Archive for the ‘Bible Study’ Category

Headline from The Birmingham News in October 1918

Recently a pastor friend of mine called for other pastors to defy their state’s regulations and still hold in-person Church services during our COVID-19 lockdown. His scriptural reason was to make sure we don’t disobey Hebrews 10:25 ‘…not neglecting to meet together…’

I respect his views, and value him and his ministry as a brother and partner in the Gospel, however I respectfully disagree with that view.

The matter of civil disobedience, obeying God rather than man (Acts 5:29), can be a thorny path to tread, since it can so easily slip into becoming political, aligning ourselves with the Right or the Left (either directly, or indirectly), and taking on rhetoric that comes from secular political movements rather than using a Gospel vocabulary. Sadly, it can lead to Christians becoming divided over secondary matters, and becoming distracted from that which unites us – the Gospel of Christ crucified, risen and reigning.

So the way in which we respond (if at all) to our government leaders, and whether or not pastors call their people to obey or disobey civil authorities must always be carefully, prayerfully and Biblically thought through.

It will be helpful to take a closer look at the Hebrews passage in question, seeing the full statement in its context, to see if it does actually require us to keep our churches open during pandemic restrictions.

See the phrase within its immediate literary context:

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:19-27, ESV)

See how reading the phrase in its wider context show that the issue at stake here is much more nuanced that simply the matter of whether or not I show up to Church on Sunday?

The main thesis of the book of Hebrews is that we have, because of Jesus our Great High Priest, a confidence to draw near to the throne of God, knowing that the sacrifice of Jesus at the cross was fully sufficient to atone for our sin. The recipients of this letter were (mostly) Jews who had come to faith in Jesus as their Messiah, and in doing so they had suffered great loss – being ostracised by family and community, losing their homes and property, although they had not yet faced a level of persecution that threatened their lives (12:4). But most likely the reason why they had not lost their lives was because they were beginning to cave in to the pressure to return to the old system, represented by the Temple and its sacrifices. They were being told that Christ was not enough; they must still observe the Law, including the Temple rituals, in order to have an assurance that they are justified before God.

But this old system has been made obsolete by Jesus, argues the author. It’s ‘growing old’ and is ‘ready to vanish away’ (8:13). It’s only the shadow of which Christ is the reality (8:5, 10:1). It can never perfect the worshipper nor clear their conscience (9:13-14); it cannot produce true and godly repentance (6:6). Only faith in Christ can bring about the fruit of ‘full assurance’ and a ‘hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.’ (10:22) that can give us the confidence to approach the Throne of Grace (read: ‘Mercy Seat’) (4:16).

Those Hebrews who are warned several times about ‘falling away’ (3:12, 6:6) were not ‘losing their religion’ in the modern sense of no longer believing in God. They were going back to the old religious system, thinking that the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ was not fully sufficient and needed supplementing by the animal sacrifices and traditions. They were rejecting ‘the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ (12:23) – literally ‘the ecclesia of the firstborn,’ what we know as by the english word ‘Church’ – in preference for the ‘assembly’ of the Temple. They had stopped meeting on Sunday with Christians to hear the Apostles’ teaching that pointed them to Christ, and instead had returned to the Synagogue on Saturday where the Rabbis were pointing them to the Temple and the observance of days and sabbaths and rules and traditions.

All of that is behind the call in 10:25 which stresses, albeit in a negative way, the importance of meeting together (interestingly, he uses the verbal form of ‘synagogue’ here rather than of ‘ecclesia’). He confronts those who have ‘neglected’ (or ‘forsaken’) gathering together, such that it has become a ‘habit’ – a way of life. They hadn’t missed a few Sundays here and there. They had abandoned Church and gone back to Temple.

These are those who have effectively said, ‘I don’t need church, because I’m OK on my own. I have my own means of carrying out my relationship with God, and it just so happens that my way is also much more acceptable to the world around me. My way will avoid persecution, it will make me accepted an approved by my community, because it’s really just the status quo. I’d much more prefer that, than having to ‘go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured’ (13:13). Church is just too much effort, too much risk. I prefer the easy, individual path of self-righteousness.’

This is what it means to disobey 10:25; that which is called ‘sinning’ in verse 26, because it’s an attitude that no longer relies on Christ alone, but on other ‘sacrifices’ and ultimately on me and my personal spirituality.

Closing our church doors temporarily during lockdown isn’t the disobedience that Hebrews describes. Closing our doors permanently would be. Saying to our people, ‘Gathering regularly isn’t important; you don’t need the meet with your brothers and sisters to encourage one another or spur one another on to love and good works,’ would be. Downplaying the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, making people think they can and need to find comfort and assurance in other things and ‘assemblies’ outside of him and his church, would be.

But saying ‘We will stay home, for the time being, as the government has directed (just as every other citizen regardless of their faith has been directed) and in this time we will seek to be creative about how we continue to love one another,’ is not disobedience. It recognises that our God-given government is actually working, in this case, in the best interests of all of its citizens and of the nation. They are not doing this out of a particular political or religious agenda, but under the common-grace wisdom that God tells us he still gives to the authorities of this world:

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. (1 Peter 2:13-15, ESV)

Note how, in this context, ‘doing good’ is something that that was defined, in a civil sense, by governors and even the Emperor (Yes, even the Emperor of that time who was instituting a brutal, state-sanctioned persecution of Christians!). Christians should not exalt what we see as our ‘civil rights’ over and above the command to love our neighbour, or to do anything that might discredit the Gospel. We are told, ‘If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.’ (Romans 12:18) and to pray for our government, ‘that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:2).

If the time comes when the Church is unreasonably targeted with restrictions that are not placed on the whole community; or if the authorities begin directing when, where and how we are to conduct our worship, or seeking to censor the content of our sermons; or if they require us to call evil good and good evil (beyond simply taking away tax breaks or funding); only then will we need to start having the conversation about civil disobedience.

In the meantime, let’s remain thankful, trusting in our sovereign Father, and being creative in how we may go about encouraging one another ‘all the more as we see the Day drawing near’.

I think we Christians have largely misappropriated Matthew 5:16: ‘In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’
We use it as an excuse to promote ourselves and our works, seeking affirmation from the world. Both the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ are guilty – we can do it whether we are standing up for pure doctrine and the rights of unborn children; or the rights of refugees and queer folk and the need to deinstitutionalise the church. All of it can so easily become a waving of our own banner, desperately seeking for someone to say, ‘Hey, you’re a really good, authentic Christian, you know?’
I think Jesus is telling us here that it’s not about us, or even our good works. Light is an image of the Gospel message. That’s the way it’s consistently used throughout the Scriptures. When God makes himself known – as He has done clearly in Jesus Christ – it is a Light shining into the darkness of human sin and despair.
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Isaiah 60:1-3
Notice here who Israel’s ‘Light’ is? The Lord, whose glory has risen, like the sun, upon them. What will attract the nations to Israel is not Israel themselves, but the fact that the Lord is among them. This is essentially the Gospel message:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Mark 1:14-15
Both Light and Salt (Matthew 5:13) are primarily images of what God has done to redeem and restore His people. To be the ‘light of the world’ (and the ‘salt of the earth’) is essentially to be the heralds of this Good News.
So what has this to do with our good works? Notice that when we are letting our light shine, people will come to a particular conclusion about our works. And this is the point of what Jesus is saying – not so much that they will see our good works, but that their response will be to give glory to the Father.
You see, our works will always be seen, whether we like it or not. We know this all too well right now, as institutional churches in the West are being dragged through the mud of their own failure to protect women and children in their midst. In this case, the world is seeing our evil works, and the name of the Father is being profaned among them, just as in the days of the Exile:
I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries. In accordance with their ways and their deeds I judged them. But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’
Ezekiel 36:19-20
Yahweh had judged his own people by exposing their sin and shame to the world, sending them into exile, where people saw them and said, ‘What kind of god do you have? Yo must not think much of Him, if you are going to dishonour Him so much that you must be vomited out of the land He gave you!’ Sound familiar?
The solution to this, we think, is to work on restoring our reputation in the world. To start doing good works, and to point to them and say, ‘See, we’re not that bad after all. You should trust and like us again. Please. We don’t want our churches to get small and die. Please come back?’ But this will not work, on two counts.
Firstly, the horse has already well and truly bolted. Christendom is dead, and people are no longer interested in being part of the church simply as a social or cultural club – which, if we are honest, has always been a fair chunk of the church-going population in the West for the last 1000+ years. We can no longer expect the church to be an institution that is endorsed by the state and society. Thankfully, Christianity in the West is gradually reverting back to the grass-roots, countercultural movement it has always been.
Secondly, even if we end up doing a good job at our good works, and an even better job at marketing ourselves and our good works; even if many people in the world say to us, ‘OK church, we see that you’ve been trying harder, and we’re prepared to trust you again; you can come back into the clubhouse,’ then we will simply have a lot of people giving glory to us, not to our Father in Heaven.
Out task is not to hold out our good works; it is to hold out the light of the Gospel. This Gospel tells us that the Father is so full of mercy and grace that He even perseveres with and forgives the vile, hypocritical sinner who goes about profaning His name with their lives. This Gospel tells us that while judgement begins with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17, Amos 3:2), it is so that mercy might flow out to the nations. It tells us that Jesus Christ died not only for his friends, but also for his enemies.
This is a Gospel that can only be proclaimed faithfully when it’s proclaimed in humility, by people who know that they are great sinners, but Jesus is an even greater Saviour. When we are in this place, we should not even want to wave the flag of our own works, because we know that apart from grace even our righteousness is like filthy rags.
This light of the Gospel will not lead people to say, ‘You are good people, because you do good things.’ It will cause them to say, ‘Your Father is a good Father, because He does good things – and if He can do good things even through you weak, hypocritical, compromised Christians, then maybe his grace in Jesus Christ is big enough to do something good in me?’ The Gospel will make people see that the basis for knowing God is not our good works – because no matter how good we think our works are, they will always fall short – but that it is the grace of Jesus Christ that says, ‘I will remember their sins no more’ (Jeremiah 31:34).
For too long we have misappropriated Matthew 5:16, and made the Gospel out to be a moralising message of, ‘Don’t do that, or God will be angry with you; do this, and God will be happy with you – just like us good Christians.’ A true appropriation of Mathew 5:16 is to say with Paul:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
1 Timothy 1:15

“Not another blog post on this question!” I hear you say.

Initially I decided that I would not post anything in response to the current debate in the US about the potential dismissal of a professor from a leading Evangelical college over her claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Many people have written on this, a large number defending the college’s evangelical commitment. Many have pointed out that trinitarian Christians and unitarian Muslims do not worship the same God, since each of their affirmations and denials about the nature of God are an anathema to the other (eg. Christians affirm the divinity of Jesus, which is blasphemy to a Muslim; Muslims deny that God can have a son, which is heresy to Christians.)

However to date, I have not seen (maybe I have missed it) a writer wrestling with two verses in the New Testament which on the face of it may seem to lend support for the professor’s statement:

‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.’ (John 4:22)

‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’ (Acts 17:23)

I have singled these two out because both of them use the word ‘worship’ – implying that both the Samaritans’ and the Athenian’s approach is not merely about conceptual knowledge or confession of beliefs, but also about devotion and piety. They don’t simply have an idea in their heads about God, but practice it in acts of devotion and worship.

Similarly, both make a statement about the worshipper being ignorant in some way, and needing a fuller, correct revelation; this fuller revelation will bring a reformation of their worship.

All this may sound like the professor is onto something. Maybe even the Pope was onto something when he said the Muslims and Christians are brothers and sisters.

However, when we take a closer look at these verses, we will see that they do not, in fact, support the idea that there are non-Christians who worship God, albeit in a faulty or deficient way.

The first thing to notice is that the two words translated in our English Bibles as ‘worship’ and ‘know’ are different in each verse. This reflects the two different contexts: in one (John 4:22) Jesus is speaking to a Samaritan, and in the other (Acts 17:23) Paul is speaking to Greek philosophers. Straight away that should indicate to us that we cannot take these two verses out of their context and throw them together as if they are identical in their meaning.

John 4:22

Jesus has been speaking to the Samaritan woman, and she has raised the issue of where true worship of God is supposed to take place – since the Jews had the temple in Jerusalem, and Samaritans had their own alternative temple in Samaria, which they set up after the retuning exiles from Babylon in the 5th century BC rejected their help in rebuilding the Jerusalem temple.

Jesus dismisses this as the key issue, instead saying that true worship of his Father will be in the power of the Spirit, and is not tied to location or architecture. His statement ‘salvation is from the Jews’ is an affirmation that, up to this point, Jerusalem is the correct location for the Temple and therefore worship of God; it is the centre of His presence with His people. However, this is about to change now that the true temple, priest and sacrifice has appeared in his person. The coming of Jesus does away with both right places of worship (such as the Samaritan temple) and the right place of worship (the Jerusalem temple) as people now come to the Father through faith in Jesus.

Jesus however is not invalidating all that the Samaritans did in their worship. They held firmly to the first five books of the Scriptures, and so both their theology (understanding of who God is) and form of worship was orthodox. However their understanding of God’s purposes was deficient since they did not acknowledge the rest of the Old Testament – the Prophets, Psalms and historical books.

When Jesus says, ‘you worship what you do not know,’ the word here for worship refers to the physical act of bowing down or prostrating oneself (and is sometimes used in this literal sense) that forms part of a worshipper’s actions. And the word for ‘know’ means a knowledge that comes from seeing and experiencing – rather than a conceptual knowledge. In other words, the Samaritans go through the motions, but their experience of God is lacking, because they do not come to the true seat of His presence in Jerusalem.

Jesus on several occasions, both in practice and in his teaching, appeared to be affirming the Samaritans in their identity as the ten Northern tribes of Israel, who were one day to be reunited with their Southern Jewish brothers (See Ezekiel 37). This is fulfilled when Samaritans are included in the experience of Pentecost in Acts 8. In that sense, the Samaritans were ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ whom Jesus the Good Shepherd has regathered into the flock through his death and resurrection. The Gospel has dispelled their ignorance, and brought them into the full revelation of the Father and His plan so that they may be one with their Jewish brothers in worshipping Him.

Acts 17:23

Paul’s address in Athens begins with an acknowledgement that the Athenians are ‘very religious’ – and he uses a word that may also be translated, ‘superstitious’. The word he uses for ‘worship’ (twice in 23) is one that means ‘pious’ or ‘devoted’ – which ties in with his description of Athenian religion as superstitious. It’s a word often associated with idolatry.

When he says that they ‘worship’ that which is ‘unknown,’ he uses a word from their own philosophical vocabulary – the word from which we get our English word ‘agnostic’. This is an ignorance that comes either from lack of learning, or from the sheer incomprehensibility  of the thing that is unknown. It’s a statement of conceptual knowledge, rather than experiential knowledge.

The Athenians took pride in the fact that they were able to acknowledge the reality of something of which they had no knowledge. They knew they did not know everything, and so  there was a distinct possibility that there was, out there, an ‘unknown god.’ This was a ‘dark matter’ god – one deduced by human reason, yet not encountered in human experience. Paul devastates their intellectual pride by equating this lofty philosophical learning with superstitious religion.

Paul’s claim is that the message he brings of Jesus and the Resurrection is one that will cut through this superstitious ignorance, replacing it with a clear and present truth that will call for a response of repentance. The God he describes to the Athenians is one that demolishes and replaced both the superstitious god of paganism and the deistic, conceptual god of the philosophers.

Conclusion

Neither John 4:22 nor Acts 17:23 can be used to support the claim that adherents of the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity worship the same God. The former refers to those who, in a sense, were already ‘in’ the true people of God; the latter refers to those whose worship is false, arrogant and idolatrous.

ef21d1d84ea14ba82a5045a3e48bb114Christmas is a time of year when we hear a lot of hopeful talk. Despite our culture’s loss of understanding about the real meaning of Christmas, there is still a strong sense that it has something to do with hope, peace, harmony. Something that’s often said is, ‘If there’s anything the world needs at the moment, it’s hope.’ The thing is, that’s what people say every year, and nothing much seems to change in the world. We have a sentimental, mushy sense of, ‘Maybe things will work out one day, if those other people in the world who are causing problems get their act together and change,’ and then a few days after Christmas is over we go back to living our own regular, self centred lives, and nothing much really changes.

Do you have a hope for the future of the world? If so, what is it?

And is your hope merely wishful thinking – ‘It would be really great if it were to happen,’ – or is it a hope that is grounded in a sense of certainty – ‘Despite the present circumstances, I know for sure that all will work out for good in the end.’?

I put it to you that we all, in some way or other, have some kind of perception about what the future holds, and some kind of longing or yearning that that future be good. Even ISIS is a movement based on a sense of hope. We might find that difficult to comprehend, however if we were to speak to any ISIS fighter and ask them why they do what they do, they would speak about their vision of a future world in which there is peace and harmony when all people everywhere submit to the rule of Islam.

World leaders recently gathered in Paris to discuss the issue of climate change. For some people this was probably an ethical issue – that it’s just plain wrong for human beings to disrupt the world’s finely tuned ecosystem, while for others – and I suspect the majority – the problem is that our future is at stake. They have an intrinsic sense that the future for humanity and this world should be a positive one. I think much of what motivates human beings to take action and world for a cause is the desire to remove any threats to a future that is good and positive for us and for the world in which we live.

Our passage this morning is about this hope. It tells us not only what is in store for the future of creation, but that that future is a good one. It tells us how that future will be accomplished. And the events that took place at the first Christmas are right at the heart of this promising story of future hope.

 11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister
(Colossians 1:11-23 ESV)

Paul, who wrote these words, is telling the Colossians – the Christians who received this letter – that they have an excellent reason for living in hope. He prays that they will be strengthened by God the Father so that they may have endurance and patience – words that speak of waiting for something good that is yet to come. And in this patient waiting, they are to have the attitude of joyful thankfulness. This not just grinning and bearing it, or stoically facing tough times just for the sake of it. This waiting is done with a deep sense of joy and gratefulness, knowing that what the Father has in store for us not only makes the waiting worth it, but actually gives a sense of purpose and glory in the waiting. This is because the hope Christians have is that we ‘share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.’ (12) I don’t have time or space now to to unpack all that that means; but those words alone show us that the future the Father has in store is pretty glorious, and far above all that we can ask or imagine.

This glorious hope has to do with a rescue mission, in which we are transferred from a kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his Son; a rescue which is accomplished by the forgiveness of our sins. (13)

There is a reason why human beings universally have a sense, or longing, for a future for the world which is only good. It’s because that is actually God’s design or plan for creation. And as part of this creation, we have been designed for this good and glorious future. We live with a sense of awryness in our lives because deep down we know that this world, and we, are not the way we should be. And so most, if not all of human endeavour is all about us trying somehow to bring things back to the way we know they should be. Yet in all that there is a deep sense of dissatisfaction, because no matter how hard we try, the world and the future we long for always seem elusive, just over the horizon or just around the corner.

The Bible tells us that Jesus is the answer to this unfulfilled longing; the solution to a world and a human race that is not what it should be.

Verses 15-18 tell us many things about who Jesus is – ‘Image of the invisible God,’ ‘firstborn over creation,’ ’Before all things,’ ‘In him all things hold together;’ ‘Head of the church,’ ‘The beginning,’ ‘firstborn from the dead,’ the one who has ‘Supremacy in all things.’ Each of these things are tied together and summarised in the astounding statement, ‘God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him.’ (19) The complete fulness of God, dwelling in one man. The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.

At a point in history, a little over 2000 years ago, something took place which would change the nature of the world forever. A biological process was miraculously triggered in the uterus of a young woman, and a human being began to form inside her. At this point, God Himself invaded this world, not with the armies of heaven or in visible power, but in a dividing cell, that nine months later would be born as a helpless child. As the old hymn says, ‘Our God contracted to a span.’ As many like to put it today: 100% God, 100% human.

God in his fullness entered this world as he had never done before, and we’re told that he was pleased to do two things: to dwell (19) and to reconcile (20).

At the heart of God’s covenant with His people was the promise that he would dwell with his people. This was more than just being present in some philosophical way. To dwell is to make your home; to pitch your tent. God looked at this world in all its awryness and brokenness and rebelliousness and said, ‘I will come and make my home here.’

The end result of this coming to dwell is all things – and all means all – will be reconciled to himself. He is not saying here that everyone will be ‘saved’ or ‘go to Heaven’. He is using the word ‘reconcile’ in the sense of everything being put into its proper place, so that there is justice. It is bringing about a harmony, where all who oppose God and his loving rule are finally put in their place, and in the words of Revelation 11:15, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever!”

The entry of God into this world in the person of Jesus is the guarantee that both God’s promise, and our yearning, to see this world retuned to the way it is supposed to be will be fulfilled in him.

Notice that there is not only a global, universal dimension to this. Not only will ‘all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.’ be brought back to their proper place, but so will individual people. In fact, this personal work in you and me is the foundation for the global work.

Our awryness, our disfunction and alienation from God and one another is a result of our sin (22). Because we have refused to live in loving obedience to God, we deserve God’s wrath, and so we live our lives running and hiding in the shadows, instead of coming into the light. Notice that he says we are ‘enemies in our minds’ – the problem is not merely that we do ’naughty’ things, but that in our minds – the word encompasses thinking, feeling and desiring – we stand apart from God and refuse to acknowledge or come to him. Jesus solves this personal problem by bringing together in himself – literally – a union between God and humanity. So the reconciliation he brings gives us not only a ‘big picture hope’ for the world, but also an intensely personal and individual hope.

How can it be that the arrival of Jesus – God among us – heralds the solution to both the problems of the world and the problems of our own hearts? Our passage tells us it was ‘through his blood, shed on the cross’ (20) and ‘by Christ’s physical body through death’ (22). What actually happened in Jesus’ death is unpacked in chapter 2:13-15:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

In Jesus’ cross (his death) he accomplished both personal and global reconciliation. His death was the payment for the debt we owe to God – the debt of sin which makes us stand guilty before him, and which gives Him every right to justly and fairly banish us from his life-giving presence forever. By taking our place and dying the death we deserve, he has opened the way for forgiveness and a re-entry in to a warm, intimate relationship with the Father. Not only that, but the cross was the ‘D-Day’ for the defeat of all evil in the world. Evil has been ‘disarmed’ (15), and like an ancient king who returned from victorious battle dragging his captors behind him for his citizens to mock and deride, the cross shows up all spiritual and human evil for the empty, foolish and pointless sham that it is, and it marks the downfall of all who choose to stand in opposition to God.

When God the Father raised Jesus from the dead in the power of the Holy Spirit, he not only secured the future of all who will put their trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, but he also guaranteed the eventual renewal of this world and all human systems so that peace and justice will reign forever.

The question for all of us is, which side of the cross do I stand? Do I stand on the side that simply displays my rebellion and sin – sin so serious it required the death of the Son of God for payment? Or do I stand on the side that means peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation – a reconciliation that was accomplished not by my efforts or good works, by by the lavish grace and mercy of this loving and merciful saviour who gave himself for me?

I urge you – if your faith is not in Jesus Christ, to come to him – flee to him and his abundant mercy, and know renewal of your soul and a hope for the future. Take the opportunity this Christmas to prepare him room, so that he may come and make his dwelling with you.

A ‘secondary’ issue

How we interpret, view or experience the gifts of the Spirit are not, in the end, what defines whether we are Christian or not. However, it is possible for teaching on this topic to be done and practiced in a way that obscures the Gospel, and gives more glory to leaders than to Jesus. This was something that Paul was seeking to address in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he demolishes the notion of spiritual elitism among leaders (Chapters 1-4). The focus of a Christian as they gather with other Christians is not to be, ‘How can I have a great worship experience and receive some spiritual blessing?’ but, ‘How can I glorify God by loving my brothers and sisters and speaking the word of Christ to them?’

Churches can abuse spiritual gifts by either ignoring and neglecting them altogether, or by going to extremes and attributing to the Holy Spirit things that are actually the working of the flesh – or worse. However, your church’s position on and practice of the gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12 should not be the ultimate decider for you on whether to join, stay or go; rather their position and practice of the Gospel should. Is the Gospel of the cross of Jesus proclaimed clearly, regularly and faithfully, or is it ignored, distorted or obscured by other things?

Paul spends most of his time in 1 Corinthians 12-14 discussing the two gifts of Tongues and Prophecy.

Speaking in Tongues

The issue of tongues (among other ‘spiritual gifts’) is dealt with in depth by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14. In his letter, Paul is confronting a culture based very much on experience, with a call to the church to have a culture based on the Word of God. And so in this discussion about tongues, he calls the Corinthians to look maturely at the Scripture the see what the biblical teaching is:

20 Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21 In the Law it is written: “With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. (1 Corinthians 14:20-22)

Paul quotes Isaiah 28 here, which we will look at in a moment; however behind the Isaiah passage is an earlier reference in Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 28:47-50

Moses predicts the time when Israel/Judah, because of their hard hearts and idolatry, will be overrun by a foreign nation, surrounded by people speaking a language they do not understand.

Language was very important to the Hebrews, because God had entered into relationship with them by speaking His word and His Law, calling them to listen and obey. God spoke their language. His words were written down, and accessible to them so they could hear, obey and have life. (Deuteronomy 30:11-16)

So a sign of God’s judgement upon His people was when all around them were speaking unintelligible languages; to be in a place where you are not hearing God’s words, but words of foreigners that you don’t even understand.

Isaiah 28:7-13

By the time of Isaiah (around 700 BC) the revelation of God had been reduced by the priests – who were corrupt and drunkards – essentially to simplistic, infantile babbling. The Hebrew reads, ‘sav lasav sav lasav, kav lakav kav lakav, ze-er sam ze-er sam’ and while these are real Hebrew words, they are most likely the prophet mocking the teaching of the priests – an equivalent of the English, ‘Blah, blah, blah…’

God’s judgement upon this people who want to neither teach or hear the truth, is that God will speak to his people through other languages – ie. the word of God will become unintelligible to them not just because of their own hard hearts, but because God will obscure it through judgement. People outside Israel will be hearing, understanding and speaking God’s word, while His own people will not.

This prophecy was partly fulfilled in the exile, through which most of the scattered Jews lost their Hebrew language over several generations. (Eventually the Scriptures were translated into Greek – the Septuagint – so that non Hebrew-speaking Jews could read them.)

Israel was called to be a blessing and light to the nations. Instead, by their disobedience they were misrepresenting God to the nations. God’s intention is to keep his promises to Abraham, and so the blessing will still go out to the nations, but it will be through the action of judgement upon Israel that it will happen. The way Paul describes it is, ‘“God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.’ (Romans 11:8), and ’Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in…’ (Romans 11:25). So, tongues is to be a sign of both judgement and blessing, depending on where you stand!

Mark 16:17

While this is doubtful that this is an original part of Mark’s Gospel, we can nevertheless take it as an indication of the understanding and experience of the early church. One thing characterising believers is that they will ‘speak in new tongues’ – ie. that they will not be only ethically/linguistically Hebrews. This conforms with the command in 15 to preach the Gospel in the whole world.

Acts 2:1-8, 12-13

Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. People from other nations who spoke other languages were hearing God’s words spoken in their language, while others (13) couldn’t understand them, and assumed they were drunk. It’s to this second group that Peter appears to address his speech (15), and his message is primarily one of judgement than Gospel! (23, 36, 40). It’s important to note that the languages the Apostles spoke were known human languages, understandable by those who were native speakers, not a mysterious, angelic language that no human being could comprehend. This sets the precedent for the rest of the cases of tongues in Acts – it’s what we are to understand in the two other places where tongues are recorded to have occurred.

Acts 10:44-48

This is essentially the ‘Gentile Pentecost’ – Peter affirms that his Gentile listeners have received the Holy Spirit because they were praising God in their own language – The Gospel was ‘indigenised’ in that the Gentiles did not use Hebrew or Aramaic in their language of worship.

Acts 19:1-7

This is another ‘mini Pentecost’, for people who were disciples of John the Baptist (‘disciple’ here doesn’t automatically equal ‘Christian’). Luke hints a this being a pentecostal event by mentioning that there were ‘about twelve men in all’ (7) – he would have no real reason to mention this number apart from its resonance with the twelve Apostles on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14). More significant though than these men being followers of John the Baptist, was the location – Ephesus – which became a key centre for spreading the Gospel across Asia (modern day Western Turkey).

1 Corinthians 12-14

The only other book in the New Testament that mentions the phenomenon of tongues is 1 Corinthians. Some important background is helpful for understanding why the issue needs to be addressed for the Corinthians: Firstly, Corinth was known as a very multicultural city. The church there was correspondingly dominated by Gentiles – most if not all of whom would not have spoken Hebrew or Aramaic. Secondly, Corinth prided itself on its spirituality, and pagan worship, particularly involving sensuality, sexuality, and ecstatic spiritual experiences. Some of the pagan worship involved ‘speaking in tongues,’ in which the worshipper claimed to be communicating with gods, angels or spirits. For the pagans, truth and enlightenment came through experience, rather than revelation; through their own engagement in rituals rather than by God speaking clearly to their minds and hearts through the words of Apostles, Prophets or Scripture. This led to a ‘spiritual elitism’ in which participation in these ecstatic rituals were a mark of deeper spirituality.

Some of this had translated into the church, to the extent that some Christians were considered more spiritual than others because they manifested the ‘spirituals’ (translated ‘gifts of the Spirit’ or ‘spiritual gifts’ in English bibles, even though the word ‘gift’ is not in the text). In 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul makes the key points that a ‘spiritual’ person is not someone with greater spiritual capacity, but one through whom the Holy Spirit is at work, manifesting Himself in ways that glorify Jesus – ie. by enabling someone to say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ (12:3) and build up Jesus’ church, which is what Jesus promised in Matthew 16:18:

 ‘On this rock [Peter, who confesses Jesus to be the Christ] I will build my church, and the gates of hades will not overcome it.’

The fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work is ultimately love (Chapter 13), not spiritual power or prestige, nor the ability to perform miraculous acts. The way the Corinthians were to show love in the context of their public gatherings was to ensure that all who came would be able to hear God’s word spoken clearly, so that even non-believers there would know the reality of God’s presence and would worship Him (14:25).

Three correctives for Corinth… and us?

So Paul gives some correctives to the Corinthian practice of tongues, by referring back to the Old Testament teaching about tongues that we looked at earlier.

  1. ‘Tongues’ are not an ecstatic, trancelike experience of communicating with angels, but speaking in a human language that the speaker at least can understand. The popular idea of tongues being a  ‘personal prayer language’ is not taught anywhere in the Bible. Some may feel this is discounting the miraculous work of the Spirit; however such a view does not rule out someone speaking in a language they have not learned (as on the day of Pentecost), of someone being enabled by the Spirit to translate the words, or of the speaker being empowered by the Spirit in what they say – which is Paul’s main point – ie. that it is the Spirit at work, not the people, which makes all of it ‘miraculous’.
  2. Spiritual maturity is demonstrated not in being able to manifest the Spirit in spectacular ways, but in clearly communicating God’s word in a way that all can understand. So, in the case when a member of the congregation speaks in a language that is not commonly spoken by the rest of the church, they have a few options: have someone else interpret (12:10), interpret themselves (14:13), or not speak publicly in that language (14:28). By not following these principles, a person who speaks publicly in tongues is essentially being selfish (14:4) rather than loving (13:1). If something brings division and damage to the body of Christ, it is not a work of the Spirit, no matter how much the person insists it is.
  3. Speaking in tongues when there are non-believers or enquirers present will not communicate the Gospel, but rather judgement, since the original Biblical purpose of tongues was a pronouncement of judgement upon people who refuse to hear! The non-believer will come away from the meeting with the truth hidden from them since they didn’t understand what was being said, and their conclusion will be ‘these Christians are out of their minds!’ (14:22-23) Speaking in tongues without interpretation will hinder, not facilitate the spread of the Gospel. So out of love for these enquirers, all that is spoken in church should be done so it can be clearly understood by all who are present.

 

Spiritual gifts are for the body, not individuals

The picture Paul is painting for the Corinthians in chapters 12-14 is not one where each individual has their own ‘package’ of gifts, dispensed to them by the Holy Spirit, which then becomes their special ‘ministry’. Rather, it is of the church as a corporate body, to which God gives the Holy Spirit, who manifests Himself in the context of the community in various ways (12:7). The whole setting of chapters 11-14 is ‘when you come together’ (11:17,18,20,33, 14:26), and in this context the Triune God is present, with the Spirit giving (4), the Lord Jesus serving (5) and the Father working (6). Each of these words touches on the unique roles of each member of the Trinity in salvation, yet all are a united work of the one Triune God, and because the work of the Holy Spirit in this age is to make known to us the Son and the Father, we can use the overall title ‘gifts of the Spirit.’ This is important to see: the Holy Spirit does not work in a way that does not bring to us the full reality of the Triune God’s presence among us as His people.

Prophecy: ‘Speaking the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15)

The other implication of this passage is that as God – who is Love – is giving, serving and working amongst us, this is primarily demonstrated in us giving, serving and working in love. Chapter 13 is a picture of God’s people truly reflecting His own character. ‘Love never fails…’ (13:8), whereas prophecies, tongues and knowledge will cease/be stilled/pass away. Some have taken this to be a reference to a point in history when these ‘sign gifts’ stopped; but Paul is rather referring to the transient nature of these gifts – they are words spoken in a set time, which apply for a certain context and moment in time; love, however, is universal and timeless in its application. Prophecy, tongues and knowledge serve their limited purpose and then become obsolete, but love, as an expression of faith and hope, continues and will have the real eternal impact.

So God wants the Corinthians (and us) to consider how these ‘transient’ gifts may best be used to express that which is lasting – faith, hope and love. And because the central activity of the church gathering together is to hear the Word of God, it become a no brainer that the most loving way a person can contribute to the meeting is to ensure that God’s Word is clearly spoken, heard and understood. We must put aside and personal ambition to be seen as ‘spiritual’ – as if somehow God’s powerful work amongst His people is somehow because of our piety or ability to be in touch with God more than others. Our first ambition should be to be practicing love in the form of chapter 13, and only then, if appropriate, to seek to exercise the ‘gifts’ that we believe the Spirit is giving us – and even then, He gives the gifts only to extend our action of loving one another.

This is why Paul gives primacy to prophecy over tongues. Tongues serve a specific purpose, yet to exercise them could easily be unloving for both our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as any non-believers present. Prophecy, however, is a clear speaking forth of the Word of God in the ‘lingua franca’ so that everyone present can understand.

So, what is prophecy?

1. The foundation of the Apostles and Prophets (Eph. 2:20)

The Jews understood that all that was spoken by the godly people of their history – ie. the Old Testament scriptures – was prophecy. The most common reference to prophets and prophecy in the New Testament is in this sense – the Word of God given in the scriptures. This is a form of prophetic ministry that has finished. John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets, who came in fulfilment of the last words of Malachi, the last of the ‘inscripturated’ Prophets:

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

John the Baptist, as the ‘returned Elijah’ stood as a representative of all the prophets, and pointed people to Jesus as The Prophet of whom all the prophets spoke – Jesus is not merely the last prophet, but he is also the last prophecy through whom God has spoken completely and finally. The prophets told us about God; if we have seen Jesus we have seen God face to face. Jesus then sent his disciples out and called them not prophets but ’Apostles,’ commanding them to teach not a new revelation, but simply ‘all that I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:20). This is the content of the New Testament – the Apostles’ teaching put into writing for future generations.

So this aspect of prophecy – the revelation of God, and all that He wants us to know about His plan of salvation, and how it is completed in Jesus Christ – has come to an end with the completion of the New Testament canon. And so many take the final words of Revelation to be applicable to the whole of the Bible:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. 19 And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll. (Revelation 22:18-19)

Some argue that this type of prophecy was what was occurring in the Corinthian church (and possibly other New Testament churches). Most of the New Testament documents had not been written yet, and they may not have had access to those that had. During this period, God kept His church in the truth through the live teaching of the Apostles, and through ‘word gifts’ such as prophecy, tongues, knowledge, etc. These gifts became less vital as the scriptures – OT and NT – were distributed throughout the churches. We know that the early church placed great emphasis on the written scriptures because we currently have tens of thousands of ancient New Testament manuscripts – around 1000 time more than any other ancient document.

2. ’Speaking the very words of God’ (1 Peter 4:11)

Joel’s prophecy, fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21) promises that all of God’s people – young and old, male and female – will be commissioned to prophesy:

‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.’ (Acts 2:17-18)

No longer will it be a seperate group or ‘class’ of people who have the Holy Spirit, but anyone who calls on the Name of the Lord through faith in Jesus is drawn into the ministry of the Kingdom, where they become,

…a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

An individual believer is caught up into the royal, priestly and prophetic ministry of the church; in the context of the church community we are involved in preaching, teaching, singing, encouraging and proclaiming – all things which involve speaking the Word of God. In this sense, the ministry of prophecy is alive and well whenever we do these things; we are ‘prophesying’.

William Perkins, an English Puritan, described what he understood a prophet to be in his 1606 book, ‘The Art of Prophesying:

“First of all he is someone who can expound and explain the covenant of grace, and rightly lay down how this reconciliation is accomplished. Secondly, he is someone who can properly and accurately apply the means for its outworking. Thirdly, he is someone who has authority to proclaim and declare it when it is effected. In these three ways he is God’s interpreter to the people.”

3. ’The Holy Spirit said…’ (Acts 13:2)

The New Testament also allows for and records another type of prophecy.

In Acts 11:27-30 some prophets predicted a famine, which spurred the church in Antioch to take up a collection to help their fellow Christians in Judea. In Acts 13:1-4 God uses prophets to communicate that Paul and Barnabas should be set apart and sent into mission. In Acts 15:30-33 two prophets, Judas and Silas, encouraged gentile Christians when they received a letter with special instructions from the Apostles in Jerusalem. And in Acts 21:10-11 the prophet Agabus predicts Paul’s arrest.

This appears to be a form of prophecy in which God spoke specifically and practically into the the church for a given time and situation in a way that enabled them to be on about the work of the Kingdom. They were occasions in which the church needed a word that was more precise than the general Biblical revelation, in order to help them discern God’s will for them in a specific context.

Some also believe that this form of prophecy has also become obsolete with the completion of the New Testament; I believe the biblical case for this claim is weak. As we saw, Paul’s description of prophecies as transient in 13:8 highlights the limitation of a prophetic word given in a church meeting to both time and application; it’s a stretch to say that all prophetic ministry must have ceased since the end of the first century.

Love and order (1 Cor. 14:26-40)

Paul’s emphasis in these chapters is not so much on the nature of prophecy, as on its appropriate use in the church. Prophecy (along with tongues and other gifts) should not dominate, but be part of the various ways the Holy Spirit enables people to serve (26-29). Prophecies should be given with humility and a sense of accountability and collegiality (29-33). Prophets and their prophecies should be submitted to the authority of Christ and the revelation of the Gospel given to the church through the Apostles (which for us is the New Testament) (36-37). And it should be done in a way that is ‘fitting and orderly’ (34-35, 40) – ie. not causing chaos, confusion or offense for believers or non-believers.

There are four wise responses we should have to anyone who claims to have a ‘prophetic word’ either for us personally or for the church:

  1. Test what they say with the Scripture.
    God will not give a revelation that adds to, takes away from or changes His revelation given in the Bible and in Jesus Christ; and ultimately it should point clearly to Jesus and lead people to honour Him. Hold onto it loosely until you have been able to affirm this; this is often best done by speaking with others who know the Bible well.
  2. Wait.
    If a prophecy is given as a prediction of something to happen, the proof of the truth of the prediction is in its fulfilment. This was the Old Testament test of a true prophet (Deuteronomy 28:20-22, Jeremiah 28:9). Be prepared to see God at work, but don’t pin all your hopes on the prophecy; and ask yourself, ‘How can this encourage and enable me to serve and glorify God more faithfully, and love His people more earnestly?’
  3. Move on.
    Remember that prophecy is limited, but faith hope and love continue forever. God may be speaking to you in a way that is for this time and place, but the definition and design of your life and calling is found in the truth already revealed in the Bible, which is as living and active as any ‘life’ prophecy. Don’t build your life’s foundation on one incident of prophecy, but on the sure and certain revelation of the Gospel of Jesus.
  4. Rejoice.
    If this is truly God’s word to you or your church, then it demonstrates that God cares for you such that He brings His word ‘up close and personal’ in order to build you up and make you more like Jesus, and also that someone in the church is willing to love you by bringing this word to you (even if it is difficult or scary for them). Whatever the outcome of their ‘prophecy’, be ready to acknowledge the positive of their desire to see you moving forward in God’s purposes for you.

prawns?

Cherrypicking the Bible?

On face value, it can seem that Christians pick and choose which parts of the Bible they want to obey, and which parts they want to ignore. The issue has come to the fore because of the current debate over same sex marriage, in which Christians can be accused of hypocrisy in claiming the Bible is God’s inspired Word, but not obeying all of it, including the many ‘obscure’ laws in the Old Testament. We may be told that if we no longer observe food laws, we should also be willing to change on sexuality laws, which are in the same book.

So what is going on? Is it true that Christians choose to conveniently ignore these laws, while only holding to those that serve their own moral agenda? Sadly, that can be true.

However any Christian who does not seek to follow all the laws of the Old Testament needs to have a sound reason for doing so, especially if they are going to not only properly understand the Bible, but also explain their faith to those who question.

A simple answer to question of why Christians are allowed to eat shellfish even though it is prohibited in Leviticus 11:9-12 is the teaching of Jesus:

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)’ He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person. (Mark 7:14-23)

On what basis could Jesus seemingly overturn the Old Testament laws about clean and unclean foods, and turn it instead into an issue of what is going on in a person’t heart? Did he actually overturn them, or is there something else happening?

‘Abrogation’ vs. ‘fulfilment’

Abrogation is the idea that one idea or rule is overturned and replaced by another, newer idea or rule. In religious terms, it means that God says something new that replaces something He said previously, simply because it’s His prerogative as God to change His mind. Or, as some ‘progressives’ would say, our primitive and limited understanding of what God was saying in the past has been replaced by a fuller, more enlightened understanding; so we no longer need to take notice of things in the Bible that are outdated.

Abrogation is not a Biblical idea. The Biblical writers are clear that God does not change His mind like a human being does (Numbers 23:19). Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law or what the prophets had said (Matthew 5:17). Paul says that the Gospel does not ‘nullify’ the law, but rather ‘upholds’ it (Romans 3:31).

So Jesus was not simply saying, ‘Times have changed, and so a new rule applies.’ Nor was he claiming some kind of divine ‘Son of God’ right to take away from or add to the Bible.

Fulfilment is the idea that earlier rules or ideas are given by God not as end in themselves, but in anticipation of something that is to come later. They point to, foreshadow and prepare people for what is textboxto come. (Something like the prompting message, ‘type to enter text’ in a word processing  textbox – it creates the space for the intended text to be entered.)

What that means is when the fulfilment comes, along with the new thing, the fulfilment doesn’t abolish the earlier rules and ideas, but actually affirms, honours and completes them. Fulfilment takes the principle behind the rule or idea, and gives it its fullest expression.

The Bible presents Jesus as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets – the rules and messages of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is full of patterns and structures that point to Jesus. Now that Jesus has come, those patterns and structures are ‘obsolete’ in the sense that anyone whose faith is in Jesus does not need to observe them literally, because their full meaning is found in a relationship with Jesus; however Christians do not remove them from the Bible because they stand there as a way to understand who Jesus is and what He did in a fuller, richer way.

All the laws about clean and unclean foods, practices, and even the seemingly obscures laws about clothing, haircuts and washing were all things that made the Israelites distinctly different to all the nations around them. They were also a constant reminder to them that the creation is not the way it is supposed to be – it has been tainted with sin and death and disease. While many of the laws had a practical use in terms of health and hygiene, they primarily existed to highlight the difference between the way the world (including us) is, and the way it was meant to be before human sin spoiled things.

So, these laws pointed to something beyond themselves: the promise of God that one day the world we live in – and we along with it – will be restored to its original creational design.

How to know what to keep

Why does this mean that Christians continue to uphold Leviticus 18:22 but not Leviticus 11:9-12? It’s because the law about eating shellfish was one of those rules that foreshadowed Jesus, whereas the law about homosexuality was based on a moral principle of sexual and marital purity, that Jesus repeatedly affirmed as still standing (along with the rest of the Ten Commandments – for example, see Matthew 5-7 and 19:18).

FulfilmentThe Ten Commandments were the moral code upon which the laws of Israel were built. All of the more than 600 laws on the Old Testament can be traced back to its foundation in one or more of the Ten Commandments. Now that structure has been removed by the coming of Jesus, the foundation still remains. So, instructions given to Christians in the New Testament are also built on this same moral code; the key difference being that Christians, through faith in Jesus, have been given a freedom to obey this moral code not from a fear of punishment, but as an expression of a restored relationship with God. So a Christian’s motivation for not practising homosexuality is not primarily because it is forbidden, but because they see that it is a distortion of something with is far better and life-giving. A Christian seeks to obey God’s design with a joyful heart rather than outward conformity.

(Image from sacredsandwich.com)

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:13-16

The images of salt and light are often referred to by preachers who are trying to spur their people into action by living out their faith in the world. Salt and light are a reference to our good living, they say, which will serve to proclaim the Gospel even if we don’t get to use words.

The connection between light and works is there – although I don’t think it means, ‘Do your good works in a way that people will notice them.’ It’s more about the Father getting the credit, not us.

But salt?

I’ve never been convinced by the two most common explanations for this reference to salt: That it adds flavour, and that it is a preservative. Both are used to teach that Christians, by having a faithful presence in the world, will have a ‘flavoursome’ and ‘preserving’ effect on our culture, and that our good work will contribute to the common good.

It is certainly true that the Judeo-Christian ethic has had a positive effect on cultures in which the Gospel has been preached and received. And this positive effect is often referred to by those seeking to defend our society against the current moral decay.

But I’m still not convinced that this is what Jesus meant. I feel a little as if it’s imposing our modern experiences – after 2000 years of western history – on the text.

Looking through the Old Testament (Jesus’ primary text – on which he based all his teaching!), there are multiple references to salt. If we ignore those that are references to geography (eg. the ‘Salt Sea’, the ‘Valley of Salt’), there are two main types of references to salt:

1. As a picture of judgement. We are all familiar with Lot’s wife who turned into salt at the judgement of Sodom. (Genesis 19:26). A salty land unable to grow crops was considered cursed (Deuteronomy 29:23), and defeated cities were ‘sown with salt’ (Judges 9:45) to signify their barrenness.

2. As a sign of the covenant. Salt was used throughout the Tabernacle sacrificial system. It was in the incense (Exodus 30:35) that symbolised the prayers of the people; and all offerings were to be seasoned with salt, from grain right through to animals; it was, ‘the salt of the covenant with your God,’ which was not to, ‘be missing.’ (Leviticus 2:13, cf. Ezekiel 43:24). The Priests were told that the parts of sacrifices they were to eat were, ‘…a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and for your offspring with you.’ (Numbers 18:19). David and his descendants’ position of kingship over Israel was given, ‘by a covenant of salt.’ (2 Chronicles 13:5). Elisha, in his first miraculous act after succeeding Elijah, put salt into the water supply of Jericho to heal the water and make it fresh (1 Kings 2:19-22) – one of the signs demonstrating that he was a Man of God, bringing the Word of the Lord to His people.

We’re not told exactly why salt was to be used in this way, but it’s fair enough to assume that if the only other significance of salt was judgement & curse, then its use in the sacrificial system signified the judgement that was to fall upon the sacrifice in the worshipper’s place; in that sense, salt signifies the work of atonement that is at the heart of the establishment of the covenant between God and His people.


Back to Jesus now, on the side of a hill, telling Jewish people – whose faith was centred around the sacrificial system in the temple – that they are to be ‘salt of the earth’. What would their minds immediately have gone to, if not the, ‘salt of the covenant with your God’?

They were to be the means by which the covenant made with Abraham their father, would become a covenant with those from every tribe, tongue and nation. When God told Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him, he was talking about covenant – since blessing is a covenantal term.

Their very existence as an ethnic, political and religious group was for the purpose of the covenant coming to you and me – or should I say, you and I being brought into the covenant, to be included along with Abraham and all his children. ‘The Earth’ and ‘The World’ are references to the Gentiles who would be gathered from every nation through the Gospel going out in the Spirit’s power. So the two pictures of salt of the earth, and light of the world, convey this sense that the blessing Israel knew was to pervade the world like salt does food and light a dark room. (In Isaiah 42:6 tells God’s people that they are to be a light to the nations – a sign of the covenant.)

Israel was supposed to be this covenant salt, but failed in their mandate. And they were always going to fail – it was God’s purpose that they as a nation should fail, because His plan from the beginning was to bring forth from this broken, failed and sinful people the True Israelite, His Beloved First Born Son (see Exodus 4:22), the Great High Priest who would offer the perfect sacrifice, seasoned with the real – not symbolic – salt of God’s judgement, in order to confirm the ‘covenant of salt’ not only with Jews but with all who would have faith in Him.

follyAt home I have on the wall a jigsaw puzzle I received when I was 15 – with 3000 pieces. Because it took me so long to complete, I glued it to a board and hung it on the wall. Each piece of this puzzle, on its own, is not much to look at. You would never be able to tell what the big picture is by looking at just one piece. However all together they form a beautiful picture worthy of hanging on our living room wall.

There is something wrong with this jigsaw puzzle though. In the process of several house moves, one piece on the bottom left hand corner has come off, and has been lost forever. (Bizarrely, it also happens to be the face of an unfortunate man being strangled by a grumpy, Monty Python-esque woman). Most people who see it don’t notice, but because I know it’s missing, and because I spend countless hours building the picture, I always feel slightly disappointed when I look at it, and I always notice the empty spot. Without this piece, the Jigsaw is incomplete.


 

¹²For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. ¹³ For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

Paul is starting a discussion about roles and gifts in the church. He introduces the metaphor of a body, which has many members, but is one body. We might expect him to say, ‘so it is with the church’, but instead he says, ‘so it is with Christ.’

What point is he making?

When we see Jesus referred to as ‘Christ’ (or ‘Christ Jesus’) the emphasis is not so much on the person, as on the office he fulfilled – the Christ, or Messiah. He is speaking here not about my personal relationship with the Father through Jesus, but my participation in the revolutionary change that Jesus has made by coming as the Messiah – the promised king who would be the fulfilment of all of God’s promises, beginning with Abraham, to bring blessing to every nation on earth. We are part of something much bigger than our local church or neighbourhood – this is something with global implications!

In the Old Testament the promise of the Messiah focuses less on personal individual salvation, and more on the restoration and regathering of God’s people from all the corners of the earth. For example, in Daniel:

¹³“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.

14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. “ (Daniel 7:13-14)

This, ‘son of man’ is this promised one – both human and divine – who will establish God’s Kingdom. God’s people in exile in Babylon were to look forward in faith to this saving king, but they were also to understand the implications for them:

15 “As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. 16 I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of the things. 17 ‘These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.(Daniel 7:15-18)

What good is a king unless He has citizens in His kingdom over whom He rules? The arrival of the King means peace, security and prosperity for those living under His rule. Jesus came not only to assert God’s rule over the universe, but to restore human beings to the position we were given in creation –  rulers over all that God has made. In the book of Revelation, almost every time Jesus appears in the visions, he stands side-by-side with those whom he has redeemed by his blood.

And so to talk about Jesus as the Christ/Messiah means understanding that He is the king over His people, who are the ‘Messianic Community’.

This is why Paul says here that the unity and diversity in the human body is a picture of ‘Christ’. Jesus has redeemed people from every tribe and tongue and nation, from every strata of society and walk of life. His gathering us together is about much more than creating a community in which we feel comfortable and supported; this is His plan to establish the Kingdom of God in every corner of creation and to bring every creature in heaven and earth to a place where they bow the knee and declare Jesus is Lord to the glory of the Father.

The way in which the Messiah was promised to restore God’s people to live under God’s rule was to pour out the Holy Spirit, not just upon leaders, but upon every person. The fulfilment of this promise began on the day of Pentecost. Jesus’ death and resurrection was not an end in itself – it was with this aim. By paying for our sin and redeeming us from the judgement of death He has now made us into a suitable dwelling place for His Spirit. He died for you so that He may fill you with His Spirit.

That is why Paul goes on in verse 13 to talk about the work of the ‘One Spirit’. In the first half we are in the Spirit – ‘In one Spirit we were all baptised,’ and in the second half the Spirit is in us – ‘all were made to drink of one Spirit.’ We are a ‘Spirit saturated’ people, and He brings a profound unity that cuts across race and social status – probably the two biggest things that have divided – and continue to divide – human beings throughout our history.

The cross has broken down the dividing walls of hostility that human beings build between ourselves, by destroying the wall of hostility that was there between us and God. This is a radical thing, and is contrary to the way the world sees reconciliation. The root cause of human division is the fact that we are in rebellion against God – we want to take His place; to become God, ourselves. And when two or more people, each of whom wants to be God, meet each other, there is going to be conflict. So the solution to human hostility is not to try to work it out between each other, but for each to be first reconciled to God. Only then will we be able to come in humility, together before the cross, and be unified.

We live in a country – a world – that is always threatening to fall apart through division and hostility, as each person and each group tries to assert their rights over and against others. The work of Christ is the only way in which people who hate one another can be brought to truly love – because they know that God first loved them. And the Church is designed to be a showcase of this blood-bought unity.

As the church we may at times fees small, insignificant and ineffective. We may hear the world tell us that we are out-of-date, irrelevant and obsolete, and that we have nothing to say to them. We may hear them accuse us of being divided and hypocritical. However Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed – a tiny, seemingly insignificant seed which, when planted, grows and exceeds all expectations by becoming a large tree that overshadows the entire garden (the mustard plant is normally a shrub, not a tree!) (Matthew 13:31-32). As we gather each Sunday, and as participate in the life of our church week by week, we are participating in something that has universe-changing implications.

Romans 8:19-21 tells us:

“…the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-21)

We cannot and should not ever understate the privilege it is to be a part of what God is doing through Jesus the Messiah. If you ever wake up on Sunday morning, or come home from work before your evening home group, feeling discouraged or without motivation, wondering if church is worth the effort, simply remind yourself that you are part of God’s total universe restoration project; the freedom of all creation will be accomplished by God through your freedom in Christ.

This is not just interesting, abstract theology for us to sit and ponder. Paul is unpacking these things in the context of talking about how we live and relate to one another in the church. See verse 27:

‘You (plural) are the body of Christ’ – the big picture.

‘Individually members of it’ – the phrase in Greek means ‘you have a share as members’ – something like shareholders in a company are all joint owners of the company – not a customer, but an owner. Without each shareholder, the company is not complete.

And notice that he does not go on to say, ‘There are now some optional things that you could be involved in, if you want to.’ Rather, he says, ‘God has appointed…’ or ‘set in place’. (28) all the different people with their roles and gifts within the body. He knows how build His church, and He puts each piece in place – in its right place. So our question of ourselves should not be, ‘Am I going to be involved in the life of the church?’ but, ‘How does God want me to be involved? Which piece of the big picture am I – and am I willing to walk in joyful obedience to God and take up that role?’

God says that each of us is just as important as everyone else in completing the big picture of what He is doing in this world through Jesus his Messiah. He is sovereign over all things, and so our failures will not ultimately ruin his plans – however, why would we not want to be a part of this exciting work that He is doing, into which he invites us to be a part – to be shareholders?

Following this passage is the famous chapter on love – 1 Corinthians 13. Most often we may hear it quoted in the context of a wedding, however it is really about us loving and serving one another in the church. And it is is the key to all of this. You may not yet have a clear answer to the question, ‘What role am I to play in the life of the church?’ but you can be sure of one thing: God is calling you to this: to love one another. This is to be our main focus, over and above the specifics of tasks and jobs. If we focus on loving one another as Christ loved us – by laying down His own life for us – then we will find ourselves beginning to fit into the place Jesus has for us in His church.

salvation grid

In preparing talks on the book of Hebrews, I have been trying to imagine the original audience to whom the author was writing. Most likely it was, like most churches then, a mixed congregation(s) of Jews and Gentiles. But also, like most churches throughout the ages, it would have been mixed in terms of where people were at ‘spiritually.’

This is a helpful thing to ponder, especially in light of some of the difficult and controversial passages in Hebrews that have been used by some to debate whether or not a Christian can lose his or her salvation, and have been a cause of consternation to others who have become fearful that that they will. You can find them here: (Hebrews 6:1-9, Hebrews 10:26-31, Hebrews 12:15-16, Hebrews 12:25-29)

No-one can be absolutely certain about how the Hebrew congregation was composed, however if it was a normal church it most likely contained:

1. The Doubting. Those who believed in Christ, but struggled with doubts and personal assurance. (Note that this is different to the Unbelieving – we are not saved by having personal assurance. If doubt is a battle, that shows that faith is at work in us. The Unbeliever does not see doubt as a problem)

2. The Unbelieving. Those who knew they did not believe in Christ, but were there to either find out what it was all about, or because a believing friend or family member brought them along.

3. The Nominal. Those who professed faith in Christ, but whose faith was actually misplaced and were not actually born again. The Nominal person may have still been very active in religious activities, but their confidence was in something other than Christ – eg. their own works.

4. The Assured. Those who knew they were saved, and in fact were genuinely born again children of God through faith in Christ.

Depending on where someone sat, the relevant exhortations from Hebrews would be different.

I’m guessing that the main group that the writer had in mind was this third group – the Nominal, but he did not disregard the others. His aim was to see everyone move into the fourth quadrant – the Assured. However for the Nominal to come to this place they must first see that they actually fit into the second group – the Unbelieving, and then to realise they must trust Christ in order to be among the Assured.

These – the Nominals – are the ones to whom the warnings of chapters 6, 10 and 12 are directed. They are the ones who have tasted and participated to some degree in the life of the Kingdom as expressed in the church, but because of their false assurance they were in grave danger. They were the ones most likely to be drawn away into the Temple rituals and Jewish ceremonial laws, since their ‘faith’ would not have proven itself to be fulfilling, not to have delivered what had been promised, and since they must likely were already basing their confidence in their own works, it would be an easy thing to slip into a more explicit works-righteousness of the Ceremonial Law.

So the writer is not warning Christains about losing their salvation. Rather, he is warning those whose confidence is falsely in other things – even though their profession is in Christ – and calling them to stay ‘within the fold’, as that is the only place they will continue to hear the truth of the Gospel of grace, and over time as they continue to hear, will be brought through to a complete and true faith in the Jesus who saves thoroughly and permanently.

Where do you fit on this grid? I pray that it is in the fourth quadrant – the Assured.

If you are the Doubter, it’s time to read some things God says about how you can be assured of your salvation.

It is unlikely that you will put yourself in the third – the Nominal, but possibly you are, if your confidence is in anything other that Jesus as your only saviour. Make sure you are trusting in Christ alone, and that your life shows the fruit of one who is truly born again.

If you are in the second – the Unbeliever – then the call is simple: Stop you unbelief, and receive the gift of faith that will enable you to trust Christ.

40:1-4 – Ezekiel is taken in a vision to see ‘buildings that looked like a city.’

40:5-42:20 – Ezekiel is shown the design of the temple, shown the exact measurements of every room and gate and courtyard. A building with symmetrical proportions, built exactly according to the architect’s design. He notices regularly that the walls are decorated with palm trees: this Temple is an oasis; the source of water for those who have been wandering in a barren dry wilderness.

43:1-12 – God’s glory returns to the Temple; God declares His intention to dwell permanently among His people in a Temple never to be defiled again. ‘Let them consider its perfection…’

43:13-27 – The Altar and sacrifices are restored

44:1-4 – God’s presence confirmed. The door is shut. Only one person may eat in the Lord’s presence – the Prince.

44:5-45:6 – Priesthood restored under Zadok’s descendants (Zadok was High Priest during the time of David, and his line remained loyal.)

45:7-46:24 – The kingship is restored: the Prince will bring justice and fairness, and ensure that true worship is maintained by leading the people in it, including offerings, sabbaths and festivals.

47:1-12 – The river flowing from the Temple. The presence of God brings fruitfulness to the land and healing for the people.

47:13-48:29 – The land is allotted to the retuned tribes. Each tribe is given an equal portion (47:14). Foreigners living in the land are to be included, considered as native-born Israelites! (47:22)

48:30-35 – The Gates and New Name of the City: THE LORD IS THERE.

Some ways these chapters have been understood by Christians:

  • Rebuilding and resettling instructions for the returning exiles 45 years later. 

Problems with this view:

    1. The retuned exiles (see Ezra & Nehemiah) were either completely ignorant of Ezekiel’s prophecy or disregarded it completely, as there’s no indication they followed this design.
    2. Some aspects of this temple are impossible for people to manufacture – eg. the water flowing from the top on the mountain, enough to turn the Dead Sea fresh.
    3. Ezekiel 37:26-28 makes it clear that this is something God will do: It is more of a description than an instruction.
  • A description of a literal temple and resettlement, yet to take place in a thousand-year period between the ‘rapture’ and Jesus’ return; the means for Jewish people to come to Christ.

Problems with this view:

    1. Does not match with passages in Hebrews which says the Temple system is done away with in Jesus, and Revelation which describes a city with no temple.
    2. Based on a way of interpreting the Bible that is fairly recent (100 years) and is not help by many Bible-believing Christians.
  • A symbolic representation of the church. Favoured because John’s vision in Revelation of the New Jerusalem (not heaven, but God’s people) has very similar imagery, obviously designed to make the reader think of Ezekiel’s vision (eg. Rev 22:1-2/Ez 47:1-12, Rev 21:3/Ez 43:6-7).

Problems with this view:

    1. It’s hard to see how some of the images (eg. restored priesthood, resettlement of the land) directly correspond to the church.

So how should we interpret it?

The best way to understand these chapters is to set them in the context of the whole structure of the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel depicts a deconstruction of Israel, with a systematic removal of all the key aspects of what it meant for them to be God’s people: God’s presence and glory depart; the King and leaders are exiled; the line of David is cut off; the people are judged for their sin and removed from the land; The surrounding nations are judged; the city is destroyed; and the Temple is destroyed, and with it the priesthood and its sacrificial system.

The book then goes on to give promises of the reconstruction of Israel by God, according to His design: The atonement for the sins of the people; their revival and resurrection and return to the land; the reunification of the divided kingdom; the defeat of all of God’s enemies; the return of God’s presence among them; the rebuilding of the Sanctuary (Holy place) amongst them; and the establishment of the reigning Son promised to David.

development

All of these promises are designed to give the people a hope for their future, an assurance that even though they deserve God’s abandonment, He will stay true to His covenant for the sake of His glory, and because of His promises to Abraham that all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. And they are all wrapped up together in a visual picture of a land in which all the tribes live with equal shares of land, ruled over by a just, wise and caring ‘prince’, and God is worshipped truly through a restored, cleansed priesthood and perfect sacrifices offered in a perfectly proportioned temple.

What is God doing here? He is giving a picture of, ‘…the messianic future, but in the symbolic categories of Ezekiel’s present.’ (D. A. Carson) Or in other words, the Kingdom of God that will break into human history through the coming of Jesus Christ.

Jesus used this approach all the time in his parables, saying, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like…’ and then telling stories of people getting married, holding banquets, farming the land, fishing, discovering buried treasure, doing business, making bread, etc. He did not mean us to understand that the Kingdom of God will be literally the identical to the pictures he painted from life in first century Palestine, but rather, to understand the dynamics of the image and see how it illustrated the nature of God’s kingdom.

We sit in what has been called ‘the overlap of the ages’. We look back to the moment when Jesus (the Son of David) turned up and announced, ‘“The time has come: The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:15), and we look forward to the moment when we will hear the announcement, ‘“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever!’ (Revelation 11:15). The kingdom has dawned in Jesus (Carson), and we see the dynamic of Ezekiel’s vision become a reality for us whose faith is in Him:

  • He is the true Temple – we don’t go to a building in order to find the presence of God, we come to Jesus.
  • In Jesus we see a restored and purified Priesthood – He is our great High Priest who has offered to perfect sacrifice to atone for our sin – so perfect in fact that it has done away once and for all with the need for any more sacrifices (See Hebrews!)
  • He is the Prince who bring justice and equity, and who enables and leads the people to come and worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth.
  • Jesus is the source of ‘living water’ that brings renewal and healing to people from all nations.
  • Jesus defeats all of our enemies – sin, death, the devil, all through his cross. By dealing with sin, he removes the judgement for sin (death) and disarms the Accuser (Devil).
  • Jesus is ‘Immanuel’ – God with us. In Jesus God has come in to dwell with His people and he has shut the door behind Him, never to leave again.