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

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


 

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

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

What point is he making?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 8:19-21 tells us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While there is no question that the domino-like falling of western cultures to the LGBTQ agenda will result in dysfunctional families, traumatised children, and general moral decline, those things are not the real tragedy of what’s happening.

Humanity is engaged in a hubris driven self-salvation project, which involves an active suppressing of the truth of God by our unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). I think what this means is that we will be constantly working to remove anything in our culture that reminds us of Him in order to build a wall between us and the truth. Marriage is one of those things.

Throughout Scripture, marriage is pointed to as a picture of the relationship of God with His people, and of the loving self-sacrifice of Christ to redeem His Church. This is why marriage was created in the first place (Ephesians 5:31-32). And it means that whenever a man and woman get married, or live faithfully in marriage, the glory of Christ is being magnified.

And rebellious humanity just can’t abide the glory of Christ.

As Todd Pruit recently said, the confusion of gender is

…the final assertion of the sovereign self over our Maker, so that everything that God has shown us – both in what we can observe clearly with our eyes, to what can only be seen in the highest amplification of the cells in our body – everything about us shouts our gender, and yet we are going to assert ourselves over that.

As true marriage is eroded and falls from view, one more avenue for communicating the Gospel to a world in desperate need will slip away. Whenever we point to Ezekiel 16, Hosea, Ephesians 5 or Revelation 21 as speaking of the wonderful love of God towards us, people will increasingly look at us with blank stares and shrugged shoulders. They just won’t get it.

This is the greater tragedy. Moral failure, psychological and social problems, and the decline of culture are merely temporal things. The Gospel deals with eternity. No wonder Christians are called not to social transformation or political action, but to prayer for a climate in which the Gospel can be spoken and heard:

…for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:2-4 ESV)

salvation grid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

revelationI recently ran a workshop exploring worldviews. We began by discussing and defining our worldview as Christians, being careful do describe it in a way that is distinctly and uniquely Christian. Later, we explored the Islamic worldview, based on information gleaned from Muslim websites, chats with Muslims, and verses from the Quran that were quoted by Muslims to support their views.

Each worldview is broken down into eight key areas, based on James Sire’s worldview questions in his book ‘The Universe Next Door’.

Have a read.

You will see that, while there are some areas of connection between Christianity and Islam, in reality they are worlds apart. Any notion that they are essentially the same at heart is ignorant at best and deception at worst. Nevertheless, the few points of connection should be seen as open doors – opportunities to engage with our Muslim friends and neighbours to begin a conversation that can lead to speaking the Gospel.

A good way to start such conversations is to ask lots of questions – genuine questions. Actually be interested to know who they are, what they believe, and what they value. In other words, love them. This post is by no means an exhaustive summary of Muslim beliefs, and just as in Christendom, there will be a diversity of beliefs and emphases depending on the background of the Muslim person you are speaking to. So take the time to learn and appreciate and understand and respect, instead of going straight for the jugular. The Muslim worldview, way above many others, provides great opportunities for us to talk about things that really matter.


The Christian Worldview

What is the foundation of all reality?

God, who is Triune: One God eternally existing in in three persons, united in Love. God is personal, relational and very close to all people, and He wants people to be in relationship with Himself. Love is at the heart of His character, and all He does is in love.

Truth: Can it be known – and if so, how?

We can know the truth. It is a gift from God; revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, not dependant upon our ability or intelligence. The full, final revelation of the truth of God is found in Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life.

What is the nature of the world?

The physical world was created by God, and is under His authority. It was made good and with purpose, but is now flawed, being under the curse of sin; and it is awaiting renewal that will take place when Jesus returns. God values creation so much that He was willing to enter into it in the person of Jesus.

Anthropology: What is a human being?

We are made In God’s image: designed to be sons of God, to rule and care for creation, and to be part of God’s plan for the whole universe. Ultimately we exist for God’s glory. True humanity is exemplified in Jesus, however we are is sinful, needing salvation.

The human story: What’s the point?

God is overseeing and controlling human history, ensuring that it fulfils His purposes. All that God is doing in human history is with the aim that people will come to know Him. History will culminate in every nation acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord.

Mortality: What happens after death?

Human beings die once, after which they will face judgement. At this judgement they will either be condemned or vindicated, depending on their relationship to Jesus Christ. After death all people will continue to exist forever, either in the loving presence of God or separated from His favour.

Morality: How do we know how we should live?

God reveals what is good and evil through His commands, which are recoded in ‘hard copy’ in the Bible. All humans have a conscience, which is flawed by sin, but for those in Christ the conscience is renewed through the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus shows us true and right human living.

Convictions: What personal, life-orienting core commitments flow from all this?

Knowing all this gives us the conviction to live in a right way, in the power of God’s grace, with a desire to honour and love God and love our neighbour. What drives us is the sure hope that we have in God’s promises about our future, and the call to proclaim the Gospel in the whole world. Jesus Christ is at the centre of everything, and our supreme goal is to glorify Him.


The Islamic Worldview

What is the foundation of all reality?

Allah, the Creator and sustainer of all. Allah cannot be associated or connected with anything human or created.  

1 Say, “He is Allah, the One. 2Allah, the Absolute. 3 He begets not, nor was He begotten 4And there is nothing comparable to Him.” (Al-Ikhlaas (Sura 112))

Truth: Can it be known – and if so, how?

Only by revelation from Allah. Ultimate truth is in the Quran, given through Mohammed.

51It is not for any human that Allah should speak to him, except by inspiration, or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger to reveal by His permission whatever He wills. He is All-High, All-Wise. 52 We thus inspired you spiritually, by Our command. You did not know what the Scripture is, nor what faith is, but We made it a light, with which We guide whomever We will of Our servants. You surely guide to a straight path. (ash-Shura (Sura 42))

What is the nature of the world?

Created by Allah. We cannot know the reason for creation, but must glorify Allah for it. There are seven ‘heavens’ (containing paradise) and seven ‘earths’ (containing hell). Above all is Allah’s throne.

189 To Allah belongs the sovereignty of the heavens and the earth. Allah has power over all things. 190 In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, are signs for people of understanding.191 Those who remember Allah while standing, and sitting, and on their sides; and they reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth: “Our Lord, You did not create this in vain, glory to You, so protect us from the punishment of the Fire.” (Ali ‘Imran (Sura 3))

Anthropology: What is a human being?

A creature made to worship Allah. Born morally neutral, life is a ‘probation.’

56 I did not create the jinn and the humans except to worship Me. 57 I need no livelihood from them, nor do I need them to feed Me. (adh-Dhariyat (Sura 51))

2 He who created death and life-to test you-as to which of you is better in conduct. He is the Almighty, the Forgiving. (al-Mulk (Sura 67))

The human story: What’s the point?

For all to come to a knowledge of and submission (salaam) to Allah, in an islamic society governed by sharia law. The course of history is determined by humanity, under Allah’s guidance. History will culminate in the day of judgement.

47Every community has a messenger. When their messenger has come, judgment will be passed between them with fairness, and they will not be wronged. 48And they say, “When will this promise be fulfilled, if you are truthful?” 49Say, “I have no power to harm or benefit myself, except as Allah wills. To every nation is an appointed time. Then, when their time arrives, they can neither postpone it by one hour, nor advance it. (Yunus (Sura 10))

Mortality: What happens after death?

Every human being will be judged based on their balance of good works and bad works.

26 Say, “God gives you life, then He makes you die; then He gathers you for the Day of Resurrection, about which there is no doubt. But most people do not know.”  27 To God belongs the kingship of the heavens and the earth. On the Day when the Hour takes place, on that Day the falsifiers will lose. 28 You will see every community on its knees; every community will be called to its Book: “Today you are being repaid for what you used to do. 29 This Book of Ours speaks about you in truth. We have been transcribing what you have been doing.” 30 As for those who believed and did righteous deeds, their Lord will admit them into His mercy. That is the clear triumph. (al-Jathiya (Sura 45))

Morality: How do we know how we should live?

God’s perfect law is revealed in the Quran, supplemented by the Hadith (recorded sayings and actions of Muhammed)

176 That is because Allah has revealed the Book in truth; and those who differ about the Book are in deep discord.177 Righteousness does not consist of turning your faces towards the East and the West. But righteous is he who believes in Allah, and the Last Day, and the angels, and the Scripture, and the prophets. Who gives money, though dear, to near relatives, and orphans, and the needy, and the homeless, and the beggars, and for the freeing of slaves; those who perform the prayers, and pay the obligatory charity, and fulfill their promise when they promise, and patiently persevere in the face of persecution, hardship, and in the time of conflict. These are the sincere; these are the pious. (al-Baqarah (Sura 2))

Convictions: What personal, life-orienting core commitments flow from all this?

  1. Belief in Allah as the one true God.
  2. Belief in angels as the instruments of God’s will.
  3. Belief in the four inspired books:  Torah, Psalms, Gospel, and Quran, of which the Quran is the final and most complete.
  4. Belief in the twenty-eight prophets of Allah, of whom Muhammad is the last.
  5. Belief in a final day of judgment.

The 5 pillars (Key moral obligations)

  1. Confession: There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.
  2. Prayer: 5 times/day, facing Mecca
  3. Ramadan
  4. Almsgiving
  5. Pilgrimage to Mecca
  6. (Jihad – holy war – literally, or against sin and weakness)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some ways these chapters have been understood by Christians:

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

Problems with this view:

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

Problems with this view:

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

Problems with this view:

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

So how should we interpret it?

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

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

development

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you also believe and trust?

Some estimates have up to 90% of the population of Rome were slaves or slave origin in 1st & 2nd centuries, and 30% of the whole empire! Slavery was very much a part of the social fibre. Slaves technically had no civil rights, yet by New Testament times slaves were permitted to ‘marry’ (although their children remained the property of their owners), and many slaves were paid, which enabled them to eventually buy their own freedom and even sometimes enter into business partnerships with their former masters. Slaves were named by their masters (‘Onesimus’ means ‘useful’ and was a common slave name); many freed slaves changed their names to noble names to escape the stigma of slavery. A number of names mentioned in the New Testament are such ‘upper class’ names, probably because a fair number of Christians were former slaves, possibly given their freedom because their owners had also become Christians.

It was not uncommon for someone to enter voluntarily into slavery as a means of paying off a debt they owed, and on these occasions it was a contractual agreement based on a certain amount of money or a certain time of servitude.

There were both slaves and maters in the Christian community. Nowhere in the New Testament are masters called to release all their slaves, nor for slaves to try to escape; instead Christian masters are called to treat their slaves with kindness and fairness, and slaves to respect and obey their masters; and (where applicable) they were to relate to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. In most cases, it would have been unloving for a master to release a slave who had no other means of living.

Neither are Christians called in the New Testament to lobby or demonstrate for the abolition of slavery in the empire. In fact the idea of lobbying and protesting for social or political change is virtually absent from the Bible. Not only were the majority of Christians in no place to have any social or political influence, living in an empire where the government was never to be questioned; but they also understood that their mission was not to reform the political and social structures of this world, but to proclaim Christ in light of the breaking in of the Kingdom of God, which will mean the eventual downfall of the kingdoms of this world. So Christians were called to honour and pray for the government (yes, the same government that had crucified their Lord and Saviour, and who were hostile to Christians and the Gospel, with an Emperor who had proclaimed Himself to be Lord and God!), and to entrust themselves to their faithful Creator while doing good. They were to have confidence in their sovereign God who through history has been behind the rise and fall and fortunes of nations and empires, engineering history to come to just the right moment for the entry of the Son into this history. If the Nations were in the Father’s hand to that point, they could trust that He was still at work in the nations from that point onwards.

Slavery was never fully abolished in the Roman empire, however from the first century onwards it did begin to decline, and the civil rights of slaves improved. It’s clearly no coincidence that this change in society was happening at the same time that a revolutionary, grassroots movement was growing explosively throughout the empire – the spread of Christianity.

Paul’s words in Philemon are a testimony to the transforming power of the Gospel.

11-14 – Personal change

In verse 11, Paul uses a play on words: Onesimus means ‘useful’ or ‘profitable’ – yet he was obviously lazy or disobedient or just plain absent, and so ‘useless’ to Philemon. Maybe he had fled after being disciplined by his master – and Roman law placed no restrictions on how harsh the discipline of slaves could be. But he Gospel had done such a work in him that he was now obviously a changed man – not so much in ability as in attitude. The Gospel takes a heart that is self centred and rebellious, and transforms it to one that is willing to serve others, as well as to have a confidence in God’s provision and Fatherhood that enables us to accept our position in life and not attempt to control our own destiny.

Why do you do what you do – in your study and career? Because the world has told you that you will only be a ‘useful’ person if you get a degree and a establish yourself in a career that will contribute to the advancement of society? Or, do you desire to be useful more for the Kingdom of God than for the kingdoms of this world? Your real usefulness is not in your skills, but in your identity in Christ, and how that flows into a life lived for Jesus.

15-16 – Relational change

Onesimus’ and Philemon’s relationship has changed: from Master and ‘useless’ slave, to beloved brothers.

This is no trivial thing. Paul highlights the radical nature of this change by using two contrasting words for timeframes: ‘he was separated from you for a little while’ – literally, ‘an hour’ or ‘a moment’; ‘that you might have him back forever’ – literally, ‘eternally!’ And this verse is a parallel to the first part of verse 16: ‘no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a beloved brother.’ ‘Slave’ corresponds to ‘little while’ and ‘beloved brother’ to ‘forever’.

But the parallel contrasts go even further:

philemon parallel

If we were to read just those words in the right hand column, we get an idea of how Philemon is now to view and relate to Onesimus: ‘That you might have him back forever, better than a slave, as a beloved brother, even dearer to you, and in the Lord.

With Onesemus’ coming to faith in Christ, something has happened that is so radical and permanent that things can never be the same again. Onesimus has, in the words of Colossians 1:13, been ‘delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ Remember, the letter to the Colossians was written at the same times as Philemon, and delivered to the same people. And so it is no mere coincidence here that Paul, in describing the nature of the kingdom of Jesus uses a word taken straight out of the vocabulary of the slave market: ‘redemption.’ This was a word used to describe the transaction made when a slave, or someone on behalf of a slave, purchased their freedom by paying off fully the debt they owed.

We were once all slaves to sin, death and fear. We had no rights and no citizenship in the Kingdom of God, because we all voluntarily entered into a contract of slavery by rebelling against God and incurring a debt so huge that were would never ever be able to repay it. Yet we have tried – thinking that somehow our own goodness would be enough to pay it off, or else trivialising our sin in order to make the debt seem less serious than it is. We have all squandered our master’s assets, and fled from Him, trying to hid from him and the wrath we deserve in the great metropolis of human pride, ambition and sophistication.

Into this disaster that is humanity alienated from God, steps Jesus the Son of the Father. While He is free from sin, he willingly enters into our weaknesses and failures – indicated by his baptism where he takes the place of repentant sinners – and experiences in himself all the outworking of our sinfulness – both in his life on earth and in his going to the cross where he not only faced the full, just, and complete wrath of God in our place, but also where he paid in full the price that we could not pay – the price of our freedom: our Ransom.

But that is not the end. We are not just freed slaves, sent off to try to make a life for ourselves. The Father has adopted us into His family. He has filled us with the Spirit who enables us to cry out, “Abba, Father!” He has guaranteed a place for us alongside His own beloved begotten Son, and we now share in His inheritance!

This is earth shattering, revolutionary news! If we fully grasped the lavish grace that the Father has poured out upon us in Jesus we would be dancing in the aisles; we would not be able to contain ourselves for the joy; we could not shut up in declaring this wonderfully great news to our friends and neighbour and colleagues; we would never be satisfied with broken or half-hearted relationships, or with squabbles and divisions in the body of Christ. In short, we would be such a different people that the world would be forced to sit up and take notice and ask, ‘What is it about these people, that they love one another – and us – so much?’

If you are reading this and are not in a place of trusting in Jesus, then you are still in slavery; still captive in the the dominion of darkness. No amount of self effort or denial will contribute one iota to rescue you or solve your dilemma. Your only hope is in Jesus – the only one who is able and willing to reach into your dark place and rescue you by paying your debt and making you a member of the Father’s family. I urge you to put your trust in Him.

And so Philemon, if he is to be true to the work that Jesus has done in his own life, can do nothing else but to now treat Onesimus in light if Jesus’ work in Onesimus’ life. ‘We no longer regard anyone from a worldly point of view… if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!’ (2 Corinthians 5:17)

In verse 17  Paul tells Philemon to accept Onesimus as he would Paul, ie. as a partner – an equal and a coworker in the Gospel.

History is filled with failed experiments at human harmony. Whether it’s race or ethnicity, religion, education, or social status. We have a delusion that we will one day grow out of our prejudices and learn to get along with each other. Hostility and resentment, cannot be ‘grown out of’ – it can only be broken by the power of grace – a grace so great that it is able to forgive us of our own enormous debt and reconcile us to God.

Colossians 3:11: ‘Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.’

A Christian who refuses to be reconciled to others is a walking contradiction – as reconciliation is at the heart of our faith. A Christian living in the grace of God that enables us to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters, for our friends, and even for our enemies, is a walking display of the glory of God. It is through us – His church – that this transforming Gospel power will spread to our communities, so that we will not just see this world become a better place (that is really a pathetic, weak and second rate option), but people rescued from darkness, and lives transformed eternally, to the glory of God.

I pray that you may know this overwhelming, transforming grace.

Paul is a prisoner in Rome – possibly during the time described at the end of Acts (During this time he also wrote Ephesians, Philippians & Colossians). Philemon lives in Colossae, and most likely became a Christian through Paul while in Ephesus (19). He is a respected leader in and host to the Colossian church (2). For whatever reason, one of his slaves, Onesimus has either escaped or not returned on time from an assignment, possibly using his master’s money as he did so (18), and has made his way to Rome, maybe hoping to avoid recapture by being lost in the crowded city. In what the world would call an amazing (but mere) coincidence, Onesimus encountered (or sought out?) Paul. It may be that Onesimus became a Christian at this time, and a deep friendship and sense of partnership in the Gospel developed between them. (10,12) Onesimus is now sent back to Colossae to be reconciled with Philemon, along with Tychicus, who is the courier for the letter to the Colossian church (Colossians 4:7-9). (It it significant to note that in Colossians and Ephesians Paul gives very clear a detailed instructions about slave-master relationships. Clearly this was an issue that was prominent in his mind in light of this encounter with Onesimus.) This letter is is both about personal reconciliation and unity between people in the church, and about social transformation. The Gospel impacts us in a deeply personal way by transforming relationships between individuals, but it also, through the combining of these individual transformations, brings about a wider social transformation in which the culture of a community is changed. The way that Paul opens this letter gives us the foundation for any kind of reconciliation within the church, and of any kind of social transformation. Potentially this letter could cause a rift between Paul and Philemon – and even between Paul and the church in Colossae. Possibly some tension was already there, if word had got back to Philemon that Paul was advocating for Onesemus. It is significant then to take note of how Paul addresses Philemon. Firstly, unlike in most of his other letters, Paul does not introduce himself as an ‘Apostle’. In the letters where he is addressing significant and controversial issues, or giving clear instructions about leadership in the church, Paul uses that title as as way of asserting his authority. As an apostle, he was entrusted with a responsibility to bring Jesus’ commands to the church (As Jesus commissioned his Apostles in Matthew 28:20 to ‘teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.’) However, Paul does not seek to pull rank on his friend Philemon. Rather, he described himself as a ‘prisoner of Christ Jesus’. This describes not only the reason he is, literally, imprisoned in Rome: it is because of his proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus that he has been arrested, imprisoned awaiting trial, and possibly may soon be executed; but it also describes his understanding of His calling an mission in life. He is a prisoner not only for or because of Jesus, but a prisoner of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 5:14 Paul says, ‘The love of Christ compels us’ when talking about his ministry of proclaiming the Gospel. The word ‘compel’ implies that he has been captured, and has no choice, no other option than to do what Christ, his loving master, demands of him. Secondly, Paul speaks of his as his ‘dear friend [agapato] fellow worker’. I wonder how different some of our confrontations and attempts at dealing with conflict on a personal or community level would be so different if we began with an affirmation of our love and partnership with the other person? Paul does not view Philemon as a potential opponent or enemy, but as a beloved partner in God’s family and in the ministry. So Paul is not writing in order to get Philemon to obey him; rather, he is writing because to not do so would be disobedient to Christ, and he wants Philemon to have the same attitude in how he chooses to respond to Onesimus. What is at stake here is not primarily domestic or church harmony, but the honour of Christ Himself. Repaired relationships is not the end in itself, because it is the repairing of relationships in the Gospel that bear testimony ultimately to Christ – our love for one another will enable to the world to see that we are disciples of Jesus, and so in the end He receives the glory. And so Paul speaks not as an Apostle who stands over Philemon, but as an equal partner in serving Jesus. Paul does not want Philemon to obey Paul, but Christ. There is also something very significant about who Paul addresses this letter to. Primarily this is a letter to Philemon, urging him to deal with a matter that, we could say, was his own personal business. This was about his slave, whom he employed. Any disputes he and Onesimus may have had were personal and private – or were they? In our modern world of individualism and privacy laws we might say ‘Yes. Whatever happened between these two men was no-one else’s business, least of all the church’s.’ Yet, Paul includes, ‘and to the church that meets in your home.’ in his greeting. Very clearly the church in Colossae was not merely a group of people who gathered a few times a week for meetings. They were a community that did life together. Their gatherings were in a home – not in a building reserved just for services and ‘religious’ activities, and so they did not have, as we tend to, a clear distinction between the ‘secular’ and the ‘spiritual’ in life. When we’re told in Acts (4:32) that the Christians had ‘everything in common’ that means not only a certain attitude towards their possessions, but an attitude to one another. Why would you be willing to sell land and  houses in order to share with your fellow believers unless a depth of relationship and loving trust was already established? Why would you be free to give to help a brother or sister in need unless you already shared with one another a depth of openness and vulnerability in your lives that their burden became your burden and laying down your life for the sake of your brother or sister is a natural reaction to their problem? So Philemon’s problem with Onesimus was not his personal private issue. He was a member of the community of the family of God, and like it or not his actions impacted on the life of this community. This was a matter for which the church should not only hold him accountable, but also a problem in which they should be providing support, comfort, encouragement and advice. Galatians 6:2 says, ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.’ This is not an optional extra; it is not a last resort when everything I have tried on my own doesn’t work.  Maybe this is why often ministry can become a tiresome burden and so many pastors burn out – because they end up so often trying to deal with issues that people have been trying to fix on their own so long that they have now escalated to a catastrophic level. If we as God’s people were to be sharing our lives on a deeper level – and I don’t mean living in each other’s pockets every hour of every day – then many of our personal and relational battles may be nipped in the bud before they develop beyond control. Paul has no qualms about making this problem public, and it’s unlikely that Philemon would have had a problem with him doing so, as we see in the next verses that this Gospel community dynamic was already happening in Colossae: In verse 5, Paul gives thanks for the two things that Philemon was known for: love and faith. These are the two authenticators of genuine salvation, and they go hand-in-hand. Sometimes within the Christian community we may see a polarisation towards one or the other; some will say, ‘This person has declared their faith in Jesus. That’s good enough for me! Who am I to judge them?’ We might hear that kind of comment in the context of a celebrity making a public statement about God, or turning up at a church, even when their lifestyle doesn’t seen to correspond to their profession. Or a bit closer to home, it may be that we say, ‘This person prayed the sinner’s prayer, or went up to commit their lives to Jesus and so we know for sure that they’re in the kingdom; or ‘this person has their theology sorted out, and they can explain the Gospel clearly in five simple sentences.’ Others might say, ‘Believing in Jesus is pointless unless you give yourself to serving, doing good, fighting for justice for the oppressed and feeding the poor,’ or ‘That person may not hold to what you consider to be orthodox theology, and they may disagree with you on what the Gospel actually is, but at least they are out there doing something!’. It is not faith verses works. Both genuine faith and loving works are the fruit of God’s work of salvation in a person’s life. We talk about faith, hope and love as being a summary of what it means to be living a true Christian life – it’s a trio we find all through the scriptures. Hope is the certainty of what God will do for us in Christ, based on what He has done for us in Christ. Faith flows from this hope, as the Father revels to us His faithfulness displayed and promised in Jesus and we respond by putting our trust in Him; and because Jesus has set us free from slavery to sin and death, this faith expresses itself in love – for God and for our neighbour. So faith and love are the fruit of our hope in Christ. Just as faith without works is dead, so too works without faith are simply a personal self-justification project. So Paul rejoices and thanks God because he sees the two operating in Philemon’s life. Notice that his love and faith are very specific: His love is ‘for all his holy people’ – not a general philanthropy or social action, but a commitment to the body of Christ; and his faith is ‘in the Lord Jesus’ – not a self confidence or a ‘faith in faith’ where if we believe had enough we will receive what we want, but a complete trust and dependance on Jesus, where He is his all in all, and his life is shaped by a desire to see Christ exalted and made known. Paul goes on to flesh out each of these. Verse 6 speaks of the nature and fruit of faith, and verse 7 the nature and fruit of love. Firstly, Philemon’s faith is not a personal, private one. By trusting in Jesus he automatically is in partnership, or ‘fellowship’ with others who share his faith. Keeping your faith to yourself was almost unheard of in New Testament times; is was unthinkable to separate your faith in Jesus from being part of His body. Christians faced – and still do – severe persecution simply for not keeping their faith private, and often in countries where Christians are persecuted it is the church congregations that are attacked when they are meeting; church buildings are burned; and those who facilitate the gathering of Christians – pastors and leaders – who are imprisoned. Being part of the church is not just an activity we do as Christians, it is an intrinsic part of our identity. So much so that Paul reminds Philemon of the fruit of his ‘partnership [with others] in the faith’: a deepening understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.’ Philemon’s own faith will grow and deepen as he lives it out in the context of community, and in this context specifically as he includes his brothers and sisters in the process of restoration and reconciliation with Onesimus. Secondly, if Philemon’s sharing of his faith with others has led to a benefit for him in his faith growing, in a similar way his active love for God’s people has produced the same effect for others. Most of our modern English translations are a bit politically correct here in translating the word, ‘hearts’. The KJV translates this verse literally: ‘…the bowels of the saint are refreshed by thee…’. In Jewish thinking the heart was the seat of the will, while the bowels were the set of the emotions. Compassion, mercy, tenderness, passion, all came from the bowels – hence our saying, ‘I’ve got a gut feeling about this…’ Philemon’s active, faith-filled love for his brothers and sisters had fostered in them not a mere will to do good, but a passion to love that came from within them; a love that was no longer something they did, but something they were. But this is not mere motivation or self-help. In Isaiah 63, when Isaiah is calling out to God on behalf of the people who are in exile, he prays:

Look down from heaven, and behold from the habitation of thy holiness and of thy glory: where is thy zeal and thy strength, the sounding of thy bowels and of thy mercies toward me? are they restrained? Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting. (Isaiah 63:15-16 KJV)

Isaiah is calling on God, as the compassionate Father, to be moved with compassion and tenderness and mercy and to come and save His people. This is the tender compassion that the Father has shown towards us in giving HIs only Son, whom he loves, to become the lamb who would take away the sin of the world. It is this mercy that the Father has displayed in extending grace to his enemies and pardon to rebels through the cross; it is the tenderness that Jesus his shown by willingly and joyfully going to that cross where He gave all of himself for us. So what is taking place in the Colossians through Philemon’s ministry is not simply that they are better Christians or human beings, but they are people who are reflecting the character of the Father; they are being transformed into the image of Jesus himself. Philemon is not just doing a good thing by loving his brothers and sisters; he is being part of the Father’s work in His people to bring them to the goal he has for them. It’s no wonder then that Paul can say, ‘Your love has given me great joy and encouragement.’ He sees in Philemon the powerful working of God. And it is no wonder too that Paul now goes on to speak with a sense of great confidence about the problem that is before them because he knows that Philemon is a man after God’s own heart (bowels!). He begins his discussion of the issue with verses 8 and 9: ‘Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.’ He is confident that the love of God that is at work in Philemon will prevail in this situation. Next time, we will see how Philemon is called to exercise this love, and how the love of God is able to overturn obstacles and transform relationships for His glory.