Jesus, John the Baptist, and Redemptive-History (Matthew 3)

As we read about in Matthew 3, John the Baptist breathed in an “atmosphere surcharged with the thought of the end.”[1] In his mind his baptism was the final opportunity before “water” would be eschatologically outmoded by “the Holy Spirit and fire.” He thought that the time for repentance would reach its terminus with the appearance of the Christ—then water would be superseded by the Holy Spirit and fire, no longer for repentance but for final salvation and judgment.[2]

Jesus, however, steps onto the scene and rather than enacting a redemptive-historical transition to his eschatological baptism, he comes to be baptized by John. But John protests. Now his protest was not for them to reverse roles as if Jesus was simply to administer John’s own baptism of water. Rather, John believes that it was now time for his baptism to be superseded by the eschatological baptism of Christ.[3] In John’s eyes, the appearance of the Messiah alone was enough to transition redemptive-history into the eschatological era of the Messiah. His protest reveals he was ignorant of what must first be fulfilled in order for this to happen. This confusion over the timing and nature of Christ’s coming will persist with John and his disciples (9:9–13; 11:2–6).

In order to correct John’s redemptive-historical misunderstanding (or mistiming), Jesus responds, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness (Ἄφες ἄρτι, οὕτως γὰρ πρέπον ἐστὶνἡμῖν πληρῶσαι πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην, 3:15). The first clause (“Let is be so now”) affirms that John was correct to expect a redemptive-historical transition, but it was not yet time—more than just the appearance of the Christ was necessary. It was thus fitting for Jesus to be baptized now (ἄρτι) because he and John had not yet fulfilled “all righteousness” (πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην). If Jesus’ words are responding to this larger redemptive-historical timing issue, then it would seem natural to understand “all righteousness” here as including, but also going beyond his baptism to encompass all that he accomplishes in his life, death and resurrection. For it is only after these accomplishments that the transition John anticipated takes place and Christ commissions his disciples to baptize the nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (28:19).[4] Jesus, therefore, does not submit himself to John’s baptist as a mere example to be followed, but to propel redemptive-history forward in himself as the true Israel who repents not for his own sins, but for the sins of his people whom he came to save (1:21).

It is important to keep in mind that John does not administer a different baptism to Jesus; it is still a baptism with water for repentance on account of sin. Already the presence and problem of sin has been elucidated and deliverance from it has been tied to the mission of Jesus, the son of Abraham, the son of David (1:1). In Matt. 1:21 the people are understood not in the abstract, but specifically as those who belong to Jesus (“his people,” τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ) and who personally possess their own sins (“their sins,” τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν). How is someone saved from their sin? Forgiveness (see 9:2, 5, 6; 12:31). And how is someone forgiven? By the poured out blood of Jesus Christ (see 26:28). Therefore, the death of Christ was a necessary redemptive-historical accomplishment for John’s preparatory ministry and the eschatological shift that he anticipated (16:21; 17:22–23; 20:17–19)—much more than the mere appearance of the Messiah was necessary.

In Matt. 3:6 we read of people confessing (ἐξομολογέω) their sins as they are baptized by John. In relation to Christ and his work, sin is forgiven by him and on account of him. In relation to people, sin is confessed. The confession (or repentance) cannot be isolated from its Christological basis, the death and resurrection of Jesus, that makes it effectual for salvation.

But we may be able to say more than this, for Jesus himself undergoes John’s baptism with water for repentance. As the true Israel (cf. 2:15), he makes a true confession of sins, not for his own sins, but vicariously for the sake of his people he came to save. In fulfilling all righteousness, “[Jesus] had no other calling than to comply with the demands that God had imposed on every Israelite. … [So Matthew] brings out Jesus’ solidarity with the human race and, indeed, with sinners.”[5]

[1] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, 318.

[2] On the Holy Spirit and fire pertaining to salvation and judgment, respectively, see Herman Ridderbos, Matthew, 54. The same juxtaposition can be found in Ezek. 36:26–32; Joel 2:28–31; Zech. 12:9–10.

[3] Herman Ridderbos, Matthew, 57.

[4] It seems this is the same eschatological baptism expected by John, but now expanded to include the Father and the Son, possibly corresponding with the revelation of the Son by the Father and the Father by the Son (so 11:25–27).

[5] Herman Ridderbos, Matthew, 58–59.

Life as the Enjoyment of the Covenant Communion Bond: The Tree of Life

True life is the enjoyment of the covenant communion bond in face-to-face fellowship with God in his holy kingdom. This is no invention on man’s part, but the God-given reality from the very beginning (Gen. 1–3). In a previous post we drew this out by considering the garden of God. From this bird’s-eye view we now zoom in to the central feature in the midst of the garden: the tree of life (Gen. 2:9).

We’ll first consider the eschatological import of the tree (as it pointed to an escalated future reality) and then demonstrate how it reveals true life to consist in having God himself as your eschatological reward and kingdom inheritance (Rom. 8:17).

While man possessed life since the beginning when God breathed the breath of life into him and placed him in his garden-kingdom for life-giving fellowship, the tree of life was a symbol or token of a higher form of life that was offered to him.[1] As we noted in our previous post, life was not a fixed or static concept for Adam, but a redemptive-historical one that was to organically progress from its protological beginnings to an eschatological consummation of union and communion with God in perfect fullness and permanency. As Vos puts it, “The universe, as created, was only a beginning, the meaning of which was not perpetuation, but attainment.”[2]

In order to attain this eschatological blessing of escalated life and glory Adam was required to render unto the Lord perfect and personal obedience to his command, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16–17; WCF 7.2). The protological life of original communion with God in the garden-kingdom was not incorruptible, but corruptible; it was not irrevocable, but susceptible to removal in death. Herman Bavinck captures well the character of this probationary stage that Adam found himself tested in:

Adam … stood at the beginning of his ‘career,’ not at the end. His condition was provisional and temporary and could not remain as it was. It either had to pass on to higher glory or to sin and death. The penalty of transgressing the command was death; the reward for keeping it, by contrast, was life, eternal life. Our common conscience already testifies that in keeping God’s commands there is great reward, and that the violation of these commands brings punishment, and Holy Scripture also expresses this truth over and over. It sums up all the blessedness associated with the doing of God’s commandments in the word “life,” eternal life. Both in the covenant of works and that of grace, Scripture knows but one ideal for a human being, and that is eternal life (Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11; Ps. 9:13; Matt. 19:17; Luke 10:28; Gal. 3:12). Hence, Adam still stood at the beginning. As yet he did not have this reward of eternal life but still had to acquire it; he could still err, sin, fall, and die. His relation to God was such that he could gradually increase in fellowship with God but could also still fall from it.[3]

The possibility of eschatological life (the consummation of the covenant communion bond with God) and death (separation from God) was symbolized in the two trees: (1) the tree of life and (2) the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to which certain death was appended (Gen. 2:17). Here we are first introduced to the polar forces of life and death as the two possible destinies of humanity. This life-death antithesis from here onward will run throughout redemptive-history and the apostle Paul will pick it up with full eschatological might (see Rom. 4:1–25; Rom. 5:1–11).

Life, as the enjoyment of the covenant communion bond, was not to continue in perpetuation, but would either be corrupted in death on account of disobedience or advance to a higher state of life beyond probation on account of obedience.[4] Vos affirms the “disclosure of the principles of a process of probation by which man was to be raised to a state of religion and goodness, higher, by reason of its unchangeableness, than what he already possessed.”[5] The higher state of life consisted of an unchangeable rectitude, being confirmed in holiness forever, and rising beyond the possibility of death in eternal life—all of this was to serve the communion bond with God.

As we have been saying, the tree of life was a sacrament through which God would convey eschatological life that was permanent and forever (Gen. 3:22). It is absolutely crucial to recognize that this promised reward of eternal life is not to be understood at any point apart from God himself, who is the comprehensive source of all life. The tree symbolized his life-giving presence.[6] More pointedly, the reward offered in the tree of life was nothing less than God conferring himself in a consummated communion bond in face-to-face fellowship with a holy people in his holy kingdom. True life, therefore, does not only have its source in God, but also its goal. As Vos puts it, “As it is strongly bound to God in its production, so it has a telic character directing it to God as its solitary goal.”[7] God himself is the eschatological reward of his people (see Gen. 15:1; Ps. 16:5; 119:57; 142:5; Rom. 8:17).

Our analysis thus far confirms the above point. Creaturely life has its archetype, source, and goal in the absolutely personal life of God, so that life can never be conceived of apart from him.[8] It is further confirmed when through a wider canonical lens the location of the tree of life is considered. The Genesis account informs us that it took root “in the midst of the Garden” (Gen. 2:9). In Revelation 2:7, the original tree reemerges in the paradise of God, that is, the restored and consummated kingdom of glory.[9] Then in Revelation 22:1–2 the tree of life is brought into the closest proximity with the throne of God and of the Lamb. It is from the throne that eschatological life is decreed in its consummate fullness, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (21:3).

In the same way the tree of life stood in close relationship to God, so the river that flowed out of Eden and divided into four rivers to water the garden (Gen. 2:10–14) will come to be referred to as the streams or waters of life. The waters are said to flow from God’s mountain dwelling place and also from the throne of God in the New Jerusalem with the tree of life on both sides (Rev. 22:1–2). In light of this, Vos’s comment is apt:

It will be observed that here the two symbolisms of the tree of life and the waters of life are interwoven. … The truth is thus clearly set forth that life comes from God, that for man it consists in nearness to God, that is the central concern of God’s fellowship with man to impart this.[10]

Both the tree of life and the waters of life point to the One who is the source and goal of life. The eschatological reward of life promised to Adam was nothing less than God promising to confer himself in a consummate communion bond of face-to-face fellowship to his holy people in his glorious kingdom. This conception of life is inherent to the Genesis account itself and enhanced with the clarifying light of later biblical revelation. So Vos can rightly state about the apostle Paul,

The tree of life and the other tree and the primeval paradise and the fall and death and the expulsion from the garden on account of the sin committed, all these are present in the scriptural narrative, and a single glance at Rom. v is sufficient to convince of the fact, that in the most fundamental manner they support (qua history) the entire eschatology of Paul. And the Apostles’ eyes were centrally focused on life and death in their forever interacting force.[11]

[1] On the nature of symbols and tokens see Vos, Biblical Theology, 27: “It is largely symbolical, that is, not expressed in words so much as in tokens; and these tokens partake of the general character of Biblical symbolism in that, besides being means of instruction, they are also typical, that is, sacramental, prefigurations conveying assurance concerning the future realization of the things symbolized. The symbolism, however, does not lie in the account as a literary form, which would involve denial of the historical reality of the transactions. It is a real symbolism embodied in the actual things.” On the tree of life as a sacrament see Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992), 1:580–82; Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 1: God, Man, and Christ, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 1:259, 362–63.

[2] Geerhardus Vos, The Eschatology of the Old Testament, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 73.

[3] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:564–65.

[4] Meredith Kline speaks of the tree of life as a symbolic “reproduction of the theophanic Glory-Spirit” and the “sacramental seal of man’s participation in the glory of immortality” (Kingdom Prologue, 93).

[5] Vos, Biblical Theology, 27. See Vos, Eschatology of the Old Testament, 73; Collins, Genesis 1–4, 115.

[6] This point is especially clear with the reemergence of the tree of life in Rev. 2:9 and 22:1–4. See G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 235.

[7] Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 309. Vos notes an organic consistency in biblical revelation on the concept of life: “What lends confirmation to thus joining the earlier and later is the emphasis placed upon the divine favor as an indispensable concomitant of the eschatological life. The concept of life would never have obtained in the Old Testament its comprehensive and pregnant significance, had it not from the outset been wedded to the profoundly-religious thought of prospering in the favor of God” (307).

[8] Death also can never be conceived of apart from God as it is nothing less than separation from God.

[9] See Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 94.

[10] Vos, Biblical Theology, 28.

[11] Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 304.

The Burden of Blood

I always remember Leviticus 17:11, probably for personal reasons. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”

When I was a boy, as my father was building our house, I tried to hand him a hard-wire brush while he was climbing down a ladder. He didn’t see me coming. When he turned his face towards me, the brush bumped into his nose, and one of the fine silver quills stuck into his skin. When he pulled it out, there was a drop of blood the size of a pinhead, a tiny dark purple dome that entered the open air and almost whispered, “No . . . no.” Blood is not meant to go on the outside. It maintains its vitality by being concealed. Blood is meant to be covered.

It is also meant to move. Years later, I stood with my brothers and mother in our living room, watching my father die. The tumor had grown, had taken too much, as cancer always does, and now his respiratory system, the last remaining function of his body, was shutting down. I will never forget the moment when the hospice nurse told us the number of breaths he had left at the end: three. I have never counted down from three that way before, silently, surrounded by those who shared my own blood. After the last air left his lungs, his flesh grew paler. It was the blood stilled, the heart no longer thudding that took the color from his skin. That, I believe, is when his soul made an exit. When blood settles and ceases to flow, the soul must go, for our souls, like tired dogs, seek out the ancient scent of life that resides in the Spirit of God.

Blood, in a sense, carries a burden. It carries life—a divine gift as mysterious as it is requisite. In God’s great providence, it is the only thing that can atone for sin, that can cover a transgression, that can restore the divine-human relationship. For years, this has puzzled me to the core. How can red liquid have the potency to prevail over darkness and death by the burden it bears? Why does blood atone for sin?

I cannot help ruminating. I think the atoning power of blood has something to do with giving up the burden of life, effected by ending the two qualities of blood: its internality and movement. When blood is shed, the inside comes outside, and the movement ceases. Sanctity is uncovered and stilled. The blood can thus no longer bear its burden, the burden of sacred life, which has its ultimate origin in God (cf. John 14:6). So, that life is set free to do the impossible, to do spiritually what God has done physically from the beginning: separate light from darkness (Gen 1:4), separate image-bearing sinners from the evil they have done.

In the mysterious, God-governed process of atonement, we can easily forget that it is not blood in itself that atones, for blood only “makes atonement by the life” (Lev 17:11). It is life that rights a wrong and restores the morally destitute. It is life that breaks the power of sin and death (Rom 6:9–10). That is why we look with hope toward the day when all that is scarred by sin is “swallowed up by life” (2 Cor 5:4). Even more mysterious and glorious is the truth that this life is tri-personal: the Father of the living (Mark 12:27), who gave the Son of life (John 1:4; 14:6), by the life-giving Spirit (John 6:63; Rom 8:10; 1 Cor 15:45)!

In this light, the beauty of Christ’s blood takes on a new aura. Every drop of blood from Christ’s body, every red-lined laceration, every tear in his skin was an instance of holy blood giving up its burden, the burden of life. It is only by that burden that we are re-born. It is only by life that we inherit life. That is why we can say, “Soul works covering for soul.”[1] The life of one soul can vicariously atone for the life of another precisely because blood gives up its burden.

Blood is no little thing. It carries, in the end, the weight of the world, and salvation of every sinner.

[1] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (1948; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014), 165.

Am I Free If God Is Sovereign?

God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom are often thought to be in competition with one another in a sort of zero-sum game: either God is sovereign or I am free. This has led to thinking that there are only two basic options on the table to chose from.

Option #1: God’s sovereignty is limited by man’s freedom. Man’s moral and rational capacities are withdrawn from the eternal decree of God and given an independent and autonomous significance and existence.

Option #2: Man’s freedom is eliminated by God’s sovereignty. Man’s moral and rational capacities are wholly determined by the eternal decree of God and cease to have any real significance or existence at all.

The first option is correctly labeled “Arminianism.” The second option is often thought to be the teaching of “Calvinism,” but is actually in fundamental disagreement with Calvinism. It is a kind of fatalism or determinism, which Calvinism has properly rejected full force. Both options fail to maintain the basic Creator-creature distinction, which has led to the assumption that God’s freedom and man’s freedom are qualitatively the same. Hence, the zero-sum game. Accordingly, where one is free the other is not. So while options 1 and 2 seem to affirm totally opposite positions, they are actually both situated on the same rationalistic spectrum, just at opposite ends.

Calvinism rejects this rationalistic spectrum entirely and provides us with a third option that is most consistent and faithful to God’s revelation in Scripture.

Option #3: Man’s freedom is established by God’s sovereignty. Man’s moral and rational capacities are created and maintained within the eternal decree of God and therefore have real existence and significance.

Whereas options 1 and 2 begin with man’s reasoning, Calvinism begins with God’s Word. It does not claim to solve the mystery, but properly relates God’s sovereignty and human freedom as friends, not enemies. God’s sovereignty does not eliminate man’s freedom, nor does man’s freedom limit God’s sovereignty, instead God’s sovereignty establishes man’s freedom.

This is encapsulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (3.1).

Herman Bavinck also avoids the rationalism that would set God’s freedom and man’s freedom in opposition to one another, rather than understanding the former to “create” and “maintain” the latter.

“If God and his human creatures can only be conceived as competitors, and if the one can only retain his freedom and independence at the expense of the other, then God has to be increasingly restricted both in knowedge and in will. Pelagianism, accordingly, banishes God from his world. It leads both to Deism and atheism and enthrones human arbitrariness and folly. Therefore, the solution of the problem must be sought in another direction. It must be sought in the fact that God—because he is God and the universe is his creation—by the infinitely majestic activity of his knowing and willing, does not destroy but instead creates and maintains the freedom and independence of his creatures” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:376–77, emphasis mine).

Geerhardus Vos likewise understands God’s sovereign decree not to destroy or limit but to establish and ground man’s freedom.

“God’s decree grounds the certainty of His free knowledge and likewise the occurring of free actions. Not foreknowledge as such but the decree on which it rests makes free actions certain” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:20).

“…God can realize His decrees with reference to His creatures without needing to limit their freedom in a deterministic manner. Their free acts are not uncertain and the certainty to which these acts are connected is not brought about by God in a materialistic, pantheistic, or rationalistic manner. As the omnipresent and omnipotent One, the personal One, He can so govern man that man can do nothing without His will and permission and still do everything of himself in full freedom. When God sanctifies someone, He is at work in the depths of his being where the issues of life are, and then the sanctified will acts of itself and unconstrained outwardly no less freely than if it never had been under the working of God. The work of God does not destroy the freedom of the creature but is precisely its foundation” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:90–91, emphasis mine).

Cornelius Van Til employs the archetype-ectype distinction and the Reformed covenantal structure to uphold both God’s freedom and man’s freedom in their proper relation.

“Our view of man as the spiritual production of God points to God as the archetype of all human freedom. Human freedom must be like God’s freedom, since man resembles God, and it must be different from God’s freedom since man is a finite creature. In God, then, lies the archetype of human freedom. … We are fashioned after God and our freedom after God’s freedom. But never ought we to lose sight of the fact that our freedom is distinguished from God’s freedom by reason of our finitude” (“Freedom,” 4).

“We found … that the Reformed covenant theology remained nearest to this Biblical position. Other theories of the will go off on either of two byways, namely, that of seeking an unwarranted independence for man, or otherwise of subjecting man to philosophical necessitarianism. Reformed theology attempts to steer clear of both these dangers; avoiding all forms of Pelagianizing and of Pantheizing thought. It thinks to have found in the covenant relation of God with creation the true presentation of the Biblical concept of the relation of God to man. Man is totally dependent upon God and exists with all creation for God. Yet his freedom is not therewith abridged but realized” (“The Will in Its Theological Relations,” 77, emphasis mine).

For more on this listen to this episode of Christ the Center in which we dive deeper into this topic with a consideration of Van Til’s representational principle.


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