Monday, June 18, 2018


(Painting: "The Cowherd," by Edouard Debat-Ponsan, 1910)

I'm taking a brief break from blogging while I'm on vacation. Posts will resume on Monday, July 2.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Lord, take my heart, for I cannot give it to you. And when you have it, keep it, for I would not take it from you. And save me in spite of myself, for Christ’s sake.

- François Fénelon

(Painting: "The Repentance of David," by Jan Boeckhorst, c.1655)

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: The Firstborn Lays Aside His Birthright

In Genesis chapter 25, we encounter another story which the New Testament employs as an allegory of certain principles of the Christian faith: Esau selling his birthright to Jacob. The story, told in Gen. 25:29-34, describes how Esau, the older of the twin brothers, came in one day from hunting and, famished from hunger, pledged to give his rights as the firstborn over to Jacob in exchange for some lentil stew. Now, the first thing that jumps out at many readers is the startling implication of this scene, which must mean either (1) that Esau's fondness for lentils, just about the most boring food ever, was a form of clinical insanity, or (2) that Jacob was the best cook the ancient world had ever seen. Or, as an alternate possibility, Esau was simply driven by his passions more than by his reason. This latter interpretation is the one you'll usually hear, but I'd still be curious to see Jacob's lentil recipe someday, because it may just be unthinkably fantastic.

In Romans 9, the apostle Paul uses the broader story of Jacob and Esau to illustrate the sovereign power of God. Though Esau was born first, God's sovereign intention was not thus restrained, and Jacob became the patriarch of God's chosen people Israel. As such, some interpreters in the Christian tradition have seen Esau selling his birthright as a foreshadowing of the way that the Jewish people would forsake their privileged position as the heirs of the covenant by choosing, at least in part, not to follow Christ, who was the fulfillment of their covenant. Indeed, Paul's use of the Esau/Jacob story in Rom. 9 is part of his larger exploration of why so many Israelites (but certainly not all) rejected the new covenant in Christ. Jesus himself is recorded in the Gospels making similar observations about the Jews' rejection of the covenant. Nonetheless, it's important to point out that even though such things are said in Scripture, they provide no warrant at all to antisemitic sentiments or actions--quite the contrary: Paul's discussion in Romans makes it abundantly clear that the loving hope of all Christians ought to be for the Jews to one day enter fully into the glory of the covenant that was prepared for them.

There's another possible foreshadowing, too, and this one doesn't include the distinction between the old and new covenants. Rather, it suggests that this story bears a hint of an important point in our theology of Jesus Christ's nature. Although Esau is a disappointing character in this story's original context, his act hearkens toward something that Jesus himself will do during the incarnation. The idea of a firstborn son laying aside his birthright as if it were not something to be held onto--well, that's an idea that plays out directly in the life of Jesus. In Philippians 2, Paul tells us that rather than seizing all the divine prerogatives of his identity as the "firstborn" Son of God, he "did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant." In theology, this idea is sometimes referred to as the kenosis--the self-emptying of Christ, laying aside his own rights in order to enter the world at our level. He could have come to us with all the glory, power, and sovereign majesty that is his right as the eternal Son of God, but instead he laid it all down so that he could become like us. Though Esau's story derives from a very different context, the outward similarity of his thoughtless act to Christ's intentional humility should draw our minds and our hearts toward the reckless sacrifice of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Like Esau's choice of lentils over his birthright, it's absolutely startling, almost nonsensical. Sometimes we lose sight of just what a staggering thing it is to believe that the ineffable God of the universe set his unbounded majesty aside in order to enter our world as one of us. Esau's story reminds us of the ridiculous, upside-down way that the story of God's appearance defied all reasonable expectation. 

(Painting: "Esau Selling His Birthright," by Hendrick ter Brugghen, c.1627)

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Photo of the Week

Send forth flowers, as the lily, and yield a fragrance, and bring forth leaves in grace, and praise with canticles, and bless the Lord in his works!

- Sirach 39:19 (from the Old Testament Apocrypha)

Monday, June 11, 2018

Quote of the Week

"I have found that there are three stages in every great work of God: first, it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done."

- J. Hudson Taylor, 19th-century British missionary to China and the founder of China Inland Mission

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Let Thy mighty hand, O Lord God, and outstretched arm be our defense; Thy mercy and loving-kindness in Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, our salvation; Thy all-true word, our instruction; the grace of the life-giving Spirit, our consolation, unto the end and in the end.

- John Knox

(Painting: "The Last Judgment," by Jacopo Tintoretto, c.1560)

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: The Sacrifice of the Beloved Son (Part 2 - Symbols of Christ)

Last week we began our study of Genesis 22, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, and I offered some explanations as to why God is asking Abraham to do this awful deed. With those considerations in place, we move to an analysis of the specific symbols within this story. And as we'll see, almost every single line points directly to a fulfillment in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Verse 2, right at the outset of the story, has three such hints. First, God tells Abraham, "Take your son, your only son, whom you love..." This language finds a direct corollary in the way that the New Testament talks about Jesus' relationship with God the Father. This occurs in multiple places, not least at the beginning of the Gospels, when God announces over Jesus' baptism, "This is my Son, whom I love" (Matt. 3:17). This connection is strengthened by considering why God refers to Isaac as Abraham's only son, when Genesis itself shows that Abraham has another biological son, Ishmael (though he is largely disinherited). What is only partly true of Isaac, though, is entirely true of Christ--he is the "one and only Son" (John 1:14). Second, in verse 2 God instructs Abraham to go "to the region of Moriah...on a mountain I will show you." Though the region of Moriah was apparently uninhabited in Abraham's day, we now know that site very well. It refers to the mountains of Jerusalem, the place where the Temple sacrifices for sin would one day be set in place, and where Christ himself would die. The only other reference to Moriah in Scripture is 2 Chronicles 3:1, where it is identified with the mount on which Solomon builds the Temple. Therefore, there is a longstanding tradition that Abraham was led to sacrifice Isaac on what would one day be the Temple Mount. A number of Christian commentators, however, have conjectured that, given the number of symbols pointing to Christ in Gen. 22, it might actually be the case that God led Abraham to a different mountain, although close by: the hill of Calvary, along the ridge in Jerusalem that would come to be known as Zion. After all, Gen. 22:2 specifies a mountain in the region of Moriah, and not necessarily Moriah itself. Given that Isaac's sacrifice is a foreshadowing of the cross, it would be eminently fitting for this drama to be played out upon the heights of Golgotha. Third, verse 2 makes clear that Isaac is to be sacrificed as a "burnt offering," a special kind of sacrificial offering that usually had to do with the remission of sins. Not coincidentally, this is the same exact function that Christ's sacrifice enacts for us.

The symbols continue to come thick and fast. Isaac approaches the region of Jerusalem with a donkey, just as Christ would do (v.3). Abraham sees the place where God is leading him "on the third day," which is an oblique but interesting allusion to the story of Christ's passion (v.4). The accompanying servants are left behind, just as Jesus had to face his passion without the presence of his disciples (v.5). As they ascend the mountain, Isaac himself actually carries the wood for the sacrifice, just as Jesus bears the wood for his own sacrifice (the cross) on the mountain of Golgotha (v.6). Abraham's answer to Isaac's question about the sacrificial lamb, "God himself will provide the lamb," puts the words of holy prophecy in Abraham's own mouth (vv.7-8). Abraham may have just been trying to settle Isaac's spirit by not disclosing the whole truth of the situation, but in so doing, the Holy Spirit speaks through him a profound prophecy that will find its fulfillment in Jesus: God does, in fact, provide the lamb for the sacrifice--Christ, offered up on the cross. The binding of Isaac and his placement atop the wood recall the nailing of Jesus to the cross (v.9).

At this point the Angel of the Lord (which, as we have seen in previous studies, may be the pre-Incarnation Christ himself) interrupts Abraham and keeps him from actually killing Isaac. But the hints pointing to Christ just keep coming, even after Isaac's part of the drama is over. Simply in receiving Isaac back, there is a subtle hint of the resurrection of Jesus, as Heb. 11:19 recognizes: "Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death." Instead of offering Isaac up, God provides a ram, caught by its horns in a thicket, which serves as the sacrifice. It's worth noting that the sacrifice here is substitionary, just as Christ dying on our behalf is an example of substitionary atonement--he takes the place for the death that we should have died. In this way, both Isaac and the ram stand as symbols of Christ. Further, the manner of the ram's appearance--caught in thorns about its head--recall the crown of thorns placed on Jesus' head at the crucifixion. (Some early church fathers even liked to point out that the Greek word for ram, as it appeared in their preferred version of the Old Testament text, sounded remarkably close to the Greek titles for both "Christ" and "Lord"). 

At almost every step of this dramatic story, there is a startlingly clear allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. As such, although the story clearly also serves as a testing of Abraham's faith, many Christian commentators have taken its primary meaning to be a stark and brilliant foreshadowing in the coming redemption that would be enacted on Calvary two thousand years after Abraham.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Photo of the Week

The Lord of all things lives anew,
And all His works are rising too:
Hosanna in excelsis!

- from verse 1 of the hymn "The World Itself Keeps Easter Day," by J. M. Neale

Monday, June 04, 2018

Quote of the Week

“The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for theologians to swim in without ever reaching the bottom.”

- Jerome (Hieronymus), an early church father of the late 4th and early 5th centuries, the translator of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible

(Painting: "Hieronymus," by Jacques Blanchard, 1632)

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

O Lord, we have a busy world around us. Eye, ear, and thought will be needed for all our work to be done in the world. Now ere we again enter upon it we would commit eye, ear, and thought to Thee. Do Thou bless them and keep their work Thine, that as through Thy natural laws our hearts beat and our blood flows without any thought of ours for them, so our spiritual life may hold on its course at those times when our minds cannot consciously turn to Thee to commit each particular thought to Thy service. Hear our prayer for our Redeemer's sake. Amen.

- Thomas Arnold

(Painting: "La Place du Théâtre Français," by Camille Pissarro, 1898)