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I came home from vacation to find a box of books I had forgotten that I had ordered. There was a clearance sale. Some had arrived before I left for vacation and this was the balance of the order.

Since I’ve chosen to read The Works of John Newton this year, I decided to read some shorter books on a variety of subjects to broaden my reading for the year.

I decided to begin with The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God by Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book on the subject of the ascension. This is generally a neglected doctrine, at least among Protestants.

Yet, I thought this an unusual book for Tim Chester. I’ve liked other books of his, but this seemed to be a less practical and more theological topic. Robert Letham? Sure, I can see him writing a volume on the ascension. Tim Chester? Not so much.

This is not just a different subject than usual for Chester but also writing style. Perhaps it is the presence of Woodrow. It is not written in the more popular style that Chester typically uses. It is not quite academic either. It draws a good balance.

The book is a mere 3 chapters and 92 pages long. Don’t confuse that with being shallow or superficial. It certainly isn’t exhaustive, but it handles what it does cover well. There are some good footnotes with resources to use for further reading. Some may be hard to find. My first attempt at finding an older volume by Derek Thomas was futile, but there are other places for me to look.

The first two chapters cover Jesus as Ascended Priest and Ascended King. They anticipated my (and other’s) critique regarding the final chapter which was not Ascended Prophet but Ascended Man. I believe they could and should have added a 4th chapter covering the missing office of Christ. It bears discussion. This is one way in which the present volume is not exhaustive.

“Let’s be honest: the ascension of Jesus is weird.”

It is a nearly unique event that makes it difficult for us to talk about with people. We struggle to understand it, so how can we explain it to non-Christians. But we must for there is no Christianity without it!

I say nearly unique because in one of the few points of disagreement, I think God prepared us with taking up of Enoch and then Elijah.

In the introduction they address a few of the objections people may have to the idea of an ascension. Things like “Wouldn’t evangelism be a whole lot easier if Jesus was still on earth?”

“The ascension seems a bad strategy. It removes the key piece of evidence that substantiates the claims of Christianity.”

And so we see the struggle we can often experience as we consider the ascension. It is not simply the reward for a righteous man like Enoch (though it is that too). This is the removal from earth of the most important person who ever lived, the object of our faith. And that perhaps is the point- He’s an object of our faith, not our sight. But it is more significant that simply that.

“The ascension is the enthronement of Jesus. He receives all authority and sends us out to declare that authority to the world. The ascension is the beginning of mission.”

I thought the first chapter, Ascended Priest, was the best chapter. It moved me to worship as I read of Christ ascended as my Great High Priest carrying my name (among others) into the presence of the Father. A good amount of theology is covered in a short space. This is good biblical theology as they moved through the Old Testament to show greater fulfillment and types revealed in Jesus’ ascension.

They frequently connect this doctrine with our union with Christ. We are present before the Father because we are united to the Son who is physically present before the Father.

“Our presence before God is as certain as Christ’s presence before God. Our salvation is safe and secure as long as Christ is in heaven.”

Jesus is there, as our Priest, not only interceding for us but leading our worship. We worship not only on earth but in heaven because of our union with Christ. The Father hears our voice!

The authors then move to the subject of Jesus as our Ascended King who is currently subduing His enemies while we wake and sleep. He is re-establishing God’s rule on a rebellious planet from His seat at the right hand of the Father. He has and is accomplishing what no mere son of David could do.

They look at the Ascension “from above” by tying it into Daniel 7 as the Son of Man appears before the Ancient of Days in the heavenly court. This is legal coronation as He is invested with authority to rule. Earthly kingdoms are being superceded by the kingdom as the gospel is announced and trusted.

“If he’s enthroned in Jerusalem then He is just Israel’s king. No, Jesus is enthroned in heaven as the king of the whole world.”

The new Adam is not merely the son of God but the Son of God who comes “as the world’s king to rescue the world.” He reigns thru His people as they continue with the mission He gave in the Great Commission. In this they want us to see a bigger gospel than the individualized one. We do believe as individuals, but we become part of a bigger Story, a bigger Body and an everlasting kingdom. We are citizens of heaven, and citizenship is not a private thing but a public one.

They spend some time on the necessity of a bodily ascension instead of a spiritualized one. He is both King by virtue of divinity but also a human king sitting on the heavenly throne. He rules not only over “spiritual” realms but the material realm as well. Rather than immediately establish the kingdom in its fulness, Jesus left “earth to allow those who belong to the old age time to repent.” They explain the already/not yet aspects of Jesus’ reign well. The new age has begun while the old age continues until Jesus does return. We live within a great tension.

We can see this tension in a number of ways. Personally: we are at the same time righteous and sinners. We partake of the new age thru justification and sanctification. But we are not yet glorified until we are in His immediate presence. Justified by faith alone we not only seek to become righteous but thru the proclamation of the gospel bring others into the new age. We work to change the societies in which we live, reflecting the rule of Christ. But this won’t be completed apart from His return. We should neither “give up” because it will all “burn anyway” nor expect to usher in some golden age before the return of Jesus. We work for righteousness though we know it won’t be accomplished (there will still be poor, still be famine, still be racism etc.).

The third chapter, Ascended Man, was probably the least focused. It contains some important material. But the lack of an office creates a broader stroke. In some ways they try to cover too much territory and engage in some philosophical speculation.

The begin with the scandal of the ascended man by taking a look at John 6. He see a Messiah who came down from heaven, who promises resurrection to those who partake of Him, and the disciples will “see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!”. In the Ascension, the Son of Man is not going someplace He’s never been. He’s returning to His glory. But, He goes as Man blazing a trail for humanity. They express it as ‘making a place for humanity in heaven’. This idea of eternal bodily existence was scandalous to the Greeks who generally had a view of the body as a prison for the soul which is escaped in “salvation.” Our understanding of salvation is bodily.

“The ascension is the story of a body moving to heaven. It is not escape from the bodily realm, but the entry of humanity- in our physical-ness- into the heaven, the sphere of God.”

Here they get into discussing heaven and earth as “two separate planes that intersect” rather than heaven being “above” earth. He reminds us of Narnia, another world that intersected with ours so that at times people could move between them. In unpacking this they bring up theoretical physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Space, time and motion are about the relationships between things. This could be difficult for some to wrap their minds around.

Image result for lord's supperNext they address how the “absent Christ is present through the Spirit.” The ascension results in the outpouring of the Spirit as Jesus now engages in His heavenly ministry on earth. The humanity of Christ has not been transformed and omnipresent but is available thru the Spirit who dwells in His people making Christ present to them, preserving our union with Christ. This plays out in the Reformed understanding of Communion. Rather than confuse the natures of Christ, nor transfer attributes creating one new nature, we uphold the two natures of Christ but recognize how the Spirit mediates His presence with us and our presence with Him. Following Calvin they say: “It is not that Christ comes down to us in the Lord’s Supper. Rather, by the Spirit, we ascend to be with Christ in the Lord’s Supper.”

In ministry we are people in two places (earth and heaven) and two times (present age and age to come) through Christ. They differentiate between an ascensional ministry and an incarnational ministry. Like J. Todd Billings in his book Union with Christ, they critique incarnational ministry. There is a way to affirm this as loving people as Jesus did and serving them in their context. But we are not to think of ourselves as His presence on earth, as though He re-enters creation through us. They note: “Christ does not need a replacement body because He is still embodied.” We do not complete the Messianic task, He does.

Lots of distinctions are made in this section as they deal with some concepts common in evangelicalism. They want us to properly understand kingdom growth, not in spatial terms, but in the number of people who gladly enter His rule. Here they also discuss the “pilgrim principle” for our remaining time on earth prior to His return.

I found this to be a helpful book to introduce the meaning and implications of the bodily ascension. I am surprised that Tim Chester wrote a book on this subject (with Jonny Woodrow), but I’m mighty glad he did. Aside from some of the theoretical physics and their application in the Lord’s Supper via Calvin, this is an accessible book for normal people. They connect all this to our salvation, mission and Christian life such that this is not ivory tower navel gazing.

“Christ has taken our nature into heaven to represent us; and has left us on earth, with his nature, to represent him.” John Newton

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You might think it a challenge to review a book it took 3 years to read. You would be right. In this case it took 3 years to read a relatively short book. This was no John Frame tome. The problem was not the book, but my life. Other projects and books seemed of greater importance. This speaks not to the quality of this book but of the choices we all have to make.

The book of which I speak is Name Above All Names by Alistair Begg and Sinclair Ferguson. Though these two friends of Scottish descent and upbringing share a common love for Christ, they do have some differences in theology. These differences are not apparent here, nor should they be. It would be interesting if they wrote a book discussing their views of the Church and sacraments. But they wrote about Jesus Himself in this book.

You cannot really tell that two men wrote this book. Sometimes such books make references to this. For instance, sharing personal stories attributed to one of them. I don’t recall any of that (if it is there, it would be in the early chapters I read 2-3 years ago).

I would describe this book as a popular-level biblical theology focus on Christology developing 7 important titles or names of Christ in the Scripture.

“Standing in various pulpits in our native land of Scotland we have often seen words visible to the preacher but hidden from the congregation: ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ (John 12:21).” from the Preface indicating their purpose.

It is popular-level because you don’t need to be an academic, professional or theology nerd to understand this book. As pastors, their pastoral hearts and minds are on display as they put the cookies where the average Joe and Jane can reach them. This does not mean the book is superficial, it certainly is not. But it is in “plain English” so ordinary people can understand and benefit from the book.

It is a biblical theology because it traces each of these themes through the Scriptures. Systematic Theology summarizes a doctrine. This means it can flatten out nuance, but it keeps you from heresy. Biblical Theology, when done well, shows the development through the progress of revelation and its importance to the history of redemption. It is the basis for the summary, such that they are meant to go hand in hand. This is not mere proof-texting but developing your theology from the texts in question. This book is an example of Biblical Theology done well.

It deals with 7 titles of Christ to develop our understanding of Christ, 7 being the number of completion so (okay, I’m kidding about this last part). I wish there were more chapter. One of the reasons I started the book was due to an Advent series that addressed some of these, particularly the Seed of the Woman. Over the last few years a quote or two from this book would pop up in a sermon. In addition to Seed of the Woman, they cover Jesus as True Prophet, Great High Priest, Conquering King, the Son of Man, the Suffering Servant and the Lamb on the Throne.

Each of these has great redemptive significance and they do a great job of fleshing that out for us in the book’s 180ish pages. That means the chapters are a tad long for our microwave, ADD generation. But the pages aren’t big, or writing dense so you can do it. Really!

They start with the protoevangelium, the Seed of the Woman. In other words they start in Genesis, in the Garden. In doing so they instruct the reader on why we have a Christ-centered approach to understanding the Old Testament from the words of Jesus to 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus. As Ferguson notes in another book, From the Mouth of God, the OT is a development of this theme from Genesis 3:15. How is the coming of the Seed of the Woman to crush the head of the serpent developed, and resisted. This conflict initiated and sustained by Satan, that old dragon, marks all of history. Tucked into this chapter they talk about Jesus as the Second Adam so it is a 2 for 1 deal. The Seed of the Woman crushes the head of the serpent by doing what the First Adam failed to do.

Over the next 3 chapters they delve into one of my favorite subjects, the three-fold office of Christ: Prophet, Priest and King. Jesus reveals to us the way of salvation as our Prophet, is the way as our Priest who sacrifices Himself for us and continues to intercedes for us, and applies that salvation to us by subduing our hearts and then protecting & expanding His kingdom in this world. In many ways this reveals the on-going ministry of congregations and pastors (a book for another time).

In the chapter covering the Son of Man, they spend a great deal of time in Daniel 7 before they get to the Son of Man sayings in the New Testament. The focus is not on a man but on Jesus’ role as “man as he was created to be”, an eschatalogical figure who ushers in the kingdom of God.

The road to the Son of Man coming before the Ancient of Days runs through the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. His is a representative suffering. He suffers not for His own sin but for the sins of others. He suffers not to deliver Himself but to deliver others. Before the crown comes the cross. This theme is developed in each of the last 4 chapters. They want us to grasp the theology of the cross and reject a theology of glory. Just as Jesus suffered here, we will too. But just as He was exalted, we are exalted in union with Him. But our life here is marked with suffering just as His was.

The final chapter focuses on the final book of the Bible, Revelation, to develop the title of the Lamb upon the Throne. Revelation is all about this Lamb who reigns for the comfort of His Church in conflict with the counterfeit trinity and church.

They help us to see Jesus more clearly through their examination of these 7 names. The reader will better understand the nature of Christ’s work for us. They will better understand how the Bible fits together. Begg & Ferguson have produced a book well worth reading. Tolle lege!

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Still working through the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Here are the sections on the Covenant and Christ our Mediator.

Chapter VII: Of God’s Covenant with Man

80. What is a covenant (in terms of God’s relationship with man)?  It is a bond sealed in blood by which God has redeemed His people, and outlines how we are to live as His people.

81. What is meant by the “covenant of works” (or, “of life”)? Does it have a present validity?  It was the covenant under which Adam lived in the Garden.  It is the covenant under which we all fell into sin with him.  All who are in Adam remain in the covenant of works and shall experience the just condemnation due them.

82. What is meant by the “covenant of grace”?  It is covenant in which Jesus is offered as our Redeemer who perfectly obeyed in our place  that we might receive covenant blessings, and died in our place suffering the penalty for our sins committed under the covenant of works.

83. Explain the statement that there is one unified covenant of grace with various administrations. Distinguish from dispensations. The revelation of that covenant was progressive and expansive.  Each successive covenant provided greater clarity and blessing rather than replace previous covenants.  In dispensationalism, each successive dispensation replaces the previous dispensation.

84. What are the signs and seals of the covenant? Circumcision and Passover in the OT; Baptism & the Lord’s Table in the NT

85. Are you personally committed to covenant theology? Yes.

 

Chapter VIII: Of Christ the Mediator

86. Why is the office of Christ as Mediator necessary for the salvation of God’s elect?  Apart from the work of a Mediator, we perish in our sins.  God is just and he can’t just wipe the slate clean.  Someone must be punished for our sins, and we need real obedience to receive covenant blessings.

87. Could God have pardoned sin without Christ’s sacrifice?  No, for no mere man is able to perfectly obey God but sin each day in thought, word and deed.  God is just and must punish sin.  No other substitute was available.

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I was talking with someone about church planting the other day.  I’m trying to sort out my reasonable options in continuing to pursue another call in ministry.  So he was doing some quick assessment on the phone.  There was one question in particular that was quite interesting.

Are you a maintainer, reorganizer or starter?

Maintainer– this person maintains or administrates an organization, often to maintain the status quo.  They are not innovative or creative.  They may want to improve efficiency or effectiveness, but they will fiddle with the system rather than completely revise the system.  I guess I’d say this coincides with the priestly gifts.

Reorganizer– this person identifies the weaknesses in the system, including its goals, and works to redirect the organization to better goals and more effective processes.  As a result, this person is usually resented in the organization precisely because he/she threatens the status quo.  It coincides with the prophetic gifts in the church.

Starter– this person wants the ground floor opportunity, lacking the patience to change an organization.  They want to institute their structure and goals from the beginning.  It would coincide with the kingly gifts, and would include most church planters.

I can see a reorganizer starting a church when they grow frustrated by resistance to change in existing, established churches.  Since the reorganizer is not always welcome, and may have a difficult time finding a call, they may decide to plant.

Me?  Reorganizer!  I don’t see myself as being able to start ex nihilo.  I need raw materials to reshape and expand upon.  I was constantly trying to reorganize the church (which no doubt was frustrating to those who found comfort in the status quo) to refocus us on God’s agenda done God’s way.  On a staff, I will be the guy who consistently calls the congregation to rethink, refocus and reorganize to become increasingly faithful to Christ.  Not always welcome, but important (as are the starter & maintainer).

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The last chapter of Dan Allender’s Leading with a Limp addresses the offices of prophet, priest and king.  In the Old Testament, God led his people through men occupying those 3 offices.  They were typically anointed to their office, and functioned as types of Christ.

In his earthly and heavenly ministry, Jesus perfectly fulfilled those 3 offices for the benefit of his people and his own glory.  But that is not the end of the story.

“Interestingly, each of us has skills and gifts that place us primarily in one category- prophet, priest, or king.  Sadly, the crisis, complexity, betrayal, loneliness, and weariness of leadership transform most prophets into trouble-makers, most priests into dogmatists, and most kings into dictators.  Mystery and chaos send leaders spiraling into efforts to manipulate and manage the world without drawing on faith, hope and love.  Consequently, our striving for order and meaning must be interrupted by a prophetic voice that will sing cacophony to undermine our idolatry.  Prophets challenge kinds to fight injustice rather than devour the poor, and they call priests to speak of hope for reconciliation instead of promising peace without the necessary honesty regarding sin.”

Allender quotes Francis Turretin in noting that the offices match our threefold misery produced by sin- ignorance, guilt and bondage/oppression of sin).  Jesus frees his people from all three.  As a Christian leader, I need other leaders to help me apply all of them to the Body as Jesus intends.

“God, however, loves to use our strengths to get us into situations where our weaknesses are exposed and used for his glory. … In exposing and using our weaknesses like this, God reminds us again and again of our dependency on him and directs our praise to the only One who is worthy of it.”

One thing I take from that is that only Jesus is essential for the existance of the church.  But he uses people like me for the well-being of the church.  In part, he does this by revealing that they cannot depend on me.  I’m finite, and sinful.  They need me only as much as I point to him.

He reminds us of the balance between the gifts in the congregation.

“God also intends for those three roles to be represented in an organization by different people, and I am called to create space in our organization for all three roles.”

This threatens our pride and self-sufficiency.  It means we will be challenged with other valid viewpoints.  It means things will get messy at times as leadership works through issues to pursue the purity, peace and prosperity of the church.  He handles their roles in reverse order:

  • King: Creating Life-giving Structure
  • Priest: Creating Meaningful Connections
  • Prophet: Creating Compelling Vision

Prophets are necessary to challenge the status quo (which often ticks people off).  This provides the proper goals for the structures and the relational connections.  He keeps the king honest lest he use power for his own means.  He keeps the priest honest lest he avoid needed conflict by accomodating everyone.  The priest reminds the king and priest that without love, it is all worthless.  The king reminds the priest and prophet that love and truth require action rather than just warm fuzzies.  Together they create a holy community on mission, and that is the goal.

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I recently had a dialogue with another pastor about the office of prophet, priest and king in church leadership.  He had been re-reading Dan Allender’s Leading with a Limp, chapter 14: Three Leaders You Can’t Do Without (wow, how did I not blog on that chapter?!).  He wondered what my primary & secondary gifting were (prophet-priest if you’re interested).  One of these days I may try to put my more theologically oriented material into a leadership oriented book working through these issues.

In the meantime, I visited Drew Goodmanson’s blog and he had links to the Acts 29 regional conference in Raleigh.  He and David Fairchild had some seminars working through this triperspectival view of leadership.  I highly recommend them after listening to them today.  The first was on the foundations of triperspectival leadership, and the second was on the applications of triperspectival leadership.  David provided some background into their church plant, the struggles they had and how they have benefited from applying John Frame’s triperspectivalism to church leadership.

Here are some thoughts I jotted down in my notebook to keep track of them:

“When you plant (a church) you’re reacting to something you think you’ve seen wrong in the church, so you’re in this heavy, heavy deconstruction mode.”  David relating advice given by Mark Driscoll

There are differences between how Jesus exercised His office during the Incarnation and how He exercises it now in His exaltation (yes, still incarnated).  For instance, while on earth He preached directly to the people.  In his heavenly prophetic ministry, He worked through the Spirit to complete the giving of Scripture and works through the Spirit in the preaching of the same Scripture.  In His earthly priestly ministry He offered up His body as the perfect sacrifice for sin.  In His heavenly priestly ministry He lives forever to intercede for us (Heb. 7:25).

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