Friday, 18 July 2014

Does God tempt us?

Here is the first of two sections of discussion of the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4 from David Platt's new commentary (2013) on Matthew in the new Christ-Centered Exposition commentary series, published by Holman Reference (p. 66-67):
Matthew 4:1 says that Jesus was led "by the Spirit" to be tempted by the Devil in the wilderness.  But in what sense did the Spirit lead Jesus to be tempted?  Did the Spirit of God tempt Jesus?  The clear answer from Scripture is, "No."  God never tempts us in the sense of enticing us to evil.  James 1:13 says, "No one undergoing a trial should say, 'I am being tempted by God.'"  Instead, Satan is seen in Scripture as "the tempter" (Matt. 4:3).  Therefore, we can say that we are tempted by Satan (who is subordinate) for evil.  Only the Devil and demons tempt us to evil, but even their tempting, though directly attributable to them, is ultimately under the sovereign control of God.  Nothing happens in the universe apart from the sovereignty of God.
     There is a flip side to Satan's temptations in Matthew 4:  We are tested by God (who is sovereign) for good.  If we put the two points together we can say that temptation by the Devil (who is subordinate) toward evil is ultimately a part of a testing by God (who is sovereign) for good.  The book of Job teaches us that Satan is on a leash; he can do nothing that God does not allow him to do.  Now to be sure, when Satan tempts, he intends it for evil, but God uses these temptations to refine His children and to teach them His faithfulness (Jas 1:2; 1 Pet 1:6-7).  The apostle Paul experienced this when God gave him a "thorn in the flesh...a messenger from Satan" to torment him (2 Cor 12:7).  The purpose of the trial was so that Paul would know the strength and sufficiency of Christ (2 Cor 12:9-10).  Consider also Joseph in the Old Testament, who was sold into slavery and tempted in a number of ways.  God used these trials to bring about good - for Joseph and for his brothers who sold him into slavery (Gen 50:20).
     We can say definitively that God was not tempting Jesus, nor was He tempting Adam, Joseph, Israel, or Paul, toward evil.  For that matter, He will never tempt you toward evil.  Instead, in His sovereignty, God uses even Satan's temptations to evil in order to bring about good in your life (Rom 8:28).
While I agree overall with what Platt is saying here, there are some clarifications which I think need to be made.  Platt rightly points to James to show that we can never say that God is tempting us toward sin.  However, he then goes on to say that it is Satan who tempts us.  This is partially true, or it is entirely true but only part of the time.  There are many places in Scripture which clearly point to Satan as the source of temptation, not least of which is the first temptation which lead to the original sin of the garden, and of course also the very temptation story recorded in Matthew 4 where Satan directly tempts Jesus.  But it is important to note a couple of things to further clarify and qualify what Platt says here.

First, Satan is not omnipresent as God is.  In other words, unlike God who is everywhere present all the time, Satan is not.  Like all other angelic beings, obedient or fallen, he can only be in one place at a time.  Since many millions of Christians the world over experience temptation simultaneously, we cannot say that all that temptation is from Satan directly, even as a subordinate cause.  In fact, we cannot even say that all temptation is indirectly from Satan through his minions, his legions of fallen angels who rebelled along with him against the authority and glory of God.  The reason we cannot say this is because of the very James passage that Platt quoted a portion of.  This passage bears quoting at length:
Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.  But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.  (ESV James 1:13-15)
Now, Satan can and does certainly tempt people in accordance with their own desires, pressing those temptations on people from the outside.  But the second thing that needs to be mentioned here is the clear sense of this passage in James.  James tells us that the typical pattern of temptation is one of internal temptation.  We are tempted because we are lured and enticed by our own desire.  This is the normative pattern of the struggle with temptation.  Our temptations stem from within, from the remnants of our sinful natures, growing out of our own sinful desires, far more often then they are pressed upon us from outside.  The sin still living in us is most often the cause of our temptations, although that was not the case for Jesus who had no sinful nature.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Paul: Thankful for suffering

In his commentary on 2 Corinthians (NIVAC), Scott Hafemann sees Paul’s apologetic for his ministry implicit throughout the letter, starting at the beginning (2 Cor. 1:3-7).  I heartily agree.  He notes that Paul opens his letter with thanksgiving to God for the very thing which his opponents are using to call his ministry into question in the minds of the Corinthians:  his manifold sufferings (61).  As one works through 2 Corinthians, it becomes obvious that Paul considers his sufferings as an apostle to be one of the proofs that he is truly qualified as an apostle.  This is directly opposed to the assertions of the false apostles that are plaguing the Corinthian church, who would hold up Paul's sufferings as proof that he is not a true apostle.

Paul understood suffering for the sake of Christ as a central part of his calling as an apostle right from the beginning of his Christian experience.  In Paul's Damascus Road vision of Christ, his conversion, and in his commissioning three days later, Paul understood that suffering would be a sign of his apostleship (Acts 9:3-19).  In Paul's robust theology of union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-11; Gal. 2:20), we can see that Paul saw the story of Christ's salvation-accomplishing event in the story of his own Damascus salvation event.  In the Damascus event, in the vision of Christ and the words he spoke, Saul died to self and to his old perceptions and ways of understanding and relating to God (Phil. 3:4-11), and in three days he was raised to resurrection life, when he received the Spirit, his eyes were opened, his gospel mission was explained to him, and he was baptized.  In fact the way Paul speaks of baptism as a dying and being raised to new life in Christ shows us just how profoundly his own experience, interpreted though the light of the Spirit, shaped his theology (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12).
 Paul was promised that suffering would be a part of his apostolic calling, his gospel mission.  As Jesus said to Ananias when he was preparing him to meet Paul, 
“Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

(Acts 9:15-16 ESV)

So long as Paul continued to speak the true gospel and suffered for it, he could rejoice.  Why?  Because it was a confirmation that he was fulfilling his mission.  God was showing Paul how much he would have to suffer for Christ's sake.  And because it was for Christ's sake that he was suffering, Paul rejoiced.  In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul pointed to his sufferings as a sign of his apostolic legitimacy in the face of challenges from the false apostles.  Anyone who had heard the story of Paul's conversion-commissioning would know that Christ had not only called him to take the gospel to Gentiles, kings and the children of Israel, but they would also know that Paul was promised suffering for the sake of the gospel as well.  Paul could thank God for his suffering because he saw it as confirmation that he was truly fulfilling his apostolic gospel mission in the way God had told him from the start that he would.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Showdown of Temptation: Truth vs. Lie

Peter Leithart writes of how the Holy Spirit was involved at every stage of Jesus' incarnation.
"Jesus was conceived by the Spirit, anointed with the Spirit at His baptism, offered Himself in the Spirit on the cross, rose by the power of the Spirit, and then at His ascension, the Father conferred the fullness of the Spirit as a coronation gift for His Son."
Leithart goes on to note that Jesus then shares the Holy Spirit with the Church, his body, and the Spirit is involved in every part of the life of the church.  The whole meditation may be found here.

Led by the Spirit

Leithart was not trying to present a comprehensive list of the ways the Spirit was involved in the life of Jesus, and neither am I.  But I do want to comment on one additional way.  Jesus was led by the Spirit throughout his life, and in a particular incident recorded in the synoptic gospels, Jesus was led by the Spirit to be tempted. 
"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."

(Matthew 4:1 ESV - see also Matt. 4:2-11; Mark 1:12-13 & Luke 4:1-13)

Jesus Tempted

Jesus was lead by the Holy Spirit throughout his life.  Jesus came to do the will of the Father, but he did so in the power and through the leading of the Spirit.  One of the places he was led by the Spirit of God was into temptation.  It might seem strange to us at first that the gospels tell us the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness for the express purpose of having him tempted by the devil.  Why would God do that to his son? 

The Bible clearly teaches that the works of Satan, while evil, are still according to God's secret and sovereign will, though not necessarily consciously so, and not, of course, according to God's revealed moral will set forth in the commands of Scripture.  In other words, while Satan is in constant  rebellion against God and does his worst, he can never go beyond the bounds set for him by God.  He roams throughout the earth like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet. 5:8), but God has him on a leash and he must ultimately obtain God's permission before he acts (Job 1-2).  Satan intends to thwart God's plans, but his works ultimately end up being used by God to bring about God's good ends.  Likewise, people doing things at the prompting of Satan or through the sin in their own hearts may intend things for evil but God works it for good according to his own sovereign purposes (Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; Rom. 8:28).

As with Master, so with Disciple

Christians live in the steady, obedient plodding of the day to day.  Life is nothing but one decision after another and we are constantly faced with the decision to be obedient to Jesus Christ or not.  And no matter what any individual believer's daily experience looks like, one thing is for sure:  we all face daily temptations and trials, things that test our faith.  There are daily temptations to doubt God and his Word, to abandon our faith (even if momentarily), to turn our backs on the Father and turn to idols, to trust in self or some strain of worldly wisdom, to syncretize our faith with some mix of works-righteousness or antinomianism, to doubt that the promises of God apply to us, to mix the purity and truth of God's Word with lies from the surrounding culture, and the list goes on and on.  This is why Jesus' being led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil speaks directly to this day to day faith-struggle of believers.

Why does this happen to us?  As with Jesus, it is not inconsistent for believers to be led by the Spirit, to be walking in the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit, and yet be faced with temptations and trials.  In fact, as we follow Christ in our daily walk of faith, one of the places we will follow him is into temptation.  Of course we pray, "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" (Matt. 6:13), and it is right for us to pray this.  We probably don't know how many times we are in fact spared from temptation.  But other times we will be led to places and circumstances where we find ourselves being tempted. 

When temptation comes it is not God himself who is tempting us (James 1:13).  The temptation comes as a result of the remnants of our own sinful natures (which are still in the process of being transformed and conformed to the image of Christ), perhaps being awakened by an outside factor, perhaps just being lured and enticed by our own sinful desires (James 1:14).  But the temptations are real, frequent, difficult and yet their presence is not inconsistent with a life led by the Spirit.

When we are tempted, we ought not to think we have been abandoned by God or that he isn't still right there with us, indwelling us even, in the person and through the presence of his Holy Spirit.  God will never leave us or forsake us.  But he will allow us to be tempted, even lead us to that place of testing, where we must face the temptation of sin head on and resist.  But thanks be to God, we walk in the strength and Spirit of the one who faced temptation at the very end of all physical strength after fasting for 40 days and nights; who alone in the garden faced the crisis point of decision whether to go to the cross and in the strain, he sweat great drops of blood; who faced down every temptation to partake of many normal and good aspects of everyday human life (marriage, family, leisure, having a home, possessions, etc.) but which was not part of his mission from the Father.  Instead, Jesus stuck to the mission and laid down his life, never giving in to temptation.  He was perfected through testing and suffering (Heb. 5:8-9) and as we walk in union with him, we walk in his perfection even as we too are being perfected (Heb. 10:14).  Part of our being perfected, our sanctification, our being conformed to the Son's image, is our being tested through temptation.  We are God's children, and the Lord disciplines those he loves.  Part of what is going on when we face temptations of many kinds is that we are being trained in righteousness.  We are being discipled, all toward the end that we might share in holiness with him of whose Spirit we now partake (Heb. 12:3-11; James 1:2-4; Rom. 8:26-30).

Temptations and trials happen to Christians.  They are sometimes from the accuser of the brethren (Job 1:6-12; Rev. 12:10) or his minions.  More often, they stem from our own sinful desires.  But, as with everything in our lives, even temptation is part of God's plan for us.  God always provides a way out and the temptations which face us are never beyond what we can bear in the strength that he supplies (1 Cor. 10:13).  So God always answers our prayers of "deliver us from evil".  Whether we take hold of that deliverance by resisting the temptation or not is another question.

Anatomy of Temptation

As with the original temptation of the garden and Christ's own testing and temptation, our temptations always come in the form of lies.  We are tempted to believe these lies, and if we give in to them, it results in actions that are disobedient to our Lord.  Every temptation is a showdown between truth and lie.  This should not surprise us.  Satan is not only the accuser of the brethren but the father of lies.  He has been lying from the beginning (Jn. 8:44).  When Satan's speaks lies, he speaks his native language.  Even before Satan lied to Adam and Eve and told them that if they ate the fruit they would become like God (Gen. 3:5), he lied to himself by telling himself that he could become like God (Is. 14:12-14). 

Victory over Temptation

Just as every temptation is a lie, every way out of temptation comes through truth.  When we face the temptation to believe a lie and to act on that lie and walk into disobedience, the way out always comes by the truth, which is the Word of God.  When we resist the devil he will flee from us (James 4:7) as he did from Jesus when Jesus resisted him three times, wielding the sword of God's Word (Matt. 4).  In Christ, we not only have been saved from the wages of sin, but we have been freed from the power of sin (Rom. 6:12-23).  We now have the law of God written by the Spirit on our hearts (Heb. 10:16).  Jesus, our redeemer and great high priest, faced down temptation to the full and never gave in (Heb. 4:15).  He faced down temptation with the weapon of the Word of God in the strength of the Spirit.  We may look to him when faced with our own temptations in order to receive grace and mercy in our own struggles (Heb. 4:16).  And grace and mercy will be ministered to us through the Holy Spirit, and the power to defeat temptation will come from the living and active Word of God, written on our minds and hearts.

Ultimately our salvation from the power of sin is already accomplished by Christ.  And even now he is working all things out for our good so that one day, a day which the Father has underlined on his calendar, we will walk in the full freedom from the presence of sin as well. 

Can you think of other ways the Spirit was involved in Jesus incarnation and earthly ministry and that he is also now involved in the life of the Church?

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Meet the Vicar of Baghdad...

I highly recommend Timothy George's very interesting article over at First Things introducing the Vicar of Baghdad, the Reverend Canon Dr. Andrew White.  The article begins with this intriguing sentence:
If Jesus came back to the Middle East today, I think he would look a lot like the Reverend Canon Dr. Andrew White, the Anglican Chaplain in Iraq and Vicar of St. George’s Church.
This is not hyperbole. If you are intrigued, you can read the rest here.  If you are not intrigued, believe me, you should be.  Of this man it may truly be said, "blessed are the peace makers."

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The grace of Proverbs 31

There is real gospel grace and encouragement in Proverbs 31 for wives and mothers who have always viewed this over-quoted and sometimes misunderstood chapter of Scripture as a weight of duty around their necks or an impossible checklist to live up to.  Check out David Prince's very good thoughts on the Proverbs 31 mom here. 

Prince does not say all there is to say about Proverbs 31.  It is, after all, also an example of Christian fruitfulness for wives and mothers.  Proverbs 31 is prescriptive of Christian fruitfulness as well as descriptive of a God-honouring and God-fearing example of everyday life.  But Prince is right:  Proverbs 31 is not a list of things to do in order for wives and mothers to commend themselves to God or to earn his or their family's love.  Rather, as they go about their fruitful and busy lives, loving their families and working hard for their households, all they do is done in the fear, obedience, grace and love of their Lord and Saviour.  This is definitely a much needed corrective and balance to the "checklist" mentality many teachers approach Proverbs 31 with.

The current, largescale persecution of Christians

This article in Christianity Today speaks of the current situation facing Christians in Iraq as ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) takes over the nation. 
"Things are so bad now in Iraq, the worst they have ever been," writes Canon Andrew White, vicar of St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad.
Pray for our brothers and sisters in Iraq and perhaps talk/write a letter to your MP about Canada voicing its opposition to this religious persecution in the strongest possible way. 

And here are two recent books, briefly reviewed by Mark Noll at Books and Culture, that promise to open reader's eyes to the everyday suffering of Christians and churches around the world as they are specifically targeted by hostile governments and organizations for brutal and regular persecution. 

As brothers and sisters to those being persecuted, as members of the same church, which is the body of Christ, we may not forget them in our regular prayers.  Don't pray for them in such a way as to check the prayer-for-the-persecuted-church box.  Pray for them with tears, fast, cry out for God's mercy, for repentance for their persecutors, for strength and a sense of God's real presence with them, for boldness that comes from the Spirit's filling, for faith and hope to know this is a light momentary affliction in the light of eternity (2 Cor. 4:17), for steadfastness of faith, for Christ-honouring confession in word and deed, for justice and reprieve and release and freedom.  The Apostle Paul asked for the churches to remember his chains (Col. 4:18) and we must never forget the chains of our brothers and sisters being persecuted.  Pray for them in such a way that you take some of the weight of their burden upon yourself (Gal. 6:2).  Pray for them as though it were your own family being tortured, jailed and killed...because it is.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Martin Luther tweets a selfie...

Here's a fun thought experiment: 
Imagine Martin Luther defending his 95 Theses before the church courts and in the middle of his famous, "I can not and will not recant" speech, he pauses for a quick selfie, scarlet clad cardinals in the background.  He quickly tweets it.
Imagine John Calvin defending the sacredness of the sacraments and the seriousness of church discipline and fencing the Lord's Table from men who have threatened to take communion by force, no matter what their debauched weekly lifestyles entail.  Just at the point of conflict, as his opponents approach and he physically bars the table with his outstretched arms, he snaps a quick selfie with the i-phone in his hand.
Imagine Jonathan Edwards preaching his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.  People are cut to the heart, callused consciences are pricked and repentance spreads through the congregation like a grass fire on a windy day.  Afterward, Edwards invites the people to stand up and he turns his back to them in the pulpit, holds up his Blackberry and snaps a selfie with the whole congregation in the back ground. 
Seems pretty ridiculous to even imagine any of the actors in the above historical scenarios thinking of themselves at the climax of such God-centered, Christ-exalting, gospel-defined and truth-focused moments.  Yet, how often do we approach worship with ourselves as our chief concern?  We often prioritize our own preferences and experiences in worship even though worship is the quintessential Godward-oriented aspect of the Christian life.

Our culture is not only self-centered and self-oriented, we seem to be on an ever increasing trajectory in that direction.  This is true of much of today's church as well.  Stephen Miller over at the Desiring God blog has some good thoughts about the orientation of our worship.  In the midst of the "selfie culture", Miller reminds us that worship is not about us.  You can read his thoughts here