Friday, July 13, 2007

The Pearl of Greatest Price

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Matthew 13:45,46

The Puritan theologian John Owen on what it is to have the Pearl of greatest price:

Men…have no real acquaintance with Christianity, who imagine that the placing of the most intense affections of our souls on the person of Christ, the loving him with all our hearts because of his love, our being overcome thereby, until we are sick of love, the constant motions of our souls towards him with delight and adherence, are but fancies and imaginations.

Though all our refreshments actually lie in the streams, yet by them we are led up to the fountain. Jesus Christ, in respect of the love of the Father, is but the beam, the stream, wherein though actually all our light, our refreshment lies, yet by him we are led to the fountain, the sun of eternal love itself.

There is no man whatever that hath any want in reference unto the things of God, but Christ will be unto him that which he wants….Is he dead? Christ is life. Is he weak? Christ is the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Hath he the sense of guilt upon him? Christ is complete righteousness….Many poor creatures are sensible of their wants, but know not where their remedy lies. Indeed, whether it be life or light, power or joy, all is wrapped up in him.

Let us receive [Christ] in all his excellencies as he bestows himself upon us; – be frequent in thoughts of faith, comparing him with other beloveds, sin, world, legal righteousness; and preferring him before them, counting them all loss and dung in comparison of him … and we shall not fail in the issue of sweet refreshment with him.

To have the eternal glory of God in Christ, with all the fruits of his wisdom and love while we ourselves are under the full participation of the effects of them, immediately, directly revealed, proposed, made known unto us, in a divine and glorious light, our souls being furnished with a capacity to behold and perfectly comprehend them, – this is the heaven which, according to God’s promise, we look for.

…the more we behold the glory of Christ by faith now, the more spiritual and the more heavenly will be the state of our souls. The reason why the spiritual life in our souls decays and withers is because we fill our minds full of other things, and these things weaken the power of grace. But when the mind is filled with thoughts of Christ and his glory, these things will be expelled (see Col. 3:1-5, Eph. 5:8). When we behold the glory of Christ by faith every grace in us will be stirred up. This is how our spiritual life is revived (see Rom. 5:3-5, 2 Pet. 1:5-8).

As my two week class studying the Puritans draws to a close today, these are the descriptions that are etched in my mind of the Pearl that John Owen and the Puritans as a whole treasured. They knew Jesus Christ not just as Lord but perhaps more importantly as their Treasure. And I must ask myself if the life that I live in the 21st century reflects the same value of the Pearl that the lives lived by the Puritans in the 16th and 17th centuries reflected. The Pearl's value has not changed because "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). And if He is infinitely valuable, which I do believe He is, then I am the one who is farther away from the truth of His value than the Puritans.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…
Philippians 3:7,8
Father in Heaven, forgive me for the way that my life in the 21st century gives testimony that Jesus Christ has depreciated in value when set next to the lives of the Puritans instead of moving closer to a true apprehension of His infinite worth. Though they fell short, and we always will as finite creatures, may You today give us sovereign grace to create in our hearts intense longing, delight, admiration, and love for Your Son that You demand in spite of our utter inability to create or sustain such affections. May You continually enlarge our hearts and never let them fall beneath the point where they are bursting with yearnings for Him. In Jesus' infinitely precious name, Amen.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Something Greater Than the Temple is Here

Son of man, look with your eyes, and hear with your ears, and set your heart upon all that I shall show you, for you were brought here in order that I might show it to you. Declare all that you see to the house of Israel.
Ezekiel 40:4
These are the words that the prophet Ezekiel hears from the man who stands before him in a vision he receives from God. Pay attention not just with your eyes, not just with your ears, but with your whole heart because that which I am about to show you is wholly your purpose for being here. These are the instructions to Ezekiel before he sees or hears anything else.

So here I am reading my text with the sense that I need to prepare myself for what is about to come. This is important. As God is speaking to Ezekiel, so He is speaking to me because "the word of God is living and active" (Hebrews 4:12). I need to get this.

So I proceed to read what seems to me to be the longest chapter in Ezekiel up to this point. And what does it say? The entire chapter seems to be a tour of a temple directed by the man who is speaking to Ezekiel. Seemingly making his way through every searchable corner of this structure with "a measuring reed in his hand" (Ezekiel 40:3), the man proceeds to take a measurement of what must be every possible dimension seen by the human eye. Cubit by cubit, nothing is overlooked. The gates, the chambers, the altars, the windows, the courts, the entry ways. Nothing is left unattended. And this doesn't stop at the end of the chapter! It goes on for the rest of the book (eight more chapters)!

And as I read, the words from the beginning of the chapter spoken by the man in the vision to Ezekiel echo in my mind, "look with your eyes, and hear with your ears, and set your heart upon all that I show you, for you were brought in order that I might show it to you" (Ezekiel 40:4). Hear what? There doesn't seem to me to be anything to hear. Show it to me? A carefully measured building? Is that what "it" is? Why Lord? Why is this so important?

And then I came to these words as the chapter drew to a close: "This chamber that faces south is for the priests who have charge of the temple, and the chamber that faces north is for the priests who have charge of the altar. These are the sons of Zadok, who alone among the sons of Levi may come near to the LORD to minister to him" (Ezekiel 40:45,46). Some parts of the temple were only accessible to certain people. They were forbidden to everyone else. There were divisions in the temple that kept some in and others out. And this is the way it would be. Until...
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
Matthew 27:51
In the moment that Jesus finally "yielded up his spirit" (Matthew 27:50) to death on the cross, this is the first immediate effect that we learn of. The curtain that made for separation of the accessible from the inaccessible is destroyed so that there is now nothing in the temple that is inaccessible to anyone. There is nowhere that the priest can go that no one else cannot also.

And with the following words from the Lord Jesus as mediated through the Holy Spirit, God graciously opened my eyes to see what the "it" is.
I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.
Matthew 12:6
That it is a He. He is Jesus Christ Himself. The it is more than just a structure, but instead is the One whom the structure was always meant to point to. That's what the Jews didn't get when Jesus told them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:18). He wasn't talking about a building. He was talking about His body. He, in His Person, rather than a location is the only place that we can meet the living God.

And the implications of this truth for me are this: Chris, look with your eyes, and hear with your ears, and set your heart upon all that I show you, for you were brought here in order that I might show Jesus Christ to you. Declare all that you see of Him to the house of Israel.

Look at what?
Jesus Christ in His Word. Hear what? The words that Jesus speaks. Set my heart on what? All the manifold perfections that radiate from His glorious countenance. Why? Because I exist in order that Jesus Christ might be displayed to me, I would see Him and savor Him and enjoy making much of Him forever. And the insuppressible outworking of this is that I will declare all that I see of His infinite beauty and worth to those around me.

This is what will happen if I believe that Jesus Christ is greater than the temple. And this is glorious. But I must ask myself, "Do I really believe that Jesus Christ is greater than the temple?"

That's an indicting question, to which we must not be quick to say "yes". But we must instead search our hearts and minds in order to arrive at the truth of what's really in us. So how do we know if we really do believe that Jesus Christ is greater than the temple or not? We look at how the temple is described with precision in detail and completeness in description and then we ask ourselves this question: If I were to write everything I know about the Person and work of Jesus Christ, would it surpass that which I read about the temple in its precision in detail and completeness in description? If not, then I don't have evidence to show that Christ is greater than the temple.

Make no mistake about it. The temple is great. Jesus assumed this when He said that something greater than the temple is here otherwise it wouldn't be saying anything to make the point. If the temple isn't great, who cares that something greater than the temple is here?

The temple is great. That's why its description is so massive and detailed (though at times it can seem like we don't need to be told all that we are told about it). But Christ is infinitely greater such that the detail upon detail described at such great length with which we read about the temple in the Scriptures is dwarfed so that it is as nothing when set against all that there is to know about the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Could it be that we have such lengthy descriptions about the temple in the Old Testament so that we would feel the force of the statement Jesus makes about Himself when He says: "I tell you, something greater than the temple is here" (Matthew 12:6)?

How do you describe Him who is greater than the temple? How do you measure Him? Are you aware of the cubit by cubit details of His Person and work? Do you see His multifaceted dimensions:
  • as the One who never had a beginning but has always existed, through which all things were made (John 1:1-3)?
  • as the One who upholds the universe by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3)?
  • as the means of grace through which the Father makes his sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45) instead of releasing the fullness of His wrath on all since we are all God-belittling, hell-deserving sinners?
  • as the One who, being in very nature God, made Himself nothing to be born as a man (Philippians 2:6,7) so that He could live in a fallen world and experience all the effects of sin without ever yielding to it for the sake of identifying with us and providing us with help in our time of need (Hebrews 2:18, 4:15,16)?
  • as the One who, being above the law because He created it, came under the law to fulfill that which was never required of Him but required of us who hopelessly could never fulfill it (Galatians 4:4-5, Romans 8:4)?
  • as the One who had our infinite record of debt nailed through His hands to the cross by His own Father so that its legal demands may no longer apply to us and we might have forgiveness with the Father (Colossians 2:13,14)?
  • as the One who is all of our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30), providing every good thing inside of us?
  • as the One who always lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25), so that we may not make shipwreck of our faith (because we would if He weren't praying at every moment) but instead persevere to glory?
  • as the One who will one day do away with our sin-ransacked bodies of death to give us new glorious bodies just like His (Philippians 3:21) which will not be able to sin?
Oh, how overwhelming is just this list of the infinite excellencies in Christ Jesus! Yet I know I don't see anywhere near enough. There is no doubt in my mind that a description of all that Jesus is, written by John Owen or any of the Puritans, would make the description of the temple in Ezekiel look like a post-it note. And yet they still would never have been able to come close to all that there is to be known about Christ! I want to see what they saw of Christ because, if God were to grant me such grace, I know that I wouldn't stop in my pursuit to see more but would make this my life.

This temple is accessible by all so none has excuse for a deficient knowledge and description of the One who is greater than the temple. This temple isn't only accessible by Puritans, or biblical scholars, or pastors, or priests who have charge of the temple or altar (Ezekiel 40:45,46) which was only a shadow of the things to come, of which the substance would be Christ (Colossians 2:17). But all who call themselves followers of Christ must be able to give evidence to the fact that something greater than the temple is here in Christ otherwise we have been granted access in vain! And God grants access to no one in vain. So either we have access and can give continually growing evidence to it or we don't have access.

This is our infinitely valuable Savior. So let us look with our eyes, hear with our ears, and set our hearts upon all that is shown to us of Jesus Christ, for we were brought into this world in order that Jesus might be displayed to us and treasured by us.
I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.
Matthew 12:6
And nothing else in the world matters. May He be our lives.

Father in heaven, thank You that You created us for one reason and one reason only: to show Your glorious Son to us so that we might see Him and treasure Him above all things. Yet how easily distracted we are. Forgive us for the ways that our description of Your Son would bring great dishonor to His name because of its deficiency. Forgive us for the ways that our list of great and glorious things to declare about Your Son is infinitely insufficient. We know that it always will be but I ask that You would give us eyes that are intently looking, ears that are resolutely listening, and hearts that are unflinchingly set upon all that You reveal to us about Your Son. May our eyes be looking nowhere else. May our ears be listening to nothing else. May our hearts be set on nothing else, except for that which gives us more of Him so that we will love Him more. We don't want to lie to the world by living to show that something greater than Christ is here. Overwhelm us with His greatness so that we would overflow to those around us with declarations of how magnificent He is. We long for that day when we will see His greatness in ways we can't even come close to in this life, when we will love Him with the perfect love with which You love Him. In Jesus' great name, Amen.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Pilgrims In Conflict

This is the Puritan identity. Pilgrims in conflict. The Puritans lived at all times with an overwhelming knowledge that this world was not their home. They were pilgrims on a journey to their heavenly dwelling. So they didn't expect to find comfort in this life. Instead, they expected to find conflict at every turn that required them to fight through it if they were to continue on their journey. Therefore, they knew that the end of conflict could only mean one of two things: either they had reached their destination having arrived in Heaven or they had ceased to fix their eyes on Jesus.

So why did the following statement that J.I. Packer made on the first day of class--as we began our tour of Puritan theology that will last two weeks--land on me with such sobering force to crush any hopes of sustained "comfort" in this life?
God has not promised to shield us from conflict in this life. He has promised to give us the strength to fight through it.
I think the reason that a statement like this lands on me with such impact is because it collides directly with the Christian identity that I have embraced, whether knowingly or unknowingly. So why is my identity as a follower of Jesus different from the Puritans' identity as followers of Jesus? Could it be that I have inherited a "Christian identity" that hasn't come from the Bible?
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
2 Timothy 4:7,8
In writing to his apprentice Timothy, this is how Paul sums up the life that he has lived. Looking back, he describes his life as a fight that he has had to battle through every step of the way such that he wouldn't have made it to the place he currently is had he ceased to fight at any point. Looking back, he describes his life as a race that he has had to continue running at all times despite injury and fatigue such that he wouldn't have made it to the place he currently is had he ceased to run at any point. Looking back, he describes his life as an active, vigilant, aggressive guarding of the faith at all times such that he wouldn't have made it to the place he currently is had he become passive at any point. Paul embodied the Puritan identity. He was a pilgrim in conflict, knowing that his life as a Christian was to fight. And he knew that there were only two possible scenarios in which he would no longer be fighting: either he had abandoned Christ or he had been brought home to his Savior.

And so it is of anyone who would call himself a Christian. One might say that the apostle Paul was called to live a life that not all believers are called to live. To that objection I respond with the words of Charles Spurgeon:
Do not tell me that the apostle was an exception, and cannot be set up as a rule or model for commoner folk, for I shall have to tell you that we must be such as Paul was if we hope to be where he is.
And if the prince of preachers isn't sufficient to calm our objections, then we must argue with the inspired apostle himself who instructs Timothy to do exactly what he has been doing.
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called...
1 Timothy 6:12
Why does Timothy or anyone else who follows Jesus have to fight? Because this is what it means to have faith. It is the fight of the faith, Paul says. Where there is no fighting there is no faith. Why? Because the sovereign God has ordained, according to His infinite wisdom, that the only way we can take hold of eternal life is by fighting for it.

Do we feel the force of this yet? Let it sink in.

I don't know about you, but this is devastating to me. And I can't help but to wonder if these truths feel as devastating to a Christian living in a third world country as they do to me as a spoiled, privileged Christian living in plush, luxurious North America.

Everything in me that I've inherited from the society I have grown up in tells me to do whatever it takes so that I can get to a place where I don't have to fight. This is what the American idea of retirement is rooted in. Work hard to make lots of money when you are young so that as early as possible you won't have to work anymore. Especially as a black person, I can't help but hear the voices in my head saying to me that those who went before me fought so that I wouldn't have to. I can't help but hear the voices in my head of my parents saying to my sister, brother, and myself that they came to the United States and struggled to support themselves and make it through college and raise us so that the three of us wouldn't have to struggle.

And what's the result? This very moment I desire to have a set of life circumstances that, were God to grant them to me, would eliminate any need to fight. It would be a life of everything I ever wanted filled with comfort and ease. And you know what? There is nothing wrong with desiring that as long as one thing is clear: Not in this life. That is reserved for heaven and heaven only.

Recently a good friend of mine asked me the question: "Are you happy?" I paused for a few moments because I didn't know how to answer the question. Upon further reflection, I realized that if this is the question we are constantly asking ourselves in this life then there is no way we can live the Christian life the way it is meant to be lived. Don't get me wrong. I'm a Christian hedonist! I believe that we are to make it our chief aim in this life to be happy... in God! That's why I responded to my friend by saying that I was happy but I have to fight every day for that happiness. It doesn't just come to me when I wake up in the morning. I must do battle in my soul each day from one hour to the next to keep myself happy in God rather than letting my heart drift towards satisfaction in other things, even seemingly harmless. That's why the question "Are you happy?" feels like the wrong question to ask. Because it makes happiness seem like it is dependent on having a certain set of life circumstances. If the circumstances are right, I'm happy. If not, I'm unhappy. The better question to ask is: "Are you fighting the fight of faith?" Because if we are doing this properly, then happiness is a necessary consequence.

From my understanding of the Bible, happiness doesn't depend on circumstances. It depends on whether I'm fighting or not. And in this, it rises above circumstances.

The Puritans understood that we were created to have perfect communion with God, to honor Him, worship Him, and enjoy Him with the fullness of our entire beings consisting mainly of our minds, wills, and affections. But because of the Fall, that perfect communion was destroyed and our minds, wills, and affections are inclined to other things. We naturally don't want communion with God. We would rather commune with another human being or ourselves than with God. We would rather enjoy sleep or a meal than enjoy God. Our minds conclude that television or work or academic pursuits are better objects of our wills than God. But through Jesus Christ's incarnation and death, we can be restored to our original purpose, perfect communion with God. And so we fight by the grace that He alone supplies through the Holy Spirit to set our minds, wills, and affections on God instead of other things--day by day, hour by hour. This is the fight we are in: to become more and more like Jesus who honored, worshipped, and enjoyed His Father with the entirety of His mind, will, and affections. And this is the fight that we will be in until Jesus comes or calls.

This is why John Owen, the man considered to be the greatest Puritan theologian, wrote the following in a letter to a friend:
Strive to love Christ more, to abide more with him, and to be less in our selves: He is our best friend and [before] long will be our only friend. I pray God with all my heart that I may be weary of every thing else but converse and communion with him.
If we don't strive to love Christ more, to abide more with him, fighting everything in us that hinders our communion with Him, why in the world would we love his appearing that Paul speaks of in 2 Timothy 4:8? John Owen, as well as the rest of the Puritans, were people who could love Christ's appearing because they knew that His appearing marked the end of their fight with sin, their fight against everything that blocked them from perfect communion with Christ because when He appeared they would be brought into that perfect communion.

And so Owen, when he had come to the day of his death, said:
The long-looked for day is come at last, in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done yet, or was capable of doing in this world!
Will we be able to say that on the day we die? Is seeing Jesus face to face the "long-looked for day" for us as it was for Owen? Is the longing of our hearts (and the evangelical Church at large) that Christ would appear, so that we will no longer have to fight sin but instead be able to worship and enjoy Him perfectly with our minds, wills, and affections for all of eternity? Is that what we see in the behavior of the Church today? Or do we long more for something else that we wish to enjoy in this life? Health? Better looking bodies? More money? Husband? Wife? Children?

The reward that Christ has to give Paul on that Day is only for those who love His appearing. We will only love His appearing if it brings us to the end that we have been striving towards. We will never love His appearing if we are not fighting. And if this is the case then, as Spurgeon said, we will never be where Paul is wearing the crown he is wearing.

So we must never look for the day in this life when we will no longer have to fight. Instead, we must shift from fighting against God's sovereign wisdom to fighting against our wretched sin: our unbelief, our mistrust of the infinitely faithful One!

Oh what precious friends the Puritans are! Let us follow them as our guides and embrace their identity as pilgrims in conflict who fight all of our days, knowing that "we are strangers and exiles on the earth" and living as though we "desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one" (Hebrews 11:13,16).
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Romans 7:24,25
Father, thank You for the Puritans as examples of those who went before us and died in faith. Forgive us for the way that we have misunderstood what it means to be Your people. Have mercy on us for the ways that we love other things more than we love Your Son's coming. I thank You that You don't give me a life consisting of my ideal circumstances because if You were to do so it would be my undoing. I would be destroyed because I would be too busy having a good time to see the horror of my sin so as to make every effort to mortify it. But I thank You that You give me discomfort so that I might know that all is not well and so become aware of the treason I commit against You daily. Grant me a greater knowledge of my sin. Grant me a greater hatred of it. Remove every inclination in me that moves away from fighting and in its place grant an unshakable resolution that I would fight each day to kill my sin and enter into richer communion with You. Sanctify me each day by Your Holy Spirit so that as I grow in holiness, I would grow in hatred of even the least remnants of my sin, and thus grow in my love for Your Son's appearing because He will do away with every last iota of sin within me. Thank You that that Day will come when we will be delivered from this body of death! May it come quickly so that You will be perfectly glorified in me by making me to be perfectly satisfied in You alone. In Jesus' precious name, Amen.