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How to "Test the Spirits"

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.

(2 Timothy 2.14-17)

In Timothy’s day, there were many people presenting as God’s word what was really their own mistaken opinion.  Not much has changed!  Then, as now, even the efforts by those who preached the truth too often descended into “irreverent babble.”  When two people disagree about God’s will or word, both usually cite supporting Scriptures; but neither is convinced, and out of a desire to justify themselves, they pull apart each other’s cherry-picked verses, often resorting to redefining words in common use.  There are today a wide variety of resources for Bible study, including complete translations, as well as supplemental materials.  Much—perhaps most—of it is garbage, but that still leaves an enormous amount that is excellent, albeit imperfect.  This blessing is turned into a curse, when we use them inappropriately. 

For example, self-taught novices or M.Div-holding ministry professionals who once took two “Beginner” courses on Greek and Hebrew, anoint themselves as experts and proceed to lecture the world about the true meaning of the Bible in its original languages, on the basis of false etymologies, uncommon definitions, and motivated readings.  Worse, people who beforehand were perfectly content to read the Bible in a decent translation and exercise their own rationality in interpreting it while giving a healthy dose of deference to the wisdom of the ages, end up believing the nonsense, out of novelty bias or misplaced trust in someone who seems to know what he’s talking about.  But we’re not supposed do this!  “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1Jn 4.1). 

These resources are wonderful blessings!  But they must all be handled with discernment.  You probably know to be careful even about trusting a do-it-yourself instructional video on the internet.  How much more care should you take, in determining whether to trust someone’s interpretation of God’s word?  A handful of observations can help you decide.

Results

Paul said the false teachings “ruin” (2Ti 2.14) the people who receive them—will spreading them bring different results?  No, it “will lead people into more and more ungodliness” (v16).  Is the teacher’s own life a shambles? 

Expertise

“Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads” (De 1.13).  Is there reason to trust claims the teacher makes, if you can’t verify them directly?  Is he missing something that would go without saying, for an actual expert?

Reactions

“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Pr 18.17).  Do other, reasonable people take the idea seriously?  What objections do they raise?  Are their concerns valid?

Marketing

Writing about false prophets, Peter warned, “in their greed they will exploit you with false words” (2Pe 2.3).  Is the teacher trying to sell you something?  If so, it doesn’t necessarily mean his teaching is false; but it’s a factor.

Reasoning

“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Pr 18.13).  To what does the teacher appeal?  Does he make naked assertions, or well-crafted arguments?  Are his premises sound?  Do they actually lead to the proposed conclusion, or are they merely backfill to shore up a pre-existing conclusion?

Consensus

“Where there is no guidance, a people falls,

but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Pr 11.14).  Do a variety of independent teachers agree on the point in question, or is it just one oddball?  Being odd doesn’t make him wrong; but why haven’t other, seemingly sincere and rational teachers reached the same conclusion?

Violence

“Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set” (Pr 22.28).  It’s a mistake to use a jackhammer for a job a screwdriver will do, and you should be wary of Biblical interpretations whose effects cascade down to require that you drastically alter your understanding of the surrounding context, gut 50 other passages of their plain meaning, or fracture an entire worldview that seemed to hold together, previously.  If you were wrong about those other things before, then some violence needs to be done!  But be very careful to avoid tearing down things that were put in place for good reason!

§

None of these factors outweighs all the others, or on its own validates or discredits a Biblical interpretation.  But when you take them all into account, you’ll have a strong basis for accepting or rejecting the teaching and moving on, rather than getting bogged down in the sort of distracting mumbo-jumbo arguments Paul told Timothy to avoid.  Then, rather than engaging in pointless arguing, you can focus on your own sanctification.

Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.

(2 Timothy 2.21)

 

Jeremy Nettles

Jerusalem the Golden

Sunday, January 14, 2024

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

(Hebrews 12.22-24)

In the 12th century AD a French Benedictine monk, Bernard of Cluny, wrote a long poem in Latin, entitled De contemptu mundi—“On Contempt for the World.”  In it, he mocked the sins and failings he saw, both in the world and in the religious establishment.  Writing satire, he exaggerated the moral degradation in order to make his point; but the substance of his accusations and observations served to demonstrate the universality of sin and the corruption of the world, even among those who professed to be God’s people.  But his goal was not simply to tear down the present age; rather, he wished to draw a contrast between the despicable state of the world, and the perfection of heaven.  In 1851, Anglican priest Jason M. Neale published his translation of this section of the poem into English verse.  Several popular hymns grew out of this effort, including the most enduring, Jerusalem the Golden.  It begins:

Jerusalem the golden,

        with milk and honey blest,

beneath thy contemplation

        sink heart and soul oppressed.

I know not, O I know not

        what joys await us there,

what radiancy of glory,

        what light beyond compare.

Most of this hymn is composed of lines from Scripture, supplemented with brief commentary.  John’s Revelation ends with a vision of “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (21.10), whose elaborate description includes the detail that “the city was pure gold, like clear glass” (v18).  The very next line continues the comparison to the earthly Jerusalem, invoking God’s oft-repeated promise to lead Israel into “a land flowing with milk and honey” (e.g. Ex 3.8), which is symbolic of the rest that awaits his people now (He 4.6-11).

Yet, despite the abundant promises and occasional descriptions of heaven, we must acknowledge that we’re only glimpsing the faintest hint of its true form, and even that is a stretch for our meager imagination!  John’s description above, that the city was made entirely of “pure gold, like clear glass” should be enough to clue us in—gold, you will note, is not typically transparent.  These images are symbolic representations, for us to picture in our feeble minds, and wonder.  Yet we recognize that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1Co 13.12).

They stand, those halls of Zion,

        all jubilant with song,

and bright with many an angel,

        and all the martyr throng;

the Prince is ever in them,

        the daylight is serene:

the pastures of the blessed

        are decked in glorious sheen.

Again, these lines draw from Revelation.  Chapter 7 describes “a great multitude” (v9) of those “coming out of the great tribulation” (v14) including those who died for their faith, who “are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple” (v15).  In chapter 14, those who wear the seal of God sing “a new song before the throne” (v3).  As for the Prince, he is Jesus, and he shines like the sun for the whole city:

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.

(Revelation 21.23-25)

The hymn continues:

There is the throne of David,

        and there, from care released,

the shout of them that triumph,

        the song of them that feast;

and they, who with their Leader,

        have conquered in the fight,

forever and forever

        are clad in robes of white.

God had repeatedly promised to set the Messiah on David’s throne, and Gabriel reiterated this to Mary, when he notified her that she would give birth to God’s Son: “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David” (Lk 1.32).  Of course, the physical throne of David was long gone by this point; and Jesus never occupied the political position of monarch, in the way so many of the Jews expected of the Messiah.  David’s throne is in heaven, where Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (He 1.3), after completing his mission and returning to his home triumphant.

O sweet and blessed country,

        when shall I see thy face?

O sweet and blessed country,

        when shall I win thy grace?

Exult, O dust and ashes,

        the Lord shall by thy part:

His only, His forever

        thou shalt be, and thou art.

The hymn closes by stepping back to take in the whole scene, in our mind’s eye.  Even in our insufficient imagination, the contrast between this contemptible world and the actual presence of God cannot be overstated!  How wonderful it is, that the Almighty and righteous Father of all creation cares for such sinful beings as we, who are “but dust and ashes” before him (Ge 18.27)!  At present, our lot is to serve the Lord in this corrupted world; but he has allowed us, like Moses, to peer across the river into the promised land, gazing from afar on the rest that awaits us.  Let us hold fast to that hope, and pursue its fulfillment with endurance, clarity, and focus!

Jeremy Nettles

The Fall of David

Sunday, January 07, 2024

Our classes at River Ridge have just picked up in the latter half of 2 Samuel, which is a difficult portion of the Bible to study.  Nearly everyone knows of King David, and most Christians know he served to foreshadow Christ himself.  As such, we have a soft spot in our hearts for David, and—quite rightly—we remember the good things about the character and actions of the man after God’s own heart (1Sa 13.14).  But not many of these good things are to be found, in this part of his story!  Here, we see his struggles and failures.

This whole business began, of course, when David sinned with Bathsheba, then compounded his transgression by trying to cover it up, eventually having her husband, Uriah, unjustly killed.  While this was certainly not the only time in David’s life when he sinned, it’s the one that most stands out, as we read in a later portion of Israel’s story,

David did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

(1 Kings 15.5)

Through Nathan the prophet, God prescribed consequences for David’s sin:

“Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.’”

(2 Samuel 12.11-12)

And what happened?  From this point forward in David’s reign, he behaved as if morally paralyzed by his own failure.  This was a man who once saw clearly to pronounce immediate sentence on men who claimed to have done David favors by performing a coup de grace on King Saul in once case, and putting his northern, rival king to death in another.  Now, in response to an incestuous rape, a grotesque transgression of God’s law and social norms within his own household, David “was very angry” (2Sa 13.21), but did not act to pursue justice in his very own family!  The text does not expressly tell us that David had lost confidence in his own judgment, or that he now felt incapable of decreeing any legitimate penalty, due to his keen awareness of his own sins; but that’s a very reasonable explanation for this surprising pattern of behavior.

As a direct result of David’s inaction following this incident, enemies began to arise against him.  The first of these was Absalom, the full brother of Tamar, the rape victim.  As God had predicted, so it transpired.  Absalom’s rebellion, ending with the young man’s death and immense grief for David, was a fitting punishment, considering his own crime.  He had tarnished the sanctity of the marriage between Uriah and Bathsheba, not to mention his own.  He was willing to demolish a household modeled after God’s design, for the sake of fleeting gratification.  Now, the same brand of destruction came to his own household, from the same root cause.  As the account continues, there is more turmoil in David’s realm, which once had been been the picture of a wise and benevolent monarch with his loyal subjects.  What started so well, was much degraded by David’s final years.

Why?  The root cause, of course, was sin.  David repented, and God forgave his disgraceful behavior toward Bathsheba and Uriah.

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”

(2 Samuel 12.13)

Yet there were consequences in the physical world that reached much farther than David could have imagined, when he “sent messengers and took [Bathsheba], and she came to him, and he lay with her” (2Sa 11.4). 

It’s worth pausing on this point for a moment, to take note of the reason for this.  It is not, as we may have thought, that the spiritual realm is soft and fuzzy, but incapable of affecting the real, physical world.  Rather, God’s judgment is both real and final; but the broken world, tainted as it is by our sins, cannot measure up to that spiritual ideal.  It’s the physical world that’s defective.  God had cast away David’s guilt and pronounced him blameless; yet we humans struggle to see clearly through God’s eyes, and for us the memory of sin remains, leading to a cascade of further troubles in this world.  There’s a lesson here for us: no matter what evil you’ve done, forgiveness is available—but for the present, you still must live with the consequences, many of which will prove to be spiritual challenges in and of themselves!

So what should we do?  Don’t sin, in the first place!  But if you already have, then seek forgiveness and reconciliation, both in heaven and on earth.  Then, buckle up and face your temporal consequences, clinging to the hope of an eternal reward.

David’s fall serves mostly to illustrate why Jesus is better.  He committed no sin, and gave us no reason to be disappointed in him, or to turn toward another leader.  Despite partaking of our fleshly weakness, he maintains his ability, his authority, and his confidence to pronounce judgment and keep his house in order!  That’s great, when you’re innocent; but terrifying when you’re the transgressor!  Psalm 2, written by David (Ac 4.25), but about Christ, tells us how to position ourselves:

Serve the Lord with fear,

        and rejoice with trembling.

Kiss the Son,

        lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,

        for his wrath is quickly kindled.

Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

(Psalm 2.11-12)

Jeremy Nettles

How to Read the Bible

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Many people make use of read-the-Bible-in-a-year plans, and often decide, around this point on the calendar, to undertake the task over the incoming year.  There are countless options from which to choose, but the following is a weekly schedule that I’ve constructed over the past year, taking account of both the timeline and the themes involved in God’s great letter to mankind.  I hope you will use it.  Whether you use this plan or another; whether you follow it strictly or space it out over two years or more; even if you simply start at Genesis 1.1 and turn each page in order until you reach Revelation 22.21, the important thing is to read God’s word.

  • Week 1:

Proverbs 8-9; Genesis 1;

Psalm* 8; Genesis 2; Psalm 148;

Genesis 3-14; Psalm 91;

Genesis 15-20; Psalm 113;

Genesis 21-22

 

  • Week 2:

Genesis 23-38; Psalm 25; 1 Chronicles 1

 

  • Week 3:

Psalm 119; Proverbs 1-5; Genesis 39;

Psalm 4; Genesis 40;

Psalm 13; Genesis 41-50; Proverbs 30

 

  • Week 4:

Psalm 128; Job 1-37

 

  • Week 5:

Job 38-42; Psalm 104;

Exodus 1-4; Psalm 53;

Exodus 5-15

 

  • Week 6:

Exodus 16-17; Psalm 47;

Exodus 18-32

 

  • Week 7:

Exodus 33-34; Psalm 103;

Psalm 67; Exodus 35-40;

Leviticus 1-11

 

  • Week 8:

Leviticus 12-27

 

  • Week 9:

Numbers 1-15; Psalm 27;

Numbers 16-17; Psalm 90

 

  • Week 10:

Numbers 18-21; Psalm 149;

Numbers 22-25; Psalm 81;

Numbers 26-32; Psalm 136;

Numbers 33-34

 

  • Week 11:

Numbers 35-36;

Deuteronomy 1-16

 

  • Week 12:

Deuteronomy 17-34

 

  • Week 13:

Psalm 105; Joshua 1-10;

Psalm 33; Joshua 11-17;

Psalm 118; Joshua 18

 

  • Week 14:

Joshua 19; Psalm 16; Joshua 20-24;

Judges 1-5; Psalm 44;

Judges 6; Psalm 86;

Judges 7-8; Psalm 94;

Judges 9

 

  • Week 15:

Judges 10; Psalm 83;

Judges 11-15;

Proverbs 7; Judges 16-19; Psalm 10;

Judges 20-21; Ruth

 

  • Week 16:

1 Samuel 1-2; Psalm 77;

Psalm 131; 1 Samuel 3; Psalm 1;

1 Samuel 4-7; Psalm 106;

1 Samuel 8-11; Psalm 121;

1 Samuel 12-15; Psalm 50;

Psalm 19; 1 Samuel 16; Psalm 23

 

  • Week 17:

1 Samuel 17; Psalm 144;

1 Samuel 18; Psalm 88;

1 Samuel 19; Psalm 59;

1 Samuel 20; Psalm 17; Psalm 56;

1 Samuel 21; Psalm 34; Psalm 57;

1 Samuel 22; Psalm 52;

1 Samuel 23; Psalm 54;

Psalm 7; 1 Samuel 24;

Proverbs 31; Psalm 14; 1 Samuel 25-31

 

  • Week 18:

2 Samuel 1; Psalm 21;

2 Samuel 2-4; Psalm 145; Psalm 76;

2 Samuel 5; Psalm 18;

2 Samuel 6; Psalm 24;

2 Samuel 7; Psalm 2;

2 Samuel 8; Psalm 60;

2 Samuel 9-10; Psalm 20;

2 Samuel 11-12; Psalm 51;

2 Samuel 13-17; Psalm 3

 

  • Week 19:

2 Samuel 18-19; Psalm 15;

2 Samuel 20-23; Psalm 63;

2 Samuel 24; Psalm 6;

1 Kings 1; Psalm 72;

1 Kings 2-4; Psalm 87;

Song of Solomon

 

  • Week 20:

 

1 Kings 5; Psalm 132;

1 Kings 6-8; Psalm 30;

1 Kings 9-11; Proverbs 10-26

 

  • Week 21:

Proverbs 27-29; 1 Kings 12-16; Psalm 42;

1 Kings 17-18; Psalm 58; Psalm 93;

1 Kings 19; Psalm 43; Psalm 97;

1 Kings 20; Psalm 36;

1 Kings 21-22; Psalm 64; Psalm 68

 

  • Week 22:

2 Kings 1-3; Psalm 46;

2 Kings 4-10; Psalm 26;

2 Kings 11-14; Jonah; Psalm 139

 

  • Week 23:

Psalm 82; Amos; Hosea 1-3; 2 Kings 15;

Hosea 4-14; Joel; 2 Kings 16-17

 

  • Week 24:

Nahum; Micah; 2 Kings 18-19; Psalm 124;

Psalm 102; 2 Kings 20; Psalm 116;

2 Kings 21; Habakkuk;

2 Kings 22; Psalm 135;

2 Kings 23-24; Psalm 74;

2 Kings 25

 

  • Week 25:

Proverbs 6; 1 Chronicles 2-10; Psalm 78;

1 Chronicles 11-16; Psalm 99;

1 Chronicles 17; Psalm 101;

1 Chronicles 18; Psalm 108;

1 Chronicles 19-21

 

  • Week 26:

1 Chronicles 22-28; Psalm 110;

1 Chronicles 29; 2 Chronicles 1-8; Psalm 45;

2 Chronicles 9; Ecclesiastes

 

  • Week 27:

2 Chronicles 10-14; Psalm 28;

2 Chronicles 15; Psalm 115;

2 Chronicles 16-18; Psalm 39;

2 Chronicles 19-20; Psalm 125;

2 Chronicles 21-23; Psalm 126;

2 Chronicles 24; Psalm 134; Psalm 35;

2 Chronicles 25-26; Psalm 48; Isaiah 1-5

 

  • Week 28:

Isaiah 6; 2 Chronicles 27;

Isaiah 7; 2 Chronicles 28;

Isaiah 8-35

 

  • Week 29:

2 Chronicles 29; Psalm 95; Psalm 133;

2 Chronicles 30-31; Isaiah 36-39; Psalm 147;

2 Chronicles 32; Isaiah 40-55

 

  • Week 30:

Isaiah 56-66; 2 Chronicles 33; Jeremiah 1-10

 

  • Week 31:

Zephaniah; Jeremiah 11-20; 2 Chronicles 34-35;

Jeremiah§ 22-23;

Jeremiah 26; Psalm 5;

Daniel 1; Psalm 141

 

  • Week 32:

Jeremiah 25;

Jeremiah 45-47;

Jeremiah 36;

Jeremiah 35; Psalm 127; Daniel 2-4;

Jeremiah 24; 2 Chronicles 36;

Jeremiah 29;

Jeremiah 27-28;

Jeremiah 48-49

 

  • Week 33:

Jeremiah 50-51;

Ezekiel 1-18

 

  • Week 34:

Ezekiel 19-23; Jeremiah 37;

Ezekiel 24-32; Jeremiah 32-34; Psalm 79;

Jeremiah 21

 

  • Week 35:

Jeremiah 38; Psalm 69;

Jeremiah 39; Ezekiel 33-35; Obadiah;

Jeremiah 52; Lamentations; Psalm 137;

Jeremiah 40-44;

Jeremiah 30-31

 

  • Week 36:

Ezekiel 36-48; Daniel 7-8;

Daniel 5; Psalm 75

 

  • Week 37:

Daniel 10-12; Ezra 1-4;

Daniel 9; Ezra 5; Psalm 150;

Haggai; Zechariah 1-6;

Ezra 6; Psalm 96;

Psalm 120; Daniel 6; Psalm 73

 

  • Week 38:

Zechariah 7-14; Psalm 114;

Esther; Psalm 9;

Ezra 7; Psalm 85;

Ezra 8-10

 

  • Week 39:

Nehemiah 1-4; Psalm 62;

Nehemiah 5; Psalm 66;

Nehemiah 6-7; Psalm 122;

Nehemiah 8-13;

Malachi

 

  • Week 40:

Psalm 89; Luke 1-2; Psalm 84;

Luke 3-4; Psalm 146;

Luke 5-8;

Psalm 80; Luke 9-11

 

  • Week 41:

Luke 12-16; Psalm 49;

Luke 17-21; Psalm 109;

Luke 22; Psalm 38;

Luke 23-24

 

  • Week 42:

Acts 1-2; Psalm 100;

Acts 3-4; Psalm 112;

Acts 5-6; Psalm 12;

Acts 7-8; Psalm 130;

Acts 9; Psalm 41; Psalm 70;

Acts 10; Psalm 117;

Acts 11; James

 

  • Week 43:

Matthew 1-15; Psalm 123;

Matthew 16-20

 

  • Week 44:

Matthew 21-25; Psalm 31;

Matthew 26; Psalm 22;

Matthew 27; Psalm 71;

Matthew 28; Psalm 98;

Psalm 142, Acts 12-14;

Psalm 143; Galatians#

 

  • Week 45:

Acts 15-16; Psalm 129;

Acts 17; 1 Thessalonians; 2 Thessalonians;

Acts 18-19;

1 Corinthians 1-14; Psalm 111

 

  • Week 46:

1 Corinthians 15-16;

2 Corinthians;

Psalm 32; Romans 1-11

 

  • Week 47:

Romans 12-16; Acts 20; Psalm 11;

Acts 21-23; Psalm 140;

Acts 24-26; Psalm 138;

Acts 27; Psalm 61;

Acts 28; Ephesians

 

  • Week 48:

Philippians; Colossians; Philemon;

1 Timothy; Titus; 2 Timothy;

Psalm 92; Mark 1-5

 

  • Week 49:

Mark 6; Psalm 65;

Mark 7-13; Psalm 55;

Mark 14-16; 1 Peter

 

  • Week 50:

Psalm 107; Hebrews 1-9;

Psalm 40; Hebrews 10-13;

2 Peter; Jude;

John 1-5

 

  • Week 51:

John 6-21

 

  • Week 52:

1 John; 2 John; 3 John;

Psalm 37; Revelation 1-7;

Psalm 29; Revelation 8-22

 

 

* The Psalms and some selections from Proverbs are placed to complement themes in the narrative portions (and later, the letters).

† It is unknown where Job fits on the timeline, but somewhere roughly contemporary with Israel’s patriarchs is likely.

‡ 1-2 Chronicles covers much of the same time as 1 Samuel through 2 Kings; but with its focus on the southern kingdom of Judah, it will be paired with the prophets whose mission was to that kingdom and its remnant.

§ Beginning with chapter 21, Jeremiah becomes increasingly disorganized with respect to the timeline.  While there may be good thematic reasons for its order in the canon, this schedule attempts to put the remaining chapters into chronological order.

Daniel also is not all arranged in chronological order, and will again be scheduled according to the timeline.

¶ All the Gospels cover the same timeline already traversed in Luke.  The remaining three are arranged to accentuate changing themes in the affairs of the church during the course of its first several decades.

# Paul’s letters are arranged in the canon according to length.  On this schedule, they (and the rest of the letters) are arranged chronologically, to the extent possible.

The Last Days

Sunday, December 24, 2023

There is a branch of religious scholarship called eschatology—the study of last things.  Its chief aim is to predict the details of the end of the present age, because while every Christian school of thought agrees that Jesus will return, other questions remain, such as what specific events will precede his coming, and what sort of age will then commence.

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.

(1 Corinthians 15.22-25)

Paul’s concern here was not to lay out a detailed schedule, but rather to answer a false teaching being entertained in the church at Corinth, to the effect that “there is no resurrection of the dead” (v12).  Perhaps that should tell us something about the relative importance of eschatological inquiry. As we consider this passage, it illuminates the silliness of our piddly arguments about minor details in two ways.

First, Paul said that Jesus “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (v25).  His point relies on the unstated observation, made explicit by the author of Hebrews, that “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (He 2.8).  Jesus himself said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me (Mt 28.18); but his reign is not yet fully established.  When it has been fully established, then he will hand his kingdom back to his Father.  He reigns now, on account of his resurrection—his victory over death.  His death was, in turn, his victory over sin.  And yet, sin and death persist in this world, so it’s clear these spiritual enemies have not been destroyed!  How can this be?

This mirrors one of many “foolish, ignorant controversies” that primarily serve to “breed quarrels” (2Ti 2.23).  At one extreme are those who profess Christ, and insist that his sovereignty is the whole issue—that is, individuals have no ability to affect their own eternal destiny in any way, because God “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Ro 9.18), and therefore every minuscule event is a reflection of God’s sovereign will.  At the other extreme are those who profess Christ, and insist that “the god of this world,” Satan, is the one behind practically every minuscule event (2Co 4.4).

Both sides have a point; but both take it too far!  At one extreme, they use a caricature of God’s sovereignty to absolve themselves of the responsibility to wrestle with moral decisions, and to justify themselves while judging others.  At the other extreme, they use a caricature of Satan’s sovereignty to…absolve themselves of the responsibility to wrestle with moral decisions, and to justify themselves while judging others.  Why do these opposite extremes lead to the same sins?  Because they’re both wrong!  But what is the truth?  Jesus does reign today, but while his kingdom is partly in the world, it does not dominate the world.  One day, every knee will bow before the King; but today, the great majority rebel and deny his authority.

But when will this happen?  If the process of putting all things under Christ’s feet has already begun, when will it end, and how will it look?  Phrases like “the last days” appear frequently in the Old Testament, informing most eschatological models.  In the New Testament, Paul and Peter wrote of the “last days” in terms of future expectation:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.

(2 Timothy 3.1)

…scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”

(2 Peter 3.3-4)

Yet, while these imply the “last days” were, at the time of their writing, yet to come, the author of Hebrews frames it differently:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…

(Hebrews 1.1-2)

Peter also, at the very birth of the church, said the “last days” were the present time:

“For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…’”

(Acts 2.15-17)

The last days had already begun, nearly two thousand years ago!  Yet, paradoxically, they are also coming.  The period of Christ’s reign—while his kingdom is established on earth, but does not dominate it—is the final age, as Paul also wrote that “the end of the ages has come” upon us (1Co 10.11).  Clearly, there is an end in view—Jesus’ return, which will be, so to speak, the last of the last days.  But in broad terms, we’re already in the midst of  the last days, and understanding this helps us to avoid much of the confusion about the end of the world.  This is good, because we’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

(Mark 13.32)

Do you really think we will prove Jesus wrong on this point?  As in every controversy among those who profess to follow Christ, the answer is not to be found in arguing endlessly about our own ideas or interpretations.  Our job is simple: be ready.  “Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come” (Mk 13.33).

Jeremy Nettles

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