In His Presence

The priest Zechariah was burning incense in the temple as part of Israel’s worship of God when an angel appeared to him. The angel gave him good news that his prayers for a child would be answered. However, Zechariah expressed doubt when he said: “How shall I know this?” Another translation renders it: “How can I be sure?” He used his age and that of his wife for an excuse. To this, the angel said:

“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. Luke 1:19 English Standard Version (ESV)

Because he disbelieved his words, Gabriel announced that Zechariah would be unable to speak until the child, John, was born.

What was the significance of the angel Gabriel’s remarks? For this, let us consult John Calvin:

I am Gabriel …By these words the angel intimates that it was not his veracity, but that of God who sent him, and whose message he brought, that had been questioned; and so he charges Zacharias with having offered an insult to God…

…’Gabriel’ means the strength, or power, or pre-eminence of God, and this name is given to the angel on our account, to instruct us that we must not ascribe to angels anything of their own, for whatever excellence they possess is from God.

The Greek participle, παρεστηκὼς, (standing,) is in the past tense, but everybody knows that the past tense of such verbs is often taken for the present, and particularly when a continued act is expressed. The word εὐαγγελίσασθαι (to convey glad tidings) aggravates the crime of Zacharias; for he was ungrateful to God, who kindly promised a joyful and desirable event.

So, when we pray to Him, we should not be rash, but believe:

Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Mark 11:24 (ESV)

“Christmas Story” Countdown – 12 Days till Christmas

Why Do You Look at Me That Way?

Don’t you hate it when your significant other gives you that look? You know what they mean. Maybe what you’re doing is something they warned you off months ago and there you are doing it again. They told you about how it hurt them when you did it. You even had words over it. May be you told them you’d never do it again.

The Apostle Peter had a similar experience but the stakes were much higher. Warned by Christ that the devil sought to have him and sift him like wheat, Peter said he’d follow Him to prison and death, if necessary. Then the Lord told Peter he’d deny Him three times.

He followed the Lord into the High priest’s courtyard after His arrest. There, Peter was confronted by three people about his association with Jesus the Galilean. He denied Him each time. The final encounter went like this:

And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed.

And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Luke 22:59-62 English Standard Version (ESV)

All four Gospel accounts report Peter’s denial.

The pastor and preacher, John Calvin, draws insight from Peter’s denial and repentance.

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus. …Which of us does not pass by with indifference and with deaf ears…[to] even the voice of God, which is heard clearly and distinctly in the doctrine of the Law and of the Gospel? Nor is it for a single day only that our minds are held by such brutal [senselessness], but it is perpetual until he who alone turns the hearts of men [condescends] to look upon us.

…Observe, however, that this was no ordinary look, for he had formerly looked at Judas who, after all, became no better by it. But in looking at Peter, he added to his eyes the secret efficacy of the Spirit, and thus by the rays of his grace, penetrated into his heart…Therefore know, that whenever anyone has fallen, his repentance will never begin, until the Lord has looked at him.

As Calvin says, this was no ordinary look that Christ gave Peter but one leading to repentance.

And he went out and wept bitterly. It is probable that Peter went out [to weep] through fear [and weakness] …We infer that he did not deserve pardon by satisfaction, but that he obtained it by the fatherly kindness of God…By this example, …we ought to [have] confident hope [that] God does not despise even weak repentance, provided that it be sincere.

…For we see many who shed tears purposely, so long as they are beheld by others, but who have no sooner retired than they have dry eyes. …Tears, which do not flow on account of the judgment of God, are often drawn forth by ambition and hypocrisy.

But, is weeping requisite in true repentance? …Believers often with dry eyes groan before the Lord without hypocrisy, and confess their fault to obtain pardon; but in more aggravated offenses they must be in no ordinary degree [thoughtless] and hardened, whose hearts are not pained by grief and sorrow, and who do not feel ashamed even so far as to shed tears…

Though tears should flow at our grieving the Lord with our sin, He is gracious to forgive us in light of even the weakest repentance if it proceeds from a sincere heart. My wish is for His look to drive me to repentance as often as I need. Is that yours?

Peter's Denial - Rembrandt

St. Peter’s Denial, Rembrandt (1606–1669), public domain in the United States

Make Friends

The following saying has always held mystery for me. Parts of it make sense. It’s the idea of ‘casting your bread upon the waters.’ However, some of it almost sounds like buying your way to heaven.

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. Luke 16:9 English Standard Version (ESV)

The theologian, John Calvin, dismisses the notion of a ‘pay to play’ entry into heaven. Instead, he says:

Make to yourselves friends. Christ…teaches us that by acts of charity we obtain favor with God, who has promised, that to the merciful he will show himself merciful, (Psalm 18:25.)…

The Lord looks not to the persons, but to the work itself, so that our liberality, though it may happen to be exercised towards ungrateful men, will be of [benefit] to us in the sight of God. […The depravity of men does not prevent the Lord from placing on his records all that we have expended on the poor.]

…Our kindness to the poor will be a seasonable relief to us; for whatever any man may have generously bestowed on his neighbors the Lord acknowledges as if it had been done to himself.

Calvin’s explanation makes me reconsider the make-up of my own giving.

To the parts I did understand, Calvin says:

When you fail. By this word he expresses [our] time of death, and reminds us that the time of our administration [of riches] will be short, lest the confident expectation of a longer…life should make us take a firmer grasp. …Many squander what they have on superfluities; while others…deprive both themselves and others of the benefit…

Of the mammon of unrighteousness. By giving this name to riches…Christ justly represents them as worthy of our suspicion; just as on another occasion he called them thorns, (Matthew 13:7, 22.)

[…Christ intends, by way of an unstated contrast,] that riches, which otherwise, in consequence of wicked abuse, polluted their possessors, and are almost in every [case] allurements of sin, ought to be directed to a contrary object, to be the means of procuring favor for us. [This is] a warning given to believers to keep themselves free from unrighteousness.

Key to the right use of riches, then, is to neither squander nor hoard; using it not as an occasion for sin but, instead, for righteousness.

Clarifying what our attitude should be when giving, the Apostle Paul cautions:

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:6-7 (ESV)

And we do well to remember that time really is money when it comes to charity:

You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and ignore them. You shall help him to lift them up again. Deuteronomy 22:4 (ESV)

Deeds of Christian Charity

Deeds of Christian Charity, 1575, Pieter Aertsen (circa 1508–1575), in the public domain in the United States

God or Money?

Which will it be, God or money? The God spoken about in this context is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; one God in three persons. Money, or mammon, on the other hand, is any earthly means of exchange or gain (i.e., possessions).

While speaking with His disciples, the Lord Jesus Christ was overheard by the religious rulers of the day. They scoffed at what He said to His disciples:

“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Luke 16:13 English Standard Version (ESV)

Christ then turned to these rulers and addressed how their heart attitudes kept them out of His Kingdom.

Christ spoke the same words to a different audience who listened intently to His Sermon on the Mount. He spoke about the heart attitude that His disciples and the crowds that followed Him should possess in the Kingdom of God. As part of that sermon, Christ said:

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Matthew 6:24 (ESV)

Although the disciples were common to both groups, many in the first audience sneered at what He said and in the second, they hung on His every word.

John Calvin commented on this two-thousand-year-old chronicle over five hundred years ago:

No man can serve two masters. …[Christ] had formerly said, that the heart of man is bound and fixed upon its treasure; and he now gives warning, that the hearts of those who are devoted to riches are alienated from the Lord.

For the greater part of men are [inclined] to flatter themselves with a deceitful pretense, when they imagine, that it is possible for them to be divided between God and their own lusts. Christ affirms that it is impossible for any man to obey God, and, at the same time, to obey his own flesh…

We commonly call this a ‘divided heart.’ Calvin goes on:

True, it is not impossible that those who are rich shall serve God; but whoever gives himself up as a slave to riches must abandon the service of God: for covetousness makes us the slaves of the devil…

So it isn’t the riches themselves, so much as setting our hearts on those riches to the partial (or total) exclusion of Him. Calvin then extends this principle to all our vices.

…As God pronounces everywhere such commendations of sincerity, and hates a double heart, (1 Chronicles 12:33; Psalm 12:2); all are deceived, who imagine that he will be satisfied with the half of their heart…

The covetous, the voluptuaries, the gluttons, the unchaste, the cruel, all in their turn offer the same apology for themselves: as if it were possible for those to be partly employed in serving God, who are openly carrying on war against him.

But wait, we are beset with sins that, the scriptures say, so easily entangle us. Are we double minded and in danger of hell fire? To this, Calvin, the shepherd, says:

It is, no doubt, true, that believers themselves are never so perfectly devoted to obedience to God, as not to be withdrawn from it by the sinful desires of the flesh.

But as they groan under this wretched bondage, and are dissatisfied with themselves, and give nothing more than an unwilling and reluctant service to the flesh, they are not said to serve two masters: for their desires and exertions are approved by the Lord, as if they rendered to him a perfect obedience.

But this passage [Luke 16:13] reproves the hypocrisy of those who flatter themselves in their vices, as if they could reconcile light and darkness.

So there we have it. The question now becomes: “Do I serve the devil or do I serve the Lord.” For, we all have to serve somebody.

Serve Somebody, Johnny Q. Public, Lyrics by Bob Dylan

Fear No Man

Many of us have feared someone. Bullies, from school, work, next door, or the national stage, come to mind. In an effort to blend in or hide, we change what we say, what we think, and what we do. Perhaps, if you are a Christian, you betray your witness of Him. Not everyone who inspires fear is a mere bully, though. Some are sociopaths. These can turn your world upside down or worse.

The collected proverbs of scripture are not just fortune cookie prescriptions for our amusement, but hard truths leading to life. Concerning bullies and sociopaths, it says:

The fear of man lays a snare,

    but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.

Proverbs 29:25 English Standard Version (ESV)

That seems unlikely. How does belief in a Deity provide safety from what may become for us trials that lead to certain death? For that answer, let us look to the source of wisdom, the Lord Jesus Christ:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28 (ESV)

And again:

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Luke 12:4-5 (ESV)

Calvin’s analysis of these passages and their contexts is enlightening:

…Our Lord’s discourse consists of two parts. First, in order to instruct us to bear with composure the loss of the bodily life, he bids us contemplate both eternal life and eternal death, and then arrives gradually at this [second] point, that the protection of our life is in the hand of God.

…Now the proud imaginations of wicked men, as if the life of the godly were placed at their disposal, is utterly unfounded: for God keeps them within limits, and restrains, whenever it pleases him, the cruelty and violence of their attacks. And yet they are said to have power to kill by his permission, for he often permits them to indulge their cruel rage.

…These words of Christ ought therefore to be explained in this manner: “Acknowledge that you have received immortal souls, which are subject to the disposal of God alone, and do not come into the power of men.” The consequence will be, that no terrors or alarms which men may employ will shake your faith. “For how comes it that the dread of men prevails in the struggle, but because the body is preferred to the soul, and immortality is less valued than a perishing life?”

The calculus we fear to face is that this life is not meant for pleasures but for testing. When all is said and done, death overtakes us all. Bullies and sociopaths can take no more from us than this earthly existence. If our lives are hidden with Christ, then we will appear with Him. Even now He walks with us. Fear Him.

The Seventy SevensYou Don’t Scare MeAll Fall Down (1984), Lyrics

Live Blues Version (1990)

Faith Fail?

This was a critical time in the Lord Jesus Christ’s service to humankind. The ruling leadership was plotting his murder with one of His inner circle of disciples, Judas. Jesus had sent Peter and John ahead to prepare for a significant religious dinner celebration.

Then, at that dinner, while instructing His disciples of His impending death and resurrection, a controversy over who was the greatest disciple broke out. After Jesus taught them the meaning of humility and about their future roles as his disciples, He tells Peter how he will betray Him:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.” Luke 22:31–34 English Standard Version (ESV)

Calvin explains:

…When Christ formerly promised to his disciples the spirit of unshaken fortitude, he referred to a new state of things which followed the resurrection; and, therefore, as they were not yet [endowed] with heavenly power, Peter, forming confident expectations from himself, goes beyond the limits of faith.

…This claims our attention, that every man, remembering his own weakness, may earnestly resort to the assistance of the Holy Spirit [through prayer]; and next, that no man may venture to take more upon himself than what the Lord promises. [Thus,] Paul…enjoins us to:

…Work out our salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God that works in us to will and perform, (Philippians 2:12 – 13.)

…Therefore, whenever any temptation is presented to us, let us first remember our weakness, that, being entirely thrown down, we may learn to seek elsewhere [i.e., from God] what we need [i.e., His mercy and grace]; and, next, let us remember the grace which is promised, that it may free us from doubt.

So, we must rely on Christ and not on our own strength. However, this is not the end of the matter. Christ, through His servant Paul, challenges us:

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test! 2 Corinthians 13:5 (ESV)

And Calvin says:

…But what does Paul say here? He declares, that all are reprobates, who doubt whether they profess Christ and are a part of His body. Let us, therefore, reckon…right faith [is that] which leads us to [rest] in safety in the favor of God, with no wavering opinion, but with a firm and steadfast assurance.

They admonish us because God supplies saving faith; it is not our own doing:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:8-10 (ESV)

Yet, facing ourselves more deeply, let us not forget the parable of the soils. As Christ explains:

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.

And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.

And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.

As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

Luke 8:11-15 (ESV)

Let us therefore exercise patience in our calling because He cannot fail; though we may:

My flesh and my heart may fail,

   but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Psalm 73:26 (ESV)

To this, Calvin reveals:

…There is here a contrast between the failing which David felt in himself and the strength with which he was divinely supplied; as if he had said, “Separated from God I am nothing, and all that I attempt to do ends in nothing; but when I come to him, I find an abundant supply of strength.”

It is highly necessary for us to consider what we are without God; for no man will cast himself wholly upon God, but he…who despairs of the sufficiency of his own powers. We will seek nothing from God but what we are conscious of [lacking] in ourselves.

Then, let us cast ourselves wholly upon Him that our faith may not fail.

The Denial of Saint Peter - Carravagio (1610)

The Denial of Saint Peter, circa 1610, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), public domain in the United States

Why Are There Four Gospel Accounts?

From an historical perspective, theologian Louis Berkhof explains that:

…Matthew wrote for the Jews and characterized Christ as the great King of the house of David. Mark composed his Gospel for the Romans and pictured the Savior as the mighty Worker, triumphing over sin and evil. Luke in writing his Gospel had in mind the needs of the Greeks and portrayed Christ as the perfect man, the universal Savior. And John, composing his Gospel for those who already had a saving knowledge of the Lord and stood in need of a more profound understanding of the essential character of Jesus, emphasized the divinity of Christ, the glory that was manifested in his works…

Recently, I ran across an interesting conjecture about this question while researching my next book. However, while it was compelling, I thought it best to test this conjecture against what Calvin penned about the four gospels in his Commentaries.

The first thing to notice is that Calvin values the Gospel of John differently from the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Concerning John’s Gospel in relation to the other three, Calvin says:

Yet there is also this difference between them, which the other three are more copious in their narrative of the life and death of Christ, but John dwells more largely on the doctrine by which the office of Christ, together with the power of his death and resurrection, is unfolded.

…And as all of them had the same object in view, to point out Christ, the three former exhibit his body, if we may be permitted to use the expression, but John exhibits his soul.

On this account, I am accustomed to say that this Gospel [i.e., John’s] is a key to open the door for understanding the rest; for whoever shall understand the power of Christ, as it is here strikingly portrayed, will afterwards read with advantage what the others relate about the Redeemer who was manifested.

About Mark’s gospel, Calvin says:

Mark is generally supposed to have been the private friend and disciple of Peter. It is even believed that he wrote the Gospel, as it was dictated to him by Peter, and thus merely performed the office of an amanuensis or clerk. But on this subject we need not give ourselves much trouble, for it is of little importance to us, provided only we believe that he is a properly qualified and divinely appointed witness, who committed nothing to writing, but as the Holy Spirit directed him and guided his pen.

Of Luke:

Luke asserts plainly enough that he is the person who attended Paul.

And of Matthew, Calvin says:

Matthew is sufficiently known [from the Gospel accounts].

Summing up for all three:

…For we will not say that the diversity which we perceive in the three Evangelists was the object of express arrangement, but as they intended to give an honest narrative of what they knew to be certain and undoubted, each followed that method which he reckoned best. Now as this did not happen by chance, but by the direction of Divine Providence, so under this diversity in the manner of writing the Holy Spirit suggested to them an astonishing harmony, which would almost be sufficient of itself to secure credit to them, if there were no other and stronger evidences to support their authority.

Note that John had intimate access with God and man and later in life, much knowledge and love.

Matthew (called Levi) was a Hebrew civil official collecting Roman taxes, despised by his countrymen, and was grateful to leave all behind.

Peter (and perhaps Mark) worked with his hands, was bold, impulsive, and spoke well  extemporaneously.

Luke was a physician who set out to document both the life of Jesus and the Acts of the Apostles meticulously.

The conclusion of the preceding exposition brings us to the source of the conjecture.

David Keirsey’s book Please Understand Me is a useful reference for writers who want to fully flesh out their characters.

He says Hippocrates and Galen observed that there are four personality types. Later scientists refined their observations by identifying four distinctions within each type. We’ll review Keirsey’s take on the four personality types via several posts over the next few weeks (possibly interspersed among other postings on different topics).

In the book’s notes section, Keirsey relates the four main personality types to the gospel writers:

Artisan (SP) — Bold, Works with Hands, Extemporaneous, Present Oriented — Peter (with amanuensis Mark)

Guardian (SJ) — Administrative, Works with Resources, Desires Respect, Past Oriented — Matthew

Rational (NT) — Reasoning, Works in Sciences, Seeks Knowledge, Period Oriented — Luke

Idealist (NF) — Empathetic, Works with People, Sagacious, Future Oriented — John

These are the Gospel author’s predispositions. Their experiences molded them, as far as they were willing and able, so that they acquired attributes of the other personality types. These attributes in total could be said to be their overall dispositions.

Although God may choose to relate to our predispositions through the Gospel writers, once He gets hold of us, He conforms us to His Son’s likeness as His sons and daughters.

None of the four writers seemed more transformed than Peter who, in his second letter to the churches, documents instruction for and prophesy of the future as his provision for the saints:

I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. 2 Peter 1:13-15 English Standard Version (ESV)

Of course, the number “four” is a common theme throughout the bible.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalype

Death on a Pale Horse is a version of the traditional subject, Four Horsemen of Revelation, 1796, Benjamin West (1738 – 1820), in the public domain in the US