Will the Real Elijah Please Stand Up? Learning from Jesus How to Read the Bible Literally

elijah“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Malachi 4:5–6)

And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:10–13)

Every self-respecting, Bible-believing evangelical wants to read the Bible “literally.” No one wants to be called a “spiritualizer” or accused of (un)intentionally “allegorizing” the “plain meaning of Scripture.” But what does it mean to read the Bible “literally”?

On one hand, it is mistaken to read a passage text differently than the author intended. A well-formed grammatical-historical  approach to interpretation affirms authorial intent and the possibility of discerning meaning in a text. On the other hand, it is mistaken to read the biblical text so rigidly (read: literalistically) that in the name of seeking the literal meaning of the text we miss the meaning of the Bible’s divine author. But how do we discern the difference?

The best way I know is to watch and learn from Jesus himself. Continue reading

How Jesus’ Poverty Enriches Us to Give Sacrificially (2 Corinthians 8:9)


graceIn the middle of his instruction about giving to the Jerusalem church, Paul drops this theological gem:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

In context, Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to fulfill (“finish doing” and “completing,” 8:11) what they started. Apparently, a year before Paul penned 2 Corinthians, the church in that city promised to give generously to the poor in Jerusalem (8:10; cf. Romans 15:25–26). In chapters 8–9, Paul recalls their promise and prepares them for the forthcoming delegation to collect the offering (see 9:3–5). His words are not threatening but motivating, as he  speaks repeatedly of their “readiness” (8:11, 12; 9:2), “zeal” (9:2), and genuine, generous love (8:7, 8, 24).

In fact, it is because of his confidence in their generosity that Paul encourages them in their giving. And one of the principle means of motivation is Jesus’ substitionary death. In leaving heaven to suffer and die on earth, Paul likens Jesus’ experience to that of losing his riches and becoming poor. And by speaking of Christ’s death in terms of “rich” and “poor,” Paul teaches the Corinthians and us how to give. To understand how Jesus humiliation motivates our giving, consider four points.

  1. Jesus’ Poverty Was Self-Appointed
  2. Jesus’ Poverty Was For the Sake of Others
  3. Jesus’ Giving Motivates Our Giving
  4. Our Giving Manifests and Amplifies Jesus’ Grace

Continue reading

George Smeaton on Christ’s Own System of Hermeneutics

Ever wonder how the apostle’s developed their particular brand of Christ-centered hermeneutics?  This has been a frequently-discussed and hotly-debated subject over the last few years.  Numerous books have addressed the subject.  For instance, Greg Beale, ed. The Wrong Doctrine from the Right Texts?; Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period; Dennis Johnson, Him We Proclaim; Sidney Greidnaus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament are a handful of them.

Yet, perhaps the best answer I have found goes back nearly 150 years.  In the opening pages of his book, The Apostles’ Doctrines of the Atonementnineteenth century New Testament theologian, George Smeaton, answers this question: How did the apostles develop their hermeneutics.

Without batting an eye, he turns to the forty days that Jesus spent with his disciples between his resurrection and ascension.  He posits that the “Lord’s system of hermeneutics” was passed on to these inspired authors and that in every instance where the disciples spoke of the terms, concepts, and types found in the Old Testament, they did so as learned pupils of their master teacher–Jesus Christ.

Smeaton’s quotation is lengthy, but well worth pondering.

But the fresh instruction which they received from personal interviews with the Redeemer subsequently to the resurrection must next be noticed.  This oral instruction received from the lips of the risen Lord is certain as to the matter of fact, and on many grounds was indispensably necessary.  Nor was it limited to the eleven alone.  Paul, too, received it at a later day, when he took rank among the apostles as one born out of due time.  How far the oral instruction of the risen Redeemer extended, it may be difficult for us to say.  Whether or not it comprehended all the great articles of divine truth, it certainly extended to the atonement (Luke xxiv. 25).  This was to be the substance and foundation of all their preaching [1 Cor 2:2], and it was indispensably necessary for them to possess the most accurate knowledge of it.  One object, therefore, which the Lord had in view during those forty days’ sojourn with the disciples after His resurrection, was to open their understandings in the course of these personal interviews, to apprehend with all possible precision the nature of His death–its necessity, consituent elements, and efficacy; against which, in every form, they had long entertained the most invincible prejudice.  He now made all things plain, showing that the Christ must have suffered these things.

How they were introduced into the theology of the Old Testament is specially worthy of notice.  A due consideration of this point serves to bring out one most important fact, viz. that Christ’s oral expositions are to be taken as THE MIDDLE TERM, or as the connecting link between Old Testament records on the one hand, and the apostolic commentary on the other.  In a word, He was Himself the interpreter of Scripture, and of His own history, in the course of those oral communications.  In the book of Acts, and in the epistles, we find numerous interpretations of the prophecies, as well as of the types and sacrifices which owe their origin to this source.  The evangelist Luke relates, that on the first resurrection-day, upon the Emmaus road, in order to instruct the two disciples with whom He entered into conversation, the Lord, beginning at Moses and all the prophets, expounded in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:27); that is, He led them to a full survey of the typology and of the prophetical system of the Old Testament Scriptures.  The same evening He reviewed the whole subject not less fully in presence of the eleven and other disciples, expounding them how the Old Testament Scriptures received their fulfillment in Himself, and  opening all that related to His death and resurrection. . . . The evangelist [Luke] mentions that His exposition extended to the Law of Moses, to the Prophets, and to the Psalms.  The allusion to the Law of Moses recalls the whole range of typical theology–the sacrifices, the priestly institute, and the temple services.  The allusion to the prophets reminds us of the wide field of Messianic prophecy, form the first promise in the garden of Eden to the last of the prophets.  The allusion to the Psalms recalls those utterances which were put beforehand into the mouth of the suffering Messiah in a series of psalms in which the Lord Jesus found Himself.  He thus, in all these three divisions of Scripture, supplied them with the key which served to unlock what had never been so fully understood before in reference to His atoning death.

These invaluable expositions, which may be called in the modern phrase the Lord’s own system of hermeneutics, formed the apostles to be interpreters of the Old Testament, directing them where and how to find allusions to the suffering Messiah.  Hence the certainty and precision with which they ever afterwards preceded to expound those holy oracles in all their discourses.  Although these comments from the lips of the Messiah, have not been preserved to us in a separate form, they are doubtless to a large extent wrought into the texture of Scripture; and under the apostle’s allusions to the Old Testament we may read the Lord’s own commentary.  These expositions, whereby He opened their understandings to understand the Scriptures, introduced the apostles into the true significance of the Old Testament (Luke 24:44), throwing light on the two economies [Old and New], and thus bringing in the authority of Christ to direct them in all their future career.  His sanction is thus given to the apostolic interpretation of the Jewish rites; and we are warranted to say that we see the Lord’s own commentary underlying that of the apostles, whether we find allusion to the types, or to the prophecies, or to the Psalms, in their sermons and epistles.  These expositions made the apostles acquainted with the doctrine of the atonement, in its necessity and scope, in its constituent elements and saving results.  The apostles received the fullest instruction from the lips of their risen Lord; and on this theme it appears that the instruction was subject to none of the reserves which checked their curiousity upon another occasion, when they would make inquiries as to points bearing on the future of His kingdom (Acts 1:7).  (George Smeaton, The Apostle’s Doctrine of the Atonement, 4-7)

If you are not familiar with Smeaton, you should be.  He is a model exegete and a learned theologian.  In his day, he was the foremost New Testament scholar in Scotland and maybe beyond.  His two volumes on the atonement of Jesus Christ are excellent as is his reading of the gospels and the epistles.

May we continue to see Christ in all Scripture and faithfully show others how the Old and New Testaments are united in him.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Feet and Inches: Christ Rules Over All Things

Reintroducing George Smeaton and Abraham Kuyper

Writing on different subjects, in different language, but at roughly the same period of time, George Smeaton and Abraham Kuyper used synonymous language to describe Christ’s reign over the earth.  Yesterday we introduced them; today we will compare and combine their statements to give a more full-orbed understanding of Christ’s universal dominion.  But before doing that, let me supply their quotes again.

First, in 1871 in Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement, Smeaton wrote concerning John 12:31 and Christ’s universal reign,

On the contrary, this testimony shows that every foot of ground in the world belongs to Christ, that His followers can be loyal to Him in every position, and that in every country and corner where they may placed they have to act their part for their Lord.  The world is judicially awarded to Christ as its owner and Lord (p. 300).

Ten years later, Kuyper in a speech concerning “sphere sovereignty,” Kuyper make the famous statement,

There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: “Mine!

Clearly, the resonance between Kuyper and Smeaton is unmistakable, but there are a number of differences in context and nuance that make it worthwhile to take up both statements as we consider Christ’s universal dominion.  Let’s consider three that develop this truth.

Feet and Inches: Smeaton and Kuyper on the Universal Reign of Christ

First, Christ Rules Over Satan and Scholars.  In Smeaton, Christ’s rule over the earth is contrasted with that of Satan.  While Satan stole possession of the earth from Adam and Eve, and ruled as the god of this age for generations; Jesus Christ came and dethroned the serpent of old.  Thus, while he still flails, Jesus is the one resting on the throne and delegating his Spirit and his Church to have dominion over the whole wide earth.

At the same time, one of the areas in which this dominion ought to occur is in the academy.  Kuyper, a brilliant theologian, author, educator, politician, and spokesman for a Reformed worldview, advocates the need for the disciplines of law, medicine, science and so forth to be undertaken not in disjunction from faith or from the reign of Christ, but rather in connect with him.  The reason?  Just as Christ reigns over Satan and in the church, so he is the creator, sustainer, and inventor of all life.  Thus, to rightly understand anything in creation demands that a person sees how that individual theory, molecule, or bacteria strain relates to the whole.  Only with Christ reigning on the throne can such a vision of research be conceived.

Second, Christ Rules Over Space and Studies.  In Smeaton, we find biblical proof of the fact that Christ died for people from every tongue, tribe, language, and nation.  At the same time, his death defeated the cosmic reign of Satan.  Therefore, every square foot has now been reclaimed, officially, by Christ, and in time all creation will be re-made and re-seeded as Christ brings the New Creation.  At the same time, Kuyper rightly sees Christ rightly seeds his world with thinkers and thoughts that benefit all of humanity.  These come not only from Christian scientists and philosophers, they are also developed by unbelievers.  Nevertheless, Christ rules over the nations and their various schools of thought in order to effect all of his purposes in the world.

One example of this would include the political theory that permitted Israel to dwell in the land of Palestine under the auspices of the Roman Empire.  While not apparent to the Romans or even the Jews, God permitted the toleration of the Roman Empire to provide a way of life in Israel that facilitated the coming of Christ (cf. Gal 4:4).  All the orchestrations and political machinations were at one level governed by various thinkers and philosophies, but at another level, God used them in order to effect his causes.  In this way, God is sovereign over the geographic nations and the way they run.  Smeaton points to the former, Kuyper more the latter.

Third, Christ Rules As Redeemer and Creator.  In Smeaton’s work, he is insistent on Christ’s atoning work.  Because of Christ’s death, he defeats Satan and redeems or reclaims the earth.  In this way, he is functioning as a Redeemer who has authority over all the earth.  For Kuyper, it seems that his sphere sovereignty is more connected with his role as creator and sustainer.  While not denying the special work of redemption, in any sort of way, he emphasizes Christ the Creator.

Truth be told, both of these things are truth and should not be set against one another.  Rather, they work in tandem and rightly relate Christ to all the earth.  As John 17:2 mentions, Jesus has authority over all flesh, but he only gives eternal life to the ones who have been given to him (i.e. the elect).

In the end, Smeaton’s statement balances Kuyper’s statement and gives added texture and depth to the beautiful reality that Christ reigns over all things.  Christ reigns over all the earth as Creator and Redeemer, as the one who has subdued Satan and who subverts scholars.  He rules space and time, measurement and rhyme.  He is God over all, and in the works of Smeaton and Kuyper, one can find an excellent pair who help us think through the way Christ governs his universe.

A Final Curiosity

Smeaton published his words before Kuyper proclaimed his.  While it would be natural for Smeaton to assimilate Kuyper’s well known words–at least well known today–it seems more odd that Kuyper would have borrowed his most famous utterance from another. And it probably is unlikely. The contexts in which the statements occurred and the provenances from which they were written, accompanied by the difference in languages, makes it unlikely that these two statements had any organic relationship.

It is more likely the case, that the allusive echo found in their statements are simply the product of two men studying the same Scriptures, influenced by the same Spirit–coincidentally, both men produced mathom works on the Holy Spirit (Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit; and Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit), living under the same king whose rule is seen in Edinburgh and Amsterdam.

While Smeaton measured Christ’s reign in feet and Kupyer marked his off in inches, the reality for both of them, is that Christ rightly possess all his inheritance and is reigning over it all today.  This glorious truth bears repeating, and as often as we quote Kuyper, perhaps we should also cite Smeaton, who not only precedes the Dutch theologian and prime minister, but who also connects the universal reign to the cross of Christ.

Thoughts? If anyone does have any connections between Smeaton and Kuyper, I would love to know.  If not, it will remain an interesting coincidence, another example that there is nothing new under the Son.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

George Smeaton and Abraham Kuyper on the Universal Reign of Christ

Solomon advises us that there is nothing new under the sun.  Indeed, in the history of Christian thought, one would expect that under the Lordship of Christ and his church, the essentials of the gospel would remain consistent over time.  Thus, while they need repeating in every generation because slippage is always a threat, there remains a kind of harmony that exists among theologians who make the Bible first order.  Likewise, as one dives into reading pastors and theologians from different eras and different places, one can expect to find echoes.  Sometimes these are organically related, sometime they are not but cause for curiosity how it is possible that two statements made by independent thinkers could be so similar.

George Smeaton on Christ’s Universal Reign

Such an occasion happened a few months ago as I read George Smeaton’s eminently helpful book, The Doctrine of the Atonement As Taught By Christ Himself (Edinburgh, 1871) now retitled and republished as Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement.  In it, Smeaton gives his final exhortation from the text John 12:31, which reads, “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.”  In his thorough exegesis, the nineteenth-century Scot shows how Satan’s overthrow means simply, that Christ is the sole possessor of all things. He has stripped the god of this age of his title to this world, and he now rightly possesses the earth (cf. Matt 28:18). Therefore he writes,

This text [John 12:31], important in many aspects, is capable of being viewed in many applications.  It throws a steady light on the great and momentous doctrine, that the world is, in consequence of the vicarious work of Christ, no more Satan’s, and that Christ’s people are now to be far from the impression that they are only captives in an enemy’s territory, and unable warrantably to occupy a place in the world, either as citizens or magistrates.

Moving from Christ’s substitutionary cross to the the universal themes of victory and dominion, Smeaton makes this final, global and glorious statement,

On the contrary, this testimony shows that every foot of ground in the world belongs to Christ, that His followers can be loyal to Him in every position, and that in every country and corner where they may placed they have to act their part for their Lord.  The world is judicially awarded to Christ as its owner and Lord (p. 300).

This is a glorious truth that deserves time for consideration and meditation.  Yet, in first hearing it, I could not help but think of Abraham Kuyper, who said something almost identical.  Yet, as it will be shown, Kuyper’s context is different than Smeaton, and Kuyper actually spoke his word’s later.

Abraham Kuyper on Christ’s Universal Reign

In his lecture on “Sphere Sovereignty” delivered on October 20, 1880, Kuyper uttered what is today his most famous quotation.  It reads:

There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: “Mine! (Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 488).

In context, Kuyper’s statement comes at the end of a long list of academic sciences–medicine, law, natural science, letters– which the great educator of the Netherlands argued should be brought underneath the rule of Christ.  Since all wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ (Col 2:3), all mental disciplines should find their origin and telos in Christ. In full context, he states,

Man in his antithesis as fallen sinner or self-developing natural creature returns again as the ‘subject that thinks’ or ‘the object that prompts thought’ in every department, in every discipline, and with every investigator.  Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ (488).

This concluding statement has been repeated again and again.  It is a favorite of Reformed thinkers and others too.  It is wonderful thought to realize that all things have been and should be put in submission to Christ.  But interestingly the application of Kuyper’s words (as I have used them and have heard others use them) are slightly out of context.

Often Kuyper’s turn of phrase is used in spatial, geographical ways, as if he was explaining Psalm 2 which says that all the nations have been given to the Son.  Since the Lord possesses all the earth, he has a right to put his finger on it and exlaim “Mine!”  However, in context, Kuyper’s statement is more specific.  He is speaking more exactly of the “mental world,” not the spatial world.  I doubt he would deny the broader application, but to read Kuyper closely, we find that his statement is more narrow. This point does not mean that we need to abandon the use of Kuyper’s quote, so much as perhaps we should include Smeaton’s, too.

Tomorrow, we will pick up how and why we should incorporate Smeaton’s quotation into the discussion of Christ’s universal reign.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss