Welcome to the Pastor’s Corner! The Pastor’s Corner is a place where you will find periodic updates from our pastor such as sermon reflections, or other matters of interest in the life of Emmanuel Reformed Church and her people. Please check here regularly to see new content.
Emmanuel Reformed Church (RCUS) • May 11, 2022
A question was posed some time ago (my apologies for the late response) that asked, “Why was there so much demon possession during the time of Jesus? Is demon possession possible today?” These are great questions, and I’m sure questions that many Christians have asked themselves. I will attempt to provide the best Biblical answer I can.
First, let us ask a preliminary question: What are demons? Demons are fallen angels, spiritual beings who joined in Satan’s rebellion against God. The NT speaks of the fallen angels in a couple of places:
[2 Peter 2:4 NKJV] 4 For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment.
[Jude 1:6 NKJV] 6 And the angels who did not keep their proper domain, but left their own abode, He has reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day.
In both of these passages, the biblical author makes references to “angels who sinned” or “angels who did not keep their proper domain.” These are the fallen angels, or demons.
As angels, demons are (as we said) spiritual beings. They are invisible, intelligent, powerful beings who, as the NT teaches, delight in tormenting people. In Revelation 9, they are depicted as an army of locusts sent to torment the wicked for five months. In that same chapter, they are also seen as a vast horde of horsemen 200 million strong as they go out to kill a third of mankind. They are malicious and evil and beyond redemption. Their fate is determined by God and they will be cast into the “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).
We also need to make sure we state that the devil and his angels are not “equal and opposite” forces to God and His angels. God is sovereign and in control of all things. He alone is eternal and the Creator of all things — including the angels. And the fall of Satan and his angels was according to the predetermined plan of Almighty God.
Now, having established that, why do we see such an increase in demonic activity during the earthly ministry of Jesus? We have to consider that the advent of Jesus Christ into this world is the culmination of God’s redemptive plans. Ever since Satan tempted Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden, redemptive-history has inexorably been moving to this very moment. Recall the promise God made back in Genesis 3:15:
[Genesis 3:15 NKJV] 15 “And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”
This passage is commonly called the proto-evangel, or the first mention of the gospel in the Bible. This promise is fulfilled on the cross as Jesus deals the death-blow to sin, death, and Satan.
Consider all the ways in which Satan and his minions attempted to derail Jesus. Herod attempted to kill Jesus when He was a child, Satan tempted Jesus to short-cut His mission, Peter even told Jesus He would not go to the cross (and Jesus tells him “get behind me, Satan”), and right before the crucifixion, we see Jesus praying to God to take the cup from His hand (it’s not explicitly stated, but it’s not far-fetched to speculate that Satan was tempting Him again).
So the reason we see so much demon activity during Jesus’ earthly ministry is because Satan and his minions are doing everything they can to stop Jesus from accomplishing His divine mission. Recall all the times in the Gospels we see people trying to arrest or kill Jesus and Jesus manages to slip away. This is all part and parcel of Satan’s attempts to hinder Jesus. Satan even wanted to take Peter, but Jesus prayed for him (cf. Luke 22:31), so he settled for Judas (cf. Luke 22:3).
In answering the second part of the question (is demon possession possible today?), we need to consider what demon possession is. The word commonly used in the NT for “demon possession” is the word daimonizomai, which literally means “to be under the power of a demon.” We need to be careful in understanding this word. We don’t want to understand it to mean that the person who is demon-possessed is not responsible for what he/she does. We don’t want to adopt the Flip Wilson defense (“The devil made me do it”). When “Satan entered Judas,” it wasn’t as if Judas was minding his own business and all of a sudden Satan possessed him and he now wanted to betray Jesus. Judas was always going to betray him. A person cannot be demon-possessed who wasn’t already a sinner or hasn’t already given themselves over to sin.
So can there be demon-possession today? Short answer: Yes. Paul talks about unbelievers as those whom “the god of this age (Satan) has blinded, who do not believe” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Peter talks about Satan as a “roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.” In the last days, Satan (who has been bound for 1,000 years) will be loosed and he will “deceive the nations…to gather together to battle.” All of these passages speak of how demon-possession works today. Demon-possession is being blinded, being deceived, being devoured by Satan and his minions. But the good news is this is not something that can happen to believers! Believers are temples of the Holy Spirit, and greater is He who is in us than he who is in the world!
Emmanuel Reformed Church (RCUS) • May 10, 2022
A question was asked how can Moses be said to speak to God “Face to Face,” and yet at the same time the Bible says “no man shall see me and live?” This is a good question and it speaks to the issue of how the Bible communicates its truth to mankind.
As Christians, we believe that the Bible is God’s Word. By that we mean that through the inspiration of the biblical authors by the Holy Spirit, God speaks to mankind. Additionally, we believe God to be divine, that is not like His creation. God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. God, in a word, is transcendent, meaning He is far beyond what human beings can comprehend.
The Bible teaches the transcendence of God in passages such as Job 11:7-9:
[Job 11:7-9 NKJV] 7 “Can you search out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limits of the Almighty? 8 They are higher than heaven––what can you do? Deeper than Sheol––what can you know? 9 Their measure is longer than the earth And broader than the sea.”
We also know through the Bible that God is a spirit and that He is invisible:
[John 4:24 NKJV] 24 “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
[1 Timothy 1:17 NKJV] 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Finally, God is holy and pure and that nothing that is unholy can survive within His presence:
[Habakkuk 1:13 NKJV] 13 You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, And cannot look on wickedness. Why do You look on those who deal treacherously, And hold Your tongue when the wicked devours A person more righteous than he?
[Hebrews 12:29 NKJV] 29 For our God is a consuming fire.
Putting this all together, it’s clear that we cannot see God because He is: (1) Transcendent; (2) Invisible; and (3) Holy. Thus it should not surprise us that God told Moses in Exodus 33:20, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.”
So then, how do we square that with what we see nine verses earlier in Exodus 33:11, “So the LORD spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he would return to the camp, but his servant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, did not depart from the tabernacle?” This goes back to what we said at the beginning about how the Bible communicates its truth to human beings. You see, there are some who would deny that the Bible is God’s Word on the basis of how can a God who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable communicate to creatures who are finite, temporal, and changeable? How can we bridge the gap between the human and divine?
Since the finite cannot reach the infinite, it is incumbent upon the infinite to accommodate itself to the finite. That is exactly what the Scriptures do. Through the Bible, God accommodates Himself to us, He speaks in a way in which we can understand. Allow me to illustrate this. How does an adult communicate to a child? The adult must speak in a way that the child understands. John Calvin said that God in the Bible, “lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.”
So in Exodus 33:11, when it’s said that God speaks to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend,” this is using the language of accommodation to communicate a vital truth to us. Moses isn’t literally speaking to God “face to face,” for several reasons. First, God doesn’t have a “face.” Second, God is a spirit, and thus invisible. Third, Moses would be consumed by God’s holiness were he to appear before His presence unprotected. But the language of “face to face” is meant to suggest intimacy and friendship. God spoke to Moses as a man speaks to his friend. God had a special relationship with Moses that He didn’t have with anyone else in all of Scripture.
Additionally, if you look at the context of both verses of Exodus 33, you will see a vital difference. In Exodus 33:11, the context is speaking of how Moses met with God in the tabernacle. Moses would enter the tabernacle and the Shekinah Cloud (the visible manifestation of God in the pillar of cloud and fire) would descend upon the tent. That’s when God spoke with Moses. Later on in Exodus 33, Moses asks to see God’s glory (33:18). In other words, Moses asks to see God in all his magnificent splendor. That’s when God tells Moses that no man can see Him and live. The Shekinah Cloud, while a manifestation of God, is a veiled manifestation of God; it is not the full brilliance of His glory.
But primarily, the language of speaking with God “face to face” is meant to convey the idea of the special relationship God had with Moses. The awesome thing is that in Jesus Christ, the fullness of God dwelt in bodily form. Jesus Christ is the final and perfect revelation of God. Jesus Christ is the One sent by the Father to “exegete” (explain) Him to us. God accommodated Himself to the point of taking on a human nature and dwelling among us. And now the Holy Spirit dwells within us so that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Emmanuel Reformed Church (RCUS) • October 26, 2021
During our last Family Bible Study on October 17, 2021, a question was asked regarding the activities of Satan and his demons, “why does God let that happen?” The context of the question was in regards to our study through Revelation 12:7-17. In that passage, we see a war in heaven between Satan and his demons and Michael and his angels. Michael prevails, and Satan is cast down to earth where he promptly begins to persecute the Woman (the people of God) and her offspring. The question, a fair one, was asked, “Why does God allow that to happen?”
This goes to the greater question of theodicy, or the so-called “problem of evil.” The problem of evil is one of the atheists favorite arguments to use against Christians because, in their mind, it’s their “slam dunk” argument. The argument goes something like this: If God is both all-good and all-powerful, why does evil exist? Either God is all-good and wants to destroy evil, but He can’t, thus He’s not all-powerful, OR He’s all-powerful and doesn’t want to destroy evil, thus He’s not all-good. Either way, this argument (so say the atheists) disproves the God of the Bible. Or does it???
The flaw in this argument can be summed up as a “false dilemma.” In other words, it reduces the problem of evil to a binary problem, an either/or. It fails to consider the possibility that God can be BOTH all-good AND all-powerful and still have a good purpose for allowing evil to exist. In other words, there is a third option.
First, we need to define “evil.” It does us no good to discuss this topic without first defining what it is we’re discussing. Let me begin by distinguishing between moral evil and physical evil. Moral evil are those things that go against some prescribed set of moral values. For example, things like murder, stealing, lying, cheating, etc. Physical evil are those things that we consider bad, but not in a moral sense. For example, an earthquake that kills thousands is bad, it’s an evil, but not a moral evil because there was no agent acting with evil intent. You might be thinking, isn’t God in control of natural disasters? Yes, He is, and we’ll consider that as we go along. For the moment, we’re going to limit our discussion to moral evil.
Second, we need to understand that moral evil is not a positive thing. By that I mean, moral evil has no substance, rather it is the lack or privation or a moral good. In other words, you cannot speak of evil without also referring to the corresponding good. Murder is evil, because preserving life is good. Stealing is evil because respecting the property rights of others is good. Just as cold is a lack of heat and darkness is a lack of light, so too evil is a lack of a corresponding good.
Okay, with that out of the way, why then would God, who is both all-good and all-powerful, allow and tolerate evil? Going back to what was said earlier, we need to look at God’s purpose in creation and subsequently allowing evil to invade His otherwise good creation. At the outset, we need to understand that we are delving into the things of God, and as such, we need to recognize our limitations as finite creatures to come to a full understanding of these things. We need to be okay with mystery. While this answer may not satisfy the hard core atheist, we need to understand that unbelief is first and foremost a matter of the heart, not the head.
To answer this question, we need to look at the doctrine of God’s providence. In historic reformed theology, providence is one of two ways (along with creation) in which God carries out His decree (i.e., His sovereign will). God ordains all things that come to pass, and He carries out that plan through creation (bringing things into existence which previously didn’t exist) and providence. Providence can be defined as follows: [God’s] most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures, and all their actions (taken from The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q11). The Westminster Confession of Faith gives a more robust answer in chapter five (“Of Providence”) where it declares that the purpose of God’s providential actions is “to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 5.1).
So the reason why God does anything is for the praise of His glory. You might think, “that seems self-serving.” For a human being, it is, for the divine being who is worthy of all praise and glory, it isn’t. So if praise is the purpose for which God does anything, that must also include allowing evil into the good creation, and that’s what the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith say:
The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin. (WCF 5.4)
With an exceptional economy of words, the Westminster divines detail how God’s providence includes not only the original fall (by which Adam plunged the whole human race into a state of sin and misery and introduced sin into the creation), but also the actual sins of men and angels. God’s providence governs all our actions, even our sin. Furthermore, providence isn’t just a “bare permission.” In other words, God doesn’t just leave us to our own devices, but our sin is governed, ordered, and limited by God’s most wise and holy providence. Yet God does so in such a way that we, and we alone, are responsible for our sin. God is neither the author of sin, nor does He approve of our sin. Yet He governs, orders, and limits our sin for “His own holy ends.”
The classic Biblical example of this is found in the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50. We all know the story well how Joseph’s brothers conspired to have him killed, but instead decided to sell him into slavery in Egypt. How Joseph was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife of rape, and how Joseph was left to languish in Pharaoh’s prison for years after interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh’s servants. At the end of the ordeal, Joseph tells his brothers, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). The brothers intended evil to happen, and what happened was evil. But God governed, ordered, and limited the brother’s evil actions for His own holy ends. This is no more beautifully displayed than in the gospel itself. The most heinously evil act in the history of the world, the unjust execution of the very Son of God, was allowed and used by God to bring about the greatest good the world has ever seen, salvation and eternal life for all who believe.
Now I’m going to add my own reflections on this issue, so take them with a grain of salt. The Bible makes it quite clear that the road to glory goes through suffering, the path to exaltation goes through humiliation. We will praise God more after going through, what Paul calls, our “light affliction, which is but for a moment,” than we would without having gone through that. Paul says in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” If we don’t go through suffering in this age, I believe we will not fully appreciate the glories of the age to come. But having passed through the cruciform life (suffering then glory, humiliation then exaltation) will not only make us appreciate the glories of the age to come more fully, but will also redound even more to the praise of God and His glory — which is the ultimate purpose of all things.
Emmanuel Reformed Church (RCUS) • October 14, 2021
Back on Sunday, September 19, 2021, I preached a sermon on John 7:53-8:11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. It’s a famous and well-known story in the Gospels. In that sermon, I mentioned that there are some rather serious textual issues surrounding this story. It is commonly accepted by the majority in NT scholarship that this story not only doesn’t belong in John’s Gospel, but doesn’t belong in the Bible at all.
Now at Emmanuel Reformed Church we use the New King James Version (NKJV) of the Bible, and in most editions of the NKJV there will be a footnote at John 7:53, which reads “NU brackets 7:53 through 8:11 as not in the original text. They are present in over 900 mss. [manuscripts] of John.” Now you might be thinking, “what in the heck is NU?” For that, you need to go to the preface of the NKJV (you know the section most people don’t read). The preface gives you the reason behind the particular translation you own, it’s translation philosophy, and (most importantly) the Hebrew and Greek texts used to make the translation.
Under the section titled “The New Testament Text,” the NKJV translators tell you that the Greek text behind the NT of the NKJV is the same Greek text used by the original translators of the King James Version. That Greek text is variously called the Traditional Text, the Byzantine Text, or the Received Text (a.k.a., “Textus Receptus”). This Greek text is called the “traditional text” because it has been the text used throughout most of the history of the church. It is also called the “Byzantine text” because this text type (or family) finds its origin in the region of Antioch of Syria (part of the old Byzantine Empire, or the eastern half of the Roman Empire).
The NKJV translators also mention two other Greek texts in use in NT scholarship. The first is called the Critical Text, so called because it uses the principles of textual criticism developed in the 19th century to determine what should be in the text of the NT. First pioneered by two NT scholars, Westcott and Hort, this later morphed into the “standard” Greek text called the Nestle-Aland Greek NT (currently in its 28th edition) and the United Bible Society’s Greek NT (currently in its 5th edition). These two texts are identical (they only differ in textual footnotes). This is what the NKJV translators refer to as the NU text. The other Greek text is called the Majority Text, and the readings therein are based on what reading is supported by the majority of manuscripts. The NKJV refers to this text as M text. So if you’re reading the NKJV, you’ll occasionally see foot notes in the NT that will reference either the NU or M or both and any differences with the Received or Traditional Text.
So if you’re not asleep yet, you might be asking “why does all this matter?” It matters because pretty much every single English translation of the Bible uses the NU text for the NT except the KJV and NKJV. For example, if you’re using an English Standard Version (ESV), a popular newer translation, the passage John 7:53-8:11 is bracketed with double brackets [[…]]. There is a footnote that reads, “Some manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11; others add the passage here or after 7:36 or after 21:25 or after Luke 21:38, with variations in the text.”
Now if you compare the footnote from the NKJV and the footnote from the ESV, it’s clear that neither one is particularly unbiased. The NKJV footnote emphasizes how this passage is found in over 900 manuscripts of John. The ESV footnote emphasizes how dubious the placement of this passage is in the manuscript history of John’s Gospel. Both footnotes are giving you true information, but they’re emphasizing the elements of the truth they want to emphasize.
So why does this all matter? Because we no longer have the original documents of the books of the NT, but what we do have are thousands of full and partial manuscripts (copies) of the original writings. But as with anything that has been copied, errors creep in. Consider the kids’ game “telephone,” in which you whisper something in someone’s ear, and they whisper it in another kid’s ear, and by the time you get five or six kids down the line, what is being said has altered significantly from what was originally said. Same thing happens when hand copying a written exemplar. A copyist can inadvertently introduce an error (a misspelling, an omission, etc.), and then that error gets passed on to the next copy perhaps with some new errors added in. Skeptics look at this and will argue what possible hope can we ever have in knowing what the Bible actually said? Without the originals and only armed with “error riddled” copies, we can never know what the Bible originally said. These same skeptics will conclude what good is divine inspiration if there is no divine preservation? That’s a valid argument.
However, I will argue that there is divine preservation in the fact that we have literally thousands of copies of the NT in Greek and many times more than that in early “versions” (translations into other languages such as Latin, Coptic, Syriac, etc.). Not to mention that all of the early church fathers (church leaders during the first 200-300 years of church history) quote all or part of the NT. It has been argued that even if we didn’t have a single NT manuscript, we could reconstruct the entire NT solely based on quotations of the early church fathers. No other text in antiquity has anywhere near the manuscript support as the NT. No one questions the works of Homer or Plato as being authentic, yet they are based on textual evidence that literally pales in comparison to that of the NT.
But, we need to know what the NT originally said in order to be able, as Christians, to believe the right things and act according to those beliefs. Having said that, there is a large degree of agreement between all of these multiplied thousands of NT manuscripts (over 90%). Where there is disagreement, you need to utilize principles of textual criticism in order to determine the most likely reading of the NT text.
Where does that leave us with the passage in question, John 7:53-8:11? I don’t know if anyone can make a definitive statement regarding this passage. I’ll give you my reasons why I think it belongs in our English Bibles right where it is:
- It is in the majority of Greek manuscripts of John’s Gospel
- While some of the earliest Greek manuscripts do not have this passage, that doesn’t mean the passage is not Biblical, it only says that whatever exemplar these manuscripts used to copy from didn’t have the passage (one of the principles of textual criticism is the older the manuscript, the more likely it’s closer to the original, however that’s an assumption made by men)
- This passage is included in the Traditional Text, which is the text that has been in use in the Church for most of its history (even though some of the manuscripts used to produce the Traditional/Received Text are of more recent vintage, it’s entirely possible they are recent copies of an older exemplar)
- There are growing (in my opinion) reasons to question the Critical Text, not the least of which is that it is based largely on two “older” manuscripts that were discovered in the 19th century, these two texts have a significant amount of disagreement from each other (anywhere from 10-15%), and the Critical Text was originally produced by men who had a low view of Scripture
I realize that this is a lot of information for your average Christian to process, and even at that I’ve barely scratched the surface on this issue. Much more can be said. I hope this at least answers some of the questions about this passage — a Biblical passage in which the grace and mercy of our Lord is clearly on display.
Emmanuel Reformed Church (RCUS) • October 14, 2021
A question was emailed some time ago that asks the following: In Heidelberg Catechism question #94 it says “trust in [God] alone, with all humility and patience, expect all good from Him only.” The part I am confused on is the phrase “expect all good.” Is the author of the Catechism saying I should always expect good, or is he saying that it is all good because it comes from God?
This is a great question because it explores the nature of “good.” What do we mean when we call something “good?” Typically when we call something “good,” we are saying that that thing is somehow qualitatively good. For example, if I get a raise from work, it’s a qualitative good because making more money is qualitatively better than making less money. When I buy a new car, it’s a qualitative good because a new car is qualitatively better than having an older car. When a young couple gets married, it’s a qualitative good because being married is qualitatively better than living alone. Now in saying all of that, I realize that we should make the qualification “all things being equal.”
But notice how I am defining “good” subjectively, based on how it affects me. Going back to one of the above examples, suppose that raise from work was due to a job promotion. Further suppose there were two people in competition for that one promotion. My getting the promotion is good for me, and not so good for the other person. Another example, suppose 100 people were on an airplane, and that airplane crashed with only ten survivors. Surviving the plane crash was good for the ten who survived, and not so good for the 90 who didn’t. So we tend to define “good” in terms of how outcomes affect me, or those close to me.
There are other, more philosophical, ways to define “good.” There is the hedonistic way of defining “good” as whatever increases pleasure and reduces pain is “good.” There is the utilitarian way of defining “good” as whatever causes the greatest good for the greatest number. But all of these ways of defining “good” cannot transcend the subjective nature of good. For example, if we look at the hedonistic definition of good, what increases my pleasure might increase your pain. That’s good for me, not so good for you. Looking at the utilitarian definition of good, whatever causes the greatest good for the greatest number will still leave a minority for whom it might not be so good.
That’s why we need a definition of good that is objective, one that does not waiver depending on my mood or the changing fancies of the majority. For Christianity, the standard and source of all goodness is found in God. In the Westminster Confession of Faith, in its chapter on the nature of God says, “God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 2.2). Consider the following Biblical passages…
Exodus 34:6 (NKJV) And the LORD passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth.”
Psalms 119:68 (NKJV) You are good, and do good; Teach me Your statutes.
There has always been a debate in philosophical and theological circles that asked the following question: “Does God do something because it’s good, or is it good because God does it?” If you answer that God does something because it’s good, then you’re saying there is some standard of good that exists outside of God. If you answer that it’s good because God does it, then you open yourself up to the charge that God is capricious. However, God is the standard of what is good, and when God acts, He acts in accordance with His nature, which is good.
So let’s now look at Heidelberg Catechism Q94. The context of this question is the Catechism’s discussion on the Ten Commandments, in particular the first commandment. The first commandment is “You shall have no other gods before Me.” The question asks “What does God require in the first commandment?” In the answer, it warns against the evils of idolatry, sorcery, and other illegitimate means of seeking help and guidance. Instead of trusting in these false gods, we should rely on the only true and living God. It is from this only true and living God that we should “with all humility and patience expect all good from Him only.” The Catechism uses as a “proof text” for this answer the following verse from the Book of James…
James 1:17 (NKJV) Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.
Now the verse is clear, God only sends down “good and perfect” gifts. Yet this is also the same book that opens with these words, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (James 1:2). So when God sends us “good and perfect” gifts, we need to resist the temptation to think good is being defined on our terms. God is not interested with out short term “good” or with our immediate pleasure. He is interested in molding and shaping us to reflect the image of His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ…
Romans 8:28-29 (NKJV) 28 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. 29 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.
So to answer your question, YES. We should always expect good from God, but “good” as defined by God, not us. Also it’s all good because it comes from God, but “good” as defined by God, not us. Because Romans 8:30 (not quoted above) ultimately ends with our glorification, and what can be better than that?
Emmanuel Reformed Church (RCUS) • October 09, 2021
I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting over the past eleven days. You see, on Thursday, September 23, 2021, my father, Thomas C. (“Tom”) Gobelman, passed away. While my wife and I have received an outpouring of condolences and sympathy, I share this not to garner more sympathy, but to reflect on life, death, and the meaning of it all. Our society does everything it can to avoid the issue of death because, like taxes, death is unavoidable, it comes to all people at some point in their lives. When death does come and claim a family member or a loved one, those who are left behind are, in a way, forced to reflect on our own mortality. My dad passed away eleven days ago, and his death has greatly affected me because of the close relationship he and I had, and that’s not unusual (the closer the death, the greater the effect). His passing prompted me to reflect on the measure of a life.
Again by the world’s standards, life is measured by one’s accomplishments. Dad wasn’t a famous person by any stretch of the imagination. Dad wasn’t wealthy, there was no huge “Scrooge McDuck” pile of money he left behind. Dad didn’t start a company like Google or Apple. He didn’t write the great American novel or paint the great American painting, or compose the great American song. Dad did none of these things. In fact, until I even mentioned his name, many of you wouldn’t even know who he was. Dad was born in 1932, lived during the Great Depression, joined the US Navy during the Korean War, got married in 1961, had a son and a step-daughter, a handful of grandchildren, and a handful of great-grandchildren, worked a rather mundane white-collar job in Chicago, faithfully went to church, and died in 2021 at the age of 89. In the grand scheme of things, a rather unimportant kind of life.
In the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, an aged King Solomon reflects on his own life and his pursuits of wealth, fame, pleasure, and wisdom. He sought meaning in life in all those pursuits, and in the end he found all of those pursuits empty. In Solomon’s words they are, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” All of the things we can achieve in this life, while important to a certain degree are rather meaningless on the day we die. There are no trailer hitches on a hearse and whoever dies with the most toys still dies. That’s just a fact of life “under the sun.”
But it’s not all “doom and gloom.” Because King Solomon closes Ecclesiastes with these words, “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” In other words, all of the pursuits, all of the achievements one can gain during this life are nothing without a right relationship with our Creator. That’s the point King Solomon is trying to get across. The measure of a life isn’t what one can accomplish “under the sun,” but whether or not one fears the Lord and keeps His commandments.
Back to my dad, one of the things I mentioned about him was that he faithfully went to church. My dad gave his life to Jesus Christ when he was 16 years old, thanks largely to the Christian influence of his mother, my grandmother. My dad was one of the finest examples of Christian living I have ever personally seen or known. My dad wasn’t a pastor or a theologian or a scholar. He was simply a man who loved Jesus, loved his family, loved his church, and loved people. For the last 20 years of his life, he was a member of Ravenswood Baptist Church on the north side of the city of Chicago. For 20 years, his was most likely the first face you saw walking into the church. If you were a visitor, without fail you would get a hand written welcome note from him later in the week. If you needed prayer, he was there without fail. He loved teaching adult Sunday school, children’s church, and singing in the choir. He served as a deacon in his church, and it was one of the greatest honors he had was to serve the church in that capacity.
You see, the measure of a life isn’t the things and honors one accumulates, but the vacuum that is left when that life is gone. I can’t tell you how many people came up to me at dad’s church over the past few days and told how much he meant to them. These are real people, across all demographics, who were touched by a gentle, humble, god-fearing 89 year old man who always had a smile on his face and always had a kind word to say.
The measure of a life is not by the standards of the world, but by God’s standards. Dad didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. Dad had a “life verse,” a verse in the Bible that in many ways defined his life, and it was 2 Timothy 1:12, which says, “For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” Dad’s faith wasn’t in a creed or a doctrine, but in a person — Jesus Christ (“I know whom I have believed”). Dad entrusted everything he had, everything he was, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He did so because he was persuaded that Christ was able to guard that deposit “against that day,” the day Jesus will return to right all wrongs and make all things new. And now dad is at home with his Lord, he has heard the words all Christians want to hear, “Well done, thou good a faithful servant.” That is the true measure of a life.
Emmanuel Reformed Church (RCUS) • September 07, 2021
A question dropped in the “Ask the Pastor” box a few weeks back (sorry for the late response) that asked: All Scripture is contained in the OT & NT, so how do we as Christians apply the Bible to current events seeing some have tried to change past history and some have used it to support their own views?
This is a great question because the Scriptures aren’t only to be read, and they’re not only to be understood, they’re to be applied to our lives as well. Historically, the Reformed have argued that the Bible is the only infallible RULE of faith and life. That word “rule” in Latin (which the Reformers would have known and written in) is the word regula, which means “ruler, rod, bar, basic principle, rule.” In other words, the Bible is what we use to measure our faith and life, to make sure we’re going straight.
So if the Bible regulates our faith and life, that means we need to be able to understand it and apply its principles properly. How do we do that? Well first we need to understand that the Bible is the word of God, breathed out by God to the human authors of Scripture. As such, Scripture is inspired, inerrant, infallible, and holy. It is true in all it says and does not lead astray on any topic to which it speaks.
The second part is to understand the Bible, this is what is called hermeneutics, a fancy word that means the art and science of proper interpretation. Throughout the history of the Church, there have been some interesting interpretive schools of thought, but the best method to interpret the Bible is using the Grammatical-Historical method. This is the method of trying to interpret the words of Scripture according to proper grammar and the proper historical context. This is why it’s much preferable to get an English translation that attempts to translate in as “literal” a way as possible. To that end, I would highly recommend the New King James Version (NKJV) or the English Standard Version (ESV) for study. Also invest in a good study Bible so you can get a lot of the historical context and background information that will help you in properly understanding the Bible. Again, I would recommend the Reformation Study Bible by Ligonier Ministries. It comes in both NKJV and ESV and it comes from a conservative, confessional, Reformed perspective. Another good study Bible is the ESV Study Bible by Crossway. But a good general rule of thumb for interpretation is if you come up with an interpretation of Scripture that would be completely foreign to the original audience of the Bible, then you’re probably way off base.
Another thing to consider in rightly understanding the Bible is context. When you’re trying to understand a verse of the Bible, the context of the verse is vitally important. There’s a saying that goes “A text without context is just a pretext.” In other words, you can pull any verse of the Bible out of context to make it mean nearly anything you want it to mean.
When considering context, think of expanding circles of context, like the rings on a dartboard. The smallest ring would be the immediate context of the verse, such as the immediate sentence or sentences that surround the verse. Then expanding outward you have: (1) Sentence; (2) paragraph; (3) chapter; (4) book of the Bible; (5) testament (OT or NT); (6) the Bible as a whole.
Here’s an example using John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” It’s not a hard sentence to understand. You have a subject (Jesus) and a predicate (He wept). Now when you look at the surrounding context, you see that Jesus wept because Lazarus was dead and his sisters, Martha and Mary were also sad. Expanding out to the chapter, this is John 11, in which Jesus gives the “I am the resurrection and the life” statement and raises Lazarus from the dead. When considered from the Gospel of John, Jesus weeping shows His humanity and that He empathized with the sisters and was angry at the effects of sin and the fall, but that He was going to raise him from the dead to prove, yet again, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. From the context of the NT, the Gospel of John (all the Gospels) tell the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is important because the rest of the NT explains the importance of who and what Jesus did. Finally, looking at the Bible as a whole, we see this is the working out of God’s Redemptive-Historical (R-H) plans. Jesus comes in the fullness of time to fulfill the OT types and shadows and inaugurate the Kingdom of God. The redemption he accomplishes (and which the Holy Spirit applies) makes us fit for the Kingdom of God.
So when it comes to application, we need to apply Scripture in a way that’s consistent with our interpretation. The application of John 11:35 isn’t “Jesus wept at death, so we should too.” That may be an application (not a particularly good one), but it’s certainly not the best application. When we know John’s purpose in writing his Gospel, we can look at a verse like John 11:35 and try to apply it with that purpose in mind. Jesus weeps, He’s human, He truly cares for Mary and Martha. He also weeps because the ravages of the fall have taken a toll on this family that was dear to Him. We see the humanity of Jesus in full display here. John wrote His Gospel so that we would believe Jesus is the Christ, and the Christ is fully divine and fully human. The proper application is to believe the right things about Jesus. He is the the God-Man, the Son of God, the Eternal Word who became flesh. The Messiah who came to save us from our sins and calls on us to place our complete faith and trust in Him alone for salvation.
In other instances, application is fairly simple. If we see a command in the NT, we should obey it. For example, when Ephesians 4:29 says “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification,” this isn’t too hard to apply. We should be careful in what we say. Our speech shouldn’t mimic the world with its corruption, but rather we should speak words that build up rather than tear down. Commands in the OT are somewhat trickier because we’re in the period of promise, not fulfillment. For example, God’s command to Joshua to conquer the Promised Land and slaughter all of God’s enemies is not something we should “go and do likewise.” Rather, we need to understand that Joshua is prefiguring Jesus Christ and His return in which all His and our enemies will be utterly destroyed. So OT commands need to be filtered through the cross of Jesus Christ. Many commands were made to specific people at specific times and not meant to be universal commands that apply to all circumstances. This of course takes great care and wisdom, but the good news is that God promises to give wisdom to those who ask.
Emmanuel Reformed Church (RCUS) • July 16, 2021
A question was asked of me recently regarding Heaven and whether or not we will recognize one another in Heaven. The background to this question was in the context of deceased loved ones. For example, if a beloved spouse dies at a ripe old age with signs of dementia, will that person be in heaven with an old body and a failing memory? Another example, suppose a child dies in the womb and never has a chance to live and grow, will that child be in heaven in the body of an unborn child?
These are serous questions regarding our future hope, the resurrection of all believers at the return of Christ. This same question was also on the minds of the believers in the first century Corinthian church, which Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 15.
There were some in the church who were questioning the resurrection of believers. They believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but not in the “resurrection of the dead.” Paul addresses that in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19. His argument runs like this: If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen from the dead. If Christ is not risen from the dead, then we are fools to believe in Christ and we are stuck in our sins. He ends his argument in v. 19: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.”
There is a lot of truth in that statement. The resurrection of Christ is the main hinge upon which our faith is based. No resurrection of Jesus, no Christianity. But it doesn’t stop there for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is called “the firstfruits:” “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a foretaste of a glorious end times harvest of souls when Christ returns. As Sinclair Ferguson puts is, Christ is the “prototype” of our own resurrection.
Okay, having established the fact of the resurrection of Christ and all believers upon His return, the next question that can be asked is “How are the dead raised up, and with what body do they come?” Here Paul uses the familiar analogy of sowing seed. When you plant an acorn, does the acorn look anything like the oak tree it will become? No! But the acorn contains all of the necessary molecular material needed to produce an oak tree. In other words, what you plant in the ground is both like and unlike what grows up from the ground. The same can be said of our own bodies, as Paul says:
1 Corinthians 15:42-44 (NKJV) 42 So also [is] the resurrection of the dead. [The body] is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.
When we die, we are “sown” corruptible, dishonorable, weak, and natural. This is the normal state of the flesh in this world. But when it is raised, it is raised incorruptible, glorious, powerful, and spiritual. Just like the acorn and the oak tree, our resurrection bodies are both like and unlike our natural bodies. There is a continuity, but also a radical transformation as well.
That means an 80+ year old man with dementia who dies will not be raised on the last day like an 80+ year old man with dementia, but an incorruptible, glorious, powerful, and spiritual man. The same can be said of the baby who dies in utero, he/she will not have the body of an underdeveloped fetus in Heaven, but an incorruptible, glorious, powerful, and spiritual body. The principle being, the body that is sown is not the body that is raised.
As to whether or not we will recognize each other in Heaven given that our bodies will be radically transformed, I believe the answer to that is “Yes.” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:49 “And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.” In other words, when we are born into this world, we bear the image of Adam, we are natural men and women. When we are raised from the dead in our glorious resurrection bodies, we will bear the image of Christ, the heavenly Man. Now when Christ was raised from the dead, He was recognizable by His disciples; they knew it was Him. In fact, when Peter recognized it was Jesus, he jumped off his fishing boat to swim to shore and see Jesus (cf. John 21:7). I believe we can draw from this that we too will be recognizable in Heaven with our glorious bodies.
To not hold to this would be to make Heaven less than earth. To not recognize our departed loved ones in Heaven and to have the marks of this world carry into the next world would put the lie to Paul’s words “to die is gain.” Having an 80+ year old body with dementia in Heaven and not being able to recognize anyone is not gain. I can’t tell you exactly what it will be like in Heaven, but I can tell you on the authority of the Bible that it will far surpass our wildest expectations.
Emmanuel Reformed Church (RCUS) • July 07, 2021
A question was asked recently during a Sunday School Bible study: “The Bible commands us to ‘love our neighbor,’ but are we to love our neighbor the same as we love our spouse or children? Also, how does that translate to soldiers in war?”
This question was asked during a Bible study on Romans 13:8-10, which says,
Romans 13:8-10 (ESV) 8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
The whole law of God can be summed up into two great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. If you can do these things, you are fulfilling the law.
Now leave aside for the moment that even as redeemed sinners we are incapable of doing this perfectly. The point is that as we progress in our sanctification by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, we should also be growing in our capacity to love our neighbor as ourself.
How do we understand this commandment to love as it pertains to our relationships whether that’s in our family toward our parents, toward our children, toward our spouses, or within the larger sphere of our community, or even the stranger in the next state, etc.? I think it is clear that the commandment to love “our neighbor as ourself” is not a command to love everyone equally in the same manner. My love toward my spouse will be different than my love toward my children, and both of those types of love will be different than my love for neighbors and friends, and that will be different than my love for a stranger whom I do not know.
How do I know this? Well, let’s consider the specific commands in the Bible as it deals with this various relationships. First, consider the 5th commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). Children are to honor their parents. Not somebody else’s parents, not the stranger down the street, their own parents. This “honoring” of parents takes the form of obedience as we see in Ephesians 6:1. That’s how children show love toward their parents — obedience and honoring.
Next let us look at husband and wife. The institution of marriage was established at the beginning of creation in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Again note, a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh. A man does not enter into a “one flesh” union with everyone, only his wife. This command is supplemented in Ephesians 5:22-33 in which the wife is commanded to submit to her husband and the husband is commanded to love his wife. This is how love is expressed in the marriage relationship. In fact, if a man showed this kind of love to another woman other than his wife, then he has broken the 7th commandment to not commit adultery.
We could go on, but I believe the point is clear — the command to love your neighbor as yourself doesn’t mean you love the stranger in the same way or manner you love your children or your spouse. Each of these relationships have a context in which there is an appropriate way to express love. Furthermore, as it pertains to the neighbor, remember when Jesus was confronted by Jewish expert in the law, He was asked “who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. The lesson there is clear, your neighbor is anyone who crosses your path who is in need. The love we’re talking about is agape love, or the love of self-sacrifice. We’ve defined it as “love gives of itself to meet the needs of another.”
How does this apply to soldiers in war? Are they violating the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself? Are they violating the 6th commandment “you shall not kill?” A few things can be said on this point. First, war is a consequence of the fall of man. Because there is sin in the world and all men are sinners, there will be conflict. When you expand that conflict beyond the individual into the arena community or the nation as a whole, then you have war. War is inevitable in a sin-cursed world.
Second, theologians throughout the history of the church have argued for the concept of just war. In other words, there are circumstances in which not only is war inevitable, but also the moral thing to do. I don’t have space to expand on this properly, but consider WWII. Most people would agree that defeating Nazi Germany was the morally right thing to do.
Third, we do have Biblical examples in which God commands His very own people to engage in war. Consider the war of the conquest of the Promised Land. This was commanded and ordained of God. The Israelites were commanded to kill everyone and leave no one alive. Clearly God would not command His people to do something that was sinful; therefore, this particular incident could not be a violation of the 6th commandment. This same reasoning can be more broadly applied to the concept of just war. That is, it is not a violation of the 6th commandment to kill in war if the war is a just war.
As with all things in Scripture, context helps us to properly interpret and apply the truths we see revealed in the Bible.
Emmanuel Reformed Church (RCUS) • June 29, 2021
A question was asked recently from a member of the church: “How do we prove or rightfully argue that there are only 66 books in the Bible and not the additional books such as those added by the Roman Catholic Church?”
The question of canon (taken from the Greek word, kanōn, which means “rule, principle, standard”) has been one that has challenged Christians since the beginning of the church. The argument has pretty much centered around how, or by what criteria, has the church decided upon these 66 books and no other to be “the Bible?”
As with most issues within the early church, the development of the canon of Scripture came as a response to others who sought to promote their own false teaching. The earliest example of a NT canon comes from the heretic Marcion who promoted a radical philosophical and theological dualism. He was heavily influenced by Greek philosophical thought, so he rejected the OT and even the more “Jewish” sounding NT books such as Matthew and Hebrews. In order to support his version of Christianity, Marcion came up with a canon that included a truncated version of Luke and the Pauline letters. That’s it. In response, orthodox Christianity went about to establish the canonical books of the NT.
One may ask, what about the OT? Throughout the history of the church, there has been near universal acceptance of the 39 books of the OT (Genesis - Malachi, as our English canonical order presents them) as being the “Breathed out” word of God. The development of the NT canon (our 27 books of the NT) took place over the course of the first three centuries of the post-apostolic age. For most of that period, there has been no dispute over 21 of the 27 books. From nearly the beginning the four Gospels, the Book of Acts, the 13 letters of Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and 1 John were widely accepted in the church as canonical. The remaining six books (James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation) were slower to be received mainly due to issues surrounding authorship (or in the case of James, its apparent conflict with Paul).
In addition to these 66 books, there have been other writings that some have tried to introduce into the canonical writings of the Bible. For example, the Apocrypha, a group of 14 inter-testamental writings, has been accepted by the Roman Catholic Church as part of the canon of Scripture. There are also a slew of NT apocryphal writings that were written by the Gnostics during the 2nd and 3rd century AD that were rejected by the church because they conflicted with what was commonly accepted as canonical (e.g., The Gospel of Thomas).
Now we can sit here and come up with a list of criteria to justify why we believe these 66 books and no others belong in the Bible. In fact, some have done just that in an attempt to answer the skeptics. Typically there are four such criteria:
- The book had to have been written by an Apostle, or a close associate
- The book had to have wide, near universal acceptance in the church
- The book had to have been used in the worship of the church
- The book had to agree with other canonical books
While these criteria are good, I believe it looks at the problem from the wrong perspective. It almost seems to put the church in the position of deciding what is and what is not the word of God. In fact, that is precisely the position of the Roman Catholic Church. Now they would argue it’s the Holy Spirit working through the church leaders and councils, etc., but the inevitable conclusion is that the Church determines the canon. Without the Church (Big “C”) you would not have the Bible.
The Reformed have generally believed that the church receives the word of God. If the church is the Body of Christ, and if Christ is the Head of His church and her Shepherd, then the sheep will hear His voice. In John’s Gospel, we read the following: “When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:4-5). The church of Jesus Christ hears His voice in His word. Furthermore, we “do not know the voice of strangers.”
In the RCUS, we subscribe to the Belgic Confession of Faith, and in articles 5 & 6, it gives a clear confessional stance on the difference between the canonical books & the apocryphal books.
We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith; believing without any doubt all things contained in them, not so much because the Church receives and approves the as such, but more especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled (BC article 5)
Article 6 goes on to say that we can read the apocryphal books profitably and even “take instruction” from them in so far as they agree with the canonical books, “but they are far from having such power and efficacy that we may from their testimony confirm any point of faith or of the Christian religion.”
These two articles from the Belgic Confession confirm what I said earlier, namely the sheep hear the voice of their Shepherd. The Holy Spirit speaks to those who are regenerated through the Word of God contained in the 66 canonical books of our Bible.