Friday, February 26, 2010

Daily Bible Reading - February 26 - Feasts and Faith

As we turn the corner and head to the conclusion of Leviticus, today's reading contained instructions for the feasts Israel was to observe each year (especially Leviticus 23). In addition to the weekly Sabbath day (23:3), Israel was to commemorate the following special days:
  • The Passover (23:4-8), on the 14th day of the first month
  • The Feast of Firstfruits (23:9-14), after the harvest
  • The Feast of Weeks (23:15-22), seven weeks after the sheave offering
  • The Feast of Trumpets (23:23-25), on the 1st day of the seventh month
  • The Day of Atonement (23:26-32), on the 10th day of the seventh month
  • The Feast of Booths (23:33-43), beginning on the 15th day of the seventh month
These various observances reminded Israel of their year-round obligation to be in fellowship with God. Many of these days coincided with the agricultural cycles of Israel, yet unlike their pagan neighbors who worshiped nature and the cycles of planting and harvest, Israel clearly distinguished the one God from nature.

As we will see in the rest of the Old Testament, while these special days should have served as important reminders, Israel often neglected to follow the calendar of holy days. And even when the nation did keep the Sabbaths and festivals, they often did so in a ritualistic fashion, thinking only of the observance and not of the God who was to be remembered.

In the New Testament the only "special day" designated for Christians under the new covenant is the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2). The day of Jesus' resurrection is the day we are to gather to remember Him (this included the very first day of the preaching of the apostles, since the Feast of Weeks - Pentecost - fell on the first day of the week). But like Israel, we can easily take these regular assemblies for granted, viewing them as perfunctory duties to check off rather than reminders of the God we serve.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Daily Bible Reading - February 25 - The Second Greatest Commandment

Today's reading in Leviticus (chapters 19-20) was a lot easier for me than the others, since I could more readily understand some of the legislation recorded in those chapters. And of course, having read Genesis and Exodus and most of Leviticus by now (not to mention Psalm 110 earlier this week), the arguments of the writer of Hebrews in today's NT reading (Heb. 7) made a lot more sense as well.

Undoubtedly because of my conditioning from the NT, the phrase I specifically latched on to today in Leviticus was Lev. 19:18 - "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." In the middle of this myriad of laws and statutes, the Lord reminds the people that behind all of these laws was a very simple ethic, the ethic of love.

In Matthew 22:36-40 Jesus summarized the entire Torah as consisting of two commands: the command to love the one God with the whole being (from Deut. 6:4-5); and the command to love your neighbor as yourself from Lev. 19:18. Everything, He says, hinges on these two commands. And while they are simple, they are so very difficult to obey when someone or something draws us away from God, or some grudge or offense turns us against our neighbor. "Tough love" is a well-worn cliche, but often we use it to describe what we are going to do to others rather than what we need to do ourselves. Loving God the way the Bible says, and loving others the way the Bible says, now that is "tough love."

Interestingly (to me at least), two authors often pitted against each other - Paul and James - both use this very same passage in Lev. 19:18 to make the very same point. Both Paul and James agree that genuine faith displays itself in works (Gal. 5:6; James 2:20), and both specifically cite Lev. 19:18 as the summary of what genuine faith in action looks like.
  • Gal. 5:13-14 - "For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'"
  • James 2:8 - "If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' you are doing well."
Love is so fundamental, and reflects the reality of genuine faith. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Does God Have "Two Wills"?

Those who hold to the Calvinistic concept of predestination believe that God predetermined everything that would happen. The Westminster Confession of Faith outlined this decree and its ramifications in this way:

I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.

IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.

V. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace.

VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.
In summary, God decreed from eternity which specified individuals He would give faith to and save, and which He would not give faith to and ordain for wrath.

Such a teaching seems to run counter to passages like 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9, which say that God desires all men to be saved and is not willing that any should perish. In Calvinistic theology, one way this apparent contradiction is handled is by positing two wills of God. There are different terms used to describe these two wills, but the essential distinction is between God's revealed will and His secret will. In His revealed will, God has declared His desire to save all men. But in His unrevealed or secret will, He has decreed that only certain individuals will be given faith and saved.

One proponent of this explanation is John Piper:

Affirming the will of God to save all, while also affirming the unconditional election of some, implies that there are at least "two wills" in God, or two ways of willing. It implies that God decrees one state of affairs while also willing and teaching that a different state of affairs should come to pass. This distinction in the way God wills has been expressed in various ways throughout the centuries. It is not a new contrivance. For example, theologians have spoken of sovereign will and moral will, efficient will and permissive will, secret will and revealed will, will of decree and will of command, decretive will and preceptive will, voluntas signi (will of sign) and voluntas beneplaciti (will of good pleasure), etc.
Is this a legitimate argument?

Piper is correct that the phrase "the will of God" can be used in two ways. Sometimes the Bible speaks of the "will of God" in the sense of that which He desires that we do, but permits us not to. "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality" (1 Thess. 4:3). God has revealed His desire that Christians abstain from fornication. That is His desire, or His preferred will. But Christians may choose to ignore this desire and commit sin. God does not cause us to sin - we choose to sin (James 1:13). We sin because we choose to ignore God's desired will. The Bible often speaks of God's will in this sense of what He prefers or desires (Mark 3:35; Eph. 6:6; 1 Thess. 5:18; Heb. 10:36; 1 Peter 4:2; 1 John 2:17).

On the other hand, the Bible sometimes speaks of the will of God in the sense of what God desires to happen AND causes to happen. These are matters which God not only desired to happen, but actually made to happen. They do not involve human freedom or choice. The classic example of this would be creation. "Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created" (Rev. 4:11). God not only desired for there to be a creation, He caused it to happen. The same is true with God's plan of redemption. God determined to save sinners though His Son (1 Peter 1:20). This was something He desired to do and caused to happen by sending Jesus to die for sinners.

So I have no problem speaking of God having "two wills"- or even using some of the standard theological terms:
  • God's permissive will = God desires but permits man to act otherwise
  • God's efficient will = God desires and God causes to happen
God in His great mercy chose to offer salvation through the death of His Son. He both desired to do this and caused this (His efficient will). God desires that everyone respond to this gift, but He permits us to do otherwise (His permissive will). These two wills are in harmony with each other.

When Piper and other Calvinists say that God has "two wills," they mean something much different. They mean that at the same time God expresses that He desires all men to be saved (His "revealed will") that He does not desire all men to be saved (His "secret will" - the eternal decree).

The issue is not, "does God have two wills?" The issue is, does God express one thing in His revealed will that He has already in His eternal decree specifically foreordained otherwise? This is inherently contradictory!

Many Calvinistic writers acknowledge this, and opt for interpretations of passages like 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 that limit the seeming universal scope of God's saving desire. While I don't agree with those interpretations, they are certainly an improvement over the dubious view of the two wills of God argued by Piper and others.

Daily Bible Reading - February 24 - Justice for Leah

Back when the daily reading schedule was going through Genesis, I found myself profoundly affected by the story of Leah. She was essentially used as a pawn by her conniving father, she was disrespected by her husband Jacob, and she was apparently not as attractive as her sister Rachel. Leah couldn't win.

Making matters worse, she was put in a cruel competition with her sister as one of the wives of Jacob, a competition she could never win. No woman should have to live in such a frustrating and unjust relationship. In the OT, although many men practiced polygamy, nowhere did God condone, and frankly, nowhere did it ever produce loving, stable homes.

So today while reading through Leviticus, I was struck by this statute: "And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive" (Lev. 18:18). I had never noticed this law before, but since the story of Leah was still fresh on my mind, I guess it made a bigger impression than other times I have read through this chapter.

What this legislation illustrates is that God permitted certain things in the days of the patriarchs that He no longer permitted when He entered into covenant with Israel. And in the same way, by the time of the new covenant, God no longer accepts certain practices that He did under the Law of Moses (such as divorce - see Matthew 19:1-9). God's standards of holiness intensify rather than weaken as His plan unfolds.

Perhaps it is the sappy romantic in me, but I really hope that when this statute was revealed to Israel, the descendants of Leah reflected back on what their ancestor suffered, and rejoiced that God intended to make sure no woman would ever be put in her position again. And of course, all of us need to make sure we treat women with the dignity and respect that those living under the blessing of the new covenant are expected to (1 Peter 3:7).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Daily Bible Reading - February 23 - Clean and Unclean

Today's reading from Leviticus 12-14 contains several laws regarding cleanness and uncleanness. As you can see in the the text, there were several ways a person could become unclean, and since many of these issues were connected with normal bodily functions, it was inevitable that every Israelite would be unclean at many points in their life.

I am not sure I will ever fully understand the rationale behind all of these laws. Certainly there were health reasons to seclude those who had communicable diseases, but that is hardly the primary reason behind these laws, since most forms of uncleanness had nothing to do with disease. I do think there are several important factors behind these laws:
  1. They reminded the people that God was King of every aspect of their lives, even the most intimate and personal matters.
  2. They reminded the people that God must be approached reverently, and if that was true with regard to physical cleanness, how much more was it true of spiritual purity?
  3. They made is impossible to mix sex with worship, which was sadly a staple of pagan religious practice (and a sin Israel was susceptible to in its history)
  4. They reminded the people that God is the God of Life, and therefore only those whole and complete could come before Him worship.
Perhaps you can think of other reasons for these laws. And of course, these laws only serve to highlight how great Jesus is. Lepers and other diseased people touched Him, and instead of Him becoming unclean, He cleansed them! What a Savior.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Daily Bible Reading - February 22 - Food and Fellowship

The section of Leviticus featured in today's reading contains the food laws for Israel (Leviticus 11). These laws are the basis of the diet for observant Jews even to today, and are very similar to the laws followed by Muslims. These food laws undoubtedly had many purposes, but one of the primary purposes of these laws was to clearly distinguish Israel from other nations.

In the NT period, issues regarding food were a huge practical problem for the early Christians. On the one hand, there were Jewish Christians who found eating with Gentiles to be an idea difficult to swallow (hardee-har-har!). This was due to the concern over eating unclean food, combined with the general distaste for associating with Gentiles. In Acts 10, God had to give Peter (who claimed never to have "eaten anything that is common or unclean" - v. 14) three special visions to convince him that God had made all foods clean (as Jesus taught in Mark 7:19). Later, when news of Peter's work with Cornelius and his household became known in Jerusalem, some Jews condemned him because he "went to uncircumcised men and ate with them" (Acts 11:3).

One of my best friends is a former Muslim, and after his conversion he eventually began to eat pork. When he later contracted a skin condition, his parents were sure it was due to his diet, and said something along the lines of "no telling what he is eating hanging around with all those white people!" Undoubtedly that is what some Jews must have thought about Peter and his association with Gentiles.

On the other hand, Gentiles had to wrestle with the practices of their background, in which pagan temples often hosted meals. Additionally, much of the meat sold at market was purchased from temples. To what extent could they participate in those meals, or purchase that meat? In 1 Corinthians 8-10 Paul explains that while they could eat meat purchased from a temple at home, they were not to do so if it might cause someone to stumble, and under no circumstances were they to participate in functions at the temples.

In the old covenant, food kept people apart. But under the new covenant, food no longer separates the clean from the unclean. And in the one bread and one cup of the Lord's supper, we can be one body.