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A Proposed Parallel

It occurs to me that a parallel exists – an analogy at once instructive and unappreciated – between the preservation of recorded truth (i.e., the Scriptures) and the preservation of received truth (by which I mean orthodoxy, doctrine rightly understood, theology in all of its parts comprehended aright).  Specifically, how has God contrived to preserve the truth He has revealed, both palpably (in the pages of Scripture) and conceptually (in the minds of the Bible-believing community)?

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I have a question for you.  Can you recite the second stanza of Robert Robinson’s ageless hymn, “Come Thou Fount”?  I will get you started, and you see if you can get through all eight lines of the poem.  Here is your clue:

 “Here I raise mine Ebenezer …

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Being an attempt to make full proof of the following proposition:

The writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, but they thought in Hebrew.

The Old Testament thought form

This is a bit of a break from the focus I have tried to maintain in these posts, but I was recently struck by what suggests itself as an Old Testament antecedent to a New Testament reality, and thought it might be worth setting the thought loose in the ether.

The story of Saul, the first king of Israel, is one of the most disappointing narratives in the Bible.  To be sure, because the document to which we go to recover that narrative, 1 Samuel, is primarily an apologetic in defense of the legitimacy of David’s claim to the throne, the impression with which we are left concerning the man Saul is no little bit jaundiced.  The bare facts are these: David is recruited as a young man to play a minor role in the court of Saul (1Sam 16:14-21a); he rises to a place of prominence second only to Saul (1 Sam 16:21b; 18:6, 7); and ultimately he ascends the throne occupied by Saul, thus displacing the house of his master (2 Sam 5:1-5).  All of this could easily lead to the conclusion that David was a seditionist, an unprincipled usurper who had used the privilege and position afforded him to seize for himself that which rightly belonged to his benefactor. The prophetic hand(s) behind the book of 1 Samuel frame(s) the story deliberately to dispel that notion, to demonstrate that David succeeded to the throne of Israel only because God had appointed him to that station. 

To make that point more carefully, the narrative of 1 Samuel casts Saul in a very negative light.  Indeed, the most extensive stories of his life recorded in the book have to do with his two great sins: the intrusion into the office of the priest which eventuated in Saul’s lineage being denied the throne (13:1 – 14:46 esp. 13:13, 14); and the refusal to slay all of the Amalekites which resulted in Saul himself being rejected as king (15:1-35, esp. 26, 35).  After those two sorry chronicles, the narrative turns to David (16:1-13).  To be sure, Saul remains titular king of Israel for some years, but the Spirit is soon taken from him and given to David, and the protection of the land falls to David and his mighty men. 

Two points deserve brief mention in this regard.  First, Saul was a much more effective king than is intuitively acknowledged by the reader of 1 Samuel.  He reigned for 40 years (Ac 13:21); however that is calculated (i.e., does it include the 7 years of the reign of his son, Ish-bosheth?), his was a significant reign.  Further, the synopsis of his reign in 1 Samuel 14:47-52 is impressive. 

Second – and most important with reference to this post – the word of rebuke spoken by Samuel after Saul’s second grand sin may well ramify to the New Testament.  The prophet confronted the king returning from the conquest of the Amalekites, caught that king in a lie when he insisted that he had “performed the commandment of the Lord” (15:13), and then assessed the situation in this remarkable conversation:

   Then Samuel said to Saul, “Be quiet! And I will tell you what the Lord said to me last night.”  And [Saul] said to him, “Speak on.”  So Samuel said, “When you were little in your own eyes, were you not the head of the tribes of Israel?  And did not the Lord anoint you king over Israel?  Now the Lord sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go, and utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do evil in the sight of the Lord?” (15:16-18)

Saul responded with a flurry of self-serving attempts at rationalizing his sin (he is, after all, the greatest excuse-maker of the Old Testament), and then with an outburst of guilty anger against his prophetic accuser. But then Samuel concluded with a chilling message:

“The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today, and has given it to a neighbor of ours, who is better than you.  And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent.  For He is not a man that He should relent.” (15:28, 29).

For our purposes, it is instructive to focus on the prophet’s observation that God could use Saul only so long as he was “little in his own eyes”!

The New Testament Use

Given the rather infamous character of King Saul, it seems curious at first blush that a strict Pharisee of the second temple era would give his son the name, Saul (Ac 23:6). The primary reason was doubtless that this was a name given to many of the men in that family, but that only compounds the apparent anomaly: why would a deliberately Jewish family thus memorialize a man treated so negatively in their own Scripture? But that anomaly is explained when it is recognized, as suggested above, that Saul was in fact a heroic figure in the history of the Jewish people – a flawed hero, to be sure, but a man of some nobility and great significance nonetheless. 

Again, it is curious that Saul of Tarsus, after his conversion, becomes known only as Paul.  That transition takes place rather suddenly in the record.  As Saul commences his ministry to the Gentile world as recorded in the book of Acts, Luke simply refers – almost in passing – to “Saul, who is also called Paul” (13:9).  After that, the apostle is never referred to by Luke as “Saul” in any context, even when the focus is on his life before his conversion. (As I was reminded below, Paul does use His Hebrew name when remembering the experiences surrounding his conversion – Ac 22:7, 13: 26:14.) We are not given any explanation as to why the change occurred, although the almost universal speculation is that Saul’s family had given him both a Jewish and a Gentile name (per the custom of the day with Jews of the diaspora), and that as he began to move among Gentiles he employed that name.  Perhaps!  And yet throughout his ministry, Paul’s habit was to go first of all to the synagogue; in those passages it would perhaps have been appropriate for Luke to use the Hebrew name, but Luke does not refer to the apostle with the Jewish “Saul” even in those narratives.

I wonder if the change was much more deliberate and significant.  After his conversion, Saul must have spent much time re-thinking the Hebrew Scriptures he had always cherished so deeply and studied so carefully.  I wonder if in the course of those contemplations, as again and again he rehearsed the chronicle of his namesake, the significance of that prophetic rebuke – “when you were little in your own eyes” – gripped him so that he settled on a strategy to remind himself day by day of the importance of remembering how little we are before the God of the universe. In short, the connection between Samuel’s rebuke and the name by which Saul is known throughout his ministry – the name Paul, which means “little” – seems too immediate to be accidental.  Paul struggled much against pride (2 Cor 11, 12), and he had much of which he might have been proud (Gal 1:14).  The pattern of King Saul must have served as a powerful warning to the newly converted rabbi who, in the Jewish world in which he had moved all of his life, had exceeded the accomplishments of all who had gone before him. Perhaps the name by which we have come to know and regard this remarkable apostle to the Gentiles, a name which is in fact a perpetual reminder of a God-honoring understanding of who we are even as children of God, was not just a Gentile name assigned him at birth by his family.  Perhaps it was one of the ways in which Paul strategized to avoid falling into the same snare that entrapped both the devil (1 Tim 3:6) and his fondly remembered namesake, King Saul of Israel.

When God Was King

In an earlier blog I mused a bit over the significance of a melancholy anniversary.  I didn’t start out to be quite so contemplative.  Indeed, I intended only to draw attention to a brief excerpt that I have posted elsewhere that concerns the reality and the dimensions of the Theocracy in the Old Testament.  To make sure that doesn’t get lost in the loquacity of that earlier blog, and in an attempt to whet your appetite a bit, here are two sections from that excerpt, here without documentation.

The theocracy is well defined as the “form of government under the sole, accessible Headship of God Himself,” who was “the Supreme Lawgiver in civil and religious affairs . . . and when difficult cases required it . . . the Divine Arbiter or Judge.”  In sum, “the legislative, executive, and judicial power was vested in Him, and partially delegated to others to be exercised under a restricted form.”   Gleig emphasizes that in this arrangement, God “assumed not merely a religious, but a political, superiority, over the descendants of Abraham; He constituted Himself, in the strictest sense of the phrase, King of Israel, and the government of Israel became, in consequence, strictly and literally, a Theocracy.” 

 

That theocratic relationship, formed by Yahweh with Israel, was unique to human history.   Thus, the term should not be taken as descriptive of God’s perpetual rule over all creation; as Oehler insists, “The Old Testament idea of the divine kingship expresses, not God’s general relation of power toward the world (as being its creator and supporter), but the special relation of His government toward His elect people.”   Indeed, there has never been another people who knew God as their King in this immediate and actual sense (Deut 4:7).  Peters makes this point carefully: “The simple fact is, that since the overthrow of the Hebrew Theocracy, God has not acted in the capacity of earthly Ruler, with a set form of government, for any nation or people on earth. . . . the application of the word to any nation or people, or organization since then, is a perversion and prostitution of its plain meaning.

 

I would challenge you to consider carefully the Old Testament reality which students of that portion of God’s Word have often called the Theocracy.  As I say in the longer blog, Absent the reality that there was indeed a period (indeed, a period of over 850 years) when Yahweh ruled as a real, actual, physically present Sovereign King over a nation of people, there is no making sense of what God is doing in the Old Testament and little hope of making sense of what He intends to do in days to come.

Here is a chance to honor your spiritual heritage, to ponder that portion of written revelation which was written for your admonition upon whom the end of the ages has come, and to focus on one of the most important and instructive – if woefully under-appreciated – doctrines of Scripture. Celebrate Purim! Perhaps quietly – in conversation and cogitation more than with costumed children and ratcheted noisemakers.  But in some conscious way that spills over onto the lives of those around you, celebrate Purim.

 

Perhaps you say, “What is Purim?”  Gotcha!  Purim is the Jewish festival that remembers the Esther story.  It is not an “official” Levitical feast; that is, it is not among the shelosh regalim, the three pilgrimage feasts mandated in Leviticus 23.  But the deliverance it remembers was so remarkable and so unlikely that in the biblical record of that deliverance the command was given that two days celebrating the event “should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every clan, province and city” (Est 9:28).  The Feast of Purim, observed this year on March 10th and 11th,  is the way in which the people of Mordecai and Esther have been faithful to that command through the ages and around the globe.

 

I cannot think of a story – fictional or historical, biblical or secular, ancient or modern – which is more attractive or more winsome or more compelling or more delightful than the story of Esther.  There is tension; there is drama; there is character development; there is progression and climax and denouement/resolution; there is moral instruction; there is profoundly satisfying narrative coherence and worth.  It is the perfect novella – the stuff which, in a day far, far away and long ago, would have been irresistible to pre-nihilist Hollywood.

 

So seize the season! Find some time to immerse yourself for a few happy hours in the story of God’s providential intervention on behalf of His people in the days of Ahaseurus.  Set that story in its historical setting.  Be honest with the weaknesses of the central players, as well as their strengths.  With all that the story includes, notice that very significantly it does not include miracle.  (That is central to the point being made.)  Search out something of the way the feast is observed by Jewish folk today. Try to figure out the title of this piece! Ponder what God has for you in the narrative; there is much to be learned and much to share.  But beyond that, it is simply a flat-out fun story.  And so again, celebrate Purim.

There is much discussion – and much confusion – abroad today with regard to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament.  I would not attempt a facile resolution to the many difficult aspects of that issue.  But I would suggest that there is one element of the question which is much overlooked, and without which the broader issues cannot be helpfully pursued.  That element is the very distinctive ministry of the Spirit vouchsafed those assigned positions of leadership in the Theocratic rule of Yahweh over the covenant nation, Israel.  The following is a redacted excerpt from my doctoral dissertation.  It is a brief survey of the appearances of that phenomenon in the narrative of the Old Testament.  A slightly more complete version (with footnotes) can be found on this page.

 

 

It is significant that Joshua is identified as “a man in whom is the Spirit” (Num 27:18).  The reference is to a very important Old Testament ministry of the Holy Spirit, identified as a “special enduement” which “had to do primarily with the regal functions of those who stood as mediators of the divine government of Israel” (McClain).  Bright acknowledges this Holy Spirit enablement as appropriate to the theocratic arrangement, which he defines as “the direct rule of God over his people through his designated representative.”

 

This distinctive ministry, which might be termed a “theocratic anointing,” was a special intervention by the Holy Spirit by which an individual was equipped to fulfill some responsibility pertaining to the theocratic kingdom.  At the inception of the theocratic arrangement between Israel and Yahweh, God’s Spirit enabled craftsmen to manufacture all the accouterments of the nascent levitical system – the tabernacle which would serve as the throne room of King Yahweh, the vestments of the high priest, the implements and utensils to be employed in the sacrificial services.  Those men had lived their entire lives as slaves; they evidently possessed no skill other than making mud bricks.  But the Lord filled them with “the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood” (Exod 31:3-5; cf. 28:3; 31:6-11; 35:31-35; Neh 9:20; Isa 63:11).

 

The theocratic anointing is most often referenced in connection with the individual (or individuals) given the responsibility of ruling over the covenant people in the name of Yahweh.  Although there is no record of the Spirit coming thus upon Moses, implicit evidence of such a ministry can be found.  When the lawgiver grew weary and asked Yahweh for help in judging the people, God told him to select seventy elders, and then promised, “I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you shall not bear it all alone” (Num 11:17, 25, NASB).   Later, Moses momentarily forgot his place and suggested that he was in some sense responsible for bringing water from the rock (Num 20:1-13); in the Psalter it is recorded that he “rebelled against His Spirit, so that he spoke rashly with his lips” (Ps 106:33).  Moses had been vouchsafed the enabling Spirit to equip him to function as the representative of Yahweh; when he spoke words suggesting that he deserved some of the honor for what was being done, it was interpreted as rebelling “against the Spirit.”

 

Not only is Joshua identified here as “a man in whom the Spirit is” (Num 27:18), but later as well (“full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him,” Deut 34:9).  Of four of the judges, the book of Judges is explicit that they were capable of great works only because “the Spirit of God came upon them” (Othniel, 3:10; Gideon, 6:34; Jephthah, 11:29; Samson, 13:25; 14:6,19; 15:14).

 

It is in the days of the united monarchy that the record of the theocratic anointing is most apparent.  That ministry descended upon Saul (1 Sam 10:6, 10; 11:6) and transformed a cowardly young man unable to keep track of his father’s donkeys (1 Sam 9:3; 10:21,22) into an able leader and courageous warrior (1 Sam 14:47, 48; 11:1-15).  When that ministry departed Saul (1 Sam 16:14), he was rendered unfit for all of the duties of the throne.  On the other hand, that anointing came upon young David (1 Sam 16:13) and equipped him as warrior (1 Sam 17:1-58), enabled him as “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam 23:1-2), and directed him as he drew up the intricate plans for the temple which God had not allowed him to actually construct (1 Chr 28:11-12).  Furthermore, David had experienced the sorry results of sinning away this enabling of the Spirit; after the Spirit had departed from Saul, that melancholy monarch had spent years pursuing David, hoping to eliminate the divinely appointed pretender to the throne of Israel.  Thus, in confessing his own horrible sin, David begs God not to punish him as he had Saul by depriving him of the enabling Spirit (Ps 51:11, 12; cf. Ps 139:7; 143:10).

 

There is no explicit record of such an enabling on any of the kings after David, but it is possible to find a reference to the concept in Solomon’s request for “an understanding heart to judge Your people” (1 Kgs 3:9; cf. 2 Chr 1:10).  God answered that request by promising Solomon, “I have given you a wise and understanding heart, so that there has not been anyone like you before you, nor shall any like you arise after you” (1 Kgs 3:12 NKJ); those qualities could certainly be interpreted as an extra measure of the theocratic anointing.  But after David, explicit mention of the ministry of the Spirit is reserved for prophets (2 Chr 15:1; Dan 4:8, 9, 18; 5:11, 14; Neh 9:30; Zech 7:12) and for priests and Levites (2 Chr 20:14; 24:20).

A Melancholy Anniversary

On or very close to September 18 of this year, there may very well be a moment of solemn silence in the Courts of Heaven. For that day will mark the 2600th anniversary of one of the most melancholy events in the history of God’s dealings with mankind. 

 

The date of the historical incident is defined in Ezekiel’s introduction to the extended visionary experience which he records in chapters 8 to 11 of his prophecy. 

 

     And it came to pass in the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I sat in my house with the elders of Judah sitting before me, that the hand of the Lord God fell upon me there. (8:1)

  

Given the vagaries of the ancient Hebrew (lunar) calendar, it is impossible to be precise as to the very day, but that date is very close to September 18, 592.

 

The event which I can imagine might excite such unhappy and sober memories among the angelic host is described in a drama composed of a series of scenes witnessed by Ezekiel in those four chapters. Central to those scenes is the Glory-Cloud – that majestic physical manifestation of King Yahweh’s regal presence which had dwelt (not without some interruption) in the Temple/Throneroom ever since the inauguration of the Theocracy in 1446 BC.  The climax of that drama is simply this: Ichabod!  That is, The Glory Has Departed (cf. 1 Sam 4:21).  In this regard, two brief thoughts.

 

First, though I can imagine that such an anniversary of the abandonment of the Theocratic relationship by King Yahweh might be noted in the Courts of Heaven, I cannot imagine that it will be much noted or remarked upon here on earth.  The primary reason is that the very idea of a real Theocracy – a relationship in which, to use the words of an Old Testament theologian of the 19th century, “Jehovah condescended to reign over Israel in the same direct manner in which an earthly king reigns over his people” – is almost entirely foreign to most Bible students today.  The Scriptures could not be more explicit, and yet the concept has been largely lost today.  (In part because so many frame an understanding of what is going on in the Old Testament without ever reading the Old Testament.)  That is a bottomless misfortune.  Absent the reality that there was already a period (indeed, a period of over 850 years) when Yahweh ruled as a real, actual, physically present Sovereign King over a nation of people, there is no making sense of what God is doing in the Old Testament and little hope of making sense of what He intends to do in days to come.  With all that, I would like to offer a whisper in defense and definition of the glorious reality that the question put to Jesus by His disciples as He ascended to the Father, “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6), is at once legitimate and coherent only because there has already been a time when Yahweh ruled as King in Israel (1 Sam 12:12).  To that end, there is an essay posted on this page in which I try to trace the outlines of the Old Testament Theocratic rule of King Yahweh.  I invite your reaction.

 

Second, the final scene of the drama of King Yahweh’s departure is described by the prophet as follows:

  

     And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain which is on the east side of the city. (11:23).

  

Of course, that mountain is the Mt. of Olives.  It is abundantly meaningful that the Scriptures record a later time when the duly authorized King of Israel, this time her Messiah, late on Tuesday of the week of His passion left the city of Jerusalem for the last time under His own power, stood on that same mountain, and in tears pronounced Ichabod once again over the city which had rejected Him just as it had rejected the reign of Yahweh earlier in her history (Mt 23:37-39).  But even more importantly, Yahweh is a God who keeps covenant, and in His unfathomable mercy He has promised to bring that rebellious people to Himself; thus there will come a day when King Jesus will descend to rescue His people, when He will stand again on that same mount, when the Spirit of grace and supplication will be poured out and that stiff-necked people will look with faith upon the One whom they once pierced.  Then, indeed, the God who is jealous for His holy name “will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the whole house of Israel” (Ezek 39:25; cf. Ezek 20:40; Rom 11:26), and thus the covenant-keeping name of King Yahweh will be celebrated throughout the spheres.

 

September 18, 2009.  The 2600th anniversary of the day when the Glory-cloud departed because of the continued covenant faithlessness of the people whom God had called His own.  But don’t let it be just a remembrance of man’s covenant faithlessness.  You have biblical warrant to rejoice in that day as a reminder of the covenant faithfulness of that God who, though once and again rejected, will never fail to be Yahweh, who will never abandon His Word.

A Moment on the Edge

In an earlier blog, I suggested that passages traditionally understood by distinguishing between “positional” and “conditional” reality would be better perceived as NT uses of the OT rhetorical device known as the “prophetic perfect.”  Having briefly made that case, I would like to take it one more tentative step. Let me first of all say that I know that the inference I am going to draw will seem radical to many.  But is not the blogsphere the place for edgy ideas?  (I don’t know who wrote that rule, but I’ll appeal to it when it suits me!)  In truth, I am loathe to embrace or espouse radical ideas. And yet I am convinced that there could be profit in at least considering a further – if incendiary – ramification of the case I made earlier for finding the Old Testament prophetic perfect on the pages of the New Testament.  And thus, a brief and uncharacteristic moment on the edge.

 

My concern is for the reading of NT passages which have in recent decades been construed as describing theological realities which are “already/not yet.”  Indeed, the “conditional/positional” construct has been almost entirely replaced by the notion expressed as “already/not yet.”  Again, if that turn of phrase were intended to say only that the promises referenced are absolutely certain of fulfillment, I would take no umbrage.  But the formula has become shorthand for the notion that the promise at stake can be both fulfilled and unfulfilled, a possession both presently possessed and not yet possessed. 

 

I know I am treading on very sacred ground here, and I don’t anticipate many will agree.  But that construct seems to introduce into the passages a measure of abstraction that borders on incoherence, if not contradiction.  (“Already – but not yet!”  I ask humbly and honestly, are we perhaps taking liberties with the law of non-contradiction?)  Furthermore, a great many theological inferences are drawn from the perceived “already/not yet” character of those passages (cf. Col 1:13).  On the other hand, if those passages are read simply as New Testament uses of the prophetic perfect, then the “already/not yet” dynamic is not to be found in those passages, and thus those inferences cannot be drawn.  But nothing is lost exegetically; indeed, those passages are seen to be straightforward and powerful affirmations that the promises under discussion are absolutely certain of fulfillment.

 

If nothing more than as an intellectual exercise, I would argue that it is worthwhile at least to ponder the following:  a) the minds of the NT writers were certainly saturated with Old Testament truths and thought forms, and b) if the NT writer is simply utilizing a nuance borrowed from the Old Testament, a rhetorical device which to the mind of his readers powerfully bespeaks certainty of fulfillment, then c) the passages can be read as straightforward expressions of absolute certainty, such as that which was conveyed consistently in the older Scriptures by the exact same rhetorical device, and therefore d) the inferences drawn largely from those passages deserve to be rethought.

Being an attempt to make full proof of the following proposition:

The writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, but they thought in Hebrew.

 

In my mind, one of the most compelling evidences of that remarkable intellectual habit of mind is that Hebrew grammatical nuances – forms which are foreign to the Greek language – are employed by those Greek-writing Hebrew-thinking apostles.  One of those is the use again and again in the New Testament of a construction which, in the Old Testament, is known most commonly as the “prophetic perfect.”

 

The Old Testament thought form

Throughout the Old Testament, when the future is foretold the anticipated event is spoken of as if it were a completed reality.  That is, the grammatical form in which the prophecy is framed (i.e., the Hebrew perfect or perfective) would normally be read to describe completed action. But in these cases the event is in fact future, and yet because the matter being foretold by God is certain to come to pass, it is spoken of as already accomplished.  Although this may sound strange to a modern Western ear, it is a very common feature of the Hebrew tongue. 

 

The standard grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, describes one of the uses of the Hebrew perfect as follows:

To express facts which are undoubtedly imminent, and, therefore in the imagination of the speaker, already accomplished (perfectum confidentiae), e.g., Num 17:27, behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Gen 30:13, Isa 6:5 (I am undone), Prov 4:2. . . . This use of the perfect occurs most frequently in prophetic language (perfectum propheticum). The prophet so transports himself in imagination into the future that he describes the future event as if it had been already seen or heard by him [my emphasis], e.g. Isa 5:13 therefore my people are gone into captivity; 9:1ff.,10:28,11:9…; 19:7, Job 5:20, 2 Chr 20:37.

 Section 106n, pp. 312-313

 

Again, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Waltke & O’Connor) refers to this usage as the “accidental perfective,” in which “a speaker vividly and dramatically represents a future situation both as complete and as independent [my emphasis].”  That text allows that this form is also known as the “prophetic perfect or the perfective of confidence” (Sec. 30.5.1.e, pp. 489-490).  And again, Jewish authorities consistently recognize this usage (though some have inconsistently tried to argue that the messianic prophecies in the canonical prophets must refer to a past Messiah, as those prophecies are in the perfect). Commentator Nahum Sarna says of Exodus 12:17 (“I have brought your armies out of the land of Egypt,” though that event was yet to happen),

     This is an example of the “prophetic perfect.” The future is described as having already occurred because God’s will inherently and ineluctably possesses the power of realization so that the time factor is inconsequential.

Exodus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1991), p. 59.

 

Examples of this usage abound throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

 

The New Testament Use

Again and again in the New Testament the future is spoken of as already accomplished.  Paul states that “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30); orthodox evangelical theology would affirm that the first three steps in that blessed gospel progression are accomplished reality for the believer, but that the final step is yet future.  Yet it is expressed as if it were as much an accomplished fact as the three which preceded it.  Again, Paul states in Ephesians 2:6 that God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  In Colossians 1:13 the apostle rejoices that Jesus “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.”  In my experience, this verse as much as any other is used to argue that the Kingdom promised by the Old Testament is already here, but if the verse is read in a way consistent with biblical habits of mind, it means nothing more (nor less, God be praised!) than this: the coming of that future day when we will be entirely delivered from evil in the kingdom of righteousness is so certain that it can be spoken of as if accomplished – which is the way God expresses anticipated realities throughout His Word.

 

A brief disclaimer.  I know that most do not discern the use of the prophetic perfect in the New Testament passages to which I have appealed.  Instead, a rather abstract construct has historically been appealed to in order to explain the apparent anomaly of future events spoken of as already accomplished.  That construct is the supposed distinction between “conditional truth” (what is true of man’s actual condition in the present physical world) and “positional truth” (what is truly and certainly destined to be ours because of our position in Christ).  Let me be clear: I concur with the point being made via the “condition vs. position” construct. Indeed, I cherish that reality.  But I am persuaded that the whole c/p construct would have been counter-intuitive to the Jewish-Christian readers of the New Testament.  It seems an abstraction born of a Greek turn of mind.  But more importantly, there is ready to hand an explanation which results in virtually the same understanding of the past tenses in strategic NT passages, but which looks to the intellectual habit of mind evident throughout the Old Testament to explain the perceived anomaly.  That is what I am arguing for here.

There is in the 21st century evangelical world a staggering asymmetry between  what is being done and what is being talked about. The great preponderance of attention is given to the few celebrated ministries (perhaps, God forbid, “celebrity ministries”) which live in the limelight, but the great preponderance of God’s work is done by the unnumbered little known ministries who live in the backwaters.  The reasons for the imbalance are not hard to catalog, and a small few of those reasons are not pernicious.  But there is one inescapable result of that remarkable disproportion which is wicked in all of its parts – the longing to be noticed beyond the ministry which God has given me.  Celebrity wanna-be-ism.  Creeping narcissism.  Isaiah 14 revividus.  The pride of life as a Siren’s song to those engaged in ministry.  Take all of this as the whining of one frustrated by his own enduring insignificance if you will; who can blame you?  But is there not a cause?

 

The longing is not unique to our age, but it is a more besetting snare because of the technology that today makes it so remarkably easy to have an un-vetted, entirely non-peer-reviewed voice – even if only a whisper – beyond the actual sound of one’s voice.  (I can prove this: you are reading these words. The prosecution rests!)  This is not to decry those capabilities; it would be comically hypocritical to do so from this venue.  But it is perhaps a call to conscious, deliberate remembrance of a moral principle which is almost as easily forgotten as it is biblically undeniable: viz., in ministry, the longing to be celebrated is Luciferian in all of its parts.  God will not share His glory. This is the lesson of Numbers 20:10, read in light of the divine commentary of Psalm 106:33. The sin of Moses was that he “spoke ill-advisedly with his lips” – that is, He cried out “Must we fetch water from the rock!”  In the context of ministry, God has no patience with 1st person plural pronouns.  God has often expanded the reach of a man’s ministry beyond the reach of his voice; when that happens the person must handle that expanded ministry as part of the stewardship given him by his wise and enabling Lord. But with that sort of reach comes some level of notoriety, and with that notoriety comes the respect and praise of many who really don’t know the celebrated minister very well, and with that exaggerated praise comes the temptation to actually begin to believe your own press clippings!  Paul warns Timothy that pride will certainly wrap a person in a miasma of moral befuddlement (1 Tim 3:6), and the longing – yea, even the willingness – to wallow in the inordinate accolades so often bestowed today is certainly a function of pride. 

 

Therefore, it is imperative that day by day, by means of carefully designed strategies, those in ministry sit in merciless judgment on the ever present impulse to narcissism.  If God gives you a ministry beyond the reach of your voice, be careful!  By reason of that notoriety the devices available to Satan to tempt in your life are more numerous and more deceptive (2 Cor 2:11).  If you find yourself longing to be recognized beyond the corner of the vineyard where He has placed you, repent!  It is required of a steward that he be found faithful (1 Cor 4:2), not that he be found famous.  Know that the man who gives himself to ministry is not in some special sense inoculated from the sin of pride; indeed, he is the more vulnerable.  Thus he must be the more zealous daily and deliberately to humble himself in the sight of God; in so doing he will set the Sovereign free to lift him up in ways which will almost certainly mean very little in this life, but will mean everything in the next – the real – life (Jms 4:10).