Into the Cloud

There’s an interesting parallel between Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai in Exodus 24 and the description of the tabernacle/temple in later Old Testament accounts. In Exodus 24, God instructs Moses to bring the elders of Israel with him up on the mountain of Sinai to worship “from afar.” The people were not allowed to come to the mountain or even touch it, but the Moses and the elders were invited up. From there, Moses alone was invited up into the heart of the glory of God which covered the mountain, and there he was for forty days.

After the tabernacle was completed, the common Israelite worshiper could come through the outer wall into the courtyard, but could not approach the Tent of Meeting itself (Numbers 18:21-22). The Levites ministered in the outer court and in the Holy Place, inside the Tent of Meeting, but could go no further. Into the Holy of Holies, where God’s glory rested, only the High Priest was allowed, and even he only once a year (Leviticus 16, Hebrews 9:6-7).

There are probably many reasons why this was so at Sinai and in the tabernacle. One thing it certainly serves to show is that God’s glory was hidden at the same time that it was on display. The glory-cloud would have been unmistakeable; the tabernacle and temple drew every eye. But God’s secret heart, his covenantal presence, was only revealed to Moses and the High Priest.

Enter the New Testament.

When Jesus was lifted up to public view on Golgotha, the curtain of the temple was torn in two. No separations, no distinctions- God’s glory in Christ was on display for all the world to see. In the Old Covenant, if God and man came too close to each other man would die. In the New Covenant the God-Man died to bring man into the heart of his glory.

March’s Book of the Month: Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life

I haven’t kept to my once-a-week minimum of posting that I had going in February and March. Forgive me.

I wrote last month about my goal to read a short and spiritually nourishing book each month this year. The book I read in March was John Calvin’s Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. The material was originally part of his Institutes, but was later published separately. My copy is 94 pages.

Calvin has five headings in this little book: “Humble Obedience,” “Self-denial,” “Patience in Crossbearing,” “Hopefulness for the next world,” and “The Right Use of the Present Life.” What amazes me about this book is how incredibly pastoral it is. Regardless of your theological persuasion, most of us don’t think of Calvin as being particularly pastoral. But of course he was- the man lived and taught in Geneva, home to people from every corner of Europe who had fled the wrath of the Catholic or Anglican church because of their religious convictions. He himself was a religious refugee of sorts. And it comes out in his writing, in gentleness, spiritual discernment, and great compassion.

His gentleness, especially in dealing with sinful people, is evident. Consider:

A sincere repentance from the heart does not guarantee that we shall not wander from the straight path and sometimes become bewildered.

Let everyone proceed according to his given ability and continue the journey he has begun. There is no man so unhappy that he will not make some progress, however small.

Though we fall short, our labor is not lost if this day surpasses the preceding one.

Imagine walking into your pastor’s office burdened with sin and hearing those words from his lips. There is so much comfort here, so much gentleness and pastoral wisdom!

When I say spiritual discernment, I mean that Calvin seems to so often see the root of the issue. Consider these excerpts:

The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue, but of life.

But our religion will be unprofitable if it does not change our heart, pervade our manners, and transform us into new creatures.

[On cross-bearing] It is no small profit to be robbed of our blind self-love so that we become fully aware of our weakness; to have such and understanding of our weakness that we distrust ourselves; to distrust ourselves to such and extent that we put all our trust in God; to depend with such boundless confidence on God that we rely entirely on his help, that that we may victoriously persevere to the end; to continue in his grace that we may know he is true and faithful in all his promises; and to experience the certainty of his promises so that our hope may become firmer.

I think he just nails it in so many of these assertions he makes about the human heart, about God’s purpose in suffering, about the goal of our faith.

Calvin’s compassion for suffering comes out particularly here as well:

[On charity] When a member of our physical body is diseased and the whole body has to labor to restore it to health, we do not despise this diseased member or hold it under obligation because it needs all this assistance.

The more we are afflicted by adversities, the more surely our fellowship with Christ is confirmed!

That no man might call sadness a vice, he has pronounced a blessing on them that mourn.

This is the reason why we see different persons disciplined with different crossed. The heavenly Physician takes care of the well-being of all his patients; he gives some a milder medicine and purifies others by more shocking treatments, but he omits no one; for the whole world, without exception, is ill.

Calvin was no ivory-tower theologian; I think it is evident from his writing that he suffered with his people, and tried as best he could both to comfort them in pain and to teach them to suffer well. I particularly love that last excerpt; the concept of God loving his own with distinction is one I’ve written about before.

I had read Golden Booklet before, and I’ll definitely read it again. I highly recommend it.

The Shadow Of His Wings: Part Two

On Monday I wrote about the glory cloud in Psalm 91. I think the psalmist draws out the implications of being under God’s presence to bless in a general way for all Israel. The Jewish man is assured that he is under the cloud of God’s presence, safe from destruction; So is the Jewish mother, safe from pestilence; So too is the Jewish child, safe from terror. This was certainly proved true over and over again in Israel’s history, as destruction, plague, and terror passed them by because God’s presence to bless was over them. Yet there are just as many or more accounts where Israel suffered all these things. What then? It’s all well and good when your God answers by fire, but what when he doesn’t and the prophets of Baal are shouting taunts at you? Did God fail to keep his promise? I think not, and this is what I meant Monday when I said that the Psalmist not only expounds upon the theme of the glory cloud, but particularizes it. The language of being “under God’s wings” in the OT doesn’t always refer to the glory cloud. Often it speaks of the mercy seat in the Tabernacle and Temple, and the wings of the golden cherubim are spoken of as God’s wings (Psalm 61:4). I believe that  this is the case in Psalm 91, that this is in the mind of the psalmist as he writes. Given all of what I’ve just said, there exists a second image alongside the first. The first image conjured up by Psalm 91 is that of Joe Israel going about his daily business, knowing that God’s presence to bless is with him in the everyday. This second image is not so concrete. It is the image of Joe Israel, his spear shattered and his shield broken, his enemies bearing down on him, yet still abiding under God’s presence to bless, because God’s presence is the blessing. He does not fear “the arrow that flies by day” even when the sky is blackened by arrows, because no arrow can deprive him of God’s presence. In this sense the glory cloud does not only hover above Joe Israel’s head; it has gotten beneath his skin.

The Shadow Of His Wings: Part One

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1). Does that strike you as redundant, or am I the only one? I used to meditate on this verse and try to ascertain the difference between “the shelter of the Most High” and “the shadow of the Almighty.” I would stretch my exegetical muscles as far as they could stretch, but try as I might, I came up with nothing. I finally put it down as one of those weird Hebrew literary things and moved on to easier exegetical acrobatics.

I recently read an article by Elmer Martens that gave some new insight on this psalm. Martens spends some time drawing attention to references to the glory cloud (The visible manifestation of God’s covenantal presence in the form of cloud and fire) in the Old Testament, and I think this psalm has one of those references. You’ll remember that during Israel’s wandering God led them with a cloud for covering from the sun by day, and a pillar of fire for light by night. Wherever the children of Israel went in their sojourn, they were protected from the fierce desert heat and the harsh desert sun by this cloud. The presence of God overshadowed them in a very tangible way.

For those Israelites with eyes to see, this must have been incredibly comforting. It’s difficult to imagine being bothered by anything when God’s literal presence hovers over you day and night for forty years. We know, of course, that this was not felt by all Israel, but I think the remnant were aware of how safe they were in God’s presence.

I think this psalmist is, as the psalmists so often do, riffing off of the Pentateuch in Psalm 91. Read the Psalm with the glory-cloud in mind and you’ll see what I mean. The references to “by day,” and “at noonday” contrasted with “at night” and “in darkness” speak of God’s unique presence to bless his people day and night. The language of being covered by his wings is reminiscent of the exodus as well.

As so often happens, the author takes the exodus account and both expounds upon it and particularizes it. In many ways, this psalm is an unpacking of what it means to be under the cloud. Under the cloud of God’s presence, we are not just protected from heat and sun, but plague, attack, destruction, enemies, terror– this is absolute security. The Jew reading this psalm during the reign of the kings may have recognized that even though the cloud of God’s presence was not literally over him, God’s presence to bless was still with him, since it stood over all Israel at the temple.

So the tautology is intentional in the first line of this psalm. It’s emphatic. If you’re under the cloud, you’re under the cloud. He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High abides–actually abides!– in the shadow of the Almighty. You don’t get better shelter than that.

A Redemptive-Historical Waltz

Last week I wrote about the apostolic conviction that everything written in the Old Testament was written about Christ and for the church. I believe this conviction can serve as a powerful corrective to a watered-down moralistic hermeneutic which we’ve all heard or used at some point.

We have all heard (or preached) that moralistic sermon, right? The one where the preacher (who is still a good man, by the way; it’s not easy to present God’s Word to God’s people every week) asks us to turn to Joshua 1:9 and spends twenty-five minutes exhorting us all to “be strong and courageous” because Joshua was so. Or the one where we are exhorted to show generosity in hardship like Elisha’s widowed supporter. These are the kind of expository maneuvers which can be performed on any story where the flow of the narrative ends with the righteous rewarded and the wicked punished. We may profit just as much from a homily which takes as its text “Old Mother Hubbard,” and which admonishes us to be diligent and hardworking, to lay up for lean times.

The point is, these moralistic sermons and teachings, rather than applying the sacred text in the way it was intended, obscure the true message of the text and in the end are powerless to bring about the true ethical change which is their aim. Try as you might to exhort me to courage in the face of fear and challenge, I am no Joshua, and when the obstacle before me seems too large for what I thought I could handle, your sermon last Sunday loses its ability to strengthen and hold me up. There is no true link between the modern hearer and the ancient hero.

This is where the apostolic conviction comes in. It claims that all of Scripture, rather than being a cipher from which I may glean moral directive if I can, is a story. The apostles held that Scripture, with all its facets and in all its genres, is a single story about a single offspring who is the object of saving faith. Every faithful son and daughter looks like that Son. Every enemy is his enemy, and every victory is a prelude to his final victory.

A method for reading Scripture emerges from this conviction. It holds that events in the Old Testament really did happen, and do need to be understood fully in their context before being used as starting blocks. Having understood the story or passage in question, the next step is to see Christ where he may be seen as fulfilling what is promised. By the way, this isn’t like that game you played as a child where you lay down on the grass and stared up at the sky, willing elephants and battleships to emerge from the shapeless clouds. Rather, it is  much more like an Easter egg hunt–no matter how difficult it is to find the egg, you can be assured that it is there because hey, it’s Easter.

It is only after we see Christ for who he is as he has revealed himself in the Word that we see ourselves in him as his redeemed people. When we see that Joshua, the strong and fearless commander of the Lord’s army, is a shadow, a picture, a type of the greater Joshua who defeats the enemies of God and provides his people with an eternal inheritance, then whom have we to fear? What might can stand against the divine and risen Christ who works on our behalf? Courage is a foregone conclusion at that point. There is a moral imperative here, but it can only exist in its connection to the redemptive fiat standing over our lives as those who are in Christ.

The moralistic method of interpreting Scripture is a crab-walk, a graceless two-step from the figures of the Old Testament to you and I. The apostolic method is a beautiful dance, a three-step waltz between the Old and New in which Christ is glorified and his people redeemed.

“The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book written about the redemptive work of Christ for his people…”

Alright, I admit the original version is catchier. I’m no songwriter.

Last week I mentioned that my convictions about the meaning of Scripture can be summed up in one phrase: Everything written is about Christ and for the church. To be more accurate, I should have said that my convictions about the apostolic method of Scriptural interpretation can be summed up in the above phrase. I believe that these two statements, “Scripture is written about Christ” and “Scripture is written for the church,” function as two great guiding lights which Christ and his apostles used in their Spirit-inspired interpretation of the Old Testament.  I’d like to unpack that a little bit.

Everything is written about Christ. In Luke 24:13-27, the Emmaus road account, the incognito risen Christ gives what must have been the most edifying sermon ever: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Later the same day, he appeared in the midst of his disciples and reminded them of his teaching: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). He then opened their minds to understand the Scripture, and this is the summary of their understanding: “‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise of the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem'” (24:46-47).

Everything is written for the church. Paul says in Romans 15 that “whatever was written in former times was written for our instruction, that through the endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). He says in 1 Corinthians of the Jewish exodus that “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). This is what allows Paul to relate the Jews’ eating of manna and drinking water from a rock to the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10), to apply laws concerning oxen to the rights of a gospel minister (1 Corinthians 9), to call the church Isaac and the unbelieving world Ishmael (Galatians 4); it’s what allows Peter to give the Jew-Gentile church the designation given to Israel in the Old Testament, that we are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).

This matters now– have you ever started in on a one-year reading plan for your Bible and gotten bogged down in Leviticus, or Samuel, or Jeremiah, because it feels alien and draining rather than life-giving? Have you ever felt that a particular passage couldn’t possibly fit the rubric given in 1 Timothy, not profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, or training in righteousness? The truth is, the whole Bible exalts Christ for the benefit of the church. Therefore, it is our duty and delight to read the Old Testament in such a way that Christ is exalted and we are edified. This is not reading into the text; this is reading the entire text.

There is more to say here, but I’ve exhausted my word limit.


“See thou hurt not the oil and the thigh”

Reading Genesis 32 this morning, I was bewildered, as I am every time I reach a passage which is not immediately nourishing to my soul. My convictions about the meaning of Scripture can be summed thusly: Everything written is about Christ and for the church. There’s more to it than that, of course. I don’t want to be found guilty of squeezing Scripture in a headlock until it blesses me the way I wish, regardless of its intent or original meaning. So, having established the grammatical-historical-literary whats-it of the text, I always ask myself how this text is about Christ, and how it is for me and the saints.

As far as I can tell, this is necessarily typological. Jonah is a type of Christ, the whale a type of the grave, the spitting out a type of resurrection, and Ninevah a type of those who hear and believe, right? Right.

Now Genesis 32. Jacob wrestles with a man long into the night, and when the man sees he can’t win, he touches Jacob’s hip and cripples him. Then he asks to be let go because day has broken, and as everyone knows, dawn is when all fighting with the supernatural must cease. Jacob refuses to let go unless the man blesses him, and so the man gives Jacob a new name: Israel, “he strives with God.” So Jacob lets him go, and now Jews don’t eat the sinew on the thigh. And pray with me. Every head bowed and every eye closed, if you’ve never accepted Jesus into your heart…

No really, what is going on? I still don’t know for sure, but I think that last part gives an insight into typology that I’d like to chase down. Genesis 32:32 says “Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socked of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.” Jacob’s thigh is present in some sense in every thigh, and every time butchering day comes around, the Jews are reminded again that their nation is founded on the faithfulness of their God not to destroy stubborn Jacob.

This is a function of all those stories told in the Old Testament, a function of the earthiness of Scripture. For those with eyes to see, every thigh is Jacob’s thigh, every meal a Paschal feast, every lamb the lamb of God, every tree a cross, every Lord’s Day the Day of the Lord. We know this principle which McClendon calls the “This is That” instinctively, which is why brides wear white, why some people never wear funeral clothes twice. What is it that Lewis says? “Every bush (could we but perceive it), a Burning Bush.” The holy things of God are earthy to make the things of earth holy.