Saturday, June 25, 2011

A New Commentary on the Book of Revelation by Dr William Dumbrell

On 21 June 2011 Redeemer Baptist Press held a book launch at historic Castle Hill House in Castle Hill, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, for Dr William J. Dumbrell’s latest commentary Revelation: Visions for Today: A New Covenant Commentary.

In launching his book, Dr Dumbrell spoke about the importance of seeing the bigger picture of the Bible, and the place of the book of Revelation in helping us in this task. Pursuing the basic message of the Bible is a task that Dr Dumbrell has actively been working on since the 1970s.

According to Dumbrell, we need to read the whole of the Bible before reading the parts. The Bible proclaims an ultimate destination for the human race, and tells us how to get there. The Bible traces a movement from Eden in the garden to Eden restored in the new Jerusalem. The various parts of the Bible, therefore, need to be read and understood in the light of this basic biblical-theological trajectory. In particular, the New Testament needs to be read with the Old Testament in mind, hence Dr Dumbrell’s desire to write commenaries on the New Testament despite his renown as a scholar of the Old.

“Evil, conquered by the cross, will finally be eliminated from human experience. New covenant believers will therefore experience the divine purpose and provision of life in a new Eden” (William J. Dumbrell, Revelation: Visions for Today: A New Covenant Commentary).

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Universal Rule of Christ according to Psalm 2

The British Empire at its height commanded 20% of the world’s land surface and over a quarter of the world’s population. They used to say: “The sun will never set on the British Empire.” But historically with the fall of Singapore the British Empire started to unravel. This retreat of Britain from its colonies in Asia was completed in 1997 when Hong Kong was handed back to China.

The truth is that superpowers come and go. With the fall of the Soviet Empire, America is now the undisputed world superpower, but the question is: For how long?

I’m no prophet, but it seems like China is on its way to becoming the next world superpower. It’ll be interesting to see (provided the world doesn’t end in the meantime) who China sides with: with the West, or with the Muslim world whose oil is so important to China’s future development?

But whoever is the superpower of tomorrow, there’s one thing for certain: they won’t be a superpower forever.

King Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of Babylon, which was the superpower of the Ancient Near East back in the sixth century B.C., is recorded in the Bible at the height of his reign walking on the roof of the royal palace in Babylon, proud of his achievements. Looking down upon the vista of his kingdom below, he said: “Isn’t this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan 4:30). But while these words were in the king’s mouth, a voice from heaven announced to him that he would shortly be driven out from human society to live in the fields like a wild animal, eating grass, “until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Dan 4:31–32).

Nebuchadnezzar eventually learnt his lesson, and came to acknowledge that God’s “dominion is an everlasting dominion, and [that] his kingdom [alone] endures [forever]” (Dan 4:34); but sadly not everyone is willing to submit to this truth.

In Ps 2:1–3 David reflects upon the empty rebellion of the world against God. He begins in v. 1 by asking a question: “Why do the nations throng tumultuously and the peoples devise empty schemes?” The nations are like a thronging crowd or raging mob, raising their fists in the air against God. But why do they do this? Is it possible to successfully oppose the Creator of this universe? It doesn’t make sense. It’s a futile act.

And yet “the kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers sit close together, against Yahweh and his anointed.” The nations are led in this rebellion by their rulers (Ps 2:2). Their rulers sit closely together to take counsel and to devise their plans. They are united in their opposition against God and his anointed one, the Messiah, which translated into Greek is the Christos, the Christ. And their plan is to rebel against God’s authority.

In Ps 2:3 the content of their plan can be seen: “Let’s tear apart their bonds, and cast their ropes from us.” Their obligations of submission and service to God are pictured as bonds to be broken, as ropes to be cast off.

If God is the Creator of the world, and if Jesus Christ is God’s chosen King, then it is simply the height of arrogance to think that we can escape the rule of God.

And yet the nations and their rulers still seek to rebel against God. Back in May 2011 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation program Foreign Correspondent presented a story on the persecution of religion in China. The story is called True Believers, and is well worth watching. The larger part of the story focuses on the rapid growth of Christianity in China, and some of the attempts of the Chinese government to hinder the growth of underground churches.

But whether it be state sponsored opposition like in China, outright prohibition like in Saudi Arabia, or the scoffing ridicule of atheistic progressives in the West, truth be told, thinking you can successfully rebel against God is totally ridiculous.

Psalm 2:4–6 records God’s response to such opposition: “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord mocks them. Then he will speak to them in his anger and dismay them in his fury: ‘But I have installed my king upon Zion, my holy mountain.’”

God’s attitude to those who oppose him is basically to laugh at their puny efforts. Imagine what an elephant might think on learning that the bunch of ants in front of him was planning to capture and destroy him. An elephant scared of ants? Not likely.

Any such efforts on the part of human beings are but “empty schemes” as Ps 2:1 indicates. Seriously, you reckon you can take on God and win? Don’t you realize that God is the one who created this universe? He only has to open his mouth, and whatever he wills happens. To take on God is pure stupidity. Whoever opposes God will definitely lose.

But laughing at the puny efforts of humans to rebel against him isn’t the totality of God’s response. In Ps 2:5, David prophesies that one day God will act against those who oppose him. One day God will speak clearly, and reveal his anger. On that day God’s wrath against the rebellious will be evident for all to see; and, according to Ps 2:6, God will point to the rule of Christ in Zion, which is Jerusalem, as proof of his sovereignty.

Think about it: the world’s opposition to God and his Messiah reached its climax at the cross when God’s Messiah, Jesus, was brutally killed. The rulers of the Jews at the time, symbolizing the attitude of the nations to God, scoffed at the man hanging on the cross. If you’re the Son of God, come down off the cross! You saved others; can’t you save yourself? Come down, and we’ll believe you! The Roman soldiers also mocked him. But these mocking voices were not the last word. You think you can rebel against me? You think you can destroy the Messiah? Well then, you’ve got another think coming! Witness the resurrection of my Messiah! Witness his ascension into heaven! Witness his enthronement at my right hand on the throne of Messiah! Witness the expansion of his rule throughout the world!

According to Ps 2, the installation of the Messiah as King at the right hand of the Father in heaven is the key event in God’s response to human rebellion. It was only after great opposition that he came to the throne; but having ascended the throne of highest power in the heights of heaven, there is no power or authority on earth that will be able to oppose him. As the Son of Man prophecy in Dan 7 makes clear: “behold, there came with the clouds of heaven one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days, and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away; and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan 7:13–14).

In Ps 2:7–9, David recalls the decree, the abiding law, that God has made concerning the Messiah: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will give the nations as your inheritance and the ends of the earth as your possession. You will break them with a rod of iron; like a potter’s vessel you will smash them.”

Psalm 2:7 links God’s installation of his King in Zion with God’s proclamation of the sonship of the Messiah. Jesus’ ascension and enthronement in heaven marks the commencement of his rule in Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. Jesus’ ascension and enthronement in heaven is proof that he is the only begotten Son of the Father. As the Apostle Peter in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 observed, the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit on the church is proof that Jesus has been “exalted at the right hand of God,” and that Jesus has been made “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:33, 36). Jesus, the Son of Man is Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is God’s chosen King, and the fulfillment of the ancient Chinese ideal of Shèngmíng Tiãnzĭ (圣明天子), the enlightened Son of Heaven, the perfect ruler who brings peace and harmony throughout his kingdom.

Ascended on high, Jesus the Messiah has become the Son of God in power; and enthroned as the risen Lord in heaven, Jesus has the right, according to God’s plan, to ask God the Father to give him the nations of the world as his inheritance, the ends of the earth as his possession. This is why you have various languages represented when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church at Pentecost. This is why we have Jews, Samaritans, Greeks, and Romans responding to the gospel in the book of Acts. The book of Acts records the beginning of the Messiah’s work to take control over the nations, the commencement of the messianic work of bringing Planet Earth back in submission to the rightful rule of God.

According to Ps 2:9, the Messiah will exercise strong rule over the nations. Any nation that opposes the rule of Messiah will be broken with a rod of iron, and smashed like a piece of pottery.

All in all, Ps 2:7–9 describe the universal rule of Christ; and this is the political reality that is currently being worked out in human history. The big political issue of the world today isn’t the politics of East versus West, or the politics of climate change. The biggest political issue of the world today is responding appropriately to the new political reality that stems from the fact of the enthronement of Jesus as King over the whole of the Planet Earth after his ascension into heaven.

Now if it is true that Jesus is the King of the world, how should we respond? David spells this out in vv. 10–12 of this psalm.

According to Ps 2:10 the rulers of the world are to be wise and to be warned. The truth that Jesus is Lord has implications for the leaders of every nation on earth. It applies as equally to Prime Minister of England as to the President of the United States, and even the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. Wisdom here involves sniffing the political wind, understanding who is the ascendant political power in the world today, and submitting oneself to this political power in genuine service. The rulers of the earth need to stop rebelling against the rule of God that God is exercising through Jesus.

And if this applies to the leaders of the world, it also applies to ordinary individuals. God wants all human beings to be wise. He wants us to understand the truth, and to repent of our feeble attempts at rebellion. If it is true that Jesus is the Christ, the King of the world, and that anyone who stubbornly opposes him will be crushed, then the wise response is obvious.

In fact, David spells out the proper response in Ps 2:11–12: “Serve Yahweh in fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way; for his anger burns quickly. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

God is strong and powerful. He is mighty and majestic. Realistically acknowledging the power and authority of God is to fear him. This fear leads us to submission and to service. And this is David’s strong recommendation in v. 11: “Serve Yahweh in fear”! Because God is the powerful Creator of everything, we need to submit to him, and serve him. God inspires fear in all who know him, but at the same time serving him is a wonderful privilege. Think about it: you are being invited to come before the King of creation to enter into his service. There is no higher calling! Pursuing this privilege, serving the one true God, is a joyful occupation; but one that we dare not take lightly. It is mingled with fear and trembling. God fills us with joy, but at the same time he is awesome and scary!

In Ps 2:12 David links this submission to God with submission to the Messiah. Serving God means kissing the Son. But what does it mean to kiss the Son? The kissing in view here is an act of obeisance. It’s like bowing down before the king. To kiss the Son is to acknowledge the superiority of the Son of God. It is an act of submission and a pledge of obedience to God’s chosen regent on earth.

And this is significance of Ps 2 for the world today. God calls upon everyone throughout the world to serve him by submitting to his Son, the Messiah.

In a nutshell, submission to Christ is what Christianity is all about. The central truth of Christianity is the confession that Jesus is Lord (Rom 10:9). God has decreed with a decree that cannot be altered that the world must submit to the Son of God, the anointed one, the Messiah. We cannot submit to God without submitting to the Son of God. We cannot experience true blessing without turning to Jesus as a our place of refuge and safety. As the author of Hebrews says in Heb 5:9: Jesus is “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”

So the question for every person alive today is: Have you kissed the Son of God yet? Have you come in submission to Jesus Christ? Have you confessed that Jesus is Lord, and are you submitting today to his rule over your life?

Every single person on this planet has need of such submission, for this is the only pathway to blessing. David reminds us in Ps 2:12 that if we don’t submit to the Messiah, then we will be destroyed when God’s anger burns forth. God is slow to anger, but if we push him too far “his wrath is quickly kindled.”

In the light of the primary political reality of our world, the gospel message is a call for every single person living on Planet Earth today to confess that Jesus is Lord.

The truth is that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King over the nations. This is a fact seen in the multi-ethnic nature of the church throughout the world. The Christian church is made up of people of different cultural backgrounds who are united under the one rule of Jesus the King. As the Apostle Paul has said: “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). From as far afield as the cathedral villages of Europe, the bustling cities of Asia, the great plains of Africa, and the sunburnt outback of Australia, there are people in every country on the face of our earth who know this truth: that Jesus is Lord. They have seen the new political paradigm, and understood that submission to Christ is the wise way forward and the key to blessing.

As Christian brothers and sisters in China and other countries know, at times confessing that Jesus is Lord is not an easy thing to do. But this is how things were even back in the beginning. To go around saying that Jesus is Lord was for the early Christians a potentially dangerous and subversive act, because it clashed with the political reality of that day, where Caesar, the Roman emperor, was ordinarily acknowledged as κύριος, i.e., as Lord. Many Christians suffered in those early days because Caesar did not like the fact that the Christians acknowledged someone apart from him as κύριος. How ironic that in the space of less than 300 years, the Roman emperor himself would come to acknowledge that Jesus indeed is Lord.

And surely history has proven Emperor Constantine right. Wherever you go on this planet, there are people who have come in obedience and submission, acknowledging that Jesus is the King.

What king in world history has had more subjects than King Jesus? What king in world history has been acknowledged as king by people of every country on this planet? History itself proves that Jesus is the Messiah, that he is the King of kings and Lord of lords. To swim against the tide of history is useless. The wise thing to do is to submit to Jesus as Lord and to serve him forever.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jesus Our Swimming Instructor

The dark bottle-green liquid pierced by the occasional shaft of sunlight. As a child I stood near the ferry terminals at the quay looking down into the watery green unknown. The image haunts me still.

How many of us have looked down into deep water, and thought, “I wonder what's down there”? It really is the dark unknown, the green liquid covering like a blanket an unknown world full of strange creatures and mottled light.

As a child nothing frightened me more than the thought of falling alone into this green unknown. The thought of everything below me. Below could see me, but I couldn’t see below!

And even though I’m grown up now, the thought of floating alone in the harbor still frightens me. The thought of my legs dangling below, with who knows how many fathoms down to the murky bottom.

If only it were just a thought and not reality!

Ever since our first parents believed the lie, and followed the serpent out into the green unknown, we’ve all been dreaming, just like shipwrecked men who satisfy their stomachs by dreaming of succulent dishes. We imagine that we’re really back on land, and that the water surrounding us is just a momentary unpleasantry akin to rain from a passing cloud.

Some cloud! A cloud that has overshadowed the false dream of human existence for thousands of years, since virtually the beginning.

But I’ve had enough of that dream that humanity can forge a better destiny for itself apart from its Creator. The dream’s had it. It’s as false an idea as a mouthful of gravel making a satisfying meal.

My legs are dangling below, and I know it. I know it, and I hate it. I know that I’m not the master of my own destiny that secular humanism says I am. This world and all its problems are too big for me, like the dark mass of the harbor below. And I want out. I want to walk on land, and not just dream about it.

Yet to think that there was one man who left his haven on the shore to plunge into the darkness of the deep to come to us and save us. He came to comfort us in the midst of the dark green unknown of life in a confusing world, and to teach us how to swim and how to reach God’s haven. Yet that we might understand more of what he has done for us, how he sacrificed his life to the deep that we might have safe passage to the shore. That we might see all the more that apart from him our bones are doomed to feed the creatures of the dark bottle-green liquid, to see that apart from a commitment to his way of life we have no hope whatsoever, our dreams simply delusions.

Friends, in this life it’s either sink or swim, and swimming is much to be preferred over sinking. Listen to words of your swim instructor. Listen to the words of Jesus. Follow his instructions, and swim with all of your might. For a time the green fathoms of hurt and confusion and sin and despair will still surround you; but you’ll be heading in the right direction, with Jesus to guide and encourage you, until you reach the safety of the eternal shore. And then finally we will be able … to rest.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Salvation in Jesus: A Summary of the Christian Gospel

God is the Supreme Being in all of reality. He is eternal and all-powerful. He created everything in the universe, including us human beings. The first human beings originally lived in a holy garden in the presence of God, but they were responsible to obey God’s commandments in order to continue in the blessing of life until the fullness of eternal life came upon them.

But the first human beings rebelled against God, and fell into sin. God, who is holy and pure, expelled sinful humanity from his presence. The consequence of this is that the human race lost the blessing of life, and must now live in a chaotic and dangerous world that is under God’s curse.

But God, because of his love for the world that he has made, had a plan to restore the blessing of life to the world and to save sinful humanity. According to this plan, just over 2,000 years ago God himself entered into the world in the person of the Lord Jesus. While in the world, the Lord Jesus taught the truth and accomplished salvation, rescuing humanity from sin and eternal death. Jesus accomplished this salvation by sacrificing his sinless life through his death on the cross, in order to pay for our sins. On the third day after his death, the Lord Jesus came back to life from the dead, and appeared to his disciples during forty days, after which he ascended into heaven. Thanks to his ascension into heaven, humanity, with Jesus as our leader, is finally able to return into the presence of God and to experience the blessing of eternal life.

In the light of what God has done through Jesus, God now calls upon every person to receive salvation by submitting to the lordship of Jesus. Those who submit to Jesus receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, who enables them to experience the blessing of eternal life.

God has appointed a day when the Lord Jesus will return to earth in order to judge every person. Those among Jesus’ disciples who have been faithful will then enter into the fullness of the blessing of eternal life, whereas those disciples who have been unfaithful to Jesus, along with everyone else who has been in rebellion against God, will experience eternal punishment in hell.

In order to avoid eternal punishment, we need to receive salvation by submitting to the lordship of Jesus. Submitting to Jesus’ lordship can be summarized as involving three things: faith, repentance, and baptism.

(1) Faith is accepting the truth about Jesus in God’s plan of salvation as revealed in God’s word, the Bible (as summarized above).

(2) Repentance is acknowledging our sins before God, and endeavoring in his strength to abandon our sinful way of life, in order to live in a way that pleases God through obedience to his commandments.

(3) Baptism is the Christian rite of initiation. Through baptism, a person confesses one’s belief that Jesus is the King of the universe, and receives the salvation that Jesus has come to give. Through baptism, a person officially becomes a disciple of the Lord Jesus and a member of the Christian church. Baptism is ordinarily performed by a designated leader in the Christian community. After confessing one’s faith in Jesus as Lord, the person being baptized is immersed in water, or has water poured or sprinkled over one’s head, as a symbol of cleansing from sin, of the reception of the Holy Spirit, and new life.

Having submitted to Jesus as Lord through faith, repentance, and baptism, all Christians need to live as faithful disciples of Jesus. This involves persevering in faith and repentance until the end of one’s life. On the day of judgment those who have lived as faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus will receive their eternal resurrection bodies, and experience the fullness of life in the presence of God forever.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tsedaqah Righteousness in Amos

There are three instances of צדקה in Amos, and two instances of the adjective צדיק, but no instances of צדק as a noun or verb. In all three instances of צדקה, the noun is paired with משפט (justice). For Amos, it seems that צדקה is used primarily to denote judicial righteousness, or else active righteousness that has judicial justice at its core.

The first instance of צדקה in Amos is found in Amos 5:7. This verse is has some textual and exegetical difficulties. Taking the Masoretic Text as is—ההפכים ללענה משפט וצדקה לארץ הניחו—the verse seems to translate as “you who turn justice into wormwood, and set righteousness to the earth.”

Amos 5:1–17 is the third of three discourses in the middle of the book of Amos. These discourses can be delineated thanks to the recurrent expression “hear this word” in Amos 3:1; 4:1; 5:1. The third discourse can be further divided into a lament over the coming military defeat of Israel (5:1–3) and a call to repentance (5:4–17). The seek me and live refrain in 5:4, 6, 14 recalls the life language of Moses in Deuteronomy (e.g., Deut 30:19–20), but occurs here as a call to repentance. Israel was to seek Yahweh, but not at the illegitimate centres of worship at Bethel or Gilgal, or even at the shrine in Beersheba in Judah (5:5). In this context, 5:7 seems to function basically as a vocative expression of indictment. The call in 5:10–12, 15 to “establish justice at the gate” and to stop oppressing the poor suggests that the content of v. 7 is characterizing wealthy Israelite society as abusing the legal system, turning it into an instrument of bitter oppression over the poor and needy. If this is so, then the parallel of צדקה with משפט in v. 7 suggests that צדקה here particularly denotes judicial righteousness rather than the more general idea of active righteousness. Yet judicial righteousness cannot be totally divorced from active righteousness. Judicial righteousness is an expression of active righteousness in a judicial context, as well as being that which defends and fosters active righteousness within society.

This interpretation of the Masoretic Text makes good sense, but it should be noted that the LXX translation of Amos 5:7 is rather different: “the Lord is he who makes justice on high, and he has established righteousness in the earth.” The LXX takes κύριος as the subject of the clauses in the verse, and looks to have read ללענה as למעלה (εἰς ὕψος). In the end, I reckon that the use of ללענה in combination with צדקה in Amos 6:12 (see below) supports the Masoretic Text rather than the LXX at his point.

The next occurrence of צדקה in Amos occurs in the woe oracle (5:18–27) that follows the third discourse (i.e., 5:1–17). The coming day of Yahweh would be a time of judgment against those who do evil, meaning that the day of the Yahweh would actually be a day of “darkness … and gloom” for Israel (5:18, 20). The reason for this was because God was not pleased with Israel’s cultic worship (5:21–23). Why? Because their worship (apart from being exercised at various illegal shrines around the country) was hypocritical. This is evident from the content of 5:24 when Yahweh calls upon Israel to “let justice roll like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” The practice of worshiping Yahweh without a genuine righteousness expressed in their way of life was to make a mockery of the cult and the relationship with Yahweh that was maintained through it. It is probably best to take צדקה here in the more general sense of active righteousness, although in the wider context—i.e., given the relative proximity of 5:24 to 5:7, and the use of ויגל (and let it roll) in 5:24 that harks back to the word play with הגלגל (Gilgal) and גלה יגלה (it will surely go into exile)—a denotation of judicial righteousness, or at least to see judicial righteousness as the primary focus of צדקה here, is also a strong possibility.

The final instance of צדקה in Amos occurs in Amos 6:12. The wording of the clauses that pair משפט and צדקה is quite similar to the reference from Amos 5:7: “Will horses run on a cliff, or will someone plow there with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison, and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood.” This verse occurs within an oath oracle (Amos 6:8–14) which speaks of the certainty of judgment upon the strongholds of Israel and “the pride of Jacob” (v. 8), which is most likely a reference to the city of Samaria. The similarity between this verse and Amos 5:7 suggests that צדקה as judicial righteousness is probably in focus, but once again the more general sense of active righteousness is not impossible.

Overall, how delimited צדקה is in these three instances in Amos is completely dependent on the context, and weighing up the context is often a משפט of probabilities.