Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying

1 “Wake, awake, for night is flying,”
the watchmen on the heights are crying;
“awake, Jerusalem, at last!”
Midnight hears the welcome voices,
and at the thrilling cry rejoices:
“Come forth, ye virgins, night is past!
The Bridegroom comes; awake,
your lamps with gladness take; alleluia!
And for his marriage feast prepare,
for you must go to meet him there.”

2 Zion hears the watchmen singing,
and all her heart with joy is springing;
she wakes, she rises from her gloom:
for her Lord comes down all-glorious,
the strong in grace, in truth victorious;
her Star is ris’n, her Light is come!
Ah, come, thou blessed Lord,
O Jesus, Son of God, alleluia!
We follow till the halls we see
where thou hast bid us sup with thee.

3 Now let all the heav’ns adore thee,
and men and angels sing before thee,
with harps and cymbal’s clearest tone;
of one pearl each shining portal,
where we are with the choir immortal
of angels round thy dazzling throne;
nor eye hath seen, nor ear
hath yet attained to hear what there is ours;
but we rejoice, and sing to thee
our hymn of joy eternally.

Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying
Our hymn of the month is #317, “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying.” This hymn was written (words and music) by Philipp Nicolai, a Lutheran minister, in 1599. Nicolai also wrote “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star,” #515 in the 1990 Trinity Hymnal, and these two hymns became known as the “King and Queen of the Chorales” and both were arranged later by J.S. Bach in the forms we have today. Nicolai is regarded by many as one of the greatest hymn-writers of the Christian faith. These two hymns in particular were written as part of a devotional written to comfort his congregation after a severe bout of the plague, in which 1300 of his parishioners died in one year (1597).

The hymn is a joyful anticipation of the moment when Christ returns to consummate the salvation of His people. It draws from several Biblical figures. In Isaiah 52, the watchmen of Jerusalem call to Jerusalem to awake to see the salvation that God is bringing to them. In Matthew 24, Jesus uses the figure of virgins awaiting the return of the bridegroom for the beginning of the wedding feast, to exhort us to live lives of readiness for His coming. Throughout, the hymn expresses an awareness that the present state falls far short, a night and a gloom that only retreats with the full manifestation of He who is our light.

Verse 1 calls to us, as the people of God, to be ready. It can be read on two levels: one, that we live lives of anticipation, looking forward with joy to the time when our sorrow and troubles are done, when Jesus returns; and two, that we live our lives in the immediate present in the light of the truth that His return may be at any time. The foolish virgins were not ready for the coming of the bridegroom, and had to go get more oil for their lamps, and thus missed out on the feast. The wise virgins were prepared for that return to be imminent, but also prepared for it to be postponed for some time, and thus were ready. Jesus uses this parable to inform us in the attitude we should take to our lives in the present age—ready for an imminent return, but also prepared for a long wait. But even that long wait will be endured in the joyful anticipation of the time we know is coming. The song is infused with a sense of great joy at His coming, a joy that sees God’s people through that long wait.

Verse 2 really emphasizes the truth that our hope and joy is not in the present. Our joy and hope is all in our Savior, and we do not yet have Him fully, and so we are in “gloom,” from which we emerge only truly when He comes. The one who eagerly looks for his joy in this life does not have his mind focused on the Savior, and so the hymn both encourages us to rest in the hope to come, and exhorts us as well to get our eyes off the vain hopes of this world. The speakers in the hymn have their hearts fully fixed on the joy to come, because their hearts are fixed on Christ. If our faith and trust is in Christ, then our hearts must be fixed on the future, for we do not fully enjoy Christ now, He who is “all-glorious, the strong in grace, the truth victorious.” We are united to Christ now and experience many of His gifts, but this can only increase our anticipation of the time when we enjoy Him fully, and even the partial enjoyment of His grace in the present should cause the false and ephemeral attractions of this life fade in comparison. So the hymn, in verse 2, says with the Apostle John, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Verse 3, informed by the teachings of Scripture, imagines what that moment will be like, when God’s glory is fully revealed in Christ to all His people, and we, together with men and angels and all creation, praise God as He deserves to be praised. The writer knows that we cannot even know what that will be like—“nor eye hath seen, nor ear hath yet attained to hear what there is ours;” but nonetheless, we can rejoice now to know that it will truly be wonderful, the full satisfactions of all our desires and hopes, more than we can even understand in the present.

Observing Days

Galatians 3:9-10:

“But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?  You observe days and months and seasons and years.”

The New Testament does not permit the observance of holy days.  The early Reformers generally put an end to special worship services on days such as Christmas and Easter, because of the unbiblical elevation of such days in the medieval church.  The Lord’s Day was the only day that most of them would view as a mandated day for worship.  Some such as John Calvin extended the principle even to the Lord’s Day, teaching that public worship on one day out of seven was more a matter of good church order than it was a divine command making that day different than any other.

As the Reformation went on, many churches continued or resumed the practice of remembering certain aspects of Christ’s life at certain times of the year, while others prohibited it.  The RCUS constitution states that it is permissible for churches to recognize Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and other days, including national days of thanksgiving, as they see fit.  None of these days are mandated, however, and care should always be taken to remember that such days are not required by Scripture, are not means of grace, and should never be elevated above those things which the Lord has commanded us to do.

The Easter season is the time when much of the Christian world chooses to remember the death and resurrection of Christ.  It is appropriate to recognize certain times of the year as times when we will remember various aspects of our redemption and to reflect on the historical events of Scripture to focus on those truths.  There are a great many beautiful hymns that have been written for the Christmas and Easter seasons particularly.  But superstition and legalism are constant temptations. High church ceremonialism is coming back into vogue in the Reformed world, with all the sacerdotalist trappings, and believers should be on their guard.  We must not think that Easter or Christmas are special times of the dispensing of God’s grace, since no mention is made of them in Scripture and no command is given to observe these days.  We should never permit these seasonal times to overshadow what God has commanded, the regular, everyday preaching of the whole counsel of God.

Superstition is more of a problem than many think.  It is all too common for Christians to believe that special dispensations of grace are given to believers on certain days, or that our spiritual walks are enhanced by ceremonies that God never commanded.  These are the “weak and beggarly elements” Paul cautions us about.  We should never permit materialism, nostalgia or our ever-present tendency to manufacture idols in our hearts distract us from the simple and unadorned worship, sacraments, prayer and preaching of God’s word which is commanded us in Scripture.  That is what advances the Christian life.

We are at liberty to choose to remember the doctrines of the incarnation and the resurrection at the traditional times the church has done so, a practice that goes back as far as anyone knows.  But we should always be content with the means of grace that God Himself ordained, and resist the ever-present pull of our sinful hearts to manufacture new ones.

Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah

Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah

We are singing hymn #598 (from the 1990 Trinity Hymnal) this Sunday, a hymn that picks up on the theme of the Exodus as a way of talking about the Christian life.  “No other Old Testament motif is as crucial to understand.  No other event is so basic to the fabric of both Testaments.” (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, ed. Leland Ryken et al.) The New Testament continuously presents this life as essentially a pilgrimage, a journey from deliverance out of bondage on our way to our promised home.  This theme is one of the primary themes of the Lord’s Supper, which shows us Jesus’ sustaining life-force as that which feeds and nourishes us on this pilgrimage until He comes again.  1 Corinthians 10 is just one of many passages connecting the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness to the life of the New Testament Christian.

In verse one, the hymn-writer expresses his dependence on God for everything.  “I am weak but Thou art mighty; hold me with Thy powerful hand.”  Our native pride constantly urges us to think, even under the guise of service to God, that He somehow needs us, that we should do something glorious and important in His service.  But God doesn’t need us.  We need Him.  In Isaiah 46 God powerfully illustrates the difference between the gods of the pagans and the God of the Bible.  The pagans carry their gods from place to place.  But God carries His people and puts them where He will.  He carried the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan, not dependent on their mighty deeds at all.  All they needed to do was trust Him.

He picks up the theme of the manna in the wilderness in the last line.  God fed them in the wilderness, and He feeds us today.  More important than the bread on our table is the spiritual bread from heaven, the true Bread that gives us life, Jesus Christ.  The bread of the Lord’s Table is the bread of the Passover which symbolized the sustenance of God on their journey to the Promised Land. God would keep them fed on their journey, not with the milk and honey of luxury they would have in Canaan, but with what they needed to make it there.  We likewise have a promise, not that we will live lives of luxury and pleasure- that will come in time.  But we will be sustained by the power of God until we make it home.

The hymnist refers to the “crystal fountain,” the miraculous provision of water in the desert, water from the rock which was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4), and the pillar of cloud and fire which guided them, all ways that God sustained and preserved them in their time in the wilderness.  He fills us with His Spirit and gives us His Word to guide us.  The believer who trusts God will, like the hymnist, earnestly pray for and be thankful for the guidance and direction of the Lord in his life.  That guidance and help from the Lord will continue until the end, until the “verge of Jordan”, when we cross into His promised rest forever, to praise and worship Him as He deserves for all eternity.

Be Thou My Vision

“Be Thou My Vision” is an adaptation of an ancient Irish poem called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”  Patrick was the evangelist of pagan Ireland, and while there was often in danger of his life from bandits and from lords and rulers who did not want the Christian faith spread in that land.  He expressed his firm conviction that the Lord would protect him and keep him safe.  It is not certain that Patrick actually wrote “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” which may have been written somewhat later, but it certainly reflects the spirit of Patrick’s faith.  He says, in part:

“I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.”

“Be Thou My Vision” draws from many themes in the poem and focuses especially on the sufficiency of God to the needs and wants of the believer.  But the hymn is a prayer, expressing not so much the reality of the believer’s imperfect affections but the believer’s desire to be purged of everything else but the desire for and reliance upon God.

Verse one, and the title of the hymn, focus on God as the focus of all the believer’s desire.  God is to him the focus of his heart and his ambition, and the mere fact of God’s existence crowds out everything else from his mind.  In verse two, it is knowledge and wisdom that the writer focuses on, knowing well the truth that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.  That knowledge, as the Proverbs make clear, is the result of a personal connection to God, and can never be a matter of abstract or disconnected information.  God is the writer’s Father and dwells in intimate relationship with Him.  True wisdom and knowledge flows out of this relationship.

God’s power and protection is the focus of verse three.  God is the armor and weapons with which he fights, with which he will be kept safe from all the slings and arrows of life.  There are valid times in life to pick up earthly weapons.  It is wise to store up for the winter or for the day of trouble, or to take other measures to protect ourselves from danger.  Worldly prudence is a virtue.  But we should never be under any illusion that any of these things will truly keep us safe.  Our confidence should always be in the King of kings, who is truly a buckler and a high tower in times of trouble.  A high tower gives you security from the attacks of enemies, and it also gives you foresight—you can see the enemy coming and prepare.  With our trust in an omnipotent and omniscient God who is always working good for His people, we never need fear surprise dangers or the secret schemes of men.

Verse four reiterates the writer’s rejection of all earthly desires.  He “heeds not” wealth or praise from men.  The Bible does not say wealth or reputation are bad things.  They are blessings from God when one has them and uses them to His honor.  But to “heed” them means that those are the things that drive us, that govern our behavior.  The hymnist will be directed by the desire for God and His truth rather than these earthly and temporary things.

The last verse returns to the theme of the whole, that our trust, ambitions and desire is all to be found in God, our High King.  It expresses it all as a prayer, not as a presently achieved reality, for we all know the weakness and division that exists within our own heart.  We do long for the things of this world.  We do put our trust in men.  But we pray for God to purge us of a faulty heart and a double mind.  We long for the state of mind when God is truly the only Lord of our heart.

God’s Faithfulness: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’ Day 52

LORD’S DAY 52

  1. What is the sixth petition?

“And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one;” that is, since we are so weak in ourselves that we cannot stand a moment,1 and besides, our deadly enemies, the devil,2 the world,3 and our own flesh,4 assail us without ceasing, be pleased to preserve and strengthen us by the power of Your Holy Spirit, that we may make firm stand against them and not be overcome in this spiritual warfare,5 until finally complete victory is ours.6

[1] Jn. 15:5; Ps. 103:14–16. [2] 1 Pet. 5:8–9; Eph. 6:12–13. [3] Jn. 15:19. [4] Rom. 7:23; Gal. 5:17. [5] Matt. 26:41; Mk. 13:33. [6] 1 Th  ess. 3:13; 5:23–24; *2 Cor. 12:7.

  1. How do you close this prayer?

“For Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever;” that is, all this we ask of You, because as our King, having power over all things, You are willing and able to give us all good;1 and that thereby not we, but Your holy name may be glorified for ever.2

[1] Rom. 10:11–12; 2 Pet. 2:9. [2] Jn. 14:13; Ps. 115:1.

  1. What is the meaning of the word “Amen”?

“Amen” means: so shall it truly and surely be. For my prayer is much more certainly heard of God than I feel in my heart that I desire these things of Him.1

[1] 2 Cor. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:13; *Ps. 145:18–19.

 

God’s Faithfulness

Lord’s Day 52, looking at the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer, recognizes a vitally important truth.  We are constantly assailed in our faith from all sides, and of ourselves are never strong enough to withstand it.  Without God’s divine aid, we would certainly abandon the faith.

The Bible is clear in many passages that the crown of life belongs to those who persevere to the end (James 1:12, Rev. 2:11, 17; 1 Cor. 9:24, for example).  The popular conception of “once saved, always saved,” by which is meant the idea that a one-time confession of faith in a moment of sincerity is enough to guarantee salvation regardless of what I do for the rest of my life, is not a Biblical concept.  The Reformed doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints is a different idea, that all those who are elect in God will, by God’s power, persevere to the end.  The perseverance to the end is necessary for salvation.  Thus we pray this prayer.

What we are praying when we say, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” is that God in His sovereign providence never allow us into a situation or a position in life where our faith would be utterly overthrown.  We are asking that though we know He allows us into situations where we will stumble, that He not permit us to utterly fall.

We also know that God has ordained means to sustain us in the faith, the instruments of the preaching and reading of the Word, the Sacraments and prayer.  Praying this prayer does not imply passivity in our spiritual walk, any more than thanking God for giving us our daily bread precludes getting up in the morning and going to work for a paycheck.  God works most often through the instruments He has put in place.  So if we pray this, implied in this prayer is that God also grant us the faith and the wisdom to make use of these instruments He has given us, and then in faith we ought to go do just that- to read our Bibles, to hear the preaching of the word, to make use of the teaching ministry of the church, to make use of the sacraments in obedience, and to be praying without ceasing for the uplifting power of God.  In this way, we can expect that God will in fact keep His promise, as He keeps all the promises He gives us and as He always gives us whatever He commands us to pray for.  He will preserve us against our own sinful weakness, the seductive lure of the world, and the lies of the devil.

And finally, we end by again acknowledging that our goal in all things is directed God-ward.  It is His glory and power we desire.  It is the full implementation of His rule over all things that we yearn for.  It is His omnipotence and benevolence we are counting on, that as a mighty God He is able to do all things for us, and as a faithful Father He is willing.

The final word in the prayer, so often passed over without thought, deserves a comment.  The word “amen” means “surely.”  It is an acknowledgement of belief, an act of faith.  When we say that word we are, or should be, expressing our confidence that God does in fact hear our prayers, and thus our prayers are offered in faith.  Whenever we say that word we should be reminded that not only is our prayer a praise to God and a request made to Him, it is also a confession of faith.  It is a prayer asked in confidence, never doubting (James 1:5-6), truly believing that God is a good God and can be counted upon to do what He says He is going to do.  And He would not teach us to pray these things in vain.  He would not exhort us to ask Him for these things if He had no intention of giving them to us, for He is a loving and faithful Father who would not provoke His children to wrath.

The statement “amen” is thus a confession that I truly trust God to endeavor for me.  I trust God that He will save me.  I trust that He will forgive my sins for the merits of Jesus Christ, that He will lead me in all righteousness, that He will provide for me whatever I need, and that He will secure me in the faith, steering me through all the rocks and reefs that would easily sink my boat in this stormy life were it not for His faithful care, the pilot of my soul.  How appropriate that we end our examination of the Heidelberg Catechism, itself a confession of faith, on this note—on our confidence that belonging to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ is indeed our only comfort in life and in death.

Forgiven and Forgiving: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 51

LORD’S DAY 51

  1. What is the fifth petition?

“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors;” that is, be pleased, for the sake of Christ’s blood, not to impute to us miserable sinners our manifold transgressions, nor the evil which always clings to us;1 as we also find this witness of Your grace in us, that it is our full purpose heartily to forgive our neighbor.2

[1] Ps. 51:1–4; 143:2; 1 Jn. 2:1–2. [2] Matt. 6:14–15; Ps. 51:5–7; *Eph. 1:7.

Forgiven and Forgiving

The forgiveness of sins is a subject already well explored in the Catechism.  The subject of forgiveness is fundamental to the whole structure of the Catechism, as we see the content of our Christian faith consists principally in the question of the nature of my sin and misery, how I am to be redeemed from my sin and misery, and how I am to be thankful for my redemption.  The whole Christian life revolves around forgiveness- why I need forgiveness, how I am forgiven, and then how I am to live in the light of that forgiveness.  Jesus’ statement here in the Lord’s Prayer particularly has relevance to the way we treat other people in our lives.  Forgiveness means letting go of offenses, not holding them against others, not harboring malice or ill will toward people.

The fullness of God’s true moral character was revealed, not in His Law, but in the cross of Christ.  His true glory is seen, not in the destruction of sinners, but in that while we were yet His enemies, He sent His only Son to die for our sins, so that we might be forgiven.  He committed to loving us and doing good for us, blotting out our sins, at the same time that we were spitting in His eye and destroying His beautiful creation.  This is to be the standard to which we ourselves should aspire.

The one statement in the model prayer that addresses the way we treat our fellow man does not tell us to make sure we uphold justice, or to convince everyone of our opinions, or to be nice to everyone around us, but rather to forgive.  The Christian life cannot be one of grudge-holding, list-keeping, or wrongs-enumerating.  It is instead to be a life in which we regard the failings of others with compassion and patience, even when those failings affect us personally.  This gives us not just a thing to do in particular circumstances, but a spirit that should characterize all our dealings with our fellow man.  This is the will of the Father, that we learn to show others the same kind of forbearance and grace that He showed to us.

Jesus in two different passages (Luke 7:40-43; Matt. 18:23-35) tells parables about two servants of a master who are forgiven, and looking at their respective attitudes toward that forgiveness.  One is the parable of the two servants, one owing five hundred denarii and the other owing fifty.  The other is the parable of the master who forgives his servant a huge sum, which servant then refuses to forgive his fellow servant a trivial debt.

There are many fascinating implications to both, but the central message is clear.  Christians are to be eager and ready to forgive, and must not hold grudges.  Our attitude toward the wrongdoing of others against us will directly reflect our awareness of how much we have ourselves been forgiven.  A refusal to forgive demonstrates a lack of awareness of one’s own forgiveness.  Sometimes some will say that an offender must ask forgiveness and/or make proper restitution before forgiveness is owed, but this does not reflect the spirit of our Father in heaven, who forgave us of our sins, in principle, before we even knew Him.  He sent His Son to die for us and to reconcile us to Himself while we still hated Him.  He forgives all of our sins, even though many of our sins are not even known by us or properly understood by us until we have been Christians for many years and often not even then.  This is the spirit we are to reflect to others.  This also requires trust, that we know God will do good for us even through the evil that men do.

There are other principles at play as well.  Forgiveness of someone’s sins toward us or toward someone else does not preclude the exercise of civil or ecclesiastical office.  The sorrowful murderer should still be executed by the state, even as his victims ought to forgive him.  The unrepentant sinner should be excommunicated, even as others in the church resolve not to hold malice or anger against him.  These issues should be kept separate.  Additionally there are issues of personal safety- I should forgive my brother seven times a day for punching me in the nose, but there is no sin in getting my guard up after the second or third time.

Despite those qualifications, the Christian spirit will be one that is not only willing but anxious and ready to forgive the wrongs that others do him.  The Catechism says we should do so “heartily.”  A spirit of forgiveness is one of the prime evidences of the working of God’s grace in a man’s life.

 

 

Acknowledging Our Dependence: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 50

LORD’S DAY 49

  1. What is the fourth petition?

“Give us this day our daily bread;” that is, be pleased to provide for all our bodily need,1 so that we may thereby acknowledge that You are the only fountain of all good,2 and that without Your blessing neither our care and labor, nor Your gifts, can profit us;3 that we may therefore withdraw our trust from all creatures and place it in You alone.4

[1] Ps. 104:27–28; 145:15–16; Matt. 6:25–26. [2] Acts 14:17; 17:27–28. [3] 1 Cor. 15:58; Deut. 8:3; Ps. 37:3–7, 16–17. [4] Ps. 55:22; 62:10; *Ps. 127:1–2; *Jer. 17:5, 7; *Ps. 146:2–3.

Acknowledging our Dependence

Ours is not a religion of empty ritual or of manipulating or controlling divine powers.  So why do we pray for our food?  Why do we ask God to provide our daily bread and give thanks to Him when He does?  After all, the unbelievers seem to eat just fine, often better than believers do.

Many passages in Scripture, some of them listed as the proof texts for question 125 (such as Psalm 104:27-28) teach us that it is God that provides food for every living thing including humans.  It is absolute madness for us to suppose that we can provide for ourselves.  Many think they do, but when they examine a bit closer they will see the folly of it.  The farmer who grows food did not cause the sun to come up in the morning or the rain to fall.  He did not invent photosynthesis.  The farmer did not even invent farming; the most innovative farmer will at best just add a tiny bit of knowledge to the storehouse of best practices developed before him.  All the best food in the world will do us no good if our mouths cannot chew it and our stomachs cannot digest it and our cells cannot absorb it, none of which processes were designed by the wisdom of man.  We could go on in this vein for some time, and repeat it for any trade we find ourselves in.  It is as if a man were led into a large room with a huge and insanely complex machine in it, with gears and pulleys and belts all in an incomprehensible order, with a lever and a large sign next to it saying “pull for food,” which he pulls and food drops out, and then the man congratulates himself for his industry and genius for diligently pulling that handle.

So we work hard at what is put in front of us to do, but we do so out of thankfulness to God and a desire to become what He has purposed for us to be, not because we are possessed of some illusion that we can control our own fates or provide for ourselves the things we need out of our own strength or character.  When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we recognize and acknowledge that vital fact.

This acknowledgement brings with it several benefits, the main and overarching one of which is taught to us in the last phrase of question 125.  That benefit is trust.  Faith, which is just trusting what God has told us, is the main thing, and we are called to learn to have faith in God for everything, not just what happens to me when I die but what happens to my body when I eat food, when I drink water, when I go to sleep.  It is only by God’s ordination that I will get any of these things in the first place, let alone benefit physically from them.  There is no real separation between faith in God to provide for me physically and faith in God to redeem me eternally, for the same God that promised to do the one promised the other as well.  Faith just means trusting God, believing what He says He will do.

God made our bodies as well as our souls, and we are designed to be bodies as well as souls.  Jesus tells us in Luke 12:22-32 that we should not worry about food or drink, not (as many religions, especially those of the Eastern mystical variety, might tell us) because those things are unimportant but because our heavenly Father, who loves us and created us, knows that we need them and will provide them for us.  Laziness and complacency is ruled out as well, for Jesus concludes that section of Luke by exhorting us to “seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.”  The wrong interpretation of this is that we should therefore not work at jobs or try to take care of our bodies, and instead spend all our days in religious contemplation on top of a mountain somewhere. That would contradict a lot of the rest of the Scriptures.  Rightly interpreted, it means that when we work at our jobs or exercise or watch our diet, what we really should be doing in each of those cases is seeking the kingdom of God, seeking the internal rule of God to govern our lives and to become what God wills for us to be.

God certainly could supernaturally drop food down into our refrigerators.  He fed Elijah by ravens that brought him bread and meat by the brook Cherith, but that is not His normal way of operating.  Normally He feeds us through that great machine called nature and civilization that He designed and made, and He has a reason for that, for He created us to be in dominion over these things.  By feeding us through the natural processes of the world He has made, He trains us and makes us what He wills for us to be.  So when we work at the work God gives us, what we really should be seeking is the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and trusting that God will feed us and provide for us as He promised.  He is indeed faithful, and so we pray to Him to give us our daily bread along with all our bodily needs, in full knowledge that He has done so and is doing so already. Praying for our daily bread does not get us more food than those who do not pray, but it does train us in wisdom and faith, far more valuable than any material blessing.

 

Conforming to God’s Will: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 49

LORD’S DAY 49

  1. What is the third petition?

“Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven;” that is, grant that we and all men renounce our own will,1 and without disputing obey Your will, which alone is good;2 so that everyone may fulfill his office and calling as willingly and faithfully3 as the angels do in heaven.4

[1] Matt. 16:24. [2] Lk. 22:42; Tit. 2:12. [3] 1 Cor. 7:24. [4] Ps. 103:20–21; *Rom. 12:2;  *Heb. 13:21.

Conforming to God’s Will

Perhaps the clearest revelation of the nature of Jesus’ supreme act of obedience came not actually on the cross, but slightly before, in the Garden of Gethsemane.  There, just before the beginning of the train of events which led to His crucifixion, Jesus, knowing full well what was coming in the next hours and the next day, struggled painfully to submit His human will to the Divine will.  We must never forget His real humanity, and He struggled so greatly to accept the horror that was coming that He told His disciples that His soul was sorrowful even unto death (Matthew 26:38).  He said, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me.”  We see there His full humanity, and He recoiled at what would come the next day.  Nonetheless, He said, “Not My will but Thine be done.”  Here is where we see His perfect humanity.  Fully aware of all the horror, shame, pain and sorrow that was to be His in the next twenty four hours, He did the will of His Father, and in doing so, fully earned the glory and right to be the human king of God’s earthly kingdom, the head of the glorious nation that God was bringing to Himself.

Being Christlike is the goal for all of us as believers, as disciples, and here our Rabbi teaches us to pray that we would be like Him, that we would do His Father’s will just as He did.  The phrase in the Lord’s Prayer is broad, desiring the doing of the will of God throughout the world, but it starts with us.  I have more control over myself than I do over anyone else in the world, and if our eyes are opened to the truth of our own naturem we will know that there is much in our own hearts that falls short.  While it is easy to focus on the shortcomings of others, if we truly desire the will of God to be done on the earth, the bulk of our effort should be focused on ourselves and our own obedience to God’s will.

Jesus’ prayer is for the world as a whole, and in teaching us to pray for that Jesus also teaches us to desire it.  He has given us work to do in the advancement of it as well, but praying for that change to happen reminds us that it is God that achieves it both in ourselves and in others, and we therefore will not labor in the strength of the flesh but in the instruments that God has given us.  We will listen to the preached word of God, make use of the sacraments, seek community with our fellow Christians, be faithful in whatever work God has given us in our lives, and love those who are around us, trusting that through all these means God will work His work.  Righteousness is not going to be produced by human efforts like military or political power, education in human systems of knowledge or redistribution of material goods.  It will happen by the spread of the gospel and the power of the Spirit in the hearts and minds of His elect.

He will transform the world.  We can be certain that God is a benevolent God who loves to give good things to His Son.  He is faithful and will certainly do what He has promised.  So we can be certain that God’s will is going to be done on the earth just as it is in heaven, or Jesus would not have taught us to pray for it.  But we also know that though our efforts are to be directed to this end, we will not see its full effects until He comes again in glory and power to put down all His enemies.  Jesus is currently ruling the nations with a rod of iron, and will do so until their final destruction is accomplished by His second coming.  Only then will sin be eradicated from the world.

Until then, we fight the spiritual battle for the promotion of the will of God in the world, using the weapons and tools He gives us, and we pray—first that God would change our hearts to conform us more and more to the image of Jesus Christ, who always put the divine will ahead of His own, and secondly that we, as a result of the obedience worked in us, would be faithful agents for the promotion of righteousness through the gospel in our families, our workplaces, our neighborhoods or wherever else God has placed us.

God is the Creator of all things, and therefore all things work properly and best when we learn to use them according to God’s will.  Driving a car according to the instructions of the manufacturer is not an unpleasant chore but the way to get full utility and enjoyment from the car.  And God’s creation is amazing, beautiful, and very enjoyable.  When God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then we will be able to fully enjoy all of God’s wonderful creation, to use it as He intended for it to be used, to relate to each other the way we should, and to enjoy His glorious and perfect presence forever.

Yearning for the Kingdom: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 48

LORD’S DAY 48

 123.  What is the second petition?

“Your kingdom come;” that is, so govern us by Your Word and Spirit, that we submit ourselves to You always more and more;1 preserve and increase Your Church;2 destroy the works of the devil, every power that exalts itself against You, and all wicked devices formed against Your Holy Word,3 until the fullness of Your kingdom come,4 wherein You shall be all in all.5

[1] Ps. 119:5; 143:10. [2] Ps. 51:18; 122:6–7. [3] 1 Jn. 3:8; Rom. 16:20. [4] Rev. 22:17, 20; Rom. 8:22–23. [5] 1 Cor. 15:28; *Ps. 102:12–13; *Heb. 12:28; *Rev. 11:15; *1 Cor. 15:24.

Christianity is not a private matter, nor can it ever be.  When Christ ascended into heaven in the sight of His disciples, He said, “All authority is given to me in heaven and in earth.” (Matthew 28:18)  If we believe in Jesus, then we believe that His authority extends over all the earth.  However it is also clear that His kingdom, which is also His Father’s kingdom, is not acknowledged by many and is not fully in force anywhere.  But of course we love Christ and believe His rule to be a very good thing, and therefore it is every Christian’s desire to see the kingdom of Christ fully implemented everywhere.  There is always disagreement about what exactly this kingdom consists of or how this full realization will happen, but the fact of it is something every Christian desires and looks forward to.

The Catechism teaches us that this rule first of all extends into the heart of each believer.  It is a rule of Word and Spirit.  One cannot overemphasize the importance of this fact.  Israel under Moses had a form of government divinely suited to them, but because God did not rule in their hearts the result was disastrous.  Their whole history was characterized by rebellion ultimately leading to death, and it was precisely because the kingdom was not present in their hearts (with only a very few exceptions) that they were not a godly people.

In promising the restoration of Israel, the prophets often bring up this exact point, and make clear that this coming restoration will be accomplished by the Spirit of God working the rule of God in the hearts of His people.  Ezekiel 36:25-28 is representative:

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.  Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God. (Eze 36:25-28 NKJ)”

This internal rule is foundational, and the Catechism recognizes it by mentioning it first.  Everything else flows out of it.  Using the instrument of the Church, God spreads the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world, and as individuals come to faith and have this rule established in their hearts, the church likewise grows.  Everywhere it grows it counters the works of the devil, both by sanctifying individual believers and by externally restraining Satan’s evil, as we see in all societies where Christianity takes root.  As the church grapples with various issues, doctrinal and practical, it has formulated arguments against the deceptions of Satan which arise both within and without the church.  This process continues until the work is done.  Some Christians see this happening with the establishment of an earthly golden age which will persist for a long time before Christ returns.  Some see this fullness achieved only when Christ Himself comes back and throws down opposition, which opposition will have continued until that second coming happens.  But however you read those particular texts and prophecies, our job right now is clear, to advance the kingdom of God in our own hearts by repenting and believing, and encouraging others around us within our sphere of influence to do the same.

This is the whole reason Christ died, in order to clear away the obstacle of guilt through forgiveness of sins so that the Spirit of God could institute this rule in the hearts of His people.

One thing that we must therefore not do is try to build the church without this internal rule of the Spirit.  Many have theorized that they could make their churches large by any means possible and then the rule of the Spirit of God in people’s lives would follow.  But this gets things backward.  Jesus told us in Matthew 28 that our response to the fact of His universal authority must be to make disciples.  This is the nature of the church, and even accepting the truth that many will become part of the church in an outward way without being disciples, we must never accept this state of affairs.  If we are to be faithful to the truth of what the church is, then we will continually be about the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  If we lure people in with the promise of entertainment or worldly blessings, then we have subverted the purpose of the church.  We must call people to the church with the promise of the kingdom, the promise of discipleship and the internal spiritual rule of Christ.

Similarly, while Christians are right to be involved in politics as citizens, we must never make the mistake of thinking that the kingdom of God can be advanced in the political sphere in the absence of the internal rule of God in people’s hearts.  We should advocate for justice for the weak and oppressed and for laws which reflect Biblical truth, but we should always recognize that without conversion to the gospel, all these efforts are ultimately in vain.  Government at its best only restrains sin; it can never be the kingdom of God or implement this internal rule of the gospel.

The advancement of the kingdom of God in the hearts and minds of people is our fervent desire, and the spiritual nature of this goal shows how completely dependent on God we ultimately are for this, and therefore we pray sincerely, “Thy kingdom come.”  Every Christian will desire the kingdom to continue its victorious march through our own hearts and through the hearts of all God’s people all over the world, and the gates of hell will not be strong enough to keep that kingdom out.

Making God Holy: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 47

LORD’S DAY 47

  1. What is the first petition?

“Hallowed be Your name;” that is, grant us, first, rightly to know You,1 and to sanctify, magnify, and praise You in all Your works, in which Your power, goodness, justice, mercy, and truth shine forth;2 and further, that we so order our whole life, our thoughts, words, and deeds, that Your Name may not be blasphemed, but honored and praised on our account.3

[1] Jn. 17:3; Matt. 16:17; Jas. 1:5; Ps. 119:105. [2] Ps. 119:137; Rom. 11:33–36. [3] Ps. 71:8; *Ps. 100:3–4; *Ps. 92:1–2; *Eph. 1:16–17; *Ps. 71:16.

Making God Holy

The word “hallowed” is the world “hagiazo” in the Greek.  This is a verb form of the word “hagios” which means “holy.”  So to “hallow” something is to make it holy.

The “name” of God is a very rich Scriptural idea.  It’s much more important than merely a collection of sounds which identify an object or person.  The “name” of God is the way God identifies or reveals Himself.  It is God’s attributes as He shows them to us.  Hallowing the name of God is then the opposite of taking God’s name in vain.  It is the difference between giving the revelation of God’s nature and work the full weight, glory, and truth that it deserves on the one hand, and on the other speaking or thinking of God in an empty or frivolous way, or according to our own imaginations and inventions.  If I say, “I think God is like this or that” then I am taking His name in vain.  If I study to really understand how God reveals Himself, dwell on the fullness, richness, and holiness of that name, and speak of it always according to that truth, then I am hallowing His name.  I’m making it weighty and holy.

If a man tells you that his name is “Robert” and you address him as “Robby” or “Bobby” that will be perceived as disrespectful, rude, and slighting.  If a man identifies himself as Bobby, then using that name is not rude at all.  Unless you know a person very well and have a good relationship with them, it would always be discourteous to use a different name for them than the name they give you.  This is a minor example of how respect for another person means speaking about them in the way that they choose.  There are limits to this, of course.  I have no obligation to refer to a man as if he were a potted plant.  If a man insists that I refer to him as Napoleon Bonaparte, I may choose to do so, but it will not be out of respect so much as concern that he is crazy and may murder me.

God is of the very highest authority, power, and honor, and therefore deserves our very highest respect.  But God is unknowable to us except by revelation.  I cannot know Him by observation, but only by how He chooses to reveal Himself to me.  This is one aspect of God’s holiness, that He is separate from and higher than everything He has made.  One way we show God this highest respect is to speak and think of Him always and only as He reveals Himself to us.

So the Catechism says we pray to God that we may “rightly know Him.”  We must pray that He would grant us this revelation and that He would empower us to understand it.  Our desire is that God is honored and glorified in all our thoughts about Him and our words about Him, and that we labor within the bonds of love and humility to endeavor that others come to know the truth about Him as well.  We should study the works of God as the Psalmist tells us- “The works of the Lord are great, studied by all those who have pleasure in them.” (Psalm 111:2)  Stories in the Bible are often told as if David or Abraham were the heroes of those stories, which will always involve a bit of airbrushing of certain uncomfortable details.  But if we realize that God is always the hero, then we can see the greatness and the glory of His works, accomplishing His perfect will even through very flawed human beings.

The Catechism also extends this to the way we live our lives.  As Christians, we must always be aware that we have taken the name of God upon us, and we must therefore strive to live in a way that does honor to that name.  This does not mean being hypocrites.  We are sinners, and though nobody cares to see all our dirty laundry, at the same time we do not bring honor to God by being whitewashed tombs.  We bring honor to God by freely admitting our sinfulness, thankfully confessing our forgiveness, and joyously striving to put away our remaining sin and pressing toward the mark of perfection even though we know we will not achieve it in this life.  We honor God by living as if we actually believed that what He said is true, even though we continually fall short.  If our words say we believe in the goodness of His law but our lives show a continual disregard for it, then we are taking His name in vain.  If we live in such a way as to be constantly throwing our superior religiosity in everyone’s faces, concentrating all our efforts on outward visible markers of holiness instead of true inward righteousness, then we show ourselves to be hypocrites and likewise take the Lord’s name in vain.  But if we humbly and thankfully strive to truly love our neighbor, to speak the truth of God and man at all times, and to promote the knowledge of God in the world as best as we can, then we begin to know what it means to hallow the name of God.

This is the first petition Jesus tells us to pray.  The glorifying of God’s name is the purpose of the creation of the universe, including ourselves.  We were saved by the blood of Christ for this purpose, to bring glory to His name.  We fulfill the purpose of our existence when we seek to glorify Him with all our words and works.  But our sin will always prevent us from doing so, and so we need help; a lot of it.  So we ought always to pray to God, “Hallowed be Your Name.”