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No.

Headline from The Birmingham News in October 1918

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

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

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

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

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

See the phrase within its immediate literary context:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. God is both sovereign and good

If we believe that God is sovereign, we must also believe that the Corona Virus is from His hand. When assuring us of the Father’s loving care for us, Jesus told us that He cares about such ‘trivial’ things as sparrows (Matthew 10:29), grass and flowers (Matthew 6:28), and the hairs of our head (Matthew 10:30). Nothing in creation is outside of His loving will. This means nothing happens by accident, and everything has a purpose. “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.” (Isaiah 54:7). God is in control of the Corona Virus, and it has come in keeping with His good will. If that idea bothers you, consider this: If I do not believe He has power over this virus (to both create it and destroy it), how can I be assured that He has the power to accomplish His work of salvation in me?

2. This world is not the way it should be

The whole creation has been subjected to frustration (Romans 8:20) by God, who ‘cursed the ground’ in response to Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:17). What this means is that all of creation bears the marks of judgement, and while still being essentially ‘good’ in God’s eyes, is now characterised by decay, death and disfunction. God has done this so that we would be surrounded by the signs that humanity has failed in our mandate to rule over creation, that we have turned away from Him and worshipped the creature rather than Him as Creator, but also that we should be looking forward to the new heavens and earth. The frustration of creation, including this virus, is designed to give us hope for the day when we hear God say, ‘Look, I am making all things new!’ (Revelation 21:5)

3. God is patient and gracious

Humanity has faced far worse calamities than the Corona Virus. The Influenza pandemic of 1918 killed 20-50 million people, and the Black Death of the mid 1300’s killed between 75 and 200 million Europeans. While God takes no pleasure in anyone’s death  (Ezekiel 33:11), we can be thankful that the Corona Virus has brought about relatively few deaths, and for most people who contract it the symptoms are mild. This is an indication of God’s patience with this present generation, in that He does not give us what our sins deserve. Instead, He gives us some small insight into what things could be like if He were to allow the curse to run its full course. Why does he do this? So that we will wake up, repent and turn to Him to receive the grace and mercy He is constantly holding out to us.

4. God is good even to His enemies

‘We have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.’ (1 Timothy 4:10). God has a special care for those who are his people – saving and preserving us for eternal life; but this does not mean He doesn’t provide for, protect and care for those outside the community of His people – even those who are His sworn enemies! We can see the goodness of God at work through our secular governments and health authorities, using both Christians and non-Christians alike to do good to us all. We should be thankful for all people – regardless of their personal beliefs or religious convictions, who have a genuine care for the safety and wellbeing of our community – and we should recognise that this is the kindness of God to all people, intended to lead them to repentance (Romans 2:4).

5. Human systems are fragile

As sinful human beings we can very quickly and easily become prideful in what we have built and achieved, thinking that, like the city and tower of Babel, we can make a name for ourselves apart from God (Genesis 11:4). We forget that over the course of human history empires and civilisations have risen and fallen, all under His sovereign hand (Acts 17:26). We make our plans, but ultimately it is the Lord’s purposes that will prevail (Proverbs 19:21). Travel restrictions, closing of schools and universities, shortages of essential goods and services, and many more precautions we have been forced to take highlight for us that apart from God, all human attempts to run this world will be inadequate and flawed, and should cause us to look forward to the Day when “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)

6. We are mortal

While most of us are not living in fear that the Corona Virus will result in our death, we are all certainly aware of those who have died, and it is likely in the coming weeks and months that very few of us will not have some connection with someone who has died or come close to death, directly or indirectly, as a result of this pandemic. Living in an affluent society with a high life expectancy has caused us to forget that the length of time we live is determined by God (Job 14:5, Psalm 139:16), and that while we think we can be in control of when we die, that moment is up to Him. Any experience where we know of or witness death should be a solemn reminder to us that we, ‘do not even know what will happen tomorrow,’ and we are, ‘a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.’ (James 4:14); and it should convey to us a sense of urgency to be sure that we stand in right relationship with our Creator, ready for the day when our time in this world comes to an end.

7. We need the Gospel

The Gospel of Jesus shows us beyond doubt that God is both sovereign and good in the midst of suffering. The Eternal Son has taken on our humanity, walked alongside us, suffered with us and for us, and borne in himself the full weight of the curse as he hung in our place on Calvary’s cross. This same God whose judgements are in all the earth (Psalm 105:7) – including in viral pandemics – has entered into the place of judgement on behalf of sinners, bearing not only all the guilt of our sin, but also, “taking up our infirmities and bearing our diseases.”. (Matthew 8:17) The Gospel message declares to us that through faith in this Jesus we can know in this life the complete forgiveness of sin and welcome into the Father’s family, and in the life to come the resurrection of our bodies and an eternity not only free of death and mourning and crying and pain (Revelation 21:4), but also one in which we see God face to face. The glory of that will far outweigh our light and momentary troubles (2 Corinthians 4:17). The Corona virus pandemic is not only an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate self sacrificial love toward our neighbours; it is also an open door to share and proclaim the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.

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

So many ‘Christian Living’ books and courses seem to fit the ‘Self Help’ genre more than the ‘Discipleship’ genre.

Most are written by people who are successful at the aspect of Living they are teaching about. They generally have a thriving marriage and obedient children who are planning to be missionaries. They read their Bible meaningfully every day, have overcome mental illness, know how to be positive in every situation, normally share the Gospel with strangers, especially those next to them in the aeroplane, and are by-and-large healthy, happy and good looking. Often they will also have some kind of secular high level degree – normally in the medical or scientific field, showing they must know more about Life than those who have only studied their Bible. Those who are also pastors seem to be whimsical communicators, lead one of the country’s fastest growing churches, and have an endorsement by at least 3 other celebrity pastors.

The message this sends is, ‘If you do what I did, you can have what I have.’ This helps us to conveniently forget the truth that they only have what they have as a gift of God’s grace, not because they did what they did. Sure, what they did was involved in the whole process of God giving them what they have, but because it’s a gift, He deserves all the credit for freely giving them what they have. And because He is free to give, He is also free to decide who gets what, and who doesn’t get what.

If I think that by doing what they did I will get what they have, I am treating grace as a commodity, dispensed from the divine vending machine I call ‘God.’ My actions determine what God does and what He gives, and unless I put the coin in the slot and push the button, God won’t give me what I think I need.

Not only does this belittle God, but it exalts me. It makes my Christian Living into something that is based on strengths, when it should be based on weakness.

‘…to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’

(2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Whatever Paul’s ‘thorn’ was – a besetting sin, a physical disability, a spiritual attack, or whatever – chances are someone somewhere has written a book about how to overcome it. (And it’s a pity they didn’t write it back in AD 50, as Paul’s ministry would have been so much more effective!). The Lord’s answer to Paul wasn’t to give him a book or a course or 5 easy steps to removing the thorn. He’d already enabled Paul to see that if the thorn was to be removed, it would have to be the Lord who did it (hence his asking). But in this he was teaching Paul that knowing His sovereignty wasn’t just about accepting whatever comes our way in some kind of fatalistic surrender. It’s about knowing His sufficient grace in times of rock-bottom weakness, even when it seems as though that weakness is here to stay.

I think Paul came to realise that as long as he was trying to deal with and overcome his thorn (or to work out how to teach others to live victorious, thorn-free lives) his focus remained on himself, and he was not able to get on with the high calling that God had put on his life to make the power of Christ known to the nations. It is possible to be so focussed on cultivating the most godly, disciplined and holy spiritual life, that we never get around to seeking our highest calling – giving glory to Jesus Christ by declaring his praises among the nations.

If we take our cue from the world, and make the Christian Life a strengths-based exercise, we will never be content – as Paul was – with weakness. If we think that simply doing what they did we will have what they have, we will end up either prideful (if we succeed), or disillusioned (if we fail), and neither of these bring glory to God. We either pat ourselves on the back for our correct operation of the Divine Vending Machine, or we make God out to be unreliable or weak because He didn’t let us have what they have, even though we did what they did.

This has implications too for how we read and apply His word. A strengths-based Christian Life will treat His commands as instructions – guidelines and principles to be applied to our lives to make us successful; they become a means to achieving personal holiness.

However, someone swimming in grace in the midst of weakness will hear Jesus’ commands and they will fill them with joy – to think that He would consider such a broken clay vessel to be the custodian of such a great treasure! This person will see that the commands of Jesus are not about  making us powerful, but about displaying His power; and the weaker we are, the more His power becomes apparent, because our ongoing failure to perfectly keep His commands shows that we live by His grace, not our works.

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 

Acts 17:30-31

If your worldview includes a personal, sovereign Creator who guides the destiny of human history, and constantly sustains every living creature, then believing in resurrection is a no-brainer.

This is the worldview presented by Paul to the Greek philosophers in Athens. He challenged their materialistic view of the universe, and their notion of fate in which God, if real, was nothing much more than an impersonal principle. Similar in many ways to modern naturalism, the Epicureans and Stoics lived in a universe that consisted of space occupied by matter, and guided either by reason (Stoics) or randomness (Epicureans). Both believed that meaning in life can be found in living for the now, as there is no guarantee of anything beyond the grave. To them the concept of resurrection was not only illogical, but completely foreign – to the extent that they thought Paul was speaking of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Anastasis’ as another couple of gods to be added to the Athenian pantheon.

Paul knows that the resurrection of Jesus and its sequel, the general resurrection, is something alien to their worldview. So, rather that trying to prove to them that Jesus rose from the dead, he explains to them how Jesus’ resurrection fits into the reality of God and his world – a reality about which, in their ‘wisdom,’ they were ignorant.

This God has created the world, and has done so with a goal in mind, and so He has been working to guide people and nations, with the aim of bring them into relationship with Himself. He calls all people to repent in light of the coming judgement, and this call is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In this worldview, the appointment of Jesus as judge – the one who will bring the consummation of all human history – is confirmed (assured, proven) by his resurrection. In a sense Paul has communicated to these pagan Greeks the same message as Peter did to the Jews at Pentecost, only in ‘Jewish-jargon free language’.

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing…

…Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Acts 2:32-33, 36

In the Jewish worldview (apart from the Sadducees’ annihilationsim), the resurrection was the Great Hope. The new Heavens and Earth promised through Isaiah (65:17, 66:22) would mean the restoration of the people, in the land, with Yahweh dwelling in their midst – the realisation of the Abrahamic promise. For them it was not so much a matter of can resurrection happen as when it will happen. The Gospel message was that the risen Jesus was the firstfruits of this general resurrection, which would inaugurate the new creation.

This is why when preaching to the Jews, the Apostles spoke of the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, because the issue at stake was whether Jesus truly was the Messiah – the resurrection established his identity as the ‘Son of God’ – the King of the Jews.

For the Greeks however, the concept of Messiah was alien and meaningless. While the Jews demand a sign – ie. miracles that verify a person is from God, the Greeks look for wisdom – ie. something that makes logical sense. (1 Corinthians 1:22). And so Paul shows them a worldview of which they are totally ignorant – a worldview in which resurrection makes sense – and calls them not to believe in the individual event of the resurrection, but in the totality of the worldview.

The Jews on the day of Pentecost were to repent of their rejection of the risen Jesus as their Messiah; the Greeks were to repent of their ignorant worldview that shut out the possibility of a risen saviour. For the Jews, a crucified and risen Jesus was a stumbling block; they were called to see Him as the power of God. For the Greeks, a crucified and risen Jesus was foolishness; they were called to see Him as the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:23-24) In both cases, the Resurrection is proclaimed, not proven.

What does this mean for us as we seek to tell a materialistic, naturalistic generation that Jesus is risen from the dead?

Modern evidentialist apologetics will seek to use the wisdom of the world to prove the resurrection with historical and legal argument, which says that if we can be convinced that if Jesus rose, then we are bound by logic to then accept everything else that the Bible says about Jesus. In the end, such an approach exalts human wisdom, such that anyone who is convinced by the evidence can take pride in the fact that they were smart enough to consider the evidence and come to a right conclusion.

We should, however, take a leaf out of Paul’s book. We need to understand enough about people’s worldview to both respect and criticise it; and we need to know enough about our own worldview to be able to proclaim and articulate it. We need to know why it is that Jesus’ resurrection marks the turning point of both the Biblical story and of the flow of human history, and why it is that our faith stands or falls on the words, ‘He is Risen.’ We need to be bold enough to call people to repent of their naturalistic ignorance, and to embrace the reality of a God who has been seeking and drawing people to Himself through His Son.

We need to accept that the world, by its wisdom, will never know God, but that they will be saved through the foolish message of the cross.

True Feminism is not about special privileges for women, but about equal dignity, value and opportunity for all people, regardless of gender.

Last week it was claimed on national television that ‘Islam is the most feminist religion.’ Since that claim, many have been debating its accuracy.

Sometimes that best way to disprove a claim is not to show why it’s wrong, but simply to point out an alternative that clearly trumps it.

So, here’s a few things Biblical Christianity gives women:

  1. A knowledge that they are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This means women and men may equally be representatives of God – ambassadors of His authority in ruling over creation, and communicators of His character in their love and care for other creatures and fellow human beings. No other religion contains the concept of ‘The Image of God,’ being applied to all people.
  2. As ‘Daughters of Eve,’ women have a wonderful and unique privilege of giving life in a way a man cannot. ‘The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.’ (Genesis 3:20). It’s significant to see that this statement is made immediately after the man is told that because of the curse of sin, he will labour and toil, and eventually die and return to the dust. As an act of faith, he knew that this was not a final word, since God would show His ongoing patience, care and love for humanity through Even and all her daughters; and ultimately in her descendant who would be the saviour of the world (Genesis 3:15).
  3. In Old Testament Israel, women were often given special protection under the law, in recognition of the fact that they were more likely to be the victims of violence from men (eg. Deuteronomy 22:25-29). To our modern 21st century western ears some of these laws seem patriarchal, however if we understand them in the cultural context of the time, they are laws that are pro-woman. These laws have provided some basis for the Western legal system that allows liberty, equality and protection for all citizens.
  4. Jesus welcomed, healed, taught, ate and drank with women, may of whom were considered outcasts by the culture of the time. (John 4:1-45) His confrontation of a gang of men about to stone a woman caught in adultery exposed their hypocrisy in assuming her guilt, and their moral superiority. (John 8:2-10) As far as Jesus is concerned, women and men are to be given equal opportunities to receive grace and forgiveness; as well as in the gracious call to repent and turn from a sinful lifestyle.
  5. In Christian gatherings men and women sit together. This may not sound significant to us today, but in the first century it was a radical departure from the Synagogue practice of separating men and women. Not only this, but women were active participants in the worship, both praying and prophesying in church – also a radical liberation of women (1 Corinthians 11:5-16 – The caveats in this passage about head coverings are to do with cultural sensitivities, as well as honouring the God-given distinctives between genders.)
  6. In Christ, women and men are ‘Joint heirs of the grace of life,’ (1 Peter 3:7) and ‘all one in Jesus Christ,’ (Galatians 3:28). Neither gender deserves grace any more or less than the other, since grace is not about deserving, but about God giving freely without partiality.
  7. The Christian hope for the New Creation is that many aspects of this world that give rise to discrimination, bigotry and oppression (not just between genders, but also between race, class, role, etc.) will pass away. ‘Heaven’ will not be populated by men served by virgins (Islam) or women as child-producers for new worlds (Mormonism); neither will it be populated by homogeneous, gender-neutral angels (A culturally popular idea, started by Swedenborgianism, the religion of Helen Keller). Rather, the New Heavens and Earth will be filled with the glory of God as Men and Women, both transformed into the image of Jesus, love and serve God and one another in full freedom and holiness. Adam’s words of Genesis 3:20 will be somewhat reflected in that this renewed humanity will be called ‘The Bride, the Wife of the Lamb’ (Revelation 21:9) An incredible dignity and honour will be bestowed on women by having attributes of their gender bestowed on this redeemed, eternal community.

So I wonder. Which religion is the most feminist?

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.

David Bowie’s hope

Posted: January 12, 2016 in Uncategorized

David Bowie’s music video ‘Lazarus’ was released on his birthday, 2 days before he died. It is a song that seems to be about his coming to terms with his own imminent death. It opens with the words ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven,’ sung while he lies blindfolded like a prisoner on his bed; it closes with him retreating into a dark wardrobe, invoking Narnia-esque ideals of a parallel world beyond this one.

The lyrics sound like an affirmation of a Prodigal Son lifestyle, declaring, ‘By the time I got to New York I was living like a king. Then I used up all my money; I was looking for your ass’ and then boldly asserting, ‘This way or no way, you know, I’ll be free.

The song expresses some wistful hope that there is something beyond that may be better than this life, but with no real sense of regret about how this life has been lived.

The actual Lazarus story (John 11:1-44) is a different thing altogether. Rather than retreating into a dark shadow, Lazarus is a picture of the sure hope for all who know the truth about life and death.

The people in the story – Mary and Martha, Jesus’ disciples, Lazarus’ neighbours – wrestle with the bleak enigma of death. And remarkably, Jesus does too: when he hears of his friend’s burial, he weeps. All through the whole event he is ‘deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.’

There are no platitudes about death from the mouth of Jesus. No, ‘This is just part of the circle of life,’ or ‘He’s in a better place,’ rubbish. Death is stark and brutal, and is an affront to all that his Father designed this world – and us – to be.

Yet this is all in the context of the remarkable words he has just said to Martha, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Not a platitude, but a simple statement of fact. Death is not the end of the story. It will never be.

Martha knows her theology, and affirms the doctrine of the resurrection and day of judgement. But Jesus gives her much more than pie-in-the-sky-when-I-die. Her hope is not to be in a future event of resurrection, but in Him: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ The resurrection/life after death/heaven, or however we describe it, is a Person before it’s an event. True life is found in Jesus, and it’s because He is both the Author of life (Acts 1:15), and the Firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18), he gives life to all who come to him – a life that by its very nature bursts the bonds of death and secures a future not of shadows and uncertainty, but of light and hope.

What Jesus did next was for a very specific reason: ‘I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.’ Then he calls out to his friend in the tomb, and Lazarus emerges – the man who seconds before was a decomposing corpse.

What was it he said, which was for the benefit for those watching? ‘Father, I thank you that you always hear me.’ The Father always hears Jesus – and by implication, always does what he asks of him. He heard him that day and brought Lazarus out of the tomb. Whenever Jesus calls a person out of the grave, the Father hears and acts.

Because of Jesus, Lazarus was set free from the bonds of death. He stands as a picture of anyone who comes by faith to this One who does not merely give life, but is the Resurrection and the Life.

Jesus is, in fact, ‘this way or no way’ to freedom.

prawns?

Cherrypicking the Bible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Abrogation’ vs. ‘fulfilment’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to know what to keep

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

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