Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

Talk one of Flinders Uni Jesus Week 2016google

‘Why does God allow suffering?’ is possibly the most common response people have to the Christian claim, ‘God is love.’

Some people feel that religion has nothing to say to us on the question of suffering. Maybe you are one of these people. Maybe you are sick of religious platitudes, ‘It will all work out in the end,’ ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ or even judgemental statements, ‘God is punishing you!’ ‘You just don’t have enough faith!’ Maybe you have been at the receiving end of promises to the effect that God will heal you or solve your problem, and it hasn’t happened. Or, maybe you just feel that religious answers to the problem of suffering just don’t cut it, or lack intellectual credibility.

It may be that you are reading this because you or someone you love is facing or had faced great suffering, and you are still searching for answers as to why it happened, and whether it is possible to believe that God is loving.

Or may be that for you this is purely an intellectual issue, because, like me, you have never really gone through serious suffering – at least compared to many people in this world. The danger for people like us is that we can treat suffering glibly – either by using one of those platitudes that I mentioned, or by using the reality of suffering as an excuse to justify a refusal to believe in God. Both of these actually trivialise suffering, and neither prepare us to deal with the actual experience of suffering.

Whatever our position, we cannot avoid the fact that every one of us has, or will, encounter suffering in some form. Even if your life is long and relatively comfortable, you will be confronted with suffering in the lives of people you know; not to mention the reality of your fellow human beings around the world who fill our news bulletins with stories of war, oppression, famine, poverty and plague.

Whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have some view on this issue.

Depending on where you stand, the issue of suffering is either complicated or simplified by introducing the idea that the is a good, loving God who created and is in charge of the universe. For some, a loving God and world with suffering are two incompatible ideas, and so they conclude that God is either not good, or not real. For others, belief that God is both real and loving, is the greatest comfort and source of strength when facing suffering.

I would like to suggest, based on my reading and observation, that the first response is more common among those who try to deal with the problem intellectually – ie. those who may be observing, but not necessarily experiencing suffering; while the second is more commonly expressed by those actually experiencing suffering. It is certainly true that religious – and particularly christian – belief is stronger and growing in parts of the world in which suffering is greater, and especially on places where people’s suffering is due to religious persecution. The Christian church, without fail, has always thrived and grown where Christians have suffered most, and is only declining here in the West where most Christians are comfortable and feel safe.

This begs the question: what is it about the Christian faith that enables people to not just cope with, but even thrive when suffering?

It has been said that religion is one of humanity’s attempts to come to terms with the enigma of suffering, injustice and death.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (Karl Marx)

All major religions do try to come to terms with suffering. And they take different approaches. Some may say that it’s a test – to see if we are worthy of God and deserving of entry into paradise. Some say it is an illusion – a symptom of our being trapped in this physical world – from which we must liberate ourselves through enlightenment and suppressing our desires. Others say it’s just the harsh reality of a live that is controlled by the will of a distant, uncaring God, and we must just surrender to it and not ask ‘why’.

Amidst all these attempts, Christianity offers a solution that I put to you is much more satisfying than all of these. When I use the word ‘satisfying’ I don’t merely mean it makes people feel better. Rather, I mean that it provides both the understanding and the tools that enable a person to both live this life with meaning and significance, and to have a hope for the future of both this world, and of life even beyond the grave.

Firstly, the Bible has a realistic and honest view of suffering.

Suffering is a major theme throughout the Bible, and in fact it contains several documents in it that are wholly concerned with the issue (Job, Lamentations, Habakkuk, Ecclesiastes, etc.). And the Bible is raw and honest about suffering, and in endorsing people’s questioning of God about it. Here is an example:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest…
…I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads…
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey open their mouths wide against me…
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.
(Excerpts from Psalm 22)

Note that the writer of this song is not merely pondering a question: rather he is requiring God to explain himself. The writer’s suffering is real, and he has very little – if any – hope left; as far as he is concerned, God has abandoned him.

What we need to see is that God is OK with having this kind of sentiment in the Bible. He is big enough to have questions asked of Him and to not be knocked off his perch. He does not get angry at people for being real about suffering, and for demanding to know where He is when they suffer, and why it seems that He is not responding to their calls for help.

If you have your questions, doubts, fears and anger about yours or others’ suffering, God welcomes you to bring it to Him. He will not reject you or be angry at you for asking Him to give an answer to your pain.

Secondly, the Christian faith provides a coherent reason for why suffering exists.

In the Bible, suffering is an intruder into a world that was designed to be good. God created the world and humanity to be living in harmony with one another and with God. When humanity, the world, and God are in right relationship, everything will function as it should. We are made to live under God’s loving authority, caring for one another and for the world in which we live. This, however, is not the case. Human beings have rejected a relationship with God on His terms, and as a result both we, and this world have become dysfunctional. Behind the problem of suffering lies a deeper problem – a moral one.

The Bible presents suffering, from this perspective, on two ways:

First, suffering is the natural consequence of human failure or ‘sin’. Because God has made this world the way it is, actions have consequences. If you smoke, you will most likely get cancer or emphysema. If you drink and drive, you will increase  the chance of dying or killing someone in a crash. If you treat people with disrespect, you will in turn be treated with disrespect. If we exploit and misuse the earth’s resources, we will ruin the ecosystem and cause problems for ourselves. A large proportion of human suffering can be traced ultimately to human greed, selfishness, laziness and malice. In that sense, we have no place to blame or accuse God for suffering which, to put it bluntly, is our own fault.

Second, suffering is a reminder of God’s Justice. Once Jesus was asked about the tragedy of the slaughter of some Jews by the Romans:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:1-5

It may seem that Jesus is being insensitive and harsh here in his response, by telling people to repent lest they perish. It’s important to see that Jesus does not say, ‘These people were being punished for some sin they committed.’ In fact, he seems to complicate the dilemma by bringing up another incident – a ‘natural disaster’. It is most likely that the Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate had tried to rebel against Rome, and one could argue that they had brought their fate upon their own heads. However in the case of the tower of Siloam – ultimately the only question may be, ‘Why did God allow that to happen to people who were just minding their own business?’

Jesus does not give a direct answer to that question, but instead uses the incident to point his hearers to a greater issue: every human being faces the prospect of suffering that is too great for us to imagine, and which makes suffering in this world pale in comparison. This is the suffering of being banished forever from the goodness and love of God – something which we all deserve because of our rejection of Him – that which the Bible calls, ‘hell’. The Bible tells us that God has deliberately, but only partially, handed us and this world over to our dysfunction,  to be cursed, with all of the suffering that entails. This is in order that our suffering – whether caused by human evil or by ‘natural causes’ will serve as wake-up call, or a warning to us about the full consequences of rejecting God and arrogantly insisting on living life our way. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia series, put it this way: “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Suffering is like the rumble strip on the edge of a road – a warning that if we continue the way we are going, we’re in trouble.

Thirdly, God has provided the only foolproof solution to the problem of suffering.

God does not stand at a distance or ignore human suffering; nor is He uncaring or unmoved by suffering, but rather comes closer to us that we can even imagine. We see this clearly in the person of Jesus.

A church near where I live has on its fence a banner saying, ‘Jesus was a refugee’. This is a reference to when Jesus’ family had to flee their home country to escape the king of the time who was trying to find Jesus to kill him.

During his public life, Jesus lived without a home, and was at times hungry, thirsty, and physically exhausted. Because of his teaching on love and justice, the time he spent with the outcasts and ostracised, and because of his claims about himself, the religious authorities finally had him arrested and sentenced to death. All his friends deserted and betrayed him. He faced an corrupt trial, and was handed over to the Romans to be beaten, publicly humiliated, and to face one of the most excruciatingly painful forms of execution devised by human beings – crucifixion (in fact, it is the latin word for cross, ’crucis’ that forms the basis for the word, ‘excruciating’).

But Jesus was not just a man who, as some have suggested, showed us how to practice the virtue of enduring under unjust suffering. Jesus is God in person. In Jesus, God the Son has entered into human experience, walked our streets, lived our life, experienced our pain. In Jesus we see that God has not chosen to stand at a distance and remotely fix the problem of suffering. If He did, the only way would be to remove forever every person who is responsible in some way for causing suffering – and they would mean everyone, including you and I. Instead, God in love has chosen to deal with the problem not from the outside, but from the inside. What is first and foremost ‘Revolutionary’ about the love of God is that this God, the creator of the universe, who is above and immune to suffering, has chosen to enter into our suffering and walk alongside us in it; to plumb the depths of human agony both physically and psychologically. In answer to our question, ‘God, where are you when I suffer?’ God calls out from the cross, ‘Here I am.’

But this is more than just God sympathising with us. In Jesus, God has dealt with the suffering problem by dealing with the moral problem.

Jesus not only experienced the existential, physical suffering of abandonment, humiliation, torture and physical death. He also experienced the ultimate suffering to which, as I said earlier, that all points. Moments before his died, Jesus called out,

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Did you notice that these are the exact words from the song we read earlier? In that moment, Jesus was experiencing the ultimate suffering: abandonment by God – the abandonment that all people rightly deserve.

Not only did Jesus share in our suffering, but he stood in our place and came under the punishment we deserve. The Bible puts it like this:

Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
(1 Peter 3:18)

In Jesus’ death, the moral problem behind evil and suffering in this world has been dealt with: by taking our sin and evil onto himself, and by suffering the consequences of our sin in our place, he has ‘reversed the curse’ for anyone who comes to him and receives what he has done for them.

God comes close to us in Jesus, and shared in our suffering, not simply to fix our problems, but to bring us into a relationship with Himself.

God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.
(German Theologian Jurgen Moltmann)

This explains why it is that Christians throughout the last 2000 years have persevered through suffering, and why the Christian message is able to give hope and meaning to people in the depths of pain. Christians have a revolutionary hope which is based on the fact that Jesus’ death was not the final act. God raised Jesus from the dead to demonstrate that this moral problem has been dealt with – forgiveness and reconciliation has been won by him – and that for those who trust in him, suffering will only every be temporary. Christians are able to make the outrageous claim that in comparison with what God has in store for us – a world which will not only be free from suffering, death and grief, but also a place where we will see God face to face and know only his goodness and love – in light of that our sufferings become ‘light and momentary’, not even worth comparing to what is to come.

That’s why Jesus word’s that we saw earlier, ‘Repent, or you too will perish,’ are not harsh words, but loving words. The same one who calls us to trust in him and turn back to God is the same one who has suffered our pain and paid the price to enable us to return to God.

I urge you to hear his call. Repent, and put your trust in him.

“Not another blog post on this question!” I hear you say.

Initially I decided that I would not post anything in response to the current debate in the US about the potential dismissal of a professor from a leading Evangelical college over her claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Many people have written on this, a large number defending the college’s evangelical commitment. Many have pointed out that trinitarian Christians and unitarian Muslims do not worship the same God, since each of their affirmations and denials about the nature of God are an anathema to the other (eg. Christians affirm the divinity of Jesus, which is blasphemy to a Muslim; Muslims deny that God can have a son, which is heresy to Christians.)

However to date, I have not seen (maybe I have missed it) a writer wrestling with two verses in the New Testament which on the face of it may seem to lend support for the professor’s statement:

‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.’ (John 4:22)

‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’ (Acts 17:23)

I have singled these two out because both of them use the word ‘worship’ – implying that both the Samaritans’ and the Athenian’s approach is not merely about conceptual knowledge or confession of beliefs, but also about devotion and piety. They don’t simply have an idea in their heads about God, but practice it in acts of devotion and worship.

Similarly, both make a statement about the worshipper being ignorant in some way, and needing a fuller, correct revelation; this fuller revelation will bring a reformation of their worship.

All this may sound like the professor is onto something. Maybe even the Pope was onto something when he said the Muslims and Christians are brothers and sisters.

However, when we take a closer look at these verses, we will see that they do not, in fact, support the idea that there are non-Christians who worship God, albeit in a faulty or deficient way.

The first thing to notice is that the two words translated in our English Bibles as ‘worship’ and ‘know’ are different in each verse. This reflects the two different contexts: in one (John 4:22) Jesus is speaking to a Samaritan, and in the other (Acts 17:23) Paul is speaking to Greek philosophers. Straight away that should indicate to us that we cannot take these two verses out of their context and throw them together as if they are identical in their meaning.

John 4:22

Jesus has been speaking to the Samaritan woman, and she has raised the issue of where true worship of God is supposed to take place – since the Jews had the temple in Jerusalem, and Samaritans had their own alternative temple in Samaria, which they set up after the retuning exiles from Babylon in the 5th century BC rejected their help in rebuilding the Jerusalem temple.

Jesus dismisses this as the key issue, instead saying that true worship of his Father will be in the power of the Spirit, and is not tied to location or architecture. His statement ‘salvation is from the Jews’ is an affirmation that, up to this point, Jerusalem is the correct location for the Temple and therefore worship of God; it is the centre of His presence with His people. However, this is about to change now that the true temple, priest and sacrifice has appeared in his person. The coming of Jesus does away with both right places of worship (such as the Samaritan temple) and the right place of worship (the Jerusalem temple) as people now come to the Father through faith in Jesus.

Jesus however is not invalidating all that the Samaritans did in their worship. They held firmly to the first five books of the Scriptures, and so both their theology (understanding of who God is) and form of worship was orthodox. However their understanding of God’s purposes was deficient since they did not acknowledge the rest of the Old Testament – the Prophets, Psalms and historical books.

When Jesus says, ‘you worship what you do not know,’ the word here for worship refers to the physical act of bowing down or prostrating oneself (and is sometimes used in this literal sense) that forms part of a worshipper’s actions. And the word for ‘know’ means a knowledge that comes from seeing and experiencing – rather than a conceptual knowledge. In other words, the Samaritans go through the motions, but their experience of God is lacking, because they do not come to the true seat of His presence in Jerusalem.

Jesus on several occasions, both in practice and in his teaching, appeared to be affirming the Samaritans in their identity as the ten Northern tribes of Israel, who were one day to be reunited with their Southern Jewish brothers (See Ezekiel 37). This is fulfilled when Samaritans are included in the experience of Pentecost in Acts 8. In that sense, the Samaritans were ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ whom Jesus the Good Shepherd has regathered into the flock through his death and resurrection. The Gospel has dispelled their ignorance, and brought them into the full revelation of the Father and His plan so that they may be one with their Jewish brothers in worshipping Him.

Acts 17:23

Paul’s address in Athens begins with an acknowledgement that the Athenians are ‘very religious’ – and he uses a word that may also be translated, ‘superstitious’. The word he uses for ‘worship’ (twice in 23) is one that means ‘pious’ or ‘devoted’ – which ties in with his description of Athenian religion as superstitious. It’s a word often associated with idolatry.

When he says that they ‘worship’ that which is ‘unknown,’ he uses a word from their own philosophical vocabulary – the word from which we get our English word ‘agnostic’. This is an ignorance that comes either from lack of learning, or from the sheer incomprehensibility  of the thing that is unknown. It’s a statement of conceptual knowledge, rather than experiential knowledge.

The Athenians took pride in the fact that they were able to acknowledge the reality of something of which they had no knowledge. They knew they did not know everything, and so  there was a distinct possibility that there was, out there, an ‘unknown god.’ This was a ‘dark matter’ god – one deduced by human reason, yet not encountered in human experience. Paul devastates their intellectual pride by equating this lofty philosophical learning with superstitious religion.

Paul’s claim is that the message he brings of Jesus and the Resurrection is one that will cut through this superstitious ignorance, replacing it with a clear and present truth that will call for a response of repentance. The God he describes to the Athenians is one that demolishes and replaced both the superstitious god of paganism and the deistic, conceptual god of the philosophers.

Conclusion

Neither John 4:22 nor Acts 17:23 can be used to support the claim that adherents of the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity worship the same God. The former refers to those who, in a sense, were already ‘in’ the true people of God; the latter refers to those whose worship is false, arrogant and idolatrous.

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)

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.

man ignoreJesus’ death changed everything?? Really?

You may question this claim that Jesus’ death changed everything. While it could be argued that many of the improvements in civilisation have connections with the Christian worldview and Christian ethical values, we must admit that the world in many ways seems the same – if not at times even worse – than it was the the time of Jesus. There is still plenty of violence, injustice and war. There is pain and suffering, caused both by human beings and by natural processes beyond our control. And while many Christians (and others) seem to speak of a change that is coming, possibly very soon, the world seems to be just going on as it always has.

However, by saying the death of Jesus changed everything I am saying that Jesus Christ, unlike anyone before or since, has given us a perspective that not only helps us to understand why the world is the way it is and how we fit into it, but which also gives those who trust in him a sure, certain and unshakeable hope in the future not just for them, but for the world.

Easter is a reminder that the heart of the Christian faith is the crucifixion, death, and resurrection (coming back to life) of Jesus – but it does not have implications just for Christians, but for everyone. Let me explain why the death of Jesus changed everything:

1. It shows us once and for all who God is 

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

This part of the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is the great ‘unveiling’ of God. In the past God has communicated something of who He is, in very specific ways, but in Jesus we are give the full, crystal clear picture. Notice how the writer says that God spoke through prophets, but He has spoken by his Son. Jesus is not just another prophet, but is himself the Message. That’s why Jesus was able to say, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.’ If we want to know who God is, we simply need to look and listen to Jesus. The first think he shows us is that God is all about relationships. He is the Father, who has a Son. That’s what Christians are talking about when they say God is One God in three persons -the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He is a God who relates, and who loves, and His loves overflows towards us in that He want us to also have a relationship with Himself.

But notice also how he unpacks a very specific way in which Jesus unveils God to us: the line, ‘he had provided purification for sins’ is a reference to Jesus’ death. Jesus shows us that God is willing to enter right into our human situation, and walk alongside us in our suffering, pain, loneliness, grief and doubt. The answer to the question, ‘Where is God when I suffer?’ is ‘Right there in Jesus, hanging on the cross. If anyone knows and can sympathise with us in our human situation, it is Jesus.’ In Jesus we see that God cares so deeply about the problems of the world and our lives that he doesn’t just deal with them from a distance in a clinical or judicious way; instead He comes to lift us out of our mess by coming right down to be with us in the thick of it.

This leads us to the second way that Jesus’ death changes everything:

2. It gives us an answer to the dilemma of injustice and evil

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood —to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his tolerance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25-26)

A dilemma we may have when we think about the problems of this world is, ‘If God is supposed to be all good and all loving, then why hasn’t he done anything about the problem of evil? The answer is that He has been incredibly tolerant – or patient – and the reason he has been patient is because the problem of evil actually starts and finished with us. If He were to simply wipe out all the evil of this world, then none of us would be left, because we are all complicit in some way with evil and injustice – even if it’s simply the fact that we don’t dedicate our whole lives to working to help others who face injustice.

In fact, sin is more than just the things we do or don’t do. It’s not a list of broken rules, as if God is keeping a ‘naughty or nice’ record to decide if we’re good boys and girls. Sin is a state of the human heart that has said ‘No’ to God. It is an attitude of defiant, self-sufficient rebellion. It is high treason against the one who not only made and rules the whole universe, but who also owns the right to our affections and loyalty. The ‘sins’ we commit are simply the evidence that our hearts are far from God, and the pain we experience as a result is simply God allowing us to see how foolish we are to trade a relationship with Him for our own ambition.

Rather that wipe us all out as we deserve, God has chosen another way – a way in which justice can be preserved, but we can still be reconciled to Him. This way is Jesus’ death. The phrase ‘sacrifice of atonement’ means that Jesus has taken our place, and faced the punishment we deserve. Instead of punishing us, God has punished him. It may not sound just for God to punish someone else in our place – until we see that Jesus willingly, voluntarily, and out of a deep love for us, went to the cross to pay this price.

And so, we are told, if our trust is in Jesus, we are ‘justified’ – brought back into a right relationship with God through full and complete forgiveness. If you have ever experienced forgiveness – either someone who forgave you, or visa versa, you will know how liberating that is. Because of Jesus, those who trust him can know this liberation multiplied by a million, knowing that God will never, ever again hold anything against you.

3. It shows us that death is not the end.

Now Thomas… was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)

Jesus’ death is not the end of the Easter story. On Sunday morning, when some of Jesus’ followers came to embalm his body, they found the tomb empty, and then came face-to-face with Jesus, alive again.

You may feel that the claim that Jesus came back from the dead is the most unbelievable part of the Easter story. We all know that people don’t just come back from the dead, especially after they have been brutally beaten and crucified as Jesus was.

However, if you could believe there is a God, who created and runs this entire universe, then it really is is no stretch to believe that He is capable of raising a person from the dead. So I am not going to try to prove to you that it happened, I’m just going to tell you it did, and why it is so significant.

If Jesus had remained dead, we would never know, never be sure, if God had actually done enough to deal with our sin, forgive us, and bring us to Himself. However, Jesus’ resurrection is like God the Father’s way of saying, ‘Jesus has done it! He has lived the life you failed to live, and he has willingly died the death you deserve to die, and so now I am going to raise him from the dead and make him the one that anyone can put their trust in to be forgiven and reconciled.’ The fact that Jesus is alive today is an assurance to anyone who trusts him that God will, hands down, accept you into His family.

It’s more than that though: Because Jesus died and came back to life as a human being – as one of us – his resurrection is the promise to us that life for does not need to end at the grave. Probably the most famous statement from the Bible is Jon 3:16: ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.’ This eternal life is a quality of life that is so solid, so durable, that it never wears out or perishes. And it starts now for anyone who trusts Jesus. It is a life in which we are set free to become the person we are truly meant to be; the person God created us to be, who is able to truly love God and love our neighbour – and to find that the most satisfying, fulfilling thing to do.

Finally, there is one more way in which Jesus’ death – and resurrection – has changed everything:

4. We all have to respond to what God has done for us in Jesus.

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)

In the 1960’s, a version of the Bible was published with the words on the cover, ‘The Man You Can’t Ignore – the life and teaching of Jesus’. He still is the man you can no longer ignore.

The leaders of every other religion will tell you that the solution to human problems is simply, ‘Work hard at being good, and if you work hard enough, you may make it in the end.’ Jesus stands alone and says to us, ‘It is done. I did it for you. I did what you were unable and unwilling to do. So simply trust me.’

This is what the word ‘repent’ means. When I repent I basically say to God, ‘You are right, and I am wrong. On my own I am lost and hopeless. My only hope is that you will will do something about my mess.’

To repent means to no longer put your confidence in yourself, but in Jesus. It means trusting that He is alive, and that He has the power to transform you through forgiveness to become the person you are meant to be.

Because Jesus has died and come back to life, we must respond to what God has done in Jesus. We may receive what He has done, or we may outright reject it, but we cannot sit on the fence. He has not given us that option.

If you are reading this blog today it is no coincidence. God is calling you to respond to Jesus by putting your trust in Him and acknowledging that He is the only one who has the right to rule your heart. I urge you to put your faith in him. You may feel that to do so seems like the most difficult and risky thing to do. You may feel that you have too much to lose – the respect of friends or family; a certain lifestyle that at the moment seems to be making you happy; maybe even the dreams and ambitions that have brought you here to study at Uni. Being a follower of Jesus may mean losing some things in this world; however what you receive is far, far greater and more enduring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

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

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

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

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

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

What is ‘the world’?

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

‘The present crisis’

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

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

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

A wake-up call

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

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

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

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

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

Looking towards the End

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

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

The power of the Cross

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

1 Peter 1:13-25

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

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

Firstly, we have been ransomed.

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

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

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

Thirdly, this blood bought ransom is precious.

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

Some background:

The dominant themes of John’s Gospel up to this point have been the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah who fulfils all the promises of the Old Testament to bring in the New Era – the outpouring of the Spirit, the cleansing of sin and uncleanness, the renewal and establishment of the Kingdom of God, and the personal renewal that comes to a person who is brought in to be a part of this all. We have seen Him declared to be the Son of God (not figuratively but literally), the Baptiser in the Spirit, the Messiah, the One who replaces the old ritual washing water with the new wine, the one who replaces the Jerusalem Temple with himself, and the One prefigured by Moses in lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. He has just unpacked for a key Jewish leader what it means to be ‘born from above’ by God’s sovereign action in the work of the Holy Spirit, and now he comes to someone at the other end of the theology/holiness/worthiness/acceptability spectrum: a lonely, broken, shamed Samaritan woman.

4:1-9

Jesus broke a number of cultural conventions, doing what in the eyes of many – especially the Pharisees – would disqualify him from being a Rabbi, let alone the Messiah sent from God. Firstly, he travelled through Samaria. Samaria was the region historically occupied by the ten northern tribes of Israel who had been conquered by the Assyrians in 720BC. The Assyrian policy of relocation meant that many Israelites were scattered among the nations, while may foreigners were brought into Samaria, where they intermarried with the remaining Israelites, developing a syncretistic religion. When the exiles who had been taken by the Babylonians from the Southern kingdom of Judah returned, these locals wanted to participate in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple, but were not permitted. So they set up their own Temple in Samaria. This developed eventually into the rivalry, bigotry and hatred that existed between Jews and Samaritans right up to Jesus’ time. Many Jews, if they needed to travel North to Galilee, would cross the Jordan and travel up the East side of the river in order to avoid travelling through Samaria, even though this took them 4 days longer than cutting through Samaria.

Secondly, when the woman came to the well, he spoke to her, asking for a drink. This was controversial on four counts. First, as a Jew (and a Rabbi) he should not have spoken to to a Samaritan (at least in a friendly tone). Second, as a male he should not have spoken to a woman on her own. Third, he should not have been willing to drink from a Samaritan cup, which would have technically made him ’unclean,’ since Samaritans were considered by many to be the same or even worse than Gentiles. Fourth, while it’s not explicitly stated, the fact that this woman was at the well at midday, rather than the normal time of first thing in the morning when everyone else would have been there, may indicate that this woman was an outcast even among her own people, since she came alone at a time when no-one else would be there to ridicule or criticise her.

It is important to notice that John includes this story immediately after chapter three’s account of Nicodemus coming to Jesus. John said in is introduction to the Gospel:

11He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (John 1:11-12)

In John 3 we see a man, Nicodemus, who would have been seen by everyone as ‘one of God’s own people’, yet who just didn’t understand or receive what Jesus was saying, responding to Jesus’ statements with naive, even ignorant questions. Then in John 4 we see this woman, by all accounts an ‘outsider’, who not only is receptive towards Jesus, but as we will see, engaging in robust theological discussion with him – showing up Israel’s esteemed teacher!

It’s also important to note that he initial reason Jesus stopped at this well was that he was tired and thirsty. Presumably when the disciples went into the town to get food, they had taken al the equipment with them, and so Jesus didn’t even have a cup to drink from. The Gospels to not present a ‘superman’ Jesus who floats six feed above the struggles and realities of life in this world. Jesus, the Son of God, is truly one of us, sharing in all that we experience, including tiredness and thirst.

4:10-14

The term ‘living water’ on its face value simply meant ‘spring’ or ‘running’ water – fresh water found in a flowing creek or river, as opposed to potentially muddy or stagnant water found in a well. Both Jews and Samaritans looked forward to the day when the creation was renewed by God’s blessing, and the entire region was watered by flowing rivers (eg. Zechariah 14:8, 44:3), but also that this physical renewal would be a symbol of a spiritual renewal when the Holy Spirit would ‘flow’ into and through God’s people.

Initially this woman takes his statement on the purely physical sense. Not only does Jesus not have the equipment to draw water from the well, but he is claiming to be better than than the one who dug the well – Jacob – by claiming to produce this fresh running water as opposed to stale well water.

Jesus, in his usual fashion, explains that he has come to replace the Old with something New. In the Old Testament Jeremiah says:

‘…“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.’ (Jeremiah 2:13)

Jesus’ claim in 13&14 is that he has come to reverse this scenario. The well by which they are standing is a picture of the people turning to find satisfaction in things that are only momentary; and in doing so are rebelling against God, who is the only source of true satisfaction. In Jesus, the door has been opened for people to turn from these broken wells back to the eternal spring of living water.

4:15-19

At this point the woman still wants to engage on a purely physical level, but Jesus pulls the rug out from under her feet. He ultimate need is not her physical predicament of having to come here day after day to get water; it is not the fact that she runs out of water in her house. Rather, her need is spiritual – the broken well is in her, not in her house, as evidenced by the life she is living. She is a ‘serial monogamist’. Five broken marriages, resulting in her being a broken person who no longer has the energy or motivation to even try to live by the standards of her community or God.

Jesus’ comment, and his intimate knowledge of her history is a ‘sign’ to her that he is not just a regular Jewish man, but is in fact a prophet. Her use of this word is significant. The Samaritans only had as their Bible the first five books of the Old Testament, whereas the Jews had all the historical, poetic and prophetic books. In Deuteronomy 18:15-22 God promises to raise up ‘another prophet’ like Moses who will teach the people perfectly from the Law. This idea is developed in the later books of the Old Testament into the idea of the Messiah who is not only a prophet, but also a King and a Priest. But because the Samaritans did not have or recognise these books, they spoke of their future hope in terms of a ‘Prophet’. Many Samaritans however acknowledged the Jewish expectation of the Messiah and that it was to be one and the same Person.

4:20-26

The woman no only discerns that Jesus is a prophet, and maybe The Prophet, but she also recognises the real issue that is at the heart of everything, even behind her current situation of living in an immoral relationship: the issue of worship. It’s no trivial thing that the first four of the Ten Commandments are about worship. The One whom we worship will determine the kind of life we live, as our life is a direct reflection of our worship. Both the Jew and the Samaritan knew that if the issue of worship was sorted (the first 4 commandments – Loving God) then the issue of right living will follow (the last 6 – loving one’s neighbour).

The sore point between Jews and Samaritans was not so much the method of worship as the place of worship, which is what she picks up on. Rather than picking a fight, I believe this is a genuine question from someone who has just come face to face with the Truth of God embodied in the person of Jesus – she is simply framing it in terms of the context that she understands.

Jesus’ answer is not only immensely liberating, but also would have blown any last shred of credibility he may have had with the Jewish leaders by saying something that in their eyes would have undermined the whole Temple system in Jerusalem (just in case he hadn’t done this already when he cleared the Temple in 2:13-22!). And he in essence gives the same answer to her that he gave to Nicodemus: It must be a work of the Spirit. Just as Nicodemus hd no hope of seeing or entering the Kingdom of God apart from the Holy Spirit’s work in his life, so too this woman has no hope of truly worshiping God apart from the Spirit enabling her. We cannot come to God by going to a holy place or entering a holy building in which we do holy rituals. In fact, we cannot come to God at all. True worship happens as God Himself comes to us. It is as the Holy Spirit comes to us and opens our blind eyes to see Jesus, unblocks our deaf ears to hear Him speak the truth, and applies the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection to us. When he says, ‘…they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.’ We see that the Father also comes to us before we come to Him – the word implies a active, yearning, seeking, not just a desire. It does not mean that people first get their act together with worship and then God will go and find them; rather God the Father is out and about in His world seeking broken, sinful people and turning them into those who truly worship and know Him. The way he dos this is through Jesus. Here we see the God the Son, who has taken on humanity in order to walk among us and, ‘to seek and save the lost’ (Luke 19:10), and this mission has taken him to a lonely well where he has found a lonely, broken, outcast Samaritan woman.

In chapter 1 (41, 45) we see people saying, ‘We have found the Messiah;’ ‘We have found the one Mose wrote about in the Law and about whom the prophets also wrote.’ Here we see this One finding this woman, declaring to her ‘I, the one speaking to you – I am he.’ (26)

If you are interested in any way in seeking God, know that it can only be because He is first seeking you; and if you know God through Jesus it is only because He has sought you and found you through his Son and by the work of His Spirit, and brought you into the truth of who He is.