Thursday, April 28, 2016

Christ the firstfruits

The other day I was reading Leviticus 23 which sets out the major festivals in the Old Testament religious calendar. I was struck for the first time with the close proximity of The Feast of the Passover and Unleavened Bread to The Feast of the Firstfruits. On the 'day after the Sabbath' [of Passover/Unleavened Bread], worshipers were to bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of their crops to the priest as an offering to the Lord, Leviticus 23:10-11, 13-14. This burnt offering made in spring time was a token of the full harvest that was to come. It was intended to invoke the Lord's blessing upon the whole crop, Ezekiel 44:30. 

One of the things that interested me was the timing of the Feast of the Firstfruits. The 'day after the Sabbath' could be taken as the day following the 'holy convocation' that marked the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the fifteenth day of the month Abib (Leviticus 23:6-7). Gordon Wenham, however, takes the view that 'day after the Sabbath', is the Sunday that follows the first Saturday after the beginning of the Festival of Unleavened Bread. In that case, the token sheaf was offered on a Sunday, the first day of the week. 

As Wenham elaborates, the Last Supper was a Passover meal (Matthew 26:17) and the Gospels identify Jesus as the true Passover lamb (John 19:36 cf. Exodus 12:46. Note also 1 Corinthians 5:7). He comments, "Easter Sunday was probably the day the first sheaf was offered as a dedication offering. It is this ceremony which led Paul to speak of Christ in his resurrection as the firstfruits (1 Cor. 15:23)." [See The Book of Leviticus NICOT,  G. J. Wenham, Eerdmans, 1979, comments on p. 302-304 & 306]. 

Philip Eveson also notes, "In the year that Christ died, Passover fell on a Friday, so that the following day (Saturday) was not only the special Sabbath of the the first day of Unleavened Bread but the ordinary weekly Sabbath...It is of profound significance that the Lord Jesus Christ, who died at the time of Passover, rose from the dead 'on the day after the Sabbath' to become the 'first fruits' of those who sleep in Jesus (1 Cor 15:20). The resurrection of Christ is the guarantee that all who belong to him will be raised from the dead to be like him." [The Beauty of Holiness: The book of Leviticus simply explained, Philip H. Eveson, EP, 2007, comments on p. 318].

Richard Gaffin pays close attention to Paul's use of 'firstfruits' language in connection with Christ's resurrection. He cites Johannes Weiss to the effect that, 'This little word contains a thesis'. Gaffin locates the Old Testament background to the  apostle's wording in Leviticus 23 and other similar passages. He draws attention to the representative character of the firstfruits offerings and remarks, "'Firstfruits' expresses the notion of organic connection  and unity, and the inseparability of the initial quantity from the whole."  Applying this insight to Christ's resurrection, Gaffin explains, "it brings into view Christ's resurrection as 'firstfruits', of the resurrection-harvest, the initial portion of the whole. His resurrection is the representative beginning of believers. In other words, the term seems deliberately chosen to make evident the organic connection between the two resurrections...His resurrection is not simply a guarantee; it is a pledge in the sense that it is the actual beginning of the general event. In fact, on the basis of this verse [1 Corinthians 15:20] it can be said that Paul views the two resurrections not so much as two events but two episodes of the same event." [Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul's Soteriology, Richard B. Gaffin Jr, P&R, Second Edition 1987, p. 34-35]. 

As the firstfruits offering was organically connected to the harvest that followed under God's blessing, so Christ's resurrection is organically connected with that of his people. That is why there is such a tight link between the resurrection of Christ and his people in the New Testament. Such is the organic bond, that those whom God has savingly united to Christ by his Spirit have already been raised to new life in him (Romans 6:4-5, Colossians 3:1). But just as Jesus was bodily raised from the dead as the firstfruits, so the full harvest of resurrection glory is sure to follow for his people. The one without the other is unthinkable, Romans 8:11, 2 Corinthians 4:14. This is further underlined by Paul's language in Romans 1:3-4, where he writes,

concerning his Son 
who was born of the seed of David 
according to the flesh,
and appointed the Son of God with power 
according to the Spirit of holiness,
by the resurrection of the dead,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

The apostle did not say, 'by his resurrection from the dead' (contra ESV/NIV), but 'by the resurrection from the dead'. Commenting on this verse, Leon Morris quotes Nygren who says, 'the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead are not two totally different things...For Paul the resurrection of Christ is the beginning of the resurrection of the dead.' [The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris, IVP/Eerdmans, 1988, p. 47]. Just as with the firstfruits, there is only one crop that is comprised of token sheaf and full harvest, so it is with 'the resurrection of the dead'. To use Gaffin's language Christ's resurrection and that of believers are 'two episodes of the same event'. 

Returning to 1 Corinthians 15, in Christ all shall be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22). The last Adam will have his new humanity. As a 'life-giving spirit' the risen Lord will raise his people from the dead with spiritual bodies that we may bear his image. (1 Corinthians 15:45-46, 49). The resurrection of 'Christ the firstfruits' on the first Easter Sunday means there can be no doubt that harvest time is coming. And what an abundantly glorious harvest it will be, 1 Corinthians 15:50-55.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Shepherds After My Own Heart edited by Robert Strivens & S. Blair Waddell

Edited by Robert Strivens and S. Blair Waddell, EP Books, 2016, 278pp

Multi-author volumes are among the most difficult books to review, especially those that include a wide variety of subjects rather than concentrating on one theme. You can't really sum up the argument of the book and offer an assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. Giving a precis of each chapter in turn doesn't work either; both from the point of view of the reviewer and the reader. I don't think so, anyway. My difficulty in offering a review of this collection is exacerbated by the fact that I've contributed a chapter about which it would be hard for me to be entirely objective.

Notwithstanding, and whatever the merits of my own piece, I think you'll discover that anyone who picks up this book will find much to inform, stimulate and challenge them. It will be especially useful for theological students and pastors, but this is not simply a work of pastoralia. It's breadth of interest, including theology, ministry, Baptist thought, and history reflects that of the man to whom this collection of essays are dedicated, Dr. Robert W. Oliver. 

I mentioned my personal connection with Robert in an earlier post, and said that I was looking forward to reading the other contributions to this Fetschrift. Well, now I'm finished and I have to say that the book is a fitting tribute to Robert, packed with material that speaks to both mind and heart. It seems invidious to pick out only some chapters for comment, but several are truly outstanding. I was moved to read Paul Oliver's touching tribute to his father. Joel Beeke's chapters on the perseverance are a fine distillation of the biblical and Reformed teaching, applied in a pastorally helpful way. Aspiring ministers would do well to read Geoff Thomas's A Minister Looks Around and Back for a good slice of pastoral reality and inspirational encouragement. It was certainly a tonic for me, and I'm no rookie these days. 

Michael Haykin discusses Andrew Fuller's teaching on the Holy Spirit in conversion. Tom Nettles gives attention to the impact of Jonathan Edwards on Baptist thought. Former LTS student' Dinu Moga's essay on The Baptist Movement in Romania filled a gaping hole in my knowledge of church history. Robert Strivens and Blair Waddell helpfully bring out oft neglected aspects of the Evangelical Revival. The former with regard to Dissent and the revival and the latter on some of George Whitefield's alleged character flaws. Philip Eveson seeks to rescue the Confession of Faith of the Calvinistic Methodists from undeserved obscurity and defends the document's Calvinistic credentials. 

I wish I'd been able to take account of Preaching with Spiritual Power by Ralph Cunnington when writing my chapter on The Pastor as Spirit Empowered Preacher of the Word. I don't think I would have changed my overall emphasis in the light of Cunnington's work, but it would have been good to have interacted a little. My review hints at lines of convergence and divergence. It's for others to give their opinion on my efforts.

Anyway, I hope Robert Oliver enjoys reading this collection of essays as much as I did. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Some fragments from the Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference

Sat next to some interesting randomers at meal times and got chatting. One was involved in literature work in the Czech Republic. Another taught theology at a Lutheran University in Finland. Caught up with old friends too, but if you only chew the fat (as well as Leicester Uni's excellent fare) with your cronies, you miss out on the breadth of fellowship that's available at an international conference like Banner.  Also had a chance (if that words is allowed in a Banner report - 'was providentially enabled'?) to have a word with Dinu Moga, fellow contributor to Shepherds After My Own Heart: Essays in Honour of Robert W. Oliver

We had our traditional Weds evening meeting of the 'Taffia'. An assortment of Welsh or at least Welsh-connected ministers. Geoff Thomas managed to nab Ted Donnelly and David Vaughn for a quick word, which made for an fascinating time of fellowship. 

But the thing that keeps me returning to Banner year after year is not only the fellowship aspect, but especially the warm-hearted experiential Calvinism that characterises the ministry there. That was typified by a stirring opening sermon by Ted Donnelly on Romans 10:15, where the conference veteran pressed upon us the need to preach Christ with boldness and authority, 'When in the pulpit; boldness. When out of it; humility.' David Campbell gave three moving addresses on Words of Life Spoken in Death, taking us through our Lord's Five Words from the Cross, analysing each one in careful detail, while pressing their message home to our hearts. 

A Banner first was a father and son double act in the shape of Phil Heaps (son) speaking on Ministering in Challenging Times (1), from Romans 1, and Graham Heaps (dad) giving the second sermon on that theme from Luke 22:14-34. The messages were both a challenge and encouragement to minister God's word in difficult days, assured of the Lord's help and enabling.

American missionary, currently serving in France, David Vaughn gave two moving and inspiring addresses on Under the Lordship of the Risen King and The Kingdom's Spread in a Fallen World. In the first he offered a corrective to 'Christian Hedonism' that tends to focus on our desire to delight in God, by emphasising the balancing truth of living to ensure that God delights in us. The second was a stirring call to mission, 'We do not attempt the possible, for we serve a risen King'. 

Banner has been used by God to recover the riches of historic Reformed and Puritan doctrine and piety. This was brought home to us in three historical talks. Ian Hamilton whetted our appetite for John Owen on Communion with God and Meditations on the Glory of Christ, 'Make up your minds that beholding the glory of God in Christ is the greatest of all privileges.' George Curry gave a well-applied biographical paper on J. C, Ryle: Minister of Grace. Iain Murray spoke on John Elias and Revival. A theme running throughout the conference was the need for an outpouring of the Spirit upon the ministry of the Word that our preaching may have more of a sanctifying effect upon the church and an awakening impact upon the world. Elias's ministry typified that. With a single sermon he brought an end to a Sabbath-breaking fair. He provoked a church on Anglesea to repentance when he excommunicated the whole congregation for participating in the of plundering a wreaked ship. 

Mark Johnston brought the conference to a fitting conclusion with a message on Revelation 21, bringing out the chapter's magnificent vision of: A world of total restoration, A world that will be made perfect, A world of extraordinary beauty, A place of true security and Lasting order. It is due to the sin of the first Adam that we minister in a hostile world. The security of the new creation will not rest upon the fallible obedience of a mere man, but of the last Adam, Jesus Christ, who is both God and Man. 

A theme than ran through the conference was not only the importance of preaching the gospel and experiencing its power personally, but also of facing the challenges of the age, especially that of reaching the unreached with the good news of Jesus. Banner isn't about empty traditionalism or nostalgia. The doctrinal and spiritual riches of the past are put to the service of those who are called to serve the Lord in the present to secure the future growth of the Christ's church.  

I certainly returned to my ministry refreshed, stirred and encouraged. Hopefully better equipped to minister in my current situation. But, sadly, this will be my last ever Leicester conference. That's because from next year Banner will be held YarnfIeld Park Training & Conference Centre just south of Stoke. I hope to be there, God willing, for more of the same in a different place.