Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Robes of Caiaphas: Matthew 26:65

The Word of God is like a masterful painting where every brush stroke is intentional and perfectly placed. Nothing is misplaced or there by accident. By carefully reflecting upon details that seem a bit out of place, we can often gain a deeper understanding of the broader teaching of the passage or book. Often, these insights also point to even broader salvation history themes that run through the entire Bible. In many cases, these themes jump out of the text if we are paying attention. They may be obvious because they are difficult to understand, seem to not flow well from the argument or context, or are repetitions. Other times, however, they are more subtle. A good example of this is found in the record of the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas the high priest.

The council had finally found two witnesses who testified that Jesus had claimed to be able to destroy the temple and raise it up again in three days. Jesus then refused to answer and Matthew records the following:

“…the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” (Matthew 26:63-66 ESV)

Notice that in response to the claim of Jesus the high priest tore his robe. Mark’s gospel also records that the high priest tore his garments (Mark 14:63). Most teachers will point out that in the culture of the time to tear ones garments was an expression of severe distress. Usually, this was done at a time of mourning, sorrow, or offense. By tearing his robe, Caiaphas is expressing deep offense at the claim of Jesus. Certainly he was offended but there is something more significant involved than simply the reaction of a priest offended at what he perceives as blasphemy.

In fact, this action of the high priest tearing his clothes is a direct violation of one of the requirements of his office. The priests were to follow a particular holiness code that God had established through Moses in the Law. There were specific requirements for priests (and the high priest in particular) as representatives of God. One of those requirements was that,

“The priest who is chief among his brothers, on whose head the anointing oil is poured and who has been consecrated to wear the garments, shall not let the hair of his head hang loose nor tear his clothes.” (Leviticus 21:10 ESV)

The interesting thing about this requirement is that it had also been given earlier as part of the instructions to the priests after God had killed Nadab and Abihu while they offered strange fire on the altar. After God judges them, Moses reminds the others that God will be glorified and those near Him must be set apart. The idea is that God must be worshiped specifically as He prescribes. Moses then instructs Aaron and his sons with the following words:

“…Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; …” (Leviticus 10:6 ESV)

Aaron and his other sons were not to engage in the customary acts of mourning for their brothers who had offended God or else the wrath of God might come upon them and the people. The priest was foremost a representative of God and set apart for His service. The robes, which were made according to the design directly given by God, have a symbolic function. They are not just personal garments. In fact, the very design of these garments takes into consideration a concern that they not tear. When God gives Moses the initial instruction about how the robes should be made He says the following:

“You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. It shall have an opening for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the opening, like the opening in a garment, so that it may not tear. (Exodus 28:31-32 ESV)

This would appear to be a precaution against inadvertent tearing but clearly, God has a concern that this garment not be tattered or torn because the priest and his garments are a symbol of God’s holiness and glory.

What is the significance then of Matthew and Mark, recording that Caiaphas tore the robe in reaction to the claim of Jesus? There is no doubt that the high priest was offended but it also seems that this detail is included for another reason. Many have pointed out that the trial of Jesus was illegitimate and was itself a violation of the Jewish Law on a number of points. Jesus was tried at night and during Passover, which are both violations of the Law. The testimony of the witnesses does not meet the normal criteria and the sentence itself is not in accordance with the Law of Moses. Perhaps the detail about the tearing of the robe is another indication of the hypocrisy and illegitimacy of the whole event.

Or perhaps it is a subtle indication by Matthew and Mark that the priesthood itself was no longer legitimate because the perfect High Priest was now making the perfect sacrifice. The culmination of the temple cult and its priests in Christ is certainly a major theme of the author to the Hebrews and all of the synoptic writers record another similar symbol along these lines in the tearing of the temple curtain from top to bottom (Mt. 27:51, Mk. 15:38, Lk. 23:45)

In either case, it is interesting that the robe of Jesus, the true high priest, is not torn. As John records regarding the soldiers who crucified Jesus, “...they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (John 19:24 ESV)

The allusions to the psalm here is certainly intended to indicate that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Davidic promise but interestingly, this detail also confirms Christ’s perfection with regard to this aspect of the priestly holiness code. In contrast, Caiaphas violates the requirements of his office by rejecting the revelation of God in His Law as well as in rejecting the claims of the Messiah Himself. We therefore see his arrogance as he presumes to be in a position to pass judgment on behalf of God and stand in evaluation over the very Messiah to which his office was to point.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Crumbs of Evil: An Autistic Perspective on Sanctification

The CDC estimates that one out of every 110 children is born with some form of autism spectrum disorder. The underlying causes and most effective treatments continue to be debated among medical professionals. From a ministry perspective, however, one thing is clear. There is a large and growing population of people with autism who need to hear and understand the Gospel just as much as everyone else, but whose style of learning and interacting present challenges for the traditional approaches to youth ministry and evangelism.

This issue is particularly important to me because my son Zack, the younger of my two amazing children, has autism. Although he is “high functioning”, he nevertheless has certain challenges in communication, attention span, and sensitivity to environment that other children his age do not have. He, like many autistic children, thinks in very concrete terms that make certain abstract concepts difficult for him to understand. The Lord, however, has repeatedly shown me the power of His Word and has often worked through Zack to rebuke my lack of confidence in the power of the simple Gospel. I would like to share one of the more recent examples.

The doctrine of sanctification can be difficult for anyone to understand and especially so for an 11 year old child that does not do well with figurative language! How do you explain that when they believe the person that they were has died with Christ and a new person is created within them? How do you explain that although the old person died spiritually they will still struggle with the sinful tendencies of the nature that belonged to the old person? How do you explain that they are being transformed to be more like Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit applying the Word of God in their life? How can you help them understand although this work is taking place their confidence before God is based not on their own works but on the life of Jesus lived and not their own?

Nevertheless, Zack and I had a number of short conversations over the course of a couple months about what it meant to be a new person in Jesus and why we were to be “good” even though we are saved by grace through faith. I was not sure how much he actually understood when an incident occurred that clarified for me just how much the Holy Spirit had brought to his understanding. He became frustrated with something, lost his temper, and responded in a way that was less than appropriate. Concerned that his emotions would escalate further I took him aside and helped him calm down. Once he was calm, I asked him if he thought that he had made good choices in dealing with the situation. I was certainly not expecting to hear what he said next.

He looked at me, raised his hands shoulder high with his palms facing up, and said, “I know I am supposed to be a Christian, listen to the Bible, be swept clean by Jesus and baptized… but there are still crumbs of evil in there! (as he pointed to his chest)” Amazed that he was able to make that application all I could muster in response was “me too son, me too”. My son had just given me a very helpful metaphor for understanding what we had been discussing. It was far more helpful and articulate than anything I had come up with in trying to explain it to him.

He is right; the Word of God is like a broom that is sweeping us clean of all sorts of spiritual impurities and clutter. It is a continuing process that does not end until we are finally glorified with Christ. As long as we are in this world struggling with the flesh and sin, we know that “crumbs of evil” remain. This is why we need to be careful not to neglect the ministry of the Word so that we can put on Christ and lay aside the old man. I am grateful to have heard wisdom from the mouth of “babes” and I am reminded of how I should never underestimate my God or my son.

This and other incidents have encouraged me greatly and highlighted something interesting about the way the Bible teaches that I would like to highlight for the encouragement of others who are teaching children with autism. God has been most gracious in that He did not reveal Himself in a theology textbook. The abstract principals of theology such as holiness, sin, grace, regeneration, etc. are revealed to us through human experiences. We see constantly repeated illustrations of the character of God through the narratives and most clearly in the life of Jesus Christ. God has demonstrated in tangible figures the principals that theologians draw out.

For example, it is easier to teach the concept of grace by looking at the life of Christ or various Old Testament illustrations rather than trying to begin with the definition of grace as “unmerited favor”. These more tangible illustrations are helpful in teaching any person the truths of the Bible but since the autistic child is likely to be less responsive to many other methods, this approach becomes even more valuable. If we avoid using those narratives just to teach morality and instead emphasize the underlying Gospel truths to which they point they can be powerful teaching tools. Since so much of the Bible is already written this way, the teaching of Bible truth to many autistic children is not altogether different from teaching any other child. It just requires more patience and persistent, prayerful, confidence in the Word of God.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Is Jesus Your BFF?

I often pass by a certain church on my way to work that, like many churches, has a sign out front where they post messages for the passing traffic to read. I rarely find the messages on the sign to be captivating but usually they are harmless enough. There is, however, one recent message I keep coming back to that bothered me. The sign read, “Is Jesus your BFF?” I am sure that the message was well intentioned but I think it unfortunately reinforces a perspective of our relationship to Christ that is irreverent.

The Bible declares that Jesus Christ, the divine Logos “became flesh and dwelt among us”. The implications of this are profound. The Christian God is not the indifferent God of the philosophers. Our theology is incomplete if we only understand God to be holy and transcendent without also understanding his grace and love whereby He offers Himself to us. Jesus Christ is the revelation of God, we cannot therefore think about God without understanding Him as a redeeming God who makes it possible for sinful humans to come to Him. Those who believe have the promise of Christ that “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (John 14:21 ESV) It is impossible to conceive of a more intimate connection.

The tendency in our day, however, is to neglect the fundamental reason why such promises are so remarkable. God cannot come to meet sinners apart from His holiness and yet He is both just and the justifier. Rather than a holy God, we often hear instead of a Jesus who is like a forlorn neighbor who is waiting with nervous anticipation for us to come over to visit Him so we can hang out and have fun. Terms like “BFF” are more likely to bring to mind the relationships between teenage girls than they are to evoke thoughts of a holy God condescending in grace to rescue foul sinners. It seems more likely that to most that drive by the message is that Jesus is an altogether approachable and comfortable companion who makes no demands.

It is true that Jesus was called “a friend of sinners” (Lk 7:34), Abraham was called a friend of God (Jas. 2:23), and Jesus obviously enjoyed a close friendship with Lazarus and many others. I am not arguing that all discussions of the friendship of Christ are wrong. I am simply trying to point out that any such concept must be balanced appropriately or it will be misleading. I am reminded of an observation made by preacher John Sartelle about the apostle John’s meeting with Jesus in Revelation 1. In verses 9-16 John describes a vision where he encountered the Lord. After describing what he saw John explains:

“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”  (Revelation 1:17-18 ESV)

John’s first reaction to seeing Jesus in His glory was to fall down as though he were dead! Keep in mind that this is not the reaction of an unrepentant sinner. John was not only an apostle entrusted the authorship of God’s Word, but John was also one of the closest friends of Jesus. They were constantly together during Christ’s earthly ministry. The Bible says that John was the disciple “whom Jesus loved” and the one who leaned upon the chest of Christ as they shared the last supper before the crucifixion. If anyone would qualify as a best friend of Jesus, John would be a candidate. According to John, however, they did not address one another as old fishing buddies. Instead, John is so overcome by his vision of Jesus that he falls flat on his face like one who had died.

Jesus reassures John that he need not be afraid and only then does he find comfort. There is an important lesson in this about His glory. Jesus is a friend but He is not an equal. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:3 ESV) He should never become familiar to us in the sense that we lose a sense of His majesty. We are forever the redeemed, forever the recipient of undeserved favor, and forever in a state of worship. We are granted to come boldly before the throne of grace but we never stand firm on our own. We look to Him for all our comfort and assurance.

Jesus is a friend to us sinners because of the unfathomable grace of God. He is not my BFF; He is my Lord and Savior. I may come freely to Him and need not fear because of His grace; nevertheless, I come in tears of brokenness over my sin and tears of joy over His Love.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Book Review: Steven J. Lawson- The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther

186932: The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther

The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther

By Steven Lawson / Reformation Trust Publishing
Many contemporary Protestants are almost completely ignorant of church history in general and in the history of their own tradition in particular. Probably the one personality that every Protestant has heard something about, however, is Martin Luther. Luther is a Titan; it is probably not an overstatement to say that he is the most influential person of the past 500 years. His influence extends well beyond the rich depths of his theology.  This German monk measurably altered the social, economic, political, theological, and linguistic flow of Western culture itself. Luther is the subject of the most recent profile in the Reformed hagiography series A Long Line of Godly Men by Reformation Trust Publishing.

Dr. Steven Lawson, who is the series editor and the author of a number of the other profiles, walks the reader through six chapters that each focus on an element of Luther’s life or ministry. These are followed by a concluding chapter that expresses a desire for preachers with similar passions and commitments to be raised up in our time. The following is a glimpse of the table of contents and gives a good illustration of how the book is organized and its general flow.

The purpose of this series is not to offer serious historical, theological, or biographical analysis. Instead, these books are designed to offer to the reader an illustration of how influential men of faith in the past have interacted with issues of serious concern in our time. They are written to offer encouragement and a little historical perspective to those who identify as conservative evangelicals. They are intended to show that the doctrines and commitments of the faith have been shared and defended for many centuries.

Lawson’s writing is clear and his points are well stated. Although the format prevents the author from developing the complex theological and historical contexts in which the selected characteristics of Luther’s ministry developed they clearly come through in any more substantial study of Luther’s works. Lawson’s intention with this profile as well as the broader series is that these brief illustrations offer lessons for the contemporary state of ministry. Lawson does a valuable service when he calls our attention to these elements of Luther’s ministry that remain pressingly relevant. These concerns of Luther are just as important now as they were in his day and Lawson recognizes that they always will be. For this reason, it is appropriate for us to understand and take courage from Luther’s heroic boldness and Lawson should be thanked for making this material accessible to those who have not the time or inclination to wade through weighty tomes of history or theology.

Luther is such a complex personality that it very difficult to capture him, or his importance, in a single book. Lawson, however, does a good job of connecting the great Reformer to certain fundamental issues related to ministry that continue to be contested and debated in our time. I recommend the book to anyone who is looking for a brief uncritical introduction to Martin Luther, particularly with respect to his work as a preacher.

* I received a free copy of this book from Reformation Trust Publishing as part of their book review program. Reviews are not required to be positive and the opinions I have expressed are my own.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

DeYoung: Things People Should Never Say They Never Heard at Your Church

Good pastors and teachers want to see their people grow in their understanding and that is as it should be. There is, however, a danger in thinking that Christian instruction should work like grade school where there is a continual progression from one lesson to the next. Unlike a phonics or math curriculum, Christian instruction relies upon constant re-examination of the basics. We can never assume that we know them well enough. 

In this helpful article pastor Kevin DeYoung encourages us to be sure that the basic teachings are not neglected. He wisely advises that we should never assume they have been adequately communicated or understood. The article is worth reading and deserving of our reflection. You can find it Here.