Monday, April 30, 2018

Calvin on the Man Born Blind as Reviled Messenger

In preparing to preach yesterday on John 9:26-38 I continued my reading of John Calvin’s commentary on the Fourth Gospel. Calvin notes the audacity of the man born blind in tweaking the Pharisees. In v. 26 he asks them, “will ye also be his disciples?”
Calvin observes:

It is an astonishing display of freedom, when a man of mean and low condition, and especially liable to be reproached on account of his poverty, fearlessly provokes the rage of all the priests against himself.

When the Pharisees later indignantly revile the man saying, “Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us?” (v. 34), Calvin reflects:

Now, since we ought always to hear God, by whomsoever he may talk to us, let us learn not to despise any man, that God may find us always mild and submissive, even though he employ a person altogether mean and despicable to instruct us. For there is not a more dangerous plague than when pride stops our ears, so that we do not deign to hear those who warn us for our profit; and it frequently happens that God purposely selects vile and worthless persons to instruct and warn us, in order to subdue our pride.

No doubt, Calvin sees in the man born blind’s confrontation with the Pharisees a paradigm for the stand of humble Reformed preachers in critique of reviling Roman authorities.


Friday, April 27, 2018

The Vision (4.27.18): The man born blind and divine patience in disciple-making

Image; Memorial to victims of Irish famine, Boston, Mass., April, 2018

Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on John 9:8-25.
They say unto the blind man again, What sayest thou of him, that he hath opened thine eyes? He said, He is a prophet (John 9:17).
As we work through the miracle of Christ’s healing of the man born blind in John 9, I am struck by the description of the patient and progressive spiritual work that was done in this man’s life.
We meet him as a man born blind (v. 1). His physical state also reflected his spiritual state. Unregenerate men are spiritually blind from conception (original sin).
The man encounters Jesus on the sabbath, is touched, and directed by Christ to obedience (vv. 6-7). He then “came seeing” (v. 7b).
He had been physically transformed by Christ but not yet spiritually changed. When later asked where Jesus is, the man can only answer: “I know not” (v. 12). This reflects not only the fact that he does not know where Jesus is, but also that he does not know who Jesus is.
Under interrogation by the Pharisees, the erstwhile blind man is asked who he thinks Jesus is, and he replies, “He is a prophet” (v. 17). Notice the indefinite article. He does not hold that Jesus is the prophet like Moses (Deut 18:18), though he does believe him to be a great man of God, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist. It is high praise but not enough.
When pressed further, the man acknowledges that though he does not understand everything about Jesus, he does know the good that has been done to him by Christ: “one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see” (v. 25).
Only later in this chapter do we hear the end of this process, when Jesus directly asks, “Dost thou believe on the Son of God?” (v. 35). And he replies: “Lord, I believe” (v. 38).
We see here the process of discipleship. Yes, justification happens in a moment, and a man moves from darkness to light, from death to life. But there is a trail or process leading up to that moment and a trail or process that leads from it.
This miracle is not merely about the physical healing of this man but, most importantly, his spiritual healing.
We are meant to marvel at Christ’s patience and also to consider where we are in that process.
Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

What is expositional preaching?

Image: Scene from worship at the Lynchburg Reformed Baptist Mission

One of the odd things about being a preacher is that we do not often get the opportunity to listen to “live” preaching ourselves. On Sundays, we are usually in the pulpit or behind the lectern. I can just hear someone now telling me that I could always share the pulpit more often to remedy this. I agree, however, with Pastor Poh’s exhortation in the 2017 Keach Conference when he charged ministers to “labor to the point of exhaustion.” Poh noted that the man who is called to preach will not be content over-frequently to share his pulpit. Those with the call to preach desire to exercise their gifts for the good of the kingdom. Their unwillingness to sit on the sideline need not be ascribed to pride rather than zeal. They want to labor in the word and doctrine. If other men can do what he does, then perhaps those men need to be sent out or he needs to be sent out to establish more churches.

Still, the minister needs the hearing of preaching in order to receive the means of grace as well. He is a Christian man before he is a minister. In the pre-internet days, he could do that by reading the sermons of other men. He can still do this. Now he can also listen online to sermons. Rare indeed is the week that I do not have the opportunity to listen to a number of sermons or teachings. There is usually some variety in what I hear. There are some preachers I come back to hear over and again.

Aside from this discipline for spiritual nourishment, I also listen to learn about preaching. This includes sometimes listening back to my own sermons, often with cringes, and trying to sharpen the saw. I listen to men from the past and present, from various denominations and nations. I even listen at times to some liberal mainline Protestants to get a vibe for what is happening in those fading circles.

Very often I will listen to sermons from evangelical, Calvinistic churches—ones that say they affirm the five points but stop short of full confessionalism. What is called “expositional preaching” is popular in those circles. As I have listened to some of the preaching in these churches, however, I find that this term can mean different things to different people.

The common factor to qualify as expositional preaching seems to be the fact that each week the preacher takes as his text a consecutive set of verses, working through a book from the Bible. What I have sometimes found, however, is that the reading of the passage in consecutive order can serve merely as a jumping off point for what is a topical rather than an expositional sermon. BTW, I am not against all topical preaching. If the message claims to be expositional, however, I expect it to be something different. I want to hear a sustained meditation on one particular passage in God’s word. I expect the passage to dictate the topic, theme, and application. I expect there will be focused reflection on the content of this passage. That there will be line by line exposition of the text. There will be evidence that the minister has read the text in the original language, compared translations, studied commentaries, and labored to rightly divide the true meaning of the text. The view will not come from the air but from the ground. He will deal with the words of the text. He will tell us the meaning of key terms. He will hold every jot and tittle to be indispensible, because he believes in the plenary, verbal inspiration of Scripture. The expositor mines the truth in God’s Word and brings it to the surface for all to see. He will trust that the reading and hearing of these words will have an effectual impact on both himself and his hearers. This alone is powerful. He does not need jokes, stories, disconnected quotations or illustrations, references to contemporary culture or current events, pithy phrases, sports references, etc., to hold the attention or interest of his hearers. To claim to be doing expositional preaching and then to leave off exposition for topical reflection is false advertising and can confuse hearers as to what exposition of the text really means. Most importantly, it withholds from God’s people that which they most need to receive and which will do them the most good: an encounter with the Lord through his inspired, God-breathed Word.


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Book Review: James M. Renihan's Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705

I have posted my book review of James M. Renihan's Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705 (London: Paternoster, 2008) to my site. You can find it here.

The review appeared in the Reformed Baptist Trumpet, Vol. 1 No. 2 (2010): 12-14.

I have also recorded a spoken word version of the review to You can listen to the review here.


Friday, April 20, 2018

The Vision (4.20.18): A "Shadow Box" to Display Christ's Glory

Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on John 9:1-7.

Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him (John 9:3).

It has been noted by interpreters of John that the evangelist records seven miracles or “signs” in the first half of this Gospel:

            Water into wine (ch. 2);
            The healing of the nobleman’s son (ch. 4);
            The healing of the lame man (ch. 5);
            The feeding of the 5,000 (ch. 6);
            The walking on water (ch. 6);
            The healing of the blind man (ch. 9);
            The raising of Lazarus (ch. 11).

Some have even called the first half of John “The book of signs.”

We can look back at John 2:11 as the key to understanding these events: “This beginning of miracles (signs) did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.”

The goal of a miracle: manifestation of Christ’s glory (which leads men to worship and honor him) and belief (fundamental trust in him above all else).

Christ here unveils the mystery of the man born blind’s condition. He exercises sovereign knowledge over all things. This man was born blind so that Christ might heal him and manifest his glory. This man’s condition becomes a theater for the display of Christ’s glory.

Have you seen those “shadow boxes” that you can buy to display fine jewelry, precious coins, or medals? This man’s condition is a shadow box to highlight and call attention to Christ’s glory through his healing.

To this we might add that unregenerate men might be able to see with the physical eye, but they are spiritually blind, and they have been so from birth. Salvation is like the opening of blinded eyes, so that the lives of the redeemed might also manifest Christ’s glory. We become shadow boxes to display his glory.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Cyril of Alexandria on the burning bush as a type of the Incarnation

Those who rejected the orthodox view of Christ as one person with two natures, argued that it would not be possible for any man to take on the glorious divine nature. In defending his view that in Christ God did not merely assume the form of a man but became a man, Cyril of Alexander points to the theophany of the burning bush in Exodus 3 as a type of the incarnation:

It was not impossible to God, in his living kindness, to make himself capable of bearing the limitations of manhood. And he foretold this to us in enigmas when he initiated Moses, depicting the manner of the incarnation in types. For he came down in the form of fire onto the bush in the desert, and the fire played upon the shrub but did not consume it. When he saw this Moses was amazed. Why was there no compatibility here between the wood and the fire? How did this inflammable substance endure the assaults of the flame? Well, as I have already said, this event was a type of a mystery, of how the divine Word supported the limitations of the manhood; because he chose to. Absolutely nothing is impossible to him (Mk 10:27) (On the Unity of Christ, p. 79).


Monday, April 16, 2018

Christology, Cyril of Alexandria, and "catholic orthodoxy" in the Protestant Confessions

Image: Wall painting of Basil, Gregory the Theologian, and Cyril of Alexandria (left to right). fourteenth century, Istanbul, Turkey

I am continuing to teach through chapter 8 “Of Christ the Mediator” in the Second London Baptist Confession (1689).

Sunday before last I noted how the confession is grounded in three contexts (from latest to earliest): Baptist (believer’s baptism, independence/communion church government), Reformed (doctrines of grace, RP of worship, moral law of God, etc.), and catholic (little “c”—universal) orthodoxy (little “o”—right believing) (listen to the sermon here).

The latter of these is seen in the classical view of the triune God’s immutability and simplicity (“without body, parts, or passions”) (see chapter 2 “Of God and of the Holy Trinity”).

It also evident in chapter 8 in the Nicene and Chalcedonian Christology. Christ is “the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God” (8:2). And in the one person of Christ there are “two whole, perfect, and distinct natures [which] were inseparably joined together in one person without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man” (8:2).

I took paragraph 3 of chapter 8 as having to do with the special furnishing the human nature of Christ (see this sermon). I noted the listing of special furnishings based on a Scriptural prooftexts and drawn from the scriptural phrasing, so Christ was:

Sanctified and anointed with the Holy Spirit above measure (Psalm 45:7);
Holding in him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3);
Having all fulness dwelling in him (Col 1:19);
Holy, harmless, and undefiled (Heb 7:26);
Full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

This section (8:3) of the 2LBCF is nearly identical to the WCF (with the exception of the addition of the phrase “in the person of the Son”), so the roots of this theologizing rests primarily with the Westminster divines.

In the midst of this study, I have also been trying to do some reading (primary and secondary) from the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries.

Among these, I have been reading Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ (SVSP, 1995) and was struck by his discussion of the special furnishing of Christ and how the concepts and proof texts parallel those used in WCF/2LBCF 8:3.

Cyril (d. 444) was the patriarch of Alexandria who battled Nestorius in arguing that Christ was one person with two natures. Though Philip Jenkins describes Cyril as “an obnoxious bully” (Jesus Wars, p. 58), he was a dogged defender of the orthodox cause and his tenacity led to triumph over Nestorius’s views at the Council of Ephesus (431).

Here is an excerpt from Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ:

He was sanctified along with us when he became like us. The divine David also testifies that the one who is truly Son was also anointed in accordance with his becoming flesh, which is to say perfect man, when he addresses these words to him: “Your throne O God is from age to age; a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness, and so God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above all who participate in you” (Ps 45:6-7 LXX). Take note, then, that while David calls him God and attributes to him an eternal throne, he also says that he had been anointed by God, evidently the Father, with a special anointing above that of his participants, which means us. The Word who is God has become man, therefore, but has retained all the while the virtues of his proper nature. He is perfection itself, and as John says: “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14), and while he himself has everything that is fitting to the deity, we on our part “have all of us received from his fullness” as it is written (Jn 1:16) (p. 67).

So, we see here the concepts of anointing, filling with grace and truth, and fullness, as well as the prooftexts Psalm 45:7 and John 1:14.

The WCF/2LBCF, thus, reflects the ancient reflections of Cyril and others in their recognition, definition, and defense of orthodox Christology.


Friday, April 13, 2018

The Vision (4.13.18): Before Abraham was, I am

Image: Forsythia, North Garden, Virginia, April 2018
Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on John 8:48-59.
Let me draw three statements from John 8:48-59 for reflection:
First, look at v. 51 where Jesus said, “If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.”
Think of how people try to escape the first death. Think of the explorers who looked for the fountain of youth or moderns who want to freeze their bodies in hopes they might be preserved till a time when diseases are cured. Consider health foods, diet, exercise, essential oils, yoga, running, meditation, surgery, etc.
Even funeral homes work to make the dead look alive!
But believers know that the wages of sin is death. The mortality rate is 100%!
There is, however, a way not to die, that is, not to experience the second death, eternal death. And that way is by honoring the Son and by believing and keeping his words.
Second, look at v. 53, when the crowd asks Jesus, “Whom makest thou thyself?”
Who did Christ make himself out to be? Did he make himself out to be just another ordinary man? Or did he make himself out to be something more? And what is your verdict? Are you with the unbelieving crowd or with the apostles?
Third, look at v. 58, where Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.”
Now, what mere man could say such a thing? Imagine you are visiting Monticello in Charlottesville and you meet a man who says, “Jefferson rejoiced to see my day. Before Jefferson was, I am.” Would you not say that such a man was beside himself? But when the earliest followers of Jesus heard Christ say, Before Abraham was, I am” they believed it to be absolutely true. In fact, they were willing to die for him and for this truth.

Now, where do you stand?

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Friday, April 06, 2018

The Vision (4.6.18): He that is of God heareth God's words

Image: Ground cover, North Garden, Virginia, April 2018

Note: Devotion taken from last Sundays' sermon on John 8:33-47.

He that is of God heareth God’s words; ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God (John 8:47).

First, Jesus declares a basic principle (v. 47a): Those who are of God hear Christ’s words.

What does it mean to be “of God”? It means to be a spiritual child of God. One who has been claimed by God, adopted by God, one who has God as his spiritual Father. He not only hears Christ’s words externally but, most importantly, he hears them internally.

Second, Jesus declares a devastating verdict (v. 47b): They do not hear, because they are not of God.

This can be said by the Lord Jesus of every man who rejects him.

Paul provides a version of this statement in 1 Corinthians 2:14:

But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

Calvin describes Jesus in this temple dialogue as being “in the position of one who sings to the deaf”!

Here is a dividing line between believers and unbelievers. Those who are of God hear his words, while those who are not of God cannot hear them.

We who are in Christ can give thanks to the Lord that he, by grace, unstopped our deaf ears. We can also pray that he might bless the preaching of Christ, so that others also might be enabled to hear.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle 

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Calvin on John 8:41 and Roman claims to apostolic succession

In preparing to preach last Sunday on John 8:32-47, I read Calvin’s commentary on this passage, and I was struck by his reflections on the crowd’s statement to Jesus in John 8:41: “We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.”

Calvin notes that Jesus’ opponents were claiming not only to be Abraham’s children but also the children of God. He then draws some intriguing applications on ecclesiology, including a critique of Roman claims of “apostolic succession.”

Calvin comments:

“We now see how they thought that they had holiness from the womb, because they were sprung from a holy root. In short, they maintain that they are the family of God, because they are descended from the holy fathers. In like manner, the Papists in the present day are exceedingly vain of an uninterrupted succession from the fathers. By sorceries of this description Satan deceives them, so that they separate God from his word, the Church from faith, and the kingdom of heaven from the Spirit.”

He then adds:

“For let them go about the bush as much as they please, still they will never avoid discovery that the only ground of their arrogant boasting is, ‘We have succeeded the holy fathers; therefore, we are the Church.’ And if the reply of Christ was sufficient for confuting the Jews, it is no less sufficient now for reproving the Papists.”

So, Calvin’s comparison is this:


The Jews of Jesus day claimed to be the children of God by virtue of being the physical descendants of Abraham, even though they were not the spiritual descendants of Abraham. Meanwhile, Christians, including both Jews and Gentiles, are not all physical descendants of Abraham, but they are his rightful  spiritual descendants.


The Papists of Calvins’s day claimed to be the Church of God by virtue of direct succession from the apostles and fathers, even though they were not the spiritual descendants of the apostles and fathers. Meanwhile, the Reformed do not necessarily come in direct succession from the apostles and fathers, but they are their rightful spiritual descendants.

His point: Spiritually speaking, it is not the Papists who can claim true apostolic succession, but the Reformers.