Thursday, 31 December 2009

3. resetting all the dials

Now here's an appropriate theme for a New Year's Day!

Just two verses before the first reference to ancient Israel being a 'church' we have a fascinating declaration; "This month [shall be] unto you the beginning of months: it [shall be] the first month of the year to you." Exodus 12:2. God was resetting all the dials. This event would mark a brand new start which would culminate in new community.

Up until this time God's dealings had been with individuals but he was now going to create a 'covenant community' and it was to be marked by a change in the calendar. It would take a series of events to bring a 'new' covenant into existence. God's judgments would be visited on the enemy and a lamb would die and the individuals of Israel would have to pass under its blood to reach the safety of their homes. The families within their blood-stained homes were to eat the roast flesh of the lamb and later come to a mount that burned with fire. Heb 12:18-21. This was ancient Israel's Passover lamb, later a lamb would be provided for all nations who would be not ancient Israel's passover but 'Christ, our passover...' 1Cor 5:7.

The sacred archive is laying down a pattern for us that we are expected to recognise in its greater fulfilment; Israel's passover was not only an event and a commemoration, it was a prophecy... Luke 22:15,16. In time the 'new' covenant that Moses brought into being became an 'old covenant' and passed away. In its place would come a genuine 'new covenant' by a greater mediator; a better covenant based on better promises. Heb 8:6.

Passover and Sinai established the basis for a 'church of Israel'; a covenant community set apart from all other communities. Calvary and Pentecost established the basis for another 'church, the 'church of Christ'; a covenant community also set apart from all other communities.

To understand the true nature of 'church' we must not separate Passover and Sinai... nor Calvary and Pentecost.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

2. words have histories

Frequently when I am preaching I say, "Bible words seldom have definitions, they have histories". This touches on the very purpose of the Biblical revelation and the way we are expected to use it. Over centuries God was laying down not just a historical archive but a trail by which he would educate his people. These stories became embedded in the psyche of the nation and were thus available for God to use to build truth; line upon line, precept upon precept.

So where will we find the first elements of 'ekklesia', the covenant community? We find them in the story of the Exodus and that old King James Version does us an unexpected service here which is lost in all modern translations. I refer to two occasions in particular when the word 'ekklesia' is not not used in reference to the New Covenant community but rather the Old Covenant community. This is the KJV version of Stephen's defence in Acts 7:38 "This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and [with] our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us:" So far as I know no English translation since the KJV has ever used the word 'church' here. Every version, realising that this is a reference to the Old Covenant community of Israel, has chosen to avoid the word 'church' lest the reader should confuse the 'Old Covenant Community' with the 'New Covenant Community'. The other instance is Heb 2:12 where again only the KJV uses the word 'church'. I am not saying that modern versions are wrong to use the word 'congregation' in these two place, only that by not using the word 'church' we have lost the clue that 'church' is not a New Testament concept; it is Old Testament!

If we want to understand the nature of the concept of 'church' we shall need to go back almost to the beginnings. That Hebrews reference is very valuable as it provides a vital connection to an old Hebrew word. It works like this... Heb 2:12, in the Greek, has the word 'ekklesia' but the verse is a quotation from that wonderful Psalm 22:22 where the Hebrew word is 'qahal'. 'Qahal' is the word used in Exodus 12:6 where most modern versions will translate it as 'assembly'. It is used often of the nation of Israel and was often translated by the word 'ekklesia' in the Greek version of the Bible called the Septuagint. When the New Testament writers used the word 'ekklesia' it already had a history!

Where is all this taking us? We are discovering that the nation of Israel, and the disciples, already had a concept of what we have now come to speak of as 'church'. As far as they were concerned, being part of the Covenant Community of Israel, they were already 'in the church'. Imagine their shock then at hearing that Christ had an intention to build his own church and speaks of it in the future tense; "I will build my church..." Matt 16:18. One 'church' was already in existence but Christ had plans for another! We shall learn much of the purpose of the 'church' as the New Covenant Community if we spend a little time considering what 'church' meant for the Old Testament Community.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

1. what is a church?

Can we define 'church', 'baptism', 'bishop', 'deacon', 'apostle', 'prophet', 'pastor'? All these words and many more like them are not really English words at all, 'they are transliterated Greek words; ie the Greek letters have been replaced with English letters rather than the words being translated into English words. The English translations would be 'House of the Lord', 'plunge', 'supervisor', 'servant', and 'messenger'. The problem that lies with tranliterating rather than translating is that it leaves us with no definition of the words other than the way in which I choose to use them. Let me try to illustrate what I mean, let's take the Greek word 'kuon'. (if you know what it means please humour me and pretend that you don't for a while). Now suppose I begin to use that word in a sentence or two. "The kuon's trunk is very versatile and its tusks are very dangerous". Ah, you say "I know what kuon means". But what you don't know is that I am using the word wrongly; 'kuon' is the Greek word for 'dog'. If enough people begin to talk about the kuon's tusks it will form an image of 'kuon' in the mind which is defective, to say the least.

This same thing happens with words like 'bishop'. "Ah," you say, "I know what a bishop is." It is very probable that you don't know what a 'bishop' is but rather what someone's personal definition of 'bishop' is. This means Bible students have to work hard and consistently to try to use Bible words accurately, otherwise they effectively re-define them. This is what has happened to the word 'bishop'; centuries of wrong use have re-defined it and now when we see the word in the Bible we have to make a conscious effort to correct our immediate image of a 'bishop'.

The word 'church' probably comes from a Greek phrase 'KURioKos oikos'. (I have capitalised the key letters to show the link with 'church' or if you are Scots 'kirk'. The word 'kuriokos' means 'belonging to the Lord'. The whole phrase 'kuriokos oikos' means 'the Lord's House' and is NEVER used in the Bible. The word 'church' ought not to be in your Bible. So why can I find it 115 times in my King James Bible? Well there is a history to this.

The first 'English from Greek' translation was done by William Tyndale in the 16th century. His version only uses the word 'church' twice... to describe heathen temples! Where most versions have 'church' Tyndale had 'congregation'. The word he was translating was not 'kuriokos oikos' but 'ekklesia'. This word has a long history but it means a group of people separated from the 'crowd' with a special purpose in mind. It can only mean 'people', it can never mean a building.

So where do we get the word 'church' from? In the early 17th century England got a new king, a Scot. He was king of two kingdoms and consequently the Scots know him as James VI of Scotland, while the English know him as James I of England. But James didn't want to be king of two kingdoms, he wanted to be king of a United Kingdom (that phrase is his!) He wanted a United Kingdom, with a United Parliament, and a United Religion and he wanted to be head over it all. Half a century later, during the reign of his son Charles I, this lead to the English Civil War.

Part of James' project to create one nation out of two was the book we know (and love) called the King James Bible. He specifically insisted that Tyndale's word 'congregation' be replaced with the word 'church'. But the word 'church' really meant a building and ought not to be in the King James Version at all. We cannot turn back four centuries so we are stuck with the word 'church' which we have to constantly re-define! The waters become very muddy. So what is an 'ekklesia' and how would be recognise one? In Bible terms the 'ekklesia' is a covenant community. It is not part of the local community, in fact, it has been 'called out of' the local community and become a separate entity with a distinct purpose. Over the next few days, I will try to define 'ekklesia' from a Biblical perspective and try to see how well it compares with those things we tends to call 'churches'.

If you would like to ask questions or discuss this please join us on the Biblebase Discussion Forum under the thread what is a church?

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

a Saviour who is Christ the Lord

The clearest statement of the implications of the birth of Christ was revealed to an unexpected group of men; not a priest like Zacahrias, or to the wise Magi, but to simply uneducated shepherds who were keeping watch over their flock. When we think of shepherds we must be sure to guard against the mental picture of our British hill shepherds. These sleep in their warm beds at night and now only 'guard' the sheep against their own folly. I recall watching some Romanian shepherds some years ago. They were huddled around a large fire and carried heavy stick to defend their flock against bears and wolves. They wore evil smelling sheepskins and were not the kind of people you would want to invite to the hospital to welcome the arrival of your baby!

The shepherds represent the outsiders. They were disapproved of by the religious leaders as a result of their irregular pattern of life and their irregular attendance in the religious festivals. And yet it was to these unlikely social outcasts that the herald angels gave their proclamation; "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord". Luke 2:11

And the promise was not just for a spiritual or intellectual elite but was the promise of 'great joy which will be to all people.' Luke 2:10. On the assumption that you are not a visitor from another planet, there is a wonderful welcome for you here. Although religious particularism and social etiquette might exclude these shepherds, this message specifically declares that the message is for 'all people'. Human beings constantly draw little circles around their own groups to exclude the non-conformers but the angels draw a larger circle which encompasses all our petty divisions. They have the divine perspective.

'Glory to God in the highest,

And on earth peace and goodwill among men'

Luke 2:14

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The Gospel according to Zacharias

Mary spent three months in the home of Zacharias and Elisabeth and Zacharias had not spoken a word. I wonder if he listened to the conversation of the women. (I knew a man who came to Christ as a result of listening in on a conversation between two women!) Mary returned home to Nazareth and Zacharias lived with his silence and his meditations on the overheard conversations. When John was born the Holy Spirit filled Zacharias and from his newly opened lips came a stunning prophecy. It culminated in a thrilling prediction of John's destiny.

But the first half is all about another child who will not be born for another six months. This child will not come from the house of Levi as John, but from the house of David. It is a wonderful prophecy of Christ but it is also a wonderful declaration of the purpose of the Christ's coming.

He would bring a 'horn of salvation', a symbol of power and authority. Luke 1:69. This would be a powerful salvation.

The salvation he would bring would be very comprehensive; 'from our enemies and out of the hand of all that hate us.' Luke 1:71

The purpose of 'having been delivered from the hand of our enemies' is that his servants 'might serve him...' Luke 1:74. It was designed to remind us of the original 'gospel' given to Moses.(Ex 8:1) "Let my people go so that they may serve me." This 'serving' is the word used for the service of a priest.

But it is the manner of that service which is so thrilling.
'..without fear' Luke 1:74

'in holiness and righteousness before Him...'

'all the days of our life.' Luke 1:75

Does this describe our service of God? fearless, holy, righteous...
and not 'in heaven when we die' but here and now. '...all the days of our life'!

This is the gospel according to Zacharias...

Do we believe this gospel? Do we preach it?

(if you let your cursor hover over the Bible references you should see the full text)

Monday, 21 December 2009

a tale of two births

Luke's gospel begins with the story of two miracle births, or to be more precise two miracle 'conceptions'; the birth itself in both cases was perfectly normal. There are similarities in the visit of Gabriel and the two children are the subject of a thrilling prophecy from an old priest, but Luke takes great care to distinguish the different nature of these two 'miracle conception'. We can express the essence of the difference in a single phrase or two; Elisabeth was barren; Mary was virgin.

The miracle that Elisabeth received was a miracle of healing in which her sexual reproductive faculties were healed enabling the conceiving of John Baptist. That birth was the product of two 'bloods', the union of Elisabeth and Zacharias. The child produced by this normal physical union had a wonderful destiny to be sure. He would be, as Christ once described him, the 'greatest born of woman'. Matt 11:11 He would be Israel's greatest prophet and the man God would use to 'restore all things'. Matt 17:11. He was to be 'filled with the Spirit from his mother's womb. Luke 1:15. But, and it is an big BUT, he would be a child of two human parents and would be no different in constitution to any other child, you and me included.

See how carefully Luke distinguishes the miracle of healing in Elisabeth from the miracle of creation in Mary. Mary's child would constitute a brand new beginning for the human race. Mary's child would be God's son. The old KJV expressed the consequence of this miracle by declaring "therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." Luke 1:35. The phrase jars a little on modern ears. The NKJV has 'that Holy One', both are accurate translations but perhaps the older version may make us think a little deeper.

John Baptist was not a 'holy thing' at his birth. He was a joy to his parents, chosen by God for a great destiny and filled with the Holy Spirit and yet he was 'once born' and was 'a sin-infested thing' like the rest of his race. He would exercise a powerful ministry and see thousands come to his baptism of repentance but a man may be mightily blessed by God and still be 'born of woman' and consequently still be outside the Kingdom.

Jesus the Son of God and of Mary was different. This was a fresh start. He would be 'holy' and 'human'; a unique being. As a result of the 'overshadowing' of the Holy Spirit he would be guarded, in the womb, from all the deadly inheritance of Adam. The baby born nine months later was mankind's new beginning and all who would pass out of Adam and into Christ must be able to trace a similar history. Their spiritual new birth, the result of the coming of the Holy Spirit, must make them a child of God, born not 'of bloods', nor of natural desires, nor of human powers of choice, but 'of God'. John 1:12

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Will you go with this man?

Luke's account of the nativity has some very instructive elements. Is regeneration the sovereign and uninvited act of God or does he require human cooperation in his work? This is controversial territory, but perhaps the story of Mary can help us.

The account contains a well loved phrase "For with God nothing will be impossible." Luke 1:37 but we need to go back to the American Standard Version to find a more literal translation of the words. "For no word from God shall be void of power." It is the answer to Mary's gentle enquiry; "Then Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I do not know a man?" Luke 1:34. She has heard that she is to conceive while still a virgin and she is naturally perplexed at the prospect.

Gabriel explains, if we dare call it that, the process that will take place. "And the angel answered and said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God." Luke 1:35. I hesitate to 'explain' these words further. The coming miracle would be the sole work of the God. As with the miracle of regeneration the conception would be...
not of bloods, the word is plural. This birth would not be the result of the mixture of bloods.

nor of the will/desire of the flesh. This birth would not be the result of human passion.

nor of the will of man. This birth would not be the result of any human decision. (see John 1:13)

Perhaps we should attempt to go no further. Surely that answers the question; it is 'all' of God, and God alone? Amen, but that is not the whole answer.

Back to Luke's account and Gabriel's answer to Mary's question... The Greek construction implies that 'no word from God' is 'without power'. Or to put it into the positive expression, 'every word from God has inherent power'. It was this statement from Gabriel which drew a specific answer from Mary; "let it be to me according to your word". Mary has received the revelation and believed it. The impossible can be, but only because God's every word has 'dunamis' inherent power. But this is more that a recognition of truth, this is the point at which Mary embraces the 'word of God' for herself. Without her consent this event would have been a hideous violation of her body. With her consent it becomes the point of meeting of God's sovereign work and human cooperation. Without Mary's assent there would have been no incarnation and without human assent there can be no regeneration.

Way back in Israel's history there is an account of Abraham's servant who is searching for a bride for Abraham's son. He was led by the sovereign will of God to God's perfect choice. Rebekah would be part of God's sovereign plan. She did not create it. It was not of her design, or passion or will; it was God and God alone. Surely that answers the question. It would seem so until we hear a question put to her by her brother; "will you go with this man?" Gen 24:58. That question was put to a human being and required a human answer. It always does. God forces his will on no one but waits patiently for human consent 'that he may be gracious'. Isaiah 30:18.

Friday, 11 December 2009

a virgin with a history

This blog will not be 'devotional' but will just take the opportunity to address a real 'old chestnut'. One of the latest to join the fray has been Richard Dawkins, the arch evangelist of atheistic neo-darwinianism. Unfortunately Dawkins knows even less about the Bible than I do about biology. It concerns the Hebrew word 'almah' which is translated in the King James Version of Isaiah 7:14 as 'virgin'. Dawkins reckons that this is Christian re-editing and claims it ought simply to say 'an unmarried woman' with no implied comment as to the chastity of the said woman. The Christians, he claims, have 'interpreted' it to suit the myth of the incarnation. So what are the facts?

The question has been answered many times, sometimes in a very comprehensive manner. I am just going to take a more gentle route. First it is true that 'almah' does mean an unmarried woman. However in the context of the Sinai covenant and Old Testament law all unmarried women were required to be virgin. Sexual activity prior to marriage was punishable by death or forced marriage. So by implication the natural expectation would be that an unmarried woman would be virgin.

However the story doesn't end there. Some 200 hundred years before Christ the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in a famous work called the Septuagint, usually designated by the Roman number for 70 ie LXX. This was due to a legend that it was translated from the Hebrew in 70 days by 70 scholars. When those scholars wanted a Greek word for 'almah' they chose 'parthenos'. Now 'parthenos' can only mean 'virgin'. So if there has been any manipulation of the original Hebrew text it was done by Hebrew scholars who were translating into Greek. But why would those ancient scholars have wanted to introduce the idea of a virgin birth? The answer is simply that they understood the sense and context of the original and knew that the only logical Greek word was 'parthenos', a virgin.

The Septugaint, LXX, was the Greek version of the Bible that was used in the early Christian era. Apparently it was the version that Christ read from in Luke 4:18. The early Christians recognised that Isaiah 7:14 was a Messianic prophecy which had been fulfilled in the incarnation through the body of a virgin. When Matthew writes "Behold a virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a son and they shall call his name Emmanuel" Matt 1:23 he is not re-interpreting the Old Testament to support the Christian myth, he is simply quoting the Septuagint version of the Old Testament which had been used for over 200 years. Some 750 years before the event Isaiah, speaking in the power of the Spirit, made this extraordinary prediction, "a virgin shall conceive". The prophecy was fulfilled in Nazareth in Galilee and brought to its glorious conclusion in Bethlehem where "she brought forth her first-born son and laid him in a manger". Matt 1:24,25

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

What are YOU doing here?

It's a fairly familiar feeling for travelling preachers. You see a familiar face in among the listeners but you can't quite 'place' them; they are in the 'wrong' context, probably visiting from another church. I have the same feeling reading some parts of Isaiah. You suddenly find old friends and think 'what are YOU doing here'. This is especially true with those well known Christmas verses. This morning I was reading some of the earlier chapters of Isaiah and came across those familiar old friends such as 'Immanuel, God with us' Isaiah 7:14 and 'unto us a child is born' Isaiah 9:6. Have you ever tried to read them in their context? It is puzzle indeed.

Isaiah was writing for several decades and it may well be that we don't have his writings in what we would call chronological order. This itself is very instructive. The ancient peoples didn't tell 'straight line history', they constantly double back on themselves. Almost always the history has some 'point' and the narrative will continue until that point is reached and then double back on itself. The first two chapters of the Bible do the same. It is a salutary warning for those who try to reduce prophecy to timetables of future history.

In addition to the fact that it is often difficult to follow the 'straight line history' of the prophets, we have the strange phenomena of telescoping. Events over hundreds of years are telescoped into a few sentences giving the impression that the events are synchronised. It is like seeing a range of mountain peaks and not commenting on the valleys that lie between them. This is the explanation of old friends in unfamiliar places. We have seen some of these peaks much more clearly in the New Testament and it is sometimes a shock to discover them in their original environment.

Isaiah's days were tumultous. Super powers were 'slogging it out' and smaller puppet kingdoms were being swept along in the process. In the midst of the political chaos of his day he hears the promise that 'God is with us'. They may seem to control all the levers of power but God is with us. In one sense this was always true but in another more intense sense this fact would be incarnated in the birth of a child. He, himself, would be the embodiment of this assurance. This 'child' would shoulder the government of the nations and of the spread of his kingdom there would be no end.

It can only have been the vaguest of comforts to the people of his day but in the person of Jesus Christ the promise has become flesh and blood. In the continuing chaos of the human experience God has 'just the man for the job'. 'Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given'.

Monday, 7 December 2009

King Saul: a case study

I have been reading and meditating on the life of Israel's first legitimate king. Saul is such a tragedy. In his first beginnings he 'ran so well' but stumbled and fell.

His purpose, under God, was to break the power of the Philistines. 1Sam 9:16. His first battle was against Nahash the Ammonite; a man whose name means 'The Serpent'. 1Sam 11:1. The story has an echo of Eden about it. Gen 2:15. Adam was given the role of serving and guarding the garden, but he surrendered to the Serpent and the die was set for the human race.

Carl Marx apparently once said that 'all compromise carries within it the seeds of its own destruction'. That was certainly true for Saul. As his independence developed into outright rebellion we hear a Samuel's clear insight; rebellion is as witchcraft (divination) and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. 1Sam 15:23. These are strong comparisons. The essence of witchcraft and divination is the manipulation of God. Magic seeks to impose the will of man on powers greater than himself. Idolatry is the greatest sin; it maligns the nature and character of God. And yet we often smile at 'stubbornness' and will sometimes confess it with a sense of defiance.

There is an interesting side plot to this story. At some point Saul set his face against witchcraft and divination to the extent of banishing them from the land, 1Sam 28:3 and yet all the time the same seeds were sprouting in his own heart. It is often said that we are most intolerant of our own sins when we see them in others. Saul the zealot set himself against the outward expression of witchcraft and divination and at the same time was nursing the same attitudes of heart. 'the heart' said another prophet 'is deceitful and desperately wicked. Who can know it?' Jer 17:9.

Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. 1Cor 10:11,12.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Baptism, filling or anointing?

G Campbell Morgan distinguished these biblical concepts with the phrase "one baptism, many fillings, constant anointing." It is a very apt summary of scriptural teaching. This morning I was reading the first couple of chapters of 2 Samuel and noting David's attitude to and experience of 'anointing'. Even though Saul had long lost his communion with God David insists that Saul is the Lord's anointed. 2Sam 1:16. In the lament that follows he says that Saul died 'as though he had not been anointed'. (KJV) In the next chapter David himself is anointed King over the tribe of Judah.

David, in fact, was anointed three times; once by Samuel 1Sam 16:13, once by Judah 2Sam 2:4 and once by the whole of the nation 2Sam 5:3. So what does 'anointing' signify? Pentecostal/charismatic usage is to regard 'an anointing' as a temporary resting of 'power' on a speaker or a singer, but this is not the way the Bible uses the concept. The first Bible anointing is of a 'stone'! Gen 28:18. The stone did not have special powers after this event but had been recognised and set apart from all the other stones with a unique destiny.

This is the true Biblical concept, someone is identified and specifically recognised as having a unique role. In that sense David was 'anointed' by Samuel as God's representative and later that 'anointing' was endorsed by Judah and finally by Israel. However, David was God's 'anointed one' from the day that Samuel consecrated him as such. In the Old Testament the high priests were 'anointed', so were kings. Sometimes prophets were anointed but the central thought is of 'identification' and 'authorisation' rather than an endue of power. Anointings and baptisms are quite different; anointings come 'on' people, baptisms submerge people.

Jesus of Nazareth was 'anointed with the Spirit' at Jordon, not 'baptised with the Spirit', although many confuse the two. In John's first letter we discover a distinctive New Covenant truth; "But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will* abide in Him." 1John 2:27. The anointing, as with all the blessings of the New Covenant, has been internalised. It abides 'within'. God's Spirit bearing witness with our Spirit that we are children of God now instructs us in the manner of our living and believing. It is 'the anointing' now, Christ's own gift to the whole family of God's people, not a sudden flush of eloquence but an abiding Spirit who identifies us as God's 'anointed ones' and leads us out into our destiny.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

independence hardening to rebellion

I have just finished rereading 1 Samuel. Tracing Saul's spiral into disaster is a sobering read. This was the man who was uniquely chosen by God to be the leader of His people. He was chosen to take the battle to the Philistines and bring deliverance to Israel. The final chapter tells the tragic outcome of the story; Israel in flight and Saul and this three sons dead; at the hands of those same Philistines. How could such a thing happen to a man who is initially 'tailor made' for God's purpose?

There are at least three key markers to his descent into chaos. The first took place at Gilgal. That itself is significant. Gilgal had a history; it was the place where the people of Israel crossed into the promised land and their first action was to cripple all their soldiers! The temporary crippling was occasioned by the rite of circumcision, a ceremony which has many significances but may be summed up as Paul did in Phil 3:3 "(we) have no confidence in the flesh". I will not retell the story of 1 Samuel 13 but it showed Saul as a man of personal 'resource'. When God did not turn up, in the person of Samuel, he just carried on without Him. Oswald Chambers identified Saul's first sin, like Adam's, as 'independence'. It was an act of 'good, common sense' in the context but it marked Saul as a man who was prepared to innovate and choose his own way. He would do the 'will of God' but in his own way. The seeds of all that follow are found here.

Later in his story, 1 Samuel 15, Saul is given a commission to destroy the ancient enemies of God's purpose. Again Saul 'adapts' the commandment given to him and compromises God's plan. This time Samuel identifies it as 'rebellion' and 'stubbornness'. Independence has hardened into outright rebellion; it always does.

The final key marker finds Saul bereft of God's counsel but still determining to carry on. God has refused to speak to him by dream, or ephod or prophet but Saul is determined to get an answer. For Saul, the end will justify the means. He seeks out a medium, 1 Samuel 28, who summons Samuel from the grave but Samuel has no guiding word for him, only a death sentence.

The story of Saul covers about 40 years and has been preserved in the scriptures as a solemn warning and admonition. Single acts of independence can produce devastating harvests if they are not checked by genuine repentance and a willingness, in the disciple, to listen and obey his master's voice.

Monday, 30 November 2009

which yoke?

I suppose of all the 'comforting words' of scripture Matthew 11:28 would have to come high on the list. "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." but I trust we are learning to read beyond the confines of a single verse. This is a conditional promise and we cannot expect the fulfilment of the promise if we do not fulfil its conditions.

The picture of the yoke is frequently used in the NT as a metaphor for the Law. The way in which the Law had been applied by the Pharisees had made it literally 'unbearable'; Acts 15:10 The rulers of the day used the Law as as a 'one size fits all' and would not lift a finger to help those who were being crushed by it. To such 'weary and heavy laden' Christ offered a different yoke. Do note that he did not offer a 'yoke-less' option but a 'different yoke'; this was no 'off the peg' 'one size fits all' but a 'tailor made' union which bound the disciple to his master.

The full promise with its necessary conditions reads; "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke [is] easy, and my burden is light."

Taken together the whole passage makes the issues very plain. We find our 'rest' by coming under Christ's personal 'yoke' for our lives. What a 'rest' it is to come out from under every other 'yoke' and to come under the 'yoke' of Jesus Christ! This lifts from our shoulders every other obligation other than to 'learn of me'. It binds the disciple and his master into an exclusive relationship, and in that union and no other we find rest for our souls. In this union alone we discover that his yoke is easy and his burden is light or as John later testified..."For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome." 1John 5:3.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

but will the truth set you free?

Apparently, according to the Bourne finale, the marble walls of the CIA are adorned with the words "and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" John 8:32

This is one of those verses which seems very encouraging until you look a little closer. I recall a wayward definition of a parable as 'one of those stories which, just as you are beginning to enjoy it, grips you by the throat". This is one of those 'just when you are beginning to enjoy it' moments.

We don't quote the Bible now we just quote texts and often without context. The full quotation begins with some words of Jesus to some who had become 'believers'. He warned them of the danger of brief lived faith. "If you continue in my word then you are genuinely my disciples, and you shall know the truth and the truth will make you free". Apparently there are both 'disciples' and 'genuine disciples', otherwise there would be no need for that qualifying word 'genuine' or 'authentic'.

So how can we distinguish between the two? Those who 'continue' in the word that Christ has spoken to them are the genuine article; people who suddenly believe may not be. It is not a high moment of faith that defines a genuine disciple but that steady adherence and obedience to Christ himself.

And it is only those who are in that present tense relationship of master/disciple with Christ who will know the truth and THEN, and not before then, the truth will make them free. There is nothing magical about data, it is the relationship to the one who speaks the truth that makes the difference.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Bank Holidays and Thanksgiving

I recall an American remarking on the fact that in the US national holidays celebrated key historic events while in the UK they seemed to celebrate the closure of the banks! It is not quite that simple but the idea of a Thanksgiving Holiday is very attractive. What do atheists do on this day? I recall another friend saying the saddest sight in all the world was a thankful atheist! What does he do with that upsurge? When he sees a sunset or the sweep of the milky way or the nails on a new born baby's hands, what does he do with that emotion?

Paul showed that there was an integral link between unthankfulness and idolatry in his letter to the Romans. Marking the beginning of the deadly spiral away from God's destiny for mankind he declares; "because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened." Rom 1:21 Apparently, idolatry starts right there with a refusal to recognise what we know to be true and a refusal to be 'thankful'.

I have observed something in Christians of many different persuasions throughout the world; it is almost impossible to keep a thankful man down and almost impossible to keep an ungrateful man up! If that is where the rot began that is the place we can begin the recovery. How do I get back on the flight path? Give God his rightful place and lift your heart to him in thanksgiving.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

a jealous God?

For those taught to regard 'jealousy' as a sin, this self description of God is often a challenge: Ex 20:4-6. It comes in the passage which refers to idolatry and explains that God's particular hatred of idolatry stems from the fact that he is a 'jealous God'. How so?

It is almost impossible now for us to separate out aspects of God's character which seem contradictory. Is he a God of justice or a God of love? Yes! He is a God who exhibits his holy love in anger against the rebel. The two are not contradictory but complementary. It is because we hardly ever see 'anger' without 'temper' that we are tempted to consider God as being inconsistent. Christ was angry... often, but he never lost his temper.

When human beings exhibit jealousy it is a manifestation of self-defence and part of the philosophy that attack is the best from of defence. With God however, there is no self-centredness of this kind and God's jealousy does not stem from fear of loss of reputation. So where does it come from?

The context shows us plainly. Idolatry is a redefinition of God and inevitably a slander of his character. This is why the revelation of God in Christ is so necessary. Even the revelation of God in creation and scripture is partial but in Christ God is seen plainly. If we change this revelation we redefine God and that is idolatry.

God is 'jealous' of his character partly because to malign that character will result in inevitable loss for those who believe the lie. It is usually accepted that to defile the character of mother or wife is bound to provoke strong anger from the one who knows and loves 'mother' or 'wife'. The love of the Godhead cannot ignore the slander perpetrated in idolatry and the right word for this is 'jealousy' but it is jealousy without self-centredness and anger without temper.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

God: a new definition?

I recently had the opportunity to read a publishing phenomenon called "God explained in a taxi ride". All you need to know about God in the time it would take for a short taxi ride and, believe it or not, a condensed version for those who want it quicker. What kind of God might we define in the time allotted to a taxi journey? The conclusion, for those who don't have the time for the taxi ride or to read the condensed version is 'whatever you see as the source of life, chance, evolution, creation, that is your definition of God. Whatever you see as being behind everything, that is God'. That's it. I saved you $10!

The Bible often surprises people by the strength of its condemnation of idolatry. If you were to put the big sins in descending order 'idolatry' would be the first. Does the Bible betray a lack of proportion in this? No, the reason that idolatry is so treacherous and so often condemned in the scripture is that idolatry is the attempt to 'redefine God'. You cannot think rightly of anything if you do not think rightly about God. If I take any other route inevitably it will become a question of 'my definition is as good as yours'. Who has the right to define God? The theologians? the man in the taxi? The believers? Surely my favourite preacher/writer can be trusted to define God? Actually he can't. Only God has the right to define God.

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. John 1:18. This 'only begotten son' is the one who said "I and My Father are one." John 10:30. If we want to know what God is like we must come to Jesus Christ. He is the only one qualified to 'define God'. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ does not only mean to agree with his moral teaching. Many, like Ghandi, have commended his teaching but refused to surrender to his person.

To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to allow him, and him alone, to define God for me. Not in words alone but also in deeds. I turn aside from every other definition of God and risk everything on this one. He has the exclusive monopoly in defining God; there can be no 'new definition'. Any other definition is idolatry and a defamation of God's character. Idolatry begins with the rejection of Jesus Christ as the definition of God. If I reject him, I reject the Father.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

earthquakes, tsunamis and the love of God

This is a re-issue of a piece I wrote 5 years ago. Someone asked me again yesterday. "Why does God allow these things?" This is still my only answer.

I have juxtaposed couple of stark statements as the heading for this Biblebase Second Thoughs blog. How does the Christian consider these ideas? Do they cancel out each other? Do we make a choice of believing one or the other? If not, in absolute terms, do we close our minds to one or other of these ‘facts’? The question uppermost in my mind is ‘why did this happen’? At the risk, of you reading no further into this little meditation, I will tell you frankly, I don’t know. And I will go further, I don’t believe anyone else knows either.

It is not unbelief or backsliding to ask questions. The prophet Jeremiah was to become a witness to the death of his nation. Everything he recognised as God’s love gifts would be swept away; the Priesthood and the Temple, the Throne of David, the very nation would be dragged ignominiously into exile. As the horrors begin to unfold Jeremiah lifts up his voice’ Righteous art thou, O LORD, when I plead with thee: yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? wherefore are all they happy that deal very treacherously? (Jer 12:1 KJV)

It is a wonderful and honest statement. Underneath Jeremiah’s acknowledgement of God’s nature a question is bubbling. Jeremiah is trying to make sense of what he sees, as no doubt many are now and many will in the future. It is a reworking of Abraham’s rhetorical question; That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Gen 18:25 KJV)

The legitimacy of the question was recognised by the Lord in Luke’s gospel; There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. (Luk 13:1-5 KJV) The word translated ‘suppose’ here is ‘dokeO’ to judge or decide. The Lord is asking the question ‘how are you thinking about these events?’

The astute will notice that so far we are doing pretty well for questions although answers are a bit short in supply. It is right to ask these questions and very human. We were created with the power of reason, and the need to link cause and effect. Somehow we have always known that every event must have a cause. This is the admission of every child who asks a question beginning with the word ‘why’. ‘Why’ demands that there is a reasonable basis to our universe. Some Christians shrink from such questions; they feel that somehow the question is impertinent. The command to … love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. (Luk 10:27 KJV) undercuts that escape from reason.

The mind or understanding however needs more that raw data to make its right deductions; it requires revelation. Paul prayed, in the Ephesians’ letter, that The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, (Eph 1:18 KJV) The understanding needs ‘light’ from outside as well as its own inherent deductive powers. In that wonderful chapter about ‘faith’ in Hebrews we have the statement By faith we understand that the ages were framed by a word of God, so that the things being seen not to have come into being out of the things that appear. (Heb 11:3 MKJV)

This kind of understanding must always begin with faith and faith, according to my own personal definition, is right response to revelation. The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God… (Psa 14:1a KJV). To ‘leave God out of the calculation’ is the Bible definition of a fool. Conversely The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding. (Pro 9:10 KJV) Abraham and Jeremiah both begin their questions with two basic assumptions; that God is Righteous, and that God is God. In other words God had the power to do what He wills, but what He wills will always be righteous because He Himself is Righteous and He can only act in consistency with His Own character.

Abraham was about to see the destruction of Sodom, Jeremiah was about to see the destruction of Jerusalem, but for both the underlying question is how can God justify this behaviour? The spirit of both these men is identical. Abraham’s subsequent conversation was not the bartering of a village market, but the same response as that of Jeremiah. The KJV expresses the scene beautifully; …let me talk with thee of thy judgments... I heard a man recently who said that he is often angry with God; a chill went through my spirit when I heard the words. The man who gets angry with God is never going to get an answer the question ‘why’? We never get an answer to the question ‘why’ when we hurl it heavenwards through clenched teeth. The meek will he guide in judgment: and the meek will he teach his way. (Psa 25:9 KJV) We may recall that Moses was described as ‘the meekest man in all the earth’; it is written of him He made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel. (Psa 103:7 KJV) I think it is more than a simple Hebrew parallelism. Some people only every see God’s acts; the meekest man saw God’s ways.

To be pedantic, we would have to say that all that humans will ever see is the ‘outer-skirts’ of His ways. This was Job’s realisation; The pillars of the heavens tremble and are astonished at His rebuke. He quiets the sea with His power, and by His understanding He shatters the proud. By His Spirit the heavens were beautiful; His hand pierced the fleeing serpent. Lo, these are the edges of His ways; but what a whisper of a word we hear of Him! And the thunder of His power who can understand? (Job 26:11-14 MKJV) Speaking elsewhere of God’s ways the psalmist said; Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known. (Psa 77:19 KJV) What a vivid picture that is, especially when we recall that this passage is referring to the Red Sea and the Exodus. ‘God’s way is in the sea’; unimaginable, unpredictable, unrepeatable, untraceable. Theoretically you could visit this spot today, and find nothing but, in its fleeting moment, God walked here and did things of eternal consequences.

The words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel are an abiding warning against an understanding based on joining up the dots by the shortest possible route. The Luke 13 passage is instructive because it deals with both human culpability and natural disaster. In the first Pilate might have been blamed, in the second an earth tremor, but in both cases the Lord refuses to connect the disaster event with individual or group sin. This is important when we consider the 1986 Chernobyl Meltdown, the 2004 Tsunami or the 9/11 WTC implications or the most recent news. I will ask and answer my own question… “Do you suppose that the residents of Belorus and Ukraine, the Indian ocean seacoasts or the United States… were sinners above all… that they suffered such things?” “No, I don’t”. This may surprise and unsettle some of my friends but I am sure that these words in Luke are to prevent us making such connections. It is impossible to deduce cause from effect just by joining up the dots.

Such a deduction would need revelation as well as information. Some will claim such revelation and quickly defend their opinions, but I have no such revelation and in the absence of plain New Testament teaching cannot submit to these conclusions.

There is another classic portion of scripture where dangerous questions are asked. This time the one asking is Asaph, one of David’s chief musicians. His question is to be found in Psalm 73. He is in the middle of the same theological dilemma, and starts again by declaring God to be good, but his own thinking has him on the slide. He has watched the wicked and they are ‘getting away with it’; in fact, they are thriving. He wonders whether his own clean walk has just been a waste of time, a sheer vanity. He hasn’t spoken these things publicly for fear of offending others, but as he meditates his thinking becomes ‘too painful for me’. There is a limit our comprehension of suffering. One of the most wicked men of the last century, Joseph Stalin, once remarked ‘One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic’. There is a truth in this cynical comment. We do not usually mourn more over 18 buried under Siloam’s tower than we would over 17 unless the extra one is our own child. Perhaps this is part of God’s goodness to us that we cannot perceive what ‘50000 victims of a Tsunami’ really means. We are more likely to shed our tears over the thought of a single person weeping for his son, than of 50000 faces we never saw, being swept away. It is not until Asaph entered the place of God’s presence that the slide stopped; we shall find the same.

This is where the greater revelation of the New Testament makes its special contribution. God is not afar off, checking the latest statistics. Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? (Luk 12:6 KJV) If you check the ‘going rate’ with Matthew’s gospel you will know that the price was 2 sparrows for a farthing, but the sellers would sometimes have a special offer of five sparrows for 2 farthings. They had ‘thrown in’ in the fifth sparrow without cost. Even this ‘sparrow without a price’, added almost as an afterthought or bonus, was not forgotten before God. Matthew touches the same truth but his phrase almost sounds unfinished, Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. (Mat 10:29 KJV), and different translators have added words to make up the sense, without your Father’s consent, without your Father’s will, I prefer to leave it as it is; ‘without your Father’. He was not far off checking statistics; He was there, when the sparrow fell. God’s capacity for sorrow is infinite.

In each one of those private tragedies which make up the 5000 or 50,000 He was there too. He felt each pain and panic. He feels now the wounds of each bereaved loved one. He feels the pain of the coming years. I recall an old lady who used to be part of our church. I knew her in the 1980s. On her mantel piece in her home she had a faded photograph of her younger brother. On his birthday, each year, she would weep. “He died”, she would say, “on his 19th birthday, at the Somme”. Over 60 years and the wounds were not healed. God’s wounds have not healed either. The pain that this world has caused and does cause Him is beyond thought or calculation. God’s capacity for sorrow is infinite.

How can God allow all this pain? I don’t know but I know He shares it and ‘feels’ it far more than we ever could. To the sure knowledge of His absolute righteousness, I am able to add the revelation that God is Love. This love with which God still loves His world through all its sorrows was demonstrated once in its fullness; But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8 NASB) and that anchor holds all my other thoughts secure. There is a pattern, I am sure, that is beyond all human knowing and a day may come when we will see more than just ‘the edges of His ways’, but in the meantime through tears and pain His people must lift their hearts as did Jeremiah all those years ago.

My soul has been rejected from peace; I have forgotten happiness. So I say, My strength has perished, And so has my hope from the LORD. Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers And is bowed down within me.
This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope. The LORD'S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. The LORD is my portion, says my soul, Therefore I have hope in Him.
(Lam 3:17-24 NASB)

Friday, 25 September 2009

so what does a disciple need to do?

This brings us to the second element of the way in which we are to 'disciple the nations'. A disciple is technically 'a learner' who learns at the feet of a master, but what does he learn? There is a kind of instinct in evangelical circles that there is an irreducible minimum of doctrine that a person must learn before they can be considered a Christian. In the Second century there were definite things which must be learned and those who were learning were called 'catechumens'; people who were under instruction and ultimately people had to 'know their catechism' before their full initiation into the new covenant community. But is this what Christ is referring to in the Great Commission? Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, [even] to the end of the age. Amen. Matt 28:19-20

We need to recall to mind that a 'disciple' is one half of a relationship. Primarily he is following a 'teacher' rather than a 'teaching'. Christianity is not, primarily, a doctrinal system. It is not, primarily, a code of ethics. It is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This is why Christ made the bold assertion; I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. John 14:6. It is not possible to be 'right with God' other than through the the sole agency of Jesus Christ. If we desire to come to God we must come to Jesus Christ; there is no exception to this.

The Great Commission is fulfilled as men and women become disciples of Jesus Christ. Nothing short of this can be allowed. Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ involves a full hearted surrender to him in water baptism and an undertaking to 'observe' what he is teaching. 'Observe' here does not mean taking on the role of an interested spectator. The word means to actively guard what has been entrusted; it is the picture of an armed guard or watchman. Those who would be disciples are not those who subscribe to a doctrinal statement but those who actively guard what has been entrusted to them. Let me illustrate...

Christ had been preaching and some of the Jews who listened believed him. To those who had 'believed' Christ spoke these words; Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." John 8:31-32 Those words, 'the truth shall make you free'. have become a slogan used by many but they are not true... not in isolation from the rest of the sentence. If we work our way backwards perhaps you will see my point. The truth only frees those who know it and the only ones who know it are true disciples of Jesus Christ, and true disciples of Jesus Christ are those who 'abide' ie 'continue' in the truth that he has revealed to them. So reading it forward again... those who hear the word that Christ is speaking and who continue in obedience to that word are genuine disciples. (the word 'indeed' is the word 'true' and the word 'true' often means 'the genuine article' in the New Testament) So in order to be a genuine disciple I must continue in my obedience to what Christ has said to me. Such genuine disciples will know the truth and knowing that truth, as genuine disciples, will set them free. Freedom depends upon discipleship and discipleship depends on 'holding onto' and 'working out' the things which Christ says to us.

This Great Commission is a wonderful repeating cycle. We 'disciple' the nations by bringing individuals to the place where they surrender to the person of Jesus Christ and set their course to obey what he has said to them. How does he speak to us? In many ways, but particularly through the testimony of those men to whom he originally committed this Great Commission. All newly 'discipled' men and women are to 'guard the things that I have commanded you'. They are to guard the things that I have committed to you. This includes the command to 'go and disciple the nations'. In other words this Great Commission passes on in its entirety to each new generation.

The life truth committed to the disciples is now committed to the new 'disciples', and part of that commission is that they also embrace the Great Commission. The result of that is that each new generation of disciples also receives this Great Commission. It means that every genuine disciple of Jesus Christ is automatically invested with the same responsibility... to go into all the nations and to 'disciple' them. There are no exceptions; if I am a disciple I have a commission.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

so how much does it cost to be a disciple?

I had a hunch about the Great Commission for a long time. Is this one command or three? Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen. Matt 28:19-20. The punctuation of the NKJV suggests that it is three commands. (By the way, there is no punctuation at all in the original Greek text so all punctuation in the New Testament is interpretation rather than inspiration.) My hunch was that this was not...
  1. Go and make disciples
  2. baptising them in the name...
  3. teaching them to observe all things...
but rather... Go and make disciples; baptising them in the name... and teaching them to observe...

In other words the Great Commission is simply 'Go and disciple the nations' and the process by which this will be achieved is 'baptising them in the name... and teaching them to observe... ' So 'baptism' and 'teaching to observe' is the method by which the Great Commission is to be fulfilled. I was encouraged recently to discover that I am not the only one to have this hunch; Youngs Literal Translation has it too... having gone, then, disciple all the nations, (baptizing them -- to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all, whatever I did command you,) and lo, I am with you all the days -- till the full end of the age.' Did you notice that Youngs puts the 'baptising' and 'teaching them to observe' into a parenthesis, showing that this is the way they were to 'disciple the nations'.

Let's think through the implications of that. Water baptism is a simple symbol of surrender to the will of another; a surrender of such scope that the person being baptised is effectively taking an active part in their own funeral. This is a 'no-turning back' surrender, the kind that burns all the bridges. I have conducted quite a few water baptisms, I always give the candidate the same advice "Let me do this. Don't try to help me, just trust me." It is such a simple but profound way of sealing the choice. I yield myself utterly to another's will. Of course it symbolises too the point of departure and entrance; from death to life, but at its heart it is a foolish act of total obedience and abandonment.

To be 'baptised in the name of...' signifies that the baptised will be forever owned by the one in whose name he is baptised. This is a symbolic transfer of ownership. From this moment I am no longer a free man, able to make my own choices. From this moment my life belongs to another.

How much does it cost to be a disciple? Only everything. It is easy to miss this truth in the presentation of the gospel; regeneration is free, becoming a disciple will cost me everything.
Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ. Phil 3:8.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

am I a disciple?

In the moments before his ascension Christ gave a unique commission. It is usually known as the Great Commission and has been the source of thousands of stirring sermons. Its most familiar form is in the language of the King James Version; And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, [even] unto the end of the world. Amen. Matt 28:18-20 KJV. The King James version has the word 'teach' used twice but there are two quite different Greek words behind the passage. The New King James Version will illustrate this point; Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit… Matt 28:19.

We are familiar with the word 'disciple'; as a noun it is used often in the New Testament. But the word 'disciple' has a twin sister, a verb which really ought to be translated 'to disciple'. This word is only used four times in our New Testament; it is the Greek word mathEteuO. One of these references is to Joseph of Arimathaea who is described as being 'discipled to Jesus'; And evening having come, there came a rich man, from Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was discipled to Jesus… Matt 27:57 YNG. This is telling us that Joseph became a personal disciple of Jesus Christ. It was not that he subscribed to a particular set of truths, or that he had joined a community. It simply means that a relationship came into existence in which Jesus was the Master and Joseph was the Disciple. The 'becoming a disciple' was not a long drawn-out process but a point of decision in which Joseph recognised Jesus as his sole source of truth and guidance. Joseph did not join a Discipleship Training School, or commit himself to a course of study, he simply made a choice; Jesus Christ was to be his single channel of instruction and life.

The first eleven 'disciples' received a commission to go into all the nations and to bring men and women into this same unique relationship with Jesus Christ. John the gospel writer, contrary to some historical opinion, never had any disciples of his own, nor did Peter or Paul. Their life's work was to bring others to Christ himself. A disciple, after all, is one half of a matched pair; the other half is a master/guide. Those eleven men knew that Christ had forbidden them to be masters. They would have not misunderstood the great commission.

This poses an important question; am I a disciple? or am I the disciple of a disciple? Am I dependent upon Christ or am I dependent upon someone who has introduced me to Christ? It poses other vital questions too; am I fulfilling this great commission? I may travel the world preaching, I may be a great Bible teacher… but if I am not bringing men and women to the place of personal dependence upon Jesus Christ, I am not 'discipling the nations'. I may be able to boast of thousands of decisions for Christ and have seen miracles performed but if I am not bringing men and women to sit at the feet of Jesus Christ I am not fulfilling the Great Commission.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Hebrews: Now look who's talking!

The first chapter is a comprehensive statement about the identity of the speaker. I don't mean the author of the letter but the person he will constantly draw attention to throughout it. He has identified the risen and ascended Christ as Son, heir, firstborn, and King-Priest. The one who Himself purged our sins... Heb 1:3 and who now reigns as King-Priest on the throne of the universe. It has been by this 'Son' that God has spoken in these last days (Heb 1:2) How are we to respond to the Word that God has spoken?

It is recorded in the Romans epistle that originally the human race knew the truth but rejected it. ...they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Rom 1:20-21. The original revelation was rejected. The revelation that came through Moses was, in terms of personal obedience, mostly rejected. Now that God has spoken 'by a Son' surely they will listen to him, won't they? Then said the lord of the vineyard, What shall I do? I will send my beloved son: it may be they will reverence him when they see him. But when the husbandmen saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, This is the heir: come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours. Luke 20:13-15 KJV

The rejected heir has been crucified but has risen and taken his throne. Will God now move in retribution against those who rejected him? This was what the crowd feared on the Day of Pentecost. (Acts 2:37) But 'no' he 'sits as a priest upon his throne' and still holds out the offer of salvation. (Acts 2:38-39)

Those to whom our epistle to the Hebrews was addressed stood on the threshold of the ultimate disaster. They had responded to the gospel, received the Holy Spirit and experienced the 'powers of the coming age' (Heb 6:4-5) and now stood in danger of 'turning back' to Judaism and the obsolete covenant of Moses. The ESV states the danger in the clearest terms; Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. Heb 2:1 ESV. It is the metaphor of a small boat which has broken its moorings and is now drifting away on the currents. Perhaps 'slowly drifting' but fatally drifting.

The books of Proverbs gives us a little pen-sketch of the 'sluggard'; I went by the field of the lazy man, And by the vineyard of the man devoid of understanding; And there it was, all overgrown with thorns; Its surface was covered with nettles; Its stone wall was broken down. When I saw it, I considered it well; I looked on it and received instruction: A little sleep, a little slumber, A little folding of the hands to rest; So shall your poverty come like a prowler, And your need like an armed man. Prov 24:30-34. D L Moody, apparently used to say that he 'had more hope of a murdered than of a lazy man'.

This is the last word and the last chance to such men and women; See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven, Heb 12:25.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Hebrews and Psalm 110

This may be the most quoted Old Testament passage in the Bible. Matt 22:44. Mark 12:36. Luke 20:42. Acts 2:34. 1 Cor 15:25. Heb 1:13; 7:17, 21. Its first 4 verses must have perplexed readers for a millennium. Christ used it to show that the Messiah was greater than David. Peter used it explain the Resurrection of Christ. Paul used it to point to the Consummation of all things and the author of Hebrews used it as one of the great proof texts for the New Covenant.

Part of its mystery lies in the mention of Melchizedek. Melchizedek appears in the story of Abraham, very briefly. Gen 14:18-20. He then disappears for 1000 years before reappearing in Psalm 110:4. He then disappears for another 1000 years before taking centre stage in the epistle to the Hebrews.

There is much that we could say about Melchizedek but the main point is that he is a Priest-King. Israel was not allowed to have Priest-Kings. Their priests came from the tribe of Levi, and the intention was that their kings would come from the tribe of Judah. Priesthood and monarchy were mutually exclusive. There are no Old Testament pictures of a Priest-King other than the mysterious Melchizedek. So after 3-400 years of Levitical priests why would David begin to speak of a different kind of priesthood? and who is this that David refers to as 'my lord'?

The author of Hebrews sees this as a comprehensive promise that the Old Covenant would be replaced by another, better Covenant based on better promises and with a better Mediator. As the Law and the Priesthood were an inseparable unit, to change the Priesthood meant an inevitable change in the Law; For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law. Heb 7:12. This could not be a slow fade into the new but must mean a complete break between the old and the new.

The reign of Christ as Son, heir and firstborn is established clearly but now the author adds a wonderful nuance, this reign will be different; Yes, He shall build the temple of the LORD. He shall bear the glory, And shall sit and rule on His throne; So He shall be a priest on His throne, And the counsel of peace shall be between them both.” Zech 6:13 By his ascension he has been declared Son and heir and firstborn and a priest forever, after the model of Melchizedek. He has all authority in heaven and earth but at this point in time he exercises that authority as a 'priest' and not as a judge.

Another time must come when he must judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31) but for the time being... Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Heb 4:14-16.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Hebrews and Psalm 45

The second of the 'throne' psalms in Hebrews is Psalm 45. The historical setting seems to have been the coronation or marriage of Solomon and its sub-title is a 'Song of Loves'. It is an appropriate title, verses 1-12 being focussed on the King and verses 13-17 on the bride. It is only after the Son had been 'anointed' that the bride comes into view. There could be no church before Christ's coronation.

Again the psalm seems to outstrip its original purpose as it declares; Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom. You love righteousness and hate wickedness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of gladness more than Your companions. Psa 45:6-7. It is true that rulers were sometimes referred to as 'gods' but what are we to make of the refrain "thy throne... is forever and ever"? Youngs Literal Translation has Thy throne, O God, [is] age-during, and for ever...Psa 45:6 YNG Where the Greek version (LXX) has 'into the age of the ages'. This is a glimpse of an eternal reign!

The author of Hebrews has no doubt that ultimately this is a reference to the Messiah on his eternal throne. He is persisting in his theme of Son and heir but it is the sequence of events that is key too. Notice the order of those events;
1. you have loved righteousness and hated iniquity

2. Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You
With the oil of gladness more than Your companions.
This is anointing which follows his triumph. Christ's ascension and accession, ie his coronation is an important truth of revelation. It is because of this that Peter declared; Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. Acts 2:33 It is because he is enthroned and has received this 'anointing' that he is able to 'pour out this which you now see and hear'. In fact, for Peter, the outpouring of the Spirit was the earthly proof of this heavenly reality.

But what kind of anointing is this? Is he anointed King or Priest? The answer to that question will open up the rest of Hebrews to us.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Hebrews and Psalm 2

The author of Hebrews bases his introductory chapter on a group of Psalms. In fact, the whole letter might be seen as a 'sermon' based on texts from the Psalms. These psalms provide a wonderful link to the Old Testament and a thrilling insight into the way that the early Christians 'read their Bibles'. Of course, they didn't have a Bible as we understand it but many would be familiar with much of the Old Testament.

Psalm 2 is a curious psalm. Unless we read it carefully it can be quite difficult to identify the speakers and the listeners. Of the 12 verses we might say that 9 represent God as speaking to the whole world; Psalm 2:1-6, 10-12. But we have three verses in the middle which seem to be out of place; Psalm 2:7-9. Who is the 'I' in Psalm 2:6, and who is the 'I/me' in Psalm 2:7 ? At first glance it seems that it is king David who is speaking and that this is a kind of coronation hymn but the author to the Hebrews sees another meaning in the psalm.

Part of the clue is in the phrase 'I have set my king' (Psalm 2:6) The word translated 'set' is usually translated 'poured out' in the Old Testament and if you 'pour out' oil on a designated person that would make it an 'anointing' and the person would become the Anointed One. This links it with the Anointed One in Psalm 2:2 but the word in verse 2 in Hebrew is 'mashiyach', the Hebrew word for 'Messiah' and the Greek equivalent of that word is 'Christ'.

Now we can see how the author of Hebrews is thinking. This is not simply a coronation hymn for David but a prophecy of 'David's greater son', Jesus Christ. The nine verses are indeed God speaking to the nations but those three verses Psalm 2:7-9 is a glimpse into a heavenly court and can be understood as the testimony of Christ himself. He has been raised from the dead and has ascended into heaven. It is the time of his coronation. The Father publicly acknowledges him as his Son (Psalm 2:7) and his heir (Psalm 2:8) This is the introductory theme of Hebrews 1:2-5 and the 'today I have begotten you' is not a statement of biology but rather the public acknowledgement of given authority.

The final scene of the psalm is a word of counsel to the leaders of the nations to submit to God's duly appointed king and includes the words 'Kiss the Son, lest he be angry'. (Psalm 2:12) This is not a kiss of passion or affection but the kissing of the hand in submission. This is the gospel proclamation. God has set his Son at his own right hand and ruler of heaven and earth and men must surrender to this rule or 'perish'. That is a necessary and sober warning but the psalm ends on a sweeter note; Blessed are all those who put their trust in Him. (Psalm 2:12) Have you?

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Son, heir and firstborn

These three titles from the first chapter of Hebrews have caused many to think that in some way Christ is inferior to the Father. In fact, all three titles are ancient ways of speaking about publicly acknowledged authority.

In 44 BC Julius Caesar 'adopted' Octavius. This was not the kind of adoption that we are familiar with today. Octavius wasn't a bouncing baby but a battle hardened soldier. In ancient times 'adoption' was a sign of favour and acceptance. Men adopted ‘sons’ to ensure the continuance of their empires and fortunes. Octavius became Julius Caesar's 'son', his heir and effectively his 'firstborn'; he is better known as Caesar Augustus. Many Roman Emperors were ‘adopted sons’.

So what point is being made by the author of this letter? In this passage the words son, heir and firstborn have nothing to do with biology but everything to do with a public acknowledgment of the relationship between Christ and the Father. He is publicly acknowledged, by resurrection and ascension, to be the rightful ‘son and heir’. He emptied himself to fulfil the Father’s will and thereby to gain our salvation and now the Father has given him ‘an inheritance’, the reward of his faithful service.

The title of 'firstborn' was used in a similar way in the Old Testament; Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. Ex 4:22-23. That is a good example of the nature of ancient adoption. The prophecy of Jeremiah has a similar comment about the northern kingdom of Israel; For I am a Father to Israel, And Ephraim is My firstborn. Jer 31:9. We could illustrate the theme from many an Old Testament passage. The ‘firstborn’ was the chief son who was commissioned to carry on the Father’s will into the next generation. Sometimes a first son who failed his father was dispossessed and another son was given the role of ‘firstborn’. The ‘firstborn’ had a double portion of his father’s estate AND his mother and other dependants to care for.

This does not diminish the person of Christ nor does it take away from his divinity. He is co-equal, co-eternal, co-substantial with the Father. Everything we mean when we say God the Father, is equally true of the ‘Son’. The author of Hebrews is consciously putting Christ ‘in his right setting’ so that there are no misunderstandings. He is greater than the angels, greater than Moses, greater than the Aaronic high priests. He has been entrusted with all authority in heaven and on earth. He is the unique expression of God in humanity and to be worshipped as God for ever.

There is an interesting post-script to this idea of ‘son, heir and firstborn’ Our author describes the true church... to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, Heb 12:23. That phrase ‘are registered’ is a verb in its plural form and gives us the clue to something easily missed in our English versions; the word ‘firstborn’ in this verse is plural, the firstborn-ones. What we have here is a whole company comprised of sons, heirs and firstborn ones. This is the constitution of the true church; each member (whether male or female) is acknowledged as one who has the Father’s favour and is entrusted with authority to act on his behalf… not to grow fat on double portions but to provide for the ‘dependants’.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

God's last word

The letter to the Hebrews begins with a contrast which sets the scene for the remainder of the letter. It puts a clear line of division between 'the old days' and 'now'. Or as the text has it... God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; Heb 1:1-2.

It is contrasting the way that God speaks to us. In 'the old days' he spoke at various times and in various ways and the revelation of truth built slowly so that men could begin to get their clear conception of what God was like. Those revelations were true but not the whole truth; they were partial and some older translations use the language of 'parts' and things 'partial'. We then 'fast-forward' from 'time past' to 'these last days'. The writer speaks from the position of the 'last days' which began with the coming of Christ. He says that 'in times past' God spoke by means of prophets; uniquely commissioned spokesmen for God, but in 'these last days' God has spoken, not through spokesmen, but through his own Son.

This is why John's account of the life of Christ describes him as the Word. Not 'a word', that's what the prophets delivered. But Christ is 'the Word', he is the non-partial revelation of God. God has nothing to say that he has not said in the person of Christ; Christ is God's 'last word'. John's gospel account tells us that 'the Word became flesh and lived among us'. John 1:14. John never recovered from this discovery. In Christ he saw God in all his fulness. John 1:16-18. There may well be fragments of truth in other religious traditions, but everything that God wanted us to know about God is 'visible' in Jesus Christ. This is what Christ himself was pointing to when he answered Philip's request to 'see the Father' with such direct clarity; Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? John 14:9.

And this is why anyone who rejects Christ stands in such great jeopardy. Christ is God's full and final witness, to reject him as 'the Word made flesh' is to turn away from God's last word to the human race. It is also the reason that to think wrongly of Christ is such a foundational folly. We cannot think wrongly of Christ and think right in any other part of our thinking. He is the foundational corner-stone. If that corner-stone is skewed it is impossible to build true in any other part of life. The answer to the question 'what do you think of Christ?' is not religious trivia, it is the difference between light and darkness, life and death.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

the sole agent

It is part of a beautiful little verse in Peter's first letter; For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God 1 Pet 3:18. This verse could provide us with the perfect material for one of those old-fashioned 'three point sermons'.

The Purpose of His death bring us to God... He did not die as a martyr nor as the result of a miscarriage of justice. Nor was this some divine oversight or cosmic accident, it was part of a definite plan. This does not remove the responsibility of those who did the deed but points to the fact that God was at work in history fulfilling eternal purposes. This simple phrase carries a large implication, it implies that in some way we were separated from God. Why else would it be necessary to do something to 'bring us to God'.

So in what sense are ordinary human beings 'separated from God'?

Christ... suffered... for our sins...

We cannot take the Bible seriously and at the same time ignore this statement. It is a frequent testimony of scripture that Christ's death had to do with 'our sins'; not his sins, he had none. In his death he suffered the due penalty for the breaking of God's known laws; The soul who sins shall die. Ezek 18:20. If you click on the reference you can read the rest of that verse. It says very plainly that every member of our race will receive the due penalty for doing what we knew to be wrong and for not doing what we knew to be right. We are culpable and our sins have separated us from God.

If this is true, and Christ had no sins, how are we to understand his death? He died as the representative and substitute for everyone who had ever broken God's law. He received the punishment that was rightfully ours. An Old Testament prophet had seen this dimension to his death hundreds of years earlier; Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. Is 53:4-6 That is what Bible students call 'substitutionary atonement', Peter simply refers to it as...

the just for the unjust

He took my place, my sin and my punishment. That is what Bible students call 'penal substitutionary atonement'. But in all the wonder of what he achieved we must be careful not to forget that clearly stated purpose. He died in our place, for our sins, as the sin-bearer upon whom God's righteous judgment came, but he did it all, without reluctance... to bring us to God.

What a tragedy it would be if having perfectly accomplished all that was necessary we should fall at the last hurdle... and not come to God. There is forgiveness for sins, peace with God, acceptance, bubbling joy and a million other blessings available... but only for those who will do business with God's sole agent in this enterprise.

Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. Heb 7:25

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Living in a patchwork covenant?

Changing the mind-set is a process rather than the result of a single flash of light. The famous Ironebridge in Shropshire, UK was opened on New Year's Day in 1781, the Iron Bridge was the first arch bridge in the world to be made of cast iron. Architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard commissioned Abraham Darby III, an ironmaster working at Coalbrookdale in the gorge, to cast and build the bridge over the river Severn, which had until then been crossed by ferry. The construction had no precedent, so Pritchard, whose background was in joinery, based the design on carpentry, with joints including mortise and tenon, and blind dovetail.
Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust
Uploaded with plasq's Skitch!
iron 'dovetail' joints

Pritchard had a whole new discovery at his feet but initially he was stuck in the mind-set of a previous era. Don't mock him, it happens to Christians all the time. It has sometimes been the habit for preachers to deride the slowness of Peter and the early disciples to 'follow through' in the implications of a New Covenant, but how many who mock Peter are still building iron bridges with dove-tail joints?

One of the great cures for this phenomena is a careful reading and re-reading of the letter to the Hebrews. The New Covenant is not, according to this letter, transition but replacement; then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second. Heb 10:9. It is a theme which begins in Chapter 7; there has been 'a change in the priesthood'; Heb 7:12 and the law was a function of the priesthood in the same way that the priesthood was a function of the law; Heb 7:11. The result is that the 'first' or 'earlier' commandment has been 'set aside' as in Heb 7:18.

The New Covenant is not the next step in a kind of evolution of truth but a brand new beginning. It is not a new patch added to an old garment. To live it to its full purpose we shall need to 'set aside' all the 'dovetail joints' of our previous religious experiences and trust the Mediator of this New Covenant to do 'a new thing'. Is 43:18-19

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Drawing near and drawing back.

The letter to the Hebrews contains some of the most solemn warnings in the Bible. Souls with ultra-sensitive consciences often struggle through some of its statements. The letter is full of contrasts. It contrasts Christ with every other servant of God, and contrasts the New Covenant with the Old. There is another, underlying, contrast which is the whole basis of the letter; it is the contrast between drawing near and drawing back.

The letter focuses strongly on faith. Faith is the way that we respond positively to the word of God. In my little thumbnail definition I usually describe it as 'right response to revelation'. The letter to the Hebrews was written to people who have come to a place of personal faith in Christ and had received His Spirit but were in danger of reverting to their original Judaism. The writer, whoever it was, reminds his readers of the way in which old Israel 'drew back' from the promise that God had given them and died... 'out of Egypt' but never 'in the promised land'. I wonder how many this description would fit today? Have you turned your back on the old and known the beginnings of God's redemption but know you have not received all that was promised and find yourself stuck in a 'sub-standard Christianity'? Hebrews has a word for you.

Historically Israel had an Exodus, a meeting with God and, finally, a full entrance into their promised land. I am not suggesting that we create a three stage theology from this but only that these events may focus our attention in a helpful way. It is so easily forgotten, especially by preachers that 'he brought them out so that he could bring them in' is not the whole story. The full story is 'he brought them out so that he could bring them to himself, and after entering into a covenant with them he could then bring them in'. It's not as snappy perhaps that's why we usually go for the shortened version.

Do we have any consciousness of having 'drawn near to God' or is that just the language of the old hymns? On what basis would we be able to 'draw near to God'? Our author has no doubt; it is on the basis of faith. They did not 'draw near' because they had achieved some qualification in terms of righteousness; they 'drew near' because they were invited. Christ's death for us on the cross is the basis for our 'drawing near', nothing else will do. The apostle Peter once summed up the gospel in the words... For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God... 1 Pet 3:18 There is no other basis upon which we can draw near.

But being declared right with God is not quite the same as 'drawing near' to God. It is the necessary condition but not the automatic consequence. The apostle Paul writes of this fact in his letter to the saints in Rome, speaking of Christ he says; through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Rom 5:2-3 He has been speaking about 'justification by faith' but notice now that he says 'faith' gives him 'access into grace'. Faith opens the door and puts us on a right standing with God but we must then walk through it.

The danger for the readers of the Hebrew's letter was twofold; that they would not draw near AND that they would draw back. To 'draw back' in this context is to retreat from the understanding of acceptance with God by faith in Christ's sacrificial death and to set up our camp on the old ground of acceptance with God through human obediences. Those who do so, according to the writer are in mortal danger; Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.” Heb 10:38 Just in case you missed it the first time he repeats the statement but in more positive terms in the following chapter; But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. Heb 11:6

Acceptance with God is by grace through faith, but the reward is promised to those who 'diligently seek' him.

Monday, 27 July 2009

The embodiment of an answered prayer

Only the brave will read any further after that title!

Psalm 22 changes its mood dramatically in the middle. Save Me from the lion’s mouth And from the horns of the wild oxen! You have answered Me. Psa 22:21 NKJV The last half would more accurately be translated as 'you have heard me'. The first half of the Psalm is dark and brooding. It speaks of the real 'passion' or suffering of Christ. Not Mel Gibson's version which just concentrated on the physical side but on the real inner suffering of Christ's death. He was conscious that in bearing sin he was suffering 'separation' from his Father. The dramatic description that follows the cry of 'Why has thou forsaken me?' speaks of a terrible battle that was raging on the inside, hidden from all eyes and cameras.

Suddenly at verse 21 the mood changes from the horror of separation to the joy of future hope and the watershed is the phrase 'you have heard me'. At this point in time Christ knew that the price was paid and the battle won. His cry of victory 'it is finished' bears witness to that. But what had been 'heard'? and why would the scripture use this language? The victory was not gained in some underworld as some have taught but there while he was still impaled to the cross on the horns of the wild aurochs.

Christ's death was not a tragedy or a cosmic accident, it was the cornerstone of salvation. It was a pouring out of his life to provide the legal foundation for all forgiveness from God. As the old Wesley hymn has it 'justice divine was satisfied'. Isaiah had prophesied this and spoken of the battle that would be won at Calvary and the means by which God would bring forgiveness and salvation to men and women; Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, And He shall divide the spoil with the strong, Because He poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors. Is 53:12 NKJV It's there again the image of the work on the cross being 'an intercession for transgressors'. His poured out life was the propitiation, the price paid, to make reconciliation possible.

This prayer was heard and the proof of that is the resurrection. Proof positive that the prayer was heard and the sacrifice accepted; Who in the days of his flesh, having offered up both supplications and entreaties to him who was able to save him out of death, with strong crying and tears; Heb 5:7 DRBY That version goes on to say 'he was heard'.

In its powerful images the Bible declares that Christ still bears the marks of his wounds in heaven. He is 'in place' as the person in whom this great prayer was heard. Our access to God is because we have a legal representative who can 'speak' to the Father on our behalf. His moment by moment intercession is not so much in terms of myriads of individual prayers but in the fact that his presence 'in heaven for us' is the great symbol of a prayer that was answered once and for all and which will always guarantee us access if we leave all the 'pleading' to him; My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2 NKJV

Friday, 24 July 2009

Dear Diognetus...

"Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred."

Did the style of that seem a little archaic? No wonder, it was written somewhere around 130 AD by an anonymous Christian writing to an 'interested pagan' who is named as Diognetus; it is, in the language of our day, 'seeker-friendly'. It is usually called the Epistle to Diognetus and is a fascinating document. The letter is remarkable for its gentleness. This is not abrasive' in-your-face evangelism' but shows a genuine readiness to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience... 1 Pet 3:15-16 NKJV It is not a long letter and well worth reading, it's more in the style of a gentle evangelistic tract. Perhaps we should write some tracts like this?

For this blog I am more interested in the description, in italics above, of the Christian attitude to the world and culture in which we live. They live here as 'sojourners'. That's an archaic word now but it simply means someone who isn't staying, they are just passing through; you can see the French word for 'day' in the middle of it. These 'citizens' were living the same kind of cultural experience as those around them, but they weren't staying. It's that theme of 'pilgrims' again. The word 'pilgrim' draws our attention to the fact that he is on a journey, the word 'sojourner' draws attention to the fact that he is not settling down. They are the opposite sides of the same coin.

For the early Christians this was their prevailing world-view. Writing a little earlier at the turn of the first century Clement, an elder in the church in Rome, wrote to the church in Corinth. I am always thrilled with the opening sentence of his letter; The Church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the Church of God sojourning at Corinth, to those who are called and sanctified by the will of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you, and peace, from Almighty God through Jesus Christ, be multiplied. It's that same persistent theme that shaped the thinking and ambitions of the early Christians. Like Abraham of old, they had their eyes fixed on another city; ...he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. Heb 11:10 ESVS