The Alchemist

Before yesterday, I had never read “The Alchemist” nor even heard of it. I’m glad my ignorance has been undone. Patricia St. John has crafted something truly beautiful. Outside of biblical poetry and perhaps a few hymns, I can’t name another poem that has stirred my wonder more over the grace of God in Christ.

My Master an elixir hath that turns
All base and worthless substances to gold.
From rubble stones He fashions palaces
Most beautiful and stately to behold.
He garners with a craftsman’s skilful care
All that we break and weeping cast away.
His eyes see uncut opals in the rock
And shapely vessels in our trampled clay.
The sum of life’s lost opportunities,
The broken friendships, and the wasted years,
These are His raw materials;
His hands rest on fragments, weld them with His tears.

A patient Alchemist! He bides His time,
Broods while the south winds breathe, the North winds blow,
And weary self, at enmity with self,
Works out its own destruction, bitter slow.
Our gallant highways petered out in mire,
Our airy castles crumbled into dust,
Leaving us stripped of all save fierce desire,
He comes, with feet deliberate and slow,
Who counts a contrite heart His sacrifice.
(No other bidders rise to stake their claims,
He only on our ruins sets a price.)
And stooping very low engraves with care
His name, indelible, upon our dust;
And from the ashes of our self-despair
Kindles a flame of hope and humble trust.
He seeks no second site on which to build,
But on the old foundation, stone by stone,
Cementing sad experience with grace,
Fashions a stronger temple of His own.

From Patricia St. John Tells Her Own Story (Shoals, IN: Kingsley Press, 1993), 267.

What Do You Do in the Day of Trouble?

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“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Rembrandt, 1633

One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock. –Psalm 27:4-5

King David spoke of “the day of trouble.” He should know. His neighbors weren’t the sort who drop by to borrow sugar. No, their intent was a bit more malicious. Philistia and Co. wouldn’t have been happier than to see David’s head impaled on a stick. What did David do when threatened? What do you do in your own day of trouble?

MANY THINGS

Many things are worthless in the day of trouble. But that usually doesn’t stop us from doing them anyway. I’m speaking of fretting, pacing, jittering, sighing. Of biting nails and wringing hands. Of tumbling the problem around and around in our heads like shoes thunking in a dryer. Or, when weary of all that, of distracting ourselves with media and malls and munchies and a million other bromides. Just make it go away!

SOME THINGS

But not everything is worthless in the day of trouble. Some things are good, if they are done in faith. A brisk walk might help you, or hitting the gym, or running the trails at a nearby park. Sleep can put things in perspective too. You don’t need a psychology degree to discern that a lack of sleep frays your emotions. Trust God, and go to bed. Seeking counsel from godly friends also can be helpful.

For King David, add to these good things the drawing up of battle plans, mustering the army, and taking up the sword. You too may choose to pursue justice through means and authorities appropriate to our new covenant era. Whether the day of trouble is mild or severe, some things are good to do.

ONE THING

Yet, despite these good things, Jesus tells us that only “one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:42). King David says the same thing. In the day of trouble—and on every other day—our fundamental need is to be close to the Lord, gazing at his beauty and communing with him. No other thing, including those things that are good and necessary, rivals our need for this one thing.

In our day, gazing at God has everything to do with the gospel. The temple was but a shadow; Jesus is the substance. Were David to make his same request after the cross and resurrection, he would no longer ask to enjoy God’s presence in a place but in a person. We behold the beauty of the Lord in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:6).

Ask God for the one thing. Ask him, for he loves to give good gifts. Then seek after the one thing by faith, with your Bible open and the word filling your mind. Redirect your gaze from your problem to the Lord. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face.

In beholding the beauty of the Lord, you will find yourself in the safest place you can ever be. You will find that you have power to do every other good thing you may need to do. You will find yourself persevering in the day of trouble. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.

Come Close the Heart of Jesus: Read the Old Testament

Jesus knew the details of his death long before he was crucified. Consider the following specifics, which Jesus shared with his disciples before they arrived in Jerusalem:

For he [i.e., the Son of Man] will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise. (Luke 18:32-33)

Notice the precision of Jesus’ advance knowledge. He knew there would be mocking and shameful treatment; that someone would spit in his face; that the whip would tear his back to shreds; that he would be crucified. Jesus even knew that he would rise again on the third day.

How? How did Jesus know these details, all of which came to pass? What is the explanation of his prescience?

Some will answer, incredulously, “Well, of course Jesus knew these details! He was God in the flesh! He knew everything!” It’s true that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God, who possessed startling prophetic insight through the Spirit. But that’s not the best answer in this case. Listen to the explanation that Jesus himself gives for his foreknowledge:

And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.” (Luke 18:31, emphasis mine)

Jesus knew the details of his death because he had read the Bible.

Jesus knew the Bible. He had heard and read and memorized the Scriptures all his life. His self-understanding and God-appointed mission had come into focus through the word of God. The details of Jesus’ death were known to him not solely because he was the second person of the Trinity, but because he had read them in the Bible.

1. Jesus knew he would be crucified.

He had read of the bronze serpent lifted on a pole and knew it was a prophetic type of his own death (Numbers 21:9; John 3:14-15). He knew, as a curse-bearer, that he would be hanged on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:23).

2. Jesus knew he would be killed by the Gentiles.

He had read the prophecy of David: “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (Psalm 22:16-18; see Matthew 15:22-28 for a clear indication that Jesus understood the metaphor of dogs to include Gentiles).

3. Jesus knew he would be mocked, spit upon, and flogged.

He had read Isaiah’s prophecy: “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).

4. Jesus knew he would be raised from the dead.

He had read David’s prophecy: “My flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (Psalm 16:9-10; see also 30:3; 49:7-15; 68:20).

He had read Daniel’s prophecy: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

He had read Isaiah’s prophecy: “When his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:10-11; see also 26:19).

5. Jesus knew he would rise on the third day.

He had read of Jonah being three days and nights in the belly of a great fish, and understood this to be a prophetic type of his own death and resurrection (Jonah 1:17; Matthew 12:40).

He had read Hosea’s prophecy: “Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (Hosea 6:1-2; see also 13:14).

Jesus knew the details of his death because he had read the Bible.

That’s neat, but what does it mean for us? To begin with, it means that we can trust the Bible. All that was written about the Son of Man was indeed accomplished. The prophecies came to pass. We can confidently build our lives and stake our eternal future on every word God has spoken.

Additionally, it means that we must learn to read the Bible the way Jesus did. Jesus understood that the Bible was speaking of him. We go astray in interpretation when our dominant impulse is to understand every verse in light of ourselves. Following Jesus’ own method of interpretation, we must first understand how Scripture finds its fulfillment in him. Only then can we make accurate application to our own lives. In other words, a sound interpretive path isn’t BIBLE VERSE(S) ► US. Rather, it’s BIBLE VERSE(S) ► FULFILLMENT IN JESUS ► US.

Finally, it means that one way of getting close to Jesus is to read the Old Testament. Read the New Testament too, by all means! But don’t minimize the value of the Old Testament in getting to know Jesus. After all, the Hebrew Scriptures were Jesus’ Bible. As Christopher Wright thrillingly puts it, you can be aware of this every time you open the Old Testament:

These are the words [Jesus] read.  These were the stories he knew. These were the songs he sang. These were the depths of wisdom and revelation and prophecy that shaped his whole view of ‘life, the universe and everything’. This is where he found his insights into the mind of his Father God. Above all, this is where he found the shape of his own identity and the goal of his own mission. In short, the deeper you go into understanding the Old Testament, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus.

The Old Testament may be a surprising place to come close to the heart of Jesus, but it is a sure place.

One Greater Than Samuel

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Luke concludes his childhood narratives of Jesus with the famous words:

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:52)

This is not the first time words like these are used in Scripture. We find a strikingly similar version of them a millennium earlier, used to describe another young boy:

Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man. (1 Samuel 2:26)

Coincidence? No way. In describing Jesus, Luke is deliberately echoing the words first attributed to Samuel.

The connection between Jesus and Samuel becomes even stronger when other parallels between the two are noted. Consider, for example, the miraculous peculiarity of each child’s conception. Much is made of the fact that Hannah, Samuel’s mother, is barren until the Lord opens her womb (1 Samuel 1). Mary, of course, is a virgin who experiences the uber-miracle of conception, being overshadowed by the power of the Most High himself (Luke 1:26-38).

Then there is the matter of the mothers in prayer. Both Hannah and Mary exult in God over the gift of their child. Now that in itself isn’t unusual. We would expect that believing women would pray, especially when they know their pregnancies to be miraculous. What is unusual about the prayers of these two mothers is that they are recorded for us in detail and are remarkably similar in content (cp. 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Luke 1:46-55). In fact, Mary seems to be directly alluding to Hannah’s prayer in her own prayer.

One other parallel is worth noting. The structure of the narratives of Samuel and Jesus follow a similar pattern leading up to their public ministries. In 1 Samuel, the narrative clearly alternates between Samuel and Eli’s sons, setting up a contrast between the two (1 Samuel 1-3). Equally clearly, Luke takes the same approach in crafting his narrative, alternating between John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 1-3). This similarity of structure could simply be a mark of good storytelling. But given the deliberate echo of 1 Samuel 2:26 in Luke 2:52, plus the additional parallels of miraculous pregnancies and the mothers’ prayers, I believe we are right in detecting another parallel in the structures of the stories themselves.

The conclusion seems obvious: Luke is making an intentional connection between Samuel and Jesus. The question is, Why?

The most likely answer is that Luke sees Samuel as a type of Christ.  By type I mean a shadow, the substance of which is found in Jesus.  As Jesus would say of himself that “something greater than Jonah is here,” and, “something greater than Solomon is here” (Mark 12:21-22), Luke is saying of Jesus that something greater than Samuel is here.

That’s how types work. The original figure is similar in some way to the reality to which it points; but the reality, when it arrives, is greater. So, Jesus is like Jonah, only Jesus’ call to repentance is more momentous than Jonah’s. Jesus is like Solomon, only Jesus’ wisdom exceeds that of Solomon. And in the Gospel of Luke we are learning that Jesus is like Samuel … but in what way?

These two men, Samuel and Jesus, are alike in the transitions they represent. Samuel was a pivotal figure in the history of redemption, serving as a bridge between the judges and the monarchy. Kingship came through Samuel, and along with it the promise of an eternal King. Israel would never be the same.

Like Samuel, but greater, is the transition that comes in Jesus. To say that Jesus is a pivotal figure in the history of redemption is an understatement. Jesus fulfilled the old covenant and established the new covenant in his blood. He is the long-awaited King, whose coming has changed not only Israel but the world.

No wonder Luke echoes the person of Samuel in introducing us to Jesus. A new era dawned with each of these men. But Luke’s point is that In Jesus, one greater than Samuel is here.

It Matters Where You Look

Remember, therefore,

it is not your hold of Christ that saves you—it is Christ;
it is not your joy in Christ that saves you—it is Christ;
it is not even faith in Christ, although that is the instrument—

it is Christ’s blood and merits; therefore,

don’t be fixing your eyes so much on your hand with which you are grasping Christ, as on Christ;

don’t be looking at your hope, but to Jesus, the source of your hope;

don’t be looking to your faith, but to Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith.

We shall never find happiness by looking at our prayers, our doings, or our feelings; it is what Jesus is, not what we are, that gives rest to the soul.

If we would at once overcome Satan and have peace with God, it must be by “fixing our eyes on Jesus.” Simply keep your eye on Him; let

His death,
His sufferings,
His merits,
His glories,
His intercession,

be fresh upon your mind;

when you wake in the morning look to Him;
when you lie down at night look to Him.

Oh! don’t let your hopes or fears come between you and Jesus; follow closely after Him, and He will never fail you.

       My hope is built on nothing less
       Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness:
       I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
       But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

— Charles Spurgeon, “June 28 – Morning,” Morning and Evening

What Happened on the Third Day?

Jesus knew that his resurrection would occur on the third day. He knew this detail not merely because he was the Son of God, but because he had read it in the Scriptures. Luke makes this plain:

And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” (Luke 18:31-33, emphasis mine)

JONAH AND ISRAEL

Where in the Scriptures did Jesus learn that he would be raised on the third day? Two Old Testament references seem certain, the first of which is Jonah. Jesus had read that Jonah was in the belly of a great fish for three days and nights, and he understood this to be a prophetic type of his own death and resurrection (Jonah 1:17; cp. Matthew 12:40).

Secondly, Jesus had read Hosea’s prophecy: “Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (Hosea 6:1-2; see also 13:14). At first glance this reference to Jesus’ resurrection on the third day seems far-fetched. The text is talking about Israel, not Jesus. Or is it? We know that when Matthew read Hosea, he understood Israel to be a type of Christ, speaking of events in Jesus’ life as being a fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy (Hosea 11:1; cp. Matthew 2:15). Considering that Matthew learned how to interpret the Scriptures from Jesus, it’s easy to imagine Jesus himself having read Hosea’s prophecy of a third-day resurrection in reference to his own life as the Son of God.

CREATION

There is perhaps a third place in the Scriptures that Jesus would have learned about resurrection on the third day. In his excellent book, Rejoicing in Christ, Michael Reeves notes that resurrection is suggested in the third day of creation. Reeves discerns this from the apostle Paul, who calls Jesus the “firstfruits” of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20), and who speaks of resurrection in terms of “seed” springing forth from death to life (15:35-38). It is rather startling to realize (at least it was for me) that Paul seems to be deliberately drawing this fruit and seed imagery from the third day of creation:

And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. (Genesis 1:11-13)

Michael Reeves makes the connection:

There on the third day of Genesis 1 we see the first fruits of creation (as Christ, raised on the third day, would be the first fruit of the new creation, of resurrection from the dead). These “firstfruits” each reproduce “according to their kinds” because they have seed—the next generation—within them. Thus what happens to the fruit happens to the seed. So it is, says Paul, with Adam and Christ. They are the firstfruits of two very different crops: one of death, the other of life.

Paul seems to understand the third day of creation as analogous to the resurrection of Jesus, which occurred on the third day. One can only wonder whether Jesus made the same connection. When speaking of his impending crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus used similar agricultural imagery: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus doesn’t mention the third day of creation in this statement, but his association between fruit-bearing grain and resurrection is apparent. Whether or not the third day of creation was in Jesus’ mind, the clear allusion is made by Paul, who draws on the third day of creation to describe the resurrection of Jesus.

SO WHAT?

What is the significance of this possible connection between the third day of creation and Jesus’ resurrection on the third day? Maybe it just gets filed away in the “things-that-make-you-go-hmm” category. You have to admit that the connection is at least plausible and incredibly interesting.

The connection also shines light on how Jesus and the apostles read the Scriptures. If they had a Bible like ours in hand, they would have drawn lines between the testaments in ways that we have been taught not to draw lines. They discerned prophecies and types and, in this case, analogies where our strict historical-grammatical approach often leads us to discern nothing of what they saw. Perhaps our approach is too wooden. I’m not suggesting that we throw off all hermeneutical restraint in response. But we should at least be willing to grant that Jesus and the apostles read the Hebrew Scriptures correctly, and that therefore we can sit at their feet and learn from them. Let us study their allusions, and chase down the cross-references, and see if we can’t learn how to read the Bible through their eyes.

Perhaps most importantly, the potential connection between creation and resurrection on the third day should lift up our hearts in wonder. God’s word is amazing! God’s design in creation is amazing! God’s orderly control of events is amazing! God is amazing! Every day there are wonders to behold in the Scriptures that cause our souls to sprout up in life … like a resurrection.

May God open our eyes to see.