Archive for the ‘Biblical Theology’ Category

Before everything we know, there was Love. Father, Son and Spirit in deep communion; loving, giving, honouring one another.

Out of this communion of loved flowed a Plan. A plan to create others who would be the objects of, and participants in, this love. These creatures would be the gift of the Father to the Son.

The Father spoke a word, ‘Let there be Light’. Immediately, in joyful, loving obedience the Son sprang into action, and in harmony with the Spirit who was hovering over the formless void, formed light – the basic building blocks of a creation that would reflect the glory of His Father. Because of this joyful unwavering obedience of the Son to the Word of His Father, the Son would become known in the future to his creatures as ‘The Word’.

As the Father continued to speak, the Son and Spirit formed and filled the vast void, bringing order from chaos; fullness from emptiness; giving abundance, fruitfulness and life to every corner. As the Father looked upon each stage of the Son’s and Spirit’s work He spoke with love, ‘It is good!’

As the Son formed a world that reflected his Father’s glory, the Father through Him was forming an inheritance that would be for His Son’s honour. The Spirit was honoured in that every creature that had breath depended on His ongoing presence for their life, and as they lived and breathed and had their being in Him He made sure that every breath was an action of worship to the Father and His Son.

Then, the crowing act of creation. While creation was good and glorious and perfect, it was not complete. It required one more thing that would make this world the perfect gift for the Son – creatures made in his image. What greater honour could the Father bestow upon His beloved Son than to fill this creation with creatures who each displayed the Son’s glory? More than that: what better display of HIs love for the Son than these creatures forever worshipping the Son for His love towards them?

Written in the Book were the names of those who would be created to be for the praise of His glory. And a decree was made: the Son will be glorified by being united with these creatures; by becoming one of them, and by doing so catch them up into the love and joy of the Divine fellowship. His entering their lives will be such that His display of love will win their hearts and worship forever. This decree involved the entry of sin into the creation, and as a result of sin would come suffering and death – in order that the Son may share in their suffering and embrace them in their death so that he may be praised not only for His glory, but for His glorious Grace.

And so this Book would come to be called, ‘The Book of Life of the Lamb who was Slain’.

The triune God took dust – dust that was designed for this very purpose – and shaped a human being. A creature full of glory, stamped with the image of the Son, and filled with the Spirit. A creature designed love their God and love their neighbour; given the honour of being the only creature in the vast universe to participate in the divine family of love. A creature who would embody the planned union of the Son with them through the gift of being male and female, husband and wife.

Fill the earth – it’s all for you. Rule over it, care for it, be my stewards and representatives to every creature. The destiny of this creation is tied to your destiny, because I have made you to be my children.

It was no surprise to God when these creatures rebelled. It did not throw Him off guard, or make Him wonder what to do next. He had already decreed that His Son would redeem them, and the glory from that redemption would be greater than the glory of Eden. And so in the midst of the curse he gave a promise. A son of the woman would crush the serpent’s head. That which had been done by one man would be undone by one man. The curse was given in order that blessing would come that far exceeded anything that the man and woman could ever hope or imagine.

As sin and violence spread across the creation like gangrene, the love of God only grew to match it. When the first Son of Adam killed his brother if jealous rage, he was confronted with forgiveness and grace, even though his brother’s blood cried out to God for justice. When the inclination of every person’s heart was only evil all the time, God set his loving favour upon one man Noah and his family – chosen by grace – so that when God’s righteous judgement fell upon humanity in a great flood, the human race, carriers of the promise, would be saved, and allowed to rebuild in a baptised, cleansed creation. When this rescued humanity – descendants of Noah – continued in their hard hearted rebellion, refusing to fulfil their creational mandate, they were in mercy scattered across the face of the earth, and through the confusing of their language was enabled the rise of culture and diversity, of tribe and tongue and nation, of physical and social diversity. Despite their hard hearts they were inexorably driven forward towards the Goal, as God oversaw the rise and fall of nations and kings and heroes and their stories; the creation of literature and art, of music and song, of culinary delights and technology; the gathering and storing and growing of knowledge and science. Over all this was the ever abiding presence of God, ever wooing, calling, speaking; every breath of life an opportunity for His creatures to reach out and find Him, to come home to the waiting Father.

The time came in the flow of human history for the Plan to be taken up to the next gear.

One man called Abraham was chosen. He was told,

You are the start. Through you, the seed of the woman will come.

He was no-one special or good – an idolater living among idolaters. He and his wife were elderly, and had no children. He was one of the most unlikely, unqualified and unsuitable candidates for the rolling out of God’s plan of salvation; however God had set His love in him, and used Abraham’s simple faith as a catalyst to produce in him a life of obedience and hope.

God signed and sealed his promise to Abraham through a covenant of blood. Ancient treaties were sealed with each party both making promises, and preempting a curse upon themselves if they were not true to their word. God’s promise with Abraham and his descendants was different. Paralysed by God, Abraham could only watch passively as God vowed His faithfulness to His promise, invoking a curse upon Himself as He passed between the halves of the slaughtered carcasses of animals. The message was clear: if this covenant was ever broken, God would take upon Himself the consequences.

The message became clearer when Abraham was called by God to offer his miraculously born son Isaac as a sacrifice. Assured if God’s loving faithfulness, Abraham obeyed, even though he could not see how this would end well. However he knew two truths that enabled him to act: Firstly, if this God who had appeared to him in Glory had made a promise, He would provide the means for his son’s life to be spared; and secondly, even if Isaac were to die, this God was able to raise the dead.

The loving faithfulness of this God was displayed to Abraham and Isaac on the mountain when He intervened at the last minute, and provided a ram in the place of Isaac. Saved from death by a substitute, Isaac lived, and Abraham’s hope was confirmed. God had reaffirmed His covenant promise: nothing will stop His plan to restore blessing to His creation; however, this plan will be accomplished through a death.

Abraham’s descendants grew, as promised, into a great nation. Living under a cruel tyrant as slaves in Egypt, their groans were heard by God who had never forgotten His promise to Abraham.

The gods of Egypt were shown to be the empty, loveless forgeries they were, as God in his loving wrath sent plagues of judgement upon Egypt, that the Egyptians  and Pharaoh might know that He is the Lord. Then, on the eve for their deliverance, the Israelites were given a sign that would be etched in their memories and stories forever. This sign pointed them back to the moment of Isaac’s salvation, and became the template for the central focus of their worship from that time on.

For every firstborn son a lamb must be slain, and its blood painted on their doorposts. As the judgement of God passed through the land that evening, those homes marked with blood would be spared. Every home that night contained a dead body – either that of the firstborn son, or of a lamb that was slain in his place. If the Israelites had at that time insight into the eternal decree of God, they might have said, ‘My son is saved! Our name must be written in the book of life!’

Now a freed people, on the way to the promised land, God showed them time and time again that He had set His love upon them. At Sinai he gave them no question to doubt their identity as His beloved, chosen and cherished people. They could say of themselves,

We are Israelites, and to us belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To us belong the patriarchs, and from our race, according to the flesh, will come the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.

Despite their hard hearts and their complaining, He continued to prove to them that He is,

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…

…and He patiently remained with them for the forty years they were in desert on their way to the Land He had promised.

He gave them his Law through a prophet, Moses. In this law was life – all who obeyed would know blessings, freedom and joy and peace; but in this law was also death – all who disobeyed would know cursing, slavery and judgement. This Law revealed to the the very loving character of God, but also revealed their own character as rebels and sinners. This Word through Moses the Prophet pointed them to a time when another Prophet would come – one like Moses, but whose words spoke not condemnation, but forgiveness and eternal life.

He gave them the Tabernacle, the visible sign to them that He was their God, and He dwelt with them as His people. At the centre sat the mercy seat. This was symbolically the throne of God, although there was no visible image, since God is the Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, because heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Him.

Yet this seat was not only the centre of government, but the centre of atonement. Once a year, the blood of the sacrifice would be carried into the most holy place, and sprinkled on the mercy seat. The very throne of God was marked with blood; blood that spoke of His people’s sin, carried to the place of mercy. God was bearing His people’s sin; the blood that was on their hands splashed onto his heart.

Along with this, yearly, monthly, weekly, daily, sacrifices would be brought to the tabernacle, and as the blood flowed into the ground like the blood of Abel, and as the smoke of the burnt offerings rose into the sky as a pillar, the Israelites would be reminded that their God is a God of mercy, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. They would come to the tabernacle with hearts weighed down by sin and shame, but leave with the assurance that their God forgives iniquity and transgression and sin.

As each priest helped them offer the sacrifice, as they placed their hands on the head of the animal and say its throat cut and its blood pour out, they were pointed to the time when a Great High Priest would come, and once and for all make the perfect sacrifice, and pour out the blood that would cleanse their hands and hearts and consciences.

And once a year at Passover their families would gather, eating bread and lamb and wine and bitter herbs and recall the goodness of their God who rescued them from slavery and death; when in love their God caused His wrath to pass over them.

Once in the Land, the people proved time and again that they remained the stubborn, hard hearted people they were in the desert. Judges came and went, and still each of them did what was right in their own eyes. Their eyes longed to have what the nations had; their hearts longed to be like the nations were. When they demanded a King, it was not so they may be ruled justly by God’s representative, but so they may be like the rest of the world. And so in love God gave them what they asked for – a king who fitted their own criteria. He was preparing them to receive the King of His choosing, the one who would foreshow and foretell of the Seed, the Lamb, the Prophet, the Great High Priest.

God spoke to this King, David, with promises of a Son who would be King and of the Eternal Kingdom he would establish; and David responded with songs and that told of God’s loving faithfulness, of His promises to save, and His comfort in trouble, of the joy He gives to those who worship Him, and of His call to the nations to serve him with fear and rejoice with trembling and kiss His Son who gives them refuge.

No King that followed was quite like David. Through a divided kingdom and kings who did evil in the eyes of the Lord, setting up places of false worship, making unholy alliances with pagan kings, assassinating their predecessors and eliminating their rivals, God was teaching His people to not put their trust in princes, in men with whom there is no salvation, whose breath departs and whose plans perish. No king could be quite like David, because David was not the paradigm – he was only a shadow of the real King who was yet to come.

In love, God sent His prophets. With tongues cleansed as if by fire from the altar, these men reminded the people of God’s covenant faithfulness, called them to remember and turn and believe the good news that their God reigns. They spoke of the judgement that would come to cleanse the world and humanity that He loved of sin and darkness and death. And they spoke even more clearly of the one who who accomplish this: the One who would be the Almighty God yet also a Son of Man; a great King, yet also a Suffering Servant; the anointed Messiah, yet born into obscurity; a lion of the tribe of Judah, yet also the Lamb who was slain. This One would bring about the Day of the Lord – a day of great wrath, yet also a day of great mercy; a day when justice and love will be shown to be one.

Yet, the people’s hearts remained unchanged. What the Law, weakened by the flesh could not do, could only be done by the Father sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. Everything was imprisoned under sin, so that the promise of what was to come was the only option, and faith would be the only means of receiving it. But the fullness of time had not yet come.

To show beyond question that Israel’s – and the world’s – hope was to to be found not by might or power but by the working of the Spirit of the Lord, God’s people were sent into exile in a foreign land; their cities burned, their temple destroyed, their priests slaughtered, and the mercy seat lost, melted down to fill the coffers of their captors. Decimated and broken, the remnant languished in Babylon, asking, ‘How can we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?’ They heard through the prophets that God’s presence had accompanied them into exile, and as they sat by the rivers of Babylon He enabled them to sing – of Jerusalem in her former glory; of the promise of a King, of the hope and a future that God had planned for them, when the Spirit would be poured out and bring new life to dry bones; where the Loin would lie with the lamb and a child would no longer be afraid of snakes; where the Temple would be rebuilt, and they once again would dwell with their God in a new heaven and a new earth.

Almost two generations later the remnant returned with laughter and joy, and were like those who dream. The walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt, and new temple took shape – yet nothing was like it used to be, and most certainly was nowhere near the promised renewal they had heard of in exile.

One more prophet came, and spoke one more time of the Day of the Lord: the day when the ‘sun of righteousness’ would rise with healing in its wings, when they would go out like leaping calves from the stall, and when all wickedness will be trodden down and turned to ashes. But they must wait. In the scale of human history; the millenia since Eve first heard the promise, the Day was just around the corner. The horizon of their future was starting to be faintly tinged with gold as the sun began to rise.

Two thousand years of history of this small, humble and hard hearted nation stand as a testimony to the nations of the love of God; a showcase of grace; a display of His unending patience; a picture of how the Father loves His enemies, the Spirit continues to strive with the hearts of sinful men and women, and the Son resolutely determines to prepare His bride.

The story of God dealing in love with His people Israel speaks of how He sets His favour on His elect from every tribe and tongue. From the nations around – Sheba, Moab, Egypt, Syria, Canaan, Babylon, Ninevah, people were drawn to this God who was close to His people when they prayed, who gave them such righteous statutes and laws. God was showing that while His special electing love was upon this people, He had also set His love on those from all the nations – true to the promise He had given to the one man from whom this nation had come.

Four years later – ten generations to us, but a blink in the timing of God – love was embodied. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. The glory of the One and Only shone forth in the form of a helpless infant, laid in a feeding trough, in the town on David. Only shepherds and pagan astrologers came to worship him; the only King who acknowledged him tried to kill him. For thirty years he lived in obscurity, loving his parents by obeying them.

When the time came for him to appear in public, his Father publicly declared His love:

This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

Only two more times would the Father speak audibly – once to call us to

Listen to him

and again to declare His intention to glorify His own name through him. No other voice from heaven was needed, since Jesus was and is the voice of the Father embodied in flesh and blood. Anyone who has seen him has seen the Father because all he did was what the Father gave him to do; and anyone who has heard him has heard the Father, because he only ever spoke the words his Father gave him to speak.

Jesus embodied the compassion of God towards the sick and unclean, the lame and demon possessed, the outcast and the sinner. He gathered around himself of rag-tag team of men – fishermen, a tax collector, zealot, a traitor, and a doubter, and other nobodies, and entrusted with them the task of announcing the Kingdom of God to the world. He welcomed women and children, centurions, samaritans and canaanites. And he showed stern love and compassion to the self righteous pharisees and teacher of the law by exposing their hypocrisy speaking the truth.

As he knew his public ministry was drawing to a close, this King took the role of a servant, the humblest of all positions, and washed his disciples’ feet, loving them to the uttermost. The lamb that was decreed before the foundation of the world to be slain, ate with his friends the meal that had for nearly 1500 years been foretelling this moment. The Great High Priest was about to make the ultimate sacrifice of atonement – Himself. God had provided a substitute to save the lives of Isaac’s descendants – at that substitute was himself.

For three days and three nights the embodiment of Love was in the heart of the Earth. With troubled heart to the point of death; betrayed, abandoned and denied; falsely accused and mocked; handed over to Gentiles and shamed, and finally nailed to a tree as he became the curse that had first touched the ground when Adam and Eve first rejected love.

The Good shepherd became the prey, as bulls surrounded him like roaring and ravening lions; the King of Zion succumbed to the raging of the nations; the one in who the Father delighted became the man of sorrow, acquainted with grief; the Servant who was to be high and lifted up, was lifted up like a snake on a pole, and his blood fell to the ground like Abel’s, crying out for justice.

The Father’s face no longer shone upon him, and he cried word that had never before been heard in the eternal fellowship of the the triune God:

Why have you forsaken me?!?

Yet God was not not torn apart by this, because this moment was the moment when His love shone forth brighter than it had ever been before. The Eternal Spirit was in Him as he offered himself unblemished to God, and as he breathed his last he called to the Father he could not see,

Into your hands I commit my Spirit.

As he was laid in the tomb, and as his friends and family mourned, the Sabbath began.

There was nothing more precious to the Father, since the first word of creation, than these three days and nights. The Son had loved the Father to the uttermost, and for the joy set before him was obedient to the point of death. And the Son had loved to the uttermost the creatures made in his image, taking their sin and shame into the grave.

What else could the Father do, but raise Jesus from the dead, seat Him his right hand and give him the name that is above every name, and call all creatures in heaven and earth and below the earth to bow the knee and pay him homage. The resurrection is the Father declaring to the world,

This is my beloved Son, whom I love; listen to him! I have glorified Him as I promised I would.

Side by Side, in perfect unified Love, the Father and the Son together send the Spirit into the world, who poured into people’s hearts the love of God. He cased them to cry out,

Abba, Father dear!

and to kiss the Son in whom they have taken refuge.

Like a flood, the revolution of love began to wash across the world. Kings tried to crush it, but their swords were ineffective against the relentless love of God. Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth became witnesses of the glory of the one and Only, and His family grew as more and more heard the Good News that the God, who is Love, reigns.

Scattered across the centuries are countless trophies of love. Frightened disciples turned into bold proclaimers; an angry murderous Pharisee, whose heart was softened and conquered; legalists turned to lovers of grace; pagan philosophers, prison guards, soldiers, tax collectors, widows and orphans, slaves and masters, all the beginning of the new creation.

As with the returned exiles of old, God’s people now wait for another Day. Again, the horizon is tinged with gold, as the cry of the Spirit and the Bride goes out, ‘Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.’ On this day the curtain will be pulled aside to reveal the full glory of the One who has been with us always, and every soul will stand before Him. On that day no-one will dare say, ‘if God is Love, then why…?,’ because the God of Love will be before their eyes, and the sign of His love will be the nail-scarred hands – the only man-made thing that will enter the new creation.

On that day tears will be wiped from our eyes, and death and crying and pain will be no more. We will know as we are known. The Bride will stand before the Lamb without wrinkle, blemish or stain, and they will be one. Love will be complete.

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This chapter would have to be one of the most confronting and shocking passages in the whole Bible; yet also one of the most profound and significant. If it were adapted into a screenplay it would not pass the censors; some verses (9, 25, 26, 36) carry connotations that I dare not explain in this context. The chapter begins with images of tenderness, compassion and love, but by verse 15 the reader is shocked into revulsion as the language deteriorates into crude, even semi-pornographic imagery. This is definitely a chapter that Sunday School teachers should skip.

Yet this passage is a very significant one, because it highlights three key ideas:

  1. The nature of God’s covenant relationship with His people,
  2. The degrading horror of human sin, and,
  3. The magnificence of God’s lavish grace.

Israel’s history is retold, using the imagery of a woman and her marriage to a prince.

3

Amorites and Hittites were two dominant inhabitants of the land of Canaan when Israel entered the land, and continued to be a thorn in their side throughout their history. Abraham began life as an Aramean (a region north of Samaria, in modern day Syria), living in Babylon, as much an idolator as his neighbours, until God in grace singled him out and called him to be the recipient of the Promise. God is reminding the Jews of their origins; in and of themselves, they are no different to anyone else. The only thing that makes them unique is not found in themselves but in the action of God in making His covenant with them. God had made it clear (Deuteronomy 7:7, 9:5-6) that His choice of Israel was not because of them, but because of his faithfulness to His promises to Abraham – which were made not because of Abraham, but because of God’s purpose for the nations.

4-5

Not only are they of pagan origin, but they are not even of worthy pagan origin. This child that symbolises Israel was rejected and discarded by her parents, thrown into an open field as soon as she was born. Infant abandonment was not uncommon in the ancient world. The most common victims were girls, who were left to the mercy of the elements and wild animals. Local laws stated that if an abandoned child was rescued, its rescuer had the right to make the child their slave; and if it was rescued with its birth fluids still on it, the birth parents had no right to claim it back, since by their actions they had relinquished all legal ties with the child. This child was unwanted from the moment of birth, considered worthless and unclean, and had received the immediate sentence of death; a child left in a field would only last hours before weather or wild dogs killed it.

6-7

A Prince rode past the field, saw this abandoned baby, and decided to rescue her. By his decree, this child was not to die, but live, and be brought into his household. Yet this is not just another child to add to a collection of slaves. God repeats Himself in verse 6 to drive this point home: the statement ‘…In your blood, live!’ was most likely a legal term declared over a child who was being adopted. Unlike the god of the nations, God does not see people as slaves, but as members of His family – as sons and daughters.

This corresponds to the period of time when Israel were slaves in Egypt, and God heard their cries and determined to send them a deliverer. The child, while adopted by the prince, was still living like a slave (slaves in the Ancient Near East were normally sold naked, so that their buyer could see exactly what he was getting).

8-14

The girl reached puberty, and the appropriate age for marriage. Rather than find a husband for her among the slaves, the prince married her himself! Verses 8-9 depict the marriage ceremony and the first night in the bedroom: ’you became mine,’ was the result of him making his vow to her; ‘spreading the corner of my garment over you,’ was symbolic of her coming under his care and protection and headship, of sharing in all that is his. Verse 9 describes an incredibly intimate moment after the bride and groom have made love for her first time.

Does it bother you that God depicts his relationship with His people by using such images of marital intimacy? Yet this is intended to communicate the depth of intimacy and openness for which we are created; an unashamed, free giving of our entire selves to Him, just as He gives His entire self to us. Human relationships and marital intimacy are supposed to be a reflection of this, since we are made in His image. This is why any sexual expression outside of committed, faithful, loving, monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is considered an abomination by God – it is not merely breaking laws about sex, but is a degradation and distortion of the image of God in a person, and hence an attempted degradation of God Himself.

Overnight this abandoned Canaanite slave girl found herself exalted to the place of royalty and international renown. Yet she was reminded that her glorious position was never anything of her own doing: ‘…it was perfect through the splendour that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God.’ (14)

15-34

Verse 15 breaks in with devastating force. What was this new queen’s response to all of this tender, generous love shown to her by her rescuer and husband? She ‘played the whore’! This was no mere secret extra-marital affair. She used her privileged position to indulge herself in complete ungratefulness to her husband. She took all that he has given her – clothes (16), jewels (17), embroidered garments (used for special ceremonial occasions) (18), gourmet food (19), and squandered and defiled it all in her adultery. And in the ultimate act of rebellion she sacrificed their own children! (20).

She set out to destroy and defile all the good things she had received, thinking that her satisfaction will be found in anything except her own husband.  This is the essence of idolatry. As Paul describes it in Romans 1:23-25,

‘…they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator, who is forever praised. Amen.’

Idolatry is looking to find in created things that which only God can give us, and which only He has the right to give. Just as Adam and Eve looked to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, human beings ever since have forsaken God’s glory to worship and serve the creation. Things that are good in themselves, nevertheless become the most evil, vile and corrupting force simply because they are set up in the place of God. An idol is anything that we take from God’s good creation, thinking that it will serve us and our own desires, but which then turns and enslaves us so that our desires become captive to it. We think it will give us dignity, worth, security, identity and fulfilment, but instead it robs us of all those things and sucks us dry. As our idols steal our joy, we seek bigger and better and more exciting idols thinking they will solve our emptiness, but they just make our slavery greater.

We see this progression happening with this adulterous queen. She turned from the local Canaanites to the great nations of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon (26-29) but even after this ‘you were not satisfied’ (29). And in the ultimate degradation, we see her paying her ‘lovers’ – she sank lower even than a prostitute, and men would only sleep with her if she payed them to.

35-43

Finally the adulterous queen is brought to justice, and her punishment fits her shameful crime. She is stripped naked, stoned, and her corpse hacked to pieces – by the very idols she had sought her satisfaction from! God’s judgement is to had us over to the outworking of our own sin. To live in the degradation, shame and alienation that sin brings is the essence of Hell. God sends to Hell those who have chosen it over the joy of knowing Him.

44-59

The seriousness of the people’s sin is rubbed in by comparing them to Sodom and Samaria. Sodom was known as the epitome of pagan sinfulness, being destroyed by God by raining sulphur (Genesis 18 & 19), and Samaria (The northern tribes) were considered even more given over to idolatry, and had been captured and scattered by the Assyrians 150 years earlier. Yet the sin of the people of Judah, smugly sitting in Jerusalem thinking they were OK, made these two peoples seem righteous by comparison! So much so, that, ‘…your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to what they were before; and you and your daughters will return to what you were before (55) – ie. they will be restored to their former glory; but you will be restored to your former status, as an abandoned child, left to die in the wilderness.

60-63

This is the most shocking part of the entire chapter!

God has just brought his case against the people, and shown them that they deserve all that they are about to receive from the hands of the Babylonians. Justice would demand that the prince cancel the covenant, divorce His wife, strip her of all that He had given her, and cast her out into the streets with nothing, left to be destroyed by her sin and her idols, and abandon her forever – just as her original parents did. But He doesn’t!

In the face of horrific, degrading, abhorrent sin, God remains true to His gracious promise to bring restoration to the world. He will ‘remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth’ – ie. the promises made to Abraham: ‘…in your blood, live!’ – and establish it as ‘an everlasting covenant’ (60). This is lavish grace. We may often think of grace as God being a bit soft, thinking nice things about us, and saying, ‘You’re all right, I guess!’ However true, biblical grace is when we, deserving the worst, are given the best; when God acts with pure unmerited favour towards those who have spat in His face and shown nothing by disdain for Him; it is God loving his enemies and praying for those who persecute him (Matthew 5:43-44). Grace leaves us with no delusion that that we deserve in any way any of the good that God does towards us in saving us from our sin. Grace is not God overlooking or ignoring sin, but accepting sinners on the basis of the atonement that He Himself, at His own cost, makes for sin (63). This is why God is so explicit and crude in his depiction of sin; so that the beauty and magnificence of Grace may be seen for what it truly is.

This section also contains a hint of the fulfilment of God’s promise to bring blessing to the nations. The restoration of Samaria and Sodom have never happened in a physical way, however in the book of Acts we see the Gospel go out to Samaritans and then to Gentiles. God’s people will receive ‘…your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and I give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you (61) – in other words, God will do something new – a New Covenant – that will bring the pagans and the estranged Samaritans in to become one family with the Jews. This covenant was established through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus. Ezekiel 16 gives a message not just for 6th century BC Jews, but of all people everywhere:

  1. Know the purpose for which you are created: An intimate relationship with God
  2. Recognise the greatness of your sin; the destruction and degradation it brings, and the judgement it deserves; and
  3. See the lavish grace towards you, displayed in the death and resurrection of Jesus for your sin, and put your trust in Him.

Recent events in Indonesia, with the execution of two men caught for drug trafficking, have caused many to speak out with their views on the rightness or wrongness of capital punishment.

There are two things that bother me when it comes to this issue.

  1. Christians (often of the evangelical variety) who declare capital punishment to be right and call for its reintroduction and application to all crimes touched on by Old Testament law.
  2. Christians (also often of the evangelical variety) who declare capital punishment as evil, primitive and barbaric, with no place in modern society.

Let me start with the second first. Such a view casts moral judgement on the principle of capital punishment by calling it wrong.

Straight away this view has a problem because it runs up against the God of the Bible who not only commands and upholds the death penalty in Old Testament Israel, but who Himself actually practices the death penalty. ‘The wages of sin is death.’ (Romans 6:23) ‘The day you eat of it you shall surely die.’ (Genesis 2:17) ‘The soul that sins shall die.’ (Ezekiel 18:20). Death is a fitting penalty for all who defy God and defame HIs glory. The punishment fits the crime. Any attempt to overthrow the eternally valuable Creator of all things deserves the fitting penalty of exclusion from His favour for eternity. Death is not merely the ceasing of animation of our physical bodies, nor the termination of existence, but existing under the curse of God, with all the blessings of ‘common grace’ removed. Death is ultimately God getting the justice that He deserves, and so He is perfectly within His eternal rights to see that justice is served.

For this reason – the eternal worth of His glory – God delegates to human beings, creatures made in His image to rule over creation, to be defenders of that glory by administering justice in creation. And so Genesis 9:5-6 he states:

‘…for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’

The primary thing at stake here is the image of God, before it is the bearers of the image. This is not primarily a defence of the worth or value of human life, but a defence of the glory of God, which is supposed to be accurately portrayed and worshipped by all creatures under humanity’s headship. The logic here is that any person (or animal) who attacks the bearer of the image is essentially attacking God, and so forfeits their own right to live. This exempts their executioner from the same crime, because what is happening here is not revenge or retribution, but justice. Crimes in Old Testament Israel that were punishable by death all in some way can be traced back to this offence of attacking or defiling the image of God.

(If you think that makes God out to be selfish – in that He is only concerned with His own honour – that concern is answered by a Trinitarian understanding of God; but we don’t have time to go into that here. Wait for a future post in which I will address that.)

So, as I mentioned at the start, if we declare the death penalty in principle to be wrong, evil or barbaric, we risk being guilty of the heresy of Marcionism – the view that the god of the Old Testament was an angry, spiteful god who was replaced by the nice, loving tolerant God of Jesus and the New Testament. Or at least they portray God, who was angry and malicious in the Old, having been pacified by gentle, meek, pacifist Jesus.

We also risk cultural arrogance – assuming that somehow we today are more intelligent, morally astute, or just ‘better’ than those who came before us or who still practice capital punishment, because we have somehow ‘grown up’. That’s a very Western, arrogant stance to take.

Not only that, but we as Christians risk caving in to pressure from the world to conform to its values and principles, largely in the name of being liked by the world. Just because the world – using the rhetoric of compassion – declares something to be wrong and unjust, does not automatically mean that it is. We should be seeking to, ‘take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ’ (1 Corinthians 10:5), not accepting unquestionably every thought and making look like obedience to Christ.

So what about the second view? You may think that in light of all I have just said I would be an advocate of that view. I have just shown Biblically that capital punishment is right, right?

Not so fast. This second view, that we should insist and expect our governments to apply capital punishment can tend to overlook a significant shift that took place in the transition from the Old Covenant to the New. In the Old, God’s chosen people constituted a national, political entity. The Kingdom of God was expressed in the people of Israel, defined by their ethnic, political, and religious distinction from all the nations around them. All this was preparation for the coming of the Messiah, and when He came, personified in Jesus, a momentous shift occurred. Jesus stood before the representative of one of the most powerful human empires and declared ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ (John 18:36) This statement signifies the change that would happen with the establishment of the New Covenant. No longer would any one nation be God’s representatives and mediators of His promises; the Kingdom of God was now being opened up to people from every tribe and tongue and nation, and its citizens will be defined as all those who declare, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ regardless of their earthly location or allegiance.

What this means is that Christians have no place to insist that secular national governments and rulers act as if they are administrators of God’s Kingdom. That place is reserved – and filled – by the risen Jesus. To try to get Old Testament Israel’s laws introduced as the foundation of secular government not only ignores the reality of Biblical fulfilment (that fact that Jesus’ arrival means that many of Israel’s ceremonial and civil laws are now obsolete and done away with), but also gives to that government a level of responsibility that God has not given it. Christians are nowhere called to lobby or campaign for change to worldly governments’ policy or practice, but rather to pray for, pay tax to, and honour their rulers, and by doing so honour God who instituted them (Romans 13:1-7). This implies living with laws that we do not necessarily agree with, or see as unrighteous.

This works both ways on this issue. Both sides can insist that their view is based on Biblical, Christian principles; one on the truth of the Bible, and the other on Jesus’ principles of compassion. Yet insisting that our government conform to either of these is still expecting the kingdoms of this world to adjust and conform to make themselves out to be the kingdom of God. And the Bible is clear: the rule and reign of Jesus Christ over all creation will not be made manifest by the kingdoms of the world conforming to His rule, but by their eventual fall and replacement by His rule:

‘…there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ (Revelation 11:15)

What happened in Indonesia in the execution of two Australian drug traffickers was a indeed great tragedy, but not because the Indonesian government has no right to enforce capital punishment on those who commit crimes it sees worthy of death. It was a tragedy because it highlights the fact that we live in a fallen world as fallen people in which death reigns – even before any executions have taken place. The fate of these two young men who faced the justice system of an earthly ruler should be reminder to all people that we all stand accountable before a much greater, infinitely more just, Ruler of our souls, who will never be unfair or mistaken in His verdict and sentence upon us. This is the Ruler who, in the face of our certain death, stepped down into our situation, placed himself into our chains and stood in the prison cell in our place. This Ruler faced the execution squad for the crime of treason that we are guilty of, and ensured that through faith we may receive not justice, but mercy. In the cross the Father’s justice was satisfied, as the blood of the true Image of God was shed in the place of the one’s who had taken the image and defaced and defiled it. Now this Ruler stands as our Judge – a judge who is ready to pardon death-row sinners on the basis of His own self sacrifice.

In His goodness and mercy, God brought these two Australian men to know and trust in this truth before they died.

Will you also believe and trust?

This last week at Flinders Uni was Islam Awareness Week. I thought it would be appropriate to be aware of Islam (more that I am normally) by seeking to reflect on what is being communicated by our Muslim friends, and to give some responses and some questions from a Christian perspective. This is the second of a few posts I will be making over the next few days.

Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an accomplished Quran scholar, and to be honest, I always find most English translations of the Quran grammatically awkward and difficult to read. So I am willing to recognise that my interpretation of this Sura may not be entirely sound. However, I have been trained – and have taught for many years – the principles of Biblical interpretation, which can mostly be applied to any piece of literature.


Sura 8:11-18, with a depiction of the Battle of Badr

Sura 8:11-18, with a depiction of the Battle of Badr

Sura 8 (suras are the equivalent of books in the Bible) contains a verse often quoted by Islamic ‘extremists’ to justify their terrorist actions:

‘I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them.’ (8:12, Yusuf Ali – the version quoted throughout this post)

On the face of it, it seems a pretty clear command for Muslims to terrorise, behead and disfigure non-Muslims. However, it is also claimed by many Muslims that this verse needs to be seen in its textual and historical context.

Fair enough. I say the same thing often to those who quote Bible verses out of context, and it is an important principle in Biblical exegesis – and if fact in understanding any piece of literature. ‘A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext’ (D.A. Carson). So, let’s look at the context.

Firstly, we need to see that what is quoted above is only part of the verse. The full verse reads:

‘Remember thy Lord inspired the angels (with the message): “I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers…”

The word ‘remember’ should highlight to us that Muhammed is being reminded of something – an experience he has had in the past. If we look earlier in the Sura, we read:

Behold! Allah promised you one of the two (enemy) parties, that it should be yours: Ye wished that the one unarmed should be yours, but Allah willed to justify the Truth according to His words and to cut off the roots of the Unbelievers; (verse 7)

This is a reference to an event that happened early on in Muhammed’s time in Medina. The prophet, having been rejected in Mecca, had gone to Medina, where he had managed to gather a band of followers – at this point it was 313 men, called ‘Muslims’ because they had submitted to Muhammed and his religion. The future of Islam seemed tenuous – many surrounding people opposed them, including the leaders of Mecca, the Quraysh. One day in 624, after a year of conflicts with the Quraysh, news came that a caravan of gold belonging to the Quraysh would be passing by, guarded by 40 unarmed men. News also came that a Quraysh army was on the way from Mecca to defend this caravan, as the Muslims had a history of raiding caravans. Muhammed faced a choice of two options: Raid the caravan and get the 50000 pieces of gold it carried, or ride out against the Quraysh at great risk to his and his men’s lives, trusting that Allah would give victory. He chose the second option, and was successful in this battle, which took place at Badr. This was the key turning point in his battle to conquer Mecca, and it confirmed in the eyes of many that Muhammed was indeed the rightful leader and prophet of Islam.

This puts this verse into context. Muhammed is being reminded of Allah’s promise to him as he rode, outnumbered 3 to 1, to attack his enemies – those who had rejected his religion and so were ‘unbelievers’. It comes after another promise in verse 9:

“I will assist you with a thousand of the angels, ranks on ranks.”

…which Muslims believe actually happened, and was the reason for these first Muslims’ victory.

So, to be fair, it seems I should use the same principles that I myself use when I read about battles in the Old Testament and God’s commands to destroy all the people in a city (eg. Joshua 6:17) I say, ‘This command was given for that battle, in that time and place, and applied to the Israelites as they were conquering the promised land; it is not to be taken as a command for me today as a Christian, nor for any nation today that claims to be Christian.’ This is the approach taken by many Muslim scholars in understanding Sura 8:12

However, there are a few problems that I see with treating this verse in the same way as I do similar Old Testament passages.

Firstly, unlike the Bible, the Quran does not actually provide the historical context of this verse, or in fact the whole of Sura 8. The Quran does not contain lengthy sections of narrative equivalent to the Old Testament narratives; it’s as if the book assumes knowledge of the stories of both the Bible and of the events of Muhammed’s life. So, while the commands to Joshua about Jericho are firmly grounded in the story of the Israelites entering the land, these commands to Muhammed are not set against a backdrop of a Quranic account of the battle; all that extra information has to be gleaned from extra-Quranic sources.

Secondly, the Quran, unlike the Bible, does not have a two-testament structure of promise and fulfilment. The Old Testament dealt with national, ethnic Israel, as the people out of whom would flow His blessing to all nations. With the arrival of the Messiah Jesus, the season for national Israel was ended, as all the promises, types and shadows found their fulfilment in the reality of the Messiah. God now deals with people from every tribe, tongue and nation who relate to Him by faith in Jesus; the commands and principles that applied to national Israel either no longer apply, or are understood in the light of these spiritual realities. (For example, see 1 Peter 2, where Peter applies promises relating to the Temple and to the choosing of Israel directly to Christians who worship and testify to Jesus.)

The Quran does not have this structure, but instead has a uniformity of application across all Suras to all Muslims; one cannot draw an ‘old vs. new’ distinction.

This has meant that many Muslims have taken the sura to contain commands and principles that apply at all times to all Muslims:

‘This surah enunciates general principles of war (one aspect of Jihad) and peace while reviewing the Battle of Badr and uses them for the moral training of the Muslims.’ (Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi – Tafhim al-Qur’an – (The Meaning of the Qur’an) http://englishtafsir.com/Quran/8/index.html accessed Oct 11, 2014)

This interpretation seems, to me, to be supported by the verses that follow:

13 This because they contended against Allah and His Messenger: If any contend against Allah and His Messenger, Allah is strict in punishment.

14 Thus (will it be said): “Taste ye then of the (punishment): for those who resist Allah, is the penalty of the Fire.”

15 O ye who believe! when ye meet the Unbelievers in hostile array, never turn your backs to them.

16 If any do turn his back to them on such a day – unless it be in a stratagem of war, or to retreat to a troop (of his own)- he draws on himself the wrath of Allah, and his abode is Hell,- an evil refuge (indeed)!

17 It is not ye who slew them; it was Allah: when thou threwest (a handful of dust), it was not thy act, but Allah’s: in order that He might test the Believers by a gracious trial from Himself: for Allah is He Who heareth and knoweth (all things).

Verse 13 is a warning to anyone (not just the Quraysh) of the severity of Allah’s punishment for resisting Islam.

Verse 14 seems to use this incident as a precedent for future conflicts with unbelievers: their defeat in battle against the Muslims is a foretaste of the punishment of Hell that is to follow; Allah is using them to punish the unbelievers.

And verse 15-17 appears to be addressing not Muhammed at the battle of Badr, but those whom Muhammed is addressing and teaching in the principles of war: he tells them to never give up when fighting against unbelievers; if they do they themselves will end up in Hell with the unbelievers; and that their slaying of their enemies is ultimately Allah’s actions.

So, if my interpretation of Sura 8 is correct, this leads me to ask some sober, sincere and respectful questions of my Muslim friends; (and in asking I trust that we will be able to remain friends).

  1. Am I mistaken in any way in my interpretation of these verses? Or, am I right in saying that verses 15-17 are to be applied to all Muslim everywhere at all times?
  2. If the Quran truly is the pure, final message of Allah to humanity through Muhammed, why can this Sura only really be understood by accessing extra-Quranic documents? Does that not make this book insufficient and difficult to understand, and obscure to the common reader who has no access to this extra scholarship?
  3. Do the modern Jidadists who take verse 8 as a literal, binding command upon them today, actually have an interpretive case for doing so? And while you may differ in how you interpret this verse, can you at least acknowledge that they are simply seeking to be true to the revelation from Allah they have received through the words of his prophet, and so cannot be called ‘non-Islamic’?
  4. How, in light of this Sura, can we still strive to live alongside one another with peace, respect and friendship between Muslims and non-Muslims? Is this Sura a hindrance, or a help in achieving this goal?

Popular notions of God and creation tend to see God as nothing more than one who performs a function – He is the one who made us and this world. This view can mean that as soon as an alternative theory (eg. evolutionism) is proposed, people think that the need for God is done away with; almost as if the only reason why God would exist is to give us a rationale for why we exist.

The Bible doesn’t talk about God in that way. The closest we might get is when in Romans 1:20 Paul says that Creation points to the truth that, ‘…God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.’ Yet even here he is not discussing the existence of God, but His nature – what kind of God He is, as opposed to the idolatrous ideas of those who ‘exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.’ (Romans 1:23 NIV)

So Genesis 1-2 is less about explaining the origins of creation, as it is about describing the relationship of God to His creation, and especially to human beings. ‘In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth’ is more a statement about authority than origins. Everyone believed in creation by a god or gods; the question was, ‘Whose God did it? Whose God is the supreme over all the other so-called “gods”?’ The first five books of the Bible affirms for the Israelites (and us) that not only is God – Yahweh – supreme, He is in fact the only true and living God.

The creation account also affirms the unique relationship God has with the human race, and what that is supposed to look like:

  • Humans are made, ‘in our image, in our likeness’ (1:26). Not photocopies or clones; the term ‘image’ (which comes from a root word meaning ‘shadow’) can imply a proximity to God that is required if we are to truly bear His image – in a similar way in which a mirror can only bear our image properly if we are in front of it.
  • God gives life to the first human by ‘breathing into his nostrils’ – a very intimate picture of God making direct contact with the man and giving of Himself in order to make the man a living creature (2:7)

God right here

  • God speaks to humanity and gives a vocation and mandate – to fill the earth and rule over it (1:28), all the while caring and tending it (2:15). He communicates directly and personally with the man and the woman, teaching them about Himself and themselves.

The picture of God that we get is not ‘The God who is out there, who is the explanation for why we exist,’ but ‘The God who is right here, who fills my existence with meaning and purpose and value.’

It seems that the man and woman were familiar with God making His presence known to them: ‘…they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool [literally ‘breeze’  – Ruah] of the day.’ (Genesis 3:8 ESV) yet sadly on this occasion God’s presence was not seen as a good thing – they had disobeyed His command and eaten the ‘forbidden fruit’ and so they knew they deserved judgement; they experienced fear and attempted to hide themselves from Him. Because of sin God’s presence was no longer a good thing.

No longer safeWhen God rescued the Israelites from slavery into Egypt, He brought them to Mt Sinai, where He gave them His Law – which was a description of what life as a nation in right relationship with Him will look like. Part of this law included instructions on worship and the construction of a tabernacle – ‘tent’ – which would be the symbol of God’s presence among His people:

38“Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old day by day regularly. 39One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight. 40And with the first lamb a tenth measure of fine flour mingled with a fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and a fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering. 41The other lamb you shall offer at twilight, and shall offer with it a grain offering and its drink offering, as in the morning, for a pleasing aroma, a food offering to the Lord. 42It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. 43There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. 44I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. 45I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. 46And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.” (Exodus 29:38-46 ESV)

This Tabernacle communicated two important things for the Israelites:

  1. God had truly made His dwelling place among them. The Tabernacle was like the ‘overlapping point’ between heaven and earth. In the middle of the Tabernacle was a room called the ‘Holy of Holies’, in which was place the ‘Ark of the Covenant’, a box containing the Law, which was described as God’s throne. (See Hebrews 9:1-7). The Tabernacle was called the ‘Tent of Meeting’ because it was the place where Moses, their leader, would meet with God ‘face to face, as a man speaks to his friend (Exodus 33:11) to receive God’s word for the people.
  2. Yet there was still a distance between the people and God. Only one person – the High Priest – was allowed to enter the ‘Holy of Holies’, and only once a year, after he had made a sacrifice for himself, and then for all the people, and he would take the blood from the sacrificed animal in and sprinkle it in the top of the Ark, called the ‘mercy seat’. Essentially the presence of God was ‘contained’ in the Tabernacle, and the people understood that to enter HIs presence was actually a dangerous thing unless a sacrifice had been made to atone for sin.

By the time of Jesus the Tabernacle had been replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem – built according to the same plan, and the Holy of Holies was still separated from the rest of the Temple by a heavy curtain.

When Jesus appeared on the scene he began to declare ‘The Kingdom of God is among you’ (Luke 17:21), referring to himself. He taught his disciples things like, ‘Abide in be, and I in you’ (John 15:4); ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.’ (John 14:2-3 ESV); “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.’ (John 14:23 ESV). He spoke in ways that showed that through Him people will be able to know the presence of God without any barriers, in a real, personal and relational way. His followers understood from his teaching that He was, literally, ‘God with us’ (Immanuel), as the Son of God Himself clothed in human flesh and blood; Jesus said, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.’ (John 14:9)

This was a claim that angered the religious authorities, and led them to arrest, torture and crucify him:

33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God”. (Mark 15:33-39 ESV)

Jesus is God with usAt this point Jesus entered into the full experience of a human race that is estranged from the life-giving, loving presence of God; who deserve to know only banishment, judgement and death. The One who embodied God’s presence hung there as a representative of every human being, and he came under the punishment that every human being deserves who dares to stand before God on their own merits. In doing this, he also hung there as our substitute – facing what we deserve, so that we don’t need to.

At the point of his death, a remarkable thing happened. The temple curtain, separating people from God was torn in two from top to bottom (ie. it was not done by a person). This symbolises two things. The way of access into God’s presence was now open to all – not just the high priest, and no longer on the basis of a sacrifice being offered. But more significantly, the Presence of God was ‘coming out’ of the Holy Place – God was coming to us. It was as if God was pulling back the curtain and saying, ‘My dwelling place and my throne will no longer be on this box in this room, separated and secluded from people; instead my dwelling and my throne is out there – on the cross, in the man Jesus. If you want to be in my presence, you must look to him – even more, since he is now the location of my presence, you must be in him!’

God raised Jesus from the dead, and in doing so, communicated to us that he is, without doubt, the one who brings us into God’s presence. Our relationship to Him determines whether coming into God’s presence is for us a good thing or a bad thing. When Peter (one of Jesus’ followers) stood up publicly in Jerusalem and declared that Jesus was risen from the dead and was, as he had promised, bringing the Kingdom of God to bear on this world, the people at first responded in fear and dread. They realised that they were complicit in the assassination of God’s chosen King, and their thoughts were no doubt along the lines of, ‘We are in big trouble! What will he do to us when he comes to us, when we are brought face-to-face with the one against whom we have rebelled?’ They knew that, at that moment, Jesus being ‘God with us’ was the worst news they could ever hear! But Peter’s response was not one of condemnation. He told them something almost unbelievable: God was offering forgiveness. All they needed to ‘do’ (although it was not really doing anything) was to repent – recognise their problem, admit their rebellion, and acknowledge that Jesus is the true King. Jesus’ resurrection did not mean vengeance; rather it demonstrated that what he had done in his death was sufficient to pay for the sin of any rebellious heart: ‘Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.’ (1 Peter 3:18 ESV)

God with us in ChristJesus’ final words to his disciples before he returned to Heaven were, ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ A christian is someone who has the assurance of the presence of God  in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit; they know the freedom of being able to approach God at any time in any place with the confidence that He will never reject them – not because of what they have done, but because of Jesus.

 

Christianity is often described as ‘the religion based on (or founded by) the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.’ Others who know a bit more might say that Jesus came and brought a reformation to Judaism, returning it to its roots – much like the Buddha reformed Hinduism, or Mohammed rescued true religion from its distortion by Christians and Jews.

The Bible, specifically the New Testament, does not present Jesus or Christianity in either of these ways. Jesus is not a breakaway or reformer; and Christianity is neither a new religion (that is, new if you lived 2000 years ago!), nor another version of Judaism. Jesus is not merely another prophet, nor even a final prophet. He does not add an extra bit to or take away the bad bits of Judaism to make it complete.

The Bible presents Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of all that has come before him. A repeated statement that occurs through the Gospels is, ‘so that the scripture might be fulfilled…’ After his resurrection Jesus did a number of Bible Studies with his disciples (Luke 24:17, 44-45) showing them that everything that had happened to him was what the Scriptures had already spoken of.

This does not mean that Jesus simply went around trying to do what the Old Testament predicted the Messiah would do, to make sure he fitted the criteria. What Jesus means by these statements is that the reason the Old Testament says these things is because the Father’s plan, from the very beginning, was that he would come. The Bible is simply the unfolding revelation of this plan as God works it out by directing history to just the right point in time for the plan to be fulfilled.

Some people may ask the question, ‘(When) will the world end, and how will it happen?’, but the answer is not  a ‘when’ or ‘how’ or ‘what’ but ‘Who.’:

‘…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. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 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.’ (Colossians 1:16-18 ESV)

And so in Revelation Jesus himself states: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ (Revelation 22:13 ESV). All the ‘threads’ that were started in the beginning find their culmination in Jesus Christ. For example:

  • In the beginning God created everything by his Word (Genesis 1:1-3), and John tells us that that Word was the Son who became flesh and lived among us as Jesus (John 1:1, 14)
  • God made human beings ‘in his image’ (Genesis 1:26), and that ultimately means being like Jesus, God’s son (Romans 8:29)
  • He made humanity to rule over creation (Genesis 1:28), and Jesus the God-Man is appointed king of Kings (Philippians 2:9-10)
  • He gave marriage to humanity (Genesis 2:24) which was to be a picture of Jesus’ relationship with his people (Ephesians 5:31-32)
  • The curse that comes on creation because of sin (Genesis 3:18, 4:11) is borne and ended by Jesus in his death (Galatians 3:13)
  • The promise of a saviour, a descendant of Eve, who would destroy the work of the Devil (Genesis 3:16) is kept in Jesus’ conquering of the grave (Hebrews 2:14)

This is just a start. All of the multiple threads running through the Bible and history are shown to ultimately all reach a singular destination: Jesus Christ.

East Asian folklore has the image of a ‘red thread of destiny’ in which people joined by this red thread are destined by the gods to meet and impact one another’s lives. The one true God has woven a Red Thread through human history, and in all things has been overseeing the destiny of the world to reach its goal in Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 1:10).

Converge

The Bible’s story show us how all of the themes that emerge in the Bible converge in the person of Jesus. This means that to be in sync with God and His purposes for the world we need to be people who are in sync with Jesus. There is no one else who reveals God to us, fulfills God’s promises to us, reconciles us to God, and is able to take the world or us to the destiny God has for us.

In Bart Ehrman’s debate at (I assume) Southern Evangelical Seminary against some other person who (I assume) is arguing in the affirmative for (I assume) ‘Can historians prove Jesus rose from the dead?’ (I have to make assumptions, because the person posting this video conveniently edits out all but Erhman’s material – s0 much for fair and rational debate…), he uses the following logic (at around the 13:00 mark):

  • What historians do: Establish what most probably happened
  • What miracles are: the least probably occurrence
  • The Dilemma: How can the Least Probable occurrence be Most Probable???

Aside from the fact that he is wanting historians to be entirely objective in their study of historical events, yet demands that they subjectively approach their work with the subjective assumption that miracles are always the least likely explanation for things, he entirely misses the point.

Quite likely though, both the topic of the debate and possibly the material presented by his opponent has forced him to take this approach. He actually speaks correctly when soon after this argument he states that belief in the Resurrection is for theological reasons. I entirely agree with him on this. And this is why I entirely disagree with his argument above. For theological reasons, the resurrection of Jesus is actually the most probable occurrence – in fact it is the most certain event in the history of the world – more certain than you sitting here reading this blog (who knows, you could be dreaming this!).

The certainty of the resurrection of Jesus (and therefore of our own resurrection) will most likely never be known using the historical method. We may be able to say with certainly that the first followers of Jesus believed and proclaimed Him to be risen, but anything beyond that – from a historian’s perspective – is a matter of assumption, or some may say, faith.

But here is why we may know for certain that Jesus rose from the dead; why the whole Biblical story must end with resurrection (hang in here with me – it seems like a long argument, but it’s truly glorious):

  1. God is the triune God of Love. Father, Son and Spirit; one God, three persons eternally united in love. Love is not merely something God does, but his character – which is why everything He does is Love.
  2. Because he is Love, he created a universe, inhabited by creatures made in his image, who themselves are designed to find their identity and authenticity in love – loving God and loving one’s neighbour is the summary of what it means to be human.
  3. Because God is Love, he also acts in perfect righteousness, holiness and justice; by nature He is ‘other person centred,’ and so his concern is always for the good of the Other. We see this demonstrated when Jesus is angered upon entering the temple and drives out the money changer and traders. He not only speaks but acts in righteous anger. And why? ‘This is my Father’s house!’ His desire and passion is for His Father’s glory and honour – because he loves his Father. But not just that – ‘My Father’s house should be a house of prayer for all nations’. Jesus not only loves his Father, but because he knows that ultimately his Father will be glorified as the nations gather around the Throne, he also loves his neighbours and desires all nations to know the Father.
  4. Because this is Who God is and who we are, God says the following about His creatures: ‘Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.’ (Exodus 23:7 ESV). He is saying that He will not treat a truly wicked person as if they are righteous; he will not ignore sin or sweep sin or evil under the carpet, nor give then the reward that a righteous person deserves. To do so would be to deny His character as Love: what kind of loving person sees injustice and ignores or minimises it?
  5. The flip side of this is what David recognised about God: ‘For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. (Psalms 16:10 ESV). If a person is truly  righteous, God will not treat him as a wicked person deserves; he will not allow him to be abandoned to Sheol (the grave) – which is the wages of sin. What this means is that if a truly righteous person suffers, they will not only be delivered from their suffering, but compensated, or vindicated, ie. shown to be righteous. And if it so happens that a righteous person is killed, then to be true to His Righteous, Holy, Love, God will vindicate this person by raising them from the dead, not allowing them to see corruption.
  6. Enter Jesus. The One on whom the Father gives his unqualified approval. The only human being who has ever lived an entire life of perfect righteousness – not because he ticked the boxes of the Law, but because he perfectly loved his Father and his neighbour: he was truly and fully human. HIs life and teaching are set in stark contrast to us and our lives, and show us up to be the children of wrath that we are: hated and hating, enemies of God, and divided between each other by walls of hostility. Jesus is the only one who might truly yet humbly claim, ‘…you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.’ By rights, Jesus should never suffer, never die, never know any estrangement from the Father, never know a moment when the Spirit is absent, never have cause to say to the Father, ‘Where are you?’
  7. Yet: ‘Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.’ (Lamentations 1:12 ESV). Jesus, the Holy One, faced all that only the wicked deserve – what we deserve. Rejection, mocking, abandonment, false accusation, torture, grief and ultimately death; to all external appearances, Jesus is utterly cursed and rejected by the Father, with his own words of abandonment and the cold, sealed tomb as the seeming conclusion to a life that his followers thought would end in political glory.
  8. Little did his disciples (nor his enemies) know at this point that by entering into this suffering and coming under the Father’s wrath as the Lamb of God, Jesus was acting in perfect, loving and joyful obedience to the Father. In this action he was ‘fulfilling all righteousness’: he was loving and glorifying his Father by his full obedience, and he was loving us, his neighbours, as himself by becoming our substitute and taking our curse upon himself. His willing, voluntary giving up of his own life was the ‘icing on the cake’ of his obedient life of love; it was the final act that drew together the threads of all he had said and done up to that point.
  9. Resurrection is inevitable. The Father was true to His character and promises, and raised Jesus, His Holy One from the grave, as Peter declared on the day of Pentecost. It was impossible for Jesus to remain in the grave, because if he did God would cease to be God, or at least He would be the most evil, untrustworthy of all tyrants. Because God is Who He is, the resurrection of Jesus is the most likely event; even more certain than death, is the claim that the Saviour is Risen.

This is incredibly good news for us. If, by faith, you are united to Jesus; united with him in his life (because he united himself with you in his incarnation and baptism), and united with him in his death (because he hung there as your head; your representative; he drew you into himself), then you have also been united with him in his resurrection, and can look forward with a keen certainty to the day that you will rise, clothed in his immortality, when the sting of death has gone and your mortal body will pulse with his life. In Christ, the Father looks at you and says, ‘This is my holy one. I will not abandon their soul to sheol; I will not let them see corruption.’ As inevitable as Jesus’ resurrection was, so too is that of anyone who trusts in him.