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Treasure in Earthen Vessel

First blog post

 

With this piece, I join the blogosphere.  There are now more websites than people on earth.  For yet another one, an explanation is due.  It is hoped that this blog will be a commentary on a wide spectrum of issues.  But it will be defined by clear-cut boundaries.

First, I will primarily draw my thoughts from the Scriptures.  The conviction that, I hope, will define every piece of this blog is Sola Scriptura – that the Scriptures are the Word of God, and the only Word of God now.  Not dreams or visions; not popular opinions or dramatic experiences; and certainly, I reject vox populi, vox Dei.  I avow with full confidence the Confession:

The holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience. 

The scriptures manifest themselves to be the word of God, by their majesty and purity; by the consent of all the parts, and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God; by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build up believers unto salvation: but the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very word of God.[1]

 A substantial part of my commentary will therefore be exegetical and expository.  This is the essential task of the virtue of honesty to the text of the Word of God.  I will not twist the text just to have a charming aphorism.  The text, as the author intended it to mean, shall always be supreme.  But because I believe in the perennial freshness of the Word of God, the meaning of the text in its time will always have a meaning that is timeless and an application that will be timely.  I am committed to engage the text in its historical meaning, as well as engage the readers in their relevant context.

Secondarily, I will draw from the rich reservoir of history.  Specially so of Christian history.  It is enriched by councils and confessions; controversies and disputes; Christian men and women in their profound wisdom and egregious follies; Reformers and heretics; persecution and martyrdom; visionaries and missionaries.  To ignore these is to be impoverished in thought.  Indeed, if we are sensitive to the lesson of providence, we can see in history the pattern of the gospel.  As Michael Horton puts it:

The Christian who is alert to God’s clues in history knows that the pattern is always bad news followed by good news.  The Gospel always has the last word over sin, death, and temptation – whether it be the believer’s individually or the church’s generally.  It was, after all, into a world fallen as a result of the will to power that our race heard the surprising announcement of saving grace:  The seed of the woman will crush the serpent’s head.  He who beguiled the royal couple into seeking their own autonomy would himself be destroyed.  And just as the world was looking upon the disfigured body of the crucified Messiah in disgust and mockery, God was acting for the salvation of his enemies.[2]

Finally, I can only draw from my own thoughts and experience – and it will always be with limitation and infirmity.  This is not to detract from the greatness of the message; but to admit the frailty of the messenger.  Apostle Paul puts it best: But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us (2 Cor 4:7).  Having referred to the unsurpassed New Covenant glory in the previous section, Paul is humbled by his calling as one of its ministers (3:6).  He combines these two thoughts – calling the New Covenant message as treasure, though he as its messenger is but an earthen vessel.

The same consciousness will pervade every commentary in this space.  I will seek to spell out the treasure of the truth of the New Covenant.  It will sometimes sound positively assertive without being arrogant; confident without being contemptuous; challenging but not defying.  But because the treasure is in earthen vessel, it will always be subject to correction and criticism, and open to dialogue and exchange – for that is the way to growth and maturation.

Every piece in this blog will consciously seek after the truth of the Scripture.  It may not sit well with the current version of political correctness and orthodoxy.  In this, it is merely extending the mission of the church on earth – a mission depicted by Paul as to take every thought captive to obey Christ (2Cor 10:5).  C.S. Lewis makes an excellent analogy in his Mere Christianity:

 Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is.  Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.[3]

[1] Westminster Larger Catechism # 3-4

[2] Michael Horton, We Believe: Recovering the Essentials of the Apostles’ Creed (Word Publishing): 4

[3] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity; cited from A Year with C.S. Lewis: Daily Readings from his Classic Works: 78

Do not Pray for the Dead; But Prepare for Death

Thoughts for this day of remembering the dead

Should we pray for the dead?

“Please pray for the repose of his soul.”  This is a very common request that one reads in scores of obituaries that are published every day.  Accompanying that request may be a scheduled mass, or novena, for the deceased.  Behind this is the practice of praying for the dead.  This, of course, is rooted in the belief that, through prayers for the dead, there can be change in the course of the soul of the dead loved one.  If this is a valid hope, nothing can be more loving than to spend time praying for the departed.

Is there a basis for this hope in the Word of God?  The Roman Catholic Church, chief proponent of this practice, admits that this practice is linked with its notion of purgatory.  In the Roman Catholic Encyclopedia entry in “Prayers for the Dead,” it asserts: “Catholic teaching regarding prayers for the dead is bound up inseparably with the doctrine of purgatory and the more general doctrine of the communion of the saints, which is an article of the Apostle’s Creed.”  The practice of praying for the dead, by this assertion, stands or falls on the validity of the doctrine of purgatory. 

This is not the place to refute this belief in a purgatory.  Suffice it to say that this is what drove the Reformation of the 16th century which led to the division of Catholics and Protestants.  Catholic clerics used this doctrine to swindle the superstitious population of precious money on promise that the souls of their loved ones will spring from purgatory once the money rings on the coffer.

The Catholic doctrine of and practice of prayer for the dead is built on the sinking sand of lack of assurance.  This is contrary to the assurance of the gospel and salvation that saving faith brings about.  Lack of assurance is the fruit of salvation by human merit and works.  Whereas assurance grows out of the certainty of the saving work of Christ received by faith.  “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25 NKJ).  Salvation is not contingent on human works, but guaranteed by what Christ has accomplished.

The Bible teaches that death is the final closure of moral opportunity.  The time to be saved is now.  If salvation is not received now, there is no post-mortem salvation opportunity.  “It is appointed to men to die once, and after this, the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

Prepare for a good death

The Puritans make a different emphasis that believers should be doing.  That is to prepare to die in a way that is glorifying to God.  This is, unfortunately, a well-nigh absent note.  It may be generally because we do not want to discuss such an unpleasant subject as death – even among Christians.  There is so much more amusement in life, that some are loathed to think of abandoning this in death.  This is unrealistic.

No matter how silent we may be about dying, and studiously avoid its mention, we will still die.  It is still the one appointment with providence that we cannot avoid.  For the Puritans, the way to prepare for death is not only that one is assured of his salvation.  It is, in the language of Paul, “with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20 NKJ).

Richard Baxter wrote the classic Dying Thoughts at a time that he was sick, and thought that he was dying.  The Lord spared him then, but he bequeathed to the Church an immortal plea for believers not only to be sure of heaven.  It is imperative that when we are close to death, we have a life and testimony that will point the living to the Lord we have served faithfully in our lives. 

Will the Lord be magnified in our dying?

Baptist Day?  I am a Baptist, but why I believe Baptists should reject this

This is a Baptist pastor’s reflection on the law mandating a Baptist Day.

It must be made clear that this position is not borne of any lack of zeal for the Christian cause and mission.  On the contrary.  It is borne of conviction that, for the Christian cause, the Church is to source it in the only Power it should seek.  And it is not in the sword.  It is in Heaven’s power available to the Church through the Word and Prayer.  Indeed, it must be said that the present evangelical intoxication with politics explains much of the powerlessness of the institutional church.

Just before the conclusion of the 18th Congress of the Philippines, it managed to get a legislation passed declaring every second Thursday of January as “Baptist Day.”  As expected, the measure was met with celebration by many Baptists in the country.  One enthused, “I thought I would never live to see this day!”  It is taken as a great victory that government could pass a law in support of Baptists.  Why would any Baptist be against it?  I am a Baptist, and I am against this idea.  I have a Baptist reason – which a good Baptist must always draw from the Scriptures.  There is also the light of history.

Religious Freedom – Baptist Distinctive

A legislated Baptist Day violates one Baptist distinctive, namely, religious freedom.  Religious freedom is not only the liberty of citizens to adopt their religious beliefs and affiliation.  It is that, but Baptists have carried this further by underscoring the separation of Church and state.  This means that one jurisdiction (state) should have no interference with the jurisdiction of the other (church).  When the Founding Fathers of America were considering the building of their nation, they initially thought of recognizing a state church, patterned after much of nations in Europe, especially their colonial mother nation of England.  The first choice was the Baptists.  This would have been a lot superior to just a Baptist Day. 

Baptists themselves, however, refused the distinction.  It went against the grain of their long struggle in Europe for religious freedom.  For what they suffered in a long period of persecution, they came to understand real freedom as not simply toleration of all religious beliefs, while government adopts a favored religious institution.  Baptists learned that genuine religious freedom is only attained where government will have no interference with the church.  In this, they differed with many of their brethren – Reformed and Presbyterian churches, to name some.

In America, under the able leadership of Isaac Backus (1724 – 1806), Baptists contended that religious freedom must mean no established Church should be adopted by government.  Twenty-seven years after his death, the last state church was disestablished in Massachusetts in 1833.  Historians recognize the role of Baptists in the ratifying of the very first amendment of the US Constitution that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”   The Christian History Journal [ Issue # 6 “The Baptists” ] notes:

Although Baptists cannot claim all the credit for the triumph of religious liberty and separation of church and state in the United States, they played a key role throughout the nearly two-century struggle to enshrine these principles in the nation’s basic documents of freedom.  As Anson Phelps Stokes, perhaps the most renowned church-state historian of this century wrote, ‘No denomination has its roots more firmly planted in the soil of religious freedom and Church-State separation than the Baptists. On the other hand, George W. Truett, in an historic address on the subject delivered in 1920 from the steps of the U.S. Capitol, called religious liberty ‘the supreme contribution’ of America to the rest of the world, and declared that ‘historic justice compels me to say that it was preeminently a Baptist contribution.’ Because religious liberty is the chief contribution Baptists have made to the social teaching of the church, and because its continuity is essential to proper church-state relations, each generation of Baptists is obligated to contend for it and to extend it to the next generation.

The champion of this separation of Church and State was Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father and the third president of the United States.  He was no Baptist; was not even an Evangelical Christian.  But he had keen insight into the meaning of separation of Church and State.  In his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists on New Year’s Day of 1802, his words became precedent-setting:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

Power of the Church

There is just one more objection I must raise.  Dependence on government for the advance of the Church betrays the lack of confidence in the only source of power for the Church – the Holy Spirit through the gospel of Christ.  It must be made clear that this position is not borne of any lack of zeal for the Christian cause and mission.  On the contrary.  It is borne of conviction that, for the Christian cause, the Church is to source it in the only Power it should seek.  And it is not in the sword.  It is in Heaven’s power available to the Church through the Word and Prayer.  Indeed, it must be said that the present evangelical intoxication with politics explains much of the powerlessness of the institutional church.  It must be held with conviction that what we seek is the same as Paul’s: “Our gospel came to you, not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).

Our Baptist forbears flourished without seeking the assistance and interference of government on their behalf.  Are we now to turn this around, and re-enter via the backdoor, seeking the interference of government?  Does government have any power to make a particular day religious by legislated imposition?  I say ‘No!’  That is why I reject the proposition that government may declare a Baptist Day.

June-Pride Open Letter

I plead with you, my dear friend, to consider neither the suppression of self, nor the unrestrained expression of whatever you consider your “authentic self.”  To be misled into what you are told as “authentic” but against the way you are made is really the triumph of the “plastic self.”  God’s will is for you to be the best version of yourself.

My Dear Friend of the LGBTQ+ Community:

This is June Pride – the month of celebrating the LGBTQ+ community.  Let me assure you that I do not write this out of contempt, much less, with any condemnation.  I would not have earned any right to address any individual about sin, unless I am ready to confess with Paul, “I am the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). 

Let me not waste your time addressing masculinity and femininity in physical behavior or social habit.  That boys should be playing toy guns, while girls cuddle their dolls – these are social constructs that do not define male or female.  For good measure, I also will not raise the important issue of gender intervention in children through puberty blockers and the like.  It is significant, and especially heinous where, as in many American states, this is mandated without parental authority, let alone, knowledge.  The significant number of those de-transitioning (getting back to their original sex after undergoing ‘gender-change’) cannot be ignored.  I will just suggest for your reference the book, Irreversible Damage, by Abigail Shrier.

Let me be to the point on the advice given one with gender dysphoria to just “be true to oneself,” or something similar: “find your authentic self.”  Behind this language is the rejection of the body as defining of one’s gender.  It may be admitted that the body reveals one’s birth-sex; but it is militantly denied that it is equivalent to gender.  The latter is to be decided by the self.  The body may be male, but the mind may decide that the “authentic self” is female.  And vice-versa, a female body may be reversed by the mind’s decision than one is male.  And the world is expected to accept – on threat of all mechanisms of canceling at the disposal of today’s culture influencers.

NO to Self-Suppression

First of all, let me stress that I am with you in rejecting the option of suppressing self.  This finds its worst form in asceticism – depriving the self of legitimate pleasures and enjoyment, because it will only defile the already native sinfulness of the body.  I do not believe this is a Christian option.  It is the Gnostic heresy that despised the nobility of the physical as part of God’s creation.  The Word of God holds a dignified view of the body.  It teaches, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Tim. 4:4-5 ESV).

Unrestrained Self-Expression?

That said, I want to admonish your choice which is at the other end of the spectrum.  You opt for unrestrained expression.  You are made to believe that it is your way to happiness.  This is the kind of self, described by theologian-philosopher, Carl Trueman, “The modern self assumes the authority of inner feelings and sees authenticity as defined by the ability to give social expression to the same. The modern self also assumes that society at large will recognize and affirm this behavior.” [ Strange New World: p. 19; Crossway (2022) ]

The problem with this option is its failure to see that there is in self a dimension that is broken.  The Scriptures call this sinfulness, or theology uses the word “depravity.”  To depend on what the heart dictates is to encounter the reality of what a prophet of old declares, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” (Jeremiah 17:9).  No, my friend, no matter how plausible and even singable, the advice “Listen to your heart” is a dead-end street to disappointment and self-inflicted misery.

From Self-Expression to Best Version

My plea, from the compassion of Christ, is be true to your creation.  If you sense a militant contradiction of your feeling, listen to those who have gone through the same struggle but have overcome: once-transgender, but now straight, not by sheer resolve, but by the grace of God.  Sam Allberry writes of his thoughts in Is God Anti-Gay? “Desires for things God has forbidden are a reflection of how sin has distorted me, not how God has made me.”  Christopher Yuan writes his testimony in Out of a Far Country: “I had always thought that the opposite of homosexuality was heterosexuality.  But actually the opposite of homosexuality is holiness.” 

Nancy Pearcey in Love Thy Body has a very pertinent observation: “The sovereign self will not tolerate having its options limited by anything it did not choose — not even its own body.  By contrast, Christianity assigns the human body a much richer dignity and value.  Humans do not need freedom from the body to discover their true, authentic self.  Rather we can celebrate our embodied existence as a good gift from God.  Instead of escaping from the body, the goal is to live in harmony with it.”

I know the foregoing to be true.  While I have never been myself a transgender, I know the lies I tell myself to justify my own lusts and impurities.  They never lead to a good end.

I plead with you, my dear friend, to consider neither the suppression of self, nor the unrestrained expression of whatever you consider your “authentic self.”  To be misled into what you are told as “authentic” but against the way you are made is really the triumph of the “plastic self.”  God’s will is for you to be the best version of yourself.  This is made possible through Christ who made the new creation of one new humanity (Ephesians 2:15).  You will then express in awe of God’s old creation, “O Lord how manifold are your works!  In wisdom, You have made them all” (Psalm 104:24).  Then, you will accept the beauty of God’s creation of man in His image: “Male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).

In pleading for Christ,

NAE

The Intermediate State of the Dead in Christ

The body of the dead believer is no better than any dead person.  But it is the condition of the soul that sets apart the believer’s intermediate state – it is to be in the presence of the Savior that once defined his earthly life (Phl 1:21).

A recent death in our Church generated much lament.  The brother was so young, and so actively useful in our ministries.  What is more, he had no known precondition.  This event drove me to refresh the subject of the intermediate state of the righteous.  It is compelling to think of an answer to the condition of one who dies in Christ, but before the consummation at the Second Coming of Christ.

Other subjects attach to this issue which are beyond the purview of  this article.  One may logically ask about the constitution of man – as body and soul (spirit).  Or one’s view of heaven, and its counterpart of hell, may be evaluated.  But they can only be assumed at this point, subordinate to the main question, What happens to the believer at death before Jesus’ return in triumph?

No Soul-Sleep

A view held mostly by fringe cults is that the soul is in a state of unconscious sleep, awaiting the end at Christ’s coming or the Judgment Day.  This notion sounds plausible because there are, in both Old Testament and New Testament, references to dying as ‘sleeping.’  It only takes a step to make the conclusion that the reference is to the soul.

Its main error is the rush to conclusion that it can refer to nothing else but the soul.  But some key references to ‘sleep’ as descriptive of death should lead to a different deduction.  The connection is made in Matthew 27:52: “The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”  Here, those that are described as “fallen asleep” are explicitly “bodies of the saints.”  This is a difficult passage that does not now demand detailed exposition.  Suffice it to conclude that the figure of sleep for death is clearly that of the body.  Another reference is the death of Stephen with this conclusion: “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’  And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:59-60 ESV).  It only needs pointing out that Stephen expected welcome by Jesus to his spirit as he was dying.  And when he died, it was described as, “he fell asleep.”  Clearly, the spirit of Stephen was received by Jesus, but his body fell asleep.

The simple reason for this figure of sleep as reference to the body is the counterpart of the resurrection as being raised (as in being awakened) from death (sleep).  This is Paul’s corrective to the misconstruction of the Thessalonians who thought that the dead in Christ had missed out on the blessing of the Second Coming.  On the contrary, they will even precede those who are alive: “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:14 ESV).

This error was so obvious that the young John Calvin wrote his first book in 1534 to refute soul-sleep.  Its title was Psychopannychia (Literally, “All-night-vigil of the soul”).  So obvious was the error that Calvin in his youth could easily demolish this notion.

No Death Wish

On the other end of the spectrum is the belief that such is the happy state of the soul of the righteous dead that their death should rather be celebrated than mourned.  This attitude is only a small step away to justifying death-wish.  But this is also wrong.

Death is not a good thing.  The biblical position is to regard death as the consequence of sin (Romans 5:12, 18; 6:23).  Adam, had he obeyed the test in the garden, was made to live in a confirmed eternal life.  But his sin has brought death – not only to him, but to all his posterity.  Therefore, death is considered an enemy – the last to be subdued at the end which is through the resurrection of the body (1Cor 15:26).

The believer’s death is still rightly to be mourned.  So the brethren, as they buried Stephen, “made great lamentation” (Acts 8:2).  One reason for this is that earthly fellowship with the dead is totally cut-off.  We may look forward to a reunion, and we do not mourn as those without hope (1Thes 4:13).  But we still rightly mourn.

That Paul asserts, “To die is gain” (Phl 1:21) is regularly misconstrued as a positive view of death for the believer.  But Paul does not say that death is gain.  But rather because of Christ, the event of dying (an evil in itself) can result for the believer something that can be counted as gain.  Note, however, that this is tempered by Paul’s assertion of desire (even preference) to live on and bear fruit of service (1:19, 24).

To look at death as itself desirable is inconsistent with the New Testament teaching about death.  Dying is not the blessed hope of the believer.  The Second Coming of Christ is (Titus 2;14).  There is still a rightful fear of death itself, but redemption should have delivered the believer from the bondage of this fear (Heb 2:14, 15; 2Cor 5:1ff).

“Far Better”

Paul does describe the state after-death of the believer as “far better” (Phl 1:23).  There is one reason that he consistently thrusts to prominence.  At the believer’s death, just like any dead person, his body begins to decay; but his soul/spirit is in the presence of Christ’s company.  His summary of the believer is “to depart and be with Christ” (Phl 1:23).  In another place, “absent from the body, but present with the Lord” (2Cor 5:8).  There can be no more explicit description of the believer’s condition beyond death.  The body of the dead believer is no better than any dead person.  But it is the condition of the soul that sets apart the believer’s intermediate state – it is to be in the presence of the Savior that once defined his earthly life (Phl 1:21).  Other passages corroborate this.  To cite just one more, Jesus promised the penitent thief on the cross, “Today, you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

It is right to describe the after-life of the righteous as “far better.”  It is so in comparison to this earthly life.  But in the redemptive plan of God, it is not yet the best.  Thus the souls in the intermediate state still express their longing for the day of consummation (Rev 6:10).  The best is yet to come.  And that is the reunion of body and soul at the resurrection.  This is now the Final State where the saints’ inheritance is not just heaven, but heaven and earth (2Pet 3:13).

Grieving and Solace

The foregoing thoughts will mean the mixture of grieving and solace when a beloved believer dies.  There will be pain from the poignant void left behind; but there will be anticipation for the reunion yet to come.  For as long as we have not crossed that dividing river of death, such will be the lot of brethren left behind on earth.  But make no mistake.  It is not the living to say goodnight to the dead in Christ.  It is those who have departed to be with Christ who must say goodnight to us who remain in this dark world of sin and death.

Feng Shui or Providence for 2022?

The ‘forces and influences’ of life have malevolent forces of demonic powers behind them.  It is beyond foolish to imagine that any human can manipulate them by putting the door and the stairs on the right place!  Or make wood the lucky element!  No, we have a much-better and more assuring confidence than that.  It is to know that in this year 2022, the God on the throne who is the Sovereign now rules His people through the kingly reign of Jesus Christ.

In this transition to the new year 2022, many will seek guidance from the Chinese Zodiac that identifies this year as the Year of the Tiger.  To be exact, the Yang-Water Tiger, which begins on February 1.  This is avidly followed by those who practice Feng Shui.  For them, it is the art that enables them to tap good energy to ensure the good life for the year.

One such Feng Shui expert advices:

Tiger mainly contains Yang-Wood, which is a tall tree. It also contains Yang-Fire and Yang-Earth. Yang-Fire is related to the sun and Yin-Earth is related to the mountain. Tiger is a tall tree on the mountain under the sun. Tiger is a symbol of power, prestigiousness, and loneliness. Tiger cannot get along with many animals. The Water of 2022 helps the tree of the Tiger grow taller and stronger. That means 2022 brings strong Wood energy to people. You will have good fortune if the Wood is your Lucky Element.1

The reality is that the mystery of Feng Shui is of the essence of its practice.  It keeps its advocates continue to be bound by a supersitition that they cannot understand.  The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics explains:

Chinese dictionaries give no definition of what is to be understood by Feng-Shui. No native treatises expound it upon scientific lines. Feng is ‘wind,’ shui is ‘water.’ Wind is what cannot be seen, and water what cannot be grasped. ‘Wind and water’ is the term, therefore, for the occult powers which are always bearing down upon human life. Professors of Feng-Shui prefer that it should remain a mystery, and those who pay them for their services accept the position, declaring that it is not to be expected that common people should understand the unfathomable.2

Many self-proclaimed experts are paid handsome amounts to give their advice: how to design the house; arrangement of furniture; coloring of walls; etc.  This is all rooted in the futile belief that one could manipulate the unseen forces and influences of life.

How different is the Christian concept of the providence of God.  By providence, we point to the wise God as in control of events directing them to the fulfillment of His plan for humanity, especially for His people.  Christian theology sees the works of God in three major categories of Creation, Providence, and Redemption.  What we see of human and natural existence is the product of God’s purposeful fiat.  But He did not leave it to function like clock-work by itself.  He Himself is intimately involved in both natural events and human history – preserving and governing for His ends.  But because humanity is fallen in sin, God has set in motion His grace to redeem sinners.  This is the basic explanation of the ‘forces and influences’ of life.  Providence is  rightly placed in the middle of God’s creative design and His redemptive purpose.

The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 gives the classic summary of the biblical teaching of divine providence:

Q. 27. What dost thou mean by the providence of God?

A. The almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, as it were by his hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come, not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.

Q. 28. What advantage is it to us to know that God has created, and by his providence does still uphold all things?

A. That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from his love; since all creatures are so in his hand, that without his will they cannot so much as move.

Nothing is too small for the providential involvement of God.  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father” (Matthew 10:29).

The ‘forces and influences’ of life have malevolent forces of demonic powers behind them.  It is beyond foolish to imagine that any human can manipulate them by putting the door and the stairs on the right place!  Or make wood the lucky element!  No, we have a much-better and more assuring confidence than that.  It is to know that in this year 2022, the God on the throne who is the Sovereign now rules His people through the kingly reign of Jesus Christ.

With that confidence, it is not Christian to wish “Good luck!”  But I wish all, “A God-centered, and Christ-ruled New Year 2022.”

1 https://www.chinesefortunecalendar.com/2022/default.htm

2 Dukes, E. J. (1908–1926). FENG-SHUI. In J. Hastings, J. A. Selbie, & L. H. Gray (Eds.), Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (Vol. 5, p. 833). T. & T. Clark; Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Nunc Dimittis: A Year-End Reflection

That challenges believers to look at their mission as part of God’s worldwide plan for His kingdom. No one will reach the whole of humanity. But each individual servant of Christ – by serving the kingdom in his piece of humanity (even a mother to her child) – will contribute to the worldwide coverage of the mission of Christ. This demands of believers a kingdom outlook – that which sees life in the light of the rule of Christ. Christ rules by virtue of His death and resurrection. Every believer must sense his mission to extend that rule whatever place of the world is allotted to him. That is when we are doing our mission. That is when we can have a sense of mission accomplished, and be able to say when done, Nunc Dimittis, dismiss your servant in peace.

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may dismiss your servant in peace!  (Luke 2:29).  These were the first words uttered by Simeon upon seeing the child Jesus.  Recognizing the child as the Messiah that Simeon was promised to see before he was to die, Simeon breaks forth into a hymn.  It is the third of three hymns that Luke uses in his Nativity narrative.  We have seen Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46ff) and Zechariah’s Benedictus (Luke 1:68ff).  The shortest and the least-known of the hymns is this one by Simeon, known in the first words of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate as Nunc Dimittis (‘Now, dismiss me’).  There are good thoughts here for a year-end reflection.

This is the only place where the character of Simeon is mentioned.  He is introduced as righteous and devout.  He received a revelation that he will see the Messiah (every pious Jew’s hope), before his life ends.  He must have waited for the day with eagerness.  Until one day in the Temple, amidst the daily ceremonies of dedication and circumcision of children, his eyes see Joseph and Mary and the child they have brought for dedication.  Instantly, Simeon recognizes Him to be the long-promised Messiah.  He carries the child in his arms and sings his hymn.  This is the first in the inspired record of a verbal reaction to the Messiah in-person.  Simeon’s song intones with a sense of mission accomplished.  And he has a sense of peace as he addresses the Lord: you may now dismiss your servant in peace!

For a year-end reflection, the passage is rich with meaning and implication.  We too have a mission to accomplish because of the coming of the Son of God.

A Mission Covering All Sinners

Simeon’s song brings together two groups of peoples that rarely combine with positive note – Israel and Gentiles.  And even more rarely, Simeon mentions the Gentiles first: revelation to the Gentiles… and for the glory of your people, Israel.  In Simeon’s mind, what makes this child in his arms unique is that the plan of God from eternity has come on earth, and it now covers the whole of humanity.

The coming of Christ makes the mission global.  It is now for the whole world.  Christian mission is for all humanity.

It has always been so in the plan of God.  Even in the calling of Abraham, God made clear to Abraham, In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed (Geb 12:3).  But over generations, the Israelites petrified this living hope into an exclusivism that translated into contempt for other nations – the Gentiles.  Now the birth of Jesus would refresh the original plan of God.  It is His intention to reach the whole of humanity through the Saviour, the Lord Jesus.  Simeon calls this baby Salvation.  That early, he establishes the basic truth that salvation is not an institution, not a set of works to accomplish.  Salvation is in the Person of the Messiah – Jesus, the Son of God.

But this salvation is now offered to all humanity.  Unfortunately, there are still groups of believers today who think that Israel (the Middle East nation) holds a special place in the plan of God that is above all other nations.  We must reject that, and refresh the original intention that Israel was the means by which God will reach out to the nations of the world.

That challenges believers to look at their mission as part of God’s worldwide plan for His kingdom.  No one will reach the whole of humanity.  But each individual servant of Christ – by serving the kingdom in his piece of humanity (even a mother to her child) – will contribute to the worldwide coverage of the mission of Christ.  This demands of believers a kingdom outlook – that which sees life in the light of the rule of Christ.  Christ rules by virtue of His death and resurrection.  Every believer must sense his mission to extend that rule whatever place of the world is allotted to him.  That is when we are doing our mission.  That is when we can have a sense of mission accomplished, and be able to say when done, Nunc Dimittis, dismiss your servant in peace.

Will our dismissal from the year 2021 be one of peace, God’s shalom, because we have done our mission for this year?

A Message Demanding a Response

In his address to Mary, Simeon prophesies: This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many.  Some commentators see fall and rising as covering the same identity – people who will come to Jesus, and will first experience the fall in conviction before the rise of conversion.  That is possible.  But it is better to see this song as extending the contrast sustained in the first two other hymns of Mary’s Magnificat and Zechariah’s Benedictus. 

What it does tell us is that Jesus remains a message that divides humanity based on response to Him.  We stand against division of humanity based on racial identity or social status.  But Jesus Himself asserts that there is an inevitable division based on response to Him and the gospel message.  Peter divides humanity as honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe; etc. (1 Peter 2:7).  Simeon describes the Child as One for a sign to be opposed.  This is a word that Luke uses in Acts for contradicting the message (cf. Acts 13:45).  Jesus remains the fall (of those who will oppose the message) and the rising (those who will believe in Him as Lord and Savior) of many.  On which side are you as you conclude this year?

A Master Deciding the Discharge

This brings us back to Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis.  It means ‘dismiss now.’  The original Greek has the sense of leaving the presence of another.  The immediate application is dying and being discharged from our life on earth. 

For someone like Simeon, the thought of dismissal from life is one that gives peace.  That is because of his sense of mission accomplished.  He acknowledges that the sovereign decision belongs to the Lord.  He uses a different term for Lord than the usual.  His word can be literally translated despot.  To call someone’s rule as despotic is extremely negative in current usage.  But that is not the sense in Simeon’s calling of his Lord.  It simply acknowledges that it is the Lord to sovereignly decide.

That dismissal may be from this life.  Like a soldier, it is possible to be discharged honorably or dishonorably.  We could think of some who had been dismissed rather dishonorably from this life in 2021.  One cannot think of the name Ravi Zacarias, without squirming at the mess his death had left behind.  But others had given their mission a luster of honor when their dismissal came.

But let us not think yet of the dismissal of death from this life.  Just think of the year that we are now to be dismissed from.  Would it be honorable or dishonorable?

The Lord Jesus has come at birth; and by His death and resurrection, He is now ruling.  His servants have mission to accomplish in their service.  At the end of this year, can we say with Simeon, confident in shalom, Nunc Dimittis?

The Benedictus

It is usual for us to think of salvation as a conscious experience.  We talk of being saved, or of possessing salvation.  There is nothing wrong with this language of experience.  But we must remember that the experience is only made possible by the arrival, or the event, realized in Christ.  We are thinking of experience.  Biblical thinking is more of a timeline.  In that timeline that stretched back to eternity, the turning point is the fulfillment of God’s plan – and it happened in the coming of the Son of God.  With that event, the experience is now made possible for all who are in union with Christ.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people!  (Luke 1:46, 47).  These were the first words of Zechariah – introducing his song that is known as the Benedictus.  It comes from the first word of Latin as translated in Jerome’s Vulgate: Benedictus, which means Blessed!

This is the first word of Zechariah after enduring nine months of being mute as chastisement imposed by the angel.  This was because of Zechariah’ unbelief.  It is interesting to compare Mary’s response to the announcement of her conception, though a virgin: How will this be since I am a virgin? (Luke 1:34).  Zechariah’s may be slightly different, but it spelled his unbelief: How shall I know this?  For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years. (1:18).  Mary asked out of obliviousness, without questioning that it can happen.  Zechariah’s question was marked by unbelief.  Thus the chastisement of silence, until things shall come to pass.

When finally, Zechariah’s child was named John, as directed by the angel, his voice returned.  And his first word is one of praise and benediction – his Benedictus.  The Benedictus has two parts; the first recognizes both the great act of God in redeeming His people; and the second anticipates the role of John (the Baptist) in this redemptive act of the birth of the Messiah.

It has a continuing relevance today.  We are on this side of the fulfilled mission of the Messiah who was born at the time of Zechariah.  Also, the Church perpetuates what John the Baptist was chosen as the first witness of the Messianic coming.

The Coming of Salvation in the Son

Zechariah uses a word of divine action that, while common in the Old Testament, occurs here only in the New Testament (except for an OT quotation in Hebrews).  That word is visited.  It describes salvation as an event that has arrived in the birth of the Son of God in Incarnate mode.  It is, therefore, correct to think of salvation as an event that has come in Christ.

It is usual for us to think of salvation as a conscious experience.  We talk of being saved, or of possessing salvation.  There is nothing wrong with this language of experience.  But we must remember that the experience is only made possible by the arrival, or the event, realized in Christ.  We are thinking of experience.  Biblical thinking is more of a timeline.  In that timeline that stretched back to eternity, the turning point is the fulfillment of God’s plan – and it happened in the coming of the Son of God.  With that event, the experience is now made possible for all who are in union with Christ.

This raises an important theological question – and for many, a problem issue.  Were not the OT saints saved?  Were not believers who died before Jesus was ever born, and fulfil the saving mission of death and resurrection, also saved as much as we are who are on this side of Jesus’ saving fulfilment?  The answer is, Yes, they were saved – and saved by grace through faith.  But it is shallow to say that their salvation is no different from those who have received salvation by union with Christ in Whom salvation has come.  Those who think there is no difference may intend to safeguard the consistency of salvation, but they end up denigrating the accomplishment of the Cross.

The salvation of the OT saints – and everyone prior to the coming of salvation in Christ – was certain, but promissory.  It existed as promise.  But because it was divine promise, there was certainty to it.  But they did not have the fullness of it in personal possession.  It may be compared to a post-dated check.  Even though there may be enough fund in the bank, the holder of the check cannot encash it until the date indicated on the check.

So OT saints had assurance of all the promises of salvation.  But only when Jesus Christ accomplished salvation in death and resurrection did those blessing retroactively come into possession of believers before Christ.  This is the significance of Hebrews 7:22 in calling Christ the guarantor of a better covenant.  In the older translation, it is surety: a collateral or co-maker in today’s commercial language.  He owned and paid the debt when it matured.

That makes those of us who are on this side of the coming of Christ as much more blessed.  We now have salvation blessings in possession.  We still have the promise part as their consummation is yet to happen at the Second Coming.  But this should put a Benedictus in our own hearts and lips in praise to our God for the unmatched blessing that is ours.  All because the Son of God has come to visit – to stay and act in salvation of His people.  Marvel at the truth that you are on this side of salvation fulfilled!

The Witness to Salvation of the Church

The benediction of Zechariah to his son, John, should not be overstretched to include everything as applicable now.  There were unique features of John the Baptist.  He was the fulfillment of the voice who will prepare the way of the Lord (Isa 40:3), the Elijah who will come (Mal 4:5; Mat 11;14).  He also was a prophet, an office that is foundational to the Church.  But the function of John the Baptist as Witness to the coming of salvation in Jesus perpetuates in the Church.  Luke indicated this by being the author of the sequel to his Gospel, which is the Book of Acts.  There we see the function of the Church – bearing witness to Christ.  The Church is no longer preparing for the First Coming of the Messiah; but is now fulfilling the Great Commission to prepare for the Second Coming – the end of the world.

The Church is the witnessing agent to the salvation fulfilled in Christ, and now offered to sinners.  But do you wonder why it is a voice?  Why not a drama, or a comedy?  Because the essence of the Church’s commission is a message.  The world needs to hear this message of salvation.  In world where there is a Babel of voices, a cacophony of noises, the Church’s voice may sound faint.  But just like Elijah on Mount Horeb, the still, small voice is what we need to overcome the challenging noises of the world.

Towards the end of the Benedictus, the metaphor changes from voice to light: of sunrise shining.  This is because the voice is to give knowledge of salvation.  That alone is the light that shines in the darkness of a sinful world.  Of the many OT allusions, Mal 4:2 calls our attention: For you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.

This is the effect of witness to salvation.  In the language of Paul, the God who said ‘Let there be light’ shone in our hearts… (2Cor 4:6).  This is the significance of John the Baptist in the story.  This reminds us also that the Child in the manger will not have meaning of itself, unless understood in the light of the salvation He came to fulfill.  We only understand it aright when we see it as a movement from the manger to the Cross.

It is not wrong to rejoice in the event of Nativity – that God incarnate was found to be a Baby born.  But there is so much more meaning when we have a Benedictus to define our joy because of what later will become the witness of John the Baptist: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29).

The Magnificat of Mary

Our problem is we are so beholden to the status quo.  We think the powers of this world hold sway.  Filipinos are intoxicated with politics.  And here we are again in a political season – everybody is looking for a messiah!  They all are arms of flesh who will, at some points, fail.  We are not to put our hope in princes.  The true Messiah has come!

Our problem is we are so beholden to the status quo.  We think the powers of this world hold sway.  Filipinos are intoxicated with politics.  And here we are again in a political season – everybody is looking for a messiah!  They all are arms of flesh who will, at some points, fail.  We are not to put our hope in princes.  The true Messiah has come!

My soul magnifies the Lord; and my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour!  (Luke 1:46, 47).  Thus, Mary exclaims in her song of response to Elizabeth’s words.  This song is well-known as the Magnificat.  It comes from the first words of Latin as translated in Jerome’s Vulgate: Magnificat anima mea Dominum.

The song itself is full of references and allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures that Christians call the Old Testament.  Of most notable parallel is with the song of Hannah (mother of Samuel), recorded in 1 Samuel 2:1ff.  It demonstrates Mary’s profound knowledge of the Word of God.  That becomes the substance of her Magnificat – her magnifying of her Lord.  It is indeed a blessed privilege to be chosen as the vessel to bear the Messiah in human conception.  This is a blessedness that Mary herself owns, Behold, from now on all generations will call me Blessed.  Mary is profoundly overwhelmed and humbled by the thought of such blessedness. 

Unfortunately, what is a gracious state that calls forth Mary’s Magnificat, the mainstream Church of history has transformed into a Church title – to be made into an object of reverence by the pious.  In the process, the focus of the Magnificat is lost.  And Mary, as a marvelous model of humility, has undergone an apotheosis into a counterpart mediator.

Humility as God’s gracious instrument

Humility is the character that stands out in Mary’s Magnificat.  Even earlier, her humility emerges in her response to the angelic annunciation that she will conceive in her womb the One who will be the Messiah.  And humility is the grace that befits one who is called to a vocation of instrumentality in God’s plan.  We must frame the blessedness that Mary owns by her words, He has looked on the humble estate of His servant.  This is a woman who is not exalting herself; much less, accepting the exalted status endowed by men, or by the Church.  This is a woman who understands her status as servant – and is duly overwhelmed!

I have admiration for Mary because of her humble attitude.  She understands that it is God’s mercy that has intervened in her life – it is an act of saving grace on her.  We know this from Mary’s own exultation my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour!  After this, there is only one other place for the title Saviour in the Gospel of Luke.  It is in the angelic announcement to the lowly shepherds: Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord! (2:11).  Exactly the same two titles in Mary’s Magnificat are attributed to Jesus Christ.  No immaculate conception here of a sinless woman.  She needed a Saviour.  What a glorious privilege that she should bear in her womb the incarnate form of the Saviour, Jesus Christ!  She is not putting her blessedness on top of the rest of humanity.  She expresses wonder why she is counted among the blessed ones!  This is the spirit of one who knows herself to be a sinner, on whom God graciously intervenes.

Reversal through Kingdom invasion

The substance of the angelic announcement to Mary is couched in the language of the Davidic covenant.  In summary, God pledged that One from the progeny of David will be born to claim His throne and reign in a kingdom that will never be destroyed.  That time for fulfillment has come in Jesus.  Mary’s Magnificat is anticipating the reversal of status.  This is because the coming of the Son of God is no less than a kingdom invasion that will reverse the ruling powers of this world.  Mary puts it in a series of contrasts: He brought down the mighty from their thrones… He exalted those of humble estate… He filled the hungry with good things… the rich He has sent away empty; etc.

It calls on us to understand that with the coming of the Son of God, a new age has been inaugurated.  At His resurrection, the Lord Jesus has come to rule.  Certainly, not everyone has yet acknowledged that rule.  There is still very much human power ruling in this world.  But make no mistake, the Christian expectation is: every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord (Phil 2:10, 11). 

Our problem is we are so beholden to the status quo.  We think the powers of this world hold sway.  Filipinos are intoxicated with politics.  And here we are again in a political season – everybody is looking for a messiah!  They all are arms of flesh who will, at some points, fail.  We are not to put our hope in princes.  The true Messiah has come! 

But perhaps, your life is one characterized by a quest for power in other forms – wealth; positions in career.  We cannot be against vocational excellence.  But it does not define what became the last word of the Magnificat – forever!  What defines forever is the One from eternity born in time.

In this season when there is every claim of remembering the birth of Christ, be focused on the One born – Jesus; not the one giving birth – Mary.  But let her Magnificat inspire us to magnify the Lord, and rejoice in God our Saviour!

COVID-19, Christians, and Churches – Concise Sequel

GBC Group

While we accept the necessity of the present situation, there must be an inner mourning in genuine believers that their ability to gather for the covenant assembly of church worship is disrupted. There is something degenerate in a heart that welcomes this disruption from the regularity of church assembly. Every covenant member of a genuine church will make it a matter of prayer, and yearning, that soon society will get back to normal – and the church may assemble again.

 

The viral spread of COVID-19 can be minimized, and hopefully, contained, by avoiding mass gathering. Thus, the government has taken extreme measures of enhanced lockdown and community quarantine. This affects the assemblies of churches. Having taken the position that love of neighbor necessitates the suspension of large gatherings of churches, a qualification is necessary. This is a concise sequel to my previous blog.

Whatever may be put in place of the gathering of the church – live-streaming; etc. – it is not a substitute. It is a disruption of what the church, by nature, must be – a gathered church. Therefore, whatever is disabling this gathering of the church must be seen as a disruption – a necessary disruption, perhaps – but a disruption still.

We can see this in the language that is deliberately chosen for the church in the biblical languages. The word from Old Testament Hebrew that is translated in the Septuagint (LXX) as the Greek word ekklêsia is the Hebrew word qahal. The latter denotes assemblies gathered for various purposes; e.g. war (Gen 49:6; 1Sam 17:47; 2Chr 28:14). The most significant are those that refer to Israel when assembled to accept the covenant with Yahweh (Dt. 4:10; 9:10; 18:16; 23:2; 31:30); especially in the three annual feasts; and in the dedication of Solomon’s temple (1Ki 8:14, 22, 55). There is an OT word which has an even more strictly religious connotation, ‘edah (Ex 12:19; Lev 4:13; Num 8:9). But this is not the word that ekklesia takes over from. There is something in qahal that is not essential in ‘edah – that is the idea of assembly, especially for Israel, with a covenantal orientation.

Thus, the New Testament writers, following the LXX, use ekklêsia for the New Covenant community. The word itself is used in the Greek literature of the period for political gatherings (cf. Acts 19:39; cf. vs. 32, 41). The scholarly Dictionary of Paul and His Letters gives this essential element of ekklêsia:

 The term was applied only to an actual gathering of people, or to a group that gathers when viewed as a regularly constituted meeting. Although we often speak of a group of congregations collectively as ‘the church’ (i.e. of a denomination) it is doubtful whether Paul (or the rest of the NT) uses ekklesia in this collective way. Also, the notion of a unified provincial or national church appears to have been foreign to Paul’s thinking. An ekklesia was a meeting or an assembly. [ p. 124 ]

Let every church make arrangement so that the members will continue to have their feeding of the Word of God. But genuine preaching is live preaching in the assembly of God’s people. And genuine church worship is the corporate worship in the assembly of the people of God. Any other arrangement than an actual assembly of the church is still a disruption, not a substitution.

While we accept the necessity of the present situation, there must be an inner mourning in genuine believers that their ability to gather for the covenant assembly of church worship is disrupted. There is something degenerate in a heart that welcomes this disruption from the regularity of church assembly. Every covenant member of a genuine church will make it a matter of prayer, and yearning, that soon society will get back to normal – and the church may assemble again.

It is every believer’s delightful response: I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ (Psa 122:1).

COVID-19, Christians, and Churches

COVID-19

But another factor is pressing upon us. The issue is not just preservation of one’s life from persecution of one’s faith. The issue now is what Jesus calls the second of the greatest of commandments: Love your neighbor as yourself. Since the exponential growth of the viral infection is largely due to mass assembling, the believer must take responsibility that he does not contribute to this viral spread. And if one proven effective way to do that is to avoid mass gathering, then we must heed to the mandate of love: Love does no harm to a neighbor

 

In his The Briefing for Monday, March 16, 2020. Albert Mohler describes the current crisis so succinctly: “The entire world is learning a new vocabulary, a new set of habits, a new set of rules, and a new set of expectations — expectations about today, not to mention expectations about tomorrow. We are looking at all of the world as we know it being reshaped socially and morally, politically and economically, by a tiny invisible coronavirus, known as COVID-19.”[1]

According to a facts-list released by the World Health Organization, this began as a pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China and was first reported to the WHO country office on New Year’s Eve on December 31, 2019. In just one month, on January 30, 2020, it was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. On February 11, WHO announced a name for the new coronavirus disease: COVID-19. A month later, on March 11, WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic.

Today, nations of the world are in panic. One of the most affected is Italy. On March 15, the country reported 3,590 new cases in one day and 368 deaths in that same day of 24 hours. As of this writing (March 18), the Philippines has recorded 193 confirmed cases, 14 people have died from the disease. The government has put Metro Manila under Code Red Level 2, which later escalated as enhanced lockdown and community quarantine of the island of Luzon. This included a ban on mass gathering – including those of religious in nature. One official defined ‘mass gathering’ as exceeding more than 10 people.

Two questions are in every believer’s mind, in the immediate: What now of the assemblies of churches? A more fundamental question is: Why is this happening in, what we love to hail, “This is my Father’s world”?

Why is this happening?

We must begin with what builds the right foundation in addressing crisis such as this one. A rightly-taught Christian cannot even begin to answer this without invoking the sovereign control of God over all things. This includes the events, cycle, and movements of the natural processes. As Creator, God is the Originator of all things that exist. But the Word of God will not stop at nature’s origination. It reveals clearly the over-all control of God as He sustains nature – both in its most benevolent produce: such as, rains for the harvest (Acts 14:17); as well as, in its more malevolent side, such as, calamities and plagues. Faith is inadequate where God is not recognized on both sides of nature’s movements. The biblical faith’s confession is in God’s declaration: “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isa. 45:7 ESV)

As to why a universe created good by God should turn destructive, Christian theology’s answer is clear, even if unpalatable to many: Because original man, as mandated to be the ruler of God’s creation, sinned, he dragged with him the pristine goodness of nature. Creation now, Paul describes, “For the creation was subjected to futility… For we know that the whole creation has been groaning…” (Rom 8:20, 22). That groaning will sometimes take the form of calamities as gigantic cyclones. Or it can come in the form of a plague – as unseen in its microscopic dimension as a virus.

Put it in this way, the answer will come as dissatisfying for those looking for a definitive ‘this-and-that!’. There is no human answer to the ‘Why?’ of this crisis. The skeptic and the contemptuous of religion will take this as another ‘proof’ of Christianity as being a ‘pie-from-the-sky’ religion. It is nothing of the sort. When we say there is no human answer to the ‘Why,’ that is only because we do want to yield the answer to the wisdom of God. On rare occasions, the answer may be immediate. But more ordinarily, the answer takes a while – even generations. Or perhaps, the answer is yet for eternity. When eternity comes, so will be the final redemption – including that of creation (Rom 8:21).

But of this we can be certain. Even plagues, which we sometimes call outbreaks as though they are out-of-control events, are under the control of God. He has revealed this in the 10 plagues that He visited on the most powerful nation at one period – Egypt. Egypt at last was forced to yield to the will of God, but only reluctantly. In many instances, God’s Word declares God’s sovereign control of plagues. By acknowledging this, we also recognize that God alone is the ultimate Protector from plague’s ravages. “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.” (Ps. 91:3 ESV)

Because plagues are within God’s control, we can be certain that when a plague strikes, it is consistent with God’s justice, but always mindful of the fulfillment of His good purpose for His people and for His kingdom. It cannot be inconsistent with either. This is not to say that believers will be immune from the plague. Some may have already died from the present one, and more are bound to suffer. But the purpose of God is unmoved in fulfilling His design – until its judgment is accomplished, or the good of His kingdom-glory is secured. The Reformer John Calvin had his own share of plagues and commotions in the 16th century. His confidence in the sovereignty of God is worth emulating:

 In the same way, when the tumultuous aspect of human affairs unfits us for judging, we should still hold, that God, in the pure light of his justice and wisdom, keeps all these commotions in due subordination, and conducts them to their proper end`.[2]

 The response to this behooves us His creatures to be contrite in our smallness, yes, even our sinfulness. Plagues, such as this, must not be used to cast blame on specific individuals or people groups. That was the mistake of Job’s friends whom Job called ‘miserable comforters!’ (Job 16:2). But what it does is to expose man still in his helplessness, for all the advances of civilization, when plagues visit beyond all our power to immediately resolve. As Mohler puts in another of his The Briefing:

 The reality is that there is a deeply humbling experience taking place in the United States where even those who are believed to be the most powerful human beings on earth wielding the most powerful instruments of political, economic, and military power, they are unable to control a tiny little microscopic virus as it replicates and of course as it does so much damage amongst humanity as it does so. But we’re looking not only the fact that this is a humbling experience for those in political leadership. It’s humbling for all of humanity if we will only observe and understand what is going on here or you might put it another way, our failure adequately to understand at this point what is going on here. We’re all called upon in different spheres of life to make responsible decisions based upon the threat of this virus, but it’s not at all clear exactly what that means in every circumstance. [3]

Let us be in prayer for government and for those tasked to contain the spread of the virus, and especially for those who have the means and equipment to look for an antidote – a vaccine to stop this rampage, and return society to normal. Peace and normalcy are still friends of the gospel mission (1Tim 2:1-4).

Let us also make this a personal occasion for examination of our spiritual standing. For believers, it is a time for self-examination of their state of sanctification – including the issues of sin in their lives. In the Puritan divine John Owen’s sermon entitled, The Use and Advantage of Faith in a Time of Public Calamity, he urges believers:

If we live by faith in the approach of a calamitous season, this will put us upon the search and examination of our own hearts, what accession we have made to the sins that have procured these judgments. This is that which faith (where it is in any measure sincere) will assuredly put us upon.[4]

These are times to seek the mercy of God upon us, the people of the Philippines; and indeed, for the people of the world, all of humanity. It is also an opportunity for witness. We call on people to own the Psalmist’s invitation:

3 Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.

4 When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.

5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God (Ps. 146:3-5 ESV)

What of the Assemblies of Churches?

A prohibition has been imposed on mass gathering, with a given definition of it as exceeding 10 people in assembly. That disqualifies most of our churches in our regular Sunday assemblies. There are many whose knee-jerk reaction is to follow the suspension of assemblies, because Christians are supposed to follow government authorities. But there had been prohibitions of that nature in the past. One may cite the Conventicle Act in England in 1664 forbidding the assemblies of Dissenters and non-conformists (churches outside of the state Church of England) on threat of persecution. But many dissenting congregations continued to assemble – some in forests – in their courageous stand against legal sanction on their religious liberty. Clearly, mere government prohibition alone should not be enough reason for us to suspend assemblies.

Love of Neighbor

But another factor is pressing upon us. The issue is not just preservation of one’s life from persecution of one’s faith. The issue now is what Jesus calls the second of the greatest of commandments: Love your neighbor as yourself. Since the exponential growth of the viral infection is largely due to mass assembling, the believer must take responsibility that he does not contribute to this viral spread. And if one proven effective way to do that is to avoid mass gathering, then we must heed to the mandate of love: Love does no harm to a neighbor (Rom 13:10 NKJ).

The balance in the words of Martin Luther during a plague in his letter to John Hess is insightful for a man of his time:

I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.[5]

For the sake of the good of neighbor, then, which in this case involves the whole country, churches may consider suspending their large gatherings until this pestilence is past. How they may still carry on their services, there are now more means to answer that than were available in previous generations. But one should not flagellate his conscience because the church assembly is temporarily suspended. It cannot be shown to be disobedience to Hebrews 10:25 as this does not come to the level of forsaking the assembly. This is protecting the perpetuation of assembly for some safer times. Safer times mean the lifetime of the virus which is estimated to be 14 to 21 days – give or take. This temporary suspension of large assembly is a step of wisdom for the continuing of assembly more permanently.

Self-flagellation (what Filipinos call penitensiya) became a practice during the Black Death of the 14th century.[6] It was thought of as pacifying God that He may withdraw the plague seeing the faithful inflict self-pain. It was a blind superstition. It is no less a blind superstition today to insist on large assemblies and presume on God’s protection of His people.

Again, the simple but incisive words of Albert Mohler are to the point:

We have to understand as Christians that love of neighbor now makes demands upon us that we had not considered even a week ago, and that comes right down to the fact that we cannot meet when we otherwise would meet, we cannot go where we otherwise would go, and we have to take what just days ago would have been considered extreme if not irrational measures to try to prohibit, or at least to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus.[7]

May the Lord have mercy upon our churches; upon our country; and upon humanity.

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Ps. 46:10 ESV)

Christians may still sing William Cowper’s immortal hymn:

        Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

        But trust Him for His grace;

        Behind a frowning providence

        He hides a smiling face.

 

        His purposes will ripen fast,

        Unfolding every hour;

        The bud may have a bitter taste,

        But sweet will be the flower.

 

        Blind unbelief is sure to err

        And scan His work in vain;

        God is His own interpreter,

        And He will make it plain.

 

[1] https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/16/briefing-3-16-20 (cited with permission)

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I. 17. 1

[3] https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/11/briefing-3-11-20 (cited with permission)

[4] John Own, Work, Vol. IX (Banner of Truth): 497

[5] Luther’s Works Volume 43, “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess… (Thanks is due to Christian Camacho of Grace Baptist Church of Los Baños for posting this on our Church Facebook)

[6] See Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Ballantine Books; 1978)

[7] https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/16/briefing-3-16-20 (cited with permission)