misogyny. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). How did Christ love the church? By dying on a cross; by giving himself, naked and bleeding, to suffer for her; by putting her needs above his own; by sacrificing everything for her. I asked myself how I would feel if this were the command to wives. Ephesians 5:22 is sometimes critiqued as a mandate for spousal abuse. Tragically, it has been misused that way. But the command to husbands makes that reading impossible. How much more easily could an abuser twist a verse calling his wife to suffer for him, to give herself up for him, to die for him? Our example of submission Just as complementarian leadership is nothing like how egalitarians portray it, so too complementarian submission isn’t what it has been made out to be. On the January 2nd episode of the What Have You podcast, Rachel Jankovic addressed submission, and while she did so in the context of feminism, her point is equally applicable to egalitarianism. Jankovic said: “The central heresy of feminism is to believe that submission equal inferiority. We believe that Jesus submitted his will to the Father’s without becoming less than God. it is actually really important that we believe obedience and submission do not mean inferiority.” The leadership husbands and elders are called to is not the dominating, power-corrupts "leadership" of the world, but the dying-for-his-bride servant-leadership of Christ (Luke 22:25–26). And the submission that wives are called to does not make them any less the Image of God than their husbands (Gen. 1:27). Just as Jesus’s submission to his Father's didn’t diminish Him, so too our own submission – whether as a wife to her husband (Eph 5:22) or a congregation to our spiritual leaders (Heb. 13:17) – isn't about inferiority. It is, instead, an opportunity to imitate Christ! Whether men or women, pastors or parishioners, we are all called to submit to the will of our Father. So why would any Christians think submission is inherently bad?...

Humor, Theology

Humor and the life of faith

"And I knew there could be laughter On the secret face of God"  – G. K. Chesterton ***** Nothing is quite so ironic as to talk seriously about humor. Yet it would be perverse to treat the subject of Christian humor with irreverence or anything approaching vulgarity. And by Christian humor I do not mean those harmless puns and riddles that are often classified as Bible jokes. Who is the shortest person in the Bible? Who is the only person in the Bible who doesn’t have any parents?1 If Christian humor ended there, then we might feel slightly cheated. There must be more. And indeed, humor is more than an occasional joke; it is indicative of a broader attitude to life. We see this most clearly in the word “comedy.” In literature, the term means simply a story with a happy ending – it doesn’t even have to be funny. You might say that the story of salvation is a divine comedy, for it promises a life happily ever after. Of course, to unbelievers this faith in the afterlife is itself a joke. To some extent, then, the question is who will have the last laugh. So let’s take a closer look at this comedy of salvation. Does the biblical narrative include any humor, and what role should laughter play in our life of faith? Humor in the Bible When I was still growing up – a process that may not have ended – my father sometimes liked to refer to “humor in the Bible.” But looking back I had no recollection of what he actually meant by that. Was he referring to some of those funny names in the Bible, like the ones the prophets gave to their kids? Was he thinking of Joshua, the son of Nun? I wasn’t sure, and so I figured that writing this article would be like discovering a forgotten corner of my childhood. Childhood is, of course, an appropriate metaphor for thinking about humor. Those who have studied humor in the Bible suggest, for instance, that the sober attitude of grown-ups obscures the comic aspects of Christ’s rhetoric. Elton Trueblood, in The Humor of Christ, tells how his son burst out laughing at Bible reading over the idea that someone might be so concerned about seeing a speck in someone else’s eye that he failed to notice the beam in his own eye.2 The child has not yet become accustomed to all that is at first glance merely preposterous or grotesque. Trueblood – whose views we’ll focus on here – believes that Jesus is not only a Man of Sorrows, but also a Man of Joys. Jesus’s humor comes from the incongruity of his sayings (particularly in his many paradoxes) and from his sense of irony. Surely, says Trueblood, there is an aspect of comedy in the blind leading the blind, in the notion of “saving by losing,” in the thought that a camel should go through the eye of a needle, in giving Peter the nickname “Rocky.” It is frequently the contrast between the literal and the figurative moment that provides a space for laughter, or at least for a smile. When Christ asks “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed?” our trained inclination is to answer “No, because then no one can see the lamp.” A child might respond, “That would be funny, because then the bed might catch on fire.” The examples can be multiplied – at least according to Trueblood. They show Christ not merely as an ascetic and acerbic preacher – as we sometimes imagine John the Baptist – but as a man who drank wine in genial conviviality and spoke in surprising and shocking language. Whatever reservations we may have about this slightly irreverent view of the Savior, the resulting picture actually fits surprisingly well with the general Reformed worldview, which sees Christ as restoring and renewing life and culture. We all know of Luther’s hearty humor and his penchant for beer. What is humor? There are of course problems as well. If humor encompasses everything from outright jokes to fine shades of irony, then where do we draw the line? In addition, humor is fiendishly difficult to trace in written documents, for so much depends on tone and context. Take, for instance, Trueblood’s explanation of the following words of Jesus from Luke 12:58: As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. Trueblood is surely right that Jesus treats miscarriages of justice with a touch of sarcasm, but he pushes the argument too far when he tries to find the passage humorous: “What Christ seems to be advocating is a clever deal or a bribe. . . . Translated into our language, ‘It may prove to be cheaper to pay the officer than to pay the court, so why not try?’ . . . If this be humor, it is humor with an acid touch.”3 It seems more likely, though, that the adversary is not an officer of the law at all, but is rather a fellow citizen; what Jesus advocates is what we would call an “out of court settlement” – a common practice in ancient societies – and represents prudence, not humor. In the Old Testament There are two other sources of humor that require some attention. The first is, of course, the Old Testament. There are a number of places where God is said to laugh (Ps. 2:4, 37:13, 59:8; Prov. 1:26). This is the laughter of poetic justice: God laughs at the wicked. Surprisingly, the Psalms also suggest that the proper response to God’s laughing judgment should be joy: “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth” (Ps. 98:8-9; cf. Ps. 96). Judgment is no laughing matter, we instinctively feel. However, as the Philistines found out when they placed the ark of God in the temple of Dagon, God will have the last laugh: “When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord!” (1 Sam. 5:3). The man most famed for wisdom in the Old Testament also had a wry sense of humor, something that is often missed. Consider the following ironic passages from Ecclesiastes, that book that we take such pains to explain away: The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1-2). All things are wearisome more than one can say (1:8). Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body (12:12). Who writes a book to explain that everything is meaningless? The Teacher sounds tired before he even begins. In fact, in an amusing turn of phrase, he explains that he is too weary to explain weariness. Perhaps the appropriate response when faced with such irony is laughter. There is a bad sort of biblical humor But there is also a negative type of humor. There are hints of it in the nervous laughter of Sarah. This is the laughter of those who sit in the seat of scoffers. The man who suffered most from such mockery was Jesus. All those involved in crucifying him try to turn him into a joke. And the joke is always the same: how can a crucified man be king? The soldiers dress him up in a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns before they torture him. Pilate practices his own version of the laughter of judgment by placing a placard above his head that reads: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). The joke then gets passed on to the chief priests and the teachers of the law, who focus on the final paradox of Christ’s ministry: “‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him’” (27:42). The laughter of the cross is the laughter of Sarah magnified; it is the laughter of skepticism, and it is at heart a nervous defense against the laughter of faith and judgment. As Paul realized, the Christian faith is foolishness to the world, because doubt manifests itself through mockery and laughter. Laughter and tears, comedy and tragedy – the two poles are actually not as far removed from each other as we sometimes think. Since laughter lives on the border with terror and tragedy, it is not surprising that we also find it at the cross. True joy What does this all mean for our life of faith? An elder of mine once pointed out that one of the great gifts of the Christian religion is the joy it provides. And this joy is not simply confined to a kind of internal spiritual peace, although it is that too. The writer G. K. Chesterton suggests that, compared to the Christian, the secular man is generally happier as he approaches earth, but sadder and sadder as he approaches the heavens.4 True – but the happiness of the Christian also extends downwards – to the earth renewed in Christ. There remains one obstacle, however. Franz Kafka once said – in a comment about Christianity – that “a forced gaiety is much sadder than an openly acknowledged sorrow."5 I think this is exactly the problem we face as Christians today. How can we demonstrate the happiness that comes with the good news in a spontaneous way? Laughter is something that you shouldn’t force. So, how can you purposefully live a life of laughter and joy? I think it has to start with something further down in your heart; it has to start with faith and hope. If you start here, then laughter will inevitably come bubbling up. And this is not a nervous laughter, like the laughter of Sarah or the mocking of scoffers – this is a wholesome and healthy laughter. This is the joy of Christ. Endnotes 1 In case you haven’t heard these groaners: Bildad the Shuhite (i.e. shoe-height) & Joshua, son of Nun (i.e. none). 2 Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (New York: HarperCollins, 1964). 3 Ibid., 66. 4 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in Basic Chesterton (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1984), 127. 5 Quoted by John F. Maguire, “Chesterton and Kafka,” The Chesterton Review 3.1 (1976-77): 161. This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue. Conrad van Dyk is the author and narrator of the children's story podcast "Sophie and Sebastian."...

Culture Clashes, Theology

May I judge?

I hear repeatedly that we’re not supposed to judge another.  Young people express themselves this way, and that’s not surprising – after all, not judging others fits hand in glove with the postmodern dogma of tolerance that’s so rampant today. Different strokes for different folks, so let the other be; who am I to say that what you’re doing or thinking is wrong…. I’ve heard Christians appeal to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to provide Biblical justification for the position, for Jesus told His disciples: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). Case closed: do not pass judgment on another. Inconsistent But the Internet is full of comments passing distinctly unfavorable judgments. These leave me puzzled.  We’re quick to repeat the mantra "do not judge" but judgments abound. Something is not consistent here. This sort of thing happens more often. In our relatively small community we hear numerous details of what happens in the life of the person in the next pew, or in the congregation up the road.  And very quickly we have a judgment ready on what we hear. It affects what we say to one another, and affects too how we think about or treat the person(s) about whom we heard a story. Do not judge rashly A quick judgment is simply unbiblical. Solomon put it like this: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). The Lord in the 9th commandment gave the instruction not to “bear false witness against your neighbor,” and the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes the instruction of this command with this confession: “I must not … condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard” (Lord’s Day 43). That counts for what we say on Facebook too. We do well to repent before God and man of our easy judgmentalism and seek to learn that God-pleasing habit of doing to others as we’d have them do to us (Luke 6:31). As we hate being on the receiving end of perceived gossip or slander, so we need studiously to avoid being on the giving end of gossip or slander. Test the spirits This does not mean, however, that I’m to be neutral concerning all I hear. The postmodern mantra that I’m to be OK with whatever anybody else thinks or does is simply not biblical. Consider, for example, John’s instruction to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1). So much gets said, and people believe so many things.  But I’m to test whether what they say and believe is “from God.” John emphatically wants us to have an opinion on that – and then reject what is not from God. Testing, of course, involves so much more than hearing one thing and swallowing it dumbly as the final word on the subject. Testing involves listening carefully, understanding the details and circumstances, and then evaluating in the light of the revelation of the Lord of lords. You’re meant to have a considered opinion. That’s why, in 1 Cor. 5, the apostle Paul was emphatic to the Corinthians that they needed to pass explicit condemnation on the brother in their congregation who lived in sin, sleeping with his father's wife. They were not to be neutral on this man’s behavior but were to take a stand and excommunicate him. That’s because in this instance the details were abundantly clear (it wasn’t hearsay but indisputable facts evident to all parties), and so the saints of Corinth were obligated before God to form a judgment and carry it out. That obligation was so self-evident that Paul put the matter in the form of a rhetorical question: “is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Corinthians 5:12). Judging: that’s your duty…. Jesus wrong? Is Jesus wrong, then, when He in the Sermon on the Mount tells His disciples, “Judge not, that you be not judged?” (Matthew 7:1). Actually, Jesus does not tell us not to have a judgment on what we hear or see.  Instead, Jesus’ point is that we’re not to judge rashly. That’s clear from Jesus’ next line, “For” – yes, note that connecting word! “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged...” (vs. 2a). If you are quick to condemn another, do not be surprised when others will be quick to condemn you; “...and with the measure you use it will be measure to you” (vs 2b). So if you hear one side of a story and condemn before you’ve heard the other side, be prepared to have folk condemn you on hearsay before they’ve heard your side of the story! Similarly, if you, from a self-righteous height, condemn others' behavior while you are yourself entangled in sin, do not be surprised that you’ll find no sympathy when others find out about your sin. Jesus puts it like this: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (vs 3). That, Jesus adds, is hypocrisy (vs 5). As long as you try to hide skeletons in your own closet, you are in no position to draw attention to skeletons you think you see in someone else’s closet. Clincher But Christians are not to hide skeletons in their closets! True Christians are repentant of their sins, and confess those sins to God and to those they’ve hurt by their sins. Then you’ve pulled the log out of your own eye – and at the same time have great understanding and empathy for another’s weaknesses and failures. Then you’ll test the spirits, and you’ll have an opinion on what you hear, and carefully avoid condemning the other in a spirit of lofty self-righteousness – and certainly avoid trumpeting your condemnation to John Public. The person who knows his own weaknesses and failures will instead sit down beside the sinning brother to show him his wrong and lead him on the way back to the Lord. It’s Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Judge? May I judge another? It depends on what you mean by the word "judge."  I am not to condemn rashly and unheard. But I am to have an opinion on my brother and help him in the way the Lord wants him to help me. This article was first published back in 2014. Rev. Clarence Bouwman is a pastor in the Smithville Canadian Reformed Church....

Theology

What does it mean to be Reformed?

The religions of the world are many, each offering their own understanding of the deity or deities (as the case might be).  The persons behind this website are unashamedly Christian, and so believe in triune God as revealed in the Bible.  This sets us apart from adherents to Islam or Hinduism or Shintoism, etc. The Christian faith is in turn represented in today’s world by many schools of Christian thought.  Each of these schools of thought embrace and defend their own understanding of who God is, and so of how He is to be served.  The persons behind this website are unashamedly Reformed – which in turn sets us off from Christians of Anabaptist or Roman Catholic or Pentecostal or Arminian persuasion.  What, then, does it mean to be Reformed? History The term ‘reform’ captures the Biblical concept of ‘turning’, and is used to describe a return to the ways God revealed in His revelation.  One speaks, for example, of the ‘reformation’ King Hezekiah initiated in Israel, when he sought to turn the people away from service to idols to revere again the God who claimed them for Himself in His covenant of grace established with them at Mt Sinai (see 2 Chronicles 29-32). In the course of Church History the term ‘reform’ is used specifically in relation to the ‘reformation’ in the 16th century.  In this ‘reformation’ countless thousands in Europe, under the leadership of reformers as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and others, distanced themselves from the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church and returned to the simple instruction of Holy Scripture.  Those who followed the reformer John Calvin came to known as ‘Reformed’, in distinction from those who followed Luther (Lutherans) or Menno Simons (Mennonites), etc.  Churches of continental origin in the mould of Calvin’s thinking tend to have the term ‘Reformed’ in their name, while Calvinist churches of British origin tend to have the term ‘Presbyterian’ in their name.  Both are theologically ‘Reformed’ in their thinking. Distinctive What, then, is distinctive of ‘Reformed’ thinking?  Typical of Reformed thinking is specifically the way one sees who God is, His God-ness, if you will.  This one central principle of Reformed thinking has several flow-on implications that I list below. 1.  God Reformed thinkers, and so faithful Reformed Churches, take God for real.  He is not the product of human thought or hopes, but very real and living.  Unlike our world, He has been from eternity, one God in three Persons, having no need outside Himself – and so not needing mankind either.  That Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one true God is to Reformed believers an incomprehensible riddle, but in no way a problem ‒ for the creature man can never be ‘big enough’ to understand the Godhead of the Creator.  The Reformed thinker is content with that, for a God he could understand is not worthy of worship, let alone trust. This almighty God fashioned the world through His word of command in the space of six days, and He has upheld the world He made ever since.  The force of the term ‘upheld’ is that if almighty God were to withdraw His supporting hand this world would immediately collapse again into the nothingness it was before He made it.  All creatures, then, are fully dependent on Him for existence itself.  Further, the God who upholds this world does more than keep the world existing; He also governs it so that history happens according to His pre-arranged plan.  Earthquakes and hair loss come not by change or through scientific necessity, but instead by His Fatherly hand (whereby pressure on tectonic plates and one’s genetic makeup are simply the means God uses to bring about the earthquake or the baldness).  And if one seeks to understand why He allows earthquakes to happen (and some people to lose their hair), the Reformed thinker does not insist that God give account to man – for God and His wisdom is so exceedingly far above what any man can comprehend.  (And if it were not so this God would not be worthy of worship and trust…). 2.  Man The second central tenet of the Reformed faith is the smallness of man.  Unlike God, man is but a creature, and therefore limited by time and space in what he can understand.  Even before his fall into sin, the creature man –simply because he’s a creature‒ could never begin to wrap his mind around God; the distance between the creature and the Creator is simply too great.  The fall into sin, of course, rendered man’s ability to understand the Creator more impossible still – and at the same time made mankind so arrogant as to think that he could understand God or call Him to account or even deny His existence. 3.  Covenant The third central belief of the Reformed faith is that this God of overwhelming and eternal greatness did not ignore the creature He made but established a bond of love with mankind.  This eternal and holy God, in whose presence angels cover their faces, fashioned mankind for the purpose of being bound to Him and so this God of glory adopted the creature man to be His child!  Here’s a marvel one cannot begin to fathom; why would eternal God, sufficient in Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, form a covenant with a creature-of-dust?!  The question becomes the more pressing –and incomprehensible‒ after mankind broke that bond of love with his fall into sin: why would eternal, holy God (sufficient in Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit!) re-establish this covenant with sinful man?!  How wonderful and awesome this God is! 4.  God’s Mercy The bond of love between God and man was and is fully God’s doing.  Neither before the fall into sin nor after the fall into sin was there anything in man that drew God to love him.  Indeed, how could it even be that eternal God should find something in the creature man that would earn His love?!  Whatever man has or is has come from God to begin with.  It is God Himself who in mercy initiated a covenant bond with man in Paradise, and equally God Himself who in greater mercy reached out to man again after he spurned God’s covenant love in Paradise.  To re-establish this bond of love, the Lord God had to ransom sinners from Satan’s grasp as well as ensure that the penalty for sin be paid; the creature man, after all, did not have the wherewithal to free himself from Satan’s grasp and did not have the wherewithal either to pay for sin.  In the face of man’s bankruptcy and weakness the Lord did not leave man in his misery (though He would have been justified in doing so), but determined instead to become man Himself in the person of the Son so that Jesus Christ –true God and true man‒ could atone for sin, deliver sinners from Satan’s might, and reconcile sinners to God.  Redemption, then, is in no way the work of man; salvation is instead the gracious work of sovereign God to those who don’t deserve it.  And this mercy, of course, points up the more how wonderful this glorious God is! With redemption, then, so fully God’s work and God’s grace, with no person having the slightest claim to such redemption (both by virtue of his being a creature of God’s making as well as by virtue of his having spurned God’s covenant love in Paradise), no person has any right to criticize God for determining who will benefit from His mercy in Jesus Christ.  Both the number of those who are saved as well as the specific identities of those who are saved are fully and totally up to sovereign God.  This is predestination, the teaching that God determines who are saved.  This teaching is, in fact, a subset of the reality of God’s providence – the teaching that nothing in God’s creation happens by chance but all comes about by His Fatherly hand.  That includes the movement of earth’s tectonic plates and the loss of my hair, and includes then too whether I hear the gospel of redemption or not, as well as whether I believe the doctrine of redemption or not. 5.  Our Responsibility The final characteristic essential to what ‘Reformed’ means is the notion of human responsibility.  Though man is but a creature-of-dust (and now sinful as a result of the fall also), God fashioned him with the ability to make responsible decisions.  Since God endowed man in the beginning with this ability, man is responsible to act in agreement with this ability – and God holds him accountable to act according to this standard.  It is true that, with the fall into sin, man lost the ability to act responsibly-before-God, for all his actions (and words and thoughts) have become defiled by sin.  But since this inability is not because of a weakness in how God made man, but is instead because of man’s deliberate disobedience in defying the Creator’s demands, God continues to hold all people responsible for all their actions – and eternally punishes those who act irresponsibly before Him. Though sovereign God controls all things (including what I eat for breakfast and who will be saved), I am responsible for all my conduct (including that I eat well and that I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ).  My inquisitive human mind hungers to rationalize how God can be 100% sovereign and I be 100% responsible at the same time, but this is a riddle no human can solve – simply because we are finite and God is sovereign.  The Reformed thinker accepts this reality, takes his responsibility seriously, and praises his God for the good decisions the Lord enables the believer to make. In Sum What, then, does it mean to be Reformed?  In sum, to be Reformed is to have great thoughts of God, small thoughts of man, and deep, deep gratitude for God’s boundless mercy to sinners in Jesus Christ – a mercy directly specifically to me that I am allowed to be His child for Jesus’ sake!  Lord’s Day 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism catches the resulting comfort so well: … I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him. To be Reformed: what a privilege! Rev. Clarence Bouwman is a pastor in the Smithville Canadian Reformed Church....

Theology

Criticizing like a Christian

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do” – Dale Carnegie ***** In his bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie begins with the story of “Two Gun” Crowley, a famous killer from the 1930s. When authorities tracked him down: …150 policemen and detectives laid siege to his top-floor hideaway. They chopped holes in the roof; they tried to smoke out Crowley, the “cop killer,” with tear gas. Then they mounted their machine guns on surrounding buildings, and for more than an hour one of New York’s fine residential areas reverberated with the crack of pistol fire and the rat-tat-tat of machine guns. Shortly before, Crowley had been parked along a country road, kissing his girlfriend, when a policeman had walked up and asked to see his license. Crowley responded by immediately shooting the officer several times, grabbing the officer’s gun, and shooting the now prone man with his own gun. He then fled to his hideaway where he was soon discovered. Though completely surrounded Crowley shot back incessantly, but also found time to write a letter, addressed “To whom it may concern.” In this letter Crowley described himself as a man with “a weary heart, but a kind one – one who would do nobody any harm.” When he was finally caught, convicted and sentenced to the electric chair he continued to think highly of himself. Instead of admitting this was the consequence of his sins he said: “This is what I get for defending myself.” The moral of this little story? It is human nature for us to avoid admitting to faults. Even when our guilt is clear, we will find ways to justify our actions and convince ourselves that someone else must be to blame. Or as Carnegie puts it “ninety-nine times out of a hundred, people don’t criticize themselves for anything, no matter how wrong may be.” A solution? Carnegie has it exactly right. It is human nature to try to elude criticism, and when we can’t manage that, we will at least try to spread the blame around. After all, we know we’re good, so if we did something bad it must be someone else’s fault. “…but you made me lose me temper!” “They had it coming.” “You wouldn’t believe what she said first…” We are all prone to presenting “the devil made me do it” excuses and justifications as if they were valid reasons for our behavior. Carnegie concludes that because we all hate criticism, and pay so little attention to it, “Criticism is futile.” He suggests that, as a general rule, we “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain” and instead focus on the positive and the praiseworthy. God’s thoughts on criticizing Most of us could benefit from taking a large dose of Carnegie’s advice. But does it work as an absolute rule? Should we never criticize? While Jesus spoke against quick, thoughtless, and hypocritical criticism (Matt. 7:1-5), He also called on listeners to “repent and believe” (Mark 1:15), which is a decidedly critical message. It demands that people stop and turn from the evil they are doing! So, clearly then, sometimes criticizing is a necessity. Thus for Christians it is not a matter of whether we should ever criticize, but instead when and how we should go about doing it. And when we look to the Bible for guidance, we find at least four questions to consider. 1. Is criticism needed...or grace? To those all aware of their sins and already sorry for them, further fault-finding isn't needed (though some who say they are sorry for their sin are simply sorry they were caught). If a person is already broken, then we can make them aware of our Saviour – we can skip the criticism and get right to grace! It is only those who don't know the bad news – who as Carnegie puts "don’t criticize themselves for anything, no matter how wrong may be” – that we need to first bring to Moses, the law, and the evidence of their sinfulness, before we bring them to Jesus. 2. Are we doing it in love? There are so many wrong reasons to criticize – because we are angry or frustrated, because we want to feel superior, because we want to defend ourselves and don’t want to listen to someone’s criticism of us. That’s why when we are going to criticize it is important to question our motivations. Do we want to build this person up, or tear them down? Are we doing this out of annoyance, or out of love? A good rule of thumb might be that, if we really want to criticize, we probably aren't doing it with the right motivations. But the reverse is also true. If we see a friend, our spouse, a brother or sister, or our children, heading off down the wrong path and we don't want to speak up, that's also a good time to question our motivations – are we being apathetic and cowardly, and, consequently, unloving in not going after a straying sheep? Now, in 1 Cor. 13:4-7 we read that love is patient and keeps no record of wrongs. And 1 Peter 4:8 communicates a similar thought – love overlooks a multitude of sins. If we are to lovingly criticize one another this means we will only speak up about something substantial – something that matters – and won’t keep a running tally of petty grievances. Criticizing lovingly also means doing so inclusively – a matter of coming alongside rather than lecturing from high atop our pedestal. As Paul Tripp puts it, we need to make it clear we are “people in need of change helping people in need of change.” How might this look in practice? Street preacher Ray Comfort, when confronted by a homosexual, will talk first about the sins they hold in common. He will ask whether the man has ever stolen anything, ever lied, ever hated someone in his heart. By starting with the sins they hold in common, rather than the sin they do not, Comfort makes it clear he has no delusions of grandeur. He knows he is in need of this same promise of forgiveness he’s preaching. 3. Are we criticizing with care? We should criticize with care. In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus condemns how quick we are to judge others by standards that we don’t measure up to ourselves. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. This rules out casual critiques. We too easily evaluate the faults of those all around us, and know just what they should do to fix their hair, their wardrobe, their children or marriage. But this sort of flippant evaluation isn’t done out of love. We aren’t looking to help our neighbor; we point out their flaws so we can feel superior to them. It also rules out reactive criticism. Jesus wants us to consider our own problems and sins – the “plank in our own eye.” So when these problems are pointed out to us, it is may be human nature to respond in kind with a snap assessment of our critic, but that isn’t the godly response. 4. Have we tried it privately? Whenever possible, we should offer criticism privately. In Matthew 18:15 the first step in correcting a sinning brother involves a private meeting “just between the two of you.” This is the approach Aquila and Priscilla used when they wanted to explain the “way of God more adequately” to Apollos, who “knew only the baptism of John.” They invited him back to the privacy of their home to talk and teach. None of us like to be criticized but we especially don’t like to be criticized publicly. In the spirit of doing unto others as we would like them to do unto us we should offer our criticism privately. This is just as true for our children. We clearly have to criticize and correct them – that is a parent’s God-given role. But we can try to do this in private as much as possible. Spankings can be administered in a room far from guests or other children. Talks, too, can be done behind a closed door, away from the ears of their siblings. Matthew 18 makes it clear that not all criticism can be done privately, but when it is possible it is best. Conclusion We should criticize carefully, lovingly and privately, but we most certainly should criticize. God has put us together in a community so that we can “teach and admonish one another” (Col. 3:16). Sometimes there can be a temptation to stay quiet, even when we have some godly wisdom to offer a brother having problems. We can even fool ourselves into thinking we are simply “minding our own business” (and that our silence has nothing at all to do with cowardice). But minding our own business isn’t exactly a Christian virtue - we are our brother’s keeper and we must be concerned with his welfare. So if we love him, and he is in need of correction, silence is simply not an option. “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death…” – James 5:19-20 A version of this article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue. **** Postscript: How should we receive criticism? As Carnegie notes, it is human nature to bristle at criticism and ignore it, but human nature is sinful, so the way we do react might not be the way we should react. God tells us that it is simply stupid to hate correction (Prov 12:1). We know we are far from perfect, and clearly in need of improvement, so we should “listen to advice and accept instruction” (Prov. 19:20). So how do we overcome our defensiveness? How can we learn to welcome criticism? We need to ask God to make us want to be wise, rather than foolish. We need to pray for a growing awareness of our own sins, and our need for correction. It is only when we understand how needy we are that we will embrace the help that is offered. That doesn't mean listening to every critic – many are fools. But it does mean we need to recognize that criticism of the godly sort is a precious, if not always pleasant, commodity....

Theology

BAPTISM DEBATE: Credo vs. Paedo

On Sept. 27 two Reformed pastors debated “SHOULD WE BAPTIZE INFANTS AS WELL AS ADULTS?” The edited version of this video is now available to watch above. It is approximately 100 minutes, or a little under 2 hours long. Pastor Jared Hiebert, of the Covenant Reformed Church of Stienbach holds to Adult baptism / believer’s baptism / credobaptism. This is the belief that while someone need not necessarily be an adult (“adult baptism” is a bit of a misnomer) before being baptized, they do need to be old enough to be able to understand, and confess, their dependency on and devotion to our Lord. Pastor James Zekveld of the Canadian Reformed Church in Niverville holds to Infant baptism / paedobaptism. This is the belief that God’s covenant promises are available to the children of believers, and thus these promises can be given not only to adults, but to infants – baptism is for babies too. Reformed Perspective holds to a paedobaptism position, and in preparation for the debate we’ve shared a list of some of the very best resources available in defense of infant baptism....

Theology

Choosing Evolution: Bad reasons for a big departure

How I Changed My Mind About Evolution is a recent book featuring 25 evangelical theologians and scientists, each taking a chapter to explain why they have adopted the theory of evolution. The editors note at the outset that fully, “69% of Americans who faithfully attend church weekly believe that God created humans in their present form less than ten thousand years ago.” The goal of this book is to reduce the number of evangelicals holding this view. Instead of laying out the evidence of Scripture and the findings of scientists, they opt to tell their stories. And while each contributor has his or her unique story, one can notice that a number of themes recur in the stories. I want to note three major ones. 1. JOHN WALTON'S REINTERPRETATION OF GENESIS 1 & 2 John Walton’s approach to Genesis 1 & 2 was raised by several of the authors, who echoed his argument that the Genesis account only attempts to answer the “who” and “why” of creation, not “how” God did it. Walton claims that Genesis is simply the Hebrew version of an Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) origins account and that such accounts are only intended to teach the function and purpose of each part of the created world. The origins of the material stuff of creation, and the way the world was brought into being, were not the concern in such accounts. And since, according to Walton, Genesis is like these other ANEs, it wasn’t trying to explain how the world was made either, but was only trying to point to who did it. Genesis thus sets out to refute the views of surrounding nations by attributing the existing world to the Hebrew God instead of the pagan gods, and presenting the earth as God’s dwelling, his temple. These claims of Walton have been soundly refuted by Noel Weeks in an article in the Westminster Theological Journal (78:1 , 1–28). Walton incorrectly interprets the ANE texts, brings together ANE texts from extremely diverse times and contexts, and, I might add, presents an exegesis of Genesis 1 & 2 that overlooks all the points that don’t fit with his interpretation. He also makes words like “create” and “make” mean things they simply don’t mean. I’ve listened to Walton deliver his insights in several long speeches and I’ve read one of his books. Unfortunately, John Walton has had a dramatic effect in terms of opening the way for Christians to hold to an evolutionary account of the origins of the universe, and even of the origins of life. As, J.B. Stump, one of the book’s contributors wrote, Walton’s scholarship “has been a gateway for me (and many others) to consider a more sophisticated treatment of Scripture.” More sophisticated? Walton’s interpretation may appear to be more sophisticated than that of the average Bible reader. But it’s patently incorrect. 2. THE "TWO BOOKS" ARGUMENT Quite a few of the contributors referred to Scripture and Creation as “two books”: the book of special revelation (the Bible) the book of general revelation (God's Creation) Theologians are said to draw from the first; scientists from the second; and both of these “professionals” are supplying us with interpretations of divine revelation. This metaphor – of equating certain scientists' conclusions as being God's general revelation, and then calling this "revelation" complementary to the message of Scripture – has been around for some time. It may originate in a misuse of article 2 of the Belgic Confession, where the "the creation, preservation, and government of the universe" is said to be like a "beautiful book." One contributor even speaks of “reading the big book of creation alongside the little book of Scripture,” telling scientists that they are “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” Another says that the “book of works is one that He desires us to take, read, and celebrate.” But the Scriptures never speak of general revelation in this way. Rather, the general revelation that is available to all people in the world is enough to make them know that there is a God, and that he should be served and praised (Ps 19:1-6; Acts 17:24). This revelation leaves them without excuse when they suppress the knowledge of God and substitute idols in his place (Rom 1:18–20). Meanwhile, the discoveries of scientists are not revelations from God, but human interpretations of data that are fitted within particular theories. The Lord never promised a correct interpretation of nature, but he did promise to lead his people in the rich pastures of his Word by the working of his Holy Spirit. Further, since all people, because of sin, suppress the knowledge of God from creation, Scripture must correct those misconceptions; thus, the clear message of Scripture must have precedence. 3. STRAW MAN ARGUMENTS Finally, the third major theme I picked out was not a theme the authors themselves highlighted, but rather, something I noticed. It felt to me that the arguments they mentioned against evolution were some of the weakest; they were blowing over straw men. For instance: dinosaurs never existed Satan buried the bones that testify otherwise “Job invented electricity” But these are not the actual arguments used by “young” earth creationists! N.T. Wright’s contribution – an excerpt from one of his books – tries to trivialize the entire young earth position by treating it as if it were merely a tempest in a North American teapot. He speaks as if only unsophisticated revolutionaries would ever treat the biblical text in such a fundamentalist way. Similarly, another contributor states, “Despite twenty-five centuries of debate, it is fair to say that no human knows what the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2 was precisely intended to be.” I would have expected the editors to excise such nonsense. Readers must also endure the expected jab at Bishop James Ussher, who concluded that God created the world in 4004 B.C.. In fact, Ussher was one of the most learned men of his time, and sought to determine creation’s date because this was an exercise that many other scholars around him had sought to do. Indeed, many Jews still give today’s date as determined from the moment of creation – today, as I write, it is 17th of Tishre, year 5779 since creation began. Finally, all sides in this debate ought to agree that pat responses such as “with God one day is like a thousand years,” will never suffice, and, in fact, represent a misuse of Ps 90:4 and 2 Pet 3:8. CONCLUSION How I Changed My Mind About Evolution was never intended to marshal all the arguments in favor of evolution. Rather, it tells the stories of various evangelical theologians, pastors, and scientists. As such, its style is completely in line with the purpose of its publisher BioLogos, which aims to “translate scholarship on origins for the evangelical church.” In other words, the book seeks to make evolution seem acceptable by holding up this collection of twenty-five models for evangelical believers to follow. They hope to reduce that statistic of 69% that was mentioned at the outset. However, the book only leaves me unimpressed, inasmuch as some of the strongest arguments, the three that recur the most often in the book, the ones that seem to have opened the way for these 25 evangelicals to change their minds about evolution, turn out to be very bad arguments. A version of this article first appeared at CreationWithoutCompromise.com, Dr. Ted Van Raalte is Professor of Ecclesiology at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary....

Theology

The limits of the “two-books” metaphor

There is an idea, common among Christians, that God has revealed Himself to us via “two books”: Scripture and the book of Nature. The Belgic Confession, Article 2 puts it this way: "We know by two means: "First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most beautiful book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many letters leading us to perceive clearly God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature, as the apostle Paul says in Rom 1:20. All these things are sufficient to convict men and leave them without excuse. "Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word as far as is necessary for us in this life, to His glory and our salvation." But what happens when these two “books” seem to conflict? This happens in the Creation/Evolution debate, where the plain reading of Genesis 1 and 2 conflicts with the evolutionary account of our origins. So, as Jason Lisle notes, that has some Christians thinking that since: “…the book of Nature clearly reveals that all life has evolved from a common ancestor….we must take Genesis as a metaphor…. we must interpret the days of Genesis as long ages, not ordinary days.” Analogies have their limits But that's getting things backwards. While the Belgic Confession does speak of Creation as being like a book, metaphors and analogies have their limits. For example, In Matt. 23:37 God is compared to a hen who "gathers her chicks under her wings" – this analogy applies to the loving, protective nature of a hen, and should not be understood to reveal that God is feminine. That's not what it is about. Clearly Nature is not a book – the universe is not made up of pages and text, and it's not enclosed in a cover or held together by a spine. The Belgic Confession is making a specific, very limited, point of comparison when it likens God's creation to a book. How exactly is it like a book? In how it proclaims "God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature." It does so with book-like clarity, "so that people are without excuse" (Romans 1:20). But in the Creation/Evolution debate some Christians extend this book analogy in a completely different, and entirely inaccurate, direction. It has been taken to mean that Creation can teach us about our origins with book-like clarity. This misunderstanding then presents us with a dilemma: if we have one book saying we were created in just six days, and another saying it took millions of years, and both are equally clear on this matter, then what should we believe? We need to understand that this dilemma is entirely of our own making. Creation is not like a book when it comes to teaching us about our origins. As Dr. Lisle has noted, it does not speak with that kind of clarity on this topic. Only one actual book here In contrast, the Bible is not merely like a book, it actually is one! It is there, and only there, that we get bookish clarity on how we, and the world around us, came to be. So, yes, the two-book analogy remains helpful when it is used to illustrate the clarity with which God shows "his eternal power and divine nature" to everyone on the planet. But when it comes to the Creation/Evolution debate, the way the two-book analogy is being used is indeed fallacious. God's creation simply does not speak with book-like clarity regarding our origins. We can be thankful, then, that his Word does! Jon Dykstra also blogs on Creation at CreationWithoutCompromise.com....

Theology

What the Oregon Trail taught one pioneer about Sunday rest

My town of Lynden, Washington has a mother, Phoebe Judson, who founded our city, arriving here in 1871. She promoted Sunday closure. Here’s why. In May, 1853, Phoebe and her husband Holden joined a covered wagon train near Kansas City hoping to reach Washington Territory by mid-October, a distance of more than 2,000 miles over the rough Oregon Trail. Like all wagon trains, they elected a captain. His word was the law. Well, they chose Rev. Gustavus Hines, only to be surprised one Saturday night when he announced the train would never travel on Sundays. Phoebe was shocked. They had half a continent to cross, at oxen pace (15-20 miles per day on a good trail), with at least four mountain passes and innumerable river crossings ahead of them. She sat in her wagon and just fumed. One family deserted the train and joined another. On their first Sunday, while they stood still, one train after another passed them by. But, being the daughter of a minister herself, Phoebe felt they had no choice but to honor their captain’s scruples. They started out again on Monday, bright and early, only to reach their first river cross on Tuesday evening. A long line of wagons stretched out ahead of them, waiting for the single “ferry” to carry them across. They waited 3 days. On Saturday they resumed the journey, only to be told they would still rest the whole next day. Phoebe was livid. This made absolutely no sense to her. Still, the minister’s daughter obeyed. Then, a few weeks later she began to see scores of dead oxen, mules and horses along the trail. They had been driven so relentlessly, they had collapse and died. She grudgingly admitted that perhaps the animals needed a day of rest. A few weeks later, she ruefully admitted that maybe the men needed it too, since they walked most of the time. Then she slowly began to notice that as they worshipped, ate, rested and even played together on Sundays, it had a remarkably salutary effect upon people’s spirits. There was less grumbling, more cooperation. She even noticed that they seemed to make better time the other six days. Finally, what totally sold her on the value of the Sabbath happened one Sunday evening: the family that had deserted them came limping into their campsite, humbly asking to rejoin them. She had assumed they were at least a week ahead; in fact, they had fallen behind. Their own wagon train had broken down! Of course they welcomed them back. And so it happened that they reached their destination in plenty of time, as friends, and out of the 50 head of cattle with which they began, only two were lost. This an excerpt from a Pastor Ken Koeman's longer article on the 4th Commandment which you can read here: Practicing the Sabbath....

Theology

The best news ever!

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:32-43) **** Three people were taken that day to a hill outside Jerusalem to be crucified. One died in sin. One died to sin. One died for sin. Two were guilty. One was innocent. Two were paying their debt to society. One was paying our debt of sin. Consider, for a moment, the one who died to sin: the repentant thief. He made some remarkable observations. His was a remarkable conversion. Of all the converts among the rich, the religious and the rejected, his is the most amazing. Both of these men asked Jesus to save them. One of the men being crucified said, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" (v.39). His words were sarcastic and sneering. The other man said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (v.42). His words were simple and sincere. Hear the response of Christ: "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." The repentant thief rebukes the other criminal. He recognizes his own guilt and admits that he and the other man both fully deserve death, “we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong" (v.41). Pilate and Herod said this but did not respond appropriately to that knowledge. There was one essential difference between these two convicted criminals. One sought to be saved from his situation. The other sought to be saved from his sin, and he would hear the best news ever, “...today you will be with me in Paradise." Conviction comes before conversion Notice how conviction comes before conversion. The repentant thief says, “…we are receiving the due reward of our deeds” (v.41). What was happening in this man’s life? Was he afraid of falling into the hands of the living God? The Bible says, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31). He understood what was happening. He sensed the eternal significance of the occasion. Scripture also says, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight" (Proverbs 9:10). Here in this unfolding drama there are two very different attitudes to Christ. The repentant thief admits his own sinfulness. What led to his conviction and conversion? Was it fear or was it that he heard Jesus say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (v.34). Was it the fact that Jesus forgave His tormentors? Maybe he had heard about Jesus. God was certainly working in his heart. He not only rebuked the other thief, he not only admitted his guilt, but he confessed Jesus as the innocent one. And then he did one more thing for which he will always be remembered. He said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (v.42). He looked at the battered and bruised body of Jesus and saw a king! And he anticipated Christ's resurrection, and coming of his kingdom. What a remarkable insight! He didn’t ask for a place of honor. All he dared to ask was to be remembered. But he was speaking to the one who is able to do immeasurably more than we can imagine. In all his agony and anguish Jesus had time to win one more soul. The promise of paradise is great news. We know so little about this man. What we do know is that at this point in his life he recognized he was a sinner and that Jesus could help him. That is all he needed to know. Two responses to Christ and the cross Our personal prejudices will sometimes have us writing off this person or that as "not salvageable." Perhaps we have our petty excuses for not reaching others. But in all the discomfort of the cross Jesus reaches out to this undeserving man. This shows the selfless nature of Christ. This shows that the excuses we offer for not reaching out to others are so petty. We should never give up on sinners. The paths of three men met in death. Much of humanity is represented in these two responses to Christ and the cross. The cross is not good news for everybody. One of the dying men mocked Christ. The words of the hymn Three Crosses by Helen Franzee Bower, put this idea beautifully: Three crosses on a lonely hill, A thief on either side, And, in between, the Son of God... How wide the gulf, how wide! Yet one thief spanned it with the words, "Oh Lord, remember me"; The other scoffed and turned aside To lost eternity. Forsaken is the hilltop now, And all the crosses gone, But in believing hearts of men The center cross lives on. And still, as when these sentinels First met earth’s wondering view, The presence of the Lord divides. Upon which side are you? Christ’s Empire This repentant thief looked at Jesus and saw himself as he really was. When we look to Jesus we too see ourselves as we really are. This thief was deemed unfit to live in the Roman Empire but God gave him a place in his empire. Remarkably, the man who asked to be remembered expects Jesus to complete his work. All those who trust in the completed work of Christ can have the same assurance, “...today you will be with me in Paradise.” This passage of Scripture shows us that it is possible to have (in this life) the assurance of sins forgiven and that we can be sure of heaven after death. This must be the best news ever!...

Theology

Practicing the Sabbath: on living out the 4th Commandment

It is not uncommon. Under pressure at the office or on the job, at school or right at home, vacation can’t come soon enough. “Ah,” we console ourselves, “Three weeks away from it all, filled with hiking, camping, touring, biking, sailing, and maybe even a trip to Disneyland itself.” When it finally arrives, we throw ourselves into our leisure, making the most of every moment, wringing every last drop of excitement out of our all too brief respite from the drag of our daily grind…and come home plumb worn out. We go back to working, lamenting the brevity of our respite, grudgingly facing the unwelcome demands of the job once more, trapped into knowing we have no other choice: it’s the only way to keep the wolf from the door. Whatever happened to real, solid rest, the kind that refreshes our spirits so deeply it reinvigorates us all the way down to the very depths of our beings, or, as Psalm 23 would describe it, “restores our souls”? Vacation is not enough What happened is that we confused rest with respite, as if a 30-second timeout in the fourth quarter makes athletes as full of energy as when the game began. A vacation is merely a respite (which we all need, just like a good night’s sleep); it’s far from the kind of deep rest the Bible calls a “Sabbath.” Vacations don’t cut it; real Sabbaths do. No wonder our Father commanded that we practice Sabbath every week and he used plenty of words to insist upon it. Have you ever noticed that in the NIV, the Exodus 20 version of the 4th commandment is 99 words long? The final five commandments, altogether, take up just 53 words. God has almost twice as much to say about remembering the Sabbath day than He does about murder, theft, adultery, lying, or coveting combined, suggesting to us that one of the most powerful defenses against immorality of all kinds is (did this ever occur to you?) a soul saturated to the full with God’s kind of deep rest. And then, as if to give it even more firepower, would you observe that it’s the only commandment which reinforces its demand by insisting that we face up to the compelling reality that this is what God Himself did, as if to both warn us that we best follow our Creator if we know what’s good for us, and besides, call us to humble ourselves enough to learn just how to do it from His example. If you came home tired from vacation, or, more seriously, if you sense a weariness in your soul so deep that not even a full night of sleep (induced by medication), or a day of surviving demands (eased by your regular dose of Xanax) gives you the kind of relief you crave, perhaps it’s time to seriously reconsider practicing Sabbath as devoutly as you practice your fitness routine. In other words, have you ever considered fitting, into the rhythm of your week, a 24-hour period where you stop living as a human “doing” and actually enjoy living as a human “being”? If you’re even slightly curious enough to keep reading, then let me be audacious enough to prescribe for you the pathway to deep rest: watch how God rested, and then, go and do thou likewise. The commandment makes it as simple as imitating God. Of course, where it gets complicated is trying to figure out just how God did it. But He has not left us without a description: He finished his work: “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing (Gen. 2:1-2a). He savored the goodness of his workmanship: “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good (Gen. 1: 31). He ceased from all working: “…so on the seventh day He rested (NIV footnote: “ceased”) from all His work. …because on it He rested (NIV footnote: “ceased”) from all the work of creating He had done (Gen. 2:2b, 3b). Each dimension deserves such careful scrutiny, we’ll ponder them one at a time. Finished work God entered into his Sabbath by first having completely finished the work he set out to do during his “work week.” If we are to enter into deep rest, we simply must get our work done first. The commandment is firm on this: Six days you shall labor and do all your work. Finish your homework, your housework, or your assignments at the office. If you have work that was supposed to have been finished during your six days of labor, and could have been finished, but wasn’t due to your own procrastination, I can virtually guarantee this: that undone work is going to infect any rest you try to find on your “day off.” It will weigh on you. It will preoccupy you. You’re compromised! Now I can just hear it already: “My work is never done.” A mother’s work is never done. A farmer’s work is never done. A teacher’s work is never done. True enough, but then God’s work is never done either. Jesus said that his father was always at his work to that very day (John 5:17). But, what was finished was the work of creating. That was completed. True enough: much remained to be done in this creation. There was no pizza or lasagna. Nobody had written poetry yet, and the only music came from birds because there were no violins. There was so much yet to do, which we call culture. But the work of creation itself was fully completed. Every day has its task; every week, its duties; every meeting, its agenda. You want to know what really kills our rest? Work that should have been finished, and could have been finished, but isn’t finished. Unfinished assignments absolutely bar the way into joyful rest. So, be like your Father. Do it. Get ‘er done, even if you have to work extra hard as your particular work week approaches its final day or hours. Nothing relaxes us more than being able to look back upon a truly finished task, be it anything from a reading assignment, having made the required number of sales calls, or having done our rounds in the hospital. The finest picture of such profound rest in Scripture is the utterly still body of the One who had just said, “It is finished” lying quietly and calmly in a borrowed grave even while His spirit savored the joys of Paradise. Imagine the depth of His holy rest having fully drunk the cup of God’s wrath to the very last drop! Can there be any rest deeper than that? The wonderfully good news of the gospel is that, through Jesus, we are called and welcomed to enter into and savor that finished work. There is no richer Sabbath. Savoring accomplished work When He finished creating, God savored his accomplishment. Scripture puts it like this: “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1: 31). That is how He entered into His rest. Now that is something most of us moderns hardly take the time to do. Look back? Savor what you’ve done? Who has time for that? Who even thinks of that? Especially on our days off! We’re just glad to be away from the scene of the grind. I recall a breakfast I had with a friend, a highly paid professional in a tough line of work: lawyering! His iPhone lay next to his plate. His eyes darted toward it frequently as we munched on our muffins. I could tell he was preoccupied. I asked him, “Don’t you ever give yourself a break from that thing?” “I can’t,” he said; “in fact, I can’t afford to.” “When do you ever rest?” I probed. “Well,” he said, “I try to rest on the weekends but….” I waited. “But what?” Then he opened a glimpse into his uptight world I’ve never forgotten. “I never get a full weekend of rest because already on Sunday afternoons, right around 3, every week, it starts,” he continued. “What?” I asked. “This tightness in my gut; I can just feel the pressure rising. The stuff waiting for me in my office on Monday morning starts forcing its way into my mind, and from that point on, I’m toast. I can forget about getting any more rest.” “In other words,” I gently teased, “you actually show up at the office about 17 hours before your body gets there?” “You’re not kidding!!” he moaned. I suspect my friend has plenty of company. Our driven hearts are forever pushing us forward, even to the point that we are so focused on what lies ahead, Monday pushes itself up into our Sundays, as unbidden as acid reflux, and as sour. Not so the Trinity! As God entered into His rest, this is the exercise He went through at the end of the sixth day: He looked backward. He surveyed his workmanship. He paused to delight over it. He admired the beauty of Eve, marveled at the masculinity of Adam. He saw all with His all seeing eye and rejoiced over every one of His works. That’s the exercise God Himself went through as He entered his rest. He studied what He had done, and celebrated it. In fact, He ended every day savoring what He had done on that particular day, but at the end of the sixth day, He savored the whole panorama of His creativity, from the light He created the first day to the light-clothed humans He created on the sixth, and He rejoiced over all his works (Psalm 104: 31). A second key to entering a place of deep rest calls us to imitate God and look back, savoring all that He enabled us to do during the previous six days. The doctor looks back in her imagination upon the faces of the patients she has treated. The waitress, the customers she has served. The trucker, the loads he delivered. The teacher, the lessons his students learned. Looking back moves the soul from anxiety to celebration as it disciplines itself to survey the beauty of a steady stream of accomplishments, each a trophy to the God who was right there empowering us every step of the way. That simple exercise has immense power to lay a soul down into deep rest by stiff-arming the intrusions of future “undones” as it relishes the joys of past “dones.” For what the soul is doing at such moment is supercharging itself with wonder and gratitude at the remarkable faithfulness of God who was right there with us during every moment of those six days past, assuring it that so much went well, once again. I wonder if my neighbors just might think I’m nuts. Like all good Lyndenites, I edge, trim and mow my lawn faithfully every Saturday. It’s a rite around here. When finished, I stow my equipment and then do something which, if they are watching, might suggest to them I’m a little “off.” I take a good ten minutes and just walk around my lawn, and yes, frankly, I admire what I and my equipment have just achieved! I marvel at the sharp edges around the flowerbeds and savor the smells of newly mown turf. Odd? No. Like God? Yes. Now God did something there that is crucial to being able to rest. He affirmed his work as valuable; He gave it worth. He savored its beauty. He celebrated His accomplishment. The three persons of the Trinity rejoiced in what They had made, rejoiced in Their workmanship. They stopped, turned around (unlike the other six days which were all forward looking, this was backward looking; from all the undone work ahead to the finished work behind), looked back, and They delighted in Their finished work. Do you ever do that at the end of your work week? Your day of rest begins by looking back. Let’s say you deliver and pick up mail. Do you ever think back to all the people you serve every week by bringing them their mail? Think of the hundreds of people who every week find something in their mailbox they have just been waiting for – and you brought it to them. Now that is something to savor, to celebrate. Most of us try not to think about our work on our day off. Not God. God entered his Sabbath by ruminating, savoring, delighting in what he had just done. One of the key elements of deep rest is savoring a sense of accomplishment. This is what shelters us from the tyranny of future tasks charging in and infecting our rest. You rest when you learn to resist this “Oh, there is so much I have yet to do” (which is very true for all of us) to “But look at what we have managed to accomplish.” We are so driven by the demands of the future that we have forgotten to pause and take delight in the regular accumulation of the accomplishments of our lives. Ceasing from all work There is a third Sabbath practice to consider, but be forewarned: you may not like this. In fact, you may think I’m just being a fussy old legalist. We cannot truly Sabbath, unless every 7th day we totally cease, as much as is reasonably possible, our daily work for 24 hours and refuse to come anywhere near it. We don’t even check our phones for work-related text messages. Why? Because of the explicit prohibition in the commandment itself: “On it you shall not do any work.” Worship? Yes! Play? Sure. Work? None. Zilch. Nada. When deadlines, demands, homework and duties bear down on us relentlessly this may seem hard. Who can afford this, especially in today’s highly competitive, low profit margin, economy? Close up shop, one day a week? Ridiculous. Students stay away from studies a full day in every seven? Sure way to flunk out! Really? Are you so sure it’s ridiculous? Have you checked that with conservative Southern Baptist Truett Cathy, who, from the beginning in 1946 insisted that his fast food Chick-fil-A restaurants be closed every Sunday? Today there are over 2,200 of them, and they are flourishing. In 2014 the chain was #9 in total profit among all fast food restaurants, but #1, by far, in profitability per store. Each store earned $3.2 million vs. second place McDonalds at $2.6 million. They have been #1 in customer service for years. Rested and cared for employees are much more industrious and compassionate, and the result is customer loyalty that creates long lines in the drive-in lane and tidy profits at the bank. And they are closed everywhere, every Sunday. But perhaps that’s not convincing. Then consider this remarkable story. My town of Lynden, Washington has a mother, Phoebe Judson, who founded our city, arriving here in 1871. She promoted Sunday closure. Here’s why. In May, 1853, Phoebe and her husband Holden joined a covered wagon train near Kansas City hoping to reach Washington Territory by mid-October, a distance of more than 2,000 miles over the rough Oregon Trail. Like all wagon trains, they elected a captain. His word was the law. Well, they chose Rev. Gustavus Hines, only to be surprised one Saturday night when he announced the train would never travel on Sundays. Phoebe was shocked. They had half a continent to cross, at oxen pace (15-20 miles per day on a good trail), with at least four mountain passes and innumerable river crossings ahead of them. She sat in her wagon and just fumed. One family deserted the train and joined another. On their first Sunday, while they stood still, one train after another passed them by. But, being the daughter of a minister herself, Phoebe felt they had no choice but to honor their captain’s scruples. They started out again on Monday, bright and early, only to reach their first river cross on Tuesday evening. A long line of wagons stretched out ahead of them, waiting for the single “ferry” to carry them across. They waited 3 days. On Saturday they resumed the journey, only to be told they would still rest the whole next day. Phoebe was livid. This made absolutely no sense to her. Still, the minister’s daughter obeyed. Then, a few weeks later she began to see scores of dead oxen, mules and horses along the trail. They had been driven so relentlessly, they had collapse and died. She grudgingly admitted that perhaps the animals needed a day of rest. A few weeks later, she ruefully admitted that maybe the men needed it too, since they walked most of the time. Then she slowly began to notice that as they worshipped, ate, rested and even played together on Sundays, it had a remarkably salutary effect upon people’s spirits. There was less grumbling, more cooperation. She even noticed that they seemed to make better time the other six days. Finally, what totally sold her on the value of the Sabbath happened one Sunday evening: the family that had deserted them came limping into their campsite, humbly asking to rejoin them. She had assumed they were at least a week ahead; in fact, they had fallen behind. Their own wagon train had broken down! Of course they welcomed them back. And so it happened that they reached their destination in plenty of time, as friends, and out of the 50 head of cattle with which they began, only two were lost. Conclusion May I be so bold as to caution us about spiritualizing the meaning of the Sabbath commandment so much that we forget its literal and physical side? Bodily stepping entirely away from all work for 24 hours is clearly what is prescribed. Its benefits are enormous. For one day, it moves us from life as a “human doing” to life as a “human being.” For one day, it compels us to recalibrate our hearts back to the stubborn fact that “…God is the only source of everything good, and that neither our work and worry nor His gifts can do us any good without His blessing” (L.D. 50, Q&A 125). For one day it allows our souls to catch up with our bodies, or vice versa! For one day it arrests our drive for profits by reminding us that our real wealth is not in what we have but in whom we love and in who loves us. For one day it slows us down enough to ease our anxiety over reaching our destination to actually enjoy the journey. And for one day it brings us back to that Light, in Whose Light, we see the light which brightens every day. Rev. Ken Koeman is a retired pastor living in the quite restful town of Lynden, WA. A version of this article first appeared in Christian Courier and is reprinted with permission....

Theology

The Bible on angels

Who are those mysterious angelic heavenly beings who live in the presence of the eternal, omnipotent Creator of the universe? Can we know more about them? Yes, certainly! When we carefully collect the Scriptural data, we receive a marvelous insight into the world of angels – we can learn a good deal about these wonderful beings. Yet angelology has been frequently dismissed as futile speculation with no practical relevance for the Christian life and mission. And those who write about it at any length are said to divert believers from the weightier matters of the Christian faith. Let's be clear: this is no indulgence into New Age escapist fascination with spiritual beings. Rather, it is to see how God is at work in His world. The task of angels is to direct us beyond them to God. That said, it is true that undue concentration upon the angelic world does distracts us from Him. In this context John Calvin's rule of modesty for his treatment of angels is worth noting: Let us remember here, as in all religious doctrine, that we ought to hold to one rule of modesty and sobriety: not to speak, or guess, or even seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God's Word. Furthermore, we ought ceaselessly to endeavor to seek out and meditate upon those things which make for edification. Created by God We know that the angelic world is real, not because we have verified it in experience but because God has said it. The heavenly realms in Scripture are not planets, dead stars, moon rocks or planetary rings, they are personal beings populating the universe. They are unseen spirits having different ranks, attributes and tasks. The physical as well as the spiritual world owes its origin to the Triune God. Through His Son God made the universe (Heb. 1:2). "Through him all things were made," writes the apostle John (1:3). The apostle Paul declares the same truth, "all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible...were created by him (Jesus Christ) and for him" (Col. 1:16). The most extended passage on angels, Hebrews 1:5-2:9, makes a special point of establishing that our Lord is superior to them. Because they were created through Him and for Him, they belong to Him. He is their head and the center of their world. Little is said about the origin of angels in the Bible. All that it says about the creation of angels is that "God commanded and they were created" (Ps. 148:2,5). The angelic world then is an enormous gathering of solitary, heavenly beings. They are neither male nor female. They neither marry nor are given in marriage (Mark 12:25). They don't have offspring. Their number is complete (Matt.22:30). They are not eternal as they have a beginning. And they are not omnipresent as God alone is everywhere present. Theologians have speculated when the angels were created, but not one has arrived at a definitive answer. We just don't know. Louis Berkhof argues that no creative work preceded the creation of heaven and earth. And he states that the only safe statement seems to be that the angels were created before the seventh day. But I believe it is not too bold to argue that heaven with its inhabitants were complete at the very beginning of creation. Even before the creation of the material universe there was a vast world of angels and they still exist today. They sang praises unto God when they saw the wonder of God's handiwork. As God said to Job, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?...On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone - while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?"(Job 38:4-7) Angels then existed prior to man. But Man is the crown of creation (cf. Ps. 8). The Number of Angels Do we really need to know the exact number of angels? No, the very existence of angels testifies already to the greatness of our God. But we can consider some of the popular notions. The Pharisees, for example, seem to have an exaggerated view of their numbers. It was said among them, "that a man, if he threw a stone over his shoulder or cast away a broken piece of pottery, asked pardon of any spirit that he might possibly have hit it so doing." Some medieval theologians claimed to know the exact number: one said 266,613,336, after the 133,306,668 followed Lucifer and fell; another said that there was an angel behind every blade of grass. But the Bible does not give us definite figures. We are told that there is an enormous company of heavenly beings. Daniel 7:10 says 10,000 times 10,000 stood before the throne of God, which would amount to 100,000,000, but the point here is to speak of the vast array, rather than the particular amount. Hebrews 12:22 speaks of the city of the living God and an innumerable company of angels. We also know a great company of heavenly hosts appeared to the shepherds, praising God for the birth of the Savior (Luke 2:13). After His arrest in Gethsemane Jesus told Peter that His heavenly Father could put twelve legions of angels at His disposal. (Matt. 26:53). Again, this does not mean that Jesus said that there were literally 120,000 angels. Jesus used the number to tell Peter that He had myriads of angels who were ready to come to His aid. Fallen Angels So innumerable hosts of perfect angels follow their Creator. But not all angels remained faithful to Him. Satan, the mightiest of the angels, became proud. He led a revolt in heaven and was cast out and innumerable fallen angels entered the service of the wicked Deceiver (Matt.25:41; 2 Cor. 12:7; Rev. 9:11; 12:7-10). Their punishment? The apostle Peter said that God did not spare His angels when they sinned "but sent them to hell" (2 Pet.2:4). Jude notes that the rebel angels "did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home – these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day" (vs. 6). When we consider fallen angels, we can also take comfort in the presence of perfect angels. Because they were in the presence of Satan before his fall, they know the powers of the demonic better than any human being. They understand their wicked ways. Shakespeare, the astute observer of human nature, was well aware of Satan's pride and tempting powers. "Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition; By that sin fell angels; how can man then, the image of his Maker, hope to win by it?...How wretched is that poor man that hangs on princes' favors!... When he falls, he falls like Lucifer, never to hope again" (Henry VIII). The evil spirits and their leader are constantly opposing the advance of the Kingdom of God. One of the greatest missionaries of all times, Ludwig Nommensen (1834-1918), settled among the Toba Bataks, in Northern Sumatra. Central to his belief was that by faith in the living Lord, Christians share in Christ's victory over sin, death, and Satan. Nommensen was very sensitive to the reality of the spirit world. He taught fellow missionaries, "After one has come to understand the people and to be understood by them, one has to begin with the preaching of the Gospel in having a twofold work, namely to pull down the bulwark of Satan and to build up the house of truth." The Nature of Angels Although there are abundant references to angels in the Bible, they are not meant to inform us about their dazzling nature. When they are mentioned, it is always in order to inform us further about God, His actions, and how He works out the plan of salvation. What then can we say about them?  They are not omnipresent. They are not restricted by time or space. Angels are without bodies and hence invisible. And although they are pure spirits, they can take on human form. We see this happening when two angels came to Lot in the form of men to tell them to get out of Sodom (Gen.19). Also, on the day of the resurrection the women who went to the tomb saw two men "in clothes that gleamed like lightening" (Luke 24:4). Matthew records that an angel rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightening, and his clothes were white as snow (Matt.28:2). Angels are endowed with great intelligence (2 Sam. 14:20). Since they are in the presence of God they have a far clearer view of and deeper insight into the meaning of all that happens in this world than we do. Our knowledge is always limited, even in our age of computers, Internet and other amazing technological advances. But angels do not act on their own; they function and intervene in the world only as God commands. Their amazing knowledge and power, like that of all other creatures, are dependent on and derived from Him. They are capable of great feats of strength, whether it is in slaying more than 180,000 in one evening, or setting an apostle free from prison (2 Kings 19:35; Acts 12). When the Bible speaks about heaven and earth, it often links angels and human beings. Our Lord taught us to pray, "Our Father in heaven... your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"(Matt.6: 9f). The presence of angels encourages Christians to obey God. As the angels carry out God's will in heaven so should we do the same on earth. The third request in the Lord's Prayer means, says the Heidelberg Catechism, "Help everyone carry out (his or her work)... as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven"(Q&A 124). The angels do more than sing; they also speak. Paul said to the Corinthians, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1). But we must not spend time in speculating about the nature of the language which angels use in communicating with one another – this is an exercise in futility. The question is, are we ready to listen when an angel addresses us? God sent an angel to prepare for Israel the way to the promised land. He told His people, "Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him"(Ex. 23:21). When an angel spoke to Zechariah the priest, and foretold the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah did not trust his message. He said, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years"(Luke 1:18). There is always the tragic possibility that the voice of an angel will come to us but we refuse to listen. Conclusion With joy the angels obey the will of God (Ps. 103:21). Our loving God sends His angels to support His people on their often arduous journey to the heavenly city. From the throne room in heaven He commands His angels. They do His bidding. After his miraculous rescue from prison, Peter said, "Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod's clutches" (Acts 12:11). The angels before whom Zechariah, the virgin Mary, and the shepherd fell to the ground in fear and awe are actually our unseen helpers. As we mature in our faith, we will increasingly see the beauty and wonder of our Lord's mighty work on our behalf, and gain in our understanding of the role of His ministering angels in our lives. Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years and many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections....