Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter


May 13, 2009

And just like this we’ve come to the end of this year’s Basics Conference. It always seems to go by so quickly. I think I say this every year, but this really is one of my favorite conferences of the year (and perhaps even my absolute favorite). Many conferences geared to pastors are intense, packing every day full of teaching and preaching. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does leave some people feeling a bit worn out by the end (and especially those of us who try to blog each of the sessions). The Basics has such a nice pace—no more than three keynote addresses in a day. Everything but accommodations is on-site, so you need only leave at the end of the day. From morning until evening you can stay on-campus, browsing an excellent bookstore, attending breakout sessions, enjoying fellowship and eating. Speaking of eating, the food is always top-notch and served by a host of volunteers. This conference is an occasion for the church members to serve and they do it with excellence. It is also a time where the speakers tend to be available to the people who attend the conference. The crowds are smaller, the pace is relaxed, and this allows greater access to the men you’ve come to hear.

As I’ve done in years past, I’d encourage you to consider freeing up your pastor to attend next year. I am confident that it will be for him a valuable time where he can rest and relax and have his soul fed by the preaching of the Word. Though they have not yet firmed up the speakers for next year, each of the names on the short list is a man whom you’d love to hear preach.

As always, Alistair Begg preached the conference’s final session and this year he chose for his text Acts 25:23 through to the end of Acts 26. This is the story, of course, of the Apostle Paul standing before King Agrippa and proclaiming the gospel message to the King and to all who would hear.

Begg returned the topic he had addressed yesterday—preaching in a way that seeks to persuade the listener. Yesterday we had observed that there were three enemies of preaching that seeks to persuade—confusion concerning the message, fear about the consequences of proclaiming it and complacency about the predicament of those who hear the message. In Acts 26 we see the counterpoint of each of these. We see how Paul’s defense, his message, was marked by clarity, authority and a sense of urgency.

In this passage a large door of opportunity opens in two ways—to Agrippa who gets to hear Paul’s message and to Paul who gets to do the preaching. Begg went through this, both teaching the pastors how he chose to preach and teach the text and showing how Paul models persuasive preaching. The nature of Begg’s message meant that it did not give itself readily to a short blog summary so I will leave it to you to listen to it. Though anyone could listen to it and benefit, I’d suggest that it is pastors, preachers, who stand to benefit the most.

And now, I’m going to grab one of the boxed lunches they have stacked out in the hallway, head home and, the Lord willing, grab a quick dinner before taking the family to our mid-week service. In terms of travel, I have just one more event in my schedule this spring. Next week I will be in Chicago for a few days, bringing some updates from the Moody Pastors Conference. This will be my first time taking in that event and I am looking forward to seeing what it is all about. After that, from June 1 to 3, I’ll be spending some time at the Toronto Pastors Conference which my church has organized. And then I should be sticking pretty close to home until fall.

May 12, 2009

This evening, after rather an excellent dinner, we gathered again to hear from John Lennox. In his first talk (yesterday afternoon) he spoke of the use of the mind in engaging the world. In this one he wanted to use Scripture to address the mind; and not only the mind but also the imagination. One of the wonders of God’s creation of the human mind is its ability to imagine. Parts of the Bible are written so we can imagine the realities that stand fundamental to our faith. And what better book to do this than Revelation? He looked to chapters 4 to 7.

The central theme of these chapters is the throne of God. This portion of Scripture is like a vast work of music, an opera in four acts, which rises and falls, which swells and falls back again. Each of these acts involves worship and culminates in worship. Worship is an assault on this materialistic age which denies that which is not material. It is also an assault on postmodernism since postmodernism denies the absolute nature of truth. Worship insists that we can know truth, for worship must be in spirit and in truth. Above all else, worship assumes that we know what ultimate reality is. It is based on God and so in order to worship God we must not only know who he is but we must know him.

Lennox made this point: you do not promote laughter by describing the inner workings of the mouth; instead, you tell a joke. How do you promote worship? By telling people about God. And he offered this warning: a pastor needs to be careful that he does not begin to study Scripture primarily to write sermons. He must be sure that he studies Scriptures to get to know God and allow that to form his sermons. It is so easy to fall into a professional process of simply writing sermons.

In the New Testament the word worship carries many ideas. For example, it may mean to bow down in the presence of a superior. And we may then ask, why would you want to bow before God? It’s a good question. If you acknowledge and bow down before someone, you acknowledge them as an authority. So what is it about God and his authority that would make you want to bow down before it?

John, in his exile in Patmos, learned that there is a door into another world; he was invited to go through that door and to see that there is another world and that in this world there is a throne. What an assault this is on the contemporary mind! Materialism denies that this other world even exists, not to mention that there is a throne in it. In this message Lennox wanted to have a little look through the door that is open.

In this passage from Revelation we begin to discover detail of the throne room. Much of this is symbolism and we must be careful not to confuse symbolism with code. In chapter 5 we discover a lamb and it is clear that this is Jesus. We discover a lion and this is Jesus too. There is a danger that we can take these symbols as code so where we read lion or lamb we read Jesus. A fair reading of Scripture shows us, though, that this is not meant to be a code but a metaphor. It’s not telling us who it is but what it is. It is using lamb and lion to tell something about the One whom we know it is. The book is full of symbols and his purpose tonight was to look at some of them to try to understand a little bit what they have to say to us.

And he did so, for each one pausing for a point of application to pastoral ministry. At first I tried to capture each of these but eventually I realized that a) I just couldn’t do it adequately and b) it would be best to hear these things rather than read my rough notes on them. So I will leave it to you to track down the audio and listen in as he moves from feature to feature of this heavenly throne room, describing each and drawing appropriate application.

May 12, 2009

John Piper’s second (and final) session was taken from John 3 and dealt with the topic of preaching the doctrine of regeneration undiminished. This is just the briefest overview. You know the audio will be available at the Desiring God site before the day is over.

Piper’s outline followed this pattern: What happens in the new birth; why the new birth is so necessary; how it happens.

What Happens in the New Birth?
Life happens! God does not give new religion, but new life. Jesus knows that there are religious dead people and that Nicodemus is one of them; he knows that Nicodemus needs to be born, to be given life. When you are born of the flesh, all you are is flesh; you are humanity minus God. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit—which means you do not have a living spirit now (because you are dead). The Holy Spirit needs to come upon you and breathe this new life into you. We are now spiritually alive.

Why Is the New Birth So Necessary?
Piper offered ten biblical descriptions of man apart from the new birth, ten reasons we need to be born again. As bad as the news is, it’s glorious to get it right because there is a glorious remedy. When we properly understand our own badness, we see Christ more gloriously.

Apart from the new birth we are dead
Apart from the new birth we are by nature children of wrath
Apart from the new birth we love darkness and hate light
Apart from the new birth we have hearts that are hard like stone
Apart from the new birth we are unable to submit to God
Apart from the new birth we are unable to except the gospel
Apart from the new birth we are unable to come to Christ or embrace him as Lord
Apart from the new birth we are slaves to sin
Apart from the new birth we are slaves of Satan
Apart from the new birth no good thing dwells in me

How Does it Happen?

He offered four steps (though steps was really not quite the right word):

First, the Holy Spirit freely gives life. There is no how-to here at all; he must sovereignly do this.

Second, this happens through the living and abiding Word of God. We see here the human agency of the divine sovereign awakening of dead souls.

Third, the gospel brings about faith. Believing is the result, not the cause of the new birth.

Fourth, Christ is received and believed upon.

These four steps cannot be carved apart—they must happen simultaneously.


Coming up this afternoon: lunch break, breakout sessions, a few hours of free time. After dinner John Lennox will speak for a second time.

May 12, 2009

The second day of The Basics Conference began with Alistair Begg speaking from 2 Corinthians 5 and focusing on verse 20. He wanted to consider the matter of preaching that confronts people’s stubborn wills; to think about persuasive preaching.

To do this, is to place ourselves in good company for the apostolic precept pushes us in this direction (see Acts 18:4 by way of example). Scripture also urges people by way of precept, such as what we see in 2 Timothy where Paul encouraged Timothy to boldly proclaim the Word. The exhortation to be such a preacher and teacher is set firmly in the context of suffering. He knows that suffering will be the eventuality for Timothy as he faithfully preaches Christian doctrine. We find this same theme in 2 Corinthians. With persuasive preaching will inevitably come suffering. God kicks out the legs of the stools upon which God’s messengers sit comfortably and he does this to bring them to the end of self-dependence.

Paul’s exhortation in 2 Corinthians 5 is exhortation to those who would be on the receiving end of his instruction and it is set within the context of human opposition and divine compulsion. If we do not share with him the latter, then we will crumple in the face of the former. Preaching is unpopular and this is true both outside the church and within. If preaching is unpopular, no preaching is more unpopular than that which addresses the stubborn will and calls people to repentance in Jesus.

Begg said that preachers face three challenges based on the unpopularity of preaching:

1. Personal Challenges

a) First, they may well be personal, for when we think in terms of the peculiar responsibility of standing between a holy God and people he has made and fashioned for himself, then any sense of natural inhibition and fearfulness will almost definitely present themselves. It may demand everything in us simply to fulfill that to which we’ve been called. b) Second, we face a challenge when we’re tempted to self-preservation—an unwillingness to bring the demands of both the law and gospel to bear upon the listener. Satan is not blinding people’s minds to family values or tall stories and emotional exhortations and all these things that pass for preaching. He blinds the eyes of men and women to the glory of the gospel in Christ Jesus. c) Third, we face the challenge of familiarity with our material. Unless we go frequently in prayer in the secret place and the private place, we may quickly become the purveyors of that which passes our lips with no sense of conviction because familiarity has somehow destroyed delight.

2. Cultural Challenges

Many people see life as little more than a dirty trick, a short journey from nothingness to nothingness. The cultural challenge that comes by being ambassadors to the gospel has to be faced. People today want to be entertained all the time and perhaps especially so in church and education

3. Theological Challenges

Begg keeps meeting people who seem to find great comfort in their theology instead of in Jesus Christ. They come to strong (and even correct) convictions about great, important biblical truths, but they find themselves virtually tongue-tied when it comes to persuasive preaching. They begin to set great truths in opposition to one another believing somehow that one cancels out the other and they cease from evangelism almost totally. So there may be a theological challenge where men are laboring under the inhibitions that come with the fear that by freely offering the gospel to sinners, we may be going against God’s sovereignty. They worry that the non-elect may somehow end up being saved!

The challenge to the preacher is this: we need not bow beneath the immensity of Scripture and thus be unpersuasive in preaching. After suggesting that a pastor’s reaction to these challenges may come in three forms—confusion, fear and complacency—he spent a few moments dealing with each of these, turning to necessary prerequisites for preaching to the stubborn will:

a) Clarity and particularly clarity about the nature of the gospel itself. If we’re confused in our own minds, we’ll never be clear from the pulpit.

b) Boldness comes on the heels of clarity; it is easier to be bold when we’ve been clear. The Christian who wishes to share the gospel persuasively, must do it with boldness and confidence.

c) I’m not quite sure if I missed this or if Begg just ran out of time. Grab the audio and let me know!

Here are just two little notes that don’t fit into the flow of what I wrote above; two quotes I jotted down:

Speaking of pastors who encourage their people to evangelize boldly: “We’re urging things on our congregations that we don’t do ourselves.”

And second, in preaching the gospel: “We think because we’re telling people the benefits of the gospel or we’re warning people about rejecting the gospel, we’re actually telling people the gospel. Nothing will dull the soul more than exhortations without substance.”

May 11, 2009

After a great dinner, and a few worship songs courtesy of Keith and Kristyn Getty, John Piper took to the pulpit to explore the theme of preaching the doctrine of justification from the Scriptures in an undiminished way. For ten years he has been very exercised about this doctrine and he began by offering five reasons why this has been the doctrine that has most consumed him over the past ten years. Here they are:

First, for eight of those years he was preaching through the book of Romans. When you preach through Romans, you bump into the doctrine of justification again and again. He lived in Romans for eight years and really had no choice but to reflect heavily on this doctrine.

Second, he is surrounded at Bethlehem by apprentices and young men who read more than he does, who are smarter than he is, and who ask many hard questions about cutting edge issues they are reading about and he is not. He has found it necessary to respond to their questions.

Third, this doctrine is increasingly embattled in our day. It is being confused and reduced and contradicted in many ways (and here he offered five of them): a) the lines between Protestant and Catholic doctrine are being blurred; b) the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is being flat-out denied by evangelicals; c) the New Perspective on Paul (and N.T. Wright in particular) has redrawn the map so that confusion is very widespread about what justification is, how it relates to judgment in the future, and so on; d) faith itself and the fruits of faith are being merged so that the historic “by faith alone” is losing its meaning; e) the term “righteousness of God” is being given meanings that historically it never had and which are throwing people off.

4. He relates to this truth in terms of the imputation to us of the righteousness that Christ perfectly lived out very personally. “I love this doctrine! I live off this doctrine.” This doctrine is desperately, daily saving. Some might say that this is a blinding passion but perhaps it might instead be an eye-opening passion. The Bible is as often (more often?) misinterpreted by those who come to it skeptically as those who come to it with craving.

5. The heart of the glory of God in Christ reaches its climax at the cross. The gospel is the gospel of the glory of Christ. He is driven by this to preach with passion the doctrine of justification.

He then offered three ways the glory of Christ is diminished in these challenges. And having done that, he spent some time discussing each one of them. I will give only the points and leave it to you to listen in for his explanation (and again, I’ll let you know when the audio files are available):

First, one of Christ’s great achievements is being denied—that his righteous perfection is counted as mine.

Second, if you lose Christ’s righteousness being counted to us, something in the human soul does not get dealt with. There is some need within us that cannot be dealt with outside of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

Third, the aim of our charge is love, says Paul. Love is the great outcome of the Christian doctrine. What happens if you begin to blur the line between the ground of it and “it” itself? The very thing that you try to increase in importance (love) will die because you’ve tried to make it the foundation instead of something that is supported by the foundation.

We’ll now enjoy a short concert by the Getty’s and after that look forward to another great day tomorrow. If you’d be so kind, I’d love it if you’d remember me in your prayers as I lead a breakout session tomorrow at 1:00 PM.

I’ll be back in the morning!

May 11, 2009

Today marks the beginning of the 2009 Basics Conference at Parkside Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. This year’s speakers are Alistair Begg, John Lennox and John Piper. I intend to bring you six updates through this conference, one for each of the keynote addresses that will happen between now and Wednesday morning (that’s two today, three tomorrow and one on Wednesday).

John Lennox had the privilege of teaching the first session. Lennox is Professor of Mathematics in the University of Oxford, Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science, and Pastoral Advisor at Green Templeton College, Oxford. I think it’s safe to say that, of all the conferences I’ve been to, this is the first where one of the keynote speakers was a mathematician!

Lennox began by reading from Mark 12:28ff and 1 Peter 3:18ff. His message was an interesting combination of theology and biography. It was not entirely linear in structure so was a little bit difficult to follow. Therefore, what you read here may seem a bit unstructured. I did what I could! I found it a very compelling message and I think any pastor could benefit from listening to it (and I’ll let you know when the MP3 files are available for download).

He spoke of the enormous import of coming to a settled conviction that what we are dealing with in our faith is the truth because it deals with Jesus Christ who claimed to be the truth. When science asks questions about the world, what is the truth about water? About hydrogen? About oxygen? Ultimately, behind every chain of such questions stands Jesus Christ the Creator saying “I am the truth.” Lennox says that his life’s passion is somehow, with God’s help, to communicate the sheer wonder of the truthfulness of the message we have so we stop being ashamed of bringing it into the marketplace.

In recent years Lennox has been involved in public debates with the New Atheists and this has taken place on both continents. He has twice debated Dawkins and Hitchens. These men have declared war on religion in the name of reason and science and say that Christianity is anti-intellectual and anti-science. Their books have sold in the multi-millions, showing that their ideas are resonating in the public square. Many of these people are finding their concerns answered better by the atheists than by their [former] pastors. The Christian voice is eventually squeezed out of the public space.

How do we approach this concern about atheism? Increasingly, atheism is finding its way into the legal codes of the nations. We can take courage first in the historical record of the New Testament as the social situation there was much the same. Many of us have lived through a strange period of history where we are returning to the situation of the first century where Christianity is becoming a mere minority. In the first century the Apostles had the audacity to believe that they could cut into Greek and Roman society, with all their sophistication, and impact those people with a foolish message.

At stake is the public perception of the content and truth of the Christian message. We are being called to be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks the reason for the hope that is in us. Scripture will not allow any of us to stand on the sidelines. We have no option but to get involved in the battle. What does this have to do with pastors? Everything! It is not only non-Christians who are asking the tough questions but also Christians and Christian pastors. We shall never engage the minds of others if our own hearts and minds are not engaged. You cannot bring someone logically to where you are not yourself.

Reason and defense belong together. Paul reasoned the gospel. The essence of what Peter calls for in giving a defense is to be willing to dialog. Paul is constantly engaged in this. Are we? If a week goes by without us being involved in dialog, it may be that something is going wrong. The biggest reason for not attending church in the U.K. is that pastors never address the questions people are asking. We cannot know what people are asking if we are not among them. The gospel will be misunderstood and misrepresented and we need to be ready to give a reasoned defense.

One of Lennox’s passions is getting this message out: the defense of the gospel, apologia is not a specialist activity but something all Christians are called on to do. Defense of the gospel is evangelism—persuasive evangelism in the face of questioning and accusation. It has been a catastrophe for us to think that apologetics is not critical to the faith and witness of every Christian. Why do so many people shy away from it?

He looked briefly to the context of defending the gospel. It is important to note the background for defending the gospel and knowing what it is. Before Peter tells Christians to be ready to defend their faith he says, “Have no fear.” The background is fear! Are you ever afraid? There is a gnawing fear that silences people that tears people away from their public witness. The time has come to be honest about our fear. What does fear keep us from doing?

There is no limit to what God can do in and through a man who trusts him and who relies on his Spirit. It is important to note that even men of great intellect can be infants when it comes to Scripture. They haven’t a clue to the riches of Scripture because they’ve never given themselves to it.

At that heart of the battles is confidence in God’s Word. “Has God really said…” God blinds the minds of those who do not believe. We have to take up the weapons God gives us—the one weapon, really. It is the sword, the sword of the Word of God. What is the biggest battle in your life and my life? It is to get us insecure in our confidence as to the reliability and sufficiency and effectiveness of that sword. The best way to keep a sword sharp is to keep using it (and not on your fellow Christians). A lack of knowledge of Scripture keeps people paralyzed by fear.

He asked this question: When was the last time you were asked to offer a reason for the hope that is within you? And he offered this encouragement: It is sometimes valuable to ask unbelievers about the hope that is (or isn’t!) in them. This may be a great bridge to discuss where hope can be found.

With just a few moments left, he passed quickly over a couple of topics. The one that most jumped out at me was this one: Paul used reason and intellectual abilities, but he didn’t trust them. It is too easy to trust intellect and use God. Paul used every ability God gave him to the full but he trusted God. We must not find a theological reason to be intellectually lazy. God has no more patience for intellectual slackers than he does for any other slacker.

And that is about my best effort in trying to give you a sense of what Lennox was teaching this afternoon. Again, I’ll let you know when the audio file is available. I think you’d benefit if you took the time to listen to it.

March 21, 2009

The Ligonier Ministries National Conference is drawing to a close. We have come to the final day and began with a message from Dr. Robert Godfrey who preached on “The Holiness of God and the Cross.” He began by saying that even as Christians we tend to have a trivial view of sin which turns sinners into naughty kids and God into an indulging grandfather. We like to sin, God likes to forgive, so what’s the problem?

But this is a complete misrepresentation of who we are and who God is. The essence of true religion is to know God and to know ourselves. If we don’t know God, we don’t know anything worth knowing.

We live at a time when so many churches have become trivial, in their songs, their sermons, their services. This is why Sproul found such resonance in writing a book about the holiness of God. And this is why Dr. Godfrey wanted to draw our attention to Isaiah 6 and then Isaiah 53.

He began by giving an overview of the reign of Uzziah. The Lord prospered Uzziah and gave him success. By the Lord he achieved great power. But in all of this he became proud. When the Israelites suffered they complained, but when they were prosperous they forgot God. Uzziah forgot that all he had and all he had accomplished was from the Lord. The Hebrew word for proud means “lifted up.” He determined in his heart that he was really something. He became corrupt and faithless.

But we are not left with a general picture of the problem of Uzziah’s pride. We are given a horrifying incident in the life of Uzziah. In his pride he seems to have surveyed the nations around him and discovered that all of the other kings were priest-kings who ruled not just as kings but who also served as priests. So all power, civil and religious was concentrated in their hands. He saw no reason that the Holy Place should be off-limits to him.

In his pride he marches into the sanctuary of God and offers incense on the altar of incense before the Lord. He will be priest-king. And there in that spot at that moment, God strikes him with leprosy. He is rushed out by the priests and taken to a palace, and he lived there separated for the rest of his life, cut off from the house of the Lord. And when he died he was known as the leper; this was his epitaph.

At the heart of his reign was this terrible sacrilege. When he died, all they could say was “he is a leper.”

Godfrey spent a few moments describing the temple and the sheer holiness of the temple. And then he asked this: Why was the temple filled with smoke? The Scripture frequently refers to smoke surrounding the Lord. It is a mark of the glory of God, the hiddenness of God, the unapproachability of God. But maybe there is an illusion here to the altar of incense in the sanctuary, to the smoke that rises from the altar. It symbolizes the essence of the temple which is a place of meeting where God meets with his people. The holy God comes and hears the purified prayers of his people. It is a picture of the connection of God and his people. It is a picture of the blessed fellowship between God and his people.

We begin to see how profound was the desecration of Uzziah, that he would come into this place and mar its holiness. Every detail of the altar tells us that God is holy and he is pure; we do not merely wander into God’s presence. The temple is the great children’s book, picture book, of the Old Testament, speaking about how pure God is and how serious he is about his purity and what cost there is for sinners to be able to enter his holy presence. Every detail is a reminder to us that we have no proper instincts about worship.

We see a picture of the holiness of God here and a picture of the sinfulness of man. Isaiah gets it when he cries “Woe is me.” He sees his own unworthiness. Lepers had to cry out that they were unclean and Isaiah is saying here that he is a leper; his lips are leprous. He cannot praise God, he cannot enter his presence, because he is a leper. This is at least part of what is in mind here. Thinking of Uzziah, Isaiah is overwhelmed by leprosy as a sign and symbol of the uncleanness of the people. Leprosy destroyed nerves, leaving you numb and increasingly disfigured. It is a horrifying disease leaving you increasingly shunned by mankind in your pain and disfigurement. This is how Isaiah analyzes his own condition before God. It is not just Uzziah who is a leper, but he is a leper and the Israelite people are lepers.

It is not mere chance that the leprosy broke out on Uzziah’s forehead. The High Priest was to wear a signet on his head that said “Holy is the Lord.” He was to come, at least symbolically clothed, in holiness. But Uzziah had come in corruption of heart; he was then visited with that evidence of his corruption.

Isaiah recognizes his inability to help himself just as a leper could do nothing to help himself.

And now we move to a picture of salvation. We read of God coming to help Isaiah. One of the seraphim flew to him with a coal from the altar, presumably the altar of incense. It is all returning to Uzziah and his sin. The place where he stood in his sin is the place where God begins to redeem Isaiah. He held it with tongs as if it was so hot and holy that even he could not touch it. He brings it to Isaiah and touches his lips and says “now your sin is atoned for, now your sins are forgiveness.” There is forgiveness and atonement only in the action of God. This is a beautiful picture of Isaiah standing with nothing to offer God except for his sin.

We normally think of atonement in relation to the altar of sacrifice, but at least here we see atonement at the place the sin was committed. But the healing has not yet come. Isaiah is commissioned to preach. God has an agent, a servant, to send. Isaiah prophecies in verse thirteen that the nation will be destroyed but the holy seed will still come—the seed in the stump of David. In Isaiah 53 he sees a vision of who this servant will be and what he will be like.

Godfrey then asked us to walk through Isaiah 53 with Uzziah in the back of our minds.

In chapter 52 and verse 13 we see a king who is worthy of being high and lifted up. And two verses later we see that he shall sprinkle many nations as a priest-king. One of the priest’s tasks was to sprinkle blood. Only the Messiah was to be the priest-king and by declaring himself to be both, Uzziah was declaring himself to be messiah.

Here we have a beautiful description of Jesus Christ as God’s only king and priest. In verse 14 and in 53:3 we see Jesus as the king-priest and Jesus as a leper. His appearance was so marred that he was beyond human semblance. This may not be exclusively fulfilled in leprosy but it at least suggests leprosy. He was acquainted with “grief” but this can also be translated as “sickness.” And so we hid our faces from him and despised him as we despise all lepers.

Are you beginning to see what it cost Jesus Christ to be the Savior? When we say he is king it sounds good, when we say he is priest it sounds honorable. And he is those things. But the depth of our salvation is to be found in the willingness of Jesus to become a leper for lepers, to become sin for sinners. “Surely he has borne our sickness.” Jesus was not literally a leper, of course, but just as Uzziah the good king was afflicted with leprosy to show the people the sinfulness of sin, so in some sense we have to think of Jesus as a leper to realize the depths of what it meant for him to take our sins upon himself. We can make this sound like an easy transaction. How hard can sin-bearing be for the eternal son of God? We may slip into such an attitude as the cross becomes too familiar. We may begin to lose a sense of the horror of the cross.

Isaiah 53 celebrates that Jesus became our substitute, that he took the sinner’s place. He entered in to the place Isaiah had gone as a leper. We read that Uzziah was cut off from the house of the Lord for the rest of his life; Jesus was cut off from the land of the living. He was cut off because he had become the sin-bearer.

We see in this passage a picture of what it cost Jesus to take our place; what it took for us to be healed. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice. By bearing God’s wrath on the cross, he has healed our leprosy. What was done for us means that we have a whole different relationship to God. Now we can call God “Father” because, for a time, Jesus lost his Father (speaking metaphorically). Do you begin to see the Savior’s love in this? Do you see the cost of the cross? Do you see what it takes for sin to be forgiven?

We may think “I like sinning and God likes forgiving.” But what a demeaning of the Savior! We tend to live like this, don’t we? As Christians we can sneak a little sin because it has all been paid for. But sin on sin on sin on sin laid there on the Savior on the cross and it was no light and trivial thing. When he died he was buried with the wicked. Perhaps there is an allusion here to Uzziah who was buried with lepers as a leper.

At the end of this chapter, verse 12, we return to Jesus as the priest-king. He is victorious, risen to reign forever as God’s glorious King.

“Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.”

He bore the sin of many, all of his people on the cross. It is a glorious thing and it is no trivial thing. And he makes intercession for transgressors. He not only died once-for-all on the cross, but he ever lives to intercede for you and me.

Are you a sinner? It is not a trick question. If you are here and breathing you are a sinner! And sometimes that sin becomes a huge weight on us Christians. We may know in our minds that Christ paid the penalty but sometimes our sin still oppresses us. But we have the glorious promise that he has not forgotten us, but he ever prays for us as his people. He continually intercedes for us. He is our priest-king who was a leper but now lives and reigns forever. And the cross, then, stands at the very heart and center of history. It was prepared for by God through all the centuries, through all these pictures, so when Jesus was lifted on the cross we would know what it means. And so Jesus, seeing the cross approach, said “There I will be glorified” because there he would fulfill history, he would fulfill the redemptive plan.

Christ was lifted up as a leper so that lepers might come to find life and to find hope.

March 20, 2009

Late this afternoon we heard from Thabiti Anyabwile on “Cosmic Treason: Sin & the Holiness of God.” He began by joking that his name is Swahili and roughly translated means “suffering for Jesus in the Cayman Islands.” And then he got down to business. He read Numbers 25 and divided his exposition of this chapter into four sections. He wanted to use this passage to make some observations about sin as cosmic treason.

The horrible context of this chapter (1-6)
The height of conflict (7-9)
The honorable commendation (10-13)
The harrowing condemnation (14-18)

The Horrible Context

This episode in the history of Israel follows the exodus in which God drew his people out of bondage. He had given them his Law, telling them that they were to have no other gods apart from him, no gods above him. God pledges to be their God and that they will be his people. Immediately prior to this chapter, Israel had run into Balaam and Balak. Hidden from Israel at this point was the divine hand of God protecting and preserving them.

So how striking it is when we come to Numbers 25 and we see that Israel, the people of God, have fallen into sexual immorality and idolatry. The people began to whore with the Moabites. The physical immorality is merely a symptom of the spiritual immorality and adultery. The tragedy of verse three of this section is that the Israelites yoked themselves to another God. We have not properly understood this passage until we have seen it as treason. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. God in his holy and righteous anger pronounces a death sentence through a violent execution.

Thabiti pointed out things in this passage that define cosmic treason:

Sin is moral in nature, transgressing what is right. It is a negation of what is right. What is good and right for Israel is to worship this one, true God apart from whom there is no other. But rather than do what is right, they denied this God. We live in a culture that denies any wrongdoing whatsoever or denies that our sin is objectively wrong. To speak with people about their sin is to hear that it is not sin, it is not wrong. They establish their own moral authority contrary to God’s.

Sin is personal in nature. It is against God himself, provoking his wrath. Sin is apostasy, turning away from God. Our culture teaches that sin is not often against anyone but is just a mistake or a blooper. But this passage makes it clear that our sin does land on something. It lands squarely in the sight of a holy God who will not look upon sin. Our sin is an offense against God, a personal rebellion against him. It not only incites his anger but is also treasonous, rebelling against the rule and love of God. Israel is often called God’s wife. Can you think of a more treasonous act than to declare union with a husband but then to commit adultery with another?

Sin is dangerous in that it provokes the wrath of God. The scariest thing in the world is people living like there is no danger associated with their sin and God’s wrath. They have a kind of false assurance where they think they are okay with God, but have no saving, covenantal relationship with God. There is no situation more dangerous than that.

Sin is so treasonous that God declares a death penalty against it. It brings the danger of God’s judgment.

The Height of Conflict

God has spoken in verses four and five about the judgment of those who will engage in apostasy and in verse six we see the start of it. This is a vivid illustration of the treason we are talking about. God has been correcting, in fiery anger, the sin committed against him. While the people are gathering outside the tent of meeting, an Israelite man sees the people gathered around and does not join in the covenant worship of God. Instead, he walks by, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of God himself. And all this while the people are weeping over his sin. The whores are creeping while the people are weeping. It is a striking display. This is brazen sin. He is thumbing his nose at God.

Phinehas sees this, picks up a spear, follows this man into his tent, and in the very act of sexual immorality he drives it through the both of them. He kills the Israelite man and the Midianite woman. It is his action that stops the plague God has sent on his people, killing 24,000 of his people.

Sin is contempt toward God. Most people believe sin is a mistake, a mess-up. But at the very heart of sin is contempt toward God and toward his holiness and righteousness in particular.

Sin poisons our sympathy so that we side with the sinner in his sin before we side with God in his holiness. What is your reaction when you hear this? What is your reaction to Phinehas and his action along with God and his action in killing 24,000 people? Were you identifying with the sinful man and woman or with Phinehas and his action? Did you have instinctive and impulsive action that caused you to identify with the whore in their whoredom rather than the judge and his javelin?

Sin leads to our ruin as God puts down our rebellion. The face of the Lord is against those who do evil to cut off the memory of them from the earth. The wrath of God is revealed against ungodliness. Our sin leads to our ruin apart from Christ.

Sin should cause weeping before God because it is the offense that it is before God. We ought to be people weeping over sin. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.

Honorable Commendation

As a priest Phinehas’ job is to represent God and to make sacrifices on their behalf. He understands his calling and this is what God commends in him. Phinehas is jealous with God’s jealousy. And so it ought to be with God’s people, so it ought to be with the men who stand behind the pulpit and teach the children of God. When God is most glorified and honored, his people are most satisfied. What else should a pastor care about than that God should be made known and that he should be loved and glorified? To care most about anything less than the glory of God is treason.

Sin requires discipline. God is dealing with his people as a Father loves his children. He does this so that we may participate in his holiness. God’s love walks hand-in-hand with his holiness. Resolve now that if you stumble into sin that you will receive God’s correction.

Sin requires atonement. God’s wrath must be turned away; there must be reconciliation between the sinner and the holy God. Phinehas the priest points us toward the great High Priest. It is Phinehas who makes the sacrifice that appeases God in Numbers 25 but it is Christ who will make the full and final sacrifice to appease God.

Numbers 25 is about the gospel of our Lord, about the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He does this not for a moment, not for a chapter of the Old Testament, but eternally. It was Christ who was the true priest of God.

Harrowing Condemnation

The only point the names of these people is mentioned is in the final few verses of this chapter. Sometimes you hear names that are forever associated with treason. Verses seventeen and eighteen identify these two as the Benedict Arnold’s of the book of Numbers. God calls them to account for their cosmic treason and calls to account the Midianites as well. He uses the Israelites as the means of punishment against this nation. God exercises his judgment in this time and in this way.

With time running out Thabiti spent just a few moments closing with a powerful call to respond to the gospel.