A Thorny Subject: What Was Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh?

If you’ve spent any time in Christian circles or studying the life of Paul, you’re probably like everyone else wondering what the deal is with Paul’s thorn in the flesh mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:7. Paul goes on to say that the thorn was a “messenger of Satan” sent to harass Paul to prevent a conceited heart in Paul. What, pray tell, is Paul’s fleshly thorn? Inquiring minds inquire.

There’s no shortage of suggested solutions to that quagmire of a question. Answers abound. Was it an issue of sexual lust? Ophthalmia? Malaria? Migraines? Epilepsy? Speech impediment? An ongoing sin problem? Demonic opposition? Persecution? Anxiety about the churches he has established? Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20) as Chrysostom suggested? How about Calvin’s view that the thorn represented every kind of temptation and not one in particular? With an abundance of answers for the picking, one gets the impression that no one this side of heaven will know (except for Paul and God, of course). What I suggest below is not entirely unique to me (even though I came up with this conclusion independently of others), but my borderline dogmatism may be. In other words, I don’t think we can know with certainty what Paul’s thorn was, but by knowing how the phrase is used in the Old Testament, and through a contextual reading of 2 Corinthians, we may be closer to an answer than we think.

Old Testament Use

Paul’s use of “thorn” (σκόλοψ, skolops) in 2 Corinthians 12:7 is the only time the New Testament uses the word. In situations like this, it’s helpful to see if the Old Testament uses the word or phrase. As it turns out, there are four instances of the phrase “thorn in the flesh/side” in the Old Testament, and the use in every one of them is consistent. First, in Numbers 33:55 we read: “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs (σκόλοπες, skolopes) in your eyes and thorns (βολίδες, bolides) in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell” (ESV). The Lord promises the Israelites that unless they utterly drive out the Canaanites from the Promised Land, the Canaanites will be a pain in their neck, or a thorn in their sides. Second, in Joshua 23, Joshua summons all Israel and warns them, saying that even though the Lord has graciously given them all this land, they will be driven out of the land if they marry Canaanites and do not drive them out utterly. Joshua 23:13 says that these pagan nations will “be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes.”

Third, more of the same occurs in Judges 2. In fact, the fulfillment of what the Lord says in Joshua 23 is seen in Judges 2. Because the Israelites did not obey the Lord, the angel of the Lord, speaking of the Canaanites, says, “I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you” (v. 3).  Finally, in Ezekiel 28:20-26, the son of man, Ezekiel, prophesies against Sidon. And this prophecy against Sidon is good news for Israel, as it points to a reversal of the mistreatment and contempt that Israel’s neighbors showed her. The Israelites will dwell in safety, because “…for the house of Israel there shall be no more a brier to prick or a thorn to hurt them among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt…” (v. 24).

In each of these instances there is either the threat of God sending the wicked to the Israelites for their faithlessness to the covenant, or the promise of the wicked being removed. In all these passages we see the wicked, persecuting, troublesome, godless nations being a thorn in Israel’s side. These are antagonistic, hostile, subversive, and unbelieving people opposed to God and his people. This is how the phrase “thorn in side” and its parallels are used in the Old Testament. This fact becomes helpful in how we understand Paul’s context and thorn in 2 Corinthians.

Second Corinthians

We may be right in boiling down Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians thus: there’s much affliction, but even more comfort in the lives of God’s people, because their God is the God of all comfort. We see this theme of God comforting the afflicted from start (1:3) to finish (13:11). One source of affliction is Satan. Paul early in the letter recognizes the crafty, Satanic designs aimed at God’s people by tempting them not to forgive the repentant sinner in their midst (2:5-11). The theme of Satanic opposition and affliction doesn’t pop up overtly (i.e., using the term “Satan”) again until 11:14 when Satan is seen as an “angel of light.” But when it does pop up, its use is significant for our present purpose. Indeed, Paul uses the same word for “angel” in 11:14 as he does for “messenger” of Satan in 12:7 (γγελος, angelos), speaking of his thorn in the flesh. In chapter 11, Paul speaks of this Satanic deception in the form of “false apostles,” “deceitful workmen,” who are “disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (11:13). Because Satan is an angel/messenger of light, so are Satanic servants (v. 15). The emphasis of deceit and disguise recalls the garden of Eden where we read that the serpent was “more crafty” than all the other beasts (Gen. 3:1). Eve was right to point out that the serpent “deceived” her (3:13). Most significantly, this serpentine deception is noted at the start of 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul brings us back to the garden by highlighting the cunning serpent that is seeking to deceive the Corinthians (11:3-4). This is who Satan is; this is what he does. He’s the father of lies, the grand deceiver (John 8:44). So, is it any surprise that his children will likewise lie, deceive, and disguise themselves against God and his true messengers?

This is exactly what we observe in 2 Corinthians. Paul has to defend his apostleship throughout the letter. He has to refute false gospel (11:4), false apostles (10:12, 17; 11:13), and so-called “super apostles” (11:5; 12:11). These false apostles who are opposed to Paul and the gospel of Jesus Christ say that Paul is a hypocrite, that he is weighty while away but weak while present (10:1, 10). Clearly, Satan has sought to lead astray the Corinthians and to harass Paul by sending his serpentine servants to oppose Paul’s gospel efforts.

What does all this Satanic opposition have to do with Paul’s thorn in the flesh? All this contextual build-up helps us to see that Paul’s mention of his thorn is smack-dab in the middle of false apostles, deceitful workmen, servants of Satan. In fact, a brief outline of chapters 11-12 shows that in 11:1-15, Paul mentions these false apostles, in 11:16-12:10, he speaks of his sufferings and the thorn in the flesh, then he again speaks of the false apostles in 12:11-13. The connection should be clear. Paul sees his suffering in general, and his thorn in the flesh in particular, in the context of false apostle opposition. These apostles (false brothers, super apostles), like Paul, were messengers, but they brought a message of Satan, one that condemned and deceived, not one that saved.

What then is Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Paul tells us it’s a messenger of Satan. It’s these false teachers, viewed collectively in 12:7 (“messenger,” not “messengers”), aimed against Paul calling him an imposter (6:8). It’s an anti-Paul movement or group that opposed his apostleship, that sought to lead astray the Corinthians, and that was hostile to Paul as a true messenger from God confirmed by signs (6:8; 12:12), one whom God himself commended (5:20; 10:8, 18), evidenced further by the Corinthians themselves (3:1-3) and by Paul’s tearful affliction (6:4). Like the godless nations against Israel in the Old Testament (one might even call them offspring of Satan a la Gen. 3:15), Satan, by raising up false teachers/brothers/apostles, has kept up his deceitful opposition against God’s people (Corinthians) and God’s messenger (Paul).

The answer to the question seems quite plain (hence my borderline dogmatism). But there is a reasonable objection against this view. The objection reasons in this way. In 12:7, this thorn is given to Paul. Paul pleads with the Lord to have it removed. Therefore, the Lord gave this thorn to Paul. Why would he give Paul an anti-Paul group of false teachers/brothers/apostles? It seems counter-productive to God’s plan of spreading the gospel. There is much to be said about the relationship between God and deception, and I resist the temptation to pursue that here (as this post is long enough already). But let’s confine our answer to 2 Corinthians. What did Paul tell us? He told us that it was given him to keep him from being conceited (12:7) and to remind him that God’s grace is sufficient for him in his weakness (12:9). Paul can say that despite the “insults” and “persecutions” (12:10), he will rest upon Christ. After all, that’s exactly what he said when he began the letter. Paul, recounting all the affliction he experienced in Asia, was to the point of despairing for life. Why would God give him such affliction to the degree that Paul despaired of life? That question is just as difficult a question as the objection about God giving Paul an anti-Paul group of false apostles. What’s Paul’s answer? That intense God-given affliction in Asia was to make Paul rely not on himself but on God (1:9). That doesn’t sound too different from God sending the thorn to prevent conceit in Paul. After all, suffering has, as one object in mind, the need for reliance on God’s grace and comfort and not on oneself. Wasn’t that in part what God was saying to the Israelites? “Depend on me, not on those godless nations.” Isn’t that what God says to us? “Depend on me and my word and my gospel, not on teaching contrary to my word, not on your imaginations.” Perhaps that’s why also he would give Paul this thorn in the flesh.

Baptism as Covenant Sign and Seal

Baptism is the sign and seal of the covenant of grace.  As a sign, baptism points to true realities beyond itself.  For example, the cleansing property of the water that is applied in baptism points to the cleansing of our sins by the atoning death of Jesus Christ.  As a seal, baptism is a visible, tangible witness of God’s faithfulness to all His promises in the gospel of Christ.  It is like a wedding ring that reminds a wife of her husband’s promises of fidelity, love, honor, and cherishing of her.  Because God says through Peter in Acts 2:39 that “the promise is for you and for your children,” and we read repeatedly in the New Testament that believers’ whole households were baptized when the believer was baptized, we also bring our children to receive this covenant sign from the Lord.

When we bring our children to the baptismal font it is a picture of the beauty of God’s love and grace.  It is also a confession that our children, who are so precious to behold, who bring so much joy to our lives, and whom we love in ways we never quite imagined we could love, these precious children are disfigured in their souls and infected in every part of their being by the evil of sin.  Baptism is a confession that our children need the grace of God to be free from the guilt and power of sin.  Baptism is a confession that only in union with Jesus Christ can our children be free from sin and enabled to walk in the newness of life to the glory of God.  Paul asks, in Romans 6:2, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?”  Then he explains how we died to sin through union with Christ, a union signified by baptism.  “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.”

These parents have this hope for their child.  Bringing her to the baptismal font, they are looking to Christ alone for her cleansing and true life with God.  We confess that baptism is no empty ritual, but is commanded by God and is, therefore, attended by His blessing.  It is the visible word of the Gospel, as Scripture is the written word.  Just as we believe that God’s word will not return void, but will accomplish the purpose for which He sent it, so we believe that the sacraments do not return void, inasmuch as they accompany the preaching of the word of God and embody that word as sign and seal.  The inward grace and virtue of baptism is not tied to the very moment of time when it is administered, but the fruit and power of baptism reaches to the whole course of our life.

Believing parents bring their children to receive the covenant sign of baptism as an early means of grace, and, by so doing, promise to bring all the means of grace to bear on the life of their children, such as the regular worship of the Church, instruction in the Scriptures as the covenant document from our Lord, and prayers with and for our children, so that when they have reached a condition of discretion, and become subject to the obligations of the covenant, namely, faith, repentance, and obedience, they may make a public confession of their faith in Christ.  Indeed, God calls us to do this with diligence.

As we witness the baptism of this child, may we look back to our own baptism that we might mourn and repent of our sins against our covenant with God, and be stirred up in faith to make right use of our baptism, supplementing “faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brother affection, and brotherly affection with love.  For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).

Parents, as you have served as an example to us all of claiming God’s covenant promises for our children and continuing by every means to impress the same upon them faithfully, I take the opportunity on this special occasion to encourage you not to grow weary in well-doing, but to take heart in knowing that in due time you will reap if you do not faint.  And as God has blessed you with the fruit of the womb, may He make these olive shoots around your table to abound with fruit for the glory of His name.

A Baptismal Prayer

Our faithful covenant God, You have made to us many precious and great promises through our Lord Jesus Christ, that we should enjoy Your glory and virtue forever.  May Your blessing attend this sacrament of baptism, that goodness and mercy may follow this child of the covenant all the days of her life, and that she may dwell in Your house forever.  Through Christ we pray.  Amen.

Household Baptism

Baptism is not a human invention or mere initiatory ceremony.  It is a divine sacrament, commanded by Christ Himself: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).  As the baptism of the Holy Spirit, of which water baptism is the sign, engrafts believers into Christ, so the visible sign of water baptism identifies one as an engrafted member of the visible Church, the body of Christ, the covenant community.  Therefore, baptism is a sacrament of the Church, and is thus to be administered by the Church, as a function of its teaching ministry, and not as a private ceremony.  As such, baptism represents both the seal and sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit, which is freedom from the dominion of sin, and the blood of Jesus Christ, which takes away all the guilt of sin.

So baptism is the sign and seal of God’s covenantal promise to believers and their children.  Throughout the history of redemption, God has bestowed his covenant blessings, not only on individuals, but upon households, so that the sign of the covenant is given to the believers’ family members.  This is seen most clearly in God’s covenant with Abraham, which was signified and sealed by circumcision.  “You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.  He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised.  Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised.  So shall My covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:11-13).  Likewise, God’s covenant with Noah was with Noah and his posterity.  The Lord’s Covenant of Peace with Phinehas  was with Phinehas and with his seed after him.  The same was understood by David when he responded to the Lord’s covenant, saying, “You have spoken also of Your servant’s house for a great while to come” (2 Sam. 7:19).  So we are not surprised when we read in Luke 18 that “they were bringing even infants to Him that He might touch them.”  Jesus received those children and blessed them.  And the blessing of Jesus is no empty word!  Likewise, having seen how God deals covenantally with families, we expect to hear that Paul’s jailer “was baptized at once, he and all his family. . . . And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed” (Acts 16:33-34).

Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 7:14 that God regards the children of even one believer as holy.  So we do not bring our children to the baptismal font to make them holy.  God already regards the children of believers as holy.  We bring them because God regards them as holy.  When the covenant people sacrificed their children to Molech, the Lord complained that these were children “that you had borne to Me”—they were God’s children, holy to Him.  And so are your children, if you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior.

The grace of baptism does not guarantee a child’s final salvation or regeneration.  But it does bind the child to the Lord in covenant.  The Lord is always faithful to His covenant.  The child must also be taught to live as a covenant child.  That is, a child in covenant with the Lord.  So Paul, when he addresses children in Ephesians 6, says, “Obey your parents in the Lord.”  Theirs is no mere obedience to custom, but a covenantal or relational obedience in the Lord.  In Deuteronomy 6, children were to be taught at Passover that “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt.  And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”  So the children were part of this redeemed people.  Because of this, their parents are told, “You shall teach My commandments diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”  Because our children are in covenant, they must be taught to live in faith and obedience to the Lord of the Covenant.  Some have suggested that regarding our children as members of the covenant, and giving them the covenant sign leads to complacency about their spiritual condition.  It is, in fact, quite the opposite.  How much more diligent are we to be, who esteem the privilege that our children are afforded to be born into the covenant community.

The modern American church has been heavily influenced by our culture’s crass individualism, as well as by the Arminian revivalism that has come to characterize so much of the evangelical church, with its decisional emphasis.  This is evidenced most clearly with regard to the Sacraments, and to baptism in particular.  We are trained to see baptism as a subjective experience in which the individual believer makes his profession of faith in Christ, his promise to follow Christ, by obediently being baptized.  So, it is “my” faith that is on display in baptism.  I am convinced from Scripture that this is a terrible abuse of God’s sign.  Baptism is not your signet ring that lends weight and authority to God’s covenant.  It is God’s sign and seal.  It is not your personal testimony.  It is God’s objective witness to you and to your children.  It is His seal on His covenant.  Just as it is not your spirit that seals you to the day of redemption, but the Spirit of the living God who seals to us our inheritance in Christ.  Infant baptism reminds us that salvation comes to us from outside of us; that salvation is God’s gracious movement towards us first, before we even desire to move towards Him.  We are all as helpless as infants to save ourselves.  Our only hope is grace from beginning to end.

It is with this understanding and God’s joyful purpose that these parents bring their children to be baptized.

Exhortations to the Parents:

Parents, your Church rejoices with you in God’s goodness to you in giving these children to you.  As the body of Christ we are here for you to encourage and equip you for your walk with Christ and particularly as a Christian family.  As your friends we urge you to teach your children to read the Word of God by reading the Word to them daily.  Teach them to pray by praying with them.  Entrust them to God by praying for them.  Teach your children the principles of knowing and loving our God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, an excellent summary of which we have in the Westminster Confession of Faith, and in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, which we commend to you as tools for your own instruction as well as theirs.  In all things, endeavor to set before them an example of true godliness, depending entirely upon the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Baptism and a Godly Offspring

In Malachi chapter 2, the prophet charges the men of Israel with unfaithfulness to their wives and with unjustly putting them away in divorce.  In the flow of his argument he explains one key reason why God ordained the one-flesh union of marriage, and thus why it is so important to maintain that holy union.  Malachi 2:15 says, “Did He not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?  And what was the one God seeking?  Godly offspring.”  What was God seeking in the marriages of His covenant people?  Godly offspring.  Generations of covenant children whose mouths would be full of God’s praise, shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!”

 

We see this purpose for the marriages of God’s people throughout Scripture.  God covenanted with Abraham saying, “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you, and to your seed after you. . . . And God said unto Abraham, ‘You shall keep My covenant therefore, you, and your seed after you in their generations” (Gen. 17:7-9).  Moses said the same to the children of Israel who were poised to enter the Promised Land, “Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those that love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9).  We could go on through David, the Old Testament prophets, the Lord Jesus, Peter at Pentecost, and Paul to the Corinthians.  Over and over we see God’s design for His covenant people, that they would produce generations of covenant children.  For, as Jesus quoted the Psalmist, “Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants You have ordained praise!” (Matt. 21.16).

 

So, our chief aim in bringing children into this world is to have godly offspring, believing children, worshiping children.  So, as the father of all who believe, Abraham, gave his children the covenant sign of circumcision, we also bring our children to the Lord to receive the New Covenant sign of baptism.  By doing this we affirm our faith in the promise, which is for us and for our children.  And as we keep covenant with God by His grace, so we command our children after us to keep covenant with God.  As our children grow, we point back to their baptism and remind them that they belong to God.  We can tell them, “You have received the covenant sign of baptism.  That marks you out for God.  He has shown you such great kindness.  And when you sin, you are breaking covenant with God.  Because of your covenant breaking Jesus has come to save you and fulfill the meaning of your baptism by cleansing your sin and reconciling you to God.  Because of what Jesus has done you can love and praise God as your God, your faithful, covenant keeping God.  He will never leave you.”

 

And so these children have been brought by their parents this morning, covenant children, to receive the sign of the covenant.  Parents, we are grateful that God has blessed you with these children, and given you the desire to see your daughters walking with God in the liberty of the gospel.  May you be encouraged by the promise of God to you and to your children, as you continue to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

 

A Baptismal Prayer

Unchanging God, faithful in all Your ways, we bless You for covenanting with us and with our children forever.  May your blessing attend this sacrament, so that these children may always rejoice in the LORD, and take joy in the God of their salvation, for the praise of Your grace forever.  In Christ’s name we pray.  Amen.

Baptism and God’s Covenant Faithfulness

For the Christian, the whole of life is comprehended by God’s Covenant of Grace with us.  All of our endeavors, therefore, begin with God, continue in God, and run to God as our goal.  And so, Solomon wrote, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1).  All of life is vanity and anxious toil, according to the wise man, unless it reposes in the grace of God.  This is true of the whole of our existence, and it is particularly demonstrated in the home.  “Behold,” he continues, “children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.”  This gift of children begins with conception in the womb, and the blessing continues through life: “Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!”

Psalm 127 is the eighth out of fifteen Psalms of Ascent, so named because worshipers coming from distant countries would sing these songs as they made their ascent together to the Temple in Jerusalem.  The next Psalm (128) takes up these themes of covenant and children and ascends still further as the pilgrim makes his way to Mt. Zion to worship the Lord.  It reminds us that this blessedness is continued, not because our children are just perfect angels, or because we are flawless parents, but because God is a faithful God who keeps covenant with us to a thousand generations—He builds the house.  So the thought is advanced, “Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in His ways!  You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.  Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots round your table.  Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD” (128:1-4).

As these parents bring their children for baptism this morning, they are acknowledging their covenant with the Lord, and believing the covenant promises to them and to their children, since baptism is the sign of the covenant, marking the believer and his household as holy to the Lord.  For these olive shoots around your table, we join with you in praying that these children would grow up before the Lord and produce a rich harvest of the obedience of faith, that they would embrace Jesus Christ in whom all of God’s promises are “Yes!” and “Amen!” and walk with Him in this Covenant of Grace.  With you, we thank God for these arrows; and we encourage you, by God’s grace, to hone them, training them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, that they may fly from your bow to hit the mark of the glory of God through Christ our Redeemer.  “The LORD bless you from Zion!  May you see your children’s children!  Peace be upon you!”

 

 

 

A Baptismal Prayer

Our gracious God, You have restored the fortunes of Zion, the City and People of God.  You have filled our mouths with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy, for You have redeemed us as Your own possession by the blood of Your Son and sealed us by Your Holy Spirit.  Bless this Sacrament, which You have ordained as a sign and seal of Your Covenant of Grace with us, so that the efficacy of this promise will bring these children to Your right hand, where there are pleasures forevermore.  May all who observe their lives testify that “The LORD has done great things for them.”  And may they say, “The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad” (Psalm 126).  Through Christ we pray.  Amen.

Baptism and Discipleship

After Jesus had accomplished His work at the cross, making atonement for the sins of His people, and risen from the grave as the Firstborn of the dead, guaranteeing the resurrection of His people, just before ascending to the Father to assume the throne of the eternal kingdom, having received all authority in heaven and on earth, Jesus commanded His disciples, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, and, behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).  The command is to make disciples.  Obedience begins with going: “Go, therefore . . . .”  And they did go.  Some went no further than Jerusalem, where their mission began.  Some went west toward Rome.  Others went east to Persia.  There is evidence that the first generation of Jesus’ followers made disciples in Egypt, Ethiopia, and India.  The point is, Jesus said go, and they went.  Discipleship requires presence and intentionality.  The same is true for making disciples of our children.  It requires presence and intentionality.  Our goal for them must transcend being good American citizens, successful professionals, and respectable members of society.  We are to diligently teach them about the Lord our God and how He has entered into covenant with us through the blood of Jesus Christ.

 

This discipleship to the covenant Lord begins with baptism.  Baptism is God’s covenant sign which marks us out as His possession.  It symbolizes our relationship with God and His faithfulness to His promise in that covenant.  We read in the book of Acts and in Paul’s epistles that the early disciples obeyed Christ’s commission, baptizing new believers and their households.  These parents have brought their sons to receive baptism, not out of custom or human tradition, not out of sentimentality or superstition, but out of obedience to the command of Christ and out of faith in the promise God made to them and to their children.

 

Of course, discipleship does not end with baptism; that is where it begins.  We continue by teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded us.  The substance of that instruction is summarized in the baptismal pronouncement “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  We are to instruct disciples, in this case our own children, in the Person and Work of the Triune God.  As we baptize them in the singular name of Yahweh or Jehovah, they must learn from us that there is but one only God, the living and true God, who demands their singular faith and love.  They must also learn from us that this one God exists eternally and unchangeably in three distinct Persons.  We must instruct them thoroughly in the love of the Father who sent His Son to rescue us from the just demands of His holy law against our sins.  We must impress on their souls the grace of the Son, our Lord Jesus, who was sent; who though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor, so that we through His poverty might be made rich toward God.  We must diligently teach them of the Holy Spirit as the bond of love who seals us for our inheritance and communicates to us the presence of the Father and the Son.  And as we are to teach them, not merely to profess with lip service, but to observe all that Christ has commanded, we are to enjoin them to faithful, loving obedience as the outcome of their faith in this gospel of God.  Parents, I am not telling you anything that you don’t already know, but on this special occasion I want both to commend you for bringing your sons for baptism, and to stir you up by way of reminder to continue their discipleship by teaching them the doctrines of our holy religion, not the inventions of men, but the self-revelation of God.

 

 

A Baptismal Prayer:

Our gracious, Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, You are faithful to Your people, showing steadfast love to a thousand generations of those who love You and are called according to Your purpose.  We bless Your holy Name for the grace of baptism, which extends to the whole course of our lives, bearing witness to us of Your loving kindness and faithfulness, and calling us to faith and obedience and the full enjoying of You to all eternity.  Bless these boys, we pray, that this sacrament, which is the word of Your gospel and the sign and seal of Your covenant, may yield new life by Your Spirit and produce faith, so that the blood of Jesus, which alone atones for our sins, may cleanse them of every stain and wash them whiter than snow.  In the name of Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, but now stands, we pray.  Amen.

The Efficacy of Baptism

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, “For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”  The cloud refers to the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night in which God manifested His presence by the Spirit among the Israelites (Isa. 63:9-14).  The sea, of course, refers to the Red Sea, and particularly to the miraculous parting of the waters so that Israel could pass safely through the sea when fleeing from Egypt.  The Spirit-cloud and the sea together comprised the fathers’ baptism into Moses, a sign of their separation from Egypt and their union with God in the Mosaic Covenant.  Of course, this baptism was not continued as the covenant sign under the Mosaic Administration.  The perpetual sign of the covenant under Moses from generation to generation was circumcision.  Circumcision embodied the same sacramental reality as Israel’s baptism in the cloud and in the sea.  When the children of Israel entered the Promised Land after forty years of wilderness wandering, none of them had been circumcised, because their parents had not been diligent to keep covenant with God.  So, we read in Joshua 5 that all who were born in the wilderness were circumcised on that day.  “And the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.’”  So circumcision, like the baptism in the Spirit-cloud and sea, conveys the benefit of a cleansing of the filth of Egypt, the filth of idolatry and bondage to sin.

What is remarkable here is the description of baptism as “in the cloud and in the sea,” in other words Spirit and water.  Paul does not conceive of baptism as a merely outward sign, namely water, which can be divorced from the reality signified, namely the Spirit.  So with no explanation Paul says, just two chapters later, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (12:13).  This biblical understanding of baptism is captured in WCF 27.2-e Of the Sacraments, “There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the things signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.  The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.”

So the power of the sacrament is not any magical properties in the water, it is the power of the Holy Spirit of God applying the Word of God, of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, as “a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.”  Just like the preaching of the gospel to unbelievers may not have any immediately visible fruit, but may come to fruition some time later, so the confession goes on to say, “The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered.”  Nevertheless, there is an efficacy or power.  It is the power of the Holy Spirit and of the promise of the gospel.  It is not a guarantee of the final salvation of all who are baptized.  After speaking of the Baptism of the fathers in the cloud and in the sea, Paul goes on to say, “Nevetheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Cor. 10:5).  Then comes his warning to us not to be like them.  “The promise of benefit,” to borrow the words of the Confession, is to “worthy receivers.”  That means to those who embrace Jesus Christ by faith.  This does not mean that Baptism has no covenantal efficacy for those who grow up to reject Jesus Christ.  The Spirit always accompanies the Word and Sacraments when rightly administered.  But when the covenant is rejected, the Spirit is outraged and the covenant curses, rather than the covenant blessings, are visited on the baptized.  Michael Horton summarizes the biblical teaching well in these words: “Apart from faith, outward circumcision (and baptism in the New Covenant) is the sign and seal of judgment leading to death: a final cutting off of the whole person (excommunication).  Hence, the severe warnings about falling away, especially in Hebrews 4, 6, and 10.”[1]

Exhortation to Parents:

Parents, this truth about the power of the Word and Spirit through Baptism is sobering.  Let me follow them with these words of encouragement from Hebrews, “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.  For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for His name in serving the saints, as you still do.  And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:9-12).  Parents, you bring your child to the baptismal font in the light of the gracious character of the New Covenant in Christ.  May God’s covenantal promise to you and to your children encourage you to strive by every means of God’s appointment to bring her up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.  We urge you to teach her diligently the whole counsel of God from the Scriptures.  We commend the catechisms of our church as aids in that instruction.  We encourage memorization and thorough instruction in both Scripture and the catechisms as faithful summaries of the Scriptures.  Do not cease to pray for her and with her to know God as her God and Redeemer.  And model for her in all of your conduct and conversation that wholehearted love for God and neighbor which is the sum and substance of God’s moral law.

 

A Baptismal Prayer

Our gracious God and Father, we bless Your name for the grace of the outward sign of Baptism which bears witness to us of Your promise which is “Yes!” and “Amen!” in Christ Jesus our Lord.  We bless Your name for the grace of the Holy Spirit working inwardly through the Word and sacrament upon all to whom this grace belongs, according to Your own counsel and in Your appointed time.  Bless this sacrament, we pray You, to this covenant child, that she may know You as her God and her Redeemer, and confess from her heart that Jesus is Lord.  We bless You for regarding her as holy for the sake of these Your children, her parents.  Through Christ we pray.  Amen.

 

[1] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 791.

John Murray on the Sabbath

‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.  Wherefore the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27, 28).  What the Lord is affirming is that the Sabbath has its place within the sphere of His messianic lordship and that He exercises lordship over the Sabbath because the Sabbath was made for man.  Since He is Lord of the Sabbath it is His to guard it against those distortions and perversions with which Pharisaism had surrounded it and by which its truly beneficent purpose has been defeated.  But He is also its Lord to guard and vindicate its permanent place within that messianic lordship which He exercises over all things—he is Lord of the Sabbath, too.  And He is Lord of it, not for the purpose of depriving men of that inestimable benefit which the Sabbath bestows, but for the purpose of bringing to the fullest realization on behalf of men that beneficent design for which the Sabbath was instituted.  If the Sabbath was made for man, and if Jesus is the Son of Man to save man, surely the lordship which He exercises to that end is not to deprive man of that which was made for his good, but to seal to man that which the Sabbath institution involves.  Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath—we dare not tamper with His authority and we dare not misconstrue the intent of His words.

John Murray, “The Sabbath Institution,” in The Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1, 205-218 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 207-208.

John Murray was assistant professor of theology at Princeton Seminary from 1929-1930.  He followed in the tradition of the Hodges and Warfield.  Because of the struggle at Princeton between historic Christianity and theological liberalism, in 1939 Murray followed J. Gresham Machen, O. T. Allis and R. D. Wilson to the newly formed Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.  There he taught Systematic Theology to generations of students until 1966.

Making Sense of the Psalms

For someone who has never seen a hymnal the Trinity Hymnal may at first appear to be a random collection of songs for Christian worship and instruction.  Upon closer inspection, however, one begins to discern that these songs are not just thrown together, but are carefully arranged around certain themes.  For example, a glance at the Table of Contents demonstrates that the hymns are grouped under the following major headings: God, The Holy Trinity, God’s Work, God’s Word, Jesus Christ, The Holy Spirit, The Church, The Way of Salvation, The Christian Life, Special Topics, and Service Music.  There are, of course, subheadings which group the songs even more closely by theme, such as, God – His Perfections (hymns 1-23).  Turning to the indexes, one can also find the hymns organized by tune, meter, author, numerous topics, and Scripture references.  Looking up Isaac Watts (1647-1748) with his thirty-six hymns in the Trinity Hymnal reveals both his prolific hymn-writing and the Church’s appreciation of his work.  For many of our hymns we owe our thanks to The Psalter, John Newton, and the Wesley brothers, John and Charles.  On the other hand, some of our most loved songs are the only ones by a given author in our hymnal, such as “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!” by Edward Perronet (1726-1792).  Of course, while authorship and tune are important, the thematic arrangement of the hymnal shows the greater importance that we attach to the content of our hymns.  Having said that, anyone who has ever tried to arrange songs by theme, will testify that it is not as easy as it may at first seem, since most songs contain a few key themes that could legitimately place them in several locations.  Where would you place “Jesus, Keep Me near the Cross”?  The Trinity Hymnal places it under Jesus Christ—His Death.  This makes sense.  But since the song is really about the application of the death of Christ to the Christian’s daily life it might just as well be placed under the heading of The Christian Life—God’s Refreshing Grace.  In addition to all of this, consider that the Trinity Hymnal, published in 1990, includes songs from as early as the Old Testament Book of Psalms right on up to the twentieth century.

Now, I’ve said all of this, not as a lesson on the Trinity Hymnal, but as an analogy for the Book of Psalms.  All of the Psalms are theological in the most proper sense, that is, they are about God—His glorious attributes and His mighty works.  Yet they speak not in abstractions about the being and works of God; the Psalms expound theology (i.e., worship) through the concrete realities—struggles and joys—of life.  There are many psalms about the king(s): coronation, troubles with enemies, victories in battle, covenant with David, and the hope of a restored dynasty.  There are psalms for pilgrims who are traveling to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.  There are psalms of lamentation, bemoaning the ruin of a sinful people, as well as penitential psalms in which the psalmists/people confess their sins and seek God’s forgiveness and favor.  There are psalms of praise as well as prayer.  Some of the prayers shock our modern sensibilities, such as the imprecatory psalms that call for God’s wrath to fall on the wicked oppressors of God’s people.

These psalms were written over a millennium, from the time of Moses (15th century B.C.) to post-exilic times (5th century B.C.).  There seem to have been shorter collections of these psalms prior to the final collection in the 5th century B.C., such as “The Prayers of David, the Son of Jesse”.  They were all brought together in the canonical book of Psalms sometime in the post-exilic era.

The order of the psalms is thoughtful and purposeful, not random.  Of course, it does not rise steadily to a climax of praise, progressing through a neat series of experiences with God.  It does end with a crescendo of praise, but the journey is much more like the Judean countryside with many ups and downs, rocky crags, narrow passes, and sights that are breathtaking both for their beauty and their peril.  If the book of Psalms were not “inscripturated” but incarnated, what would it look like?  I think it would look like a wise king who gains sovereign authority over all nations from God through the travail of suffering and death to the glory of his resurrection.  I think it would look like a man of sorrows who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  It would look like a man who embodies all the hope, joy and peace of his people, and who bears their sin so that they might enjoy life in the presence of God.  It would look like a beloved Son, a royal Son, an only Son, who seeks the glory of His Father, by bringing many sons to glory, redeeming all of creation in the process, that God may be all in all.  The Psalms, in the flesh, would look like Jesus.  The Psalms are part of our glorious inheritance in Christ.  Through our union with Him, these songs become ours.  Let us hear them, sing them, and own them as gifts from Christ for our pilgrimage to the celestial city.

Two helpful resources:

Geoffrey Grogan, Prayer, Praise, and Prophecy: A Theology of the Psalms (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2001).

Mark D. Futato, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007).

The Counsel of the Wicked

The first Psalm begins with these words, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked.”  The word “blessed” refers to the joy of life that every person desires.  So then, why are there so many miserable Christians?  One reason is that we all at times listen to and walk in “the counsel of the wicked.”  In other words, we bring misery on ourselves when we follow the advice of those who do not fear God.  Therefore, it behooves us to ask a few questions so that we might avoid the counsel of the wicked.  First, what is the counsel of the wicked?  Second, where does the counsel of the wicked come from?  Third, where does the counsel of the wicked lead?  Finally, how can we escape the counsel of the wicked?

 

What is the counsel of the wicked?

Job had to battle the seemingly plausible counsel of the wicked, who reasoned that God must not see or care, since the righteous seem to fare poorly while the wicked seem to be getting along quite well.  “Depart from us.  We do not desire the knowledge of your ways.  What is the Almighty that we should serve Him?  And what profit do we get if we pray to Him? (Job 21:14-16).  “What does God know?  Can He judge through the deep darkness?  Thick clouds veil Him, so that He does not see, and He walks on the vault of heaven. . . . Depart from us.  What can the Almighty do to us?”  (Job 22:13-18).  The strength of this argument of the wicked is in their seeming success.  Since it appears that God is not following through with His threats, the wicked tell each other what they want to hear.  Unknown to them is the fact that God has given them over to their folly: “So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels” (Psalm 81.12).    For a good example of this see the story of Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12:1-19.

 

Where does the counsel of the wicked come from?

  • Our own hearts—“But they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward.” “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 7:24; 17:9).
  • Impatience—“They did not wait for His counsel. But they had a wanton craving in the wilderness” (Psalm 106:13b-14a). Example: Saul’s impetuous offering – 1 Samuel 13:8-15
  • Demons – “I will confound their counsel; and they will inquire of the idols and the sorcerers, and the mediums and the necromancers” (Isaiah 19:3). “Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries, with which you have labored from your youth; perhaps you may be able to succeed; perhaps you may inspire terror. You are wearied with your many counsels; let them stand forth and save you, those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moons make known what shall come upon you. Behold, they are like stubble; the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame. No coal for warming oneself is this, no fire to sit before! Such to you are those with whom you have labored, who have done business with you from your youth; they wander about, each in his own direction; there is no one to save you” (Isaiah 47.12-15). “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:14-16).
  • Unregenerate hearts – Read 1 Corinthians 1-2

Where does the counsel of the wicked lead?

  • Opposition to the Word of God –“After Amaziah came from striking the Edomites, he brought the gods of the men of Seir and set them up as his gods and worshiped them, making offerings to them. Therefore the Lord was angry with Amaziah and sent to him a prophet, who said to him, ‘Why have you sought the gods of a people who did not deliver their own people from your hand?’ But as he was speaking, the king said to him, ‘Have we made you a royal counselor? Stop! Why should you be struck down?’ So the prophet stopped, but said, ‘I know that God has determined to destroy you, because you have done this and have not listened to my counsel.’” – Indeed, Amaziah was captured by Joash; and the temple treasury and all the kings treasuries were plundered and taken to Samaria (2 Chronicles 25.14-16). “They had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High” (Psalm 107:11).
  • Rebellion against God and Crucifixion of Christ—“The rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His anointed” (Psalm 2:2). “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill Him” (Matthew 26:3-4).“When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put Him to death” (Matthew 27:1). “Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus” (Matthew 27:20).
  • Destruction—“Let them fall by their own counsels” (Psalm 5:10).   “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:25).

How can we escape the counsel of the wicked?

  • Jesus Christ, the Wonderful Counselor—Isaiah 9:6
  • Holy Spirit—Isaiah 11:2 “Spirit of counsel and of might” (cf. 1 Cor 2:6-13)
  • Christ crucified—1 Cor 1:18-24 – “Christ crucified . . . the power of God and the wisdom of God”
  • Meditate on God’s Word—Psalm 1:3
  • Love Discipline—“Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid” (Proverbs 12:1).

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