Previous article in this series: December 15, 2015, p. 132.
We were considering, you will remember, the penitential prayer of David recorded in Psalm 51, focusing in particular on verse 16. “Thou desirest not sacrifice,” David prayed. And: “Thou delightest not in burnt offering.” Having been brought to his knees by the prophet Nathan’s withering pronouncement “Thou art the man,” David understood, more profoundly than ever before, that no one can come to God with something in his hand. An expression of “absolute destitution of merit” is what Calvin sees in those words of David.
Remarkable insights, we said. But why so, we might ask, if David’s recognition of the impotence of beasts’ blood was but the lesson that the sacrifices were intended to teach, from the beginning—a lesson that the offerers were not only expected to learn but were also held accountable for not having learned if they came to God, instead, like Cain of old, with something in their hands? Nothing really ‘new,’ so it would seem, in David’s prayer in Psalm 51. But something, we think, quite remarkable nonetheless. For a couple of reasons. First, as we explained, because what can be seen as implicit in the sacrificing of the saints of God from Abel on became explicit here in Psalm 51, and in language almost that of the New Testament. Language that can be seen almost to say: salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.
Which brings us, now, to the second reason. For this one, too, I look to John Calvin—this time in his comments on Hebrews 10, where the writer to the Hebrews is speaking of the difference between Law on the one hand and Gospel on the other. The writer of the epistle makes special reference to Psalm 40, in which David says much the same thing as he did in Psalm 51.: “Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire;…burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.” Then notice verse 7: “Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me.” This latter, says Calvin, “has a particular relevance to Christ.” Which must be the case because “we must come to the kingdom of Christ for it to be completely true that God does not wish sacrifice.” Calvin therefore concludes that “in both places [Psalm 40 and Psalm 51] he [David] looked forward to the kingdom of Christ (emphasis added)…when not even the lowest place among the commandments of God is left for the sacrifices which God strictly requires under the law.”
Not even the lowest place left, in the Gospel age, for the sacrifices. That’s what David was foreseeing. A millennium before Christ.
And we should be clear on what it is that David is referring to when he says that God is not pleased by sacrifices. That is, is it just sacrifices? Calvin thinks not. And he is not suggesting only that we, today, can understand that the principle involved has broader application. No, he believes that David’s “design,” his intention, was to “teach us” something about “all the legal rites.” Which stands to reason, I would think, in light of the circumstances that brought David to his knees before God in this penitential prayer. Empty-handed had to be… all inclusive! He came with nothing. David was pleading for the restoration of the joy of salvation (v. 12) on the basis of nothing other than God’s mercy. Only this: “Have mercy upon me, O God.” “Cleanse me from my sin.” “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” And, we must remember, no saint of old ever had thoughts like that without thinking of. The Christ. Deliverance from “bloodguiltiness” (v. 14) could be sought from no other source.
Hardly could David, therefore, have been foreseeing in Psalm 51 a Gospel age in which, on the one hand, lambs would no more be slain, but, on the other, the eating of pork would still be proscribed and circumcision prescribed. He was foreseeing the termination of “all the legal rites.”
It is that, in particular, as it seems to me, that makes David’s insights here so remarkable.
Again, however, we might be inclined to ask, Why so? Would we not simply expect that, at the appearing of the Antitype (Christ), all that is typical would be cheerfully abandoned? What, after all, are the types? “Rough outlines,” Calvin calls them, “which are foreshadowing the living picture.” “…elementary and sketchy outlines [of ] what today has been expressed in living and graphically printed color.” Who would ever, when beholding the brilliant hues of the living picture, want to, or feel obliged to, hold still onto the rough, sketchy outlines that were displayed in the ancient ceremonies?
Who, indeed. Maybe Peter? Maybe thousands of Christians in Jerusalem a quarter of a century after Pentecost? All we need do is look at the actual history of the transition from the old to the new dispensation, the Law to the Gospel, to see how far the prophet David was ahead of his time. It would be profitable, I think, to do that.
Already in this series of articles we have seen the difficulty Peter had in letting go of his scruples regarding clean and unclean meats. “Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.” “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.” And then, twice repeated. So deep was the hold that the old Jewish regulations about ceremonial uncleanness had on the Jews! Even the apostles needed time to grapple with the truth that the ceremonial laws were intended to be in force only until the coming of the Christ to whom they pointed.
A thousand years before them, David saw it coming. And was glad. As revolutionary as the revelation concerning the abolition of the food laws must have been to Peter, that was hardly the end of the matter. The apostle must have understood that the many regulations regarding cleanness and uncleanness in the old dispensation spoke to Israel not only of a spiritual reality, the separation from sin, the life of the antithesis, but also of a national distinction, a separation of the children of Abraham from all other peoples of the world, a distinction therefore between Jew and Gentile. If the distinction in meats were to fall away, would not the distinction between Jew and Gentile fall with it? Peter was not left to wonder long about the implications of his vision for this separation. For we read that “while Peter doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean, behold, the men which were sent from Cornelius…stood before the gate” ().
What followed, as you know, was preaching. Preaching of Christ crucified. To a gathering of Gentiles. Uncircumcised Gentiles. In their house. And then: “the Holy Ghost fell on all them that heard the word” (v. 44). In one fell swoop, as it were, God had Himself opened the door of His church to the Gentile world. Wholly apart from Judaism. From circumcision. And, with it, all the rites of the ‘Law.’ All the ancient ceremonies. All the “sketchy outlines” that prefigured the Gospel age.
“For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Psalm 51. And Psalm 40.
But it didn’t all go down so easily. Peter was challenged. “Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst [even] eat with them” (11:3). To say nothing of baptizing them and thus receiving them, as they were, into the church! Peter, we read, “rehearsed the matter from the beginning, and expounded it” (v. 4), concluding with “what was I, that I could withstand God?” (v. 17). Truer words could hardly have been spoken. Seems that even they who were “of the circumcision” and were contending with Peter (v. 2) were satisfied. For, “when they heard these things, they held their peace” (v. 18). For the time being.
Who were “they that were of the circumcision”? Not, surely, all the Jewish believers, but, rather, those who, says Calvin, “were exceedingly devoted to the legal ceremonies.” And it’s that devotion that did not die easily. At least not in Jerusalem.
Paul and Barnabas were made aware of that sad fact on their return to Antioch, the ‘calling church,’ after their first missionary journey.
The entire congregation, it seems, came out to hear the report of their two missionaries (14:27). And what they heard was especially this, that God had “opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (v. 27). Wind of that reached Jerusalem. And there was resistance. Again, not that the entire Jerusalem church was ‘zealous’ for the Law. But there was in it a Judaistic faction, along with probably a far larger number of people who were simply uncertain about the place of the Mosaic law in the church of Christ. It was the former, the Judaizers, who took it upon themselves to try to correct what they perceived to be a deficiency in the work of Antioch’s two missionaries. Certain of them, we read in 15:1, came down from Judea to Antioch and began to “teach the brethren” that, contrary to what they were hearing from Paul and Barnabas, Gentiles must “be circumcised after the manner of Moses” in order to “be saved.”
Did these false teachers deny salvation by grace, through faith in Christ? Oh no. They were very likely emphatic about that. Just this—they didn’t want to add the word “alone.” Faith in Christ—yes. But it was faith plus… circumcision. Faith plus Judaistic legalism. They wanted still to be able to come to God with something in their hands. That was an error, writes Calvin, that “poured out darkness on the light of the gospel.” So serious was it, in fact, Calvin continues, that “it would have been all over with Christianity in a short time if Paul had yielded to such principles.” For: “if the salvation of men is bound to works, it will be founded on the grace of Christ no longer.”
How far David was ahead of his time!
A little bit more on this… next time.
… to be continued.