What Should We Make of the Massive Repetition of Tabernacle Details in Exodus?

I used to lead a small group Bible study in my home. And when I proposed we study Exodus, people agreed to participate only if we stopped once we hit the Ten Commandments (chapter 20).

Some time later, I proposed preaching through Exodus at our church. Some of the other elders expressed concern that a chapter-by-chapter exposition would be too taxing for the people. They wanted assurance that we wouldn’t belabor the tabernacle details.

Over the years, I have heard from many friends, who attempted to read the Bible cover-to-cover, that they gave up in the closing chapters of Exodus (though I can think of some who made it as far as Leviticus or Numbers before abandoning ship).

These three anecdotes highlight a major barrier for modern readers: There’s no avoiding the fact that Exodus dedicates exorbitant space to the architectural details of the tabernacle. And those details occur not only once but twice. Every preacher must solve the conundrum of how to preach Exodus without preaching the same sermon(s) multiple times. Every Bible reader must cope with both the pile of cubits, fillets, calyxes, and ephods (Ex 25-31), and the pile of cubits, fillets, calyxes, and ephods (Ex 35-39). As my son loves to ask me: Pete and Repeat were in a boat. Pete fell out, and who was left?

If we believe that all Scripture is useful and profitable (2 Tim 3:16-17), and we are to take heed of what God has revealed about himself, how might we approach chapters 35-39 of Exodus? Will we simply skip them, trusting the lessons from Exodus 26-31 to be sufficient? Or does the Lord have more for us than that?

I have 6 suggestions.

1. Ask why the tabernacle has so many details.

I’ve tried to cover this in my sample Bible studies on each chapter, as I’ve landed on the big picture from the beginning: Yahweh wants to dwell with his people. Here in the tabernacle, we have one of the clearest pictures of Immanuel, God with us. This is worth much time, attention, and detail to ensure we comprehend the glory of it.

2. Ask why Exodus repeats nearly every one of those details.

God chose to give us this particular picture of Immanuel two times. Let’s not let it go to waste. After all, it’s not an exact repetition. First, Yahweh says “you shall build” so and so. Second, the narrator says “Bezalel built” so and so. That shift from instruction to construction must not go unnoticed. (For an example, just do a verse-by-verse comparison of the ark in Ex 25:10-16 and Ex 37:1-5.) Yahweh told them to do something, and they did it. Or more accurately: Yahweh told them to do a thousand somethings, and they did them all. Exactly as they had been told. Down to the jot and tittle. Even if Moses had written his scroll with fluorescent gel pens, he could not have made this obvious point any more vibrant.

3. Observe which parts of Ex 25-31 are not repeated in Ex 35-39.

Though there may be more, I’ve noticed three major things: the intent to dwell, the priests’ ordination ceremony (Ex 29) and the census tax (Ex 30:11-16). All three take on greater significance outside the book of Exodus.

Yahweh clearly states his intent to dwell with his people in Ex 25:829:45-46. While no such intent is stated during construction, this intent to dwell motivates Yahweh through the ages (Deut 31:23Josh 1:5Is 7:14Is 8:5-10Is 43:2Matt 1:22-23Matt 28:20, etc.).

The ordination instruction does finally find its twin in Leviticus 8, and the delay heightens the drama and anticipation for the event. Perhaps this ordination ceremony has more to teach us (about how to approach God) than first meets the eye.

The census tax (“ransom”) is never mentioned again, as far as I can tell. Numbers 1 and 26 narrate two censuses for the two generations of wilderness wanderers, and there is no mention of the tax there. But since Yahweh initiates both censuses, I assume they followed his instructions from Ex 30:11-16. But do you remember David’s fateful census that brought disaster on Israel (2 Sam 24, 1 Chr 21)? Have you ever wondered why it was such a terrible idea? If we didn’t skip over the boring parts of Exodus, we might have eyes to see both David’s failure to collect the ransom and God’s solution to replace the tabernacle with a permanent temple.

4. Observe which parts of Ex 35-39 are new material (not found in Ex 25-31).

Next week, I will focus my sample Bible study on these texts: Ex 35:1-29Ex 36:2-7, and narrative additions in Ex 39:1-31. They do not have counterparts in Ex 25-31, so they highlight the new angle on Immanuel that the Lord intends with Ex 35-39.

5. Compare and contrast the structure of the two sections.

Some things are similar. For example, the ark, table, and lampstand come in the same order (Ex 25:10-4037:1-24), indicating those three items should be taken as a unit. Same with all the priestly garments in Ex 28 and Ex 39.

But most of the structure is completely different. I’ve created an outline showing the differences to help me visualize it. Some key takeaways:

  • The construction begins exactly where the instructions left off: The Sabbath.
  • The instructions take the shape of seven speeches; the construction has no clear corresponding framework.
  • The instructions basically start on the the inside (ark, table, lampstand) and move out (furniture, structure, priests’ garments) before coming back in (more furniture, oil & incense); the construction follows a more logical course (build the tent, fill it with furniture, create the courtyard furniture, build the courtyard fence, end with priestly garments).
  • In light of the content and structural differences, it appears the instructions put more emphasis on the tabernacle as “new creation,” while the construction puts more emphasis on the people involved as “new creators”.

6. Follow the train of thought.

One danger of treating Ex 25-31 and Ex 35-39 as one long passage about the tabernacle is that we miss the crucial train of thought! The covenant is made in Ex 19-24. Then we have tabernacle instructions in Ex 25-31. Then the covenant is broken and repaired in Ex 32-34. Finally, the tabernacle is constructed.

The flow of thought highlights the crucial nature of the breaking and repair of the covenant in between the tabernacle sections. In other words, the only reason the construction can be so detailed, so faithful, and so obedient in every point, is because Yahweh has offered these people more of himself than they’ve ever had. He’s given them a greater, albeit fading, glory in the approval of his face. And he is closer to them than ever. This fact alone makes the tabernacle construction more earth-shattering and supernatural than the instructions were.

If Yahweh is not vulnerable and willing to give himself to his people, his instructions will always fall on deaf ears. But when he shows them his glory, full of grace and truth, they become Spirit-filled to do all that he commands them do. Exactly as he commands them to do it.

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Heb 13:20-21)



When I retired after more than four decades of college teaching and administrating, I expected certain people to give me a hard time. “So, the author of three books on vocation is retiring,” I could imagine them saying. “I thought you said work is a calling from God. Unless God canceled His call, how can you retire?” Actually, my friends have been supportive and haven’t thrown this in my face. But I have had to ask myself that question. Surprisingly, my retirement has brought me to a deeper sense of vocation.


Some say that Christians should keep working as long as possible because the Bible says nothing about retirement. But this is not completely true.

Under the law of Moses, the Levites had to retire from their work in the tabernacle at age fifty. “From the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more” (Num. 8:25). After Christ, the Levitical priesthood has given way to “the priesthood of all believers.” Since the Old Testament priests could retire, some might argue, all Christians can retire, and the retirement age should be fifty. But this surely stretches the application.

The Bible commands us to work, but it also commands us to stop working. “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,” the commandment says, “but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work” (Ex. 20:9–10). Under the Mosaic law, working when you should be resting could earn you the death penalty.

In addition to Sabbath days, there were Sabbath years. Every seventh year, no one was to work the land (Lev. 25:1–7). The people were to live on food saved up from the previous year, which God would bless with special abundance (vv. 19–22). An ancient Hebrew farmer would thus have a sort of retirement every seven years, distributed throughout his life, including when he was young.

There were also weeks of years. After seven seven-year periods—that is, every forty-nine years—there would be a Jubilee year. Debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and property reverted back to its original family owners (vv. 8–17).

The Year of Jubilee points ahead to the messianic age (Isa. 61; Luke 4:16–21). And the Sabbath rest points to the gospel, through which we are saved not by our work but by resting in the grace of God (Heb. 4:9–10).

But we can think of retirement as a sort of Sabbath. Or even as a Jubilee. In our case, before we retired, we paid off our debts. We moved away from the expensive suburbs of Washington, D.C., back to our ancestral homes in Oklahoma. And counting my high school jobs, I had been in the workforce for forty-nine years.

The Bible commands us to work, but it also commands us to stop working.

My deciding to retire was much like how I found my other vocations—a combination of opportunity, needs, and conviction that God was orchestrating it all.

A transition of leadership where I worked made for a good time to stand aside for new blood. The finances came together. After forty-nine years, our IRAs had grown to the point that we could live off the interest, at least in rural Oklahoma. The miracle of compound interest reminded me of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, whose jug of oil and jar of flour kept providing and never ran out.

Also, our families back in Oklahoma needed us. We became convinced that God was in this, that He was calling us.

Retirement underscores two important facets of the doctrine of vocation: the purpose of every vocation is loving and serving our neighbors. And the way we make our living is only one of our vocations and not even the most important one.

The great theologian of vocation, Martin Luther, taught that we have vocations in each of the three estates that God established for human life: the family, the church, and the state. Economic callings are classified with the family, how it makes its living, and the state, how the division of labor contributes to the common good. But even a person who is not working for pay—whether because of unemployment, inherited wealth, or retirement—has vocations in the family (as husband or wife, father, mother, son, daughter, and so on), the church (as a Christian having been called by the gospel), and the state (as citizens of the community and nation).

Retiring from the workplace is allowing me to pursue my other vocations and to love and serve my other neighbors in ways that I had neglected. My family vocations as husband, son, father, and grandfather are now central. I am more involved with our local congregation—where our son-in-law is our pastor—than I was before. I feel my citizenship more, our small town having a greater sense of community than the big cities and suburbs where we used to live.

I am still a “professor,” though of the “emeritus” variety. I am still writing. I am still teaching, with more time for speaking engagements, including multiple trips to Scandinavia, helping to bring back Christianity to those secularized lands.

I realize that our situation is better than that of many retirees. It might not last. A stock market collapse could make our IRAs worth as little as the shards of the widow’s jug of oil and jar of flour if they fell off the shelf. And at some point, our bodies will start falling apart. Trials and suffering are ahead, but those are part of our vocation too. Dr. R.C. Sproul has observed that the final calling is death. Retirement is a time to prepare for that, bringing us into our ultimate vocation, to be with God forever in an eternal Sabbath.



10 Things You Should Know about Charles Spurgeon

This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

1. His ministry began in the year of his conversion as a young man.

Spurgeon was raised in a Christian home, but was converted in 1850 at fifteen years old. Caught in a snowstorm, he took refuge in a small Primitive Methodist chapel in Colchester. After about ten minutes, with only twelve to fifteen people present, the preacher fixed his eyes on Spurgeon and spoke to him directly:

“Young man, you look very miserable.” Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.” Spurgeon later wrote, ‘Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away.’ 1

The ‘Prince of Preachers’ was tricked into preaching his first sermon that same year. An older man had asked Spurgeon to go to the little village of Teversham the next evening, “for a young man was to preach there who was not much used to services, and very likely would be glad of company.” It was only the next day that he realized the ‘young man’ was himself.2

2. He was a man of hard work and huge influence.

He went on to preach in person up to thirteen times per week, gathered the largest church of his day, and could make himself heard in a crowd of twenty-three thousand people (without amplification). In print he published some eighteen million words, selling over fifty-six million copies of his sermons in nearly forty languages in his own lifetime.

3. He was self-consciously a theological and doctrinal preacher.

While Spurgeon is not known as a theologian as such, he was nevertheless a deeply theological thinker and his sermons were rich in doctrine, and dripping with knowledge of historical theology – especially the Puritans.

Some preachers seem to be afraid lest their sermons should be too rich in doctrine, and so injure the spiritual digestions of their hearers. The fear is superfluous. . . . This is not a theological age, and therefore it rails at sound doctrinal teaching, on the principle that ignorance despises wisdom. The glorious giants of the Puritan age fed on something better than the whipped creams and pastries which are now so much in vogue.3

4. He was pre-eminently a theologian and preacher of the cross.

Spurgeon’s was a cross-centered and cross-shaped theology, for the cross was “the hour” of Christ’s glorification (John 12:23–24), the place where Christ was and is exalted, the only message able to overturn the hearts of men and women otherwise enslaved to sin. Along with Isaiah 45:22, one of Spurgeon’s favorite Bible verses was John 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

He insisted on celebrating the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, and often broke bread during the week as well. He believed his preaching of the crucified Christ was the only reason why such great crowds were drawn to his church for so many years.

Who can resist his charms? One look of his eyes overpowers us. See with your heart those eyes when they are full of tears for perishing sinners, and you are a willing subject. One look at his blessed person subjected to scourging and spitting for our sakes will give us more idea of his crown rights than anything besides. Look into his pierced heart as it pours out its life-flood for us, and all disputes about his sovereignty are ended in our hearts. We own him Lord because we see how he loved.4

Regeneration, he saw, is a work of pure grace—and those the Lord regenerates, he will indwell.

5. He aimed his ministry and preaching at new birth.

Regeneration was one of the “three Rs” (ruin, redemption, and regeneration) Spurgeon always sought to preach. And regeneration was something he always expected to see as he preached the gospel. A friend of his once came to him, depressed because for three months of ministry he had not seen a single conversion. Spurgeon slyly asked, “Do you expect the Lord to save souls every time you open your mouth?” Embarrassed, the man answered “Oh, no, sir!” “Then,” Spurgeon replied, “that is just the reason why you have not had conversions: ‘According to your faith be it unto you.’”5

Regeneration, he saw, is a work of pure grace—and those the Lord regenerates, he will indwell. And “with such an indweller we need not fear, but that this poor heart of ours will yet become perfect as God is perfect; and our nature through his indwelling shall rise into complete meetness for the inheritance of the saints in light.”6

6. He knew how to enjoy life.

Spurgeon loved life and saw the creation as a blessing from God to be enjoyed. For tired ministers, he recommended:

A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours’ ramble in the beech woods’ umbrageous calm,’ which ‘would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive. A mouthful of sea air, or a stiff walk in the wind’s face, would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body, which is next best.’7

He couldn’t resist walking outside in thunderstorms (‘I like to hear my Heavenly Father’s voice in the thunder’), he is known for his cigar smoking, and he had a keen interest in botany. Like us all, Spurgeon was uniquely himself. Yet his big-heartedness and joy as he walked through his Father’s creation displays exactly the sort of life that will always grow from the theology he believed.

Spurgeon on the Christian Life

Spurgeon on the Christian Life

Michael Reeves

This introduction to Spurgeon’s life and ministry—organized around themes such as the centrality of Christ and the empowerment of the Spirit—will encourage readers to live for God’s glory.

7. He was a mischievous, funny man.

‘What a bubbling fountain of humour Mr. Spurgeon had!’ wrote his friend William Williams. ‘I have laughed more, I verily believe, when in his company than during all the rest of my life besides.’8A whole chapter of Spurgeon’s ‘autobiography’ is entitled ‘Pure Fun,’ and he regularly surprised people who expected the zealous pastor to be dour and intense. Grandiosity, religiosity, and humbug could all expect to be pricked on his wit.

8. He was serious about joy.

Spurgeon’s humour and jollity were not trivial or frivolous. For him, joy was a theological matter and a manifestation of that happiness and cheer which is found in Christ alone. He refused to take himself—or any other sinner—too seriously, believing that to be alive in Christ means to fight not only the habits and acts of sin but also sin’s temperamental sullenness, ingratitude, bitterness, and despair.

Christ wishes his people to be happy. When they are perfect, as he will make them in due time, they shall also be perfectly happy. As heaven is the place of pure holiness, so is it the place of unalloyed happiness; and in proportion as we get ready for heaven, we shall have some of the joy which belongs to heaven, and it is our Saviour’s will that even now his joy should remain in us, and that our joy should be full.9

9. He suffered with depression.

Spurgeon was full of life and joy, but also suffered deeply with depression as a result of personal tragedies, illness, and stress. Today he would almost certainly be diagnosed as clinically depressed and treated with medication and therapy. His wife, Susannah, wrote, “My beloved’s anguish was so deep and violent, that reason seemed to totter in her throne, and we sometimes feared that he would never preach again.”10

Spurgeon believed that Christian ministers should expect a special degree of suffering to be given to them as a way of forming them for Christlike, compassionate ministry. Christ himself was made like his weak and tempted brothers in order that he might help those who are tempted (Heb. 2:16–18), and in the same manner, it is weak and suffering people that God has chosen to minister to the weak and suffering.

10. He was emphatically Christ-centered.

Spurgeon saw theology much like astronomy: as the solar system makes sense only when the sun is central, so systems of theological thought are coherent only when Christ is central. Every doctrine must find its place and meaning in its proper relation to Christ. “Be assured that we cannot be right in the rest, unless we think rightly of HIM. . . . Where is Christ in your theological system?”11

Surgeon’s view of the Bible, his Calvinism, and his view of the Christian life are all deeply Christocentric–and even that astronomical analogy may be too weak to capture quite how Christ-centered Spurgeon was in his thinking.

For him, Christ is not merely one component—however pivotal—in the bigger machinery of the gospel. Christ himself is the truth we know, the object and reward of our faith, and the light that illumines every part of a true theological system. He wrote, ‘He himself is Doctor and Doctrine, Revealer and Revelation, the Illuminator and the Light of Men. He is exalted in every word of truth, because he is its sum and substance. He sits above the gospel, like a prince on his own throne. Doctrine is most precious when we see it distilling from his lips and embodied in his person. Sermons are valuable in proportion as they speak of him and point to him.’12


  1. C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records, by His Wife and His Private Secretary, 1834–1854, vol. 1 (Chicago: Curts & Jennings, 1898),106.
  2. C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records, by His Wife and His Private Secretary, 1834–1854, vol. 1 (Chicago: Curts & Jennings, 1898), 200.
  3. C. H. Spurgeon, The Sword and Trowel (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1865–1891), 125–26.
  4. C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, 63 vols. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1855–1917),* vol. 23, 269.
  5. C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records, by His Wife and His Private Secretary, 1834–1854, vol. 2:151.
  6. C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, 63 vols. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1855–1917),* vol.18:225.
  7. C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1889) vol. 1, 172.
  8. William Williams, Personal Reminiscences of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (London: Passmore & Alabaster,
    1895),, 17–18.
  9. C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, 63 vols. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1855–1917),* vol. 51:229.
  10. Charles Ray, “The Life of Susannah Spurgeon,” in Morning Devotions by Susannah Spurgeon: Free Grace and Dying Love (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006), 166.
  11. C. H. Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry: Addresses to Ministers and Students (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1900), 364.
  12. C. H. Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, 6 vols. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1855–1860),1:vi.


The book of Acts tells the story of the gospel’s progress under the reign of Christ through the ministry of His apostles. Acts is not, however, a story of progress without conflict. The story of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 recounts one of the conflicts faced by the early church and teaches us how God led the church’s authorized leaders through a process of debate and deliberation to a decision that, in the end, served the further progress of the gospel.


The Jerusalem Council was precipitated by a serious controversy concerning the nature of salvation. The controversy began when certain unauthorized teachers (Acts 15:24) came down from Judea to the newly formed Gentile church in Antioch, teaching them that circumcision and obedience to the law of Moses were necessary for salvation (vv. 1, 5). Paul and Barnabas perceived that this teaching contradicted the truth of the gospel, and so they opposed it directly. The result, Luke tells us, was “no small dissension and debate” (v. 2). Given the weight of the issue, and also the magnitude of the dispute, the church in Antioch found it necessary to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to petition the apostles and the elders for assistance.


In response to the Antiochene church’s request for help, “the apostles and the elders … gathered together to consider this matter” (v. 6). We may better understand Luke’s presentation of the Jerusalem Council by addressing three questions related to the way they deliberated over “this matter”: Who decides? How do they decide? What do they decide?


Note, first, who is responsible for deciding the issue at hand: “the apostles and the elders.” Luke repeatedly draws our attention (5 times) to the role played by the apostles and the elders at the Jerusalem Council (vv. 2, 4, 6, 22–23). It is not remarkable, of course, that the apostles would play an important role. After all, they had been responsible for leading the Jerusalem Church from its inception (2:42–43; 4:33, 35, 37; 5:29; 6:1–6; 8:1, 14; 9:27; 11:1). What is perhaps remarkable is the role of the elders, a group only mentioned for the first time in Acts 11:30.

What is the significance of the elders’ role at this stage of the story? It seems Luke wants to show us that a transition in leadership is taking place. As the apostles’ foundational role in establishing the church is coming to an end (consider how Peter disappears from Luke’s narrative after Acts 15), the leadership of the early church is in the process of transitioning into the hands of the elders (20:17–38). Along with the apostles, they now bear the responsibility for deciding the matter at hand.


Note, second, how the apostles and elders decide the issue at hand: by reflecting upon God’s unfolding plan of salvation as revealed in God’s Word.

As Peter insists, the church’s decision on this matter must correspond to what God had done in bringing His plan of salvation to pass. Peter reminds the council that God had chosen to speak to the Gentiles by his mouth, that God had caused the Gentiles to hear and to believe the gospel (15:7), and that God had borne witness to the reality of the Gentiles’ conversion “by giving them the Holy Spirit” (v. 8), the sure sign of divine favor and blessing. According to Peter, then, adding further requirements for obtaining salvation (like circumcision and law-keeping) beyond what God had done when He saved the Gentiles amounted to “putting God to the test” (v. 10).

Moreover, as the preceding paragraph suggests, there was no mystery at the council about who had the authority to speak on God’s behalf when it came to His plan for the Gentiles. God Himself had revealed His plan through His authoritative spokesmen, the apostles and the prophets. God’s apostolic Word is given a voice through Peter at the council. It is Peter who “related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name” (v. 14). Moreover, God’s prophetic Word is given a voice through James, who quotes Amos 9:11–12 in his speech to the council and alludes to a host of other Old Testament passages as well (see Acts 15:13–21). As James asserts, God’s prophetic and apostolic words “agree” (v. 15) regarding His saving purpose for the Gentiles.

And thus, while it is the church’s leaders who render an authoritative decision at the Jerusalem Council, they render their decision on the basis of God’s Word, the supreme authority on which “all controversies of religion” and “all decrees of councils” are to be determined (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.10).


Note, third, what the apostles and elders decide at the Jerusalem Council. Having heard God’s Word on the matter, the council’s course of action was clear. As the old saying goes: sacra scriptura locuta, res decisa est(“sacred scripture has spoken, the matter is decided”). Because God saved the Gentiles by His grace, apart from their obedience to the law of Moses, the council had no authority to “trouble” them by imposing circumcision and law-keeping as requirements for salvation (Acts 15:19, 24). Instead, the council decreed that Gentile Christians should abstain “from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” (v. 20). The reason being that “from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him” (v. 21).

A puzzling question arises at this point. How are we to reconcile this decision, which grants Gentile Christians freedom from observing the Mosaic law (v. 19), with the decision that seems to obligate them to observe at least some of the Mosaic law’s requirements (the four prohibitions of Acts 15:20, after all, are drawn from Leviticus 17–18)? Part of the answer may lie in an observation made by New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham. According to Bauckham, the four prohibitions drawn from Leviticus 17–18 are specifically intended for Gentiles who “dwell in the midst” of Israel but who are not necessarily full-fledged proselytes (circumcised Gentiles who are obligated to keep the whole law of Moses). In other words, it appears that James finds in the law of Moses instructions for the way that Gentiles not otherwise obligated to the law of Moses are to behave when surrounded by Jews.

If this line of reasoning is correct, then it seems that the council’s decision reflects a deep theological insight regarding the nature of the gospel and regarding the freedom from the Law that the gospel brings. On the one hand, because the council recognizes that Gentiles are saved by grace alone and not on the basis of good works (Eph. 2:8–9), they forbid placing the burden of the Mosaic law on Gentiles as a requirement for salvation. On the other hand, because the council recognizes that Gentiles are saved for good works (Eph. 2:10), they require them to use their freedom as an opportunity to serve their Jewish neighbors who live alongside them “in every city” (Acts 15:21). By refraining from the things prohibited in Acts 15:20, Gentile Christians will avoid putting any unnecessary stumbling blocks in the path of their Jewish neighbors and in so doing may perhaps “win some” to Christ (see 1 Cor. 9:19–23).

The Jerusalem Council thus avoids two significant errors concerning the relationship between law and gospel. They avoid legalism, which makes obedience to God a necessary condition for salvation. And they avoid antinomianism, which denies that obedience to God is a necessary consequence of salvation.


The letter issued in Acts 15:22–29, the so-called “Apostolic Decree,” summarizes the decision reached by the Jerusalem Council. Because the decree was issued by the church’s authorized leaders, in accordance with God’s saving purpose, and under the supreme authority of God’s Word, it bore decisive—indeed, dogmatic—authority for the churches outside of Jerusalem (see 16:4, where the “decisions” are literally dogmata [Gk.]). When delivered to its recipients in Antioch, the decree brought rejoicing, encouragement, strength, and peace (15:31–33). Ultimately, the decree reached beyond Antioch to other Gentile churches. Acts 16:5 describes the result: “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.”


False teaching “troubles” and “unsettles” the church (15:24). Acts 15 exemplifies one path of recourse for the church when the trouble caused by false teaching reaches epidemic proportions. Throughout its history, the church has followed the example of Acts 15 on many occasions. One thinks not only of the ecumenical councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and so forth, but also of the Westminster Assembly. When the church has followed the example of the Jerusalem Council, it has discovered that councils are a God-ordained means for promoting the peace and purity of the church and the furtherance of the gospel to the greater glory of God.





I have been involved in leading churches for four decades, with an emphasis on church planting in the last few years. I’ve also visited and addressed hundreds of churches around the world and have had the privilege of meeting thousands of Christian leaders. Through this time I’ve watched an unintentional doctrinal imprecision on the part of many pastors become intentional. In other words, I have witnessed a new “conventional wisdom” emerge. Simply stated it is the “wisdom” of attempting to circle in more people for our churches by unashamedly minimizing, or perhaps nearly eradicating, the restricting influences of doctrine. What pastors used to do (because of being poorly taught perhaps), they now do by intent, all for church growth.

The problem is, it works.

For instance, I just visited with one friend concerning a large church in our area that has grown exceptionally well. The directional pastor of this church is a smart man who has some distinct beliefs he holds personally. I can talk with him about doctrine when alone. He reads and knows the Bible.  But in his leadership and preaching he fully intends not to go beyond the most elementary issues, and appears (appearances are about all we can go on) not to be that concerned that his people differ on major doctrines, some of which are most significant. Outside of an expression of the gospel and some “how to’s,” there isn’t much to get your teeth into in his preaching. He has created a birthing station but not much else.

Doctrine does narrow things. And we don’t like that word, “narrow.” Where you will find one person who is attracted to sound doctrine, you will find a hundred who want to allow all sorts of beliefs to be tolerated. I have been in such churches where great heresies were listened to as if it were perfectly permissible to hold such views as “your opinion.” And I’m not talking about the guest’s view, but the member’s view.

This happens on the mission field as well. Preparing for a mission to Mozambique soon, I’ve been reading the reports of a good missionary doctor who has attempted to plant churches. Because he cares about doctrine, there are some real pains in building a church. He knows that because of the communal nature of the people, an apparently large church could be built easily. Whereas he may find only a handful of believers in most churches in his area, there may well be ten times as many who just attend, believing themselves to be Christian only because it is their custom to be joiners. If he were to avoid doctrine in favor of shallow evangelism, he would build a large unregenerate church. Is that useful for the kingdom? He does not believe so. But he is the exception.

Few Think of This 

In all of this acceptance of doctrinal sloppiness and miasma of beliefs, I find that many have totally disregarded a tenet that should be obvious to any Bible reader. I mean this: The apostles began churches with the intent to grow them as solidly as possible by means of a steady and meticulous interest in doctrine. The biblical data is overwhelmingly in line with this conclusion.

The apostles saw the church as “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim.3:15). And so, giving attention to doctrine was paramount to them. I am sure that the entire future of the work was in mind as Paul and the other apostles emphasized a wide assortment of critical doctrines. Whereas we would say, “At least we have a witness in the city of some sort, preaching Christ,” the apostles would say, “Because this church is a witness in the city, and other churches will come from this one or emulate their beliefs and practices, we must be all the more precise.”  There is a world of difference between the two schools of thought.

And these doctrines were to be “taught” and “preached.”  In other words, it was not the prerogative of those elders that were appointed by the apostles to minimize the importance of doctrinal precision. Similarly, I don’t think we can be like Jesus or like the apostles in our leadership without emphasizing what they emphasized. It is, in fact, ludicrous to think otherwise. I don’t think Paul would listen very sympathetically to our explanation of why we have minimized doctrine for the sake of church growth.

All of us are aware of the need to avoid being doctrinaire, that is, of teaching doctrine in a sterile, pedantic manner, without application and devotional “heat.” Look to Jesus and Paul as perfect illustrations of how to do teach doctrine correctly. If we teach the Scriptures faithfully and exactly as stated, we will automatically teach good doctrine. We have to be very clever to avoid it. But many do miss it, either by selecting and addressing passages that are only behavioral, or by avoiding Scripture all together, or by being a diverter, like a pastor who preaches on time management based on Jesus’ cry, “It is finished.”

We forget that the difficult doctrines that we talk about are found in the Letters to the Churches. These were epistles that contained the very truths we are refusing to talk about in our churches. Do you see the incongruity? Is it really right to think that we should not talk about those doctrines that were the staple of the earliest churches? I know I’m being overly obvious, but haven’t we overlooked this fact? And many of those difficult passages that we are absolutely afraid to teach were written to nascent churches. Paul thought it critical to present the whole truth to these people (Acts 20:27). He did not “shrink” from doing this. But we do.

What I am saying is that we do not have the luxury of avoiding these things because we want to grow a larger church. What is the effect of a new church start in New Guinea if it is grown by doctrinal imprecision? You can certainly imagine that generations of churches following that one will share similar vagueness about beliefs and practices and will leave perhaps thousands (and maybe millions, i.e. some errant denominations exemplify this) teaching error, or at least open to divergent beliefs that will be harmful to the believers and the success of the movement. It is not just wrong doctrine that will do this, but the vacuous absence of doctrine as well. Surely it can be seen that error in Christian movements is a thing that is taught and propagated one church at a time, one leader at a time, yet has a long-term permeating effect. This is so not only in a virgin church planting situation, but also where there are numerous churches. We are irresponsible to leave doctrinal precision out of the equation in our church starting and church growing. It is negligence (often planned negligence) that is destructive.

Dereliction of Duty

It is assumed that elders, of all people, are to care about doctrine. In our day this is an assumption that is not finding much support, but it must be so. If this is not so, then a whole new team of elders must be chosen. It is part of the job description. Paul says that an elder is to be “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).

When elders come together, it is part of their responsibility to work on what they believe. For instance, what is the view of the elders on divorce and remarriage? What is their view on the Law. Or election? Or the nature of man? What is their belief on Creation? Or on plurality of eldership? Or concerning spiritual gifts? Or on the nature of the atonement? Or on the role of women?  If elders do not know what they believe, how can they possible fulfill the requirement of Titus 1:9 mentioned above?

Since elders (also called overseers and pastors) are to care about doctrine, it should be in their interest to make their elder’s meetings more than just business meetings about the more mundane things or merely vision meetings about new ideas. I know we must do some of that. Visionless churches are dying churches, of course. But pastors should work hard to perfect what they believe. They should put the months of study and discussion into various doctrinal positions so that they become familiar with them and are ready to teach them. After coming to one mind on a doctrine, they should meet with the men, and then the whole church, to transmit and teach what they have learned.

Once painstakingly arriving at what they believe about cardinal doctrines, they will be willing to pay a price for them. After all, it is God speaking these doctrines to them.

As the people learn that an elder actually has some clearheaded views about things, he will be respected as a person who can help bring understanding and direction to families and veteran disciples, as well as to children and new believers.

Act Biblically Now

Paul makes my premise lucid when he says that we must “strive together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). He trains leaders with the words, “But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), and “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).  He worries, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:3).

Jude showed us doctrine’s import when he said that we must “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). Peter thought it necessary to stir us up “by way of reminder, that you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles” (2 Pet. 3:1-2). He warns us to “be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men . . . . but grow in grace and knowledge . . .” (2 Pet. 3:17-18).

John rejoices to find “some of your children walking in the truth, just as we have received commandment to do from the Father,” but warns, “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God . . . . If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him . . . . for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds” (2 Jn. 4:9-11).

For us to even attempt to build churches by minimizing doctrine is a philosophy so far removed from the original purpose of Christ and His apostles that one would wonder if we were in the same movement. How close is this to the prediction of Paul when he said that “they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).  It is too close for me.

Therefore I urge you to reconsider how you use your leadership. There is much to do. We must be loving and comforting, praying and available, transparent and visionary, but as leaders we cannot dismiss what God insists on. If it were not so unambiguous, we might have room to debate the wisdom of this. Since this truth is repeated ad infinitum in the Word, what can anyone say against it?

Therefore, give yourself to sound doctrine and make much of it from now on. If you cannot do this, resign.

And if you are not a pastor, but a listener, go to those responsible for dispensing the truth with a sincere appeal for them to teach you doctrine without compromise. Tell them you cannot grow without it.

Sadly the author, President of Christian Communicators Worldwide wrote this powerful article over a decade ago!    Copyright © Jim Elliff, 2007



Lucy Hutchinson – A Puritan Woman in Changing Times

Seventeenth-century England was a time of uncertainty, upheaval, and questions, a time of civil and religious wars, revolutions, plague and fire. Books and articles tell us of the people who made history: James VI of Scotland and I of England, Charles I and the regicides, Elizabeth the Winter Queen, the Puritans who fled to the Americas and those who crystalized Protestant doctrines in the Westminster Assembly. Few write about the common people who tried to make sense of those times. Lucy Hutchinson was one of these: an intelligent woman whose life became deeply entrenched in the political and religious struggles of her day.

Fervent Scholar and Devoted Wife

She was born on 29 January 1620 in the Tower of London – the second of ten children. Her father Allen Apsley, lieutenant of the Tower with a limited education, provided his children with excellent tutoring. He particularly insisted in giving Lucy a strong foundation in the Latin language, which was still the gate to higher education.

Lucy’s love for learning was impressive. Her mother found it troubling – a little inappropriate for a young girl. She encouraged Lucy to memorize sermons. Lucy complied, but continued to read love stories and poems, and wrote some of her own.

Apsley died in 1630, leaving the family in debt. Lucy’s mother remarried, but the new union was unhappy and ended in separation. Lucy’s experience was very similar to what some children of divorced parents have to endure today. She was shifted between different members of her family. Because of financial need, she was pressured to marry soon and well.

The pressure ended when she met her future husband, John. In reality, he was first intrigued by her when he visited her home in her absence and discovered her excellent choice of Latin books. Later, when he heard one of her poems being recited in the household of a common friend, he became obsessed with the desire to meet her in person.

The actual meeting didn’t disappoint. Love and admiration were mutual. The couple married on 3 July 1638. The next year, they had twin children, Thomas and Edward, who kept Lucy busy. A third child was born in 1641.

After some hesitation, John enlisted in the parliamentarian army. In 1643, he was appointed governor of Nottingham and of Nottingham Castle. These were turbulent times, culminating with the 1649 execution of Charles I. Things became more peaceful in the 1650s, and Lucy resumed her literary studies, translating Lucretius’s De rerum natura.

Trouble resurfaced in 1660, with the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. As a signatory of Charles I’s death warrant, John was a marked man. He avoided arrest by recanting his republican stand, although Lucy said she tricked him into doing it.

What little peace the Hutchinsons might have enjoyed ended abruptly three years later, when John was arrested for involvement in an armed uprising. In spite of his protests of innocence and Lucy’s pleadings with the House of Lords, the government kept him locked in Sandown Castle, Kent, where he died of complications of an illness. He left behind Lucy and seven of their children: four sons (Thomas and Edward, Lucius, and John) and three daughters (Barbara, Lucy, and Margaret). Two other children, another John and Adeliza, had died in infancy.

“Return, return, my soul”

Like her mother, Lucy was left with debts to pay, which she resolved by selling John’s properties. Her main efforts were aimed at clearing John’s name, through a book later entitled Memoirs of the life of Colonel Hutchinson. Her vivid details of the civil war have made this work of great interest to historians.

The narrative is interwoven with constant reminders of God’s providence, which must have been of personal reassurance to Lucy at a time of political and religious instability. A source of comfort were also the sermons of the well-known theologian John Owen, which she probably attended at the home of a common friend (the 1662 enforcement of the Act of Uniformity had outlawed Puritan preaching).

Her admiration for Owen led Lucy to translate part of his Latin work Theologoumena pantodoupa, which was meant as an introduction to an explanation of true theology. It was also an important treatise in covenant theology.

Lucy’s beliefs were clearly expressed in a warm letter to her daughter Barbara – an admonition to stand firm against the proliferation of heretical sects. The letter, posthumously published as On the Principles of the Christian Religion, is pregnant of a mother’s concern for her daughter and indicative of Lucy’s theological clarity.

Her most creative work, however, is a biblical poem by a customary lengthy title, Order and disorder, Or, The World Made and Undone. Being Meditations upon the Creation and the Fall; As it is recorded in the beginning of Genesis. Published anonymously, this work has been consistently recognized as hers.

The contents of the poem, in five divisions, are apparent in the title, but Lucy’s communication of the biblical events is remarkable. This is, for example, how she expressed the astounding revelation of the gospel in Genesis 3:15:


“Thy head shall break.” More various Mystery

Ne’re did within so short a sentence lie.

Here is irrevocable vengeance, here

Love as immutable. Here doth appear

Infinite Wisdome plotting with free grace,

Even by Mans Fall, th’ advance of humane race.

Severity here utterly confounds,

Here Mercy cures by kind and gentle wounds,

The Father here, the Gospel first reveals,

Here fleshly veils th’ eternal son conceals.

The law of life and spirit here takes place,

Given with the promise of assisting grace.


With the gospel came also a prediction of a long-standing war between the Seed of the Woman and the seed of the devil, a war Lucy had experienced in more ways than one, as she clung to the firm promise that, as strong as the forces of evil might seem, “their war must end in final overthrow.”

The poem ends with an exhortation to trust God’s providence, “in which th’ obedient and the meak rejoyce, above their own preferring Gods wise choice,” finding consolation in knowing that He is both good and wise. But that’s not the only comfort. The greatest reward is God himself, and the only “real ill” is “divorce from him.” This last realization helps the believer to overcome all troubles and pain.


For in the crystal mirror of God’s grace

All things appear with a new lovely face.

When that doth Heavens more glorious palace show

We cease to’ admire a Paradise below,

Rejoyce in that which lately was our loss,

And see a Crown made up of every Cross.

Return, return, my soul to thy true rest,

As young benighted birds unto their nest,

There hide thy self under the wings of love

Till the bright morning all thy clouds remove.


For Lucy, that bright morning was in October 1681, when she joined the Lord she loved.


[All quotations are from Lucy Hutchinson, Order and Disorder Or, The World Made and Undone. Being Meditations upon the Creation and the Fall; As it is recorded in the beginning of Genesis, Canto V, Printed by Margaret White for Henry Mortlock, 1679; online ed. Bartleby.com, 2009, http://www.bartleby.com/239/5.html].


What Does it Mean to Abide in Christ?

FROM Feb 19, 2018

The exhortation to “abide” has been frequently misunderstood, as though it were a special, mystical, and indefinable experience. But Jesus makes clear that it actually involves a number of concrete realities.

First, union with our Lord depends on His grace. Of course we are actively and personally united to Christ by faith (John 14:12). But faith itself is rooted in the activity of God. It is the Father who, as the divine Gardener, has grafted us into Christ. It is Christ, by His Word, who has cleansed us to fit us for union with Himself (15:3). All is sovereign, all is of grace.

Second, union with Christ means being obedient to Him. Abiding involves our response to the teaching of Jesus: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you …” (John 15:7a). Paul echoes this idea in Colossians 3:16, where he writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” a statement closely related to his parallel exhortation in Ephesians 5:18: “be filled with the Spirit.”

In a nutshell, abiding in Christ means allowing His Word to fill our minds, direct our wills, and transform our affections. In other words, our relationship to Christ is intimately connected to what we do with our Bibles! Then, of course, as Christ’s Word dwells in us and the Spirit fills us, we will begin to pray in a way consistent with the will of God and discover the truth of our Lord’s often misapplied promise: “You will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7b).

Third, Christ underlines a further principle, “Abide in My love” (15:9), and states very clearly what this implies: the believer rests his or her life on the love of Christ (the love of the One who lays down His life for His friends, v. 13).

This love has been proved to us in the cross of Christ. We must never allow ourselves to drift from daily contemplation of the cross as the irrefutable demonstration of that love, or from dependence on the Spirit who sheds it abroad in our hearts (Rom. 5:5). Furthermore, remaining in Christ’s love comes to very concrete expression: simple obedience rendered to Him is the fruit and evidence of love for Him (John 15:10–14).

Finally, we are called, as part of the abiding process, to submit to the pruning knife of God in the providences by which He cuts away all disloyalty and sometimes all that is unimportant, in order that we might remain in Christ all the more wholeheartedly.


This excerpt is taken from In Christ Alone by Sinclair Ferguson and posted on Ligonier Ministries website.