Saturday, May 25, 2019

Calvin on the 153 fish and unbroken nets of John 21:11: A Rationalizing Trajectory?

Note: I’ve been preaching through John’s Gospel on Lord’s Day mornings over the past two years or so [and am nearing the end of that study]. Along the way, I have been reading the corresponding commentary by Calvin, and I have been struck by Calvin’s usual aversion to mystical or allegorical interpretation, no doubt a reaction to the excesses of the RCC of his own day. The text below is taken from my sermon last Sunday on John 21:1-14 and focuses on v. 11 which includes two details seemingly ripe for spiritual interpretation: the meaning of the 153 fish and the unbroken net. Calvin, as usual resists the allegorical. We happened to have a brother OPC pastor visiting with us last Sunday and over lunch we were discussing Calvin’s interpretation of this passage. I shared with him that while on one hand I greatly appreciate Calvin’s "plain sense" take, on the other I wondered if this rationalizing tendency in Calvin set a trajectory for the rise of the modern historical critical method, especially in Protestant lands, that eventually led to the exclusion nearly altogether of the spiritual, supernatural, and mystical understandings of the text. Here is the excerpt from my sermon manuscript:

John 21:11: Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, and hundred and fifty three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken.

In v. 11 we read that Simon Peter went up drew the net to land “full of great fishes.”

There are two intriguing details which are shared here:

First, John says that the number of the fish was one hundred and fifty-three. On one hand, we might take this simply as a vivid detail provided by the inspired evangelist to show the historicity of this event. It really happened and he recalls the exact number of fish caught in that net that day.

Interpreters of this passage, however, have been prone to find spiritual significance in this exact number.

One commentator I read notes, “Some Greek zoologists held that there were 153 kinds of fish, thus this catch fulfilled Ezekiel 47:10” (William E. Hull, John, Broadman Commentary, 373).

Ezekiel 47:10 And it shall come to pass, that the fishers shall stand upon it from Engedi even unto Eneglaim; they shall be a place to spread forth nets; their fish shall be according to their kinds, as the fish of the great sea, exceeding many.

The same commentator adds: “Further 153 represented the sum of the first seventeen numbers (1 + 2 + 3 …. + 17), and so may be represented by an equilateral triangle with 17 units in the base and one each side…. This ideal figure could stand for “the full number of the Gentiles” (Rom 11:25), to be brought in by the apostolic mission.”

Another commentator suggests the passage fulfills Jeremiah 16:16a: “Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the LORD, and they shall fish for them…” (Orthodox Study Bible).

Augustine apparently managed to take the number 153 as denoting the law and the gospel (so Calvin says).

Calvin offers the sensible conclusion: “As to the number of fishes, we ought not look for any deep mystery in it.” Instead, we ought simply to receive it as an evidence of Christ’s divine power.

The second intriguing detail: “and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken.” Remember that in the earlier episode recorded in Luke 5, their nets had broken under the load of the great catch (v. 6). But now we have the miracle of the unbroken net.

It is hard not to see this as pointing to the unity that will be shared among genuine disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. They will come from many time, many nations, many cultures, many languages, and they will have differences among them, but they will have a genuine unity among them that will come from Christ himself.

Think again of Christ’s prayer for us in John 17:21: “That they all may be one….”

Though many, the net will not be broken.

Again, I tend to see in these actual “physical” events a “spiritual” foreshadowing of what will happen in evangelism.

Calvin, however, sees it much more pragmatically. His insights are worth considering.
He says that the spiritual lesson to be gleaned here is the importance of perseverance in laboring for the kingdom even we see little with respect to visible results. The disciples fished all night and caught nothing, but it due time and at Christ’s direction, they received a great and unexpected result.

He observes:

“In the same manner , also, God often tries believers, that he may lead them the more highly to value his blessing. If we were always prosperous , whenever we out our hand to the labor, scarcely any man would attribute to the blessing of God the success of his exertions, all would boast of their industry, and would kiss their hands.”


“Now if we dislike our calling, because the labor which we undertake appears to be unproductive, yet, when the Lord exhorts us to steadiness and perseverance, we ought to take courage; in the end we shall obtain a happy result, but it will be at the proper time.”

This could be applied to many circumstances:

To a parent despairing at not seeing spiritual fruit in a wayward child.

To a believer meeting hostility for Christ’s sake in his workplace.

To one bearing witness that seems fruitless to an unsaved friend or family member.

To a pastor laboring without the outward signs of progress he might earnestly desire.

It may seem you have fished all night but caught nothing. Do not despair, for so did the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias till Christ did intervene and direct.


Friday, May 24, 2019

The Vision (5.24.19): Come and dine

Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on John 21:1-14.

Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine (John 21:12a).

Let’s return to that last statement of the risen Lord to the seven disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, “Come and dine.”

Many interpreters have found in this invitation overtones of the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, as a means of grace, even though the food here is not the bread and cup, but the bread and fish.

That’s possible, but rather than an invitation to the Lord’s table I think we can see it more broadly as a general invitation to discipleship, to join in having that nourishing and soul-satisfying communion with Christ, which includes being part of God’s people, that fellowship which Christ has built and to which the apostles and those who have come after have added in his name.

Come and enjoy. Come and be fed. Come and be ministered unto by the risen Christ himself. Christ satisfies the hungry soul. Christ fills the empty life. Christ gives rest to the weary. Come and dine.

Christ’s statement might be described as the New Covenant equivalent to Isaiah 55:1: “Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat: yea, come buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

And to Psalm 34:8: “O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him.”

And it anticipates that ultimate communion which is to come: “Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 16:9).

Come and dine.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Scenes from 2019 CRBC Youth Conference (May 17-18)

Last weekend we enjoyed our annual Youth Conference at the Machen Retreat Center in beautiful Highland County, Virginia.

This year's theme was "Understanding the Doctrine of the Trinity" and I had the privilege of teaching the young people. Unfortunately, we did not do an audio recording of the sessions, but here are the four session topics and links to the teaching handouts given the participants:

Session One: The Biblical basis of the Trinity

Session Two: What the Trinity Is

Session Three: What the Trinity Is Not

Session Four: Why the Trinity Matters

We also had a lively Q & A at the end with some very insightful questions. Aside from the teaching, there was also time for fellowship. recreation, and the annual "Chopped" dessert competition (Reformed Youth edition).

Here are some scenes from the weekend:

Thursday, May 23, 2019

WM 122: TR and Apologetics: Robert Truelove Interviews Pooyan Mehrshahi

Image: Cover to the Gospel of John in Farsi, translated from the TR, Trinitarian Bible Society (read online here).

I have posted to WM 122: TR and Apologetics: Robert Truelove Interviews Pooyan Mehrshahi (listen here).

This episode shares an interview posted to Robert Truelove's youtube channel on May 16, 2019 and is shared with his permission (watch the video here). Pooyan Mehrshahi is pastor of Providence Baptist Chapel in Cheltenham, England (listen to his sermons and teaching here). He is also engaged in ministry to Farsi speaking people through the Parsa Trust (look here and here).

The podcast addresses the challenge made by some modern text advocates that adoption of the confessional text means the supposed abandonment of meaningful apologetics, especially with Muslims. Pastor Pooyan ably points out that this challenge is groundless, and, in fact, it is the modern critical text position that proves problematic in apologetics.

Enjoy! JTR

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Vision (5.17.19): Confessing Thomas

Image Roses, North Garden, Virginia, May 2019.

Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on John 20:24-31.

The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print [typos] of the nails, and put my finger into the into the print [typos] of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).

And Thomas answered and said unto him, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

We know the disciple Thomas as “Doubting Thomas” because of the skepticism he expressed when his fellow disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord” (John 20:25).

Thomas had not been present on that first Lord’s Day evening when Christ “stood in the midst” as they assembled behind closed doors (v. 19). He was incredulous. Sometimes modern people suggest that the whole reason Christianity took root in the first century is because the people of that age were simply religiously naïve, superstitious, and unsophisticated. They didn’t have our modern refinement and rationalism. But people are people, in the first century as now. They have reason and common sense, drawn from ordinary experience. They knew then as we know now that dead men stay dead. It is unsurprising then that Thomas did not immediately believe the report of his fellows.

We have the expression, seeing is believing. In Thomas’s case seeing and touching is believing. He said he wanted verifiable, empirical evidence of the reality of the resurrection, or he would remain in unbelief about it.

Then, on the second Lord’s Day evening, Christ again “stood in the midst” of the disciples and invited Thomas to place his finger in his nail pierced hands, and his hand in his riven side (vv. 26-27). He gave Thomas the exhortation: “and be not faithless, but believing [kai mē ginou apistos, allas pistos]” (v. 27).

Thomas then answered, “My Lord [kurios] and my God [theos]” (v. 28). This is a truly amazing statement. It anticipates the classic confessions: Jesus is Lord (cf. Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3; Phil 2:11), and: Jesus is God (cf. John 10:30; Rom 9:5; Titus 2:13; 1 Tim 3:16).

We live in an age in which doubt is promoted as a virtue. Some might see Thomas as exhibiting this “noble” quality. Indeed there are no questions that are too big for us to bring to our God.

The narrative, however, does not end with Thomas’s doubt but with his confession: My Lord and my God. Thus, in the end, he should not be known as “Doubting Thomas” but as “Confessing Thomas.”

Christ now exhorts us, as he did Thomas: “Be not faithless, but believing.”

Let us not be doubters but confessors, to the glory of Christ!

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Eusebius, EH.2.18: Philo of Alexandria

A new installment is posted to the series on Eusebius of Caesarea’s The Ecclesiastical History: book 2, chapter 18 (listen here).

Notes and Commentary:

Eusebius here surveys the various writings of the respected Jewish philosopher, stateman, and author Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC-AD 50), a rough contemporary of both Jesus and Paul.

He notes that Philo wrote on various spiritual and mundane topics, including allegorical expositions of the Hebrew Bible.

He again notes Philo’s famed trip to Rome during the reign of Caius Caesar (Caligula) and also notes that during the reign of Caius’s successor, Claudius, Philo described Caligula's impiety in an ironically titled work “Concerning Virtues”, which he read before the Senate.

He also notes Claudius’s expulsion of Jews from Rome, a detail noted in Acts 18:2 that led to Aquila and Priscilla being in Corinth, where they became hosts to Paul.

Eusebius has a high view of the book of Acts, referring to it as “sacred Scripture.”


Friday, May 10, 2019

The Vision (5.10.19): Christ Stood in the Midst

Image: Rhododendron, North Garden, Virginia, May 2019
Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on John 20:19-23.
Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you (John 20:19).
In Christ’s appearance to his disciples on the first resurrection Sunday evening, we have a pattern for what still happens in the assemblies of God’s people.
Admittedly, Christ is not present physically now as he was in that forty-day period after his resurrection and before his ascension, but he is nonetheless present by means of the Spirit.
When we gather as God’s people, Christ stands in our midst. We cannot see him, hear him, touch him, but he is not less present. Our winsomeness as an assembly comes not through who we are but through the one who stands in our midst.
There is something more powerful that happens when we come together than when any of us is alone in private devotion.
Christ offers peace to us, as he promised his original disciples in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’
He also gives us proofs and evidences of the truth and reality of who he is and what he has done. On that first Lord’s Day evening “he shewed unto them his hands and his side” (John 20:20) Now, he gives us proofs by the reading and preaching of his Word.
On that first Lord’s Day evening he commissioned his disciples, “as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (John 20:21). He still sends us out into the world to be his witnesses. He also gives us, as he did the first disciples, the Holy Spirit to empower our ministry (John 20:22).
Finally, he reminds us of the authority granted to us as the church founded by the apostles on Christ the chief cornerstone: to announce forgiveness of sin and to evaluate and condemn sin that is retained (cf. John 20:23).
We are still assembling on the first day of the week, and Christ is still coming to stand in our midst.
Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Book Review posted: Modern English Version (MEV)

My review of the Modern English Version (MEV) appears in the latest issue of the Midwestern Journal of Theology, Vol. 18 No. 1 (Spring 2019): 129-135.

I have posted a pdf of the review to my page (read it here).

I also posted a spoken word version of the review to (listen here).

I had also discussed the MEV in WM 108.


Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Eusebius, EH.2.16-17: Mark, Philo, and the Therapeutae

Image: Modern entrance to the Coptic Orthodox Monastery of St. Anthony in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. It is considered by many to be the oldest Christian monastery in the world, founded c. 251.

A new installment is posted to the series on Eusebius of Caesarea’s The Ecclesiastical History: book 2, chapters 16-17 (listen here).

Notes and Commentary:

Eusebius begins by relaying the tradition that Mark was the first to take the gospel to Alexandria, Egypt, before he went to Rome to be with Peter and to compose his Gospel.

Eusebius then draws on Philo of Alexandria’s work On the Contemplative Life and his description of the Therapeutae, an ascetic spiritual group near Alexandria.

Eusebius claims that the Therapeutae were, in fact, a Christian sect. Like the early Christians described in Acts they gave up their possessions and held their goods in common in order to follow their “philosophy.” He describes their practices of fasting and their allegorical interpretations of their Scriptures. He assumes their sacred Scriptures to have included the Gospels, the writings of the Apostles, and expositions of the prophets, like those found in Hebrews (which he assumes was written by Paul). He emphasizes the extremes of their fasting with some not eating for three days or barely eating over six days.

Eusebius acknowledges that some might be skeptical of his claim that the Therapeutae were Christians. Indeed, most would see them as a Jewish sect.

He further notes that men and women lived separately and practiced chastity. They also followed patterns (like fasting and keeping vigils to celebrate “the Passion of the Savior”) and practices, which Eusebius says, were still followed by Christians in his day.

Though his claims that the Therapeutae were Christians seems dubious, the description shows the developing interest in early Christianity in monasticism and ascetical spiritual practices like chastity and fasting.


Sunday, May 05, 2019

Eusebius, EH.2.13-15: Simon the Sorcerer, Peter, and Mark

A new installment has been posted to the series on Eusebius of Caesarea’s The Ecclesiastical History: book 2, chapters 13-15 (listen here).

Notes and Commentary:

Eusebius here focuses on a tradition of Simon the Samaritan sorcerer, a false convert from Acts 8:9-25 as an arch-heretic who eventually settled in Rome.

He describes Simon as a demon-possessed magician who was fancied a god by his followers. He suggests that a statue to him was raised in Rome. Lake notes that Eusebius is likely in error here, suggesting that the statue, discovered in 1574, was inscribed not “to Simon a holy god” but “to the god Semo Sanctus” [Semo Sanctus being a Sabine deity].

Simon’s companion was a woman named Helena, whom Eusebius suggests was a former prostitute and whom Simon called the “First Idea” from him [a pseudo-Platonic or Gnostic concept].

Eusebius cites Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons as his sources for these traditions of Simon as “the first author of all heresy.”

He notes that the false practices of Simon and Helena includes being “thrown into marvel” [ecstatic spiritual experiences] and indecent sexual conduct.

If Simon was the arch-villain, the hero was Peter, the leader of the Apostles, who came to Rome “like a noble captain of God” to preach the gospel and refute heresy.

He suggests that the Romans encouraged Mark, “Peter’s follower,” to compose the Gospel of Mark, written in Rome and commended by the Apostle. He also cites Papias for the tradition of Mark being written in Rome and his reference to Mark in 1 Peter 5:13, as well as the reference there to “Babylon” as a code term for Rome.


Friday, May 03, 2019

The Vision (5.3.19): Mary Magdalene: Apostle to the Apostles

Image: Irises, North Garden, Virginia, May 2019

Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on John 20:9-18.

John 20:17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God and your God. 18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.

The first resurrection appearance was to Mary Magdalene (cf. Mark 16:9).

Christ’s word to Mary Magdalene In John 20:17 constitute one of the most intriguing and perhaps difficult to understand statements of the risen Jesus. Ryle says, “No doubt the language is somewhat mysterious and ought to be delicately and reverently handled.”

Why did the risen Christ ask Mary not to touch him?

What is this reference to his ascending to the Father? Was there a preliminary ascension to the Father after his resurrection and a return to appear for forty days before his final ascension?

Was Mary as a woman disciple and non-apostle forbidden to touch him, while only the twelve were given the privilege of handling his body, including touching hid wounds, as Thomas did (see 20:27)?

What is being conveyed here?

It is unlikely that this is a reference to “two ascensions” since such a thing is not mentioned anywhere else in the Scriptures.

Many take the point as being simply to communicate to Mary not that he could not be touched at all but that his body had been changed. This is no longer his earthly body but his heavenly, resurrection body. His physical presence in their midst is only temporary, until such time as he ascends to be seated at the right hand of the Father. It thus points forward to the reality of the age in which we now live as disciples, wherein we cannot physically touch Christ with the hand, hear him with the ear, see him with the eye, and yet we do hear his voice in the Word, and we believe.

Christ then commissions Mary to go to the apostles and to tell them both of his resurrection and his ascension.

Mary obeyed this command (v. 18). This is an evidence of her faithfulness, for which she was remembered by the early Christians and often called by them, “the apostle to the apostles.”

In appearing first to Mary Magdalene Christ, in part, demonstrated the importance and value of women disciples. Women were not called to be apostles. They are not called today to be elders or deacons. But they are called to believe in the resurrection, to obey Christ, and to serve the Lord in their own spheres of influence.

So, let us learn from Mary and grow in our obedience.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Eusebius, EH.2.11-12: The Delusion of Theudas

Image: Modern view of the Jordan River

A new installment has been posted to the series on Eusebius of Caesarea’s The Ecclesiastical History: book 2, chapters 11-12 (listen here).

Notes and Commentary:

Eusebius here makes reference to the speech of Gamaliel in Acts 5, in which the respected teacher describes a contemporary uprising under a man named Theudas that eventually came to nothing (see Acts 5:34-36). Gamaliel’s conclusion is that if the nascent Christian movement is not of God it will come to nothing, but if it is of God one can do nothing to stop it (Acts 5:38-39).

Eusebius compares the account in Acts with that in Josephus, describing how the Roman governor Fadus sent a squad a cavalry to attack Theudas’s followers at the Jordan river and killed many, including Theudas himself.

This is a reminder of the uncertain political times in which Jesus and the apostles lived and how the Romans would have treated religious movements they saw as a threat.

Eusebius closes by making mention of the famine in Judea at the time of Claudius, recorded by Josephus and also mentioned by Luke in Acts 11. He notes Josephus’s mention of Queen Helena of the nation of Adiabene, to which, he says, monuments still exist outside Aelia (Jerusalem). This reference to Jerusalem as Aelia is a reminder of that city’s destruction by the Romans and eventual re-naming after two unsuccessful revolts (AD 66-70 and AD 132-136 [the Bar Kochba Revolt]).

Eusebius continues to use Josephus to affirm the historical reliability of Acts.

His description of Theudas is also a reminder of the volatile times in which Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire.