Monday, October 31, 2022

Differing Views of Baptism

The subject of Christian baptism can be a difficult discussion to have because there are a couple of different views about it and Christians do not agree. Not only do Christians disagree about baptism they also disagree about the importance of their disagreement. For some Christians baptism is closely related to conversion and becoming a Christian. To these folks, baptism is an extremely important issue on which there can be no ambiguity at all. To other Christians the discussion is not an issue on which anyone’s eternal salvation hangs, which downgrades the importance, and hopefully the intensity, of the debate.

What is the debate on baptism?

First, there is a debate about WHO should be or can be baptized. While not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, the practice of infant baptism soon became the norm in the ancient Church and was never seriously questioned until the time of the Reformation when some of the more radical members of the Protestant Movement began to argue that only believers can or should be baptized.

Secondly, there is a debate on HOW people should be baptized, or the mode of baptism. Some have sprinkled or poured water as the act of baptism. But others have pointed out that the literal meaning of the word in the New Testament is to plunge, to dip, or to immerse. Therefore, it has been argued that the true and proper mode of baptism must consist of putting the person being baptized completely under the water.

Thirdly, there is a debate about WHAT happens when a person is baptized. Some believe that a spiritual operation is accomplished at the precise moment a person is baptized. They argue that this is the specific point in time when a person is regenerated and crosses over from a state of sin to being in Christ. Others say that the precise moment in time when conversion happens is not connected to the act of baptism at all but is a mysterious operation or work of the Spirit of God.

To summarize the debate, the questions about baptism are as follows: who can be baptized, how they should be baptized, and what happens during the act of baptism.

Something that nearly all Protestants have rejected is the idea of BAPTISMAL REGENERATION. This is the idea that a person is regenerated or saved BECAUSE they have been baptized. We must reject this view simply because it cannot be supported by Scripture. Scripture clearly teaches that we are saved by or through faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. Teaching that a person is saved just because they have been baptized in water contradicts this clear and foundational doctrine of Scripture. Wherever we go from here in a discussion or debate about baptism must be based on a rejection of baptismal regeneration or there can be no Scriptural resolution to this issue. Therefore, it seems that the debate about WHAT happens when a person is baptized has been somewhat clarified. Taking a dogmatic position that a person is only regenerated at the precise moment of their baptism sounds exactly like baptismal regeneration and must therefore be rejected as unscriptural.

But the two other questions about baptism remain. And within Protestantism there are two models for Christian baptism that have developed. Some Protestants still baptize infants based on a Covenantal understanding of Scripture. Other Protestants have adopted the practice of believer’s baptism.

Let’s look briefly at each model of Christian baptism.

Those who baptize infants argue that in the covenant God made with Abraham, which was carried over into the Law of Moses, the sign of the covenant, which was circumcision, was done to infant males. The sign of the New Covenant is baptism, which the apostle Paul clearly equates with the practice of circumcision (See Colossians 2.11-12). So, some Christian thinkers have reasoned like this: if the original sign of the covenant (circumcision) was done to infants, then the newer sign of the covenant (baptism) can also be administered to infants. Of course, this is all done on the assumption that the infant is going to be raised within the Covenant Community, which today is the Church, by believing parents. At some point in the future the child who was baptized as an infant can make his or her own profession of faith.

Those who practice believer’s baptism argue that only believers who consciously and willingly profess faith in Christ should be baptized, which is something an infant obviously cannot do. Furthermore, they argue, there are no explicit, concrete examples of infants being baptized in the New Testament Scripture. Therefore, the practice must have just developed as a tradition later in the Church. Those who practice believer’s baptism typically argue that their position has the most Biblical support, while infant baptism must just be a tradition of the Church.

Today it is typical for Christians who practice one or the other model of baptism to still accept those who practice the other type of baptism. This is because the issue is not deciding anyone’s salvation. Therefore, we can allow for a difference of opinion and of practice. In the Evangelical community there is consensus around the content of the Gospel message and salvation through faith in Jesus with allowance for differences on baptism. This, it seems to me, is the right way to view the entire discussion about baptism.

On an individual basis, each person is free to adopt one position over the other while extending grace and charity to those who take the opposite position. Churches may choose to practice only believer’s baptism, while still accepting those who were baptized as infants. And Churches that practice infant baptism should be willing to baptize adults who profess faith in Christ but were not baptized as infants.

There is one final issue: the practice of baptizing adults who profess faith but who have already been baptized as infants. This can be a complex and sensitive issue that almost deserves another article. However, I will briefly explain my own position here as I conclude. In my view, a person who was baptized as an infant should not be required to be baptized again as an adult. And the Church should make it very clear to these folks that their right standing with God is based on their faith in the finished work of Christ and not on their baptism. Those whose conscience is weak on this issue, and who may be requesting to be baptized again, need to be taken directly to the Gospel as the only true basis for Christian assurance.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Thought for the Day: Preaching

 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10.14-15)

When we hear the word “preaching” we mostly think of an activity that takes place in Church when a someone stands up in front of the congregation and delivers a sermon. And to be sure, that is preaching in the formal sense. Christians have long recognized that the public preaching of the Gospel must be a regular part of the ministry and worship of the Church. In most Churches, especially those who stand in the stream of the Protestant Reformation, the sermon is the central act of worship and the main reason for the Church gathering on Sundays.

A sermon in a Church is usually based on a passage of Scripture and contains some teaching elements or instruction as well as exhortation. Most of the people who hear these sermons are already Christians. The sermon is meant to encourage these believers and confirm and strengthen their faith and commitment to Christ.

The word “preach” means to announce or declare, much like the ancient town crier who went through the streets proclaiming the king’s edict to the people. In modern life, reporters who give the news are doing a kind of preaching in that they are declaring certain facts or events. The Christian preacher is declaring certain facts as well. The Christian message, or Gospel, is based on facts and on events. The preacher is not just giving ideas like a philosopher. Preaching is giving a report about what God has said or done, specifically, what God has revealed through His Son, Jesus. Preaching is the good news about Jesus and the offer of salvation in through faith in Jesus.

This all seems rather simple, and perhaps even obvious. But the Church often fails to understand the importance and centrality of the act of preaching the message about Jesus. Most people think of the work of the Church as multi-dimensional, with preaching the Gospel just being one aspect of Christian ministry. But the New Testament places a tremendous weight and emphasis on the act of communicating the message of Christ. This is not just one of the many things the Church is to be doing, it is the one, central thing that the Church must do. The only way people will be able to come to saving faith in Christ is by this message being proclaimed. How can someone believe a message they have never heard? The Church exists to bring people into a saving relationship with Jesus. The only way this can happen is if people hear about Jesus. And the only way people will hear about Jesus is through preaching. There is a sense in which the whole reason for the Church is preaching.

There are people who devote their lives to the regular, systematic preaching in the public worship of the Church. These are people the Church recognizes and sets aside as leaders who are called for this task of preaching. But preaching in this formal sense is by no means the only form preaching can take. Any communication of the message of Christ is preaching. This may happen in Church before a gathered congregation, or it may happen in someone’s home in an informal conversation. In another sense the written word could be called preaching because writing is another way of communicating the truth of the Gospel.

My point is that the communication of the Gospel should be the main work of every Church and even of every Christian, even those not ordained to a preaching ministry. All of God’s people can carry the message of Christ to anyone they can who is willing to listen.  Those who hear and believe that message will be saved.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Thought for the Day: Meditation

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success" (Joshua 1.8).

You have probably heard about meditation in a secular context. Many people in our country have been exposed to the idea of meditation as a relaxation method or as a way to focus the mind. Some religions, like Buddhism, also teach their adherents to meditate. The practice of meditation in this context usually involves clearing the mind of all thought. The point is to silence the thoughts and experience a rest from all of the busyness of modern life. 

Meditation is also a Biblical practice and is one of the spiritual disciplines that Christians have used for centuries. But the Christian practice is very different from the secular method or the teachings of Eastern religions like Buddhism. 

The whole point of Biblical meditation is to FILL the mind, not to empty the mind. To meditate is to think, to reflect, and to do so in a deep and sustained manner. The mind should be filled with the Word of God, which is the content of the thought and sustained meditation.

Setting aside time to meditate on the Word of God ranks very highly among other common spiritual disciplines, like prayer, Scripture reading, and fasting. Reading the Word of God in Scripture has often been compared to the physical act of eating. The body needs food. The food of the soul is the Word of God. If we stay with that metaphor of eating, meditation is like digestion. Our physical bodies take care of the digestion of food without our minds having to think consciously. But spiritual digestion is different. The mind does not stop working after reading the Word of God. There must be some meditation or digestion. 

Let me give you an example of what meditation looks like. When we read the Scriptures we often come across things that are new, strange, or even mysterious to our minds. Meditation is an attempt to understand what God has said. When we meditate on what we have read in Scripture, our minds can begin to clarify things and we also allow for the work of the Holy Spirit, who illuminates our minds and helps us understand the written Word. The second part of meditation involves the application of the Scriptures. It is common for preachers and teachers to attempt to apply the Word of God to the lives of their hearers. But everyone who reads Scripture should be asking how the Word of God can be applied to life. We must ask questions when we read Scripture and meditate to formulate answers to questions like "what is there in this passage that I need to obey?" 

Spiritual growth involves time and some discipline, just like anything else we accomplish in life. We have help from the Holy Spirit, but we still have to put in the effort to read, study, and meditate on the Word of God. This is not just the job of preachers and teachers in the Church. Every believer should be setting aside time to meditate and think deeply about the things of God. I can think of nothing else that is so vital to spiritual life as this simple discipline. 

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that does not value thought at all. Most people run on their feelings rather than on sustained thought and reflection. And because of media we are in the habit of shutting down our minds down and just entertaining ourselves. 

There is nothing wrong with times of relaxation and rest. In fact, this is also a spiritual discipline. But periods of rest are for the purpose of refreshing ourselves so that we can return to our real occupation. The main occupation of a child of God is to know God through His word. This involves taking time to meditate and fill our minds with Divine truth.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Thought for the Day: What do Christians Believe?

 The whole subject of Christian doctrine or theology can be a sensitive and divisive one. There are different denominations of Christians who believe different things about what the Bible is teaching. Some of these differences are so stark, it is not even possible for these Churches to be in fellowship with one another. Therefore, we have different denominations. Sometimes the differences are still there, but the disagreement may only be over shades of meaning or areas of doctrine that are deemed non-essential to the Faith.

There is so much disagreement, and so many differences, that some have recommended minimizing doctrine and theology to remove the basis for the division and bring the Churches together without adherence to creeds or confessions. I came from a Christian tradition that was very much in favor of doing away with all man-made creeds and confessions and just getting back to what the Bible teaches.

This sounds very noble on the surface but is much more complicated in practice! The fact remains that, even without all the historic creeds and confessions of the Church, we all still have our interpretation of what the Bible is saying and what it means for today. We still have creeds and confessions, even if these are not historic or written down.

And so, the problem remains. What should Christians believe? Is there a single body or list of doctrines that all Christians everywhere must adhere to, to be called "Christian"? What are those areas that we may deem "non-essential" or open for debate and opinion? I think C.S. Lewis was right when he observed that Christians not only disagree with one another, they also disagree with one another over the importance of their disagreements!

I cannot claim to have all the answers to these debates, all of which go back to the very beginnings of the Church. However, I think there is one essential guide that can keep us from going completely off the beaten path in our doctrine.

The first guide to doctrine is to make Jesus the heart or the center of everything. In other words, the thing that really makes Christian doctrine unique and vital is who Jesus is and what He said and what He did. Therefore, it becomes critical that we know who Jesus is. What does the New Testament say about Him? We must be very particular about these points.

Do Christians believe that Jesus is just a good teacher, or another example of a Prophet sent from God? Is it critical for Christians to believe that Jesus is the Son of God? And what about Jesus’ death on the cross? Why did Jesus die on the cross? Was He the victim of a tragedy of human injustice and prejudice only? Or did Jesus die according to a Divine purpose? Was Jesus’ death just a symbol of Divine love, or did Jesus die as a substitute for sinners? And what happened in the resurrection? Do Christians believe in a literal, physical resurrection of Jesus? Was the grave really empty on the third day? And will Jesus come again? What do we mean when we say that He will “come” again?

How we answer these questions, it seems to me, is critical to our understanding of what Christianity is. Therefore, these things are essential. Jesus is Christianity. Therefore, our doctrine about Christ must be sound and must be something that all Christians everywhere can adhere to without compromise. 

All Christians everywhere have believed that Jesus is the Divine Son of God, that He died as a substitutionary atonement for sinners, and that He was physically raised from the dead and will physically return to the earth at the end of history in great power and glory. These great doctrines must be the foundation of Christian faith that binds all believers together in a common faith and confession. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Thought for the Day: Mount Sinai Religion

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up (Exodus 19.16-20).

The Mount Sinai experience was a frightening one for Israel. They were warned not to approach the fiery mountain, or they would die, but I cannot see why anyone would have wanted to approach such a sight! 

Mount Sinai was what we sometimes call a Theophany, or an appearance of God. Obviously, a complete revelation of God's glory would have been devastating. Sinai was just a little glimpse of God's awesome presence appearing for the people to see so that they might come to fear God and obey His word.

It was on Mount Sinai that God gave Moses the Law, having been written in stone by God Himself. The ten commandments were God's famous synopsis of the covenant He was making with Israel there, having brought them out of slavery in Egypt. Israel was going to inherit the land of Canaan, as God had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They were to be God's holy people, called out from among all other nations of the earth. They had a special relationship with God and that is why God appeared to them on Sinai and spoke directly to them there.

The experience of Sinai was a depiction of God's relationship to Israel. They were His people, yet they were kept at a distance. They were given His commandments, yet God knew they were rebellious and would break the covenant. They wasted no time in doing this, making a golden calf to worship at the very base of the holy mountain of God!

The distance that was kept between God and Israel, and the rebellious hearts of the people of Israel, were the major characteristics of that Old Covenant made at Mount Sinai. The people were never allowed to come near to the presence of God. An elaborate system of sacrifices and cleansing was instituted in the Levitical priesthood, which made at least a partial Divine presence with the people possible. And the hearts of the people remained stubborn and disobedient to God.

But God promised that this would not always be the case. Through the Prophets God sent to Israel later in her history, God predicted that a New Covenant would be established that would be very different from the one made at Sinai (See Jeremiah 31.31-34). The blessings of this New Covenant would include an inner transformation of the heart and a permanent solution for the people's sin.

This New Covenant has been made through Jesus Christ!

God's people no longer must remain at a distance from God but are invited into His presence. The days of a Mount Sinai religion are over and done! We now have boldness to enter even the Holy of Holies through the blood of Jesus. 

Of course, it is still possible for people to have a Mount Sinai kind of religion. There are still religious people who remain alienated from God and basically rebellious in their hearts toward the Word of God. But wherever the Gospel of Christ is preached and is believed, there is freedom from the Mount Sinai experience of God. 

May all believers take full advantage of our access to God through Jesus Christ and draw near to God with the full assurance of faith!

Pastor Jason

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Theology From 30,000 Feet : Lesson 3

Revelation to the Patriarchs

The first eleven chapters of Genesis is the prologue to the story of Scripture. All the main issues that the story of the Bible will address are mentioned or illustrated in some form in this first stage of revelation. The world that God made has fallen into sin and rebellion. At Babel God came down to pronounce a judgement on the plans of sinful humanity. The people are confused and scattered. The focus then shifts significantly. All the attention of the Biblical narrative will be on the line of Shem, one of Noah’s sons. From that line comes a man named Abram. God chooses to work exclusively with this man and his offspring. The rest of the book of Genesis will tell the story of Abraham’s family lineage. Genesis 1-11 is the prologue. The Patriarchs are the first act in the drama. “The great theme of these chapters will be the promised seed or posterity, and, to a lesser extent, the promised land, to which the little group clings tenaciously and in the final chapters looks back in the certainty of return” (Derek Kidner).
In Babel we see the culmination of human sin and rebellion against God, which results in judgement. In Abraham and his family, we will see the beginning of God’s plan of redemption. Abraham is God’s answer to all the problems in Genesis 1-11. We have already seen something like a new beginning with Noah and his family after the flood. God saved Noah and his family on the Ark. They lived to see a new world after the Flood receded, and God made a covenant that He would never again destroy the earth like that. There was a fresh start for the world after the flood and the earth would again be populated by human beings. However, God had not yet dealt with the problem of sin and the rise of the tower of Babel illustrated that fact. It was only after the judgement at Babel that God began to work His plan of redemption. In Genesis chapters 1 through 11 we see what sin had done to the world. Now we will see what God will do about sin. Everything about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is an answer to the problem of sin. If the theme of the first section of Genesis was sin and its effects, the theme of this next period of Biblical revelation is the introduction of the plan of redemption. “The events at this stage were closely interwoven with the carrying out of the plan of redemption. They led to the election and separate training of one race and one people” (Geerhardus Vos).
There is no way to overstate the importance of the Patriarchs and what God revealed to them. In Abraham, Isaac and Jacob we see the beginning of a nation that was created and chosen by God Himself. There has never been another nation like Israel. It is through this nation that came from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that God would bring redemption to the world and fulfill His promise in Eden to destroy the Devil’s work through a human agent (Gen. 3.15). The plan of redemption has some rather humble and strange beginnings. But God was in control of the story. Redemption is a Divine initiative and will not at all rely on human strength or wisdom. In fact, one of the great themes in the lives of the Patriarchs is that God’s plan will continue to advance and be successful even when presented with instance after instance of human frailty. What we discover by learning about the Patriarchs that redemption comes by Divine grace and not human initiative. Grace is Divine initiative and that is the only reason the people of Israel even existed. Israel is a work of God’s grace.
God called Abram out of a pagan civilization and made a tremendous promise to him. This promise was then repeated to Isaac, who was himself part of the fulfillment of that promise. Jacob was then chosen to be the heir of the promise of God. The Divine promise that these men received directly from God is the heart of this entire epoch of Divine revelation. God will be known by the promise He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Because the Bible is a historical revelation of God to real people, we will begin by considering some of the background of the ancient world in which Abraham lived. Then we will give an overview of the lives of the Patriarchs and the major events in which God was working with them. Then we can look at the revelation that came to them and through them that is recorded in Scripture for us so that we can understand how God was bringing redemption. The revelations given during the Patriarchal period reverberate through the rest of the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Even though these men lived at the very dawn of recorded history, we will find that we have much in common with them, especially since their God is also our God.

The Ancient World

Modern scholarship has questioned the historicity of the Patriarchal narratives. But the accounts do not read like mythology. This is the history of a People. This is the history of God’s plan of redemption. If the Patriarchs were not real people, then redemption is not real. Abraham was born in a part of the ancient world we know as the Fertile Crescent. This included lands that followed a path along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and then down through Israel along the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt. (This ancient land includes parts of modern Iran, Iraq, and Syria.) The crescent shaped section of land is also known as the Cradle of Civilization. Abraham was from an ancient city called Ur, which was one of the cities of Sumer. Sumer was the first great civilization in history and is usually credited with creating the first written language. The great Ziggurat of Ur was probably modeled after the tower of Babel itself, and its ruins can still be seen today. The city of Ur was devoted to the worship of the moon and there is every reason to think that before he came to know the true God, Abram himself probably worshiped the moon god or some of the other nature-deities that the pagans of Mesopotamia dedicated their civilization to.
The ancient Sumerians passed away, but other powers soon took control of that important region including such famous kingdoms as Assyria, Babylon, Media-Persia, and the Hittites. Because of modern archaeology we now know much more about these ancient civilizations that are mentioned in Scripture. One of the most famous of these ancient empires produced the first written law code known as the Code of Hammurabi after the ruler of the ancient Babylonians who wrote it down on clay tablets. The ancient Babylonians also produced written stories about the creation of the world by the gods and a great flood that once destroyed the world. These were not the Neanderthal men of modern scientific theory, hiding in a cave trying to make a spark for his fire. These ancient kingdoms built mighty cities with high walls and temples to their patron deities. They developed economic systems, practiced agriculture, procured wealth in silver and gold, and fielded armies. These ancient civilizations had developed everything that was needed for an organized and ordered society, and are still necessary today, complete with political systems and religious places of worship. The architecture was different, and the technology was perhaps crude, but the cities of Mesopotamia had all the basic elements of the great cities of the world today.
There was a constant fear, however, of natural disasters and warfare with other city-states. The religion of the ancient world was designed to keep the cycles of the natural world running smoothly so that crops could be harvested, and babies would be born. The city-states worshiped a patron deity who protected them and gave them victory in combat. Idolatry was at the heart of these ancient civilizations. The city of Ur when Abram was from could be compared to a New York, a London, or a Tokyo with all of the wealth, power, technology, and pagan idolatry that the cities of earth are known to have and have always been known to have since the very beginning of recorded history.
Abram was born at the dawn of history and civilization, but his life would be very different from what characterized the great cities of the Fertile Crescent. Abraham had a calling and a purpose that was very different from the meaningless cycles of nature-worship. But God first called Abram to leave civilization behind, along with all its security. The call of God was radical and demanding. God wanted Abram to be separate from that pagan culture because there would be a lengthy period of Divine instruction and God wanted the chosen family to be removed from the influences of that world. Abraham and the people who came from him would have to be radically different from other peoples and nations. At that time this required a physical and geographical separation. Abraham and his family would be strangers, wanderers, and misfits on earth. In Israel a new kind of nation would rise. Abraham and his people were not to be like Sumer, Babylon, or any of the other nations they would later encounter in Canaan. The separateness and the uniqueness of Israel is one of the central themes of the Old Testament. It began with Abram being called out of Ur to go live in the comparatively uncivilized backwater known as Canaan.
It should not surprise us that God would work that way with Abram and his family. God was going to work redemption without the help of human ingenuity. God is not against civilization, or man creatively using creation, but human civilization is not going to contribute anything to the plan of redemption. Civilization also needs to be redeemed and can therefore contribute nothing to redemption. Mankind tends to rely on civilization to provide something like redemption. Civilization can become an idol and a replacement for reliance on God. Abram must be different. He must learn to rely on God alone and so he must leave Ur. Babel is man on his own, setting his own agenda and goals. Abraham is the opposite of that lifestyle. Oddly enough, God promises to give Abraham what the people at Babel were seeking for themselves apart from God.
When the plan of redemption becomes full-grown, God will send His people into all the world as His witnesses. The cities of the world would become places for evangelism where people would be turned from idols to the living God. But at the very root or beginning of redemption, God had to get Abram out of Ur. There could be no doubt that Abram belonged to God and not to Ur and its patron moon-god. God was going to become the dominant Mover in Abram’s life and there could be no rivals or distractions. The only explanation for the lives of Abraham and his family would be God. Israel would become a people completely devoted to their God in every area of life. This training would begin in the lives of the Patriarchs.

The Lives of the Patriarchs

The Patriarchs are not in the Bible because they are paragons of virtue. We always seem to make the mistake of moralizing characters in the Bible, as if the Bible is a kind of moral handbook. But the Bible is the story of redemption, not a guide to morality. The characters in the Bible are part of God’s redemption story. However, we do see that walking with God has an impact on the character of people. This is especially apparent in the lives of the Patriarchs. They are not accepted because they are moral, but as they walk with God their character is changed and their faith grows. Grace is not given because of inherent character traits, but grace does produce certain character traits in those God is redeeming. Those who are called by God are shaped into the kind of people who can carry the Promise of God forward in the world.
Most people who read the stories of the Patriarchs are struck by many strange customs that the Bible does not explain. Archaeology has uncovered that many of the unusual customs in the stories was not at all unusual in that time. For example, Abraham’s fear that the Egyptian Pharaoh would take Sarah from him was founded in a real custom that was practiced when all-powerful monarchs wanted to add to their harems. It is now known the custom of circumcision was practiced by many of the ancient peoples. However, God changed the meaning of it when giving the command to Abraham. Many of the strange cultural practices mentioned in the text are somehow either changed, overturned, or set in contrast to the promises of God. For example, it was common for the eldest son to be the heir. But God Himself overturns this practice with Jacob and Esau. It was common for a barren wife to give her husband a servant girl in order to produce a child. But for Sarah to demand that Abraham then get rid of Hagar and her son, Ishmael, when against the social laws of that time. But God approves of Sarah’s wishes and there are some important theological reasons for it. All these examples show us that God’s promise tends to nullify or overturn the cultural norms. Redemption is going to be accomplished on God’s terms and in a way that glorifies His grace.               
The most important revelation given to Abraham is the promise of God (Genesis 12.1-3). It is important to notice that the blessing that would come through Abraham is for the whole world, even though at that time God was dealing specifically with Abraham and his posterity. There are two parts of this promise that create problems in the narrative. The first problem is that of descendants. Abraham and Sarah have passed the natural time of childbearing, yet they are promised many descendants. How will God fulfill this promise? Throughout the story of the patriarchs there seem to be constant obstacles that threaten to derail the promise of God. For Abraham, years go by and there is no child. The other part of the promise that is problematic is the possession of the land of Canaan. This promise is also delayed and will never be fulfilled in the lifetimes of Abraham or Isaac and Jacob. They must all live by faith in the promise of God while living like nomadic immigrants in the land. Abraham must buy a piece of land to bury his dead wife. This was the only plot of ground that any of the Patriarchs owned in Canaan.
In Abraham’s life the issue of having a child is the major concern in the narrative. Abraham assumes that his heir will be his head servant, which was another custom that was common in that time. But God assured Abraham that he would have a child. To confirm this, God performs a covenant ceremony for Abraham (Gen. 15.7-21). The cutting of animals into two parts was symbolically what would happen to the party that fails to keep the covenant that was made. God Himself passes between the pieces and makes what amounts to a unilateral covenant with Abraham. There was nothing for Abraham to do. God was binding Himself to keep the stipulations of the covenant. Abraham had already believed the word of the Lord (Gen. 15.6). He was declared righteous because of his faith in God’s promise. The covenant did not require him to do anything other than trust the Lord. The cutting of the animals was a confirmation of the covenant and that God would surely do what He had said He would do for Abraham. The covenant was not about what Abraham would do for God, but what God would do for Abraham and for the rest of the world through him. The covenant of circumcision was likewise another confirmation of the covenant and of Abraham’s status before God. Circumcision represented the cutting away of the old life and being cleansed from uncleanness. People who are in relationship with God are accepted through faith. But being in covenant with God necessitates being cleansed. “Human nature is unclean and disqualified in its very source” (Geerhardus Vos).
The greatest characteristic of Abraham’s life is his faith. Faith is trusting in God Himself. Abraham believed that God was trustworthy. Everyone who is justified by faith has a faith like Father Abraham. But we should not think that faith in God was easy. And Abraham found it difficult to understand how God would fulfill His promise. At one point, Sarah and Abraham decided that God needed some help from them. So, Hagar enters the picture. Ishmael is born and Abraham wants God to use Ishmael to fulfill the promise. But Ishmael is the child of the flesh and the promise is going to be fulfilled by the power of God, not by human ability. So, Ishmael is rejected. The promise will be fulfilled through a child born to Sarah in her old age when she is past the natural age of giving birth. It is not surprising that two senior citizens laughed when they learned that they would have a child! And so, the child is named Laughter. Only God could have brought life from a barren womb because nothing is impossible with God (Gen. 18.14).
But then God tells Abraham to take Isaac and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. This is the high point of Abraham’s faith. Abraham is determined to obey God and reasons that even if he killed his son, God would still somehow be able to fulfill His promise. God provides a ram in the thicket so that Abraham does not have to offer his son. And so, the concept of God accepting a substitutionary sacrifice is introduced into the Biblical narrative. Not only will God accept a substitute, God Himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice.
After Abraham’s death the promise is repeated to Isaac (Gen. 26.1-5). Isaac’s life seems to be overshadowed by both his father Abraham and by Jacob his son. Many of the same things that happened in Abraham’s life is repeated by Isaac. For example, Isaac is fearful that the local ruler Abimelech will steal his wife. So, he lies about Rebekah just as Abraham had lied about Sarah. Isaac seems to be determined to imitate his father Abraham. But one difference with Isaac is the determination by God that Isaac must not leave the land of Canaan. God promises to take care of Isaac in the Land and Isaac obeys God. God blesses Isaac with a 100-fold harvest. And everywhere Isaac digs he finds water! Isaac seems to be the most passive of the three Patriarchs, but this is because his main character quality is submission. He cooperates with Abraham on Mt. Moriah. His father chooses his wife for him and Isaac accepts his father’s decision and loves Rebekah. When Jacob is obviously the one God has chosen, even though Isaac favored Esau, Isaac recognizes God’s choice of Jacob and Isaac accepts God’s sovereign choice.
If Isaac is the most passive Patriarch, Jacob is the most dynamic and the most complex character in the narrative. Jacob becomes the one through whom God demonstrates the principle of election. According to the cultural norm, the birthright and the Divine blessing should have done to Esau. But even before they were born, God chose Jacob. This could not have been because of Jacob’s moral superiority. However, Jacob proves to be the one who really wanted the blessing of God and would go to nearly any extreme to get it. Esau despised his birthright. Jacob is willing to deceive his elderly father to get the blessing. The theft of the blessing by Jacob seems strange to modern people. Why could Isaac not simply recognize the error and bless Esau instead? The blessing seems to be viewed like shooting an arrow from a bow. When the arrow is shot it hits what it hits. The arrow hit Jacob and Isaac just accepts this as the sovereign will of God.
Jacob must leave the land of Canaan and there is a long series of episodes in his life that serve to discipline him and form his character. As Jacob is leaving the land of Canaan, he sees a vision of a ladder reaching to heaven. The Promise of God is repeated to Jacob (Gen. 28.10-15). The angels going up the ladder carry Jacob’s desires and prayers to God. The angels coming down the ladder bring God’s blessing and care down to Jacob (Geerhardus Vos). An important thing to notice is that God will go with Jacob to bless him even though he is leaving the land of Canaan. God’s presence is not limited to Canaan but can go anywhere because God is the true God and is not limited by geography.
Jacob has nothing when he arrives at his uncle Laban’s house. Laban manipulates and tricks Jacob just as Jacob had done to his brother and father. But even while Jacob is serving Laban, God blesses him, and Jacob grows wealthy at Laban’s expense. Jacob finally leaves Laban and returns to Canaan with God’s blessing, but Jacob fears meeting his brother Esau. The night before that meeting, Jacob wrestles with a man. As Jacob has always demonstrated, he is willing to fight for the blessing of God. Jacob’s struggle pays off. His name is changed to Israel as a result. A name represented the character of the person. Jacob’s character has been changed through a series of hardships. Jacob has the blessing of God, but also a limp because of his suffering and discipline at the hands of God. Jacob represents personal transformation. Jacob does not begin as a virtuous person. But God’s grace overcomes sin and transforms human nature. “Grace is the source of noble character” (Geerhardus Vos). A person who is in covenant with God will not remain the same.
Jacob’s 12 sons are the beginnings of the tribes of Israel. One of those sons, the firstborn of the favored wife Rachael, is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. But by putting Joseph in Egypt, God is planning to save the chosen family from a famine and to also set the stage for the next stage of redemptive history. The chosen family goes down into Egypt with the understanding that they will return to the land of Canaan eventually. Both Jacob and Joseph give instructions to be buried in Canaan because of their faith in the promise of God. Egypt will serve as the nursery of Israel where a family will become a nation.

The Uniqueness of Israel 

Even secular historians must admit the uniqueness of Israel. Today we can study the history of the Canaanites, the Babylonians, Assyrians, or Hittites. But these nations are just the curiosities of antiquity, like exhibits in a museum. Not so with the people of Israel. No other group of people have had such an impact on the history of the world. Their religion is unlike any other to arise out of the ancient world. The only reasonable explanation for this fact is supernatural revelation (Geerhardus Vos). God is the only logical explanation for Israel. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the true God. When we come to know the true God, we come to know Him through the people of Israel and what God revealed to them. The period of the Patriarchs shows us the uniqueness of God’s chosen people. There has never been another group of people to whom God made Himself known so personally. Patriarchal history is the beginning of redemptive history. God is the main actor in the narrative. Through what God revealed to the Patriarchs we come to know the true God and we come to understand what God is doing in the world. If redemption in the Bible is like a growing tree, then the revelation of God to the Patriarchs is the root of that tree.
Israel had a unique election. The procedure of redemption involved election. We cannot deny that God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To be sure, their specific election was for the purpose of a universal blessing. But we cannot help but see that God made choices about whom He would work with a through to bring about His plan of redemption. And God has the right to so choose. Objecting to God’s choice is objecting to God as God. This is how God chose to redeem the world. How can those who are being redeemed have any objection as to the method of their redemption? Modern man glories in his ability to choose and to formulate his own meaning and destiny. This was exactly the sin of Babel and is still with us today. It is God’s choice that redeems. Election serves to point out that the source of redemption is God’s initiative, not ours. The Patriarchs were not elected because of moral superiority. They were elected according to grace. The doctrine of election expounds the doctrine of grace. Human initiative is always sinful and opposed to the will of God. It was human initiative that ruined everything. It is God’s initiative that redeems everything. This explains how God’s purpose of redemption can continue to move forward even when the human actors fail. The promise and purpose of God simply does not depend on human achievement.
Israel was given unique promises. The repetition of Divine promise and blessing is central to the whole Patriarchal narrative. After God’s initial calling of Abram, the Divine promise is repeated several times to each Patriarch (See Gen. 13.14-17; 14.4-5; 15.7-21; 17.1-8, 15-16; 22.15-18; 26.1-5; 26.24; 28.10-15; 35.9-12). The promise is that God will bless. Today this is a word that has probably lost much of its theological force. We use the word “bless” or “blessing” much too casually. By it we usually mean that something good will come our way. But in Scripture the Divine blessing is much stronger than just a general kind of well-being. In the Patriarchal narrative, the Divine blessing is nothing less that God’s determination to reverse the effects of sin and the inevitable judgement that comes because of sin. The opposite of blessing is a curse, which is the awful wrath of God. The blessing that God promised through Abraham is the blessing of redemption and being restored to a right relationship with God. There is much more to this blessing that enjoying life here and now. This blessing extends into the gift of eternal life and a place with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the eternal Kingdom of God which will culminate in the New Creation at the end of time. People who would reduce the blessing of God promise to Abraham to a prosperity message of health and wealth in this present life do not understand even the first thing about the Biblical revelation.
Finally, Israel had a unique faith. That fact that Abraham believed God and righteousness was credited to him based on that faith, is surely one of the most revolutionary revelations in the Bible. Everyone who trusts God like Abraham can be called a child of Abraham, even Gentiles who believe. In fact, the only kind of faith that justifies is Abraham’s kind of faith. Abraham’s faith was in God and His ability to fulfill His promises no matter what the obstacle. The primary name of God revealed in the Patriarchal narrative is El-Shaddai, or the all-powerful God. This is because the power of God can overpower even nature and compel it to serve God’s designs (Geerhardus Vos). Abraham put his trust in the power of God, even when all rational human explanations were void. Faith means personal trust in a personal God. Faith does not rest in what we can prove to be so but is resting in the fact that God has declared it to be so. This meant that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could continue to trust in God Himself, even when they did not yet have or even see the things that God had promised them. God’s word was enough for them. His character was solid, dependable, and unchanging. God could be relied upon to come through for them. This trust also enabled them to do some radical and amazing things, because they knew God was behind every factor and had already planned for every contingency in their lives. Even as they went down in the land of Egypt to sojourn there, they knew that God was still with them and would bring them back to the land he had promised to give them.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Theology from 30,000 Feet: Lesson #2

Revelation in the Beginning

The basic approach to Biblical Theology is to see the whole Bible as a progressive, unfolding revelation of God that is structured like a narrative or story. We can understand the entire Bible as God’s revelation of Himself. This revelation did not come all at one time or just to one person. Rather, there was a gradual unfolding of God’s revelation taking place at various times and in various ways (Hebrews 1.1-2). We can trace some of the epochal periods of God’s revelation of Himself within human history. There are several critical periods of revelation in which God was opening His will and His plan for the world. Not all periods of revelation were the same. God does not change, but how He speaks and what He reveals to mankind is somewhat different during each epoch of revelation history.
The first stage of God’s revelation is found in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. The human condition is described in vivid detail in these chapters. By understanding how the world began, we begin to understand the world today because the principles are universal. “The question of where we come from and where we are going is one of the elementary challenges of life. Perhaps it is THE question of life. Only when we get an answer to it do we learn who we are” (Helmut Thielicke). The first eleven chapters of the Bible contain the account of creation, the account of what happened in the Garden of Eden, and then the aftermath.

Creation and the Creator

The first two chapters of the Bible are the account of creation. The main feature of this account is the glory and goodness of God. God speaks the world into existence out of nothing. God creates the raw materials and then He begins to build a world. He brings light where there was only darkness. He sets the cycles of day and night. He fills the earth with plants and animals.
He then pronounces it good. Creation is rich and beautiful. At the center of that world is the very presence of God Himself. The Bible teaches that everything begins with God and life has meaning only with God Himself as the central consideration. This picture of God in Genesis directly contradicts the mythologies of the ancient pagans whose deities cared little for mankind. The ancient pagans also worshiped creation instead of the Creator. The creation account in Genesis is a case against idolatry in all its forms, both ancient and modern. The central claim of the Bible is that there is one God who created everything and who is the only proper object of our worship and devotion. Creation is the foundation of all Biblical revelation.
Genesis contradicts the secular materialism and atheism of the modern world. The secularists understand the implications of the creation account in Genesis and have done much to try to discredit and dismiss it, often in the name of science. Christians need to understand that behind all the talk about science and the theory of evolution is an agenda to remove God. Modern secularism does not need or want a God to exist. The materialists reject any supernatural explanation for the world. God has been removed from the secular worldview so other explanations for the world must be found, such as evolution. Secularists see their worldview as a rather liberating thing. If there is no God, then there can be no overarching meaning to life that everyone is bound to accept. This means that we are free to create our own meaning. The idea of creating one’s own life and finding meaning for yourself, apart from any outside influence, is a major theme in modern life. The freedom to choose one’s own destiny is the most precious idea to modern people and anything that threatens this autonomy and freedom is considered dangerous.
The first two humans are placed in a beautiful garden. Everything they need is provided for them abundantly. Man is made in the image of God. This means that he is God’s steward who is to rule the earth for God and under the authority of God. The image of God means that man is on the earth to represent God’s rule on earth just as God rules in Heaven. And mankind is blessed with all the mental and creative capacity to govern the creation. But the Creator is never far away, and He even walks with the man and the woman in Eden in some anthropological form. Man was not created to be a slave of God, as in the pagan myths, but sort of like a partner. Man was to care for the creation and develop it or cultivate it. The resources are abundant. The natural world is like a beautiful gift that is ready to be opened and explored. The creation was meant to be used but not abused by mankind. The very first job was tending the Garden of Eden. Work was not a curse but was a part of God’s original design for human life on earth. Just as God had exerted His will in creating the world, mankind was free to take what God had made and form new things out of it. God provided the raw materials for creating human culture and civilization. There is no indication in Scripture that life in Eden was meant to be the final state of the world. God clearly expected mankind to develop the world. The creation is filled with potential. Human history is to be the development of creation’s possibilities with mankind taking the initiative. The world is like a stage that is now ready for a story to be told and a drama to begin.

The Garden of Eden

The account of the Garden of Eden follows creation (Genesis 2.4-3.24). Geerhardus Vos summarizes the revelation of God in the Garden of Eden in four principles: 1. The Principle of Life, 2. The Principle of Probation, 3. The Principle of Temptation, 4. The Principle of Death.
1. The Principle of Life. Although mankind already had a biological kind of life by virtue of his creation, there was a higher quality of life experienced in Eden. This higher life was fellowship with God. The Tree of Life was a real tree. But it pointed beyond itself to a higher reality. Having access to this Tree was a sign of their access to God. They walked with God. The Garden of Eden was a Temple for Divine fellowship. This Divine fellowship is eternal life. Eternal life meant more than just never dying. Having eternal life meant being in fellowship with God. A person who has fellowship with God cannot die.
2. The Principle of Temptation. At this point in history God did not reveal anything about the nature or origins of the Serpent. But we know the Serpent’s nature and intent and that is enough. He is there to tempt the man and the woman away from God. The Tempter is right there to encourage them to throw off the fetters of God. He is crafty, subtle, deceptive. He just wants to have a discussion. But as soon as he starts to speak, he begins to lie. The serpent lies about God. His strategy is to drive a wedge between man and God, creating alienation and even hostility. To accomplish this the serpent makes Eve doubt the goodness of God. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Eve begins to doubt the goodness of God. Why would a good God withhold something good from them? The forbidden fruit certainly looked good. It promised wisdom. And it would make them like God. Was God a cosmic killjoy who just wanted to dangle these good things in front of their eyes while denying them the full experience? At some point she begins to believe that their lives would be better without God interfering with His selfish and pointless commands. The original temptation was for man to become as God rather than accepting his place as a creature.
3. The Principle of Probation. Man’s probation, or a period of testing and evaluation, had to do with the choice he was given either to remain in fellowship with God or take his own path away from God. This choice is symbolized in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of Life is fellowship with God. But there is another way that mankind can choose to go. We should notice that God’s command not to eat from that other tree was completely arbitrary. In other words, God had to give them a command that had no other reason behind it other than God Himself. They were to obey God’s command just because it was God. God defines the meaning of life. One of the great errors of the modern world is thinking that we get to define what life is all about. We think we get to decide for ourselves what good and evil means. But it is not so. God was using that tree to create a moral arena. The forbidden fruit was something other than God and His will which created a crisis of choice. Every time they saw that tree, they would have to make a choice between God and something else. The tree was an objectification of a moral decision. What was at stake was their fellowship with God. They could choose uninterrupted fellowship with the Creator or go their own way. Life is like a road which suddenly diverges, making us choose a path. Somehow people manage to convince themselves that every road is good and eventually leads to the same place in the end. That there is a real choice between good and evil is a rather unpopular notion.
4. The Principle of Death. When mankind chose his own path, there was an immediate alienation from God which resulted in his spiritual and eventual physical death as well as expulsion from Eden. Oddly enough, the Serpent seemed to be right. They did not immediately fall over dead. But the process of death had entered the world. Even the creation itself was affected by mankind’s sin. Death is a separation of man from God. There is no option where we can enjoy all the blessings of God without God Himself, though this has perennially been what fallen man has sought. We can be free from obeying God, but there is a price for this freedom. Death should not be viewed as a punishment, but as the inevitable result of being separated from God. We are creatures. We depend on God. Breaking that relationship is a matter of life and death.
After they ate from the forbidden tree, they experienced shame and alienation from God. There is nothing in the account that states they were ashamed in each other’s presence. Their nakedness does not seem to just be sexual embarrassment. They are ashamed to be seen by God. Their nakedness is a new awareness of themselves in the presence of God. They do not feel adequate to stand before God. The relationship with God was instantly changed. They were now afraid of God. They tried to cover themselves. They no longer wanted to be in fellowship with God. There are any number of ways we can try to avoid God. Some people reject the existence of God. The real reason for atheism is moral, not intellectual. If God is not there, then we can have no moral responsibility to obey Him. Philosophy is an escape from God. In every Age there is an attempt to philosophically redefine the meaning of life. Behind it all is just the desire to go our own way rather than having to submit to God. Materialism is an attempt to escape from God. If we are just biological machines living in a world formed by chance, then we can do as we please without any accountability.
God would not leave them alone, which is what they wanted. He made them come out and face the facts concerning what they had done. This shows that God’s desire is to be gracious while also making us face the truth about our condition. Unfortunately, the man and woman are not willing to face the truth. The man blames his wife, and indirectly blames God for what happened. The woman blames the serpent. When we look back at what happened in Eden, we see ourselves. We see all the wrong choices we have made. We too have been rebellious. We wanted to be the Master. We have tried to cover for ourselves, to hide from God, and maybe even blamed someone else for our evil actions.
God uses this confrontation for some extremely important revelations about His plan and the future of the world. To the Serpent, the first words concerning redemption are given. The Serpent’s head will be bruised by someone coming out of humanity (Gen. 3.15). The work of redemption will be God’s, but it will come through the seed of the woman. The Serpent’s work will be undone. The Serpent had successfully turned the man and the woman against God. Redemption will consist of people being brought back to God and reconciled to Him. Rather than seeing God as the enemy, the Serpent will be opposed by those who are being redeemed. Those who were overcome by the Serpent will become participants in his defeat. The world will become a cosmic battlefield where a decisive war will be fought. God has already announced the outcome of the conflict and the Serpent will not have the last word. In some sense the rest of the Biblical story will be about how God is fulfilling His promise in Eden to bruise the Serpent’s head.
There are serious consequences for the disobedience in Eden. The woman will suffer pain in childbirth and will also suffer under her husband’s domineering authority. Sin does not just drive a wedge between God and man, but also between human relationships. Mankind’s original place of ruling over creation is also interrupted by sin. The creation was under man’s dominion and so the creation must also suffer the consequences of man’s sin. A curse of corruption and death is placed on the creation itself. The earth will no longer submit to mankind’s rule. The man will have to work the ground for food, but the earth will now be cursed and will not cooperate with him. The man will literally work the earth until he returns to the earth. All his efforts will be ultimately frustrated. Man will spend his days in toil, only to die and lose all that he had worked for during his lifetime. The specter of death will haunt all human life, dashing his hopes and separating him from everything he loves in the world.
The man and the woman are then removed from Eden and access to the Tree of Life is blocked. This was a merciful thing. We do not have to endure life in a fallen world forever. The Tree of Life disappears and is not found again in this world. Human history now goes in a very different direction. The future is outside of Eden, away from the presence of God. Sin results in banishment, alienation, and homelessness. The human family must now make its way in a world that is hostile and difficult. That fellowship with God that was once possible in Eden is gone. God is there, but His presence is much more mysterious and remote. Outside of Eden it will become possible for mankind to forget about God completely and act as if He does not exist. Before escorting them out of Paradise, God provides for their nakedness. Mankind is not completely alone in the world and without help. God is still there, and He is still providing for man’s needs.

East of Eden

After Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden, we immediately begin to see the effects of sin on the human family. “Hence, before the work of redemption is further carried out, the downward tendency of sin is clearly illustrated in order that subsequently in the light of this downgrade movement the true divine cause of the upward course of redemption might be appreciated” (Vos). Adam and Eve’s offspring display a tendency toward wickedness. This is illustrated in three incidents: in Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, in the wickedness of the world leading up to the Flood, and in the building of the Tower of Babel.
Not only do these accounts illustrate the spread of sin in the world, but also the care of God for the world. God is there during each of these evil events to both bring judgement and show mercy. God is not distant and uninvolved in human history. He is always there to make sure the world does not descend into utter chaos and darkness. Despite human sin and rebellion, God never deserts the world or completely leaves humanity to its own devices. The absentee God of modern thought is not the God of Scripture. God did not leave the world to run on its own according to natural laws. God is sustaining creation and guiding human development. The sovereign hand of God is working in the world. God has a purpose for human history and is guiding things in the direction He desires. Most people in the world do not see God’s hand at work. But these chapters of Genesis prove that God is always there, albeit behind the scenes at times. The main actor in human history is God. God’s works against the dark backdrop of human depravity. These three accounts are not just isolated occurrences but teach us about a pattern throughout the history of the world.

Cain and Abel

Cain and Abel bring their offerings to God. The Lord is pleased with Abel’s offering, but he rejects Cain. We are not told why the offering of Cain was particularly objectionable to God, but it no doubt had something to do with the heart of Cain and his attitude toward God. God warned Cain directly about his behavior. Rather than repenting of his wickedness, Cain seeks to do away with his competition in Abel. The first murder in human history was over religion. Abel becomes the first righteous man to suffer persecution and death. He will not be the last. The murder of Abel is a sign of things to come.
When confronted by God Himself, Cain refuses to take responsibility for his murderous actions. God does not kill Cain but sends him away in yet another act of banishment and alienation. The pattern of sin is repeating itself. Cain is acting like his parents in Eden and receiving the same penalty for his sin. This is a graphic illustration of how sin has caused alienation between people and other people, not just between people and God.
Cain and Abel represent two kinds of people in the world. Cain is a child of the Devil and reveals the murderous nature of his spiritual progenitor. Abel is a righteous man who worships God acceptably yet suffers unjustly as a result of his faith and devotion. This division of humanity becomes a major theme in the Bible. God has always had His people and there have always been people who live in opposition to God and His will. The history of the world is the story of these two societies. There are two cities living side by side in the world: the city of man and the city of God. “I classify The Human Race into two branches: the one consists of those who live by human standards, the other of those who live according to God’s will. I also call these two classes the two cities, speaking allegorically. By two cities I mean two societies of human beings, one of which is predestined to reign with God for all eternity, the other doomed to undergo eternal punishment with the Devil” (Augustine). It is important to notice that God is not only working with the righteous people like Abel but is also involved with the wicked men like Cain. No person is outside of the care and the judgement of God, even if they do not acknowledge Him or submit to His will. God will continue to use wicked men and nations for His own purposes.

The Flood

Cain’s violent murder is not an isolated event. The world becomes so filled with violence that God is sorry he created mankind and is grieved at the wickedness of the world. God’s tolerance comes to an end and He destroys that early world by a great flood. But a full end will not be made. God saves a man named Noah and his family from the Flood and starts the human family over through Noah’s three sons. “For even though the subject is that of catastrophe and downfall, God can never be a God of the end of things. He always bestows beginnings. God is positive. His mercies are new every morning (Lam. 3.23). One must only learn to see. And ultimately, faith is nothing else but seeing that this is so” (Helmut Thielicke). God makes a covenant never to destroy the earth again with water. Until God’s purpose is fulfilled, the earth will remain. The rainbow was chosen by God as a sign of His covenant promise.
The Flood is a graphic illustration of God’s involvement in the world, both with acts of mercy and salvation and acts of judgement. The account of the Flood is also a microcosm of the entire plan of redemption and the story of the Bible. Just as Noah stood out among the wicked people of his generation, the people of God will always be different in a wicked world. God cares for Noah and his family, helping them through every stage of the ordeal, and bringing them through the catastrophe to see a new world. Noah’s relationship with God and the salvation God worked for Noah is an example for all times of how God works with His people. Salvation comes from God. His people must trust, patiently wait, and obey God’s word. When it finally started raining, Noah was glad that he had trusted God!

The Tower of Babel

When the earth is beginning to be populated again after the Flood, it becomes obvious that the sinful nature is still at work in mankind. The people come together and in a great show of solidarity decide to build a city with a tall tower. Their agenda is to make themselves powerful and secure, but God is not a factor in their plans. “Unity was to afford the possibility for founding a gigantic empire, glorifying man in his independence of God” (Vos). The Tower of Babel is a manifestation of mankind’s desire to ascend to the place of God. God comes down to see this project and cannot allow it to continue. There is a bit of Divine sarcasm here. The thing that seems so great to the builders of Babel is so unimpressive to God, He must leave His heavenly throne just to be able to see it properly! What seems high and strong to men is nothing to God.
The world makes its plans without considering God and what God wants for the world that He made. Mankind wants to usurp God and rule the world for its own ends. This is something that God will simply not allow. All of mankind’s plans will fail. Only the Divine purpose will succeed. What men do or seek to do is not the theme of human history. God’s plan for the world is the real theme of history. A secular historian’s account of Babel would read very different from the Biblical account. What might have looked like a great failure to men was really a successful judgement of God. What looked like a good thing to men was not the will of God for the world.
The judgement of God is confusion which results in disunity and the builders of Babel are scattered. But the spirit of Babel will endure in the world when men come together to fulfill their own desires without God in their thoughts. “Always the trend is the same: wherever God has been deposed, some substitute point has to be created to bind men together in some fashion or other” (Helmut Thielicke). The world seeks redemption through its own work and ingenuity. Unfortunately, the plans of men do not include the living God. Human civilization will always try to find a way to recapture the blessings Eden, but it will always do so without God and so it will always fail. The book of Genesis shows us that mankind wanted to have this autonomy and independence from God from the very beginning of human history. By understanding the first section of Genesis we come to understand the modern world. While the unity of mankind might seem like a good goal, and a unified world is often held up as an ideal of the Modernist agenda, if this unity is in opposition to the will of God then no good thing can come from it. History is strewn with the wrecks of other towers like Babel.
The Biblical account gives us revelation about the principles that will govern the unfolding of human history. History will take a dark path that is only redeemed by the ongoing plan and presence of God. We get the idea that if God had let the world go, mankind would have self-destructed. But God did not let the world go. He has a plan for redeeming His creation. The first stage in that plan of redemption will begin with the calling of a man named Abram.