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SOMEONE HIGHER THAN POLITICS
“The most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men” – “The powers that be are ordained of God” Daniel 4:17 / Rom. 13.1
Nebuchadnezzar – A dictator monarch “whom he would he slew; and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up…”. Dan. 5:19
THE MOST HIGH GOD – Gave him power “The God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power and strength, and glory”. Dan. 2:37
Nebuchadnezzar – Anti Semitic and destroyed Jewish temple “Came Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon unto Jerusalem, and besieged it”. Dan. 1.1
MOST HIGH GOD – Gave him victory “The Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with part of the vessels of the house of God…”. Dan. 1:2
Nebuchadnezzar – Deported Jews from Israel to Babylon “that he should bring certain of the children of Israel…to…the king’s palace”. Dan. 1:3-4
MOST HIGH GOD – Used him “Nebuchadnezzar…my servant”. Jer. 27:6
Nebuchadnezzar – Changed Jewish culture “The king appointed them a daily provision of the king’s meat, and of the wine”. Dan. 1:5
MOST HIGH GOD – Taught him wisdom from Jews “In all matters of wisdom and understanding…the king enquired of them”. Dan. 1:20
Nebuchadnezzar – Furious temperament; out to purge the wise “the king was angry… and commanded to destroy all the wise men of Babylon”. Dan. 2:12
MOST HIGH GOD – Awakened him “Of a truth it is, that your [Daniel’s]God is a God of gods…”. Dan. 2:47
Nebuchadnezzar – Forced religious worship & practiced torture “whoso falleth not down and worshippeth shall…be cast into… a burning fiery furnace”. Dan. 3:6
MOST HIGH GOD – Grew him in knowledge & protecting Jewish religious rights
“God…changed the king’s word…Every people…which speak anything amiss against the God…shall be cut in pieces…because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort ”. Dan. 3:28-29
Nebuchadnezzar – An arrogant great builder “Is this not great Babylon that I have built for the house of the kingdom, by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty”? Dan. 4:30
MOST HIGH GOD – Humbled & Converted him “The inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing…Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase”. Dan. 4:35-37
“The appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ: Which in his times he shall shew, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords”. 1Tim. 6:14, 15.
On the 4th of July the United States turns its collective gaze backwards to declaring independence and gaining national liberty for governmental self-determination, it stirs thoughts of freedom. This is one of people’s most cherished concepts, bringing with it the prospect of advancing oneself and enjoying personal blessings. While many citizens of western democracies relish political liberty, they little suspect that they are actually enslaved to a much greater tyranny: the power of darkness (Col. 1:13.) This bondage is well-illustrated by the tragic plight of the first century despot, Herod Antipas, which is recounted in Matt. 14:1-12.)
A Party At The Palace
Herod was a tetrarch, a subsidiary ruler subject to the Roman Empire but who retained political control over a portion of the land of Israel. He was wealthy and powerful, and to befit one of his station, he threw a grand celebratory soiree commemorating his birthday. The guest-list was composed of the social and political elites of his territory, as The Gospel According To Mark notes: “. . . Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee” (Mk. 6:21; boldface mine.) No doubt the food and decorations were exquisite, yet the entertainment featured a decadent dance routine performed by his stepdaughter.[i] This sordid display revealed the tetrarch’s enslavement to lust. Inflamed by the night’s festivities he rashly promised to give “whatever she might ask” to the provocative young performer (Matt. 14:7; cf. Mk. 6:23.) To his sorrowful surprise, this oath led Herod to the judicial murder of the prophet John the Baptist, who preached against his illicit relationship with his sister-in-law Herodias. As Matthew 14:9 dramatically expresses it: “And the king was sorry; nevertheless, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he commanded it to be given to her” (Boldface mine.) This is a historical illustration of the phenomenon: “You are snared by the words of your mouth; You are taken by the words of your mouth.” (Prov. 6:2.)
Slavery And Emancipation
This incident demonstrates that Antipas’ popularity and reputation – not to mention his pride in his royal position – were of greater importance to him than righteousness and personal ethics. He was enslaved to passion and peer pressure and so was powerless to resist the evil flow of events that night. His sinful appetites made him an unwilling pawn in his lover’s insidiously murderous scheme. The ruler was ruled by his lustful appetites.
In this age of pervasive pornography and loosening sexual mores, many people share this ancient monarch’s enslavement to sins of the flesh. But its not just “major” crimes that are addictive, all sin is enslaving. As Christ said: “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” (John 8:34.) Thus, all humans need a liberator. Thankfully, the Lord Jesus Himself is the emancipator; as he says a few verses later: “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36.) This great emancipation is effected by His sacrificial death on the cross. He died to pay for our sins; what is more, by His resurrection He gives new life to those who receive Him by faith (1 Cor. 15:3-8; Titus 3:4-7.) Believers are born again by the Spirit of God who indwells them (Jn. 3:5.) The transformation that he makes in a believer’s life by the Holy Spirit is so remarkable that the Bible describes it as a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17.)
Free To Serve
The Lord frees believers from sin’s penalty and power – and eventually its presence – so that they might serve Him.[ii] Galatians 5:1 sums it up this way: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (NAS.) One writer explains it thus:
To be enslaved by Christ is not a new bondage. It is a new freedom! To unbelievers, this may seem puzzling. Why, they ask themselves, would one give up one’s freedom to live as one wants? Why be subject to someone else’s rules? The answer, of course, is that the old, so-called ‘freedom’ of the self, as we have seen, is actually the very opposite. It is a captivity to that self with all of its compulsions and appetites. The freedom we have in Christ is a freedom from the captivity to our old imperious and autonomous self.[iii]
Schaff succinctly adds: “Show your freedom by love, and your love by service. This kind of bondage is honorable and delightful.”[iv] Paul and Timothy gratefully referred to themselves as “bondservants of Christ” (Phil. 1:1.) Believers are freed from their old sinful habits and modes of thinking in order to do the will of God. Instead of laboring to keep the law for justification – or sanctification – they are led and empowered by the Spirit to please their Creator (Gal. 5:13-18.)
Bound With Cords Of Love
Unbelievers mistakenly think that serving God is drudgery, but that could not be farther from the truth. Both Matthew 14 and Mark 6 couple the narrative of Herod’s party with the Lord Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000. Instead of His guests observing the spectacle of a powerful man felled by lust, they listened to the King of kings expound the Word of God. Herod’s companions became unwilling witnesses to a grotesque murder; Christ’s friends heard the words of life and fed on bread provided by the One who was the Bread of Life (Jn. 6:35.) One first provided discontent and shame; the other spiritual life, joy, and satisfaction.
Nothing in this world compares to knowing and serving the Lord. Spurgeon elatedly related this joy, saying:
Talk not of the joys of the dance, or of the flush of wine; speak not of the mirth of the merry, or of the flashes of the ambitious and successful. There is a mirth more deep than these; a joy more intense; a bliss more enduring than anything the world can give. It is the bliss of being forgiven; the bliss of having God’s favor and God’s love in one’s soul; the bliss of feeling that God is our Father; that Christ is married to our souls; and that the Holy Ghost dwelleth in us, and will abide with us for ever. Let the sweetness of the mercy draw thee, poor soul! let the sweetness of the mercy, I say, entice thee![v]
May you enjoy the glorious liberty of knowing Christ today!
[i] Although anonymous in the New Testament, extrabiblical literature identifies her as Salome, e.g. Josephus, Antiquities Of The Jews, 18.5.4; electronic ed. accessed on 4 July 2016 here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/ant-18.htm
[ii] Rom. 8:1-4, 22-25.
[iii] David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), Kindle Loc. 3826-31. Wiersbe adds: “Through the Holy Spirit, Christ is in us and we are in him. We can’t imagine making plans or taking steps without considering his will. As we walk together with Christ, we become so united to him that we intuitively sense what will please him and what will grieve him. We seek to do only those things that please him. Yes, the cross makes the difference between slavery to the old life and liberty in the new life, but this liberty is the liberty of obedience. ‘And He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again’ (2 Cor. 5:15). It’s the freedom of sonship, the freedom that is motivated by love and not law. ‘For the love of Christ compels us . . .’ (2 Cor. 5:14). When the children of God deliberately disobey God’s will, they not only rebel and commit lawlessness (1 John 3:4–7), but they also wound the heart of God. It’s much more than citizens breaking the law of the king; it’s children breaking the heart of their heavenly Father. Jesus was ‘obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross’ (Phil. 2:8), and it’s unthinkable that we should come to the cross, turn our freedom into license, and willfully disobey his Word. ‘For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh . . .’ (Gal. 5:13).” Warren W. Wiersbe, The Cross of Jesus: What His Words from Calvary Mean for Us. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), Kindle Loc. 1427-1436.
[iv] Philip Schaff, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1881), p. 59.
[v] C.H. Spurgeon, “Too good to be true,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, Vol. 7. Originally preached on December 15, 1861. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1861), 623.
[I received a kindle copy for review from the publisher, Crossway.]
Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016.
Brother Ferguson does an excellent job unpacking a fairly complex internecine controversy within 18th century Scottish Presbyterianism. As a Scottish born Presbyterian preacher and theology professor at various Reformed seminary campuses, he is well-suited for understanding and unpacking the historical and theological niceties of the “Marrow Controversy” – so named because it centered around Edward Fisher’s The Marrow Of Modern Divinity. The basic issue dealt with legalism, antinomianism, the biblical balance between faith and obedience. Ferguson explains it this way:
“On the surface the Marrow Controversy was about how we preach the gospel; what role, if any, God’s law and our obedience play in the Christian life; and what it means to have assurance of salvation. But those issues are always, at bottom, about the gospel itself. While these themes have taken center stage at particular periods in the church’s history, that is only the tip of the iceberg. They are perennially relevant because underneath them lies the most fundamental question of all: Who is the God whom we come to know in Jesus Christ (John 17:3)? What is he really like, truly like—deep down, through and through? The atmosphere that characterizes my Christian life will reflect my answer to these questions. That was the issue that lay deeply embedded in the Marrow Controversy. To that extent, reflecting on it can never be merely an antiquarian hobby or an academic exercise.” Kindle Loc. 241-47.
The implications of this debate touches on the nature of a believer’s assurance of salvation. In my estimation, brother Ferguson is at his best when unpacking biblical reasons for Christian assurance in contrast to the counterfeit assurance of legalism and antinomianism. I am not an adherent to Covenant Theology or Five Point Calvinism, so I could not agree with those views in this book. Nevertheless, I appreciate brother Ferguson’s clear prose and his careful exposition of the Scriptures. This is not a dry tome of church history; rather it is warmly pastoral, and aims to encourage true believers to grow in the true Christian life.
[Note: I received a complimentary review copy of the book in kindle format from the publisher.]
Vern Poythress, The Miracles of Jesus: How the Savior’s Mighty Acts Serve as Signs of Redemption. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016.
Given brother Poythress’ occupation and credentials – he teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA and possesses doctorates in mathematics and theology respectively – I expected this book to be somewhat highbrow. I could not have been more wrong! He writes in a lucid, everyday style that avoids technical jargon and sticks to analogies that any reader can understand. I also anticipated a philosophical discussion of miracles, somewhat on the order of a more modern version of C.S. Lewis’ classic Miracles. Once again I was mistaken. Brother Poythress focuses on direct exegesis of the text of the Bible, paying particular attention to the Lord’s miracles in the Gospels of John and Matthew. Along the way he gives a practical tutorial in using Edmund Clowney’s chart of interpreting miracles in their context, as well as looking at greater things pertaining to the gospel that are typologically shadowed in the different types of signs that Christ performed.
Of course, I don’t subscribe to every bit of interpretation that brother Poythress puts forth. As one would expect from a brother of Presbyterian affiliation, his soteriology and eschatology are thoroughly Reformed (I’m premillennial, dispensational, so some of our future chronology differs, as well as our approach to Israel and the Church!) Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it as a good primer for studying the gospel miracles in their context. As always, be good Bereans (Acts 17:11) and prayerfully compare everything with the Scriptures themselves!
Book review: Barry G. Webb, Judges and Ruth: God In Chaos. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015.
[Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in MOBI / Kindle format.]
Part of Crossway’s Preaching The Word series, this devotional commentary does an excellent job of examining the major content of Judges and Ruth. Taking place in a difficult era of salvation history, these two books offer hope against the dark backdrop of Israel’s repeated spiritual and moral failures. Mr. Webb, a retired professor from Moore Theological College in Sydney Australia, does an outstanding job of explaining them in their historical context, while also making relevant applications to the modern situations faced by churches and individual believers.
Mr. Webb’s writing is lucid and interesting, and he has a keen sense of the drama of Judges and Ruth. He is also superb at bringing out reflections of Christ in the types and shadows of these Old Testament books. He brings out interesting insights from Hebrew word studies, biblical geography, and extra-biblical history without becoming bogged down in overly technical academic jargon or inconsequential details. Throughout his commentary Webb maintains a reverence for God and His word, and frequently makes gospel applications from the text. His style is expositional, yet it offers much spiritual heart-food for the reader who desires to contemplate the Lord’s glories. I heartily commend this book to anyone interested in Judges and Ruth – or even to someone looking for a good Christ-centered book.
Some choice quotations to whet your appetite:
On the “Minor Judges”:
“In the marathon of life there are few stars and many runners. The same is true in the history of God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments. Thank God for stars like Othniel, Deborah, Barak, and Gideon who encourage and inspire us by their example. But thank God, too, for also-rans like Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon who remind us, by simply being there with their modest achievements and all too human failures, that little people, too, have a contribution to make to the great sweep of God’s saving purposes in the world that reaches its climax in Christ and flows on into our own day and age. Also-rans is what nearly all of us are! But praise God that we, too, have a noble calling and can be used to display his astonishing wisdom to a proud, incredulous world. May it be our joy to do so, with God’s help, and to his glory.” Webb, Judges and Ruth: God In Chaos, Kindle Loc. 3733-39.
“Given the heavy blend of passion, heroism, and tragedy it contains, it is not surprising that the Samson story has attracted the serious attention of great creative artists. No one can view Samson and Delilah (Rubens, 1577–1640) or Samson Killing the Lion (Léon Bonnet, 1833–1922) or hear Handel’s impressive Samson oratorio (1740) or read John Milton’s epic poem Samson Agonistes without being aware of both the creative power of the artists themselves and the greatness of the Biblical narrative that inspired such endeavors. Handel’s oratorio was composed in the same year as his Messiah, and Milton’s poem followed hard on Paradise Lost, and the treatment in both cases shows that they did not regard the Samson story as a piece of comic relief after the treatment of nobler themes. They took Samson seriously, and the author of Judges clearly means us to do the same. That is not to say that the story has no humor in it. The sight of Samson bursting out of Gaza at midnight, for example, like a crazed orangutan escaping from a zoo, taking the gates with him, is a moment to be relished—especially since the joke is on the Philistines. But beneath all the surface chaos and mad careening here and there of the wild-man hero there is a steady building toward a predetermined end of profound theological significance. Samson is God’s man, as Israel is his people, and neither he nor they can finally escape their destiny. Samson may be a testosterone-charged male behaving badly, but he is also much, much more. More space is devoted to him than to any other judge.1 He alone has his birth and destiny announced in advance by a divine messenger, and in his story the whole central section of the book is brought to a resounding climax.”
Ftnt. #1: It is longer than the Jephthah narrative of 10: 6— 12: 7. The Gideon-Abimelech complex as a whole (chaps. 6— 9) is longer than the Samson story, but the Gideon narrative itself (6: 1— 9: 28) is shorter. Webb, Judges and Ruth: God In Chaos, Kindle Loc. 3744-57.
On Ruth 2: “Ruth has not just left her native land and her father’s house, she has also left her foreign gods: ‘The LORD repay you . . . the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!’ (v. 12). We can almost see the wheels turning inside Boaz’s head at this point. Moabites had been placed under a ban of eternal exclusion for cursing and seducing them into worshiping their gods (Numbers 22:1–6; 25:1–3). But what of a Moabite who abandons those gods and embraces the Lord God of Israel? And what if she is also poor, an alien, and a widow—one of the very people the Law commanded Israelites to protect? What does it mean to truly keep the Law in these circumstances? Would Boaz be wrong to embrace such a one? The answer that seems to be forming in his mind and showing itself in his actions is that he would not. And the rest of the book confirms that he is right.” Webb, Judges and Ruth: God In Chaos, Kindle Loc. 4833-39.
Gerald Bray, God has spoken: A History of Christian Theology. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014.
I received a complimentary kindle copy of this book for review from Crossway Publishers. Gerald Bray is a theologian and researcher at The Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in Alabama. Bray’s book is a tour de force of church history, theological controversies, & philosophy. His knowledge of these subjects is impressive, and his erudition is demonstrated by his many appropriate quotations from Patristic, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed sources. He has knack for reducing complex arguments to easily understable prose. On the criticism side of things, I find his approach too ecumenical (e.g. he gives more legitimacy to Orthodox & Roman Catholic doctrinal positions, viewing them as part of “the church”.) When he comments on Scripture, I sometimes found his opinions to be contrary to the Bible’s teaching (e.g. he believes that Christ could have sinned – He didn’t, but He could have. A careful study of Philippians 2:5-11 & other passages show that the Lord was & is impeccable, i.e. God manifest in the flesh cannot sin!)
In summation, read this book for a survey of the development of the doctrinal positions of the various parts of Christendom. The book is particularly strong on the Trinity, and also has an outstanding section on the Enlightenment and the development of academic theology of the 18th – 20th centuries. But, like good Bereans, get your doctrine straight from the Bible!
The New York Times recently printed an obituary for the artist Thornton Dial. He became an artist in midlife and employed a variety of innovative materials such as bones, scrap metal, and other discarded items to create sculptures and paintings that are featured in the collections of the Whitney, the Smithsonian, and other prominent museums of contemporary art. Mr. Dial’s propensity for turning discarded items into works of beauty is in fact a time-honored tactic of the greatest artist of all: God Himself. As the Scriptures say: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” 2 Corinthians 5:17.
Reclaiming The Worst
It is astonishing to think of the sin-wrecked, perverted, and defiled people that the Lord completely transforms into works of art. As another verse expresses it: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10, emphasis mine.) People who were previously dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) are now recreated after a perfect template: the very image of the glorified Son of God Himself. Although the work is not yet finished, the Bible affirms that “. . . He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6.) At His coming, believers will be perfectly conformed to Christ’s glorious image (1 John 3:1-3; Phil. 3:21.) Romans 8:28-30 concisely pictures the saints’ transformation into glorious masterpieces:
“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”
Transformed Into A Multitude Of Masterpieces
God’s saving work will culminate in believers’ glorification with the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet someone might say: “Oh no, I’m too bad to be glorified. My life is so messed up, God can never make anything of me.” The Bible flatly contradicts this line of thinking. Truly, we must be born again through faith in Christ (John 3:1-21.) I will give a veteran preacher from a previous generation the last word on this matter:
Furthermore, you will say to me, ‘I desire to lead a new life.’ To do this you must be new yourself; for as the man is, so his life will be. If you leave the fountain foul the streams cannot be pure. Renewal must begin with the heart. Dear friend, the Lord Jesus Christ is able to make your life entirely new. We have seen many transformed into new parents and new children. Friends have said in wonder, ‘What a change in John! What an alteration in Ellen!’ We have seen men become new husbands, and women become new wives. They are the same persons, and yet not the same. Grace works a very deep, striking, and lasting change. Ask those that have had to live with converted people whether the transformation has not been marvellous. Christ makes new servants, new masters, new friends, new brothers, new sisters. The Lord can so change us that we shall scarcely know ourselves: I mean he can thus change you who now despair of yourselves. O dear hearts, there is no absolute necessity that you should always go downward in evil till you descend to hell. There is a hand that can give you a gravitation in the opposite direction. It would be a wonderful thing if Niagara when it is in its full descent should be made to leap upwards, and the St. Lawrence and the sea should begin to climb backward to the lakes. Yet God could do even that; and so he can reverse the course of your fallen nature, and make you act as a new man. He can stay the tide of your raging passion; he can make you, who were like a devil, become as an angel of God; for thus he speaks from the throne of his eternal majesty, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ Come and lay yourself down at his feet, and ask him to make you new. I beseech you, do this at once!
 C. H. Spurgeon, “Sermon for New Year’s Day,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, Vol. 31. Originally preached on January 1, 1885. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1885), 8–9. [Italics original.]