Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Our imprecatory prayer: "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus."

There is no question that the New Testament speaks about the judgment of the wicked and even does so with an anticipatory voice. But...the bigger point shouldn’t be lost, even when one points to possible instances of imprecation in the New Testament: Christ has fulfilled the Psalms... and those Psalms cannot be sung the same way as a Jew in the OT would have sung them, as if nothing has changed. EVERYTHING has changed because Christ has come, lived, died, rose, ascended, and sat down on His throne. In fact, Christ has not only fulfilled the Psalms, he has fulfilled the entire Old Testament, including *how* warfare is waged under His banner.

The question then becomes, “what has changed in the New Covenant?” It’s a question that we always ask when we attempt to interpret the Old Testament through the cross, resurrection, and enthronement of Christ. And as we consider this question, we must not fail to recognize the Old Covenant reality that the imprecatory prayers were inseparable from Israel’s command to wipe out her enemies. Give the theonomists credit for acknowledging this. Part of the imprecatory plea is, "God, deal with your enemies and deal with them through *me* or *us*." The context for the imprecatory prayers is the Mosaic economy in which the ultimate judgment against man, which was temporally suspended in the gracious provision of Genesis 3:15, is foreshadowed in the destruction of Israel’s enemies. Further, just as Christ is present in the sacrifice, Christ is present in the imprecatory Psalm. There is an expectation of the Old Covenant believer in immediate relief from His present enemies via divine judgment just as Christ will ultimately provide His saints relief from their persecutors (Rev. 6:10).

But this is the new covenant. This is not Israel’s theocracy. Like the Decalogue which is tied to the Mosaic era, we cannot simply take the imprecatory ethic and transfer or apply it into this *age*. Israel’s typology and eschatology, along with that typology and eschatology’s correlating ethics, are no longer applicable. Christ’s kingdom is here. Christ’s kingdom, unlike Israel’s, is not of this world. The warfare waged by God’s people is no longer against an enemy that we can see, but one we cannot. We do not fight with swords and spears (or slingshots and stones), but with the same weapon with which Christ waged war against Satan in the wilderness: the Word of God. The new hearts of the new covenant are protected with the breastplate of Christ’s righteousness. Our “beautiful feet” that spread the “good news” are outfitted with the “gospel of peace”. We are not destroying our enemies, but destroying the worldview strongholds of all that oppose our King with the message of the Good News. The church is not commanded to wipe out the nations who oppose King Jesus, but to take the Good News that is characterized by *peace*, that is, God’s reconciliation of His war against rebellious man through Christ who has satisfied the wrath that made war against man in the first place.

Not only has the warfare changed, so has that warfare’s impending judgment. For Israel to make war on her enemies, was to inflict God’s eternal judgment on peoples who were opposed to His people and His will through His people. To oppose Israel was to oppose the God of Israel, His redemption, His revelation, and the coming Messiah. In the New Covenant, *that* kind of judgment has been pushed back to Christ’s ultimate vindication of His people. With it, IMHO, is our imprecation. 2 Thessalonians reads like a polemic against the old covenant way of thinking about imprecatory prayer against those who are persecuting God’s people. 2 Thes. 1:4ff: “4 Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. 5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.”

In the face of persecution, Paul does not call on God’s immediate judgment on those persecuting the church, as he would have in the Old Covenant. Nor does he call on the church to protest or take up arms. He tells them that their persecution is a guarantee that avenging judgment will come in the person of Christ the Ultimate Judge. And when Paul has the opportunity to call down curses on those persecuting the church, he doesn’t. In fact, he is praying the church will be worthy of its calling to persecution: “11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thes. 1:11-12).

What is Paul’s hope for deliverance from persecution? It’s not in calling on God to rain down fire from heaven and immediate destroy his own persecutors and ease his suffering. No. His hope is in the gospel to change the situation. He asks the church, not to pray the imprecatory prayer, but to pray that the expansion of the gospel will deliver them from evil men: “pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, 2 and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men” (2 Thes. 3:1-2). Paul’s understanding of “tearing down the (worldview) strongholds” is for the word of the Lord to change things.

So when we consider what has changed in the New Covenant we must consider the question “who is the enemy of God”? Romans 5:10 tells us that “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God (that’s the *peace* of the gospel mentioned previously) by the death of His Son”. Ephesians 2:3 says that we were by nature “children of wrath”. Before our regeneration and before Christ’s mediation, we lived under the same impending judgment as those who are unbelievers. Romans 5 tells us that everything changed with Christ’s death... it is through Christ’s death and resurrection we are no longer enemies of God. As former enemies and recipients of the grace that has appeared bringing salvation to all men, we are called to “love our enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you”.

As Christ died, securing salvation for His people in pardon and forgiveness, he said: “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34) This is no mere one-time sentiment. As we mimic Christ’s life and death in our own lives of suffering and sacrifice, the same phrase is to be ever on our lips. This was not lost on Stephen (or Luke, who records both Christ’s words and Stephen’s), who cried out as he died “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Luke 7:60). Just as Christ did not call for a legion of angels to vanquish the Roman guards and set him free, Stephen does not call on fire to rain from heaven. After all, the one who has forgiven Stephen is standing as His advocate there in the courtroom of heaven. Stephen places Christ’s words on His own lips because Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. Stephen’s vindication is in Christ. It is Christ who will ultimately deal with Stephen’s enemies. This, too, must be our imprecatory prayer. We trust God’s sovereign providence to deal with Christ’s enemies as He sees fit. After all, Paul was among those for whom Stephen prayed.

Paul himself, time and again, employs Christ’s and Stephen’s example. Two former enemies of the gospel, Paul and Silas, sing praises not imprecatory songs in jail. This is because the Roman empire, in redemptive history, has taken a back seat so to speak, when it comes to *who* is an enemy of God. The enemies of God in the New Covenant are those who oppose His people, the church. And the text of the New Testament does not identify the common, nation entities among those enemies as it does in the Old Testament. Paul never speaks of the Roman empire or his pagan society as the enemy of God, even though it is quite clear that his culture is godless. God’s enemies in the Old Testament were those nations and people groups who were opposed to His people. To oppose Israel was to oppose the God of Israel, His redemption, and His revelation. The same is true of the New Covenant. God’s enemies in the New Covenant are those who oppose his redemption and revelation in Jesus Christ.

This isn’t to say that we cannot be confident or cannot pray and hope for Christ’s glory to be spread over all the earth and in its consummation, for God’s justice to be vindicated against His enemies. But even as the NT speaks of the coming judgment, there is a change in the way that the NT characterizes the enemies of God in the intrusion of God’s kingdom into the present world. The harsh, condemnatory language reminiscent of the imprecatory language of the OT in the NT is reserved for apostates... those who have, at one time, embraced the true gospel and now preach and teach a false one. Imprecation is in the backdrop of Hebrews 10:26-31: “26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” There is an expectation of judgment for the apostates. This is in keeping with many other passages in the New Testament that speak of judgment that awaits those who pervert the gospel message. However, before one falls prey to thinking the impending doom of the apostates requires the imprecatory prayer of the Psalms, we must consider this change in the New Covenant: that impending judgment is the final judgment of Christ’s second coming. This vengeance will be poured out at that great day of the wrath of the Lamb against scoffing false teachers and all who oppose Him (1 Cor. 5:5; Phil. 1:6,10, 2:16; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Thess. 1:10; 2 Tim. 1:18, 4:8; Heb. 10:25; 2 Peter 2:1,9/3:12; Rev. 16:17).

The intrusion of the eternal into the present via Christ’s resurrection and establishment of the Kingom in His church at Pentecost means the Old Covenant ethical forms are no longer normative. God’s enemies are no longer national and physical, but spiritual. The New Testament calls these enemies “antichrists” and “false teachers”. Paul fully expects the imprecation of Psalm 28:4 (via Psalm 62:12 and Prov. 24:12) to be carried out against false teachers such as Alexander the Coppersmith (2 Tim. 4:14), even as he himself is rescued and brought safely into Christ’s heavenly kingdom (2 Tim. 4:18). But this language of judgment against false teachers cannot be extended to the common grace experience of our present age. Even Christ warned against an Old Covenant imprecatory attitude toward those *we* believe to be our enemies. Christ rebuked James and John in Luke 9:54-55: “54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them.” James and John had forgotten Christ’s words in Luke 6:27-28: “27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” James and John did not live in an imprecatory era. The kingdom of Christ had already dawned. Christ expected the emergence of His kingdom and His impending fulfillment of the imprecatory to *change* how James and John thought of those who opposed them. For James and John to invoke the imprecatory was to revert back to the old ethic. And since the kind of judgment exacted on Israel’s enemies foreshadows the final judgment against all of God’s enemies, their invocation of the imprecatory was also attempt to speed up the final consummation before its time (not to mention that Christ had not yet himself fulfilled the imprecations of Old Testament judgment on the cross).

Why has everything changed? Because Christ, the grace of God, has appeared, bringing salvation to all men (Titus 2:11). Christ is the endpoint for all of history. All of the shadows in the Old Testament have been fulfilled in him, including the imprecatory Psalms. Christ is not only the culmination of salvation in redemptive history, but also judgment. And this isn’t just because He has been vindicated as Judge and Lord of the universe. This is because all of the judgment in the Old Testament, first and foremost, pointed forward to the judgment that was to be meted out on Christ, the bearer of God’s wrath on our behalf. The covenant curses, embedded in the imprecatory prayers of the Old Testament, have fallen on Christ (in fact, it is because Christ has borne God’s judgment that He has been vindicated as Judge). On the cross, Christ, in subjecting himself to the curses as a covenant-breaker, became God’s enemy and thus, experienced the judgment of God’s enemies. In taking the judgment for His people, he also secured the damnation of those who were not in Him. Thus, Christ’s judgment in the first advent portends the second advent in which those who are not “in Him” will undergo judgment.

Further, because we were “in Christ” in His death and resurrection, His experience is our experience. When Christ “died”, bearing God’s wrathful judgment, I “died” (Rom. 6:7-8, 7:4-6; Col. 2:20, 3:1-3). We were killed with Christ. When God vindicated Christ in His resurrection (Rom. 1:4), we arose with him (Col. 3:1). His death is our death. His resurrection is our resurrection. What David prayed to be true of God’s judgment on his enemies has been poured out on Christ and we were “in Him” when that occurred in time and space. His experience is our experience in Him. Our experience of those imprecatory Psalms is that God has exacted His judgment on our sin through Christ and now we enjoy His blessings. And as we await God’s ultimate judgment on all of his enemies, our prayers are to mimic our experience in the cross. Only at the final judgment will James and John be free to call fire down on God’s enemies without fear of rebuke. Indeed, such a call will coincide with the unmitigated and unveiled display of Christ’s shekinah glory, pronouncing eternal doom of the wicked.

And we pray the same for others who, outside of Christ, find themselves to be God’s enemies Romans 5:10). If they do not experience God’s judgment poured out on His Son as they die to sin and are made alive unto God, they someday will face that doom (we warn apostates about this impending doom in church discipline and excommunication, which foreshadows being cut off from Christ at the final judgment). On the cross, the curses were placed on Christ, who was then rejected by God as if Christ *were* the reprobate. Those who are not “in Christ” will themselves experience the judgment of those curses.

Everything has changed after Christ. The same fundamental paradigm changes we claim for the Decalogue, which has been exhaustively fulfilled in Christ, are also true for how we are to understand the Psalms, especially the imprecatory Psalms. The imprecations have been fulfilled in Christ. Christ as Judge, will carry out God’s judgment against those who were not “in him” when He himself bore God’s judgment. Our imprecatory prayer for God’s justice to be vindicated against His enemies and the glory of Christ to fill the earth (such as the one prayed by martyred saints in Revelation 6:10), *must* end with “Amen. Come *Lord* Jesus.” And then we give Christ all the honor, glory, and praise due Him for taking our sin, bearing God’s wrath, and robing us in a Righteousness that is not our own.