The Prodigal Shepherd

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sheep-690198_1280

(By Matt Foreman)

I have only ever written one poem in my adult life, the one below…  I actually don’t even really like poetry all that much.  But back in 2003 I was responsible for a Christmas Eve message and had writer’s block.  While I would never normally replace a sermon with a poem, since it was Christmas Eve, and I was having so much trouble, I decided to try my hand at a poem.  This one wrote itself in about an hour.  (That’s never happened again.)  It’s an imaginative portrayal of the experience of a shepherd near Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth…

The Prodigal Shepherd

A man sat still in the cold night air
on rock cold hard, his feet were bare
and stared into the sleepless world
down at his flock within their fold
and thought upon some distant star
what trick of mind had brought thus far
him to this place of fruitless breath
of endless toil and lonely death.

Long had been his journey here
from angry home and mother’s tear
and hard and cold his heart had been
to look on her with mirthless grin.
To seek for glory was his want
For famous story was his hunt
Yet naught had come to him but this
To look at sheep in brainless bliss.

He thought with pain at what had past
his guilt, his shame, his vileness
those he had hurt, those he had robbed
the children left to violent sobs.
He bowed his head, they overtook
his body cringed and swayed and shook
and cast upon the dark cold ground
a rain of tears and empty sound.

O Lord, what mercy can this worm
have hope to gain or swipe or earn?
That man and pregnant woman past
as poor as dirt and yet no cast
of sorrow, pain upon their face
but hope and joy and eagerness.
Yet naught for me, no hope, no joy
no reason expectance to employ.

Did not the priest say, just this day
God’s promises are on the way,
His Own Anointed, David’s son
would raise up sword, the battle won,
would claim the throne and raise his race
all the world bow to their face.
Yet not for you, the priest did say,
no place for sinners on that day.

No place for shepherds, dirty, vile,
covered with muck and dirt and bile.
You have received what you deserve,
no place for you on glory’s curve.
And knew it true, as he did say,
I knew it true as clear as day.
No mercy can there be for me,
A prodigal and righteous free.

The night was still, the air was cold,
no sheep were braying in the fold
when suddenly the air seemed thin
he struggled so his breath to win
as shimmering the air began
to twist and turn and brightness ran
about the hillside to and fro
the stars were darkened with a glow.

Shouts rang out from shepherds near
as on the hillside did appear
a being clad in raiment bright
forgot in daylight was the night.
Hard it was to see his face
yet clear as crystal was the grace
that flowed like honey from his tongue
and shook and soothed and stung and sung.

To all the shepherds he did speak,
Yet thought the man with conscience weak,
he speaks to me, it seemed so clear
for me this being did appear.
And falling to his face he cried,
Lord, mercy on this mountainside.
With fear I look upon this face
Condemned I stand and without grace.

And then they heard the angel say,
Fear not, for news I bring this day,
of such a kind as never heard
through voice of man or spoken word.
And yet to you this day I cry
with glory to the God most high
joy comes upon the world this night
joy such as devil will affright.

In David’s city, that place of lore,
that prophets long did speak before,
is born this night a Shepherd great
who bearing stripe and suffering hate
will seek to gain and win his own
his wandering sheep and wayward son
him Savior, sinful men will call
Messiah, Lord, and before him fall.

And this will be a sign for you,
to know him right and see him true
as he who comes to be like you
the lowly meek and frightened few
To bring to naught the pride of man
the wise man’s thought, the strong man’s hand
In manger lowly, meek and mild,
Will you find God’s only child.

And you, the poor, the dust of earth
will proclaim Messiah’s birth
and heaven’s doors and gates will sing
as you approve his offering
and in your hearts, no longer cold,
are brought back to the Father’s fold.
And for eternal ages sing
Glory be to Christ the King!

An echo rang across the skies
As up above where eagle flies,
A multitude were seen to wing
their way across the heaven to sing.
Then light was gone, the night was cast
back into darkness at the last.
But glory was felt by all at hand
as they stared across the land.

Yet, breath came thin still to the man
with conscience weak and pallor wan
his bones grew brittle as he sought
his thoughts to order what his ears had caught
And then a dawn danced to his face
condemned no longer, saved by grace
His voice rang out, his lungs were clear,
For me this message DID appear!

Come must we to Bethlehem,
to see this Son to praise this Lamb.
On me, on me God’s favor rests
Despite my sin and sore distress.
For I will see this Savior’s face
This Babe will smile with forgiving grace.
And it will be the face of God
to save me from this guilty sod.

And near another voice rang out
and soon they all began to shout
and clap and hug and run and sing
with glory to the newborn King.

And heaven’s gates were opened wide
And like the turning of the tide,
It has begun, the angels said.
And death itself will soon be dead.

And heaven holds, not once a year
But every day, when sinners hear
a Christmas party begins to start
when Christ is born in sinful heart.

Written by Matt Foreman, Dec.24, 2003.

The New Covenant: Jeremiah 31:31-34 Concluding Thoughts (Part 8)

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The New Covenant: Some Concluding Thoughts

As I conclude this series on the new covenant, I wanted to spend a post making some observations. The first and most obvious is a point I made in the first post, that the new covenant is the battle field for baptism arguments. In my own view, this is more than unfortunate, as I do not believe this question should have any bearing on who it is that we baptize. I understand that everyone makes this “the reason” to baptize infants or not to baptize them. I just happen to be a credobaptist for reasons completely unrelated to who is in or out of the new covenant. I do not make that argument, and deliberately steer far away from it.[1] For this reason, however, it is difficult to find a truly objective study of the new covenant, as both sides really need this passage to legitimize their views of baptism.[2] Hopefully, you can at least see the potential here to not be fair with the text, which is something we all should want to be, but often for other reasons can’t.

Second, the new covenant is not completely dissimilar nor completely similar to the old covenant(s). A friend of mine says to his Paedobaptist friends that their job is to make the Baptist prove from Scripture the reason he holds to covenant discontinuity (the baptism question immediately emerges here). This point is terribly difficult for me to comprehend, as Jeremiah couldn’t say it any more bluntly. The new covenant is “not like” the old. “Not like” would seem to imply discontinuity to me. We have seen from the language of Jeremiah that the “not like” part is especially related to the percentage of people in the new covenant (i.e. “they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest”).

This doesn’t mean that the new covenant is completely unlike or unrelated to former covenants. That, unfortunately, is a topic not for a blog, but for a whole encyclopedia. Different systems of covenant theology have different ways to answer this. But sticking just with the text of Jeremiah 31:31-34, we see that he incorporates all kinds of OT covenantal language that has been the focus of our posts. There were true believers in the old covenant(s) and in the new. Some in the old had God as “their God,” some “knew the Lord,” and some had their sins forgiven.

But that leads to the discontinuity again, and this is something upon which we can all agree. The truest, best “newness” of the new covenant is that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, has obeyed all of the laws under the old covenant, especially the ceremonial laws. Thus, his once-for-all sacrifice into heavenly places has secured eternal redemption. His sending of the Holy Spirit has brought about for the first time (as far as the language of the Scripture is concerned) a “circumcision of the heart.” While OT saints were regenerated by faith in Christ and were taught to know the Lord even as they knew the Spirit, something new clearly took place at Pentecost and only in the NT do we read about the circumcision of the heart prophecies actually coming to fruition in God’s people.

Therefore, if are in Christ you are a new creation. You are in the new covenant. Therefore, make it you goal to obey him in his other commandments related to this covenant, such as being in a local church, confessing your sins, obeying him out of thankfulness, and so on. If you are not in Christ, you have no reason to appropriate the new covenant blessings to yourself. But look to Jesus and they will be yours. For all who place their trust in him will never be put to shame.

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

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[1] You can read my rather unique argument that we baptize professing adults because this is in line with how the OT covenantal rite of baptism was practiced. Baptism comes from baptism. See Douglas Van Dorn, Waters of Creation: A Biblical-Theological Study of Baptism (Erie, CO: Waters of Creation, 2009).

[2] I realize that this is a difficult chicken and egg question: Does exegesis of Jeremiah 31 bring people to the conclusion that infant baptism is correct, or does the assumption of infant baptism bring people to the conclusion that Jeremiah 31 teaches that infants are in the new covenant? Few if any would ever admit to having a system drive their exegesis. But in dealing with a web of beliefs like this, it is almost impossible to answer that question. My own experience has shown me that on both sides of the debate, the baptism question (which is not even in Jeremiah’s radar) is always there just under the surface lurking like a shark with his fin above the water, ready to gobble away any argument from exegesis that an opponent will give that would endanger the life of that “who is in the new covenant” baptism assumption. Unless one’s view of baptism is totally and always unrelated to who is in the new covenant, I don’t see how the question of objectivity can ever truly go away.

THE NEW COVENANT– FORGIVENESS OF SINS: AN EXPOSITION OF JEREMIAH 31:31-34 (PART 7)

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The Law and Forgiveness: Your Sins Are Remembered No More

We have now taken a look at two of the three promises of the new covenant and their effects. The first was that God will write the law on the hearts of all his new covenant people with the effect being that he will be their God and they will be his people. The second is that God would teach each person in the new covenant to “know the Lord” through the Holy Spirit, with the effect being that they will “all” know him. Both of these ideas point directly at regeneration. Not that regeneration is new, but the percentage of people in covenant with God who receive it is far greater.

The last thing promised in the new covenant is truly amazing. In a previous post we said that remembering is part and parcel of covenants. I recently read a great “reminder” from Desiring God Ministries that the reason why people grumble, complain, get angry, hold grudges, get bitter, and other things starts because they forget. Jesus told us, “This is the blood of the covenant, do this in remembrance of me.” How can people who have tasted of this good salvation, who know the cost of their own sin to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who recognize the horrible depravity of their rebellion, even for a single moment act like this?

Because we forget.

We must remember.

Now contrast this with God in the new covenant. The declaration is that he “will be merciful towards our iniquities.” The effect is that he will remember our sins no more.” When we forget, we sin. When God “forgets,” our sins are no longer remembered. Therefore we must remember what he has done. But what does this mean that God will remember our sins no more?

It tells us repeatedly in Hebrews 9-10 that Jesus’ sacrifice is “once for all” (9:12, 26-28; 10:10). This is in contrast to the sacrifices of the old covenant which were repeated. It then ties this in directly to forgiveness. “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (Heb 10:18). This implies that under the old covenant, forgiveness was either non-existent or somehow quite different from the new covenant.

The OT does teach us that God forgave his people. So it isn’t that forgiveness as a concept is new. The word used in the Heb 10:18 translated “forgiveness” was used by Jesus at the Last Supper where his blood is poured out for the “forgiveness” or “remission” of sins. However, this word is rarely translated this way in the OT. There, the word is usually rendered as something like “release” (as in the Year of Jubilee) by English LXX versions. Of course, even in a year like Jubilee, while there was release for a time, it always reverted back to the period when debts would recur and “release” would be needed again. This is the same as the sacrifices which were repeated over and over again.

Therefore, the way God forgave the people in the OT was, as the Apostle says in Romans, by “passing over” sins in his “forbearance,” so as to be just and the justifier of those who would have faith in the God-man, Messiah. God’s OT forgiveness was not based on anything that could actually forgive sins. It is a good thing that God knows the future perfectly and is powerful enough to make it come to pass exactly how he wants it to, otherwise his forgiveness was in jeopardy of being unjust.

Jesus’ one-time sacrifice takes away sins once-for-all. This is why God forgets, because he debts we owe are fully forgiven. In the old covenant, God kept remembering, because there was not a sacrifice that truly appeased his wrath. No animal, no matter how pure and spotless, was capable of truly substituting for your sin and mine. But the Lamb of God was. Where sins were once only covered or passed over, the sacrifices had to keep being repeated. But where the One Sacrifice of Christ is, there is no more remembrance of sin.

Of course, it isn’t that God literally forgets. It is that he does not hold our sins against us. He is now merciful towards our iniquities. Nothing we do can ever sever his great love for us in Christ. For, the Father is perfectly satisfied in the obedience of his Son, and the Spirit has united us to the Son in perfect union so that when he looks upon us and our sin, God only sees the Righteousness of Jesus. This is the promise for those in the new covenant!

But you have to be in Christ to be in the new covenant. My friend, trust in this Lord Jesus today. Confess him before men. Bow before him as King. Repent of your dark, secret sins, of those things you have been refusing to bring before his throne. Come to know the gracious benefits of Christ dead and risen. Entered into the blessed covenant that God has now promised to all who trust in the Son today.

In the final installment, we will take a look at a few implications of this study on Jeremiah’s new covenant.

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

THE NEW COVENANT– The Law and the Heart Continued: AN EXPOSITION OF JEREMIAH 31:31-34 (PART 5)

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They Will Be My People, and I Will Be Their God

This installment should be read with Part IV, as it continues directly from that post.

Something is said at the end of Jeremiah’s promise to “write the law on their hearts.” “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This is the effect of the former promise. This phrase has rich OT covenantal meaning that Jeremiah is drawing upon here. It means many things. Sometimes it means something similar to what it says here. That is, to be God’s people is to have a heart to know that he is the LORD. (This actually combines the “law on the heart” with “knowing the Lord” which we will look at next time). Part of what this also meant was to repent when you broke his law. “I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart” (Jer 24:7). Repentance is a “turning” from sin back towards God. So the point is, when God becomes a person’s God in the new covenant, even when they disobey, they always return to him. This was not true in the old covenant, for many did not return to the LORD at all even though they were in covenant with God.

When God becomes your God in this way, you must obey him. Jeremiah said earlier in his book, “This command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people’” (Jer 7:23; cf. Jer 11:4). Here, “they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsel and evil hearts” (24). They didn’t want to obey God, even though they were in covenant with him. This is exactly why Jeremiah and Ezekiel say of the new covenant “I will give them one heart, and a new spirit … remov[ing] the heart of stone … that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezek 11:19-20).

Part of being their God meant that he had delivered them from slavery. “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians’” (Ex 6:7). This deliverance was not only from (slavery) but to (the land). “Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Jer 32:37-38). This deliverance also included deliverance from sin. “You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses” (Ezek 36:28-29). “I will bring them to dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness” (Zech 8:8).[1]

God delivers and saves and is to be obeyed because he is king. God said that he dwelt among them as their king. But a curious prophecy says that there will be more one day. “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves” (Lev 26:11-13). We can see then that something in the new covenant includes the LORD walking around. It is talking about the Lord Jesus. He will be their God through his new covenant.

What is important to take away from this post is that the phrase “I will be their God” was used in the old covenant. However, all of the people in that covenant did not have the law written on their heart, and thus the meaning implicit in this phrase in the old covenant was not carried out to completion. God actually divorced his people (Jer 3:1-8) and called them “Not My People” (Hos 1:9) after their rebellion. What is new about the new covenant in this regard must therefore be that all of the people in the new covenant have the law written on their hearts and God will truly be their God and God will truly fulfill, through Christ, these promises to them. For that is what the text says. Next time we will look at what it means to “know the Lord,” where we will see something very similar to what we have seen in these last two posts.

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[1] These things have an objective nature to them on the cross and a subjective nature to them when a person is supernaturally changed into a new creation.

THE NEW COVENANT– The Law and the Heart: AN EXPOSITION OF JEREMIAH 31:31-34 (PART 4)

Law, Scripture, The Church, The Gospel, Theology, Uncategorized

The Law and the Heart

These next four posts are the most important for getting a handle on the covenant recipients. Though my own views of baptism do not depend upon the answer to this question, this has certainly been a very important question in the baptism debate. Jeremiah (and Hebrews) do not have baptism view, but there is no question that they do have in mind certain recipients of the new covenant. We have seen that these recipients are Christ and, via union with him, his church. Now we want to be more specific regarding the church. For in the (visible) church there are both true and false believers.

We will unfold these four posts by taking a look at the biblical meaning of three positive phrases about the new covenant, each of which is followed by a positive effect. The first involves the law on the heart its effect. The second involves teaching the law and its effect. The third involves breaking the law and its effect. Notice then that law is involved in the new covenant. It isn’t that the new covenant is without law. I would argue that all covenants, by definition, involve law. Law is the “stipulations” of a covenant. Law is what you have to “do” in order to “keep covenant.” Instead of having no law in the new covenant, it is our relationship to the law because of Christ The Law-keeper that now marks the “newness” in this regard. But his law-keeping does something else. It marks a newness in the recipients of the covenant from old to new. This is what we will look at now.

This post and the next are about the law and the heart. The phrase is, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33). Hebrews puts it this way, I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10). Hebrews takes Jeremiah’s “law” and makes it plural. Perhaps it does this so that you know it is talking about the actual commandments within the Torah.

Of course, this begs the question, “Which laws?” This is a difficult question to answer. Hebrews clearly has in mind the ceremonial laws, which I believe come via the post-Sinai/Golden-Calf covenant referred to as the Levitical covenant (Neh 13:29; Jer 33:21; Mal 2:4, 8). But would God write ceremonial laws on our hearts when he says that the ceremonials laws like washings and animal sacrifices are done away? A different NT passage talking about the new covenant (2 Corinthians 3) seems to have the Ten Commandments of the Mosaic covenant in mind. In that passage, it talks about the Corinthians as actually being letters written by Christ, not on stone, but on flesh (2Co 3:2-3).[1] Yet, some will make the same charge even about moral law. “We are not under law, but under grace,” as they try to apply this “no law” view even to Moses. “Why would God write these on our hearts now? That would seem to defeat the whole point of not being under law.”

Here is my answer to which laws. First, simply put, it says that God will write the law(s) on our hearts. Jeremiah is talking about some kind of laws in the OT, therefore it has to be some kind of OT laws. A blogger has said, “Anyone claiming to be in covenant with G-d under the New covenant has had the Torah written on their hearts and minds (Jeremiah 31:31-33)! We cannot accept Torah being written on our heart and mind while summarily rejecting Torah as old & nailed to a cross.”[2] Whether this blogger understands how the Torah has been nailed to a cross is one thing, but the point being made is another—and it is correct. New covenant Christians want to keep the law.

As it regards the moral law, I don’t see how you can read 2 Cor 3 and come away with an answer that doesn’t at least include these. The Ten are now written on our hearts. Second, we have to realize that even civil and ceremonial law are kept in the church. But they are kept differently in the church than they were in the OT nation. Paul applies the “do not muzzle the ox” (civil law) passage to paying the pastor. He is taking an eternal moral principle and applying it in the NT economy. Paul also uses all kinds of ceremonial language and applies it to us with perhaps the most well known being, “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices…” (Rom 12:1). So it isn’t that all law ceases, it is our stance towards it that is different.

Our stance is now understood through the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ. The law demands obedience. Jesus obeyed. The law promises life when there is obedience. Jesus was raised from the dead because he is The Law-Keeper. By his death through faith alone, God pardons our law-breaking because he is pleased with The Son. Therefore, the law no longer condemns us, because Jesus put that work to death on the cross. Now, we are free to obey the law not out of guilt or fear of punishment, but for another reason. But this begs the question of who has the law written on their heart? Everyone in the whole world? Infants born into Christian families? The elect prior to faith? The elect after coming to faith?

What might it mean to have the law written on your heart, and how would this be a new thing? Recall King Josiah of whom it is said that he “turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses” (2Kg 23:35). Or David who says that the law is in his heart (Ps 37:31; 40:8). I see three possible differences in the new covenant from what we see here. One thing that is not different is if someone concluded that Jeremiah is predicting that finally, in the new covenant, people will be saved. No. David and Josiah were saved. They were regenerated by God, justified by faith, and they loved God’s law.

The first difference could be the people in the covenant. No longer is God keeping the writing of the law within the bounds of the nation of Israel and the elect within her (i.e. Josiah and David). No, now he is extending it to Gentiles. Very importantly, the Apostle Paul does say something about the law in relation to Gentiles. He says that they “do what the law requires” even though they do not have the law and this makes them “a law to themselves” (Rom 2:14). He adds, “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (15). Critically, Paul’s “work of the law” is different from the law itself. The work of the law is to condemn or show a person to be right in their actions. All men know God’s law. All men have this work of the law already on their hearts. But this is different from personally deeply longing do obey and do God’s law. Gentiles know it and do it because they can’t live with a dirty conscience as it were. But do they love God’s law? If they are in the new covenant they sure do. This is what it means to have the law now written on your heart.

A second difference would be the place where the law was kept. In the OT, the law was “kept” on tablets of stone in a tabernacle of wood and gold. In the new covenant, the law is now “kept” in the people’s hearts. This is part of the implication that believers are God’s “temple.” The Holy Spirit descends on the church at Pentecost, and the “place” of God’s dwelling, and thus the law, thereby changes as well.

A third difference is the percentage of people within the covenant that want to keep the law. If this is correct (and Baptists and Infant Baptists disagree on this point), I believe it is very significant. God seems to be saying that he will write the law on the hearts of 100% of those who are in the new covenant. Not everyone who is in the visible church per se, but everyone who is in the new covenant. The church is the vehicle through which the new covenant is received, but it is not the new covenant itself anymore than Abraham was a covenant. No, he was a person through whom the promises of his covenant came. We will see this better as the next three posts unfold more of the meaning of the language of the promises of the new covenant to us.

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[1] Is this an interesting allusion to how Christ is the one who originally wrote the letters on the stone on top of the mountain with Moses?

[2] Messianic Jewish Blogger ShaliachShalom, in a comment at: https://standingonshoulders.wordpress.com/2009/05/31/where-did-the-term-old-testament-and-new-testament-come-from/

(by: Doug Van Dorn)