Let My People Gather: What We Can Learn from an Ancient Church-State Debate

statues of ramses in abu simbel temple

1 Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the Risen King, ‘Let my people gather, that they may hear my Word, sing my praise, and remember my sacrifice.’ ” 2 But Pharaoh said, “Who is this Lord, that I should obey his voice and let you gather? I do not know this king, and moreover, I will not let your people gather.” 3 Then they said, “The God who raised the dead has told us, ‘You are to gather every Lord’s Day to proclaim the resurrection and to worship me, lest I bring pestilence or sword on you.’” 4 But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you risk the lives of your people and your neighbors? Get back to your homes and love your neighbors.” 5 And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the cases of COVID are now many, and you want to risk the spread of more diseases!” 6 The same day Pharaoh commanded his health officials and tax officers, 7“You shall no longer let these people open their businesses, as in the past, or receive their stimulus checks. Instead, let them go and provide for themselves. 8Moreover, their annual taxes shall by no means be reduced, for they are selfish. Therefore they cry, ‘Let us go worship our God.’ 9 Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words.”
Exodus 5:1–9 (A Covid-19 Paraphrase)

Few doctrines are more important for churches today than understanding the relationship between church and state and the proper authority of each. In our church, we have taught from the New Testament what obeying the governor means and doesn’t mean, what love of neighbor entails, and how to walk in freely in society without binding the conscience of another. Yet, as I have been reminded by many other pastors recently (e.g., here, here), we also need to look at the Old Testament to find examples of saints standing up for their faith.

As Paul reminds us on multiple occasions (Rom. 4:25; 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:1–11; 2 Tim. 3:16), the Old Testament is not just for Israel. It was written for new covenant believers, and thus we should consider how men like Moses, David, Elijah and others stood for truth against tyrants like Pharaoh, Saul, and Jezebel—yes, that wicked queen who has been in the news recently.

We need to learn from the faith of the saints, not only because Hebrews 11 tells us too, but because we need courageous models to imitate. As our world continues to press against the church, we need to look beyond the evangelical leaders who tell us to trust that the intentions of government are good, and obey lest we ruin our witness. Instead, we need to look to biblical leaders, who in obedience to God, refused to make decisions based upon some social merit system with the government. Countless Old Testament saints knowingly invited the wrath of the king. Yet, instead of ruining their witness, this became the very means by which God’s power become evident to the redeemed and the unrighteous alike.

Today, we need many lessons in this kind of unqualified obedience to God. And one place where we find great help in this type of obedience is Exodus 5:1–9 and Pharaoh’s refusal to let Israel gather at Sinai. Above I have offered a paraphrase of that passage. Though the whole of the chapter, as well as Exodus 6–7, provides wisdom for walking in our world today. For sake of space, we fill focus on these verses and how they apply to our current world. From them, I will list six ways that the confrontation between Pharaoh and Moses, or really between Pharaoh and Yahweh, instructs us today and why churches cannot simply wait upon the government to reopen the church. We must obey God and gather at our Sinai, the Mountain called Zion (Heb. 12:22–24).

I know that not all will agree with this application, but that’s why I’m writing. I am prayerful that this appeal to Scripture will provide one more biblical argument for gathering, even as governing authorities say not to and many Christian leaders are saying, “Wait. Be Patient. Don’t lose your testimony.” Yet, as our brother in Canada, James Coates, sits in jail for gathering God’s people to worship God, we cannot be silent and pretend that the governing authorities have the best interest of the church in mind. Rather, with eyes fixed on Scripture, it is imperative for Christians to understand what is going on and what has always been going on (John 15:18–25). With this pursuit of applied wisdom in ind, Exodus 5:1–9 helps us to better see the world around us today and how to gather when pressures and politics outside the church hinder the assembly of God’s people.

May the Lord give us the boldness of Moses and Aaron to obey God and stand before our governing authorities and say: Let my people gather![1] Continue reading

The Beginning of the Priesthood: Revisiting Levi in Genesis 34

41gzmdxgXRL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_If anyone has spent anytime reading this blog, they know that I have written a fair bit about the priesthood. In January of next year, Lord willing, I will even have a book coming out on the topic. One note that I didn’t put in that manuscript, however, begins with the choice of Levi and his backstory in Genesis 34. As I have been reading Exodus this month I was reminded of this note and the textual connection between Moses and Aaron in that book with the historical figure of Levi. Here’s the note. Let me know what you think.

The Sword of Levi and Redemption of God

To understand the Levitical priesthood, we need to know Levi. In Genesis 28 we find his birth, but Genesis 34 records the defining moment of his life—the violent execution of Shechem. If you do not remember the story, go read the deceptive and deadly tale, where Dinah the daughter of Jacob is violated by Shechem a foreign prince. In response, Simeon and Levi struck down Shechem and the men of Hamor when they were “sore” from circumcision (v. 25). Feigning peace, these two brothers used their swords to avenge their sister’s defilement. Continue reading

Redemption, Covenant, and Dwelling: Seeing the Three-Fold Pattern of Salvation in the Book of Exodus

jesus saves neon signage

Patterns are everywhere. In aviation, you have flight patterns; in economics, you have patterns in the stock market, in detective work, police look for patterns of suspicious behavior; and in sports, defensive coordinators look for patterns in the offensive schemes of opposing teams. In short, we live in a world full of patterns!

And these patterns are just one hint that behind the created order, there is a Creator who has stamped his design on creation. Similarly, in the Bible we learn that there are patterns in redemption. And nowhere is this more true than in the book of Exodus. In Exodus we are introduced to God’s pattern of redemption—substitution, conquest, covenant, and glorious dwelling. These patterns repeat again and again in Scripture, and they are so important that even Jesus says to Moses and Elijah in Luke 9:31 that he is soon going to lead his own New Exodus. So today, as we begin to look at Exodus, we do so by recognizing the pattern of salvation found therein. Continue reading

On Reading Exodus: Four Approaches with Various Resources

sincerely-media-PH7TOStghPA-unsplashAs we move from Genesis to Exodus in Track 1 of the Via Emmaus Reading Plan, here are resources for the second book of Moses. If you missed the first month’s resources for Genesis, you can look here. Below is a recap on the Via Emmaus Reading Plan and a number of helps for reading Exodus.

The Via Emmaus Reading Plan

Continue reading

Worship By the Book: Or, Why Sincerity Is Insufficient for True Worship

bythebook04In his illuminating book, A Secular Age (summarized here), Charles Taylor argued the unbelief handed down to us from the Enlightenment, coupled with new religious expressions in the 19th century, and accelerated by the sexual revolution of the “Sixties,” has resulted in many and competing spiritual longings that live somewhere between belief and unbelief.

In short, we are living in an “age of authenticity,” where expressive individualism seeks to satisfy personal appetites in quasi-spiritual ways. On one hand, our age eschews organized religion and the constraints of any spiritual authority—be it a codified text or clerical leaders. Whereas faith in the divine was nearly impossible at the Middle Ages, in our day unbelief is becoming increasingly normative. On the other hand, our age is not satisfied with nihilistic unbelief. Spirituality abounds, even when such spiritual longings and beliefs are left undefined. In short,

People are increasingly looking for a life of greater immediacy, spontaneity and spiritual depth than can be provided for them in the immanent order of unbelief, while on the other hand many do not find the authenticity and wholeness that they desire in the established (mobilised) forms of religion. (From a summary of A Secular Age)

In this space, individuals and affinity groups continue to create new ways of spiritual living and corporate (read: customized) worship. As a result, it is hardly surprising that sincerity, not truth, is considered to be the greatest good for worship today. What defines spiritual worship is an interior experience, not conformity to a moral standard or faithfulness to God’s revealed will.

How far we have fallen! Even in the church, where people and pastors know and want to know God (or do they?), this all-consuming desire for spiritual authenticity authorizes worship leaders to invent new ways of worship. Yet, when we go back to the Bible, we learn that sincerity is never enough for true worship. Rather, worship that pleases God is patterned after God’s revelation itself. And we who long to worship God in Spirit and Truth must learn again from God how he wants to be worshiped. Continue reading

The Lord’s Supper as the Origin of Christ-Centered Hermeneutics

jesus.jpegThere are many arguments for reading the Bible with Christ at the center. But where do they come from? Are they the product of biblical interpreters? Or is there a source found in Scripture itself?

In answer to this question, the best place to see the Bible’s Christ-centeredness may come from Christ himself. Not only does he say explicitly that all Scripture speaks of him (John 5:39), but in the Passover he interprets the most important event in Israel’s history as his own. As Alastair Roberts and Andrew Wilson note, “Jesus is specifically identifying the unleavened bread as representing his body, . . . and he is telling his Jewish followers to celebrate the Passover in memory of him, not just their liberation from slavery in Egypt” (29). Continue reading

From Genesis to Exodus to Jesus: What Biblical Typology Might Say about Modern Day Israel

rob-bye-103200I have often read and taught on the temple-imagery in Genesis 1–2, where the Garden of Eden is portrayed by Moses as the prototypical tabernacle. I have also read and taught how the tabernacle in Exodus and the temple in 1 Kings are meant to re-present the original garden sanctuary. Still, there are many who wonder if this is a fanciful connection made up by creative interpreters, or if it is truly in the text. Interestingly, these are often the same people who often make up fanciful connections between Scripture and modern day Israel.

In what follows, I want to share a helpful summary of why we should read Genesis and Exodus together, how those chapters are designed to lead us to Christ, and how a right understanding of the biblical narrative anchors our hope in the person and work of Christ, and not the machinations of modern day Israel.  Continue reading

Why Divine Sovereignty Secures Human Responsibility: A Theological Reading of Exodus

clayIt is often argued that God’s absolute sovereignty disables or demotivates human responsibility. But I contend it is just the opposite: a biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty secures and strengthens human responsibility. In fact, the more we see how God’s sovereign actions work in human history, the more reason we have to trust God and move out in faith.

Much confusion exists between fatalism and biblical predestination. In the former, the world is mechanistic and impersonal, God will do what he is going to do, end of story; in the latter, God in his love is at work to bring all things together for his glory and his people’s good. To be sure, God is going to do what he wants (see Psalm 115:3; 135:6), but this is good news, not bad.

When understood according to God’s Word, God’s meticulous and exhaustive sovereignty is not a reason for despair or distrust. Rather, as we will see from Exodus, God’s predestined and pre-communicated control of events is the very foundation needed to walk in humble obedience to God and his commands.

Promise and Fulfillment in Exodus Evidences the Sovereignty of God

All of Scripture follows the pattern of promise and fulfillment. Since the Fall, God has made one promise after another. He has bound these promises in covenants. And he has bound himself to fulfilling his covenanted word (see Hebrews 6:13–20). We see this is large ways, as the protoevangelion in Genesis 3:15 directs all of redemptive history until all the subsequent promises of redemptive history are fulfilled in Christ (see 2 Corinthians 1:20). And we see this in smaller ways, like God’s promise to Sarai that this time next year she will have a son (see Genesis 18). From Luke’s perspective, all that was ever promised by God has been fulfilled in Christ (Acts 13:32–33). Hence, human faithfulness is undergirded by God’s faithfulness, which is to say human responsibility stands upon the sure, sovereign word of God.

In Exodus, a book that introduces the way God brings salvation to his people,  we can see how God’s promises are fulfilled, and how his sovereignty is more than helpful for human responsibility—it is necessary. More than five times, we find in Exodus Moses making the connection that what God said he would do, he has done. And thus, his people are meant to find confidence in Yahweh because of this, which in turn leads to greater trust and obedience. Let me mention each promise-fulfillment in Exodus, draw a couple points of application along the way, and show why God’s absolute sovereignty is good news for our faithful obedience to him. Continue reading

From Noah’s Baptism to Jesus’ Crucifixion: A Study in Typological Escalation

fishJesus is the goal of redemptive history. In Ephesians 1:10 Paul observes that God has “[made] known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him.” In Galatians 4:4, Paul has the same eschatological view in mind: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son . . .” And Hebrews too observes the climactic arrival of the Son of God: “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . .” (1:1). In short, the apostles, as model interpreters, understand all redemptive history to be leading to Jesus.

Consequently, it is not surprising to find that the typological structures of the Old Testament escalate until they find their telos in Jesus. In other words, Scripture begins with glimpses of the pre-incarnate Christ and gradually adds contour and color to the biblical portrait of the coming Messiah.

Over time, such glimpses of grace are developed and made more concrete as the types (i.e., events, offices, and institutions of the Old Testament) repeat and escalate. One prominent event that is repeated in the Old Testament is that of “baptism.” As Peter observes in his first epistle, baptism corresponds (lit., is the antitype, or fulfillment) to Noah and his life-saving (make that humanity-saving) ark (1 Pet 3:20). It is this typological thread that I want to consider here. It is my aim to show that not only do Old Testament “types” prefigure Christ and his work of salvation, but they also grow in intensity and efficacy as the Incarnation of Christ nears. Continue reading

The Exodus-to-Temple Pattern

Jeffrey J. Niehaus argues convincingly in his Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology that a regular and repeating pattern of salvation occurs in the Ancient Near East (ANE).  He writes, “The basic structure of the idea is this:”

A god works through a man (a royal or prophetic figure, often styled a shepherd) to wage war against the god’s enemies and thereby advance his kingdom.  The royal or prophetic protagonist is in a covenant with the god, as are the god’s people.  The god establishes a temple among his people, either before or after the warfare, because he wants to dwell among them.  This can mean the founding (or choice) of a city, as well as a temple location.  The ultimate purpose is to bring into the god’s kingdom those who are not part of it (Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008], 30).

Developing this basic schema, Niehaus demonstrates how the Old Testament and New Testament recapitulate this eschatological temple-building motif.   This pattern can be witnessed in the life of Moses, when YHWH calls the reluctant shepherd to defeat Pharaoh and liberate Israel, with the ultimate goal of tabernacle worship with God’s covenant people.  Moreover, in the life of David, YHWH summons a shepherd to crush the head of the enemy, to free the people of Israel, and to establish his covenant people in the land—a land where YHWH has set his name.  The culminating act of temple-building in 1 Kings is the high point of the OT, and sets the stage for a greater Spirit-anointed, Divine warrior/savior, who will construct the final dwelling place for God in the NT.

The same kind of pattern can be found in a variety of New Testament passages. Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7, Paul’s preaching in Acts 13, 17, and passages like Ephesians 2:11-22, and the whole book of Revelation show the exodus-to-temple pattern outlined by Niehaus.  In fact, in regards to the work of Christ, Niehaus writes,

God wages war through his Son and prophet, the Good Shepherd, Jesus, against the powers of darkness.  He liberates people from those powers and establishes them as his people by a new covenant.  He establishes a temple presence, not only among them but in them (the church and individually its members) (ibid., 31).

They look forward to a heavenly city (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 11:10; Rev. 21:2).  Theologically, it is important to remember that these people were God’s enemies…until he waged warfare, set them free from their vassaldom to sin, and established his covenant with them, making them his own vassals…Christ is also Creator or Co-creator.  He creates a “new heaven and a new earth,” with a temple presence that recalls Eden with its river and tree of life” (ibid, 31-32).

Reading the Bible along these lines, it is becomes apparent that the God of the Bible works in a regular and repeating way throughout redemptive history, and that the NT writers were conscious of these biblical-theological structures and interweaved them into the very fabric of their thinking, preaching, and writing.

For a short list of resources that observe this phenomenon, see See David Pao, Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002); Rikki Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1997);  the articles found in Heaven on Earth: The Temple in Biblical Theologyed. T. Desmond Alexander and Simon J. Gathercole (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2004).

Soli Deo Gloria, dss