Well tonight we’re doing something a little different from the usual sermon that we have. It is going to be a message, a sermon from God’s Word, but rather than the regular exposition of a single text, we invited you over the last several weeks to submit questions about theology or the Christian life or about the Bible or about the present crisis. And I said I would structure the message around each of those questions. It seemed like a good idea when I came up with it, but now perhaps you’ll wonder if it was a mistake! We’ll find out I guess! But I received lots of questions and they range over a whole array of different topics, and it just won’t be possible to answer all of them here tonight, so if you submitted a question and I don’t get to it, I hope you’ll understand; maybe we’ll be able to address it at some other occasion in the future.
For the most part, questions came in under three big categories. There were some general Bible questions. Our church elders have been distributing one-year chronological Bibles and encouraging our members to read through the Bible together chronologically this year and that has raised some questions for many of you about some of the difficult texts and issues in the text that you have encountered along the way. And so I’m going to try and tackle a couple of those questions first. And then there were some broader theology questions, some very practical questions about life under the coronavirus pandemic and I’ll deal with a couple of those toward the end. The nature of all of this, of course, means we’ll be jumping around a little in our Bibles, and so it will help you to have a copy of the Scriptures before you and if you’re able to turn to the passages as I read them, that might be of some use.
Before we dive in, I’m going to pray and then I’ll read a few verses from Psalm 119. Psalm 119, verses 41 through 48. Psalm 119:41-48, just to remind us of the power and utility of the Word of God. Before we read, let’s pray together.
Father, help us to hear Your voice in the Scriptures. Give us open and receptive hearts. Illuminate our understanding. Strengthen us for new obedience as we trust in Jesus in response to Your Word, for we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
Psalm 119 at verse 41. This is the Word of God:
“Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise; then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me, for I trust in your word. And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth, for my hope is in your rules. I will keep your law continually, forever and ever, and I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts. I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame, for I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.”
Questions About the Bible
Why Does God Command the Israelites to Drive Out the Canaanite Population?
Well let me start with two Bible questions. They both arise as a result of reading through the chronological Bible. And the first asks about the command from God to the ancient Israelites to drive out the Canaanite population from the land of Palestine. And for the similar accounts we have, for example, in the book of Joshua, where we’re told the Israelites completely destroy whole populations – is this genocide in the modern sense of the word? These are troubling passages. What do we make of these unsettling texts? It’s a really good question. Anyone who’s read their way through the Old Testament scriptures will have had to wrestle with it and we need to think it through carefully.
There are a couple of big picture principles to remember when you read commands like those or accounts of these type of Israelite actions, especially in the conquest of Canaan. First of all, we need to keep in mind that we no longer live at a time when the church and the state are the same thing. Under the Mosaic covenant, the visible church, the people of God, the body and the body politic of the nation of Israel were identical. And among other things, that meant that the people of God were called upon to execute the judgments of God in the world. So for example, in Genesis 15:16 when God told Abram that his descendants would return to what would be the land of promise, He said they would come back in the fourth generation counting, remember, people lived longer, counting about a hundred years for a generation – so 400 years later; actually that’s exactly when they did come back, just over 400 years later. And it would take this long, God said to Abram, because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” In other words, God was waiting patiently, forbearing with these pagan people in their sin. But when the time came, the nation of Israel who would descend from Abram was to become the instrument of divine justice, executed upon the Amorites for their sin.
Now today, the church and the state are no longer to be identified with one another. The church today is international – made up of people from every tribe and language and nation. And our mission is no longer geopolitical, but purely evangelistic. We do still wage holy war, don’t we, but today “we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” as Paul puts it in Ephesians chapter 6 at verse 12. So we can’t appeal to the conquest of Canaan to justify modern military action, for example. Another principle to keep in mind, and we’ve already alluded to it, is the mercy and forbearance of God. Ezekiel 18:32 says that “God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” Now as we said a moment ago, with reference to Canaan, God was working in history to bring about His judgment upon the unrepentant Amorites, but only after waiting 400 years for their repentance. Had the people repented, the nation would have been delivered. We see that, for example, in the individual case of Rahab the prostitute when God destroyed Jericho during the conquest of Canaan. She was spared because she believed in the Lord. And we see it at a national level in the case of Nineveh in response to the preaching of Jonah. Jonah, a reluctant prophet, went and preached, “Yet 40 days and the city will be destroyed,” he said. God was going to destroy them for their sin, but they repented and so God spared the city.
And a third important thing to keep in mind as you wrestle with all of that is the literary conventions that are at work in the literature that we are reading. So for example, Joshua 11:11 says that, “They totally destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed.” That sounds pretty comprehensive, doesn’t it; pretty absolute. “They totally destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed.” And yet if you read on, later you discover there were in fact survivors “that continued to live and breathe in the land.” That’s not a contradiction. The writer hasn’t forgotten himself and made a mistake. It’s an example of hyperbole, exaggeration to communicate the point that the victory of Israel was absolutely total and complete.
We do this all the time in our normal speech and the Bible is normal speech. We say, “The enemy was decimated.” We don’t necessarily mean that one in every ten was killed. We say that, “The football team destroyed their rival.” We don’t mean that they were actually obliterated from the earth. We mean that their victory in the game, in the match was overwhelming and comprehensive. And so we need to pay attention to the literary nuances and give the Bible the same sort of leeway that normal speech requires.
And then finally it’s worth remembering that the Israelite actions in the conquest of Canaan were actually not that unusual. Sometimes we think Israel is acting in an extraordinarily monstrous manner. And perhaps judged by contemporary standards it would still be shocking behavior. But it was not that unusual for the time and place in which the events took place. Deuteronomy chapter 2 verse 12 says that the people of Esau dispossessed and destroyed the Horites, in Deuteronomy 2:12, and the Ammonites dispossessed the Zamzummim in Deuteronomy 2:20-21, and the Caphtorim destroyed the Avvim in verse 23. This was the rather brutal, I’ll grant you, but common characteristic of geopolitics in the ancient Near East. This is how nations and tribes interacted and God accommodated His governance of His ancient people to the times in which they lived. There is, look, there’s so much more to this we need to go into – questions of justice and fairness – we’ve only scratched the surface of it, but I hope that’s been some help to you.
How Do We Approach Difficult Books in the Bible?
Another good question that arose from our ongoing chronological Bible readings has to do with the book of Leviticus. Let me just read the question because I think we can all relate to it. Here’s the question. “We recently read through Leviticus in our chronological readings and at places it can feel like drudgery. Is there something I am missing? How can I read through Leviticus or other challenging books in a way that is edifying? Can I learn to love it?” What a fantastic question. And it’s often one of the reasons many of us don’t make it very far when we start out reading through the Bible, isn’t it? We get to these difficult books, like Leviticus, and they seem so alien and in places a little repetitive, and we just don’t know what to make of them and so we give up and go read Mark’s gospel or the Psalms or something familiar and more easy to digest. What do you do with books like Leviticus?
Well let’s start with bigger principles first. What do you do with difficult Bible passages in general? Here, the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 1 paragraph seven is actually immensely helpful. Let me read an important principle the Westminster Confession, chapter 1 verse 7, explains to us about the nature of the Bible. We need to remember this as we read the Scriptures. It says, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.” Right? Isn’t that refreshing and honest? Some things are just difficult to grasp, either because of our distance from the culture and time in which they were written or because the concepts discussed are beyond us. Sometimes the difficulty lies with us – the limits of our understanding. Sometimes the difficulty is in the text itself. And we confess, in our confession of faith, that that is part of the nature of the Bible, the way God has organized His holy Word. That ought not to discourage us; in fact, it should encourage us to persevere and step up our determination to wrestle with the hard passages, to squeeze from them whatever spiritual juice they may have to offer us.
And then the confession adds this important clarification. It goes on to say this. “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, not alike clear unto all, yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other that not only the learned but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” Alright, so yes, some parts are harder than others – Leviticus is in the Bible! But the main things, the saving truths, the fundamentals of the good news about Jesus and of the Christian life, those are not difficult to grasp and they’re not obscure. And by using the ordinary means, that is, by the diligent study of the Scriptures on their own and especially by coming and attending to the regular exposition of the Word and the preaching of the church, Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day, we can grow in our understanding, even of the less clear parts of Scripture.
So the first part of my answer about hard books like Leviticus is to say, “Don’t despair. You’re not crazy! It is hard! But the main things are the plain things and you can know them with clarity and you can grow in your understanding, even in the difficult pieces like Leviticus, by applying patience and diligence in your study of the Word and by listening to preaching.” And let me say that actually it is a great mercy from God that we have hard books like Leviticus and Numbers and Ezekiel and Revelation in the Bible. They’re not there to trip us up or make us feel stupid. They’re there to encourage us to dig and to wrestle and to work at the Bible. We live in an instant society, don’t we? We want to open up the Bible and find a sound byte just like that that will speak immediately to our hearts. We want it to be peppy and upbeat and easy to digest and we want it right now. But God just has not given us a book like that! He’s given us a complex, interconnected collection of diverse books with different literary genres and styles and languages and emphases and concerns, with still wonderfully a single, unified, overarching, coherent message. And He did it that way so that by the diligent, careful study of the Word in all its complexity and artistry and beauty, we would begin to mature and grow.
You see, the form of the Bible and not just the content of the Bible is sanctifying. If you want to benefit from Leviticus, for the most part you won’t be able to do it in three minutes. You need to slow down. You probably need to read it through as a whole several times. It doesn’t actually take that long to do it in one or two sittings. You should have a pen in your hand. You should mark repeat phrases, then words; maybe go online and do some research. Find a commentary and ask some good questions. When is it taking place? What would all of this have meant to the ancient Israelites who were hearing it for the first time? Why is it said this way? Can I paraphrase the big idea of the passage in my own words? How does this bit I’m reading to right now fit into the book as a whole and into the message of the Bible as a whole? Look for cross references. Where does this language or even this whole verse reappear in other places in the Old and New Testaments?
And now let’s just zoom in a little bit more on Leviticus specifically. If you read the whole book a few times over and you look out for some repeat themes, you might begin to notice that there is a structure to the whole book. We tend to be very linear and, you know, plodding in the late modern West, but a lot of Biblical literature isn’t put together in a linear manner. It actually uses what are called chiasms. Think about concentric circles, like ripples in a pond. Leviticus is put together that way. So the beginning, the first seven chapters, and the last four chapters – chapters 1 through 7 and chapters 23 through 27 – are like the outer ripple in that series of concentric circles. Both sections are about rituals – worship, festivals and offerings – rituals. And then the next circle in toward the center, the next ripple, is chapters 8 through 10 and chapter 21 through 22. And they’re about priesthood. And then the next one in toward the center is chapters 11 through 15 and 17 through 22 – all about purity.
And that structure means that right in the center stands one single chapter all on its own, in the very heart, the epicenter of the book, from which all the ripples emanate. Chapter 16. What is chapter 16 of the book of Leviticus? It’s the Day of Atonement when the sin of Israel is symbolically placed upon the head of a sacrificial lamb and atonement is made for them at the altar. Now just step back for a moment and think about what that structure is teaching us about Leviticus. It’s saying purity and priesthood and worship depend on, flow from, find their significance in relation to the provision of God for the forgiveness of our sin through the sacrifice of a lamb. Actually, you could go even further and point out Leviticus is the center book in the Pentateuch, in the Torah, in the code that God gave Israel to regulate how they live to please Him. And the center of the central book of the Torah is chapter 16 – the Day of Atonement. All of life, you see, flows from, centers around, depends upon forgiveness of sin, atonement before God.
What is Leviticus really about? It’s about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, isn’t it? It’s about the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Leviticus answers the question, “How can I get clean before God? And then having been made clean, how can I live and worship and serve Him well?” And those are questions actually we all still need to wrestle with. Leviticus says to us, “Though our sins are scarlet, they can be whiter than wool.” It says, “There is a way into the presence of a holy God, but it is a bloody and grim way because our sin is wicked and damnable and the only hope we have is for a priest to make atonement for us by means of a sacrificial substitute.” Hebrews 8:5 says that the priests in the ancient tabernacle and temple only served a copy and a shadow of the heavenly things. And Hebrews 9:11-15 says when Christ appeared He went into the heavenly places, the heavenly holy place, the real thing not the copy, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of His own blood, securing eternal redemption. So that through the blood of Christ at the cross, our consciences can be made clean to serve the living and true God.
If you’re watching this, this really is the key question with which we all must wrestle tonight. How can I be right with God? Where is hope to be found? I am guilty and I need forgiveness. I am dirty and I need to be made clean. Where do I go? Only one place. There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved, but the name of Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the High Priest who makes an offering of Himself for you. He is the One who washes you clean. And we need do nothing but trust Him.
Questions about The Pandemic
Should We Gather to Worship During This Time?
Okay, so two Bible questions. Let’s move on before our time runs out. As you might imagine, we got lots of questions about dealing with the pandemic. One question had to do with rather we are right to obey the state in refraining from gathering for public worship. Some churches, you may have noticed on the television news, have defied the shelter in place orders. Others have used the exemption afforded them to gather as a congregation even though groups of ten or more have been discouraged. Are they right? Are we wrong to stay away?
Well let me start by saying that I love the impulse that says Christians need each other and we want to be together. Too often we treat gathered worship as a sort of bolt on, additional extra in our Christian lives that we can take or leave. And so I really, I’m grateful for Christians who are struggling with this question because it tells me they are taking seriously the Biblical imperatives that say we “ought not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together as some are in the habit of doing.” But let me tell you why I think it would be wrong for us to gather during this time. I’m going to point you again back to the Westminster Standards, this time to the shorter catechism’s exposition of the Ten Commandments because I think they really help us as they explain the Ten Commandments to really grasp some key principles.
Let’s start with the fourth commandment. The fourth commandment is to “Keep the Sabbath holy.” Question 60 in the shorter catechism asks, “How is the Sabbath to be sanctified?” How do you keep it holy? And it answers, “The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all the day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days, and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship” – and then here’s the key thing – “except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.” That language of “necessity and mercy” is summarizing the teaching of Jesus in the gospels. You remember how Jesus, on the Sabbath, plucked ears of grain and ate them because it was necessary; they were hungry. Or how He often healed on the Sabbath, causing great controversy. It was an act of mercy. Necessity and mercy.
Now when someone is sick with an infectious disease in the normal course of our daily lives, we would regularly tell them, “Don’t come to church. It’s an act of necessity for you and mercy for everybody else.” Well right now we’re living through a global pandemic and they spread this disease just by being together. It’s ten times more virulent than the flu and we can be asymptomatic and infectious for quite a long time apparently before you even know that you yourself are sick. And so this is one place where the government advice and the advice of the medical experts and the commandment of God come together beautifully. In these circumstances, you’re actively keeping the Sabbath holy when, out of necessity and mercy, you refrain from public worship.
That means the fifth commandment applies here too. The fifth commandment is “Honor your father and mother.” Shorter catechism 64 teaches us that it refers to honoring those who are in positions of authority, not only in the home but in every place where authority structures are to be found. And the civil magistrate, Paul calls him “God’s minister,” His servant, appointed to do us good in Romans chapter 13. The civil magistrate should be obeyed when he requires something that is consistent with or not contrary to or indifferent with regards to the Word of God. And the sixth commandment teaches us not to kill. And shorter catechism 68 says that requires all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life and the lives of others. By staying home from church, you are loving your neighbor in obedience to God. By refraining from unnecessary travel and employment, you’re keeping the sixth commandment.
Now someone might say, “Isn’t staying away from church unbelief? If God wants us to meet, we should meet and just trust Him to protect us or maybe even heal us if we get sick.” Well all I will say is that I am persuaded that the Scriptures teach us that not gathering for worship is our duty before God during this time, and to gather together anyway, despite the teaching of Scripture, is not faith; it is putting God to the test. To invoke His name when we are willfully neglecting the love of neighbor, keeping our services but neglecting deeds of necessity and mercy, is ultimately in fact to take God’s name in vain and it is, I believe, an unconscionable abuse of the pastoral teaching office when preachers and elders encourage their flocks to gather together in these hard days. Well I could go on, probably best not; you can tell I have strong feelings on the subject.
Is the Coronavirus a Judgment from God?
Another good one and then we’re done. “Is the coronavirus a judgment from God or not? Is God judging the world? Is it a wakeup call for the church? How do you read providence in this situation?” It’s always dangerous to read providence because we just don’t know. We don’t see it from God’s perfect vantage point. We’re in the middle of it and so we have to be very careful. But the Scriptures do have some things to teach us. It is clear, isn’t it, that God does in fact judge people and nations from time to time with temporal judgments in this life and not just in the life to come. Often those temporal judgments come after many warnings and are themselves warnings of a still greater, final judgment that lies ahead. I mentioned in the children’s devotional the seven trumpets in Revelation 8. You could add to that the seven bowls of God’s wrath in chapters 15 and 16, or the seven seals even in chapters 6 and 7. All of those passages are describing life, here and now, between the first and final coming of Jesus. And each one, as it unfolds, recounts a series of dreadful disasters happening in the world. That’s life until Jesus comes, and they’re all designed to call us to repentance.
So right after the seven trumpets, Revelation 9:20-21 says, “The rest of mankind who were not killed by the plagues did not repent.” Twenty-one, “They did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their theft.” Part of God’s agenda in these afflictions is to call the world to repentance, to say, “Stop living for here and now! Stop indulging your sinful nature! Repent and believe the Gospel!” Luke 13:1-5, Jesus was asked about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices; a dreadful abomination. And Jesus answered, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or the eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them. Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
So what do we do when atrocities and natural catastrophes strike? Jesus says just because someone is suffering doesn’t mean they are worse than anybody else. You can’t draw a line from any particular catastrophe to any particular sin and say, “Ah-ha! That’s the cause! That’s the reason!” Only God knows that. But you can say, “This is a temporal judgment and a warning that we should take very seriously and repent now, for there is a worse judgment yet to come.” Now there’s so much more than that even to be said in Revelation 2:10 in the letter to the church in Smyrna. Jesus tells them, “Some of you are going to be thrown in jail.” And He says that it’s designed to “strengthen, train and refine you.” It’s being done that you may be tested. And He says, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.” Part of God’s design in all of this for the church is to test and refine and purify us. Hebrews 12:7, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. He disciplines us for our good that we may share His holiness. For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later, it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Part of the nature of this trial is God’s discipline. He wants to wean us from the world, wean us from our petty sin. He wants to bring us to the end of ourselves. Have you come to the end of yourself? He wants to show you that Christ is all-sufficient for your needs. Trust in Him. Cling to Him. Flee back to Him. God is at work in us, sanctifying and training us. Well I am praying – I want you to pray with me – that God will use this time to purify His church, to wean us from the world to the things of God and to love the things of God and to love and to trust in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Pray for our neighbors and for our community that they might be led to deep, true, genuine repentance, that they might hear the trumpet sound, hear the alarm of God, and flee for refuge to Jesus Christ.
Let’s bow our heads as we pray together.
Lord our God, we acknowledge that as we wrestle with these questions there’s so much that we haven’t said and so much that we do not understand. We barely scratched the surface of mystery, the mysteries of Your providence, the complexities of Your Word, the mysteries of our own fickle hearts. We know our times are in Your hands and so we cry to You to pour out the Spirit of Christ on the Church, upon us. Have mercy on us. Help us to hate our sin more passionately now than ever and to love the Gospel more deeply than ever, to love Christ and His Church and His cause and His word and His praise. And we pray for any who may listen to this or who are watching it right now that do not know Jesus. O God, pierce their hearts. Show them that You love them in Christ but You are a just Judge and they are right now exposed to the fury of Your holy wrath. Help them, O Lord, to see the way of escape You have provided in Your loving kindness in Your Son. And grant that they may take it and flee for refuge to the Lord Jesus Christ. Hear us. Help us in the week ahead. Sustain us by Your grace and be glorified through us, for Jesus’ sake, amen.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
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