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Reformed Baptists, Charles Spurgeon, and Israel

April 11, 2017 Leave a comment

 

A recent article, What is a Reformed Baptist, makes some good points as to the defining characteristics of Reformed Baptists, as distinguished from Reformed non-Baptists on the one hand, and non-Reformed (Calvinist) Baptists on the other hand.  Five distinctives are noted:  the regulative principle of worship, Baptist Covenant theology, Calvinism, the Law of God, and Confessionalism.  Overall, I agree with it and find it a helpful article.

Yet one point (under the second heading of Covenant Theology) provides an example of modern-day overreaction against one error (traditional dispensationalism), to the point that would negate the actual beliefs of at least some (pre-20th century) 1689 Baptists.  From the article:

According to the New Testament, the Old Testament promise to “you and your seed” was ultimately made to Christ, the true seed (Gal 3:16). Abraham’s physical children were a type of Christ, but Christ Himself is the reality. The physical descendants were included in the old covenant, not because they are all children of the promise, but because God was preserving the line of promise, until Christ, the true seed, came. Now that Christ has come, there is no longer any reason to preserve a physical line. Rather, only those who believe in Jesus are sons of Abraham, true Israelites, members of the new covenant, and the church of the Lord Jesus (Gal 3:7).  …

Baptists today who adhere to dispensationalism believe that the physical offspring of Abraham are the rightful recipients of the promises of God to Abraham’s seed. But they have departed from their historic Baptist roots and from the hermeneutical vision of the organic unity of the Bible cast by their forefathers. Baptist theologian James Leo Garret correctly notes that dispensationalism is an “incursion” into Baptist theology, which only emerged in the last one hundred fifty years or so.

Dispensationalism is indeed an “incursion” (introduced in the mid-19th century, as even its early teachers acknowledged) but that is a different issue from the question regarding any future purpose for physical, national Israel.  As I’ve noted a few times in previous posts, the doctrine of a future restoration of ethnic, national Israel to their land, to have a significant role as a nation during the future millennial era, is not limited to dispensationalism, nor a distinctive unique to dispensationalism.  The 19th century covenantal premillennialists, who predated dispensationalism (certainly before it was well-known and had gained popularity), taught the same idea which today is often dismissed out of hand (as being dispensationalism) – as for example, Andrew Bonar’s remarks in the introduction to his 1846 Commentary on Leviticus.

True, some of the covenantal premillennialists were from the paedo-Baptist form of covenant theology – notably, Horatius and Andrew Bonar, and J.C. Ryle.  But what about Charles Spurgeon, a well-known Baptist who affirmed and taught the 1689 London Baptist Confession at his church?  Several of his sermons specifically addressed the future state of Israel, and his sermon introductions (on prophetic texts that pertain to Israel’s future) included such comments – his brief exposition of the primary meaning of the text, before taking up his own textual-style approach in a different direction regarding the words of a text.

Regarding the specific view of “Abraham’s seed” and its meaning, a search through the Spurgeon sermon archives (at Spurgeon Gems) brings forth several sermons where Spurgeon addressed this.  Consider the following selection of sermons:

The following are a few excerpts which explain Spurgeon’s view of Abraham’s seed – a “both/and” view that includes believers in our age as well as a future group of literal Israel.

From #1369:

Now, our Lord Jesus has come to proclaim a period of jubilee to the true seed of Israel. The seed of Abraham now are not the seed according to the law, but those who are born after the promise. There are privileges reserved for Israel after the flesh, which they will yet receive in the day when they shall acknowledge Christ to be the Messiah, but every great blessing which was promised to Abraham’s seed after the flesh is now virtually promised to Israel after the Spirit, to those who by faith are the children of believing Abraham.

From #1962:

More than that, the Lord kept His friendship to Abraham by favoring his posterity. That is what our first text tells us. The Lord styled Israel, even rebellious Israel “The seed of Abraham My friend.” You know how David sought out the seed of Jonathan, and did them good for Jonathan’s sake, even so does the Lord love believers who are the seed of believing Abraham, and He still seeks out the children of Abraham His friend to do them good. In the latter days He shall save the literal Israel; the natural branches of the olive, which for a while have been broken off, shall be grafted in again. God has not forgotten His friendship to their father Abraham, and therefore He will return in love to Abraham’s seed, and again be their God.

Thus, a 1689 confessional, baptist covenant theology view does not necessitate a removal of one group (ethnic Israel).  Nothing here requires an “either/or” approach that removes and precludes a national future for Israel, as demonstrated in the “both/and” approach taken by Spurgeon (and other covenantal premillennialists).

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Andrew Bonar: Leviticus, Covenantal Premillennialism, and Ezekiel

April 3, 2017 1 comment

As part of the 2017 Challies Reading Challenge, for the commentary I’m currently reading Andrew Bonar’s classic and highly-recommended commentary on Leviticus (1846).  I’m a little over halfway through, and greatly appreciate it, as a verse by verse, chapter by chapter commentary that is straightforward reading for the layperson, with many good devotional thoughts.

I have read other works by Andrew Bonar, including his Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms, and (earlier this year) his biography of Robert Murray McCheyne, which I especially enjoyed.  I like reading his perspective as a covenantal premillennialist, a view not often seen today, due to the over-reaction by many Reformed against the errors of dispensationalism–to the point of rejecting even what has historically been affirmed by Reformed / covenantal theologians.  For Bonar, in the Reformed tradition, saw the unity of scripture (Old and New Testament), and noted in Leviticus many types (figures, allegories) of Christ—yet also affirmed what the scriptures say regarding Israel’s future and how the scriptures describe the future millennial age.

Here, from Bonar’s commentary – published in 1846, years before dispensationalism had taken hold of much of evangelical Christianity – come some interesting thoughts regarding Leviticus and the last chapters of Ezekiel, regarding the future millennial temple.  He notes (as did the later dispensational writers) the differences in this temple as compared to the previous tabernacle and temple, and relates the types and shadows of Leviticus to their educational, instructional purpose:

Is it not possible that some such end as this may be answered by the temple which Ezekiel foretells as yet to be built (chap. Xl., &c.)  Believing nations may frequent that temple in order to get understanding in these types and shadows.  They may go up to the mountain of the Lord’s house, to be there taught his ways (Isaiah 2:3).  In that temple they may learn how not one tittle of the law has failed.  … Indeed, the very fact that the order of arrangement in Ezekiel entirely differs from the order observed in either tabernacle or temple, and that the edifice itself is reared on a plan varying from every former sanctuary, is sufficient to suggest the idea that it is meant to cast light on former types and shadows.  … As it is said of the rigid features of a marble statue, that they may be made to move and vary their expression so as even to smile, when a skillful hand knows how to move a bright light before it; so may it be with these apparently lifeless figures, in the light of that bright millennial day.  At all events, it is probably then that this much-neglected book of Leviticus shall be fully appreciated.  Israel—the good olive-tree—shall again yield its fatness to the nations round (Romans 11:17).  Their ancient ritual may then be more fully understood, and blessed truth found beaming forth from long obscurity.”

The commentary itself includes many references to New Testament passages as well as the Psalms, to give a complete picture of the Levitical worship and what various texts in Leviticus symbolized or paralleled elsewhere.  As for instance, the concluding remarks on Leviticus 1 relate the sacrifices found here to the original sacrifices and features of Eden, explaining these details of God’s progressive revelation from earlier to later Old Testament revelation:

Let us briefly notice that the rudimental sketch of these offerings, and the mode of their presentation, will be found at the gate of Eden.  …  Just as we believe the Hiddekel and Euphrates of Genesis 2 are the same as the Hiddekel and Euphrates of later history; and the cherubim of Genesis 3 the same as those in the tabernacle; and the “sweet savour” of Genesis 8:21 the same as that in Leviticus 1:9 and Ephesians 5:2; so do we regard the intention of sacrifice as always the same throughout Scripture.

In Mosaic rites, the telescope was drawn out farther than at Eden, and the focus at which the ground object could be best seen was more nearly found.  But the gate of Eden presents us with the same truths in a more rudimental form.

… opposite to this sword [at the gate of Eden], at some distance, we see an altar where our first parents shed the blood of sacrifice—showing in type how the barred-up way of access to the Tree of Life was to be opened by the blood of the woman’s bruised seed.  …when we find clean and unclean noticed (Gen. 8:20), and in Abraham’s case (Genesis 15:9,10), the heifer and goat, the turtle and the pigeon, and also “commandments, statutes, and laws” (parallel to Lev. 26:46), we cannot but believe that these fuller institutions in Leviticus are just the expansion of what Adam first received.  The Levitical dispensation is the acorn of Eden grown to a full oak.  If so, then may we say, that the child Jesus, wrapped in his swaddling-clothes, was, in these ceremonies, laid down at the gate of Eden!

James White, and Islamic Sharia Law Versus the Mosaic “Holiness Code”

February 7, 2017 2 comments

In a recent group discussion concerning James White’s conversation with a Muslim, it was stated by one person that some Christians (theonomists) are just as bad as Muslims with Sharia law, for wanting to impose the Mosaic law — “and I wouldn’t want to be under either system.”

I haven’t studied theonomy in detail, but to compare Sharia law to the Mosaic law is a very flawed idea, on several levels.  One very obvious difference here: has any theonomist or group of theonomists actually imposed Mosaic law, on any modern-day society?  But at a more basic level, this idea is an example of modern-day evangelical confusion regarding the role and purpose of the Old Testament law.  I also find it especially ironic that the same group that hosted James White for a discussion with a Muslim, is apparently quite unaware of James White’s own teaching and view on this very issue.  White’s sermon series “The Holiness Code for Today” (series available here), a recent series through the Levitical law, responded to this very mistaken idea – as he even said, an idea prevalent among unbelievers as well as many evangelicals – that the Mosaic law is some type of  “iron age, outdated morality only for the Jews”  (and now, even considered by some to be on the same level as Islamic sharia law).

As noted in a few recent blog posts (this one on Leviticus 19, also this one), James White explains (the historic Protestant view) that we recognize the overall moral precepts in God’s law, including the moral law as applied to the particular circumstance of the nation Israel as a nation of God’s people, a people in covenant with Yahweh.  The Mosaic law (Israel’s civil and ceremonial law) was not a harsh, obsolete code for an ancient Near Eastern civilization; it also was not a “covenant of works” requiring strict obedience to every precise point as a works method of salvation.  Mankind was always saved in the same way, by faith in God’s redemptive work, both before and after Calvary.  Yes, the Jews of the first century had turned the Mosaic code into a “works salvation” but that was not its purpose from the beginning, as is clear from many Old Testament texts, particularly passages in Deuteronomy and the Psalms.  Though it is true that some texts describe the Mosaic law as a burden, this view ignores the reality of the many scriptures that describe the Old Testament law in very positive terms.  The Mosaic law was instead a specific application of God’s unchanging moral law, to the situation of Israel as a nation, laws civil and ceremonial and meant to govern the people of God in their daily life.  Thus, the whole Bible stands together – there can be no excuse that in our day we don’t need to study the Old Testament; God’s moral law does not change, and we can benefit from study of the Mosaic code by considering, for each law, the moral precept behind the particular circumstance.

By contrast, here is sample of actual laws in the Sharia law system, a system that has actually been implemented in certain societies throughout history:

According to Sharia Law: (Basic Laws of Islam)

  • Theft is punishable by amputation of the right hand.
  • Criticizing or denying any part of the Quran is punishable by death.
  • Criticizing Muhammad or denying that he is a prophet is punishable by death.
  • Criticizing or denying Allah, the god of Islam is punishable by death.
  • A Muslim who becomes a non-Muslim is punishable by death.
  • A non-Muslim who leads a Muslim away from Islam is punishable by death.
  • A non-Muslim man who marries a Muslim woman is punishable by death.
  • A man can marry an infant girl and consummate the marriage when she is 9 years old.
  • A woman can have 1 husband, who can have up to 4 wives; Muhammad can have more.
  • A man can beat his wife for insubordination.
  • A man can unilaterally divorce his wife; a woman needs her husband’s consent to divorce.
  • A divorced wife loses custody of all children over 6 years of age or when they exceed it.
  • Testimonies of four male witnesses are required to prove rape against a woman.
  • A woman who has been raped cannot testify in court against her rapist(s).
  • A woman’s testimony in court, allowed in property cases, carries ½ the weight of a man’s.
  • A female heir inherits half of what a male heir inherits.
  • A woman cannot drive a car, as it leads to fitnah (upheaval).
  • A woman cannot speak alone to a man who is not her husband or relative.
  • Meat to eat must come from animals that have been sacrificed to Allah – i.e., be “Halal”.
  • Muslims should engage in Taqiyya and lie to non-Muslims to advance Islam.

Just a sample list from among a huge body of law.

Seriously – where is the moral precept behind these Sharia laws?  Anyone who honestly studies the Mosaic law will recognize that it is not merely some ancient-age law code, and that it was nothing that should be compared to Sharia law.

In addition to White’s study, another good reference for understanding the Mosaic law is A.W. Pink’s The Divine CovenantsI do not agree with everything in Pink’s work, and especially in the Davidic and New Covenant section Pink went too far astray into the spiritualizing hermeneutic — but that is another topic.  However, the section on the Sinaiitic covenant is quite helpful, as here he considers the ideas of various commentators and responds with good scriptural arguments to the idea that the Mosaic covenant was a “works salvation” covenant.  For consideration here, an excerpt from this section that looks at the Mosaic law and the scriptures in great detail:

at this point we are faced with a formidable difficulty, namely, the remarkable diversity in the representation found in later Scripture respecting the tendency and bearing of the law on those who were subject to it. On the one hand, we find a class of passages which represent the law as coming expressly from Israel’s redeemer, conveying a benign aspect and aiming at happy results. Moses extolled the condition of Israel as, on this very account, surpassing that of all other people: “For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?”  Deut. 4:7, 8). The same sentiment is echoed in various forms in the Psalms. “He showed his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation; and as for his judgments, they have not known them” (Ps. 147:19, 20). “Great peace have they which love thy law, and nothing shall offend them” (Ps. 119:165).

But on the other hand, there is another class of passages which appear to point in the very opposite direction. In these the law is represented as a source of trouble and terror—a bondage from which it is true liberty to escape. “The law worketh wrath” (Rom. 4:15); “the strength of sin is the law” (1 Cor. 15:56). In 2 Corinthians 3:7, 9 the apostle speaks of the law as “the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones,” and as “the ministration of condemnation.” Again, he declares, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse” (Gal. 3:10). “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law” (Gal. 5:1-3).

Now it is very obvious that such diverse and antagonistic representations could not have been given of the law in the same respect, or with the same regard, to its direct and primary aim. We are obliged to believe that both these representations are true, being alike found in the volume of inspiration. Thus it is clear that Scripture requires us to contemplate the law from more than one point of view, and with regard to different uses and applications of it.

Sundry Laws: James White on Leviticus 19

December 26, 2016 1 comment

Continuing in James White’s Holiness Code series, the following three messages look at Leviticus 19:

Many misconceptions have abounded regarding this chapter.  Some have taken a superficial look at what seem to be miscellaneous or “sundry” laws, all thrown together, and treat this chapter as a justification for claiming that the Mosaic law was “all one law,” with no distinction between moral, civil and ceremonial aspects.  The general idea that the Mosaic law, and especially Leviticus 19, was “only for the Jews,” persists with many evangelicals, who have discarded this portion of God’s word as completely irrelevant to Christians today.

Then, especially ironic, are the unbelievers who quip that we should put aside all those antiquated, “iron age morality” ideas, and just love our neighbor as ourselves; they who object to the words against homosexuality, found in Leviticus 18 and 20, are completely unaware that the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is also found here – sandwiched in between those two chapters, here in Leviticus 19.  Leviticus 19 also answers the modern evangelical idea that in the Old Testament age everything with Israel was all about externals only, nothing about their heart motive (the erroneous NCT idea that Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” was something completely new and unknown before that point:  verse 17 says “you shall not hate your brother in your heart.”

White instead approaches Leviticus 19 from the perspective of Israel as the covenant people of God; how should the people of God live?  Similar to handling the book of Proverbs, we look at the context – which in this case is not necessarily the immediate verses around it, but the same idea expressed elsewhere in God’s word—in this case, similar passages in Deuteronomy.  The context includes also the actual practices of the pagans surrounding Israel, and also, especially, the moral precept behind the laws, which pertain to our relationship to our neighbor as well as or our relationship to God (such as verses 26-31, in reference to idolatry – the negative commands as well as the positive in verse 30).

What about verse 19, the laws forbidding the breeding of different kinds of cattle, the sowing of different kinds of seed, or garments of different materials?  Some of the laws were not in themselves moral, but had the purpose of keeping God’s people separate from the rest of the world.  These laws emphasized separateness, dedication and purity (not mixing, no division, in regards to your cattle, seed, and garments).  Another interesting feature, seen in these laws, is that to be in covenant relationship with God meant a disadvantage, in the world’s economy, compared to other people.  The laws regarding cattle, seed, and garments, brought a disadvantage compared to the worldings – as did laws in this chapter that curbed greed and provided for the poor (harvesting, gleaning the fields, verses 9-10) .  Unregenerate Israelites would chafe under the restrictions, but the true, regenerate believer in relationship with God (and such did exist in the Old Covenant era; mankind have always been saved by faith, some Israelites were regenerate believers) would be willing to accept these disadvantages, trusting that God will take care of us and He is first in our lives.

James White’s “The Holiness Code for Today” is a very interesting and edifying series, one that looks at texts generally ignored and not taught in sermons or Bible teaching.  Later lessons in this series look at Leviticus 20, chapters in Deuteronomy, and will address the issue of slavery in the Bible, noting the differences between Hebrew slavery, Roman slavery, and our own, much later history, American Slavery.

Studies in Deuteronomy II: Moses, and the Tribes of Reuben and Gad

September 1, 2016 Leave a comment

Continuing in Chantry’s study through the first chapters of Deuteronomy: a look at Deuteronomy 3:12-22, the account of the Trans-Jordan land given to the 2 ½ tribes, in this lesson.

This particular story is mentioned in several places: the original event in Numbers 32, Moses’ reference to it here in Deuteronomy, plus follow-up in the book of Joshua.  Study of the Deuteronomy text includes the original incident; this is a situation regarding “what Moses didn’t know.”  Moses did not know that the Trans-Jordan should even be given to Israel — the promise was always about the land west of the Jordan River; and Moses did not know the heart motives of the men who came to him asking to have that land.  Heinitially suspected them of their motives, as being like the previous generation that discouraged their fellow Israelites to not go in and take possession of the land.  Were they really hoping to get out of helping in the conquest of Canaan?  Or were they honest all along, planning to do as what they explained to Moses after his initial judgment?  Moses, as well as us reading it, do not know their thoughts on this point.  What Moses did was hold them to their words, their vow – and as the story later unfolded, they were true to their words and went out in the lead, at the front of the army.

Other considerations here:  though Moses had not known it, clearly God had purposed for this part of the land  — the trans-Jordan (east of the Jordan River) – to be a part of Israel, and thus it would be parceled out to some of the tribes.  Yet the way in which it was distributed, did not come directly from God’s directive, but as a request from the leaders of those tribes.  Looking at the overall situation, their desire to have that land was not really the wisest choice.  They willingly put themselves geographically apart from the heart of Israel – on the frontier and fringe of society.  The Jordan created a natural barrier; at certain times of the year – due to flood stage – the Jordan could not easily be crossed. These tribes isolated themselves, as further away from the place of worship – a situation that Chantry likened to our day in the case of Christians who are more distant and frequently not at church due to their past choices such as their occupation (having to work on Sundays).

Though not mentioned in this lesson, we do see the concern that these tribes later had when, in Joshua 22, they set up a replica of the altar to God on their side of the river, indicating that generation’s desire to stay connected to the rest of the nation.  Later history of Israel, though, does confirm the overall problem, their unwise choice: this area was quick to apostatize, and 2 Kings 10:32-33 tells us that this land was the first area to be taken away by the Assyrians: In those days the LORD began to cut off parts of Israel.  Hazael defeated them throughout the territory of Israel: from the Jordan eastward, all the land of Gilead, the Gadites, and the Reubenites, and the Manassites, from Aroer, which is by the Valley of the Arnon, that is, Gilead and Bashan.

 

The 8th Commandment, Property, and the Early Church

June 3, 2016 Leave a comment

In Tom Chantry’s “Ten Commandments” series, the section on the 8th commandment looks at the overall issue, the precept behind the wording “do not steal,” of ownership and property.  A study of this topic in both the Old and New Testaments affirms God’s purpose that people own individual property.  The fact that we are commanded to not steal, means that some items must belong to another person and that those items do not belong to you.

As pointed out in this lesson, Genesis 1:26 gives the dominion mandate to the human race

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

Implied in this command is the reality that this could not be done by Adam alone:  Adam is a finite individual with limited resources.  Genesis 2 follows up with the specific situation for Adam: he as an individual, along with Eve, would have responsibility for one specific location, the garden – a particular location.  He was made the proprietor of a particular piece of land with defined boundaries.  The overall mandate of Genesis 1 could only be fulfilled through the mechanism of property ownership, of giving particular pieces of land to specific individuals.

Then, with the only country that truly could be called “God’s Country” – the Old Testament nation of Israel – we again see God’s concern and interest in individual property.  Leviticus 25 in particular tells us that the land belongs to God (“the land is mine,” verse 23) – and God’s ownership of the land was the basis on which the Israelites would own the land, and very specific laws were setup concerning the buying and selling of their property, within the context of the year of Jubilee.  The people of Israel were to live as the people of God, living out the commands, the moral precepts, of God.  Their living out these commands required that they have dominion over something, in order to use it for God and to bring glory to God.  As also brought out in scripture, the Israelites had to be free men – freeholders; they were not to be slaves, as slaves cannot fulfill this purpose of possessing something in order to use it for God.

To own something is not to grasp at something.  There is no practicality, and no virtue, in giving away all right and title to what is ours.  This brings the study to the issue of what was going on in the early church in Acts – a case which some have cited to claim support for communism and communal living.  After all, so the claim goes, the text says that the believers “had all things in common.”

But a close look at the texts – Acts 2:44, then Acts 4:32-33, and the first part of Acts 5 – clears away two common errors:  1) an assumption that the Acts texts are providing a legal definition of property, and 2) the idea that this situation was normative.  The first idea – a legal definition of property – ignores the use of language.  For instance, when someone visits us in our home, and we say “my house is your house” or “make yourself at home,” such expressions do not mean that we are relinquishing ownership – but rather a show of hospitality.  Peter’s words to Ananias in Acts 5 make it clear that Ananias’ sin was of lying, and not anything pertaining to the property itself.  The land, while unsold, belonged to Ananias, to do with as he pleased – it was his own, at his disposal; and when Ananias sold it, he then owned some money, which also was at his own disposal.  Thus, scripture itself proves that the early church was not a commune and was not some type of cult in which everyone gave up ownership to the “common pool.”

The early church in Acts was also a unique and unusual situation – and an opportunity for those who were wealthy to be generous and give of what they owned in order to help others.  At this point the church consisted of Jewish converts: people who had been part of the Jewish system and belonged to synagogues, yet now experienced persecution– which included excommunication from Judaism and possibly having their means of livelihood taken from them.  Thus the need to care for many poor people, including many only recently impoverished.  The situation opened a ministry need, which Barnabas (in Acts 4) and likely others as well, stepped into with their generosity.

Chantry also observes another aspect I had not considered, that perhaps is true; the early church had received the prophecy, the words from Jesus, that Jerusalem would be judged and destroyed at some point in the relatively near future.  Thus, the people who sold land had knowledge that the place would be destroyed, and that now was a good time to sell their property while it was still worth something.  Certainly if the land they sold was in or around Jerusalem, this well may have been the case.  Study through commentaries and historical research would better answer this question, of whether the people in Jerusalem were actually selling land that existed in that area or if they were engaging in sales of property that existed outside of that area.

Even aside from the question of the impending judgment upon Jerusalem, though, this lesson is a good study on the biblical issue of individual ownership and support for this point throughout the Bible: from earliest creation for all mankind, in Israel’s own government and civil laws, and the same teaching for us in the New Testament era.

Understanding and Distinguishing between the First and Second Commandments

December 30, 2015 1 comment

Continuing through Tom Chantry’s “Ten Commandments” series, some interesting observations regarding the first two of the commandments: 1) You shall have no other gods before me; and the lengthier 2) You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.

In our modern age, with the historical reference and background of Judeo-Christian culture, these two commandments are often easily confused and even combined together. Chantry notes that the Catholic church does the latter – one lengthy 1st commandment, then other numbering and their own extra division in one of the later commandments to come up with the number ten. From our perspective it seems clear enough that anyone who worships idols IS worshipping other gods, false gods; the two go hand-in-hand in all pagan societies. The liberal, modernist scholars would also have us esteem the ancient pagans as sub-par in intelligence, “those stupid pagan idolaters who actually thought their god was that piece of gold or wood.” But no, the early civilizations well understood the concept of symbolic representation: the god existed apart from his idol; the idol represented that god. Though certainly false religions in some cases since have devolved even further, to actually believing that the idol = the god, yet generally those who worship the idol are affirming a “god” that exists beyond the idol itself.

The Exodus Israelites came from a culture with two important features: polytheism AND excellent artwork. Though they were but lowly slaves in that kingdom (Egypt), they could certainly appreciate the artwork—still enjoyed by people today, as evidenced by the multitudes who attend every “ancient wonders” type of museum exhibit, enamored by King Tut’s tomb and other finds from ancient Egypt. So, having experienced the power of Yahweh in delivering them from Egypt, to the Israelites it was very natural to consider the worship of this other God, the one God – Yahweh; thus, in the cultural style of Egypt: how should this God be represented? by what artwork/idol?

So to distinguish the two commandments: the First Commandment says Who to worship. The Second Commandment says How to worship. God tells us further, that He is not a fit subject for our artwork.

Israel’s later history also attests to this distinction between the First and the Second Commandments. Jeroboam’s great sin (1 Kings 12:28) harkens back to the golden calf of Exodus 32:4-8, even using the same language “these are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” – a clear violation of the Second Commandment, worshiping the true God, but worshiping Him in the wrong way. 1 Kings 16:31 further makes this point, in reference to King Ahab: “as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat” – the Second Commandment violation – “he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him.” Thus Ahab is specifically connected with violating BOTH the First and the Second Commandments, introducing Baal worship in addition to the golden calf sin to the northern tribes. 2 Kings continues the story with Jehu, raised up by the Lord to destroy the house of Ahab – and commended for doing so, including Jehu’s destruction of Baal worship (2 Kings 10:18-27). Yet we are told in verse 29, “But Jehu did not turn aside from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin-that is, the golden calves that were in Bethel and in Dan.”

Chantry’s lessons in this series, as with the section about the Second Commandment, include consideration of several Bible events which serve as illustrations for each commandment; see this lecture about the golden calf and this one about Nadab and Abihu’s Strange Fire. In the study of their experiences as examples for us in our age (1 Corinthians 10:11), we can learn more about the specific circumstances and background of the early Israelites, to relate to their way of thinking—and to understand where they went wrong.