Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: In the Wilderness

The Pastor’s Perspective
“In the Wilderness”
First Published: April 29, 2007

Since January 3, 2007 we have been studying through the book of Numbers, on and off, on Sunday evenings and Wednesday nights. 46 sermons later, we are almost done. On Wednesday night, May 7, we are due to arrive at the final chapter of the book. I know, Numbers is probably not one of your top ten favorite Bible books (although, I must say, it has really grown on me during this series!), but Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 that the book of Numbers was written for us as Christians and is profoundly practical for us today! In fact, he says more than that. He says that events recorded in Numbers actually happened for us and that God wants us to learn from them how we are to live right now! Our study has certainly proved this out.

Well, the whole book of Numbers looks forward to Israel’s settlement in the promised land, and so it is appropriate that it closes with six provisions of God in relation to the occupation of Canaan. We’ve looked at the first three of these. We’ll look at the last three in the final two sermons.

Meanwhile, on this past Sunday night, we considered the boundaries of the land and the men appointed by God to see to the distribution of it. We saw three things:
  1. God’s generosity in given Israel more land than they ever occupied (this also, nevertheless, highlights Israel’s failure to obey God in fully occupying the land);
  2. The link between God’s blessing and our response, and what this teaches us about the way of sanctification, or growth in the Christian life. We described this using the motto: the Land is yours now take it (see Numbers 33:53 “And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.” It’s the Old Testament version of the New Testament principle that “the indicative precedes the imperative.” God gives us what he commands and then commands us.
  3. God’s wise three-part plan for taking the distribution of the land out of the hands of the tribes [lots, proportionate designation, divinely appointed leaders].

If you missed some, most or all of this series, you can read or listen to it online at the church website, or you can order CDs or tapes of it from the Learning Resource Center.

I must say that it is always bittersweet for me when I come to an end of a sermon series through a Bible book with you. This is so for a variety of reasons. 1. I always look back and wish I’d preached the book better. 2. I always look back and am thankful for what I’ve learned, and wished than I’d learned it a long time ago. 3. The thought always crosses my mind that I will not likely pass this way with you again in this book. That is, when I conclude a series, it strikes me that it may be the last time I’ll study that book with you from the pulpit of First Pres. For no matter how long the Lord gives me to minister here at First, it is unlikely that I’ll be able to preach through the Bible twice, or even to preach through many, or any, Bible books twice with you – the Bible is a big book! All these things make the privilege to preaching the Word to you, all the more precious to me.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Monday, December 20, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Think about Deacons and Elders

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Think about Deacons and Elders”
First Published: April 1, 2008

twitter: should we rethink the offices of deacon and elder? No, but made you look.

As you prepare for the very important congregational meeting this Sunday, April 6, after the 11 o’clock service, at which we will act upon a recommendation from the Session to initiate the process of electing new elders and deacons for First Presbyterian Church, perhaps it will be helpful to you to start thinking about what elders and deacons are and do.

In the Presbyterian Church there are two types of officers in the Church: elders and deacons. And within the office of elder are the two kinds: teaching elders (commonly referred to as ministers or preachers) and ruling elders. The elders jointly are responsible for the government and spiritual oversight of the church, including teaching. In conformity to Scripture, the office of elder is open to men only. We are electing Ruling Elders in this election process.

The Bible requires the elders to watch diligently over the flock committed to their charge, to promote sound belief and godly living. What do elders do? Elders teach the Bible, disciple members, exercise government and discipline, and take oversight of the spiritual interests of the particular church. They visit the people in their homes, especially the sick. They instruct seekers, share the gospel, comfort those who are mourning, and nourish and guard the children of the church. They endeavor to set a worthy example to the flock entrusted to their care by their zeal to evangelize the unconverted and make disciples. They pray with and for the people, and are careful and diligent in seeking the fruit of the preached Word among the flock. This office is a great privilege and responsibility. Our elders will one day give an account of their governance to the Almighty.

What are the Biblical qualifications for those who are elders? The Bible is clear about the qualifications for an elder. Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 that an elder “must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”

In Titus 1:6-9 he adds that an elder must be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God's steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”

Thus, to summarize, the Bible specifies godly Christian character, family spiritual leadership, and ability to teach the truth of the Word as indispensable qualifications for the eldership.

What are deacons? Well, the office of deacon, too, is an office to be held by godly men and those who hold this office are jointly responsible for leading the mercy ministry of the church. Our Book of Church Order puts it this way: “The office of deacon is set forth in the Scriptures as ordinary and perpetual in the Church. The office is one of sympathy and service, after the example of the Lord Jesus; it expresses also the communion of saints, especially in their helping one another in time of need.”

What do deacons do? The Book of Church Order supplies this helpful summary: “It is the duty of the deacons to minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress. It is their duty also to develop the grace of liberality in the members of the church, to devise effective methods of collecting the gifts of the people, and to distribute these gifts among the objects to which they are contributed. They shall have the care of the property of the congregation, both real and personal, and shall keep in proper repair the church edifice and other buildings belonging to the congregation.”

What are the Biblical qualifications for deacon? The Bible is clear about the qualifications for a deacon. Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:8-10, 12-13 that “Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”

Deacons were first appointed in the church by the apostles themselves, in Acts 6. A problem had arisen in connection with church aid given to some of the widows in the congregation in Jerusalem. The apostles determined that it would be wrong for them to neglect their job as elders, but that the ministry of mercy was also too important to neglect. Thus, we read: “So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. "Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. "But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.” (Acts 6:3-6)

This is why our Book of Church Order says: “To the office of deacon, which is spiritual in nature, shall be chosen men of spiritual character, honest repute, exemplary lives, brotherly spirit, warm sympathies, and sound judgment.” Thus, to summarize, the Bible specifies godly Christian character, family spiritual leadership, and firm belief in the truth of the Word as indispensable qualifications for the diaconate.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Four things to think on regarding Elders

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Four things to think on regarding Elders”
First Published: March 11, 2008

Today, I want to consider with you the task of the elder, and how you might go about discerning it in a man. In 2 Timothy 2:1-2, the Apostle Paul tells his protege, the young pastor Timothy: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Paul is telling Timothy to seek out and find and disciple and equip elders, who will themselves in turn seek out and disciple other people in the church.

Notice that these elders, are to be pastors, shepherds, who are reliable or faithful and who are willing and able to teach and disciple others. This is the same thing Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:2 “an overseer [meaning an elder, guide, shepherd, pastor] must be . . . able to teach.” That is, the fundamental thing that an elder must have the desire and ability to do, is to teach, to disciple. To teach the faith, the gospel, the Bible. To edify the flock with the word of life. To equip the saints for the work of service.

So how do you know whether a man has this desire and ability? How would you identify such a person? Well, here are a few ideas (several of them borrowed from my good friend Thabiti Anyabwile, who has written a great series on elders).

1. Note those men who are regularly in attendance at the church’s services (Sunday morning, Sunday evening and at the Mid-week Bible Study and Prayer Meeting), as well as Sunday School, and who are otherwise actively involved in the ministry of the church. Start with those who already show an active commitment to the ministry and who will be models of that commitment to the body.

2. Note the men who already appear to be shepherding members of the church yet without the title “elder” or “pastor.” Who are the men that care for others by visiting or practicing hospitality, giving counsel (being often sought after by others), and who participate in the teaching ministry of the church.

3. Note those men who show respect and trust in the present leadership of our elders, who work to understand the directions leadership pursue, who ask good/appropriate questions in appropriate settings, who avoid creating confusion or dissension in private and in public.

4. Note those men who have evidenced this desire over time. Don’t hesitate to ask a man whether he desires to teach and disciple others as an elder in the church. Ask him how long he has had this desire. What kindled it in him at first. And since in our church the teaching of the elders must be in accord with the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, ask him about his study and understanding of, and commitment to, the theology of the Westminster Standards.

More soon. Your friend,
Ligon Duncan

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Another New Year

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Another New Year”
First Published: January 8, 2008

In the beginning of a new year, we often devote ourselves afresh to important principles and goals for our lives and families. We also look back, reflecting on and reassessing the events of the year past: happy and sad, triumphant and tragic, and asking ourselves “where is our treasure?” C.H. Spurgeon has some wise words for us along this line. He is meditating on the words of Song of Solomon 1:4 (“We will exult and rejoice in you”), and applying them to Christ. He says:

"We will be glad and rejoice in thee. We will not open the gates of the year to the dolorous notes of the sackbut, but to the sweet strains of the harp of joy, and the high sounding cymbals of gladness. “O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise unto the rock of our salvation.” We, the called and faithful and chosen, we will drive away our griefs, and set up our banners of confidence in the name of God. Let others lament over their troubles, we who have the sweetening tree to cast into Marah’s bitter pool, with joy will magnify the Lord. Eternal Spirit, our effectual Comforter, we who are the temples in which thou dwellest, will never cease from adoring and blessing the name of Jesus. We will, we are resolved about it, Jesus must have the crown of our heart’s delight; we will not dishonour our Bridegroom by mourning in his presence. We are ordained to be the minstrels of the skies, let us rehearse our everlasting anthem before we sing it in the halls of the New Jerusalem. We will be glad and rejoice: two words with one sense, double joy, blessedness upon blessedness. Need there be any limit to our rejoicing in the Lord even now? Do not men of grace find their Lord to be camphire and spikenard, calamus and cinnamon even now, and what better fragrance have they in heaven itself? We will be glad and rejoice in Thee. That last word is the meat in the dish, the kernel of the nut, the soul of the text. What heavens are laid up in Jesus! What rivers of infinite bliss have their source, aye, and every drop of their fulness in him! Since, O sweet Lord Jesus, thou art the present portion of thy people, favour us this year with such a sense of thy preciousness, that from its first to its last day we may be glad and rejoice in thee. Let January open with joy in the Lord, and December close with gladness in Jesus."

There will be many within our congregation for whom 2007 was filled with inexpressible grief. These may have been private griefs known to few (or none), but which have broken the heart, or public griefs, in which we found support in the midst of our losses and crosses from friends and family. Surely, these folk must be wondering what the future holds for them.

Others in our church family may recount the victories and blessings of 2007 among the sweetest in life: answered prayers for which we had never dreamt how wonderful God’s answer would be, the gift of children, or marriage, or meaningful vocation, or financial prosperity, or family love and tranquility. And those blessed, too, will be wondering: what next in God’s plan?

For most, however, 2007 was somewhere in between: filled with favors and difficulties, but neither the best nor the worst of times. Whatever our individual circumstances may be, all of us do well to reconsider our Spiritual priorities in the dawn of this new year. And while we do so, we also do well to reevaluate our dependence on God’s grace.

Many years ago Robert Hawker said: “I am every day more and more convinced that the lack of living wholly upon Christ is the sole cause why so many of God’s children go lean from day to day.” In your prosperity or poverty are you going lean? Are you finding joy in the midst of hardship, because of the sense of Christ’s presence? Are you unimpressed with the best of the world’s treasures because your treasure is hid away in Christ? You see, one key to joy and contentment is complete dependence on Christ.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Now Thank We All Our God

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Living up to our Theology”
First Published: January 15, 2008

2008 is going to be a huge year for us at First Presbyterian Church. In our nation, we will elect a President. In our church, we will elect new elders and deacons. For the future life and ministry of our congregation, the latter will almost certainly more important than the former. I do not say this to minimize in any way the significance of our faithful participation in the public life of our city, state and nation. Not at all. Nor do I say it to detract from the significance of the office of the presidency – without challenge the single most influential governmental post in the history of the world. No, I say this because the officers of this church are so vital to our well-being and witness. Please begin praying now about whom you will nominate. Consider the qualifications of the office. And pray for God to raise spiritual leaders for the future in the present.

As we have worked through Philippians together, I’ve been struck again by the practicality of Christian doctrine, by the usefulness of Bible truth. If one thing rings loud and clear in the little letter of Philippians it is the down-to-earth, day-today, applicability of theology in the Christian life.

And that reminds me of one of my most favorite quotes. One of my professors, Donald Macleod, Principal of the Free Church of Scotland College, in his excellent little book The Humiliated and Exalted Lord is talking about the section in Philippians that we are presently studying (Philippians 2:5-11, the Christ Hymn). And he begins to reflect on how Paul employs this high-powered, mind-blowing teaching on the person and work of Christ for very simple, common, and practical purposes. Here is what he says:
“Paul uses [this] teaching precisely because of its relevance to the pastoral problems in the church at Philippi. That is enormously instructive, because it reminds us that theology does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in the interest of [pastoral ministry]. It exists in order to be applied to the day-to-day problems of the Christian church. Every doctrine has its application. All scripture is profitable and all the doctrine is profitable. Similarly all the application must be based on doctrine. In both the Philippians example-passage and the Corinthian example-passage, Paul is dealing with what are surely comparative trivia, the problem of vain glory in a Christian congregation and the problem of failure of Christian liberality. As a Pastor one meets with these difficulties daily. They are standing problems. Yet Paul as he wrestles with both of them has recourse to the most massive theology. It's not only that you have the emphasis on the unity between theology and practice but you have the emphasis on the applicability of the profoundest theology to the most mundane and most common-place problems. Who would ever imagine that the response to the glory of the incarnation might be to give to the collection for the poor? Who might imagine that the application of the glories of New Testament Christology might be to stop our quarreling and our divisiveness in the Christian [church]? That is what Paul is doing here. He is telling them: You have these practical problems; the answer is theological; remember your theology and place your behaviour in the light of that theology. Place your little problems in the light of the most massive theology. We ourselves in our Christian callings are to be conscious of this. We must never leave our doctrine hanging in the air, nor hesitate to enforce the most elementary Christian obligations with the most sublime doctrines”.

Ah, but to live up to our theology, there’s the rub.
Your friend,
Ligon Duncan


Thursday, December 09, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Now Thank We All Our God

The Pastor's Perspective
"Now Thank We All Our God"
First Published: October 15, 2007

One of my very favorite hymns is Now Thank We All Our God, written in 1636 by Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), who was a Lutheran minister in Eilenburg, Saxony. “During the Thirty Years’ War, the walled city of Eilenburg saw a steady stream of refugees pour through its gates. The Swedish army surrounded the city, and famine and plague were rampant. Eight hundred homes were destroyed, and the people began to perish. There was a tremendous strain on the pastors who had to conduct dozens of funerals daily. Finally, the pastors, too, succumbed, and Rinkart was the only one left—doing 50 funerals a day. When the Swedes demanded a huge ransom, Rinkart left the safety of the walls to plead for mercy. The Swedish commander, impressed by his faith and courage, lowered his demands. Soon afterward, the Thirty Years’ War ended, and Rinkart wrote this hymn for a grand celebration service. It is a testament to his faith that, after such misery, he was able to write a hymn of abiding trust and gratitude toward God.”

This was one of the first hymns I sang with you as your minister. I wept then as I sang and I never fail to be moved when I sing it with you still. It is one of the best in our hymnal. Let’s walk together through its glorious text.

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

The first stanza has us sing, roughly: “Let us now all thank our God, with everything we are (heart, hands, and voices). He has worked wonders and the whole world rejoices in him (if we don’t, the stones will cry out!). He has shown us his favor from the first time we were held by our mothers, and all along on the way. He has blessed us with innumerable gifts flowing from his love, and he is still our God today.

Notice how the first line reminds one of Romans 12:1 (present your body, the whole of your self, as a living sacrifice). This whole first stanza is both thanks and praise, but did you catch how the hymn gives us reasons to praise God (unlike many songs written for use in worship today)? In fact, in just this first stanza, Rinkart gives you five reasons to praise God: (1) He has done wondrous things; (2) the World rejoices in him; (3) he has blessed us from the time we were first in our mothers’ arms; (4) with unnumbered gifts of love, (5) and he’s still ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessPd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

In this second stanza we are exhorting one another to worship and prayer, like this: May our generous God always be nears us all life long. May we have always joyful hearts and God-given peace to cheer us on our way. May God keep us, preserve us in his grace and give us guidance when we are baffled. May God deliver us from evil, now here and forevermore in the world to come.

So, this second stanza is a petition, and a glorious one. We pray for God’s constant presence or nearness, for joyful hearts, and God’s peace, for perseverance in grace, guidance in perplexity, and for deliverance from evil, both in this world and the world to come.

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

The third stanza returns us to praise: God the Father, we give all praise and thanks to you now. And to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as you all reign in heaven. Three, yet one eternal God, adored in heaven above and here below. For thus, the Triune God, was, is and ever shall be blessed, forever.

Notice how adoration is given to Father, Son and Holy Spirit (in beautiful English verse!). The end of the hymn, indeed, reminds one of the “Gloria Patri” (with “it” referring to the Holy Trinity).

Sing it with joy and understanding next time we sing it!


Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Read More

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Read More”
First Published: December 18, 2007

Twitter: are you really going to spend 2011 watching television?

This is our last First Epistle for the Year of our Lord, 2007. Our faithful editor will take a brief break and we’ll have the new year’s first edition out for you in the second week of January. In the meantime, allow me to leave you with a thought to ponder over of the holidays.

Read more in 2008! That’s it. Think about it, and do it. I was recently with a friend who had been briefed by some high-level officials in the publishing industry who were commented on how few people finish books (especially big ones!) anymore. Well, Christians ought to be readers. So are you reading enough? I don’t mean glossy magazines or professional rags or sports pages. I mean substantial Christian literature.

Maybe TV is one barrier to this. I love John Piper’s article on this subject – “You Have One Life: Is TV Too Big a Part of It?” Here’s what he says: “If all other variables are equal, your capacity to know God deeply will probably diminish in direct proportion to how much television you watch. There are several reasons for this. One is that television reflects American culture at its most trivial level. And a steady diet of triviality shrinks the soul. You get used to it. It starts to seem normal. Silly becomes funny. And funny becomes pleasing. And pleasing becomes soul-satisfaction. And in the end the soul that is made for God has shrunk to fit snugly around emptiness.”
“This may be unnoticed, because if all you’ve known is American culture, you can’t tell there is anything wrong. If you have only read comic books, it won’t be strange that there are no novels in your house. If you live where there are no seasons, you won’t miss the colors of fall. If you watch fifty TV ads each night, you may forget there is such a thing as wisdom. TV is mostly trivial. It seldom inspires great thoughts or great feelings with glimpses of great Truth. God is the great, absolute, all-shaping Reality. If he gets any air time, He is treated as an opinion. There is no reverence. No trembling. God and all that He thinks about the world is missing. Cut loose from God, everything goes down.”

“Just think how new TV is. In the 2000 years since Christ, TV has shaped only the last 2.5 percent of that history. For 97.5 percent of the time since Jesus, there was no TV. And for 95 percent of this time there was no radio. It arrived on the scene in the early 1900’s. So for 1900 years of Christian history people spent their leisure time doing other things. We wonder, what could they possibly have done? They may have read more. Or discussed things more. For certain they were not bombarded with soul-shrinking, round-the-clock trivialities.”

Pretty hard-hitting, huh? The whole area is worth reflection.

Want some suggestions? Okay, here are twelve books to read in 2008 (one fore each month). 1. John Stott, Basic Christianity (IVP). 2. R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Tyndale House). 3. John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Crossway). 4. Don Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation (Baker). 5. J.C. Ryle, Holiness (Evangelical Press). 6. J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (Eerdmans). 7. J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Crossway Books). 8. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans). 9. David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Eerdmans). 10. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Crossway). 11. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans). 12. Westminster Confession of Faith (Free Presbyterian Publications).

Happy reading and Merry Christmas!

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan


Monday, December 06, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Lessons and Carols

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Lessons and Carols”
First Published: November 27, 2007

Derek and I will begin our sermon series on the famous “Nine Lessons and Carols” from King’s College, Cambridge, this Lord’s Day. Derek will start off in the morning services with the First Lesson: “God tells sinful Adam that he has lost the life of Paradise and that his seed will bruise the serpent’s head.” The reading is from Genesis 3 and I think Derek is titling the message something like “Christmas from afar.” The point is that the Christmas story begins with “the Fall” and the first promise of God. Until we understand our sin and need we can’t understand the glory of grace and the gift of Christ.

Then, on Sunday evening, we’ll consider the Second Lesson: “God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” The reading is from Genesis 22, in the beautiful old King James Version. Actually it is just verses 15-18.

“And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, and said, By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply
thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.”

These are hugely important words. As far as we know, the last words God ever spoke to Abraham. In them, the Lord emphatically reaffirms his covenant promises to Abraham in order to give him assurance. Indeed, the passage makes clear that one consequence of Abraham’s heroic obedience in being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac was God’s special word of assurance to him. The reward of Abraham’s obedience is assurance, and the Lord honors him by reaffirming and expanding his covenantal commitments to him.
Specifically, God reiterates four things.
  1. “I will greatly bless you.” God confirms his unchanging covenantal favor.
  2. “I will greatly multiply your seed.” God confirms his promise to make Abraham a father of nations (cf. Genesis 22:20-24).
  3. “Your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies.” God forecasts the conquest of Canaan and the church’s inheritance of the world (Romans 4:13, Matthew 5:5).
  4. “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” God reaffirms his purpose in blessing Abraham: that Abraham might be a blessing.
In this word of confirmation, the Lord employs shocking language: “I swear by myself.” He must witness to himself for there is none higher. Hebrews 6:13-18 explains and applies the meaning of this glorious Old Testament passage in detail. The great stress of the passage is the certainty of God’s promise and thus of our assurance.

“For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, "Surely I will bless you and multiply you." And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.”

Come expectantly this Lord’s Day as we prepare to feast, all month long, on the grand story of our redemption.

Your friend,
Ligon Duncan


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Looking Back on Balaam

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Looking Back on Balaam”
First Publshed: November 6, 2007

[editorial note: all of Dr Duncan’s sermons on the book of Numbers may be found HERE]

I am loving preparing for and delivering the Sunday evening messages on Numbers. We are now in a very exciting section of this amazing (and undeservedly overlooked) book. In fact, the three chapters we are currently in (22-24) some of the most gripping history and powerful theological teaching found in the whole book. The stories concerning Balaam, Balak and the attempt to curse Israel are spellbinding and subtle.

To help us prepare for this coming Sunday night sermon on “Balaam’s Ass” let’s remind ourselves of what we have learned. The whole account is filled with humor (sometimes hilarious satire and irony), and also deadly serious encounters and truth. It has unexpected twists and turns and leaves hanging on the edge of our seat to find out what is going to happen next, and often wondering why what has already happened happened!

The whole story serves to highlight God’s sovereignty and the unshakeable certainty of his gracious blessing on his covenant people. Let’s recount the scenario.

1. Israel is within sight of the promised land now, and news of their victories have spread throughout Moab.
2. Balak, the Moabite king, decides to call on supernatural help in defending himself against Israel.
3. He calls for the region-wide famous Balaam of Mesopotamia. He asks this prophet/sorcerer to curse Israel, offering him an impressive fee to do so.
4. Surprisingly, especially to the first time reader or hearer of this story, this pagan eastern prophet/magician inquires of the Lord (yes, the one true God, the God of Abraham, the God of Israel) as to whether he can do this. God says no - emphatically.
5. Balak is undeterred but a little miffed, so he sends another even more impressive embassy to Balaam, with an offer of more cash.
6. Balaam is again told by God that he can’t curse Israel, but is given permission to go.

One of the big issues that commentators and readers struggle with in this passage is what to make of Balaam. For instance, even though he is approached by Balak to curse Israel, he insists on praying to the Lord, the true God, to ask him what he ought to do. And then later in the passage he serves as an oracle to reveal the message of the true God. So, does Moses want us to view him in a positive light? Do we view him as basically a good prophet gone bad (because of the bribes of Balak)?

Well, last Sunday night we argued no! For two reasons. First, it is the uniform testimony of the rest of Scripture that Balaam was a hireling, socerer and enemy of God’s people. Deuteronomy 23:4-5, for instance, speak of Balaam being “hired” to curse Israel (not a flattering depiction of a religious figure!) And of God thwarting his curse. Joshua 13:22 accuses Balaam of practicing “divination” – which was forbidden by God’s Law. 2 Peter 2:15 speaks of Balaam . . . “who loved gain from wrongdoing” and Jesus condemns members of the church in Pergamum in Revelation 2:14 for holding to “the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.” So the Bible does not think kindly of Balaam.

Second, there is evidence within the story itself, for how we are to think of Balaam: (1) Balaam is offered and seems to be interested in receiving money for his skills [22:8, 19]. (2) Balaam resorts to omens [24:1], an abominable practice forbidden in Israel in Deut 18:10. (3) Balaam’s donkey shows more awareness of and sensitivity to the presence of the Lord than does Balaam! [22:23, 25, 27, 33] (4) God declares his will through both the donkey [22:27-30] and Balaam, lest we think the messenger here is holy! So, Balaam doesn’t actually come off looking so good as he may appear to at first.

Join us on Sunday night as the story continues.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan