Review: Face to Face with God

Face to Face with God (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology), T. Desmond Alexander. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: An exploration of the biblical theme of priesthood and mediation and how Christ fulfills these par excellence.

Throughout scripture, we learn that no one can see God face to face and live. Yet the promise of the New Testament is that one day we all will have the veil removed and see God face to face, and live forever in his presence. How can this be?

T. Desmond Alexander explores this in this sixth volume in the Essentials in Biblical Theology, focusing on the theme of priesthood and mediation throughout scripture, culminating with the portrait of Christ in Hebrews as a priest and mediator superior to all those who have gone before.

Alexander begins with a study of the portable sanctuary that Moses is instructed to erect amid the camp and how it is a model of the heavenly sanctuary, down to the perfect cubicle shape of the Holy of Holies, as is the new Jerusalem, descending from heaven as a cube. It is the place where heaven and earth meet, a footstool, as it were, of God’s heavenly throne. It also reproduces in its outer courtyard, holy place and Holy of Holies, the three zones on Mount Sinai, a new idea to me.

Then Alexander goes more deeply into the concept of holiness, the consecration of priests and of Aaron and the related concepts of clean and unclean, with the sanctuary being holy, the Israelite camp clean, and the world and nations beyond unclean. Yet with all of this, Aaron can only come before the Lord once a year, and not daily. But it is God’s intent, even if it is not yet truly face to face, that this be a tent of meeting, where God, mediated through the priests’ sacrifices, meets his people. He also deals with the “tent of meeting” where Moses talked to God “face to face” as it were, with the barrier of the tent between Moses and the cloud. When Moses asks to see God’s glory, he is told that he cannot see God’s face, lest he die. The mediation of human priesthood can only go so far. And even this is only possible by the daily intercession of Aaron and the priests, dramatically portrayed at one point when Aaron, burning incense, interposes himself between the dead and the living when God strikes Israel with a plague.

Daily sacrifices and incense are burned for the sins of the people, beginning at the outside of the camp and going into the holy place of the tent. Then on the Day of Atonement, the priest passes within the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifice for the people. Alexander shows how this pattern is fulfilled once and for all by Christ who is both priest and sacrifice, who in himself is mediator. Yet how can Jesus, born of the tribe of Judah, and not a Levite, and certainly not a descendent of Aaron, do this? Alexander shows how this is the significance of the reference to Jesus as a priest of the order of Melchizedek, the king of Salem. He is the priest-king, David’s greater son of Psalm 110. Hence he mediates a better covenant as head of a kingdom of priests, devoted to the service of God.

The wonder, as Alexander shows, is that all this is possible through the priesthood and mediation of Jesus, by which we are cleansed, sanctified and perfected. It is not that we must serve God but rather that we may. Our hope is one of being able to boldly approach, looking for forgiveness and cleansing, not only to serve but to rest. Alexander traces all this out, step by step from Sinai and the portable sanctuary and priesthood, to the fulfillment in the Son who more effectively mediates for us and intercedes than any priest. Read this to not only understand all the regulations around the sanctuary and priesthood but to grasp their wondrous fulfillment in Jesus and what this has won for us as his people.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Holiness


Holiness, J.C. Ryle. Chios Classics (electronic text), 2015 (originally published 1877).

Summary: The classic collection by nineteenth century evangelical Anglican J.C. Ryle emphasizing that growth in Christ-like character (holiness) involves not only faith in Christ’s empowering work but effort in laying hold of that work and that this basic matter is far too often neglected in the church.

J. C. Ryle was an Anglican rector, and eventually bishop of the then-new Diocese of Liverpool. He lived from 1816-1900. Much of his work was among working class people, and it is evident in reading this collection of sermons why he was so popular. Unlike others who cultivated a dense eloquence, Ryle spoke plainly and clearly outlined his points such that anyone giving him their attention could follow. Even his titles were straightforward, the longest of which is only five words (“A Woman to be Remembered”, on Lot’s wife!).

Ryle’s main concern was for the decline in practical holiness in his day. Against the Keswick movement and others who took a type of “let go and let God” approach, Ryle argued that holy character was something assiduously fought for (one of the sermons in this collection is titled “The Fight!”), and that while faith in Christ’s working in one’s life was necessary, so also was effort and exertion.

The title sermon of this collection, “Holiness”, begins with an exposition of the nature of true holiness in one’s life, why such holiness ought to be pursued, and finally how such holiness may be attained, through striving and through dependence upon Christ. In the concluding section he writes:

That great divine, John Owen, the Dean of Christ Church, used to say, more than two hundred years ago, that there were people whose whole religion seemed to consist in going about complaining and telling everyone that they could do nothing of themselves. I am afraid that after two centuries, the same thing might be said with truth of some of Christ’s professing people in this day. I know there are texts in scripture which warrant such complaints. I do not object to them, when they come from men who walk in the steps of the apostle Paul and fight a good fight, as he did, against sin, the devil and the world. But I never like such complaints when I see ground for suspecting, as I often do — that they are only a cloak to cover spiritual laziness, and an excuse for spiritual sloth. If we say with Paul, “O wretched man that I am!” let us also be able to say with him, “I press toward the mark!”

The collection begins with a sermon on the nature of sin (“Sin”) and is followed by one on “Sanctification”, including the diligent use of means, and then the title sermon of “Holiness”.  He then follows up on the theme of the struggle in the Christian life with chapters on “The Fight” and “The Cost”. He writes of the marks of “Growth in Grace” being a deepening sense of sin coupled with stronger faith, brighter hope, and growing love and spiritual-mindedness. The sermon on “Assurance” both holds out the reality of confidence in the work of Christ, coupled with the knowledge that one may not experience this and yet belong to Christ.

Then come four sermons around figures in scripture. He looks at Moses as an example of living by faith, Lot as a “beacon” warning us of the example of less than full-hearted obedience and Lot’s wife as “A Woman to be Remembered” because of the privileges she enjoyed, the repudiation of it all in the backward look, and the judgment she experienced. Finally, “Christ’s Greatest Trophy!” concerns the thief on the cross who believed–one of the rare instances I’ve come across of a sermon on this episode.

The next sermons concern the Lordship of Jesus in adversity, (“Ruler of the Waves”), and over the church (“The Church Which Christ Builds” and “Visible Churches Warned”). Sermons fifteen to eighteen focus around our call to love the Lord (“Do You Love Me?”), the sobering reality of life “Without Christ”, how Christ addresses our deepest thirst, and through us addresses the thirst of others (“Thirst Relieved!”). He explores the “Unsearchable Riches” of life in Christ.

His concluding sermons in this collection focus first on the “Needs of the Times”, including the authority of scripture, a clear grasp of Christian doctrine, a pursuit of holiness, and perseverance in private devotion. This sermon does have some sharp words against the Catholicism of his day. The collection concludes on a high note as Ryle explores all the ways “Christ is All”, a wonderful resource for nurturing one’s worship!

Ryle’s frank and straightforward preaching is a breath of fresh air. Read Ryle if you want to learn how to preach plainly. Read him to understand how good shepherds of God’s people afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Read him to examine your own life and to stir you from indifference. Read him to appreciate the marvelous riches one has in Christ. And read him for the practical help he gives in pursuing a “practical” holiness.

A note on editions: All of the most inexpensive editions of Holiness are in electronic form, including that linked to in this post. As a public domain work, it may be found for free or very cheaply online in various e-formats. Amazon also sells print-on-demand editions. Crossway has a more expensive paperback that includes a biography of Ryle by J.I. Packer under the title Faithfulness and HolinessOne should check to see if the edition you are buying has all twenty sermons–some are abridged–and it is worth getting them all!


Review: Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God

Living in Christ's Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God
Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God by Dallas Willard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book represents the “last words” of Dallas Willard, who died in 2013. In February of that year, he gave a conference at the Dallas Willard Center and was joined in presentations and dialogue by John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. The book, more or less, is a transcript of their presentations and interactions. The format was that they alternated presentations, giving a total of seven with Dallas giving the first and last. After each presentation, there was a time of dialogue between the two of them (except for the second presentation where Ortberg is in discussion with an unnamed party).

The presentations explore what it means to enjoy Christ’s presence in our present life. Dallas begins with talking about taking Jesus yoke of discipleship on himself. Then John talks about spiritual transformation and the kingdom of God. Dallas follows with what it means to seek the kingdom and obey the king’s teaching. Then John explores not so much the doctrine of the Trinity as our experience of the Trinity in our own lives and in the church, as we are drawn into these eternally loving relationships. Dallas explores the inner life of persons and John follows with spiritual disciplines that train our persons for life. The book concludes with Dallas talking about the nature of blessing and leaving us with a blessing from God.

While I think it is important and valuable to read all of Dallas Willard’s work, one does find something of the “essence” of Willard in this book. He talks about the spiritual disciplines as a way of opening ourselves to transformation that we cannot work directly into our lives. Through John Ortberg, we hear about the relentless elimination of hurry in our lives. We’re challenged by Dallas at several points to support our fellow believers and leaders in other churches rather than treating them as rivals. We learn about a discipleship that is embodied in our physical life and actions and not “spiritualized”.

There are statements throughout that are aphoristic in nature:

“There is nothing wrong with the church that discipleship will not cure” (p. 16).

“You know something when you are able to deal with it as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience” (p.31).

“Well, what Jesus teaches us is that within his presence and with his work, we begin to live in heaven now, and that’s why he says that those who keep his word will never experience death…. I think many people do not realize they’ve died until later” (pp. 83-84).

And one for us readers: “Aim at depth, not breadth. If you get depth, you will have breadth thrown in. If you aim at breadth, you will get neither depth nor breadth (p. 149).

As good as each presentation was, the interactions between Ortberg and Willard are priceless as we see two men who have walked with God, and helped others do so, reflect on this life and work with Christ. Often, the asides are sparkling gems of insight–several of the quotes above are from the dialogues. All of this not only gives us a taste of Dallas Willard, but whets our appetites for the kind of spiritual life about which he wrote and in which he mentored so many. And if it did so, he would rejoice, in the more immediate presence of the Lord he loved and followed in life.

View all my reviews

Review: Jesus The Sage: The Pilgrimage Of Wisdom

Jesus The Sage: The Pilgrimage Of Wisdom
Jesus The Sage: The Pilgrimage Of Wisdom by Ben Witherington III
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3, NIV).

A number of years ago, C. S. Lewis framed the Liar, Lunatic, Lord argument that asserted that Jesus could not possibly have been merely a good teacher–either he lied about his own identity which would make him not good, he was deluded about his own identity (also not good) or he was truthful in his claim to be the Lord of all. An unintended consequence of that argument is that we may deprecate Jesus standing as a teacher in our efforts to assert his Lordship.

In Jesus the Sage Ben Witherington III brings Jesus as Teacher and Jesus as Lord together in his exploration of Wisdom writings and how these influenced Jesus himself, and how they influenced the view of Christ, or Christology of the earliest Christians and the New Testament writers.

The first part of this book traces the trajectory from Solomon and the earliest Wisdom literature up through Ecclesiastes and extra-canonical books like The Wisdom of Solomon and Ben Sira. In this we see a development from Wisdom as Lady Sophia, with God at the Creation, to Wisdom as the Spirit of God. Witherington also argues in this section that these Jewish wisdom sources, and not Greek Cynics influenced Jesus and the early church. He draws the parallels between wisdom sayings in these works and the teaching of Jesus, particularly his use of parable and aphorism.

The second part of the book looks at the movement from Jesus to the early church and how these wisdom traditions influenced Q and James, the earliest hymns of the church, the writing of Paul, and the Gospels of Matthew and John. The basic trajectory is to see Jesus as not only incarnate God but as incarnate Wisdom, the one “greater than Solomon” (Matthew 12:42). One of the great services Witherington does is to show not only the linkage of the wisdom traditions to the early hymns of the church such as Philippians 2:5-11 (which very likely preceded Paul’s writing by some time) but to show that these indicate that the church’s view of Christ, or Christology, was a high one from the beginning–not a late development. I also found his treatment of both Matthew and John as Wisdom books illuminating because, while they do not depend on each other, they both portray Jesus as the wise teacher or logos, they emphasize discourse, and discipleship, among other parallels.

This is but a cursory survey of a rigorously scholarly work that makes an important contribution in reconciling the ideas of Jesus as Lord and Teacher, the one who is Wisdom in human flesh, not the builder of the temple as was wise Solomon, both “God with us”, the living temple. Years ago, Dallas Willard challenged a number of us with the Colossians verse at the beginning of this review and the implications of this truth for every academic discipline in the university. Do we truly believe Jesus knows physics, or law, or business, or history? Do we believe that his wisdom can illuminate our understanding as we wrestle with the deepest questions the academy can pose? What Witherington has done is lay out the biblical (and extra-canonical) case for answering these questions with a resounding “Yes!”

View all my reviews