what about hellIs the Bible’s teaching – and Christians’ belief in – Hell, a valid reason to reject the Christian faith?

Just in case you were wondering, here is “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild’” teaching on hell:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:40-42)

“…if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where, ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9:47-48)

There is not doubt that Jesus both believed in and warned people about God’s judgement, and the finality of the final Judgement which for some will result in ‘Hell’.

There are a number of popular objections to hell, among which are:

  • If God is love, how could he send people to hell?
  • How can eternal damnation be a fair punishment for my relatively small mistakes?
  • I know plenty of Muslims, Buddhists and Atheists who are decent people. What should they be sent to Hell just for not believing in Jesus?
  • A loving God wouldn’t use fear as a motivation to be good – even if some of his followers do!
  • The whole idea is primitive and superstitious.

A number of objections to Hell are simply a rejection of a wrong understanding of what Hell is, based more on Medieval mythology than on the Bible.

We could say that, from the Bible’s perspective, Hell is God’s final response to remorseless or unrepentant sin. So, our view of Hell will be shaped by our view of sin.

It makes sense that many in the modern West have a problem with the idea of God’s judgement, because our general view of humanity is that we are OK – people are essentially good (or at least neutral), and we occasionally make mistakes or act selfishly – but no-one in themselves is bad enough to warrant hell. From this perspective, Christians are seen as harsh in believing in such a thing as Hell.

So, a correct understanding of the biblical concept of sin will enable us to also get Hell into perspective:

1. Sin is essentially the rejection of a relationship.

Popularly, sin is thought of as naughty things we do, which are tallied up and used to assess whether we are good enough to get into heaven. This is not a Christian idea.

These sinful actions are simply symptoms or expressions of the state of the heart – a heart that has no interest in being in a right relationship with God. God created us to not only know about Him, but to be in personal relationship with Him – in which we experience His loving care for us, and we live lived that honour Him. Instead, we turn to things in this world thinking they will provide for us what only God can give. Jesus described this as ‘slavery to sin’ – the things we think will fulfill us ultimately become our master, because we invest ourselves in them instead of God.

The Christian ‘Heaven’ is knowing this relationship with God not in part, but in full; not by faith, but by sight. The true pleasure of ‘Heaven’ is not being in a nice place, but in knowing God face-to-face. By contrast, the pain of Hell – described in pictorial language as being like fire and darkness and being eaten by worms – is the pain of absolute exclusion from God’s favour and goodness, with no longer any hope of release.

If we do not want a relationship with God in this life, why should we think we will want it for eternity? In that sense, Hell is God handing us over to that which we have chosen – life in the absence of His favourable presence. What most people don’t realise is that in this life, God is continually giving good things to us – whether we acknowledge or thank Him or not. All the pleasures and joys of life are gifts from God, designed to demonstrate His kindness and patience. Hell will be the removal of everything that is good – and it will be what we have chosen. As Tim Keller says,

Hell is the freely chosen, eternal skid row of the universe.”

2. Sin is personal – and it’s against God.

Sin isn’t breaking a set of abstract and arbitrary rules. Because God’s Law is His law, to break it is a personal offence against Him. We all know that justice demands that the penalty fit the crime. This is reflected in our own justice system, where penalties vary depending on the seriousness of the crime. If sin is just breaking a few rules, then eternal punishment in Hell is certainly unfair. However, if sin is actually treason against the Creator and Ruler of the universe, this puts Hell into perspective. God is infinite in worth, and deserves the worship and honour of every creature. Sin is essentially saying that He is worthless compared to all the other things that we place great importance on – not the least our own desire to be autonomous and accountable to no-one but ourselves. Such an act of treason deserves a penalty that fits the crime – this fitting penalty is exclusion from God’s favour forever.

We also need a proper perspective on God’s character:

3. God’s anger shows His love.

We would all agree that anger against injustice or suffering of innocent people is good. We would also think it strange and heartless for someone to not be angry when their loved ones are hurt. Why then do we not want to allow God to be angry at sin and evil which brings destruction to the creatures whom He loves? It is because God is Love that he is angry with anything or anyone who harms the objects of His love – true justice is ultimately the expression of love. We very often want God to bring justice for us when things don’t go the way we think they should for us, yet we don’t like the thought that God could bring justice on behalf of those whom we have hurt or offended. The fact that God acts against evil and injustice demonstrates His desire to see justice for those He loves.

God is ‘triune’ – three persons existing in the eternal unity of the one God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This means that God has the right to be angry towards those who dishonour him, without him being selfish and insecure as human beings generally do when we are offended or hurt. The Father is angry at those who reject his Son; the Son is angry at those who dishonour his Father, and so on. So even if it were possible (and it isn’t) that our sin caused no harm whatsoever to another human being, it would still be right and good and loving that God is angry towards us.

A God who looked at the sin and evil and destruction in the world and the human race, and then did nothing in response would be a far, far worse god, unworthy of our worship, than one who acts decisively to judge evil and bring it to an end.

4. God has mercy on sinners.

We may feel that God is harsh when we read about his judgements and about Hell. However, God’s speaking about Hell is not vindictive, but gracious. He tell us of His judgement as a warning – calling people to turn from sin to Him so that they do not need to face this judgement:

“Son of man, say to the Israelites, ‘This is what you are saying:“Our offences and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?”’ Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel? ’(Ezekiel 33:10-11)

We can know this not only because of passages like this in the Bible, but by what the Bible tells us about Jesus. Jesus stated very clearly that the primary reason He came was to deal with the fact that human beings deserve Hell – by going there himself on our behalf:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

Jesus is teaching his followers about what it means to live truly as a human being – in humbleness and service to others. He states that he himself is the ideal example of this, in that while he is God’s chosen King (Son of Man), he came to serve. The way he served was to ‘give his life as a ransom’ – in other words, he gave his life and faced Hell himself, to provide a way for us to not face Hell.

How can we charge God with harshness and injustice when the very thing we deserve to face, He Himself has faced for us?

If we say something like ‘I’m not bad enough to go to hell,’ or ‘I know plenty of good people who don’t believe in Jesus – why should they go to hell?’ then we are saying essentially that what is required for a person to not go to Hell is their good works – their moral performance. This is actually more exclusive than the Christian view which says that no matter who you are or how ’bad’ your sin is, grace is available to the worst of sinners; entry into ‘Heaven’ is not based on how good I am, but on how good Jesus has been for me.

A much more exclusive approach is to say, ‘People who are ‘good enough’ should not be sent to Hell.’ This sets us up for elitism – the presumption that we in ourselves are able to achieve a goodness that deserves God’s eternal favour, where the good are in and the bad are out. It means that we store up our record of good, and then God somehow owes us and gives us Heaven. The Gospel says that those who think they are good enough for God demonstrate they are not – because we were never made to be ‘good enough,’ but to live in dependence upon Him. Rather, those who recognise that they are, and never will be good enough, and instead rely on God’s grace and mercy shown in Jesus who came to rescue us from Hell, are welcomed.

This is an offer not just for those who are good enough, but for anyone who will simply trust him.

(Some of these ideas are stolen from Tim Keller, but since he most likely got them from somewhere else, I won’t bother referencing them in detail…)

WHat about Pro life

Abortion & Euthanasia are hot topics. Both are generally framed, in popular culture, in terms of human rights and dignity:

“It’s a woman’s right to determine what happens to her body”

“Everyone has the right to die with dignity”

Because of this framing, those who oppose abortion and euthanasia in principle, can easily be characterised as being dispassionate and against human rights. Christians may be painted as hypocritical, or as forcing women to see through an unwanted pregnancy, or making people suffer unnecessarily.

Our modern conception of ‘universal’ or ‘inalienable’ human rights has emerged out of Europe in the last few centuries, with two key catalysts being the French Revolution and the American war of independence. The American declaration of independence famously states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

There is a good case for arguing that this emergence of the concept of human rights was allowed and fostered by Europe and North America’s Judeo-Christian ethical framework. The Bible’s anthropology views human beings as being made in the image of God:

26Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:26-28)

To be ‘in the image of God’ means to reflect God’s character and actions in our own character and actions, and is intrinsically related to the idea of ‘sonship’ – ie. the image is not merely functional, but relational; we are designed to live as children of God, joyfully obeying, and delighting in the privilege of participating in theFather’s own work in the world.

The goal of a human being in God’s image is to bring honour, or ‘glory’ to God. An accurate and joyful reflecting of God in a human being, ultimately means that God will be the primary focus and cause for all creation to worship him:

In love 5he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6to the praise of his glorious grace. (Ephesians 1:4-6)

This image also gives human beings inestimable dignity and significance above all other creatures, and imbues us with a sense of purpose and hope. ‘Human progress’ is an outworking of this innate drive within us to be always moving forward, with the goal of human flourishing in harmony with the creation around us. This dignity, however, is designed to be found not in and of ourselves, but in the context of right relationship with God. As soon as the relationship is severed, the image becomes distorted, and begins working ‘in reverse’.

Man lived by love. Now, cutting himself off from God as his ‘supply’ he became a creature of self goodness, self righteousness, self holiness, self veracity, self love. Self love we call self-centred love, and theologians speak about eros although that is a word not used in the New Testament. It is self love, and it is centred on glorifying itself. Eros causes most of the misery that there is in the world. Man sees his answers to life’s problems in himself. (Geoffrey Bingham, “God’s greatest gift: Glory”)

Genesis presents this image as a ‘primeval instinct’ in human beings – in other words, it is present in all people and in all (or most) human societies. The adoption of Christianity as the ‘offical’ religion of much of Europe enabled this concept of be explicitly taught, and became ingrained in the psyche of the ‘Christian’ West.

With the rise of secularism – ironically also with the French Revolution as its ‘flagship’ event – we have held onto the idea of personal dignity and worth, but jettisoned the belief in a personal, relational and moral Creator on which it was founded. And because the foundation for this belief has been removed, the belief itself has had to be adapted to fit a secular worldview.

Human dignity has now come to be understood as something intrinsic to our humanity in and of itself. This dignity is preserved through:

  1. Freedom of choice. I should be the only one to make decisions about myself and what affects me.
  2. Minimisation of suffering. I am entitled (as much as possible) to a life free of pain and suffering, both physical and psychological.
  3. Justice. I should be treated rightly and fairly.
  4. Longevity. The above should happen for as long as possible, especially since this life is all that counts.

These things are good, and important to human flourishing. They are also things that the Bible upholds as good, and which people are called to seek for others if they are truly loving their neighbour.

However, they are not presented at things that a person should demand for themselves. Very often the ‘Pro-Choice’ argument is presented in this way – as a right to dignity that people should be encouraged to insist on for themselves. This right to self-determination generally trumps the principle of ‘As long as you don’t cause harm to others.’ And so in the abortion debate, true humanity is denied to the foetus, so that it cannot be claimed that his/her rights are being infringed; in the euthanasia debate little attention is given to the impact of ongoing grief on friends and relatives who lose their loved one. The debate becomes one of relative merits, since there is no longer a sense of absolute truth given by God about the nature of human life; it is now up to us to determine its nature and limits.

In Jesus we see a human being of true dignity. Jesus shows us what it looks like for a person to be living in and expressing the true image of God – he is in fact described as, ‘The Son… the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.’ (Colossians 1:15). Jesus is literally, and eternally the Son of God the Father, and in his incarnation (ie. entering the creation and taking on humanity) he shows us what a true son/daughter looks like – that which we have been designed for.

Significantly, we could argue that Jesus forewent all of the four previously mentioned criteria for human dignity – while still maintaining dignity!

  1. Jesus made it clear that he was not here to do his own will, but God’s (eg. Luke 22:42, John 5:19). He was joyful in his obedience to God, willing to always put God’s and other people’s needs before his own, even if that meant ‘losing’ his own freedom of choice.
  2. Jesus certainly did not shrink from suffering, because it was for the sake of others and for God’s glory (Matthew 8:14-17, 20, Luke 22:42). He willingly entered the extreme suffering of crucifixion, facing not only the physical pain, but also experiencing in his soul the pain of abandonment by the Father himself, as he bore the consequences of our sinfulness.
  3. In this suffering Jesus endured rank injustice from the hands of his enemies (1 Peter 2:20-23), but did not retaliate or demand justice for himself. He knew that his Father is completely just, and that in the end no wrong will not be righted, and no right will go unrewarded. So, in the cross he faced from God what he didn’t deserve, in our place, so that human beings may be forgiven and not get what we deserve!
  4. Jesus was only 33 when he died – a short life by most standards. However he knew and taught that this life is not all there is – that those who live by faith in God have a hope beyond the grave that reaches int eternity. Not only that, but the experiences of this life – including the suffering – are used by God to shape the nature of our life beyond the grave. Because of this he was free to not shrink back from suffering or even death, because when seen in the light of eternity this life is a blink in time, yet none of it is wasted, no matter how short.

Because of who Jesus is and what he accomplished, God calls people to repent and turn to faith in Jesus. It is through being reconciled to God through him, that a person has their view of life and death and ethics reoriented back to the way God designed us to see things. The life that flows out of faith in Jesus finds fulfilment and purpose, identity and dignity in living in harmony with God, and no longer depends on having a drive to find those things within oneself or in the systems of this world. A follower of Jesus seeks to be like him, in seeking to live first for God and for others, not for themselves:

‘…the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this:that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.’ (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

(This was a talk originally given at a forum at Flinders Medical Centre in 2011. The topic has come up again, as I’m about to give an evangelistic lunchtime talk on “Pro-Life Issues”, and I used this as revision. This will be Part One; my talk will be Part Two in a few days…)

 


The Christian Scriptures contain no direct instructions or statements about euthanasia. This may be partly for the same reason they are also silent on cyber bullying and traffic laws. But it is also because for the Biblical authors and characters, the concept of euthanasia would run contrary to their worldview, and their understanding of the nature of human life in the context of a relationship with God.

There are (among others) three key themes running throughout the Bible which inform this worldview, and which preclude euthanasia as an option for those who affirm Biblical Christianity:

1. Creation

The doctrine of creation is much more than a question of origins. The Bible spends relatively little time on the mechanics of how this world, and we, came to be, and much more time on the question that was forefront on the hearts of the Biblical writers:

‘What is the nature of the relationship between God and this world He has created?’ 

As the Creator of this universe, including human beings, God has ‘divine prerogatives’. He is described as the ‘Author of Life’ (Acts 3:15), as the one who, ‘gives and who takes away’ (Job 1:21), who determines both the lifespan of all creatures as well as the events that happen in the intervening years between birth and death. (Psalm 139) He is shown to be intimately involved in the humdrum of daily life, and the one upon whom all people depend for life and breath and everything (Acts 17:25). Ultimately all creatures owe him their complete trust and allegiance.

This is a God to whom we are all accountable – not because this world is simply a cosmic chess game in which he insists on his own way out of some kind of egotistical hubris; rather, our existence as creatures is because of God’s nature as love; He creates so that we might be the beneficiaries of his goodness.

Our presumption to be wise in determining the best timing and method for the ending of life is a dangerous foray into attempting to usurp God’s role as the Author of life. The scenario of the opening chapters of the Bible is one of human beings wanting to take to themselves the divine prerogatives; something the Bible calls ‘sin’. Christians are called to ‘Entrust our souls to a faithful Creator, while doing good,’ (1 Peter 4:19) particularly when faced with suffering. This means a trust that God who is all knowing, all wise and all good will always do what is right, and we need not fear that His timing for the end of our lives is either too soon or too late.

2. Consummation

Related to the first, the Bible presents a ground for a certainty of hope for both this physical world as a whole, and for those who are in this trust relationship with Him as a God who is not only the Creator, but the Faithful Creator. Both the Old and New Testaments speak of the promise of ‘a new Heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells’ (2 Peter 3:13) – ie. in which everything works together rightly and in the context of perfect relationships between humans and God, and between fellow humans.

What this means, is this ‘creation has an ultimate goal’; a goal that it has been moving towards since the moment of creation, and a goal which is intrinsically linked with the destiny of human beings, to be fulfilled at what the Bible calls, ‘The appearing of the glory of our great God and saviour, Jesus Christ.’ (Titus 2:13)

All that happens in life has a purpose. All things, regardless of our assessment of them being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, are a stitch that contributes to the full, magnificent tapestry of God’s good purpose for his creation. And so suffering is transformed from an evil to be avoided at all costs, to something that, astoundingly, can be accepted with, ‘pure joy’ (James 1:2), because we know that, ‘suffering produces patience, patience produces character, character produces hope – a hope that does not disappoint.’ (Romans 5:4-5). This does not mean Christians are to pursue suffering in a masochistic narcissism; however the certainty of this hope enables joy even at times of intense pain, anguish and uncertainty.

3. Redemption

This is the theme which ties the two themes of creation and consummation together and gives them coherence. The Bible contains many stories of redemption, all of which serve as pointers to the climactic act of redemption in the sending of Jesus Christ; his life, crucifixion and resurrection, and the pledge of his return as judge and king. Central to this story of redemption is a death: His own death. This death is entirely voluntary, both on a cosmic level, as he enters this creation willingly and in love, and temporally, as he deliberately manoeuvres himself through his public teaching and confrontations with the religious authorities to a place where we might say his arrest and execution were inevitable.

This is the closest the Bible comes to speaking of ‘voluntary euthanasia’ – if we take the word euthanasia literally to mean ‘good death’. Yet it differs radically from our modern conceptions in one significant way: this voluntary death was entirely selfless. There was not thought to personal gain, as he faced not only suffering, but intense humiliation, ridicule and shame, in a scenario that was completely devoid of dignity – apart from the fact that here hung a human being who was entirely self-giving, thinking only how his suffering may benefit others; a true human being living as human beings are ultimately designed to live.

It should be acknowledged that there may be for some a sense of altruism in choosing euthanasia – to spare family and friends or even the health system the trauma and expense of prolonged medical treatment and palliative care. However the primary motivation: the desire for preserving my own dignity and securing my own release from suffering at all costs – even that of my own life – is counter-intuitive to the core Christian ethic of other-person centred love, which was both taught and embodied by Jesus.

Christian ethics in a ‘Post Christian’ society?

These three themes – creation, consummation and redemption summarise the Christian worldview that precludes euthanasia – voluntary or otherwise. Yet as a Christian I do not stand in a position to demand or enforce this ethic on a society that is largely what some have dubbed ‘Post-Christian’. I understand that my citizenship is not primarily in Australia or any other nation of this world, but in the Kingdom of God; I can speak only as someone who is visiting; a passer-by who has observed the culture of the land I am visiting and who wishes to offer an alternative to a path that potentially is lined with danger and destruction.

If you are not a Christian, I cannot insist that you accept or adopt this Christian perspective on voluntary euthanasia. However I can call you to consider the worldview I have presented: one in which the Creator, Ruler and ultimate Judge of this world has, in self-giving love, entered into our pain and suffering, who knows and sympathises with our weakness and battles of conscience, and has provided a way forward to a place of secure hope. This worldview produces an ethic not just about end of life issues, but about all matters crucial to living a life of authenticity where theory and practise are in harmony.

prawns?

Cherrypicking the Bible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Abrogation’ vs. ‘fulfilment’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to know what to keep

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

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

(Image from sacredsandwich.com)

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

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

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

But salt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

What point is he making?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 8:19-21 tells us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)