Sunday, March 9, 2014

Stopped dead in his tracks...

1st Sunday in Lent 2013
Psalm 2    2 Corinthians 6:1-10    Matthew 4:1-11
The Ascent of the King
My brother once challenged me to a race. He had timed himself while running a certain number of laps around our house and wanted to see if I could do any better. Obviously, I rose to the challenge and began to run as if the devil himself was behind me. Apparently, my brother realized that I was going to win and so he ambushed me as I took the final corner – he hit me in the head with a wooden golf club. He stopped me, quite literally in my tracks, from achieving what I was determined to do.

 This is something similar to what is going on in our readings for today. Regardless of how the world may rage, how the devil may tempt us, and how the adverse circumstances of life may try to trip us up, satan himself has been dealt a blow to the head and although his advance has not been stopped, it has been checked, and the gates of his dark lair are no longer able to resist the onslaught of the advancing Church.

Previously we saw that Psalms 1 and 2 form an introductory unit to the whole Psalter. As such, they set the tone and theme for the entire collection, namely that in order to be blessed, one is to depend solely on the God who alone reigns as supreme Monarch over all that he created. This theme of God’s kingdom is one of the great themes of Scripture, from start to finish, as the divinely inspired authors and editors wrote and compiled their material in such a way as to point out that rebellion against God as universal King only leads to destruction. Starting with the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, the Scriptures trace the lives of various biblical characters who either prosper because they submit themselves to the rule of God or who are crushed under the weight of their own stubborn resistance to His reign. The latter category are those who set out to challenge their Creator and who are, in one way or another, and at some time or another, divinely dealt with.

The authorship of Psalm 2 is ascribed to King David by the Early Christians in Acts 4 where they quote the Psalm in reference to the united forces of the Jews and Gentiles against Christ in His trial and crucifixion. Indeed, this Psalm is often quoted in the New Testament because of its Messianic claims and because of its vision of His universal rule. It is most often considered to be a coronation Psalm spoken or chanted when the eternal covenant between God and the House of David was renewed each time the new descendant of the Davidic dynasty ascended to the throne. So, the words, “You are My Son”, would then mark the renewal of the covenant in the person of the newly crowned king. 

Thus, if we are correct in assuming that the Book of Psalms in its present Canonical form was compiled some time during or after the Babylonian exile, at which time the Davidic dynasty seemed to be a thing of the past, the significance of this Psalm as an introduction to the rest of the collection may highlight the post-exilic hope that one day, God would restore His promises to David at the coronation of one of his descendants…a restoration the New Testament claims was fulfilled in the Person of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus the Christ. In the words of the Archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary; “He shall be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the House of Jacob forever, and of His Kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33)

The Psalm itself dives right into the deep end of life in a fallen, broken world with a question of amazed astonishment at the pointless and futile rejection of God’s rule through His anointed and appointed ruler. “Why?” the Psalmist asks, ‘why would anyone dare to rise up against the One Who is and always will be Lord?” If King David is the author of this Psalm, it may be that he is recalling the period of time between his anointing as king at the hands of Samuel and his actual ascendance to the throne after the death of his predecessor and persecutor, King Saul. The young David, who was and yet was not king, may have marveled at the fury of Saul and others who sought to bring an untimely end to his existence…and perhaps he pondered on the futility of resisting what God had already clearly ordained. Whether or not this is the case, there does seem to be a tension between the now and the not yet…between the appointment of God’s ruler over the world and the final subjugation of all the nations under his feet. Perhaps the shadow of the reign of David’s greater Son can be seen here in that Jesus was, indeed, enthroned at the right hand of God (Hebrews 10:12), having received all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18-20), having led captivity captive (Ephesians 4:8), having disarmed principalities and powers, having made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in the cross (Colossians 2:15), and yet He is still to reign for a protracted period of time before all His enemies are finally placed under His feet (Acts 3:21; 1 Corinthians 15:24-25). Satan's advance has been checked, even though not quite stopped...

As I have alluded to before, one of the central themes of Scripture is the Kingdom of God. This can be seen right from the beginning in that the first humans were created in the image of God to be God's vice-regents in the ruling of God’s world. Ultimately, of course, God alone is the universal King, but Adam and Eve were to exercise dominion as representatives of their Divine Monarch. However, they failed in their task because, unlike Jesus (whom the New Testament portrays as the 2nd Adam), they chose to follow the word of the enemy and would be usurper rather than the word of their one true King. This can perhaps be illustrated by an ambassador who has been appointed by the authorities to represent the interests of his country elsewhere, and who yet chooses to turn traitor and side with an enemy. Nevertheless, this idea of God’s reign in and through a human representative resurfaces time and again throughout the Scriptures, but especially during the period of the monarchy in which the joint-kingship of God and man can be seen most clearly. Unlike the kings of the pagan nations, the king of Israel was not free to rule as he pleased, but was governed and judged by God’s Word, by God’s Law…and he was, himself, to govern and judge God’s people using the same Word, the same Law. In this sense he was God’s son – a term used by God Himself to describe His relationship with King David’s son, Solomon – because he was considered a human (not a divine or even quasi-divine) extension or expression of the Divine will on earth.

It is probably because of God’s universal reign that the jurisdiction of His earthly representative, in this case, David and his descendants, is portrayed in terms of a world-wide authority. This ideal, however, only became a reality in the Person of Jesus as we have already seen. But what is important for us to note here, is that the humanity – the human nature – of our Lord is an essential part of God’s creation arrangement for a Man to rule over the world. This is why the New Testament writers are anxious to show that Jesus is, humanly speaking, both a descendant of the 1st Adam, and well as a descendant of the royal lineage of King David, a lineage that was divinely decreed to be eternal. This is why Paul refers to Jesus as the Second Adam and why other New Testament authors refer to Jesus as the Son of David – Jesus is the reality of which Adam and David were but shadows. The genealogical records of Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was at once both the son of Adam and the son of David. All four Gospels also tell us that Jesus died and rose again to life everlasting because death could not hold the sinless Son of God. Thus Jesus is not only entitled to the throne to reign over God’s world, but He is also, unlike His human predecessors, well able to rule for all eternity because of His divine nature – because He is God.

It is interesting to note that after the demise of the monarchy during and after the Babylonian exile, the prophets began to predict a future new covenant with the House of David that would essentially involve the ascent of a descendant of David to the throne. Just as the young King David no doubt pondered on the interim period between his anointing by Samuel and the death of King Saul as well as the subjugation of various enemies before he actually was enthroned as king, so too the exilic and post-exilic prophets contemplated the nature of the renewed kingdom. How was God going to restore the monarchy?

We are not sure whether they envisioned a divine King as such – most commentators seem to think this is doubtful – even though the biblical authors and characters often used terms that would normally be applied only to God, such as ‘Almighty’ and ‘Mighty God’ – and even though both Elizabeth and Mary referred to the Child in the womb as ‘Lord’ – most assume that this may merely reflect the joint-kingship of God and his representative ruler. So while we are not sure of what they had in mind, what was certain in the mind of the author of the 2nd Psalm was that regardless of the fury of the nations and their plotting and scheming against God and his anointed, nothing would be able to thwart the eternal decree – “I have set My King upon My holy hill of Zion”. In other words, no matter what happened, no matter how hopeless things might appear to be, God would fulfill his promise to King David and restore his royal house to the throne.

In the light of this prophetic Messianic hope, imagine then how startling the message of both John the Baptist and Jesus Himself must have seemed to their 1st Century listeners. “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand!” In other words, the time for the fulfillment of the Messianic hope had dawned. Be prepared, for the King is coming!

The words ‘You are My Son’ are used in reference to Jesus not once, but several times in the New Testament. At his baptism (Mark 1:11), his transfiguration (Mark 9:7), with reference to his resurrection (Acts 13:33) and his eternal priesthood (Hebrews 5:5-11). It seems obvious then that John the Baptist, the divinely inspired authors of the Gospels as well as the other New Testament books all believed that in Jesus God was fulfilling his promises to David concerning the eternal nature of his throne.

Once again we must remind ourselves that the Early Church in Acts 4 applied the fury and violent rejection of God and his anointed representative depicted in this Psalm to the participation of Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the Jews in the trial and execution of Jesus. The point that they were attempting to make in quoting from this Psalm in their prayer was that even though the enemies of Christ did their worst and actually crucified the Lord of glory, Jesus did triumph in the end clearly shown in his resurrection and in his ascension to his heavenly throne at the right hand of God – and so, even though these same men (the Sanhedrin in particular and later the Empire of Rome) were now threatening them with violence should they refuse to comply with the order to stop preaching in the name of Jesus – even though they would follow through with their threats – the Church would continue to triumph in their quest to bring God’s world into subjection under his rule. The gates of hell would not, indeed, could not prevail against the advance of God's people...

This eschatological inevitability of divine victory in spite of adversity still remains a source of comfort and hope for the Church today. Many missionaries have been encouraged to take the message of the Gospel to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all nations because of this Psalm. They have also been sustained in their efforts in spite of discouragement and hardship in the field and in spite of rejection, resistance, and, at times, even persecution. Like Paul, they believe that as Christians they are ambassadors for Christ – that they have been given a task to reconcile the world to God through Jesus – and for this reason, they endure temptations, tribulations, needs, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, and all other manners of discomforts, so that, through them, the nations may come to share in the blessing that is ours in Christ.

But there is a further dimension to the reign of Christ in which the continuing rebellion of the world to this day is also addressed. Jesus is King. He does reign presently at the right hand of the Father. But he reigns now ever to place his enemies under his feet. Thus once more, we are confronted with the sense of the now and the not yet, as the climax of his reign remains a future reality. So it is not surprising to see that this Psalm is quoted in the Epistle to the Hebrews as a remedy against discouragement and doubt in the present reign of Christ and that it is quoted frequently in the Book of the Revelation – a book that anticipates the eventual triumph of the God-Man Jesus over all the world.

For this reason, the Psalm ends with a summons issued to all worldly authorities. Their only hope is in their submission to God’s anointed and appointed King. But notice that this final statement is couched in the language of an invitation and not that of an ultimatum. God’s graciousness may yet be resisted, but, if it is, they can be rest assured that their rejection of his mercy will result in their ultimate destruction. They may be determined in their objective to win their battle against the Lord – and it may even seem as if they are succeeding from time to time – but they will be stopped dead in their tracks as surely as if they had been hit in the head with a wooden golf club.

As you partake of the symbols of our Lord’s victory over sin, death, and the devil, recall the words of Martin Luther’s well known hymn. “And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.” Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, has ascended to the eternal throne of his father David – through his sacrificial death he has secured his inheritance of the nations and indeed the ends of the earth and he has dealt a lethal blow to the head of the serpent. He has pierced the dragon and has given us the key to his lair so that we might plunder it. Let us then come to his throne with bold and joyful hearts, and let us leave his throne with confidence, knowing that as he has won the battle, so we shall win the war, for his Kingdom is forever.

© Johann W. Vanderbijl III Lent 2013

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