Archive for the ‘Sexuality and marriage’ Category

You’re all doomed. The world will be ending shortly, and Bill Shorten is the Anti-Christ.

Not really.

But it got your attention. So read on…

It occurred to me that in all the discussion and debate around so-called ‘marriage equality,’ I haven’t seen many Christians quoting from the book of Revelation. So I thought I’d give it a go.

The book of Revelation is a book that is profoundly relevant to both first century Christians and twenty-first century Christians, and in fact all Christians in between. I believe that both those who confine it to a first century milieu (sometimes called ‘Preterists’) and those who see it as largely a yet-to-be fulfilled end time scenario (sometimes called ‘Futurists’) have a faulty way of interpreting the book.

Revelation contains images that communicate the truth about a reality (‘apocalyptic’). The visions John sees are not literal previews of actual historical events to come, but an ‘uncovering’ of the true nature of God and His work in the world through Jesus Christ, and the true nature of the worldly system of rebellious human beings, in partnership with Satan, trying to undermine and overthrow God.

The original readers would have understood the book to be describing their exact situation, and giving them hope to see that behind all the tumultuous events of their time, the Father is seated on the throne and overseeing it all, and that his Son is the true King and saviour in home they can rely 100%.

Revelation helps us as Christians to not be surprised when we see a great divergence between ourselves and the world; when, as Jesus himself predicted, the world hates us, tries to shut us down, and even kills us. In this age our cry is not, ‘Will you save us?’ but ‘How long until you do?’. The book gives us a sure hope for the future culmination of God’s plan to make the kingdom of this world into His Kingdom, when we will see Him face to face and know the gentle touch of his hand as He wipes the tears from our eyes.

“The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.

This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.” (Revelation 13:15-18 NIV)

John’s terrifying vision of a dragon and beasts is an expose of Satan’s strategy to undermine God by mimicking His work in order to lead people into idolatry (ie. worship and service of anything that is not God). The Dragon of 13:1 is the Devil, the ‘Father of lies’, who attempts to usurp the Father; He brings forth from the sea a beast which mimics Christ (often identified the ‘Anti-Christ) and claims to be a powerful, resurrected saviour. The second beast is the first beast’s PR machine: it points people to the first beast and leads people to worship it, as it mimics – you guessed it – the Holy Spirit.

Having the mark of the first beast is a sign of ownership and loyalty. It marks the person out as one who was a worshipper of the beast; one who has surrendered their rights and privileges in order to be part of the worldly system.

Those who don’t have the mark – who refuse to give in to idolatry – are marginalised by the world, unable to even buy or sell in order to make a living and feed their families. Christians at the time were literally facing this exclusion, as they refused membership in trade guilds that demanded a pledge to the trade’s patron deity, and as their refusal to honour Caesar as God resulted in their execution.

The message for Christians was not ‘Whatever you do, don’t take the mark!’, but something much more comforting: after an unfortunate chapter break, in 14:1:

‘…there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.’ (Revelation 14:1 NIV).

Do you see the parallel? The redeemed already have a mark on them – the name of the Father and of the Lamb! Christians are owned by the Father, who has purchased them with the precious blood of Christ:

‘Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.’ (2 Corinthians 1:21-22 NIV)

So what we see in this passage is a call for Christians to stand firm on the grace of their salvation, knowing a rock-solid security in Christ, as the world around them seems bent on going to hell in a handbasket.

Notice that the 144000 are not called to fight the beasts or lobby for their downfall. That’s the job of the Lamb, their champion, who will lead the charge and defeat the beasts; and they can rest assured that they will share in his victory. (What a counter-cultural image – three ferocious monsters defeated by a lamb!).

‘What’s this got to do with gay marriage?’ I hear you say. Well, if you’ve persevered this far through my very long introduction, you’re about to be rewarded with the application.

Christians do not fit into the world today any more than they did 1900 years ago. It should come as no shock to us if our faith in Christ results in us being ostracised, demonised or even ultimately killed. Jesus’ promise  of hatred from the world was not just for his immediate disciples, but for anyone who would be his disciple.

Sadly, the church in the west today often seems more interested in winning the approval of the world than in standing with the Lamb and risking losing everything. When the world says to us, ‘If you don’t support marriage equality, you’re disgusting bigots!’ we seem eager to jump through any hoops the world wants us to, even to the point of agreeing with them when they tell us, ‘Jesus never said anything against homosexuality, so it must be OK.’ or ‘Jesus hung around with ‘sinners’ and didn’t judge them.’

By doing this, we are giving in to the campaign to set up an antichrist. An antichrist is not necessarily one who is explicitly opposed to Christ, but is a rival, or alternative christ. It is a christ made in the image of the father of lies; a christ that is appealing to a world filled with people who are rebels at heart and who will do anything but worship the true and living God. A christ that says, ‘Your sin is not that bad after all; in fact, you’re all OK doing whatever you like! See then kingdoms of the world? I will give them all to you if you simply bow down and worship me.’

So it is no coincidence that in a number of countries that have already legalised same-sex marriage there are a growing number of Christians who are being fined and forced out of business, simply because out of loyalty to the true Christ they are refusing to participate in same-sex wedding by providing their professional services. Already a church has already faced legal action for refusing to perform a gay wedding. Already Christian ministries are facing disadvantages for not complying with ‘anti discrimination’ rules, and are being labeled ‘homophobic’ even if they have said nothing publicly and explicitly about homosexuality.

How are Christians to respond to something that many are saying is inevitable? While different Christians have various views on this issue, as well as on how involved we should be in lobbying against the change, I think one thing is sure: Christians in the West who hold firmly to the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality will find themselves increasingly marginalised as our culture moves step by step further away from the Christian values imbibed in it from the era of Christendom.

But it’s not cause to panic. And, in my view, it’s not cause to go out with placards and protest and demand that the beast of human rebellion and haughty independence not be worshipped.

Do we really believe that the Father is sovereign over the rise and fall of kingdoms and cultures? Do we really know that the only thing that is ultimately inevitable is the victory of Christ and the uniting of all things under Him? Are we willing to accept the truth that the decline of a culture into immorality is simply a sign of the wrath of God that is upon it, and is designed so that the grace and kindness of God may be even more magnified as He redeems people from the miry pit of their hard-hearted sinfulness?

We should not overlook what happens next in John’s vision:

‘Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth —to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water. (Revelation 14:6-7 NIV)

As he stands gazing, at on one hand the seething mass of rebellious humanity revelling in its worship of the beast, and on the other hand the glorious risen Lamb with his redeemed people, he hears of the one thing that can bridge the vast gap between the two: the Eternal Gospel. It is a Gospel that calls people to repentance in light of the unavoidable fact of God’s judgement in and though the One He has appointed – Jesus. It’s a Gospel that calls people to true worship of the true God, who created all things, including – and this is easily overlooked – the ‘springs of water.’ In 7:16 we see these springs mentioned:

‘“…the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”’ (Revelation 7:17 NIV)

So the Gospel is also a call to sinners to come and drink at the springs of living water that God’s grace and mercy provide.

This is the main task of the church, and even more so as we feel like we are being assaulted from every side. We are not called to preserve or reform the social and political structures of the world; they are only temporary and are doomed to pass with the rise and fall of civilisation under the hand of the Father. It is only as we faithfully proclaim the Gospel that we will see hearts transformed, with the fruit of right, Christ honouring living coming as a result.

There are two things this does not mean for Christians as we face the demise of culture. Firstly, it cannot mean smugness. We cannot stand on the sidelines wagging our fingers saying, ‘I told you so – but then what else should I expect from reprobates like you?’ Remember, we only stand with the Lamb on Mt Zion because we have been redeemed. That is the only thing that separates us from our pagan neighbours: the gracious redeeming work of Christ.

And secondly, it does not mean we remain silent on the moral issues that face us. The Gospel is the good news of redemption from the power, penalty and pollution of sin. That means sin must be a topic we discuss whenever we are attempting to communicate the Gospel. When sin increases, grace abounds even more (Romans 5:20) – in other words, seeing the horror of sin only serves to magnify the lavish grace of God that rescues us from that sin. Out of love for our neighbours, we cannot stop pointing out their sinfulness, because then the Gospel will be seen for what it is – the best news ever.

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.

1 Corinthians 7:25-31, 1 Peter 1:13-25

Our world recently has had no shortage of crises that have had some impact on us.

The Christians during the first century were no stranger to crises; in fact a significant proportion of the New Testament exists to some extent because of various crises happening either in the church, in the world, or both. Jesus was very clear that the time between his first and second coming – what we call ‘the Last Days’ would be a time of turmoil and tribulation, with God’s people by no means being immune from trouble. Christians are assured that we will be in a battle – a battle with a world which is hostile to Him; a battle with circumstances that comes from living in a world that is under a curse and is full of chaos, danger and confusion; a battle with others within the church who distort or water down the Gospel, or grasp for power; and a battle with the devil and with our own sin.

We are in a privileged position at the moment in Australia, where by and large life feels pretty stable. We all have access to our basic human rights, and can feel relatively secure with a stable government system, a wealthy economy, good law and order, and no major conflicts with our neighbours. For the majority of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world this is not necessarily the case. Many of them are born into crisis situations, and will die never having left them.

We should not become complacent to think that our comfort is going to continue forever for us or for our children or grandchildren. Recent events with terrorism happening on our own shores have reminded us that we live in a bubble – and some are fearful that this bubble will burst more easily and sooner than we might think.

And all of us also, no doubt, have experienced – or are experiencing – crises on a more personal level – in our family, work, community, finances or health. So, how should we view – and respond to – crises?

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

In our first passage, Paul is having a conversation with the Corinthians about the place of marriage. In the midst of this conversation he refers to a principle that should not only shape their approach to marriage, but to all of life:

‘The present form of this world is passing away.’ (31)

This is the reason he gives for why, ‘those who have wives [should] live as though they have none, those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods…’ (7:30) summed up I with the phrase, ‘…those who deal with the world as though they have no dealings with it.’ (31)

At first glance Paul’s words here might seem a little extreme. Is he calling for Christians to dissolve all their marriages, get rid of all their possessions, and live a life of complete detachment from all desires – as if there is something wrong with this physical world and bodies in which we live? When he says ‘the appointed time has grown very short,’ is he implying that Jesus will return within their lifetimes – even within the next week or so, and so they should simply sit and wait for His appearing, and to make any plans for the future is pointless and wrong?

A look at the context of Paul’s comments – both within the letter of 1 Corinthians and in the historical setting – will help us to understand not only what Paul was saying to the Corinthians, but also what God is saying to us, particularly at times of crisis.

What is ‘the world’?

Firstly, we need to understand what he means when he uses the word, ‘world’. Today this word can tend to mean simply the physical reality of the planet in which we live – our location within the universe. Sometimes the Bible uses it in this sense. But in this context, ‘the world’ is referring to the human world, the reality of human life and civilisation and its social, political, religious and moral systems. In and of itself it is not necessarily a negative term, however because of sin and human rebellion it most often is negative – ‘the World’ is a humanity that is living in organised, sophisticated rebellion against God, and whose culture – despite occasional glimpses of goodness and truth and beauty – is by and large striving to topple God from His throne and to set itself up as the masters of the universe. This is the world about which Jesus warned his disciples, ‘in this world you will have trouble,’ but then immediately comforted them by saying, ‘but take heart! I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33) It is the world about which one day we will see the truth that, ‘the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.’ (Revelation 11:15)

‘The present crisis’

Secondly, in verse 26 Paul mentions ‘the present distress (or crisis)’. The Corinthians were facing some kind of crisis that was having a significant impact on their lives, causing them to have to think carefully and wisely in their decisions about what would normally be ‘everyday things’ such as marriage, business and leisure. Most likely, this ‘crisis’ was a famine which we know impacted this region around the time that Paul wrote this letter. With a shortage of food also came a degree of social unrest, as people developed uncertainty about their future, mistrust of authorities, and competition with their neighbours. Corinth was a wealthy city, but would nevertheless have been impacted by this famine.

The ‘world’ in which the Corinthians lived was, it seemed, crumbling.

So Paul’s advice about who should and shouldn’t get married is in the context of a particular time of crisis. Getting married was a big event, one that required many resources and much time. The Corinthians were to remember what it meant for them to live as God’s people, and how this living reflected the power of the Gospel. At the end of chapter 15 Paul tells them to ‘be steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ He goes on in 16:1 to straightaway talk about the need for them to make a collection to help their much poorer brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. He is calling them to be other-person-centred, to think of the needs of others before their own, and so to put on hold some of their own activities for the moment in order to demonstrate God’s generosity to others.

A wake-up call

It is in times of crisis that we are called to reassess our priorities. God’s actions of judgement upon the world are also a mercy and a gift, designed to shake us out of our complacency; to make us wake up to how much we have become engrossed in the things of the world instead of the things of the Lord.

I have recently returned from a trip to New Zealand, where we did a tour of Christchurch and heard stories of the 2012 earthquake. We heard of neighbours developing a closer sense of community as they were drawn to work together to support one another. Apparently some people who used to sleep naked now wear pyjamas, since when an earthquake strikes at night you don’t even have time to put your clothes on. We also heard of the controversies that have arisen as people debate how the city should be rebuilt, with many complaining about the Anglican church not being willing to spend nearly 200 million dollars and 6 years to repair the cathedral (maybe some of those people might also complain that the church has too much money and should be spending their resources on feeding the poor instead of making moral judgements and trying to convert people.)

We had boarded the plane for New Zealand unsure of what was going to happen with bushfires burning in the Mt Lofty Ranges just 20 km from our own home. But even at that time, there was an almost overwhelming response of generosity from people offering accommodation and assistance to those affected by the fires. Possibly the magnitude of this response had something to do with the shock we had felt as a nation just weeks earlier with the Martin Place siege; people realised the importance of standing together as neighbours.

Now, these are examples are of non-Christian communities! These are people who do not necessarily know anything of the power of the Gospel to transform and reconcile. Yet these people are nevertheless people made in the image of God, and while crises can often bring out the worst of people’s selfishness and sinfulness, they are also marked by glimpses of how we should be. God, in what theologians call ‘common grace’ at times enables people to act in a way that is contrary to their own sinfulness, maybe so that people will stop and take stock, and say to themselves, ‘Hey! What just happened – what I did, or what someone did for me – seems to resonate with my humanity. I know that this is the way I should be all the time – so what am I not like it all the time? Why do I by default operate out of selfishness and greed? Is there any way that I might be able, somehow, to attain to this picture of goodness and generosity that I have just glimpsed?’

So we should be willing to welcome crises, knowing that the Father only ever gives good and perfect gifts; and our first response in these times should be, ‘Father, what are you teaching me in this? How are you using this time of trouble to make me more like your Son?’

Looking towards the End

While Paul is referring to this very specific situation here, he deliberately uses the kind of language that is also used to refer to the end of the age, the time of Jesus’ return. ‘distress’ is often associated with the last days. ‘The appointed time has grown very short’ and the present form of this world is passing away’ speak of the expectancy of a soon to come resolution to the turmoil of this life; the kind of language used by someone who is expecting Jesus’ return to be just around the corner. Paul wants them to think not just of their immediate situation, but in light of eternity. Times of crisis remind us that this world does indeed have a ‘use by date’. It is a kingdom that is being shaken, and will one day be completely overtaken by the reign of God the Father through His Son. Crises remind of who is truly King, and enable us to look forward with hope to the goal He has for us and His creation.

And so the reason for the Corinthians to make wise choices about how they live their lives is not simply a moral or ethical one on its own – as if there is some abstract moral standard that makes something right or wrong in itself. Rather, it is about Who deserves – and receives – the glory. And the One who deserves the glory is the One who is the true King of all things. This is a big focus in this letter – and in fact in the whole scriptures. We are created to be for the praise of the glory of God. Ethics and morality is not about conforming to a certain standard; it is about loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – or in short, doing all things to the glory of God. Loving God is not about a warm mushy sentiment, but living in such a way that makes much of him, so that people see our lives and say, ‘God is good! God is love! God is gracious! God is my Father who is working all things together for good! God is worthy of all my worship!’

The power of the Cross

We will only be enabled to live such lives when we are able to say, ‘The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’ (Galatians 6:14) And we will only be able to say such thing when we have a vision of the cross of Christ. This leads us to our second passage.

1 Peter 1:13-25

In this passage Peter sums up some general principles that Paul applied when giving advice to the Corinthians about marriage: being prepared for action, making wise, sober decisions, all in the light of the promise of Jesus’ return. (13) We are to desire to be holy – not for the sake of holiness in and of itself, but because ‘he who called you is holy’ – in other words, we should desire to have lives that bring glory to God be reflecting His character in our actions. And he reminds us that this world is not our home – we are to see ourselves as ‘exiles’ living temporarily living in the kingdom of this world until we see His kingdom break in.

What is the secret to living this kind of life – one of integrity, love and certainty in hope? It is simply knowing something: verse 18-20 We have been ‘ransomed… by the precious blood of Christ.’ This phrase in itself contains enough significance for a whole series of sermons, but we will look briefly at it, to see what kind of vision of the cross enables us to face crises with a confidence and hope that far outweighs anything this world has to offer.

Firstly, we have been ransomed.

This means that we were once slaves. This is terminology that comes from the slave market; a slave could be given their freedom by having someone pay all the debts they owed, effectively purchasing them and then setting them free. We were once slaves – slaves to sin and to our sinful desires, and slaves to the world and its systems, unable to resist all the empty promises of happiness and power and self-fulfilment that it offers. The world, the flesh and the devil – our three greatest enemies were once our masters, and when they said, ‘jump’ we said, ‘how high?’. Jesus has set us free from these masters by cancelling the debt that stood against us, and for which God, in His justice, had rightfully handed us over to. He has come and fought against the strong man, and has overcome him, and he now has possession of all that is in his household, including us. We are now free. Our citizenship in this world has been replaced with citizenship in heaven, and we no longer have to conform to this world and its demands and desires because we know that the world is passing away.

Secondly, the ransom was at the cost of his own blood.

Jesus taught his disciples, ‘…whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?’(Mark 8:35-36) He said these words as the one who had already stood in front of the devil, who had offered him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshipping him, and said, ‘“‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’ (Luke 4:8). He then did just that – lived a life of total obedience to the Father, that took him to the cross to make that redeeming payment for our sin. This not only shows us the magnitude of our sinfulness – that it requires the blood of the eternal Son to atone for it – but also the great assurance we can have in our freedom, that we have truly been crucified to the world and the world to us. It is not just a metaphor; it actually happened that day at Calvary.

Thirdly, this blood bought ransom is precious.

It was not merely sufficient, something that just got the job done. And it was not just costly – worth a lot. It is precious – a word that means honourable, or held in high esteem. The Father looks at the obedience of the Son culminating in his willing death on a cross and says, ‘That is precious to me! This is the thing that I hold as supremely important over all things, that my Son has given himself as a ransom for sinners.’ That is what is meant in part by the phrase, ‘He was foreknown before the foundation of the world’ (20a). The Father created the world, knowing – in fact pre-ordaining –  the corruption and turmoil that would enter into it, because His goal was that His Son would be honoured and glorified above all things because of his willing incarnation and death to save sinners. Knowing the inestimable worth of Jesus’ sacrifice to the Father should make it of inestimable worth to us also. It should make the crises of this world fall into their proper perspective, when knowing him is far more precious to us than anything in this world that we may lose.

Ephesians 5:21-33

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband
(Ephesians 5:21-33 NIV)

Rosie and Jethro have chosen a passage of scripture today that is considered by some to be controversial. Many people have been shocked by a recent national survey that revealed 28% of Australians believe ‘women prefer a man to be in charge of the relationship’, and 19% believe ‘Men should take control in relationships and be the head of the household.’ Each of these figures has risen over the last 4 years – even if only by 1% each.

I don’t know a lot about analysing statistics, but that to me sounds like a minority – that more Aussies than not would disagree with the idea of male leadership, especially in a marriage relationship.

So many – maybe including you here today – may not sit comfortably with this Bible reading that speaks of a wife submitting to her husband. And it is no small submitting. It is ‘as you do to the Lord’ – in other words, in the same way in which she would submit to Jesus Christ. The writer, St. Paul, fleshes this out by saying that a husband is the head of his wife in a similar way in which Christ is head of the church.

We do not have much – if any – wiggle room here. We do not really have any other choice but to say either, ‘This is true, and a husband is the head of the relationship,’ or, ‘This is false, and we must discount everything else that this passage says.’

Our problem though, is that we do not really understand what ‘headship’ means, and what it looks like in practice. Because our experience in this world, sadly, of those in authority, is of failure, abuse of power, corruption and violence, we immediately are suspicious of any suggestion that authority is good – not just a necessary inconvenience. And we may especially feel uncomfortable with the idea that authority can be worked out based on gender. How dare someone stereotype men as ‘leaders’ and women as ‘submitters’?

However, if we look more closely at this passage, and seek to understand what is being said here, what we see is actually something rather beautiful.

Firstly, we should note that the passage begins with a call to ,’Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.’ This call is given to every person who considers themselves a follower of Jesus, and comes from an attitude of thanksgiving – just before he says this, Paul encourages his readers to be, ‘…always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Ephesians 5:20)

An attitude that sees every good thing I have as a generous, no-strings-attached gift from God will result in thankfulness; and an attitude of thankfulness will overflow into an attitude of generosity and humbleness towards others. So, it is a natural thing to expect that someone who has received from God, will likewise seek to give to, not take from, others.

So, both husbands and wives are called to submit to one another. It’s simply that their submitting looks a bit different.

Jesus once said to his Disciples, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ A Christian’s obedience to Jesus does not flow out of a fear of punishment, a threat of violence, or a slavish following of the rules, but out of Love. The relationship comes first, and is followed by the actions. No real relationship can be built just on doing good things. If we love a person, and desire the best for them, and want them to be honoured, then we will be willing – and joyfully so – to follow their desires, and do what they ask, and submit to their leading.

The Church – the collection of those who follow Jesus and know Him as their saviour – knows of the extreme love that Jesus has shown by going to the cross, taking their sin, and reconciling them to God the Father. And their response is a to love him in return, with a joyful, glad and willing submission, because they know that in doing so they find their true freedom and identity. This passage is simply calling wives to seek the same in their relationship with their husbands: a response of love that says, ‘I am willing to put my ambition second to yours.’

But notice that is is essentially the same as what husbands are called to do. In verse 25 husbands are to submit to their wives in a way that reflects what Jesus did for those He came to save.  Jesus – God in the flesh – did not aggrandise himself or seek to control, manipulate or dominate. Instead he lived in humility, loving and serving those around Him, and eventually making the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus put our own needs before His own, by going to the cross and taking upon Himself not only the punishment we deserve, but knowing in his very being all of the pain and isolation and anguish that we know because of our sin. Why did he do this? Well it says here in verse 26: to make us holy – that is, set apart especially for God, with a special purpose for existing; to cleanse us – that is, to remove all our guilt and shame and all that makes us ‘dirty’; and to present us to himself – that is, with the ultimate goal of a perfect, unbreakable relationship with Himself.

So the standard to which husbands are called is just as great, and often just as difficult, as that to which wives are called. And together, a husband and a wife are called to something much greater and nobler than simply having a partnership or raising a family: they are to be a reflection, an audio-visual display of the relationship between Jesus Christ and all who know and trust Him.

Jethro and Rosie stand before us today, and in doing so are giving us permission to watch them closely – not just today, but for the rest of their life together – and to see in their love and commitment, in their promises of faithfulness and cherishing, in their willing sharing of themselves with one another, a picture of the relationship with God that has been made possible by Jesus.

Paul makes a very profound observation towards the end of this passage. He reflects on the union of a husband and wife and says, ‘This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.’ (Ephesians 5:32). He is saying that human marriage – the beginning of which we are witnessing today – is meant to be simply a reflection of the true marriage – that between Jesus and the church.

God has written into the fabric of our humanity a parable that tells us of a much greater story than the story of a man and woman committing to be faithful for life. This story is of God Himself making a commitment – a promise to be faithful – to this human race whom He has created. This is a commitment that has been sealed in blood, and is the most reliable, trustworthy, securing commitment we will ever experience.

In this world, human marriages can and do fail. Husbands and wives will fail to love as they should, and will regularly break one or more of the promises they make at their wedding. But the promise of commitment that God makes to us in Jesus Christ is one that will never fail, because He will never fail.

So we are called by God – and Rosie and Jethro have agreed by inviting us here – to see in this wedding and the marriage to follow something far beyond just a new family being formed. We are called to see the story behind the story, and to answer God’s call to come, be loved by Christ, be washed and made holy, and to know and love Him as He has loved us.

Jethro and Rosie, this will happen in two ways as we, your family and friends observe your marriage.

Firstly, in the good times. When you find that your partnership flows easily, and submitting to and loving one another is natural; when you display to us, and to the children that God may bless you with, a faithfulness, devotion and commitment that says, ‘I made a promise, I will stand by that promise no matter what.’ In doing so, you will remind us that God is faithful, and worthy of our love, trust and obedience.

Secondly, when the tough times come. And they will come. Because one thing is for sure, you stand before one another today as sinners, saved by grace. And that means there will be times when the partnership is difficult, when you do not see eye to eye, when people may say, ‘I felt a bit of tension between Rosie and Jethro tonight.’ There will be times when you realise that you, or they, have let each other down, and may even be tempted to think, ‘They promised something at our wedding, but I don’t see them keeping to that promise.’

It is in those times that you can still communicate something to us and your family about God: that He is the God of all grace. That when we lose faith, he remains faithful. When we fail to keep our promises, he remains firm on His. That no matter how far or how badly we fall, there is never any second guessing abut whether He will forgive, heal, and restore.

You have been saved by grace, but you also live by grace. This wedding day is a gift of God’s grace to you, and your marriage will be by grace. As you live in that grace, forgiving, persevering, restoring one another, and giving glory to God in that, you will faithfully be presenting Jesus to us all. We all look forward to taking this journey with you.

Talk delivered at Flinders University on Tuesday, August 19, 2014

There is only so much that can be covered on this issue in the short time we have. I will acknowledge at the start that this will not be a comprehensive coverage of all the questions and dilemmas that spring from what has been an uneasy tension – some may say an all out war – between the Christian faith and the LGBT community. You may finish reading this feeling dissatisfied or maybe offended at what you read; I hope though that you may at least go away with a clearer understanding of the foundation for the Christian view of gender, marriage and sexuality.

For the Christian, this is not a matter of just altering their views on a minor moral issue. As we will see, this issue cuts right to the heart of the Christian faith and message; to require sincere, Bible believing Christians to change their views on this is to require them to go against their conscience and therefore to deny who they truly are. A Christian is not merely someone who holds to a list of beliefs that may be revised and updated; no, a Christian understands that God has done something profound in them to make them a new person; their beliefs are an expression of their identity.

I suggest that for a Christian to deny their convictions is not too different from requiring a gay person to deny their desires.

I will also acknowledge at the outset that the church as an institution does not have a clean record on understanding, accepting helping and including those with same-sex attraction. For what it’s worth, I apologise – if not for my fellow professing Christians, then at least for myself – for the pain and isolation that has been caused by Christians acting and speaking inappropriately about this issue, and for any judgmentalism and hypocrisy expressed towards Gay people – whether it be those who battle with a conviction that their desires are wrong, or those who have decided to accept and celebrate their desires.

In the life and teachings of Jesus we see both extreme compassion, acceptance and grace towards those who are ostracised and condemned by society; yet at the same time a firm, unshakeable commitment to God’s moral standards. That meant he never shied away from calling sin what it was, and calling people to repent. Because of this, I believe that grace and acceptance are not mutually exclusive to holding to a firm, even controversial moral position.

There are three positions on sexuality that you may encounter from those who fall under the broad umbrella of ‘Christendom’:

  1. ‘The Bible prohibits sexual behaviour outside faithful, monogamous, lifelong marriage between a man and a woman; however the world has changed, and we have progressed in our understanding of sexuality since Biblical times. We therefore can disregard those prohibitions as being no longer relevant or helpful for modern society.’
  2. ‘The Bible does prohibit some forms of sexual activity, however its prohibitions are related to specifically abusive, dysfunctional and degrading sexual practices. The Biblical writers did not know of the concept of a loving, committed homosexual relationship, nor did they explicitly say anything that would give us cause to prohibit it.’
  3. ‘The Bible’s prohibition of sexual activity outside of monogamous, lifelong marriage between a man and a woman is a principle that still stands, and presents a standard that all who profess faith in Jesus should seek to live by.’

This post today will be largely on showing the rationale for the third view. This is because the first two views essentially lack integrity:

The first, in that it diminishes the authority of the foundational document of the Christian faith – the Bible – allowing the influence of popular cultural opinion to override a person’s faith convictions. Doing so easily sets us up in a position of arrogance – where we become the arbiters of which aspects of our faith are valid and which are not. In the end, this results not in an authentic expression of Christianity, but in a tailor-made religion that is more an expression of someone’s personal preferences than it is a conviction that draws together and consolidates a community with a sense of purpose and identity.

The second, in that it does not do true justice to the particular texts in the Bible that deal with homosexuality. It claims to have only now shed new light on words and phrases that have already been clearly understood for nearly 2000 years by Christian Biblical scholars. It ignores the wider literary context of the whole Bible, and has a faulty understanding of the cultural milieu of the ancient world in which homosexual relationships, as we call them, did actually occur, and are documented.

The foundation of the Biblical view on sexuality is much deeper than simply the existence of a few statements in the Bible that prohibit or condemn alternate sexual expression. The reason for the Christian view on marriage is not that there are rules in the Bible about it; rather, the rules are an application of a deeper truth that goes right to the heart of who God is, what God’s plan is for the world, and who we are designed to be as human beings.

Now, you may initially wonder how what I am about to explain has anything to do with sexuality, but please ride with me, and I hope you will eventually see where I am going.

It begins with God. What was there before the universe? Some may say ‘nothing’, and suddenly there was everything, and we don’t know how or why it got here. Others – we might call them Theists or Deists – may say the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ is actually God – that before the universe there was nothing plus God, and then God made it all happen, God is the ‘first cause’. The Christian view of things is much richer than this. We say that before the Universe there was Love. The Bible claims that:

‘God is Love’ (John’s letter to Christians, 4:8)

Trinity simple…meaning, God is a relational God; in fact God within Himself is relationship: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, three persons, bound together as one God by perfect, self giving, intimate love. This is the Christian idea of ‘Trinity’ – a combination of two words: ’Tri’ meaning three, ‘Unity’ meaning one.

This means that God creating the universe was primarily an act of love, and that the universe finds its ultimate purpose in the context of loving relationships. The Bible speaks of God the Father creating the world for His Son, with the desire that everything in the world will be a witness to His goodness and love:

God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Paul’s letter to Philippian Christians, 2:9-11)

Into this world God placed a type of creature – human beings – who are made in God’s image. We are uniquely made, designed to be a reflection of the relational love that is at the heart of God’s character. The two greatest commands, affirmed a number of times by Jesus:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul mind and strength’

and,

‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’

…are a simple summary of what it looks like when a human being, living in harmony with the Triune God, is a reflection of God’s character.

Even more than this, we are designed to know our true and ultimate identity as children, relating to God as our Father in a relationship of love, trust and honour. God’s plan for this world that he made, as unfolded in the Bible’s story from beginning to end, is this: that we might know Him as Father, by being united with His Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Now I acknowledge that that is a statement that may seem to be full of religious jargon; essentially it means that we are made to be part of God’s family, and the way we know that status as children of God is through being united with His Son.

This is where the connection to marriage, gender and sexuality comes in.

We know that marriage is not merely about two individuals. When a person marries, they come into a relationship with their partner’s family. In some ways, they may relate to their partner’s parents as if they were their own parents. You may have heard the cliched phrase uttered by the father of the bride at a wedding, ‘Today we have not so much lost a daughter, as we have gained a son.’

This relationship – the one that we as human beings are designed to have with the Son, and through Him to the Father – is the ultimate relationship, the ultimate marriage; in fact, it is the true marriage. Rather than marriage being a metaphor borrowed by God from human culture to depict something of what our relationship with Him should be like, God specifically designed human beings so that an essential aspect of who and what we are as human beings would serve as a parable – an illustration or image – of this ultimate relationship:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Paul’s letter to Ephesian Christians, 5:25-32)

The writer here is saying that God’s design – a man and a woman being united in love, with an intimacy so profound that it is as if they have become a single unit – this is a picture of the relationship between God’s Son (‘Christ’), and human beings who have faith in him (‘the church’).

He speaks also of Jesus ‘giving himself up for her’. This refers to two things.

Firstly it speaks of his attitude towards human beings; he prefers to do what is best for us, over and above what may be best for himself, even if that means laying down his life so that we may live.

Secondly, it refers to a specific act in which Jesus did precisely that:

See, as a human race, and as individuals who make up humanity, we have rejected this family relationship with God. We prefer to do things our way, to be the arbiters of what is true or right or good. We are essentially rebel children, rejecting our Father’s loving authority, and refusing to honour or respect Him as he deserves. This means we have estranged ourselves from Him; walked out; left the family; refused to be identified as His children. Our behaviour is a display, or outworking of this attitude towards God; we seek to distort ourselves and the world we live in to escape the fact that we are actually running away for God. If God seems far away, it is we who have moved.

Yet this estrangement and all its consequences is also what we deserve. We deserve to be banished from the home, to be removed from the will, and to no longer be associated with the family name, because we are rebels. And we deserve the ultimate banishment – death – which is exclusion from God’s good and loving presence forever. This may to us sound unloving and ungracious of God, yet, as we have just heard, God’s aim is that we as creatures should be living in a way that gives the honour to the Son that he deserves. A world filled with rebels, whose rebellion is ignored or brushed under the carpet would be anything but honouring. The kind of God that ignores and minimises rebellion, injustice and evil is not the kind of God who can be trusted to run the universe.

Yet, what is God’s response to this rebellion that has driven us away from him? He has done something about it. He has provided the means by which the relationship may be restored; the marriage may be reconciled and healed, the family brought back together again. The Son has come and united himself to our humanity by becoming one of us. By becoming a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, he essentially came to walk in our shoes, to take our place. He lived that life that we have failed to live. And then when he was brutally put to death by those who hated him he face not only rejection from human beings, but abandonment by God, His own Father – the abandonment we deserve to face. Instead of banishing us from the family, the Father instead banished His only son.

Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. (1 Peter 3:18)

The sign that Jesus death actually did what he meant it to do was that he was raised from the dead; this was the Father’s stamp of approval on his extreme love, his self giving, sacrificial death; by raising Him he has provided a guarantee for those who are now united to him through faith – trusting in his death and resurrection as the only way for us to be reconciled to the Father and be part of His family. This guarantee is of a relationship that lasts forever, that is deeply satisfying and intensely purposeful, which gives us a knowledge of our true identity and the freedom to live authentically as human beings.

There can be no substitute for traditional marriage as a picture for this relationship God brings us into though Jesus. Any alternative expression of gender or sexual intimacy is a distortion and an obscuring of this great love and mercy shown to us by the God who not only made us, but who gives Himself for us.

However the deciding factor that will determine whether we will know the reality of this relationship is not our particular view or opinion about gender, sexuality or marriage. Rather, it is how we respond the the news of what Jesus has done for us to bring us to God. The stereotype statement, ‘That person will go to Hell because they are a homosexual.’ is false. True, our lifestyle choices are evidence of what is in our heart and where our loyalty lies. Someone who claims to trust in and follow Jesus will be seeking to live a life that reflects his teaching and affirms the same scriptures that he affirmed. However the crucial question here today is not ‘What do you think about gender and sexuality?’ rather it’s ‘What is your response to the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection?

I urge you to ask, explore and seek to come to terms with who He really is, what He has done to bring you into the Father’s family, and how he can transform you and give you a freedom to hear what God says and find fulfilment and joy in living no longer for yourself but for him.

For those who say, ‘You must believe the whole Bible literally.’…

VISUAL UNIT

SoS_portraits

Literal portraits of the male and female characters, ‘He’ and ‘She’, in the book of Song of Songs. PDF version (545 KB)

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