Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Nuanced Understanding of the Sabbath

A Review of The Lord of the Sabbath: The Riches of God’s Rest
By Keith Weber (Leominster, UK: Day One Publcations, 2007)

By Benjamin Shaw
Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

This is a short work (158 pages of text, plus a little over six pages of endnotes and bibliography). However, it is a thoroughly packed work, so the reader should not expect a quick read. As might be guessed from the title, it deals with the issue of the Christian Sabbath. Unlike many other works on the topic, it is not filled with direct references to or quotations of earlier works on the topic. Instead, it is an exegetical work that focuses on a number of important Bible passages relevant to the Sabbath.

Of the ten chapters, the first five deal with specific Old Testament passages that define the Sabbath and its place not only in the context of the people of Israel, but in the wider context of the development of theology in the Old Testament. The remaining five chapters deal with specific New Testament texts that focus on the relation of the Sabbath to the Christian believer.

In the book, Weber omits two things that might be expected in such a work. First, he gives no list of what must not (or what must) be done on the Sabbath. Second, he has adopted a deliberately irenic tone toward those with whom he disagrees. These are both significant strengths of the work. He adds to these the strict focus on answering the question, “What does the Bible say on the matter?” The result is a book that presents a compelling case without antagonzing those who would be inclined to be skeptical of Weber’s conclusions.

Chapters that I found especially helpful are those on the significance of the law in the Old Testament (ch 3); a discussion of the Sabbath psalm, Psalm 92 (ch 4); Jesus’ statement about being Lord of the Sabbath (ch 6), and his discussion of Hebrews 4 (ch 8).

Weber avoids extensive discussion of Hebrew and Greek, though it is clear that he has done his preparation in the original languages. He consistently remembers that he is not writing for the biblical specialist, nor for the systematic theologian, but for the common English-speaking reader of the Bible. He carefully leads the reader around possible pitfalls and into a carefully nuanced understanding of what the Bible teaches about the Sabbath.

In all, a book I highly recommend.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Retaining Scripture In Our Minds and In Our Hearts

By Ryan M. McGraw

The Word of God is sufficient for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness so that the man of God might be complete and thoroughly equipped for every good work. The man of God must meditate upon God’s Law day and night, and rejoice over it above all riches. The Word must be upon his lips when he sits down, when he rises up, and when he walks by the wayside and if we have indeed tasted that the Lord is gracious, we must desire the pure milk of the word that we may grow by it. It is only as we let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly that we will be able to teach and admonish one another, give a reason for the hope that is in us, tear down everything that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. For these reasons, I have put together some practical suggestions, mostly drawn from my own reflections and experience, to help drill the Scriptures into our minds, root them in our hearts, and express them in our speech and our lives.

1. Systematic Reading.
Read the whole Bible carefully, regularly, and frequently. Believers are held accountable and are often condemned for their ignorance of what the word of God says. This is illustrated throughout the book of Judges (esp. ch. 17), the wrath of God upon the Samaritans (2 Kings 17), and Josiah discovering the immanence of God’s wrath after finding the Book of the Law (2 Chron. 34). If we cannot afford to be ignorant of any part of Scripture, then we must be familiar with all of its parts. This can only be done by systematically reading through the entire Bible, repeating the process often enough that what we have learned will be remembered and built upon.

This type of Bible study provides context and allows us to think about the text in connection to a larger whole. For example, when the reader realizes that Isaiah 13-24 is a single discourse, it sheds much light upon the otherwise difficult content of chapter 24. The gospel of Matthew is also filled with long sections and drawn out strains of thought. Chapters 5 through 7 represent one sermon with an introduction, body, and conclusion. Chapters 23-25 denounce the Scribes and Pharisees, pronounce the resultant destruction of Jerusalem, and then naturally end with the destruction and judgment of the wicked on the Day of Judgment. We have been concerned with using the thought processes used in Scripture in order to think God’s thoughts after him and argue in a biblical manner against unbelief. Systematically reading through Scripture is the only means by which we will be enabled to do this. The benefits of this method of Bible study are primarily cumulative, requiring patience and time, but few endeavors will be more rewarding.

2. Meditation.
Meditation is often treated as a synonym for relaxation and is associated with emptying the mind, such as in Yoga and New Age thinking. In the Scriptures, however, meditation refers to deep, careful, and prayerful thought. Meditation may be described as thinking long and continuously about one subject. Systematic reading will naturally lead to meditation upon particular verses as portions of the text either stand out for further thought or raise questions. It is also profitable to take time to meditate through entire books of the Bible so that we are not limited to those things that immediately interest us. Meditation is the best means of keeping the words of Scripture in our minds and applying them to our hearts and lives. See my example using the book of Hebrews under 11 below.

If meditation arises from a question over a verse Scripture, it will often take the form of prayerfully reading and re-reading the text and the surrounding context and slowly narrowing the possibilities. This may also result in observing theological implications of a passage and should ultimately result in practical application that is solidly drawn from the text. I have found that meditation creates a sort of “dialogue” between my soul and the Lord in which I study the text, pray for light and present my questions before the Lord (confessing sin and pursuing self-examination), and repeat the process. This is one of the most practical ways of communing with God and emphasizes the fact that the Spirit of God never communicates his will to us apart from his inspired Word.

It should also be noted that running to commentaries too quickly for answers may eliminate the process of meditation altogether. Commentaries are indispensable, but our goal should be that they supplement (and at times correct) our meditations rather than replace them. On the other hand, when commentaries are used properly, they foster further meditation. Meditation in Scripture is assumed to be a daily practice of the godly (Ps. 1). By reminding ourselves that every Word of Scripture is the inspired Word of God, we will give greater attention to all of its words and be slower to come to conclusions about its meaning. This cannot be done without mediation.

3. Regular Daily Private Worship.
I have chosen the term “private worship” instead of “devotions” or other comparable terms because it emphasizes God as the object of worship rather than upon what we “get out of it.” There may be times when we receive less profit from private prayer and study of the Scriptures, whether through physical weariness, trials, etc. It is only when we emphasize that these are times of worship that we will persevere in them at all times and wait long, if we must, before reaping personal benefits to our souls. When we persevere in our private worship, we will often find through the course of time that we have received far greater benefits than we perceived at the time. The primary emphasis is not a time of peace and quiet to ourselves, or even primarily to feed our souls, but to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

This practice combines numbers 1 and 2 (along with number 4 below) and places them in the context of worship. Using the means of grace in a spirit of worship is what makes them profitable to our souls. The Psalmist in Psalm 5 states that he sought God early in the morning. He also meditated upon God’s ways in the night watches (Ps. 63). Psalm 119 even depicts him seeking God’s face seven times in a day. If that is the case, then one daily time of private worship is a bare minimum. This ensures that numbers 1 and 2 above will be practiced daily. My practice is to place the heaviest emphasis on private worship in the morning before the distractions of the day begin to encroach upon the mind. This practice assists in being mindful of the Lord, his glory, and his coming throughout all the activities of the day and makes extended meditation upon Scripture easier. Additionally, it is profitable to end the day with private prayer (at least), confessing the sins of the day, praising God, and preparing for the next day. This directs our thoughts to private worship the next morning more naturally.

With respect to meditation in private worship, there are times in which I attempt to be ahead in my systematic Bible reading and then slow down to place a heavier emphasis upon a particular book for a time. Taking notes may be helpful if they are brief and do not consume a burdensome amount of time. The benefit of note taking is not ordinarily to re-use them, but that the process itself helps thinking and memory in what we read. If some insights are particularly important and I want to be reminded of them often, I write them in the margin of my Bible so that they will be re-read annually.

4. Prayer.
Prayer is the single most important element in understanding the Scriptures, keeping them in our minds, and changing our hearts and lives. Since no man may know the things of God profitably apart from the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:13-14), prayer makes us self-consciously dependent upon God in studying his Word. We ought never to open our Bibles without at least a brief prayer for the Lord’s help and grace in understanding it and living by it. God made our minds and may give us wisdom and deprive us of it as he pleases (Dan. 4). He has often diminished my own “natural” ability when I have become proud and he has provided far above and beyond my abilities when necessity has called for it, or grace has been pleased to grant it.

Even the memory has a spiritual dimension and should be a matter of prayer. Thomas Boston pointed out how easily we remember things that make a deep impression upon us. One reason we remember so little from Scripture is because it makes such a small impression upon us. When truth makes a deep impression upon us we rarely forget it and often remember the very words in which we learned the truth. My own memory of Boston’s discussion of the memory illustrates this point. Do not excuse yourself or limit the power of the Holy Spirit by assuming you cannot retain Scripture in your memory. Circumstances certainly affect the memory, such as age, lack of sleep, and even diet, but we may always be confident that our prayers are according to God’s will when we ask him to impress us deeply with his glory, his gospel, and the knowledge of his will. We must pray and wait patiently knowing that we have those petitions that we have asked of him (1 John 5).

5. Hearing Sermons.
Our private study of the Scripture is indispensable, yet it is in the public proclamation of the word that we hear from Christ most directly. It is through preaching that we “hear him” and faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:14, 17). The preacher is sent as a herald to proclaim the will of the great Triune Jehovah and particularly Christ and him crucified. True preaching will emphasize the text of the Scriptures, in which God has chosen to reveal his will, and will itself be full of Scripture. Because preaching is the primary means of grace, we should have a greater expectation for the blessing of the Holy Spirit as we come to hear a sermon. For this cause as well, we should use the sermon to the utmost of our ability.

If our ministers preach through books of the Bible, we will know generally what comes next and can prepare ahead of time. If we study the book that is being preached upon, the book itself will be more embedded in our memories and the sermons will come to us with greater profit. Even if we simply read the passage ahead of time, which requires minimal effort and time, we shall be amazed at how it helps us profit from sermons. We may also profit after hearing sermons through conversation. I believe that Spurgeon once said that some people acted as though sermons were the best kept secrets in the world, and that men were free to speak of anything and everything after worship with the exception of the sermon. We will gain the greatest profit from the preached Word while the exposition and application of the passage is fresh in our minds. If the preaching of the Word is not in our conversation after worship, does our silence declare that it has had no effect upon our hearts?

This point leads us back to the importance of prayer. All that was said above concerning prayer in our private worship applies with even greater force here. If we expect preaching to be profitable, and we expect to profit personally from preaching, we must pray and we must labor for profit. Let us not lose the power and effectiveness of the preached Word!

6. Using the Scriptures.
We should approach our study of the Bible as we would sutdying a foreign language. The only way to learn a language is to be immersed in it and to use it as often as possible. A person may study Spanish by spending only an hour in the morning reading a text-book, memorizing vocabulary and grammar. But if he uses what he has studied all day, he will stretch out the benefits gained from that hour and make great progress in that language.

The best place to begin using the Scriptures is to implement the words of Scripture in prayer. This has the added benefit of giving us confidence that what we are praying is according to the will of God. We should turn the language of Scripture into “arguments” to enforce our petitions before God. For example, when God says his will is our sanctification (1 Thess. 4), we ought to pray, “Lord, sanctify me for your names’ sake.”

We should attempt to use the Scriptures from our private worship in our conversation with others. This helps us self-consciously set our minds on things above where Christ is in all we do. It is useful in evangelism, in encouraging believers, and in admonishing others when necessary as well. This can even be applied by inserting Scripture into letters and emails. By this practice we pursue what is good for ourselves and for others (1 Thess. 5).

Scripture should also be used in the instruction and discipline of children. Using it in positive instruction at every opportunity, or simply speaking with children about what we have been reading in the Scriptures helps us remember what we have read and communicates Scripture to the children in a positive context. Using it in discipline makes sure that discipline is neither arbitrary nor understood to be so by the child. Every occasion when our daily reading can be used in some manner will assist us in remembering it and cause us to carefully consider how to put it into practice.

7. Reading Good Books.
This especially applies to reading literature written by those well versed in the Scriptures, such as the Puritans. Some Puritan literature is filled with either direct citations or allusions to Scripture in nearly every line. Even when verses are not explicitly cited, such books can be used to test our memory by striving to identify book and chapter. My opening paragraph above is an illustration of this, in which are references to 2 Tim. 3, Ps. 1, Ps. 119, Deut. 6, 1 Pet. 2, Col. 3, 1 Pet. 3, 2 Cor. 10, and Jude respectively. If you initially have to look up references with a concordance, you will become more familiar with the Scriptures over time and eventually use the concordance less and less. Several books may repeat verses in connection with specific emphases (for example with reference to the providence of God, Ephesians 1:11 may appear in most books) so that these texts shall come to our minds more easily in that connection. As a suggestion, if you begin reading through the Puritan Paperback series by Banner of Truth, if you read 10 pages per day you will get through about 1 book per month. If you read 5 pages per day you will get through one every other month.

A good set of commentaries may serve the purpose as having a conversation with someone who knows more than you do about the text of Scripture. Not commentaries only, but works on biblical introduction and biblical theology help tremendously in understanding books of the Bible as a whole. An excellent example of the latter that has radically transformed my own understanding of the Old Testament prophets is The Christ of the Prophets by O. Palmer Robertson.

8. Use the Catechism.
Catechizing is not only an invaluable help in understanding and expressing the doctrines of Scripture in a concise manner, but it is useful for growing in the knowledge of Scripture itself. For example, the Westminster Shorter Catechism along with the Larger and the Confession of Faith often use the very language of Scripture in expressing theological conclusions. Memorizing the Shorter Catechism and parts of the Larger is one of the most useful things that I have ever done. Studying the Scripture proofs of the Catechism in their context assists in learning how to use Scripture in a different manner than bare reading and meditation shall. The Catechism teaches us the theological implications of Scripture and it will help us begin to identify these on our own. Additionally, looking at an otherwise familiar section of Scripture with a focused theological purpose helps keep that text in our memories.

9. Audio Bible.
With the aid of portable electronic devices, you can listen to a well-read audio version of the Bible while doing other things, such as driving, cleaning house, yard work, home projects, etc. Listening cannot replace reading, especially because our full attention will not be devoted to worship, but listening gives another opportunity to have the content of Scripture before us and shall gradually make biblical language part of our vocabulary. Listening to Scripture has greatly increased my ability to concentrate over extended periods of time as well. At first I had to stop and rewind the same chapter several times before truly hearing it, but in time my ability to concentrate on the text and continue other tasks grew gradually and almost imperceptibly.

10. Family Worship.
Even if there is little comment on the text, reading Scripture daily in family worship makes the entire family more familiar with the Bible. It is not only the duty of Christians to worship the Lord in their families, but it is a great benefit to all involved. It is not the presence of children that makes family worship necessary. If a husband and wife hope to worship God together in eternity, is it not a strange inconsistency when they do not worship together daily on earth? I recommend reading a chapter at each sitting, although the length of some passages does not always make this practical. It is helpful to read enough to prevent isolating passages from the context and especially to connect sections such as the parables in the gospels. Reading too little can break up the thought of Paul’s epistles, but reading too much at once in Leviticus can exasperate the family. I would love to discover a way to lead the family through the whole Bible in family worship yearly or at least every other year, but have not yet found a practical way to do this. We have tried Mc’Cheyne’s calendar, but even reading without comment required at least two hours of family worship per day. Instead we have begun to alternate reading one book from the Old Testament and one from the New, always reading through books we have not done before. Some husbands do not lead in family worship because they make the mistake of assuming that they must read several commentaries on a book in order to lead their family through it. Even a bare reading of a chapter is incomparably better than reading none.

11. Direct Memorization.
I have placed direct memorization of Scripture last because I have found it to be the least effective means of memorizing Scripture. The main reason for this is that it is by far the most difficult and laborious means of learning Scripture. Memorization also lends itself to learning Scripture in a vacuum with no context. To illustrate, I have carefully studied and meditated on the book of Hebrews over the past several years. Without conscious effort at memorization, by thinking through the language of the book, reading and re-reading it, meditating on verses in relation to the larger context, and working out practical and theological implications, I have committed most of the book to memory. I could not have done this as easily by rote memorization, and I would certainly not understand the book as deeply.

Nevertheless, memorizing is useful and necessary, especially for children in getting the words of Scripture into their minds before they are able to think through and understand content. This provides a solid foundation upon which they will build. I would go so far as to say that direct memorization of Scripture is indispensable for children. It is essential for us all, however, that the words of Scripture are in our minds and vocabulary, regardless of how we get them there.

Direct memorization is useful to meet the needs of particular situations. For example if a man finds himself in a situation in which he is continually tempted to anger and quarrelling, he may memorize a passage such as, “The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory is to overlook a transgression” (Prov. 19:11). This applies to any temptation, trial, need for comfort, verses that summarize the content of the gospel, etc. Certain portions of Scripture also make memorization a virtual necessity, such as the book of Proverbs in which there is often little to no context to draw upon. I do not mean in any way to exclude memorization by placing it last. I will remind you again that these are only practical suggestions. Memorization works best in the context of practicing the suggestions above.