Posts Tagged ‘God’

Resolve logoIntroduction

At Resolve 2016, Flinders Evangelical Students explored the issue of pluralism – an issue facing both our society and the church.

As part of this exploration, we invited Geoff Boyce, Coordinating Chaplain at Flinders University to speak in our ‘Respond’ section of the conference. Geoff has, over a period of years, developed an approach to chaplaincy that has sought to respond to the reality of pluralism, and the contemporary context on the university campus in which Christians can often be less represented that other faiths, due to both the increasing secularisation of Australia, and the increase of migrants and international students.

Our aim in having Geoff speak was to listen respectfully to someone with whom we do not agree theologically, but whose approach we want to understand, so that we may be more gracious and respectful in our response both to him and to those with similar views.

What can we affirm?

Hospitality

Geoff helpfully highlighted for us the significance of hospitality as a Biblical principle, exemplified by Jesus. God’s work through human history has been one of inviting, welcoming and drawing people to Himself. By contrast, much of human enterprise has been about exclusion – keeping our own patch safe, and keeping the ‘other’ at arm’s distance, being unwilling to learn about and from those who are different to us. Geoff and his team have developed (and designed) Oasis as a venue centred around hospitality, where people from many cultural and religious backgrounds may engage, form friendships, and learn from each other. For this we are grateful, especially in that this hospitality has been extended to us in our freedom to use Oasis for our gatherings.

Genuine enquiry

Geoff also highlighted the danger of looking at others and trying to understand them ‘through Christian spectacles’ – ie. with unrecognised assumptions that come from our Christian worldview which can prevent us from truly understanding a person. For example, the best way to learn about Islam is to speak to and get to know a Muslim, rather than to hear about them from another Christian. This may well lead to us to discover more about what we actually have in common as fellow human beings, and to help us better understand and respect our differences.

Authenticity

Geoff helpfully emphasised for us the importance of desiring authenticity for others; in other words, wanting – for their sake – that they be truly themselves, not the person we think they should be. This is God’s desire for all people – that they be the people He has created them to truly be, free from the burdens and stereotypes placed upon them by other people who are really trying to deal with their own insecurities by manipulating people to become more like themselves. This is the Biblical idea of ‘maturity’ – when someone is fully human, and thus fully alive.

Relationships

Geoff also called us to focus on relationships, pointing us to the fact that relationship is at the heart of the Kingdom of God. God desires a relationship with His people, and He so works that those in a relationship with Him express this in the way they relate to each other. It can be easy for us to allow the task or the method of our mission to get in the way of genuine, loving relationships both with fellow believers, and with those around us who aren’t Christians. The moment we lose sight of the call to love God and neighbour, we will treat people as targets to win, or commodities to exploit.

Where do we differ?

Our view of Scripture.

Geoff mentioned that ‘the Scriptures were written in the exile;’ and that it was only in this time when the Jews themselves were outcasts that ‘they figured it all out.’ This is a view of the Old Testament that has emerged out of the late 19th and early 20th century ‘higher criticism’ movement that began to question the church’s traditional understanding of the origin, authorship and interpretation of the Bible. Coming from a rationalistic worldview that emerged from the Enlightenment, scholars and theologians who follow this more liberal or ‘progressive’ approach tend to emphasise the human element of authorship of scripture over the divine. Rather than viewing the historical books of the Old Testament as actual and accurate history, they prefer to see in them a ‘mythical’ element – stories that were written at a much later date than their actual historical setting, with the intention of providing a basis for meaning, identity and purpose for the discouraged and oppressed Jews living in captivity in a foreign land.

From an Evangelical perspective, such a view of Scripture undermines their authority and veracity, as expressed in the ES statement of faith: ‘[We affirm] The divine inspiration, trustworthiness, and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given, its entire sufficiency for our knowledge of God, and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.’ The conservative view of the Old Testament books, held to by most Christians for most of history, is that they were written much earlier, either during or soon after the time of the events described, sometimes by eyewitnesses, and always by men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:10-11, 2 Peter 1:21) to record an accurate account of events. These men, enabled by the Spirit, also spoke of things to come, primarily the sending of the Messiah. Thus, Jesus could say that the Scriptures spoke of him. (John 5:39). This view sees the Bible and its story as something overseen and coordinated by God, not ‘figured out’ by human beings. It is a story of God actually working throughout human history in historical acts of salvation to bring all things to the point of Him entering the world in the person of Jesus. The Christian faith is founded securely on historical events through which God has revealed Himself, not the more pop-culture idea that it is based, along with most other religions, on principles of conduct and ethical/moral behaviour.

While we can agree with Geoff’s point of hospitality being a key idea in the Bible, I would be unsure about a hermeneutic that seeks to ‘read the whole bible through the lens of hospitality.’ We can all be guilty at time of imposing on the Bible a particular framework, and us Evangelicals can be just as culpable of this as anyone. However I am not convinced that ‘hospitality’ is the one or primary framework or ‘lens’ through which we should read the Bible, such that we look for it in most if not all passages we read. Geoff pointed us to Jesus’ rejection at the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4:16-30 as an example of this ‘hospitality hermeneutic’. He suggested that hospitality was the key issue here: the fact that the two stories Jesus mentioned were of non-Jews being accepted and included by God (a Sidonian widow and a Syrian official), and this is what enraged the people and made them want to kill him. While I agree that the problem was, as Jesus says, ‘…no prophet is acceptable in his hometown (Luke 4:24), it was not the issue of the ethnic identity of the people in the stories that was taken issue with, but his accusation of the Nazarenes that they would not accept him unless he performed signs and wonders. This sets the scene for the ongoing issue Jesus faced with the Jews – that they demanded of him a sign – which comes to a head in Luke 11:29 when he says “This generation is an evil generation. It demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”

These are not the only occasions when we see Jesus ‘picking a fight’ with people who do not accept him as the Messiah and Son of God; and in the Nazarene synagogue it is he who starts the conflict by speaking scathingly of those who were otherwise, ‘speaking well of him and marvelling at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.’ (Luke 4:22). It is difficult to see how this, and many similar incidents, are an expression of hospitality, at least as described by Geoff.

Our view on the urgency of the Gospel

Geoff advocated strongly for an approach to those of other faiths which is only comfortable with another changing their view when it is entirely on their own terms and through their own initiative. He supports a model of ministry (specifically for chaplaincy) which is, ‘…no longer the ‘rescuing’, ‘telling’ salvation paradigm, but the hospitable, listening, empowering and long-term-committed mentoring (‘walking beside you’) paradigm, directed toward individual and corporate well being.’

Such an approach to institutional chaplaincy is understandable and expected, given the brief of a chaplain to work primarily for the well being of the organisation and the individuals within it. However it is a model that unfortunately discounts the fact that the Gospel is a message of salvation that is to be proclaimed, and must be received through repentance and faith. It is not merely a set of tools to be used in promoting individual and corporate wellbeing and harmony (although these are outcomes that should be expected as fruit of Christ at work in people through the Gospel.)

The ‘rescuing, telling salvation paradigm’ is unavoidable when we see the ministry of both Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament. ‘Repent and believe the Gospel’ is the summary statement of Jesus’ preaching given in Mark 1:14, and must be held alongside his ‘hospitality’ statements (eg. ‘come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28) is said in the immediate context of him just having pronounced woes upon towns that had rejected him!). Not simply a set of ideas and principles that can be explored and considered intellectually or emotionally, it is a message that carries with it a command to be obeyed:

‘The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17:30-31)

This command is given in light of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the coming Day of Judgement, from which God wants people to be saved. If Jesus, as he claimed, is the only way to the Father (John 14:6), then we truly love people by pointing them to him, and calling them to put their faith exclusively in him.

Our view on ‘comparative religion’.

Geoff encouraged us to look at the things we have in common with those of other faiths. That will be the point at which hospitality will be able to happen, as we use these commonalities as our starting point in creating open, trusting friendships (see diagram).

He suggested that the key point of commonality between all religions is love: the Golden Rule:

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12).

This is a popular idea today, especially when people are trying to make sense of and find solutions to the problem of religiously motivated violence and abuse. It is suggested that if all religious people simply practiced this as the heart of their religion, there will be harmony.

While it is true that many (but not all) religions contain a principle that in some way resembles Jesus’ Golden Rule (See table below), there are some problems with such a claim.

Golden Rule

Firstly Jesus, echoing the Law given through Moses, stands apart from the other religions in the way he phrases the Rule. His is the only one that is together entirely unconditional (ie. not for spiritual merit, or in order to receive good in return), proactively loving (as opposed to simply avoiding doing harm to others), and non-exclusive (not just within one’s own community.)

Secondly, unlike some religions in which the central theme is the effort humans must make to be good, the Golden Rule is not the central theme of Christianity in that sense. Christianity is based around not what we do, but what God has done in Jesus Christ. Jesus came not to enforce the law, but to fulfil it. What we were and are unable to do (love God and neighbour perfectly), he has done on our behalf, hand in hand with taking at the cross the punishment we deserve for our blatant unwillingness to love. In Jesus Christ God has done for us what we should have done for Him, and because He has perfectly kept the Golden Rule, we may be reconciled to Him:

‘In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.’ (1 John 4:10-11)

Our call to love is the outflow from the centre of our faith, which is in the person and cross of Jesus.

Our view of the Kingdom of God

Geoff told us that the Kingdom of God is about relationships. While that is true in as much as all that the Triune God does is about relationships, the Kingdom language used in the Scriptures is not primarily about communicating the truth of relationship as much as the truth of God’s authority. Entering the Kingdom of God means coming into a place of submission and allegiance to the King – the cry of Christians is ‘Jesus is Lord!’ and the message conveyed by Jesus’ resurrection is that he now reigns at the Father’s right hand and has been appointed as the coming judge of all people.

That being so, how are we to recognise the Kingdom of God in action in this life? Primarily, it must be people who are both acknowledging the lordship of Jesus over their lives and the world, and who are living in such a way that their actions give glory to Him.

This must necessarily be more than people of any faith or creed showing friendship and hospitality to one another. While we can certainly acknowledge that Jesus as King rules over all people regardless of their awareness of him, we can only call something a true expression of his kingdom where people are doing what they do ‘in his name’.

Because all people are made in the image of God, friendship and hospitality will be given expression in some form no matter how ‘fallen’ we may be, as long as we are human. However, as long as we are seeking to live outside of the lordship of Christ, such actions will ultimately be another expression of our rebellion. Because our deeds can in no way change our status before God, ultimately ‘…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.’ (Isaiah 64:6)

Geoff told us, in the context of speaking about inter-faith friendships, that ‘God is doing his thing – he doesn’t need the church.’ This is really a straw-man argument. I have rarely heard anyone say words to the effect that, ‘God does need the church.’ He is bigger than the church, and technically could accomplish all He wants to accomplish apart from the church – except for the fact that in His plan that the Church is actually central to all He wants to accomplish! His goal in all He is doing in this world is to prepare the Church to be a spotless bride who will be presented to his Son, Jesus. Because of this the church is described with such terms as, ‘God’s household,’ ’The pillar and foundation of the truth’ (Titus 3:15), ‘a kingdom, priests to his God and Father,’ (Revelation 1:6), ‘a chosen race… a holy nation.’ (1 Peter 2:9). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the church (the people, not the institution) is the visible expression of the Kingdom of God, and the instrument God uses to bring people into the Kingdom though its proclamation of the ‘Gospel of the Kingdom’ (Matthew 24:14).

Conclusion

I want to reiterate our thankfulness to God for the opportunities we have to gather freely as God’s people at Flinders Uni, and the role that Oasis as a location and as a team has played in making this possible. This space is a privilege that very few groups like ours around Australia and the world have.

We also appreciate the friendship and hospitality extended to us by Oasis team volunteers, staff and chaplains, and affirm their genuine desire to work for the wellbeing of students at Flinders. Flinders ES members and friends should be encouraged to participate in and assist with any activities in Oasis as their conscience gives them freedom to do so.

The relationship between ES and Oasis has not been without difficulties through the fifty years of us operating on campus, and it is important to acknowledge that this relationship has been strained at times, especially as the transition was made from a mainly Christian chaplaincy based ‘Religious Centre’ to a multi-faith and inter-faith ‘Oasis’. It is important also for us to acknowledge and be repentant of those things done and said by representatives of ES that have not reflected the love and grace of Christ. While we cannot take responsibility for the way in which others may perceive or interpret our actions, the love of Christ constrains us to make every effort to not merely speak the truth, but to speak it in love.

It is also important to remain firm on the commitment we have to our convictions as evangelicals – a commitment to the absolute truth of the Gospel, the uniqueness of Christ, the authority of the Bible, and the call to proclaim Jesus at university. Compromising on these would not only lead us to be disobedient to Christ, but would also annul our reason for existing as a club. The testimony of history is that Christian student groups who have assumed, lost, or denied the Gospel have eventually lost traction and finally ceased to exist, as they have nothing to offer to people that the world is not already claiming to give.

This means that we need to be always carefully and prayerfully thinking through what it means for us to be operating in the environment of a secular institution, a pluralistic culture, and an inter-faith setting such as Oasis. This is a similar issue to that wrestled with by the Israelites as they lived in exile in Babylon: They were called by God to remain distinctly seperate as His holy people, yet at the same time told to ‘…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7).

There is no simple formula to apply when working out our relationship with the university and with Oasis. We walk the tightrope somewhere between the compromise of full-blown partnership and the ‘bunker mentality’ of full separation, and we need the wisdom of God to guide us as we seek to navigate between these unhelpful extremes. ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’ (Romans 12:18) is a verse that we must apply to everyone, not just to Christians or those who may provide some benefit to us. This principle is motivated not by pragmatism, but by sincere love (Romans 12:9). Because of God’s grace, we can be confident that He will enable us to practice this sincere love towards our friends in Oasis in such a way that we will not compromise the Gospel or our mission, to the glory of God.

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In 2012 I spoke at a conference on the theme, ‘The Word of God’.

Maybe because of our language and thinking for many of us this is synonymous with ‘The Bible’. However it is a phrase that is much, much richer than simply a volume of text. It means, ‘When God speaks He acts, and… God acts by speaking’ (Tim Meadowcroft).

The four talks are available as audio downloads below, along with the PDF here.

Talk One: God of the Word

Talk Two: Another God, another Word

Talk Three: The Word Who is God

Talk Four: Of God, the Word

‘Divine revelation…

Posted: November 13, 2013 in Bible Study
Tags: , , ,

‘Divine revelation palpitates with human surprise. Like a fiery bolt of lightning that unexpectedly zooms toward us and scores a direct hit, like an earthquake that suddenly shakes and engulfs us, it somersaults our private thoughts to abrupt awareness of ultimate destiny. By the unannounced intrusion of its omnipotent actuality, divine revelation lifts the present into the eternal and unmasks our pretensions of human omnicompetence. As if an invisible Concorde had burst the sound barrier overhead, it drives us to ponder whether the Other World has finally pinned us to the ground for a life-and-death response. Confronting us with a sense of cosmic arrest, it makes us ask whether the end of our world is at hand and propels us unasked before the Judge and Lord of the universe. Like some piercing air-raid siren it sends us scurrying from life’s preoccupations and warns us that no escape remains if we neglect the only sure sanctuary. Even once-for-all revelation that has occurred in another time and place fills us with awe and wonder through its ongoing significance and bears the character almost of a fresh miracle.’
Carl Henry

‘…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…’ (Matthew 28:19 NIV) ‘On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus…’ (Acts 19:5 NIV) The issue of what specific words you should use when baptising is close to what Paul warns Timothy about: ‘quarrelling over words’. (2 Timothy 2:14) The formula ‘In the name of Jesus’ or ‘in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ is not about what specific words to use in a baptism ceremony (although the trinitarian formula is a good one to use and had been used by the church over 2000 years). The ‘in’ means ‘into’ – ie. water baptism symbolises your entry into the life of God, into the new creation, into the hope God gives in Jesus, into the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that began at Pentecost. Likewise, being baptised “in(to) the name of Jesus” means entering into all that Jesus has done and is for the believer. The words we use when baptising someone help communicate that, but obviously there is no magic or spiritual power in the actually words we use. To demand a specific term, or the full name of Jesus (‘The Lord Jesus’ instead of simply ‘Jesus’) to distinguish him from anyone else called Jesus is not only silly, but is bordering on witchcraft – thinking that our words or incantations will release some kind of spiritual power or make God act. If you were to follow that logic fully, you would need to use the Aramaic version of Jesus rather than the English translation of the Greek, and even then if you mispronounce it you may end up baptising people into the name of some other guy called Yohoshua or Yaheshua…

After a long, largely friendly, facebook discussion with some folk about cessationism and continuationism in light of the recent ‘Strange Fire’ conference,  I dug up a paper I gave in 2010 that touched on the issue, particularly in relation to the 5-fold people-gifts in Ephesians 4:11 and its place in the fulfilment of Numbers 11:16-29.

I think I still agree with what I said then. If you’re a cessationist you’ll probably label me a Pente; if you’re a Charismatic you’ll probably label me a dry Evangelical.

Whatever.

Download the PDF here (includes footnotes which I couldn’t work out how to include in this post)

The Gift of the Spirit and Pastors

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. 17And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone . . . ’ 24So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. 25Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it.  26Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27And a young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ 28And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them.’ 29But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ (Num. 11:16–17, 24–29).

The Father’s goal from the beginning has been to create a community of Spirit-filled children, led by Spirit-filled men and women. In the above passage Moses catches a glimpse of this goal. The purpose of the Spirit’s work in this situation was that Moses’ burden of feeding and leading the people might be shared (see 11:9–15); it was the Lord’s answer to Moses’ complaints about the people’s complaints about the manna which in their eyes didn’t compare to the gourmet food of Egypt. In the Lord’s lavish grace, He is willing to provide meat for His people, even though the manna was adequate; and in His holy love He also sends disciplining judgement in conjunction with the gift, so that Israel may ultimately understand that their covenant relationship with Yahweh is not one where He simply panders to their every whim. The seventy elders are set apart and enabled by the Spirit for their role, and unexpectedly demonstrate their appointment by prophesying—which begs the question: why do you need to prophesy in order to give people meat?

As the story unfolds, we see that their role was not necessarily distribution of food, but to in some way stand with Moses ‘around the tent’ (v. 24) in the judgement that followed:

And the people rose all that day and all night and all the next day, and gathered the quail. Those who gathered least gathered ten homers. And they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. 33While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck down the people with a very great plague (Num. 11:32–33).

The empowerment of the Spirit was required for these men to minister to the whole nation of Israel in the midst of the Lord’s gracious action of judgement. Presumably they are the same body of men who accompanied Moses at the giving of the Law and the sprinkling of the blood of the covenant on the people (Exod. 24:1–12), who ‘beheld God, and ate and drank’ (v. 11), and thus were qualified not to guard the tent against the people, but to facilitate the people’s access to the forgiveness that would be provided through the numerous sacrifices that would be offered in the wake of the plague. The contaminated quail was in hindsight seen to be the gracious action for the Shepherd leading and disciplining His sheep in covenant faithfulness:

He spread a cloud for a covering,  and fire to give light by night. 40They asked, and he brought quail, and gave them bread from heaven in abundance. 41He opened the rock, and water gushed out;  it flowed through the desert like a river. 42For he remembered his holy promise, and Abraham, his servant (Ps. 105).

Moses’ response to Joshua’s objection to Eldad and Medad’s prophesying, ‘Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ (v. 29) was an anticipation of Pentecost, and his sentiments are echoed in the words of the prophets, notably Joel’s famous prophecy:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions (Joel 2:28).

This gift of the Spirit was not only that all may know the Lord (Jer. 31:34), but that Israel might fulfill their mandate as God’s chosen people, entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2), to be a blessing to all nations through proclaiming the excellencies of God to His glory (1 Pet. 2:9). The Spirit sanctified the seventy elders for their roles, foreshadowing the sanctification of the whole nation/people; sanctified not to form a holy club or esoteric society, but to participate in the action of the triune God in reconciling the world to Himself.

The outpouring of the Spirit in Acts is invariably linked with speaking the Word of God, be it in tongues, prophecy or proclamation. We see the church, as the true people of God—those who are truly Israel because they are so through faith not the flesh —fulfilling this mandate through the proclamation of the Gospel and the dynamic action of the Word of God in the community of the Father’s family; the former being the overflow of the latter. This was no doubt in Paul’s mind as he wrote his letter to the Ephesians. The church finds her completeness and full identity not in her structures, strategies or slogans, but in her unity in Christ her head and husband who fills all things and so gives wholeness and maturity to His bride. Every member (Eph. 4:7, ενι δε εκαστω ημων) is given this fullness, which enables them to operate as members of the Body; this leads one to see that the list of 4:11 need not apply to a distinct group of ‘staff’, but is in a sense descriptive of the ministry of the whole body:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . . (Eph. 4:11–13).

To show the basis for these gifts, Paul quotes in verse 8 from Psalm 68, a song of Yahweh’s victory over His enemies, demonstrated in the deliverance of His people from Egypt, their establishment in the land of promise, and of the Temple in Jerusalem, ‘Because of your temple at Jerusalem kings shall bear gifts to you’ (v. 29). In the Psalm it is men who give gifts to the victorious, exalted King as he processes into the temple (v. 24); Paul has Christ the King giving gifts to men. Some have attempted to explain what at first appears to be a misquotation here in various ways, which impose modern grammar and punctuation on the text. Whatever may have been in Paul’s mind, it seems that he quotes the passage as prolepsis; the kings of Psalm 68 give gifts in tribute to the One whom they recognise as being King of all kingdoms and Lord of all nations, and they do so in anticipation of the protection and wealth that will come to their kingdoms as a result of being embraced by their Sovereign and subsumed into His empire. The Lord is not made richer by the receiving of gifts from men, since all things already belong to Him; rather the acknowledgement of His sovereign rule over the world means riches for the nations whom He has promised to bless. In a sense the giving and receiving are of the same action; the action of the King.

Jesus, by virtue of His cross, resurrection and reign, has been given by the Father the kingdom of this world (Rev. 11:15), and will reign with the Father over the new Jerusalem into which ‘the kings of the earth will bring their glory’ (Rev. 21:24). This means that ‘receiving gifts among men’ in Psalm 68 necessarily implies the application of ‘he gave gifts to men’ in Ephesians 4:8 when we see that Psalm 68 has been fulfilled in Christ. This is more than trivial exegetical semantics. Knowing this must necessarily enlarge our understanding of the gifts of verse 11. His goal to ‘fill all things’ (v. 10) speaks not so much of his immanence or omnipresence (‘My God is so BIG!’), but of His sovereign rule as head of all things for the church. It is the reigning Christ, who from his throne at the right hand of the Father, far above all rule and authority, administers his church through the appointment of these offices, and as the Gospel goes out to the nations through the ministry of the Body of Christ.

The scope of this paper allows only a limited examination of each of the offices of verse 11; and our goal in this is to see specifically the place of the pastor/teacher in relationship to apostle, prophet and evangelist. The survey is not comprehensive, and will focus chiefly on the Gospels and Acts.

Apostles (apostolos)

These men were separated from the wider circle of disciples and commissioned by Christ, therefore reflecting (duplicating?) his ministry. All four Gospels show the appointment of the Twelve, and the giving to them of apostolic authority, involving proclaiming the kingdom of God, and authority to go out in his name and exercising authority over unclean spirits and to heal. Yet this was not restricted to the Twelve, as we see Jesus in Luke 10:1–12 sending out another 72 with the same commission; quite possibly this is an indication that this was something he did more than twice. This appointment was not by their choice or will: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide’ (John 15:16).

The distinct impression one gets is that the apostolic ministry is not one that is limited to time or number; Jesus’ boundaries of definition were much wider than the ones we might want to set, as the Twelve had to learn when later they realised the necessity of including Paul (and with him Silas, Apollos, Timothy, et al.) in their number.

Prophets (prophētēs)

In the Gospels the title of prophet is only used in reference to the Old Testament prophets, to John the Baptist who stands in their line, and Jesus himself when people surmise that he may be ‘The Prophet who is to come’ (John 6:14). In this we see Jesus himself as the ‘final word’—the Word made flesh, who in his arrival makes obsolete any notion of ‘ongoing revelation’. The role of the prophets in pointing God’s people forward to the Day of the Lord has given way to the declaration in the Gospel that this Day has arrived. Yet this declaration in itself is also prophetic: ‘the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy’ (Rev. 19:10). The Old Testament prophets, ‘searched and inquired carefully’ to see that which has ‘now been announced’ to—and subsequently by—us (1 Pet. 1:10–12). So we might dare to claim that proclamation of the Gospel is more fully true prophecy than anything spoken by the Old Testament prophets. In Acts ‘prophets’ are mentioned four times, at some strategic moments in the advance of this Gospel—predicting the coming famine (11:27–30), the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas (13:1–3), the Jerusalem letter to Gentiles (15:32), and the prediction of Paul’s arrest (21:10–11).

Evangelists (euaggelistēs)

Phillip (one of the seven charged with the role of distributing food to widows) is the only person in the New Testament who is entitled ‘evangelist’ (Acts 21:8), and Timothy is urged to see that to fulfill his varied ministry at Ephesus was to ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Tim. 4:5). Simply meaning ‘a proclaimer of the Gospel’, these two uses of euaggelistou (euaggelistou) would demonstrate that this proclamation characterises and goes hand in hand with all ministry, no matter how ‘mundane’. Our brothers and sisters in the majority world have been more conscious of this role as an office in the church that deserves the training, commissioning and sending of dedicated men, however, as the West is becoming increasingly post-Christian, more Western churches and movements are seeing the urgent need for this gift to be recognised.

Pastor–Teachers (poimenas; didaskalous)

In the flow of this apostolic, prophetic and proclamatory ministry of God through His people, we come finally to the pastor–teachers (shepherd–teachers).

As with the first three, we should be careful to place hard boundaries around the role, since it is defined by the sovereign work of the Spirit who manifests himself (1 Cor. 12:7) in various ways in the church. Their place in the list could be seen as an indication of chronology; the pastor–teacher builds on the foundation laid by the ministry of the first three; the former may come and go, the latter remains more constant as the church continues her journey towards maturity in the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

Yet this constancy neither makes the office more superior to nor replaces apostles and prophets. Historically a lot of passionate rhetoric has surrounded debates and discussions on whether the offices of apostle and prophet have continued beyond the first century (i.e. the death of the original apostles and the completion of the New Testament canon). Both cessationist and continuist have been guilty of bad exegesis, arguments from silence, and ad hominem attacks. Both ironically have appealed to what seems to many to be the actual cessation of apostolic and prophetic activity and other miraculous gifts in the Western church; one saying that it is in the providence and plan of God, the other that it is cause for us to rediscover them.

Whether we are cessationist or continuist, we must nevertheless all agree on several things about all of the gifts:

Firstly:

These people are appointed by Christ for his church (‘he gave’), not by the church for Christ. Possibly our problems begin when we want to define, restrict, quantify and professionalise the offices in our attempt to domesticate and rule over the church. From time to time para-church movements may arise that seek to ‘redress the imbalance’ of the perceived absence of one or more offices, and often consequently battle with defining their relationship to (or independence from) the local congregations in which the deficiency is perceived. We may also use them to set up a clergy–laity distinction, demanding that each office requires certain training and worldly qualifications. As we have seen in the brief survey above, none of the offices appear to be mutually exclusive, and all elude a neat and tidy categorisation or ‘job description’; they are ultimately the manifestation of the Spirit himself who blows where he wills (John 3:8).

Secondly:

Jesus is building his church, ‘on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone’ (Eph. 2:20), and so the church, as the household of God, is necessarily apostolic and prophetic; a calling known only as we operate corporately. This means that in the course of its apostolic and prophetic ministry there will be (and have been) persons who will be used in significant ways that we may call apostolic or prophetic, even if we are shy to directly label them apostles or prophets. At the same time, the ministry of individual persons loses validity as soon as they operate as individuals, independent of the Body; once they lose sight of the fact that their being gifted to the church is cause for great humility in which there is place neither for celebrity status nor personal empire building.

A number of passages, notably in Paul’s letters, speak specifically of the apostolic ministry in a way that does not immediately allow a direct application of what is said to every Christian—for example, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:13, ‘We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things’, this is in the context of drawing a contrast between Paul (and his apostolic companions), and the believers in the churches to whom and for whom they laboured: ‘We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute’ (1 Cor. 4:10).

These things cannot be said to be ipso facto the case for the ‘everyday’ Christian—unless we understand that this person is a member of the apostolic and prophetic community, and as such both suffers and rejoices with the Body. The rejection and hatred a Christian may face is not a personal thing; it is a rejection of Christ as he is embodied in his church. As a pastor–teacher, I must see myself as being in this flow of the apostolic and prophetic work of Christ in his church, and rest firmly on this as my foundation.

Thirdly:

The goal of these gifts is the maturing of the church into ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’. This is not an end in itself, but is with a view to him filling all things; the church’s glory is the glory of the Father’s grace (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14), and the fullness of this will be seen in the Telos, not in the visible institutions we are wont to call ‘churches’. So while we serve the church, we ultimately serve Christ and through him the Father. This means we cannot see this passage as a strategy for church growth or management just waiting to be applied, nor is there any room for self-congratulation when we feel we have got our ministry structures ‘right’. Both pastoral care and teaching is therefore transformed from management and therapy into an exciting (even exhilarating) participation in the Father’s eschatological purpose. Our task is not to help people live happy, comfortable and prosperous lives in this world, but to call them to fix their eyes on Jesus, and forsake all this world has to offer in light of their treasure stored in Heaven.

Fourthly:

The gifts are an expression not just of the ministry of Jesus in his church, but reveal something that is ontological about humanity. As the renewed, recreated humanity, constituted in Christ the second Adam, the church as a community should be expected to display the creational design; the various ministries and gifts within the church are not purely pragmatic means to get the church to function well or to achieve her KPI’s.

The gifts are representative of the Spirit-filled people of God, created and redeemed to be vessels of God’s glory; exercising authority over creation; hearing and speaking forth the Word of God; living in genuine, self-sacrificial love and care. They show a humanity that is functional and complementary; in short: it works, and in working, all glory goes to the Father who created all things to be very good and work together (Gen. 1:31). It is an interesting aside to note that some secular analysts who study the functioning of successful teams have identified five key roles that they say should exist in any organisation in order for it to operate smoothly and with growth. Each of these roles can be seen to correspond in some way to the five gifts of Ephesians 4:11, suggesting further their ontological nature.

This means that pastoral–teaching ministry is also firmly grounded in the realities of the created world; it is not a call to escape the material and focus only on the ‘spiritual’. We teach people of the excellencies of the glory of Christ, including his faithfulness to redeem the whole of this groaning creation and the final liberation of the physical world into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:21).

Fifthly and finally:

Ultimately, we will all be cessasionist. All five titles of Ephesians 4:11 are attributed, finally, to Christ. He is the Apostle and high priest of our confession (Heb. 3:1); the Prophet like Moses raised up by God (John 7:40; Acts 3:22); the Evangelist who came ‘proclaiming the gospel of God (Mark 1:14–15); the Good Shepherd/Pastor who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11); and the Teacher who by his Spirit leads us into the truth of all that the Father has and is (John 16:12–15). When Jesus our Apostle/Prophet/Evangelist/Pastor/Teacher appears, then in a sense all of these titles—insofar as they are applied in this age—will become obsolete. They would have fulfilled their purpose in this age when the kingdom of God is advancing by force (Matt. 11:12) and when the doors of the kingdom remain open to those who will enter by faith through the Gospel proclaimed by the church apostolic. We can therefore say with Paul, ‘Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart’ (2 Cor. 4:1).

‘Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious…’ (Matthew 6:25, also in 6:31&34)

There are three ways we need to hear this statement:

1. We need to hear it as a Command.

The context of Jesus’ words is the Sermon on the Mount. Contrary to popular view, the purpose of the sermon is not to give a list of instructions for Christians to follow, as if Christianity is summed up by living in line with Jesus’ teachings. Jesus here (and this is most likely only one of many times that he delivered a sermon like this) is expounding the Law. As a Rabbi, this was one of his roles. He says in 5:17 onwards, that he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it, and goes on to affirm every ‘iota’ and ‘dot’ of the law, stating that the law’s standard of righteousness is required for entry into the kingdom of heaven – and that it is actually higher than the scribes and Pharisees make it out to be! (5:20). He tells us what that standard is in 5:48: ‘You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ and in 7:14, ‘The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.’

At the conclusion of this sermon in Matthew 7:28-29 we are told, ‘…the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.’ Often this is explained by pointing out that the other teachers would only quote from other teachers and scholars, whereas Jesus would declare, ‘But I say to you.’ However, while this may have been the case, I don’t think this is what the people meant. Jesus’ teaching had hit them with the full force of God’s authority; they saw in this sermon the holiness and righteousness of God and His law in a way that their leaders had failed to convey – it was truly a righteousness that exceeded that of the Pharisees.

We think of the Pharisees as legalistic, and they were. They thought that they could achieve righteousness by the Law, and so they set out to meticulously follow it, treating it like an exam in which they could tick the boxes and say ‘I’ve done that one.’ However by doing this, they actually demeaned and diminished the law by making it seem achievable by human effort. They placed heavy burdens on those who, unlike them, did not have the means and opportunities to do all that they said was required to fulfill the law, but in their eyes they themselves were doing fine, an example to all of one who truly loves God and with whom God must be pleased. Thus Jesus charged them with ‘…making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.’ (Mark 7:13)

Jesus pulls the rug out from under their feet in this sermon. If the standard of legalistic righteousness of the Pharisees was above most people’s heads, Jesus comes and shows that the standards of the law are much higher even than that – they are beyond the ceiling! When he mentions the command not to commit adultery (5:27-28) many would have said to themselves, ‘I have kept that one.’ But then he says that even lustful thoughts are adultery, essentially incriminating anyone there who was not a eunuch! He uses the same standard when he calls anger murder, remarriage after divorce adultery, swearing oaths evil; when he calls us love our enemies, to hide our spiritual disciplines, like giving fasting and praying, from others; and when he calls love of money hatred of God, judging other hypocrisy, and fathers who know how to give gifts to their children as evil in comparison to God the Father.

Romans 3:20 tells us, ‘For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.’ Jesus is not teaching us the full extent of the law so that we, by following it, might become good Christians. He is doing it so that we will see how far short of the perfection of our heavenly Father we fall. Later in Romans Paul says,

‘…if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:7-13 ESV)

Paul realised, when hearing the command, ‘Do not covet,’ that he was a covetous person, full of greed, envy and hypocrisy. The Law showed him up for the sham that he was. He goes on in Romans 7 to talk about the battle in his conscience, as he does what he knows he should not do, and doesn’t do what he knows he should do, and wrestles with the fact that he knows the law is good, yet he lives as a slave to sin. His conclusion to all this – ie. the work of the law in him – is to say, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (7:24)

In the same way, Jesus’ teaching on the Law shows me up. He tells me that lustful thoughts are adultery, so that I will see that I am an adulterer, filled with lust and ungodly desires; he tells me that anger is murder, so that I will see that I am a murderous, selfish person who lives for myself instead of others; He tells me my ‘spiritual life’ must be simple and private, so that I will see that I am craving the attention and approval of others in order to affirm my own sense of self righteousness.

And he tells me not to be anxious; not to worry about what I eat or wear, or about what will happen tomorrow. Why? So that I may see that I am a person full of anxieties and fears and doubts and uncertainties; a person who does not love the Lord my God with all my heart, and who rarely trusts in Him, but depend rather on my arrogant self sufficiency.

Back in Romans 7, Paul’s statement in 7:25, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ is not the answer or solution to his battle. The answer does come a couple of verses later in 8:1, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ – but in 7:25 he is not giving thanks for Jesus Christ. He is giving thanks for the realisation of who he – Paul – is! ‘Thanks be to God that I am a wretched man who needs to be delivered from this deadly battle that is waging within me because of the action of this holy, righteous and good law!’ Until we see our desperate need for deliverance, we will not see Jesus as the good deliverer. It is a good and right place to be, when we come to the end of ourselves – all our self righteousness and all our self-help schemes – and say that the only hope I have is that someone will step into my mess and rescue me because I am helpless and hopeless, a slave to sin and dead to God.

John Newton is reported to have said at the end of his life, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” The two go hand in hand. So we first of all need to hear, ‘Do not be anxious,’ as a command, so that then we will be able to appreciate it in the second way:

2. We need to hear it as a statement of one who has Compassion.

By compassion, I do not mean that Jesus ‘feels for us’. Rather, the world literally means, ‘suffer together with’. Remember that Jesus said, ‘I come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it’? That means that he has not simply stood at a distance and shouted the demand of the Law at us, and then stood by and watched us wallow in our failure and shame. He came not just to state the full force of the Law, but to live a life in which He himself fulfilled the law. We see him do this in two ways:

  1. He perfectly loved, trusted and obeyed his Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Or, in short, he kept every command ever given that fits under the banner of, ‘Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind.’ – the greatest commandment (Luke 10:27). And he perfectly loved his neighbour (including his enemies) as himself, even to the point of going to the cross to die for the sins of those who denied, betrayed and mocked him – fulfilling the second greatest command and all other commands that come under that. All that he demanded in the Sermon on the Mount he did, and so the Father could say with confidence, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’ (Matthew 17:5).
  2. He submitted himself to the actions of sinful men who disregarded God’s Law, allowing himself to be beaten and crucified and abandoned by God, and in doing so came under the condemnation that the demands of the Law bring on us who are disobedient. The Law is ‘fulfilled’ either in perfect obedience or in the just penalty that the Law requires being carried out in full on the lawbreaker. Jesus did both on our behalf. 

Yet this second sense of fulfilling the Law did not just happen at one moment on the cross when he cried out the cry of abandonment. His physical suffering and death was the culmination of a series of events which all contributed to the portrait of one who was ‘stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted (Isaiah 53:4). These events began as he arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover:

Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven:“I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.’ (John 12:27-33, emphasis mine)

Verse 27 is for John the parallel to Jesus’ time of prayer in the garden (which is not recored in John’s Gospel) when Jesus prays, ‘“Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will,’ just after telling his disciples, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’ (Mark 14:34,36).

Again in John 13:21 we’re told, ‘After saying these things Jesus was troubled in his spirit.’ This gives us a different perspective on Jesus’ final hours; all of his teaching with his disciples in John 13-16 and his high priestly prayer of John 17 was given while he was troubled in his spirit; even when he said the words, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.’ (John 14:1)!

So Jesus says, ‘Do not be anxious,’ as one who was to go forward in His Father’s plan: the suffering of the cross and the troubling of his spirit which was part of that. Our anxiety may be based on hypothetical ‘worst case scenarios’ which may or may not happen; it may even be inexplicable, with no seeming reason or rationale. Jesus looked forward with a certainty that the cross and all its grief and shame and pain and loneliness was before Him, because his heart was set on the Father’s will, not His own. His soul was troubled for a good and valid reason. He is our High Priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses because ‘he too suffered when tempted’ (Hebrews 3:15).

3. We need to hear it as a Conclusion based on reality

God’s commands are never arbitrary – in the sense that they are random, or given for no reason, or because He is selfish and wants to get His own way and we need to just shut up and mindlessly obey. He graciously shows us that behind His commands is His own gracious, faithful, wise character, and His desire to do good to His children. We see this reflected in Jesus’ teaching on the Law, including the ‘do not be anxious’ passage. Jesus tells us several realities about life and about his Father:

  1. Life is more than food and the body is more than clothing(25).
  2. Your Father feeds the birds, which are less valuable than you (26).
  3. No time can be added to our lives by worrying (27).
  4. Your Father clothes the flowers on the field which last only a day (30).
  5. The godless are obsessed with meeting their needs (32).
  6. Your Father knows everything you need (32).
  7. Seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness should be central to your life (33).
  8. You cannot know the future (34).

So Jesus does not toss us as trite platitude: ‘Just get over it’. Rather, he gives us at least eight good reasons why there is no reason to be anxious, based on the character and goodness of our heavenly Father; eight reasons to trust in God and in him.

Similarly, Paul’s statement in Philippians 4:6 ‘…do not be anxious about anything…’ does not stand on it’s own; it is sandwiched between ‘The Lord is at hand’ and ‘the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.’ Again, the character and faithfulness of God gives us reason to obey His call to trust and not be anxious.

We need to practice healthy self-talk, reminding ourselves of the Father’s goodness, and calling ourselves to trust Him. In Psalm 42 David says to himself,

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God (Psalms 42:5-6 ESV)

And in Psalm 62:

For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken (Psalms 62:5-6 ESV)

And Psalm 116:

Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you (Psalms 116:7 ESV)

(Not to mention also Psalms 43:5, 103:1-5, 104:1,35, 146:1)

The problem is not that we don’t talk to ourselves, but that we tell ourselves the wrong things – untruths, condemnation, self righteousness; and we tell ourselves to believe the voices around us that constantly whisper, ‘Has God said…?’

Instead of listing the nature of our circumstances and concluding that all will be disastrous, we need to list the nature of our Father and His faithful and righteous acts so that we will conclude that He is good and can be trusted to world for good in whatever may be around the corner, be it gladness or grief.

This is not a guaranteed method to remove forever the possibility of ever feeling anxious again. I trust rather that it will give encouragement in the battles when they do come; the ability to ‘rejoice in our sufferings’ – which is not a promise that sufferings, be they physical or psychological, will cease, but that in the midst of suffering we may have the bedrock knowledge that He is faithful.

Ecclesiastes 3:16-19 

The presence of wickedness and injustice is an enigma if we do not know of the patiently seeking, sovereign Father. But if we do, we know that He is not ignoring injustice or compromising His own righteousness when the evil seem to go unpunished and injustice seems to triumph. Because the march of time is the outworking not of blind fate but of the patience of a seeking, saving God,  we can be sure that in the end, His justice will finally prevail. “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked,” why? because, “…there is a time for every matter and for every work.” (Ecclesiastes 3:17) The Teacher is reminding us of the poem he gives us at the start of this chapter:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Notice that in verse 1 the Teacher uses the term, ‘Under heaven’. This phrase is used only 3 times in Ecclesiastes, unlike ‘Under the Sun’ which occurs 25 times. ‘Under the Sun’ means looking at life from a purely horizontal level, as if there is nothing beyond the Sun. ‘Under heaven’ implies a greater vision; there is something beyond the Sun – or rather, Someone. Under heaven implies the vertical dimension; to live under heaven means to live with an awareness of God and His oversight of all things.

This adds a new dimension to our poem. What at first seems like a meaningless cycle is in fact a meaningful, purposeful cycle. Nothing happens without purpose, because there is a Person behind all that happens.

Paul says as much in his address to the Athenians, after declaring to them God’s sovereign hand over all people:

‘The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17:30-31)

The absolute sovereignty of God is the only thing that enables us to be confident of this coming Day of justice.

It is in Jesus Christ we find that these two ‘dilemmas’ of the absolute sovereignty of God and the problem of evil are both answered in one action:

‘…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.’ Acts 20:23

All the times and events under heaven had been leading up to this time. This was a time of death, uprooting, killing, breaking down, mourning, hating, war, as the human heart and its hatred of God was exposed as we crucified His Son. It was a time of silence – not silence from the crowds who mocked, or from Jesus himself as he cried out, but silence from the Father as He gave no response to the cry, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’. It was the time when wickedness was truly in the place of justice and righteousness as the Righteous One hung in the place of the unrighteous ones and all the wickedness of the world was heaped upon him and judged. If there was any work for which there was just the right time, this was it.

And because this was the right work at just the right time under heaven, this also became the time for birth, planting, healing, building up, dancing, for loving and for peace, as God raised him up ‘loosing the pangs of death’. The poem of Ecclesiastes 3 is a perfect combination of positives and negatives, of matters of death and matters of life, but it points us to the even more perfect combination of death and life; the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Maybe this is why – even without realising the full implications of his words – the Teacher used the phrase ‘under heaven’ in introducing his poem. His certainty about the ‘definite plan and foreknowledge of God’ was pointing him forward in types and shadows to that moment which we now look back on with clarity and enables us to say, with Paul,

‘What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? …in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:31-32, 37-39)