The Passion Week provides diverse theological emotions for the people of God. Palm Sunday commences with the entrance of a divine King riding on a donkey. He comes in ancient royal transportation. The royal procession illicit shouts of benediction, but concludes only a few days later with shouts of crucifixion as the king is hung on a tree.
The Church also celebrates Maundy Thursday as our Messiah provides a new commandment to love one another just as He loved us. The newness of the commandments is not an indication that love was not revealed prior (Lev. 19), but that love is now incarnate in the person of love, Jesus Christ. We then proceed to sing of the anguish of that Good Friday as our blessed Lord is humiliated by soldiers and scolded by the offensive words of the religious leaders of the day. As he walks to the Mount, his pain testifies to Paul’s words that he suffered even to the point of death (Phil. 2). But hidden in this glaringly distasteful mixture of blood, vinegar, and bruised flesh is the calmness of the day after our Lord’s crucifixion.
The Church calls this day Blessed Sabbath or more commonly, Holy Saturday. On this day, our Lord reposed (rested) from his accomplishments. Many throughout history also believe that Holy Saturday is a fulfillment of Moses’ words:
God blessed the seventh day. This is the blessed Sabbath. This is the day of rest, on which the only-begotten Son of God rested from all His works . . .(Gen. 2:2)
The Church links this day with the creation account. On day seven Yahweh rested and enjoyed the fruit of his creation. Jesus Christ also rested in the rest given to him by the Father and enjoyed the fruits of the New Creation he began to establish and would be brought to light on the next day.
As Alexander Schmemann observed:
Now Christ, the Son of God through whom all things were created, has come to restore man to communion with God. He thereby completes creation. All things are again as they should be. His mission is consummated. On the Blessed Sabbath He rests from all His works.
Holy Saturday is a day of rest for God’s people; a foretaste of the true Rest that comes in the Risen Christ. The calmness of Holy Saturday makes room for the explosion of Easter Sunday. On this day, we remember that the darkness of the grave and the resting of the Son were only temporary for when a New Creation bursts into the scene the risen Lord of glory cannot contain his joy, and so he gives it to us.
For look she did, “and saw two angels in white, sitting, the one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.” Why is it that one was sitting at the head, and the other at the feet? Was it, since those who in Greek are called angels are in Latin nuntii [in English, news-bearers], that in this way they signified that the gospel of Christ was to be preached from head to foot, from the beginning even to the end? a
The Church celebrates the Ascension of our Lord this Thursday. Since most churches are not able to have Thursday services, traditionally many of them celebrate Ascension on Sunday.
The Ascension of Jesus is barely mentioned in the evangelical vocabulary. We make room for his birth, death, and resurrection, but we tend to put a period where God puts a comma.
If the resurrection was the beginning of Jesus’ enthronement, then the ascension is the establishment of his enthronement. The Ascension activates Christ’s victory in history. The Great Commission is only relevant because of the Ascension. Without the Ascension the call to baptize and disciple would be meaningless. It is on the basis of Jesus’ enthronement at the right-hand of the Father, that we image-bearers can de-throne rulers through the power and authority of our Great Ruler, Jesus Christ.
The Ascension then is a joyful event, because it is the genesis of the Church’s triumph over the world. Further, it defines us as a people of glory and power, not of weakness and shame. As Jesus is ascended, we too enter into his ascension glory (Col. 3:1) This glory exhorts us to embrace full joy. As Alexander Schmemann once wrote:
“The Church was victorious over the world through joy…and she will lose the world when she loses its joy…Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy.”
But this joy is given to us by a bodily Lord.
We know that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. He is ruling and reigning from his heavenly throne. He has given the Father the kingdom, and now he is preserving, progressing, and perfecting his kingdom. He is bringing all things under subjection.
We know that when he was raised from the dead, Jesus was raised bodily. But Gnostic thinking would have us assume that since Jesus is in heaven he longer needs a physical body. But the same Father who raised Jesus physically, also has his Son sitting beside him in a physical body. As one author observed:
Jesus has gone before us in a way we may follow through the Holy Spirit whom he has sent, because the way is in his flesh, in his humanity.
Our Lord is in his incarnation body at the right hand of the Father. This has all sorts of implications for us in worship. We are worshipping a God/Man; one who descended in human flesh and who ascended in human flesh. He is not a disembodied spirit. He is truly God and truly man.
As we consider and celebrate the Ascension of our blessed Lord, remember that you are worshiping the One who understands your needs, because he has a body just like you; he understands your joy because he has a body just like you.
 Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World. Paraphrased
When I arrived at my local congregation in Pensacola we were using the Revised Common Lectionary. The RCL is a fine Lectionary and provides a wonderful tour of the Scriptures in a three year cycle. But as time went on I realized that the RCL was fond of omitting controversial texts in its cycles. Through the influence of man like Jeffrey Meyers and Jim Jordan I came to realize that there was an alternative Lectionary, namely, the Lutheran Missouri Synod Lectionary (LCMS) who not only dealt with the difficult passages, but also honored Reformation Sunday. We quickly switched to LCMS a few years ago and haven’t looked back.
N.T. Wright also noticed this trend in his own tradition when he wrote the following:
“Whenever you see, in an official lectionary, the command to omit two or three verses, you can normally be sure that they contain words of judgment. Unless, of course, they are about sex.”
Anyone who has been sitting under Lectionary preaching is often more aware of the flow of the Biblical text since the sermons/homilies cover more territory in a year (on a typical year I will give my parishioners an overview of at least 10-15 books of the Bible. This has been my experience. On the other hand, Sunday School lessons can cover a more long term expository-based look into the Scriptures. Our former Sunday School teacher, James Jordan, spent over 30 Sundays on the “Exodus” themes in the Bible. Naturally, preachers are not bound to the Lectionary Lessons (especially during the Pentecost/Trinity Season). Certain times of the year may demand a more personalized sermons to address particular needs or concerns in the congregation.
As for the Lectionary, when it is not hindered by theological fears, it can serve as a remarkable immersion and re-immersion into the Scriptures every three years. It is incumbent upon pastors as they invest on these texts to provide a clear and fresh perspective on these narratives. Repetition is good. And the constant working through the broadness of the Gospel story can be a fruitful liturgical work.
Pastors too benefit greatly from it. As I navigate through the high church year (Advent-Easter) it is always encouraging to detail and consider these marvelous gospel texts that shape our faith and even our own lives.
I had the opportunity to meet Dave Hunt on a couple of occasions. I sat attentively in one of his talks where he opposed Calvinism. If my memory serves me right, he said something like this:
I was amazed at what I discovered when I deeply researched Roman Catholicism. I came to the conclusion that it is not a Christian Church. I could not believe how much falsehood they affirmed. But I was even more deeply amazed when I began researching Calvinism. It is a web a lies. It causes people to trust in the philosophies of men rather than in the Word of God.
In those days I had been reading through Norman Geisler’s Chosen, but Free. I thought it was a good response to the Calvinist claims. I even taught a Sunday School class in a Baptist Church following that paradigm. I now see Geisler’s treatise as the blending of a schizophrenic philosophy with a high dose of mis-characterized Calvinism.
A few years later Dave Hunt came to town (Tampa Bay) to lecture on this supposed highly problematic doctrine. This was before the publishing of What Love is This? Even then, I had already imbibed of a good dose of Tulip Theology thanks to Michael Horton’s Putting Amazing Back Into Grace. Hunt’s lecture was filled with silly analogies, and my zealous Calvinism saw it for what it was.
Years earlier I had read some of Hunt’s prophetic literature and found it compelling, especially when he combined the false teachings of cults with the coming anti-Christ. He portrayed the world and its future in such dark categories that it was easy to adopt a pessimistic eschatology. In his latter years, Hunt continued his eschatology talks, but focused his attention on his crusade against Calvinism, or as one endorsement referred to it as the “abuses of Calvinism.”His talks and radio show, and the endorsement of almost the entirety of the well-known Calvary Chapel movement made him an anti-Calvinist rock star.
The reason for this short piece is that Dave Hunt died yesterday. It is common courtesy to extend sympathy to memory of those who have died in Christ. I especially wish peace on his wife Ruth and other family members. Hunt offered some very helpful apologetic material early on. He lived a fruitful professional life. Unfortunately to those of us in the Reformed community, Hunt offered some very unwise counsel. His dispensational prophetic interests created–in my estimation–a distorted expectation in the Christian Church. Many have bought into a misguided eschatology and have as a result offered a poor apologetic for the role of the Church in the culture, and the clear biblical vision of bringing all things in submission to King Jesus.
So as one more important piece of dispensational history departs to the presence of our blessed Lord–and Dave Hunt, in my limited knowledge of him loved His Lord Jesus Christ–let us move history into better theological pastures. Let’s raise a generation of optimistic thinkers who battle cults, but then offer a strong apologetic–a Trinitarian one–to fight it. And as we do so, let us not use our cult apologetic to justify or validate our doomsday theology.
And on the Calvinism front, may God raise gentle Calvinists who will argue for grace from the foundation of grace. When we do so, let us also represent our Arminian brothers with utmost respect.
Collin Hansen wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition entitled Should You Cancel Good Friday? which has brought to the attention of many a conversation they have never had before. What is Lent? Why celebrate it?
As a committed Protestant, I am committed to the Church Calendar, not because I want to be a slave to it, but because I am aware of its inevitability. We all follow some calendar. The question is which calendar? I ask that question because Protestantism is grounded in a Trinitarian view of the world. In its best expression it does not isolate ideas; it brings ideas together to form a coherent system.
I suggest that Lent is highly Trinitarian. As the Trinity is a communion of love, so Lent provides a means to express that love to one another in the community. Where sins are confronted and battled, there you find a vigorous Trinitarian community and vision. Lent is service to the community by giving us a season of determined battle against sin for the sake of our neighbors.
It offers a vision of history that undergirds the biblical history and that reflects the normal routines, liturgies, and rituals of human beings. Lent is a form of restructuring our lives. All Christians need a re-structuring of order in their own lives. All Christians need to re-balance and re-form areas where there is disproportionate indifference. We all undergo a Psalmic journey of lamentation and feasting. Lent draws us into this journey.
In essence, Lent reveals the God who suffers in the Person of Jesus Christ. God’s image-bearers are formed from the dust of a fallen Adam to the glorification of the risen Final Adam. To disconnect Lent from the Church Calendar is to disparage history.
It is true we live in the age of an ascended Lord, but this same Lord guides a Church that is still broken, suffering, and healing from brokenness and suffering again and again. The removal of Lent is to proclaim an over-realized eschatology.
It is true that Lent can be abused, and history teaches us that it has. But it is also true, as Luther so memorably stated, “the abuse of something is not an argument against its proper use.” So if Lent can be proven to be profitable, then is there a legitimate way to benefit from it without falling into some its former abuses. Protestant Christians are not bound by Romish structures of food or rituals. We use wisdom in forming healthy habits for a Church and individuals while not binding the Church or the individual to a particular habit.
Lent and Wilderness
Lent teaches us that Satan’s gifts are easy to master. They come with first grade instruction manuals. They are made to be mastered quickly and enjoyed rapidly (fornication, drugs, alcohol; various temptations). God’s gifts are a little harder to master. They require self-control and patience. They anticipate spiritual growth; they demand a kingly attitude to grasp kingly wisdom. God’s instructions mean you have to seek others in the community to understand them properly. You have to exercise and express a theology of patience built into a theology of blessings.
In the wilderness, a garden stripped of colors, fruit, and water, Jesus faced the devil again in a re-match. He knew well that temptation had a triumphant history of subtly winning arguments. Jesus wasted no time and rebuked temptation. just like He would do with the demons and the demonic-like religious teachers of the day.
We are not to sit in temptation’s classroom. God already said we are to flee it; to rebuke it with the only source of authority that is permanent and stamped with divine truth.
The Church finds herself in a wilderness scenario. She is stripped of her former glory. But she is destined to journey from glory to glory like her Lord and Master. As in Luke four, we need to sit in Yahweh’s school house. We need to be instructed by the two-edged sword that muzzles the Tempter and tells him to not come back again. He is not welcome and neither are his offers.
Lent offers us a 40 day class on temptations and the glories and rewards of resisting it.
But Why 40 Days?
Lent follows the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. His fasting for 40 days speaks to the evil and the hardness of heart of the Israelites who succumbed to the Serpent’s whispers. So as the Church walks with Jesus from wilderness to Golgotha she re-lives the messianic journey. The 40 days are symbolic for that wilderness testing, and as a result it is chronologically set before the Great Paschal Feast, commonly referred to as Easter.
Should Lent be Observed?
Ligon Duncan and others in the Southern Presbyterian tradition argue that Lent has a history based on merit. Lent was a way to earn something. The Reformation fixed this soteriological error, and therefore Lent is no longer to be observed.
Duncan and others also go on to say that celebrating Easter and Christmas offer no such harm (he also believes that a National Holiday like Thanksgiving is also a uniquely American holiday to be celebrated). There is no doubt Easter and Christmas, and even Thanksgiving–to a lesser degree–offer wonderful benefits. But the question and the opening presupposition is that Lent is not biblical therefore it should not be practiced in the Church. If that is the case, then the question is not whether one day (or Season) is more beneficial than the other, but rather is it explicitly stated in the Bible or not? If the “explicit reference” argument is used, then Duncan will have to conclude that this is faulty reasoning.
I concur with Vance Freeman that “each of his (Duncan’s) reasons for not observing Lent are undercut by the observance of Christmas and Easter.” Mr. Freeman also concludes:
The biggest threat to Christianity today is not the church in Rome, or that Americans are prone to elevate traditional Christian rituals, like Lent, over discipleship. The biggest threat to the church is that our rituals are increasingly only secular ones. We are Americans before we are Christians. Super Bowl Sunday not only competes with the Lord’s Day, it dominants it. And when we relegate the Christian life to a mere facet of our American lives we fall into Moral Therapeutic Deism.
The formation of godly habits is the issue at hand. In other words, is there an adequate time of the year where the Church should have an explicit focus on the cross of Jesus and how that cross must shape our understanding of sin? Is there room for setting aside a season for a cruciform hermeneutic? I believe there is.
As Peter Leithart so ably summarizes:
Lent is a season for taking stock and cleaning house, a time of self-examination, confession and repentance. But we need to remind ourselves constantly what true repentance looks like. “Giving up” something for Lent is fine, but you keep Lent best by making war on all the evil habits and sinful desires that prevent you from running the race with patience.
If this is true, then Lent serves an enormously important role in the life of the Christian. Naturally, to quote Luther’s first thesis, “the Christian life is a life of daily repentance.” A faithful understanding of the Lord’s Service provides that for us weekly. However, an extended period where our sins are deeply brought to our attention by the preaching of the Word and prayer (and fasting) are regularly considered, practiced and meditated upon can provide great benefits for all Christians on each Lord’s Day and throughout the week.
The legalism concern is legitimate. We are all tempted to fall into this trap, but it does not have to be so. If we view Lent as a time to additionally focus our attention on mortifying our sins and killing those habits that so easily entangle us, we can then consider the cross in light of the resurrection, not apart from it. If we do so, Lent will become legalism’s greatest enemy and repentance’s best friend.
As King, he fought for us, as Priest he offered himself for us. When he fought for us, he seemed indeed to be conquered, but in reality he conquered; for he was crucified, and by his cross, whereon he was nailed, he slew the devil, and thereby is he our King. ~ St. Augustine
St. Augustine observes that the psalmist can only speak of mercy/love enduring forever and it cannot be time bound “since for this purpose His present mercy is over men, that they may live with the Angels for ever.”
The significance of the “Peter Saying” and what Jesus says to Him.
This Peter saying is significant in the post-apostolic years. It has been controversial — the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome vs. the bishops of other cities. In the very primitive word, the Peter saying was simply a saying that was fulfilled in the Acts of Apostles. Look at Acts, and you will see this saying fulfilled. Tertullian 155-220AD: These words have nothing to do with anyone else but Peter. He is trying to stop the argument of apostolic succession. They refer to Peter, personally. They focus on Peter as an individual believer, at most as a representative of believers but not as an individual to be succeeded. Peter as the first of a series is already current in the church.
Origen: He believed in the spiritual meaning of the text, and said that it applies to the those who share the same role. As to the letter, it describes Peter’s role in the church in the spirit.
Cyprian 200-258AD: He argues that the words refer to Peter as a representative of the disciples not in distinction from them. He is not an isolated individual, but as one from the rest of the apostles. He says that these words imply a particular Petrine authority but sees that authority as being expressed in Peter not as an exclusive member but inclusive member. Thus, Peter’s authority guarantees the authority that belongs to all the apostles. Thus, the authority of the bishop of Rome must be shared with the other bishops.
Augustine late 4th and 5th : Later in life, he believed that the “rock ” is Jesus himself.
Luther: Jesus is saying that Peter is the rock-man because he recognized the true rock. Luther is both having his cake and eating it too.
Calvin: …whose exegetical skills are better than Luther’s, sees an implied contrast between this motley lot, and what the Lord is going to build (the church). Basically, he was saying that on a modest lot such as Peter, he would build his church. From this little confession, will come a great Church. It has in view the faith of all Christians shared in common with Peter and his Redemptive Historical preeminence…
Harmony of the Gospels 2, p186. On the one hand Peter’s confessed faith is in view here, but we cannot deny the Redemptive Historical context here as well.