Monday, 26 January 2015

Wilderness wanderings (Numbers)

By the time we come to Numbers God’s people have experienced some amazing things.  They have seen how God delivered them from Egypt.  They had walked through the parted sea and watched as God drowned their pursuers.  They had been fed manna in the wilderness.  They had been delivered from the Amalekites.

                Now they are preparing to enter Canaan.  This should be an exciting time for them.  God has demonstrated that his power and his faithfulness, surely they will trust him and obey, taking the land that he has promised.  If only things worked out so well!

Preparation for entry: (Chapters 1-10)

On the first anniversary of the Exodus the Tabernacle was erected (Exodus 40:17), a fortnight later the Passover had been celebrated (Numbers 9:1-3), and a fortnight later again a census was taken.  Numbers takes its name from the censuses that are recorded in it.

We see this first census in chapter 1.  Note that this census is of all the men twenty years or over, who would be able to serve as soldiers.  This is preparation for war—the rabble that had emerged from Egypt is beginning to look like an impressive army.  Three weeks later the march begins.  The Tabernacle is dismantled and God marches before them in a pillar of cloud (Numbers 10:11-12).

How are things looking?  Things are looking good!

Entry Postponed: chapters 10-19

However, within hours of setting out the people start grumbling.  They complain about the conditions God was making them endure—especially with regards food and water.  They refuse to accept the leaders he has provided.  Most seriously, despite all the evidence of God’s power that they have witnessed as he delivered them from Egypt, they will not trust that he is able to bring them into the land.

Moses had sent out spies to explore the place.  They returned with fruit proving that it was indeed ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’, but the spies added that in their view the inhabitants were invincible (see chapter 13).  At this report the people wept.  Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, urged them not to disobey the LORD or fear the people of the land (14:5-9).  But it was no use, indeed the people talked of stoning them.

The people had treated the LORD with contempt, they had refused to believe in him despite the miraculous signs he had performed among them (14:11), and so God’s judgement fell upon them for their rebellion.  None of the adults of that generation, except for Caleb and Joshua, would enter the Promised Land.  For forty years they wondered in the wilderness, and there they died.

What has happened God’s promise?  In faithfulness to his promise he does not abandon it but, because of their unbelief, it is postponed.

Preparation for entry ‘again’: chapters 20-36

It would seem that by chapters 20 and 21 all the older and unbelieving generation had died.  The census of chapter 26 confirms this.  So at the end of Numbers we are again getting ready for entry into the land.  In preparation we see discussions on such things as inheritance issues—for when the people are settled, and the urgent question of who will succeed Moses and lead the people into the Promised Land is answered with the appointment of Joshua.  In these chapters God’s promises again come to the fore.  We see this in the story of Balaam. 

Balaam is hired by the king of Moab to curse the advancing Israelites, but Balaam finds he is unable to do anything but bless them, even quoting God’s promises to Abraham in the process.  Here is a pagan prophet incapable of nullifying God’s promise.  The Moabites, standing between Israel and Canaan, are not able to stop its fulfilment.

Numbers and the New Testament:

In both Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13) a parallel is seen between Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness and Israel’s forty years in the desert.  The temptations that Jesus faced were almost identical to those faced by Israel—relating to food, protection and idolatry.  But Jesus did not give in to the temptations.  He responds to the devil by quoting passages from Deuteronomy—passages that were dealing with Israel’s wilderness experience.  Jesus is the new Israel, where the old Israel failed.

Amongst John’s use of Numbers is the story of the bronze snake in the desert, recorded in Numbers 21:4-9.  Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, we read in John 3, so the Son of man must be lifted up (a reference to the cross and his exaltation), that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15).       

In the New Testament epistles (the letters) this time in the desert stands as a great warning to us.  As we have seen, despite being miraculously delivered from Egypt, and daily evidences of God providing for their needs, Israel refused to believe and rebelled against their Saviour.  God’s judgements against them are a warning for us.  In a passage that draws heavily from Numbers Paul writes, these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did’ (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-13).  Vaughan Roberts expands, ‘If we have faith in Christ, we too have been set free from slavery (to sin, not to Egypt) by a Passover sacrifice (of Jesus, not a lamb), and we have been set on a journey to the Promised Land (heaven, not Canaan).  We must make sure that we do not fall because of sin and unbelief, but that we keep on trusting God until we reach the destination.’ 

Extra notes on Numbers:

  1.  Redemption of firstborn (who would have died in the Passover).  Firstborn are replaced by Levities and offering for extra 273.  See Numbers 3.
  2. Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses’s Cushite wife (12:1-13)
  3. Korah’s rebellion (16)
  4. Aaron confirmed as High Priest (17)
  5. Moses lack of faith (20)
  6. Balaam in New Testament (2 Peter 2:15 and Revelation 2:14)

Friday, 23 January 2015

Reasons for God

Andrew Wilson asks, 'How can any thinking person choose God over science?'  He answers by suggesting four scientific facts that point to the probability of the Christian story over the atheist story.  They are:
(1) the sudden appearance of something out of nothing,
(2) the emergence of order out of chaos,
(3) the emergence of life from non-living matter,
(4) the emergence of consciousness.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

What atheists believe about Christianity

David Robertson lists a number of things that atheists believe about Christianity:

1.  Christianity is a belief that's equivalent to a fairy story.  It is based on faith, which is defined as belief without, or contrary to, the evidence.
2.  The Bible is a primatial book written by illiterate desert shepherds who reflect the horrendous morality of their barbaric culture.
3.  Christians only believe because of their parents or predominant culture.
4.  Christians are intolerant bigoted fanatics and a bit dumb.
5.  Christians and the church are anti-science.
6.  Christianity is based on revelation, not reason.
7.  Christians are trapped, repressed and need to be set free.
8.  Christianity is the "regressive" position for society, a return to the dark ages.
9.  Some Christians do good things but it is in spite of, rather than because of, their Christianity.  Religion is seen as the root of all evil.
10.  Jesus is unnecessary.
11.  Suffering proves that the God of the. Bible does not exist.
12.  The Christian belief in the afterlife is pie in the sky when you die, and results in people wasting their lives on earth.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

What atheists believe about atheism

In his book, 'Engaging with atheists', David Robertson lists twelve beliefs that atheists have about atheism.  They are:

1. Atheism is not a belief or faith.
2.  If God did exist then, if he is the God of the Bible, he is an ogre.
3.  Atheist is the default position of humanity.
4.  Atheism/agnosticism is the default position of intelligent, open minded and tolerant people.
5.  Atheism is the scientific position.
6.  Atheism is based on reason.
7.  Atheism sets people free.
8. Atheism is the "progressive" position for society.
9.  Some atheists do bad things but in spite of, rather than because of their atheism.
10. Human beings are fundamentally good.
11.  Sometimes life sucks and we just have to grin and bear it.
12.  We're on the road to nowhere.

Monday, 19 January 2015

'New life, New task' (Exodus 16-40 and Leviticus)

We have had the Great Escape—God rescuing his people from slavery.  Through this event he acted in line with the people part of his promise—forming them into a unified, distinct nation.  However they are not yet in the Promised Land.  Their redemption though real is in a sense incomplete.  Such a situation mirrors that of the Christian, we have experienced God’s forgiveness and acceptance, but await Christ’s return, when all God’s promises will be brought to ultimate fulfilment.  They like we are a rescued people who, looking forward in hope, who must live by faith in the promises of God.

Having passed through the Red Sea they journey towards Sinai.  This journey takes them through inhospitable countryside.  Despite their complaints, God demonstrates his faithfulness towards them: sending them bread—manna (meaning ‘what is it?’), and quail (chapter 16); he brings water from a rock; and he delivers them from the hostile Amalekites (chapter 17).

By chapter 19 they are at Sinai and the LORD speaks to Moses:

“This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel:  ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.   Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’. . . (Exodus 19:4-6) (NIV).

If they show that their redemption is not merely outward, but a thing of the heart, they shall be his special possession out of all the people of his world and will represent him to the world.

                In the remaining chapters of Exodus and in the book of Leviticus, which follows, we are primarily watching God act in line with the blessing part of the promise (remember P, P, B?).  As Vaughan Roberts points out , at this stage in their history the ‘blessing promise’ is chiefly fulfilled in two ways: God gives his people the law at Sinai, and his presence with them in the Tabernacle.  But how can we say law is a blessing?  Because in the Bible, there is nothing negative about God’s authority, to live under God’s rule is to enjoy his blessing.  God’s law is for their good. 

God’s Rule-The Law

In chapter 20 we have the giving of the Ten Commandments (or literally the ten ‘words’).  These are prefaced with the words of verse 2:  ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’ (NIV).  He is their God, and in his grace he has already saved them.  The law he gives them is not telling them how to earn salvation but how to respond to the salvation that he has already achieved for them.

The Ten Commandments have a unique status in the law—they alone were spoken by God directly to the people; they alone are later inscribed on stone tablets by the ‘finger of God’ (Exodus 31:18); they are the heart of the law and they include the principles that govern the whole of the law.

However as we read through the Law of Moses we may be left with a question—how does it relate to us as Christians?  After all there is a law in Leviticus (Lev. 19:19) that forbids the wearing of garments made of mixed fibres—I have shirts that contain a mixture of polyester and cotton!  And Jesus himself abolishes the food laws in Mark 7:19.

The first thing to say in response to this is that Christians are no longer subject to the law.  Paul says this in Romans 7:6.  This is true not just of seemingly obscure laws such as what you can wear or what you can eat, but the whole thing.   The law that God gives to Moses was a temporary measure, dealing with the problems arising from human sinfulness, prior to the coming of Jesus (see Galatians 3:19).  Insofar as it was temporary, every part of it pointed to Jesus, although different parts of it pointed to him in different ways.

So for example the law contains a system of sacrifices.  The book of Hebrews (10:4-18) tells us that the sacrifices in and of themselves could not remove sin, but they pointed ahead to Jesus’ sacrificial death for our sin, and because of his death, such sacrifices are no longer necessary.

As for the moral instructions of the law, the ethics of Jesus’ kingdom go beyond that of the law.  For example in the Sermon on the Mount when he teaches on adultery he challenges not just the action, but what goes on in the heart (Matthew 5:27-28).

And what about my example of such things as clothing made of mixed fibres, or certain foods the people could not eat.  We might call these cultural laws.  When God brought his people out of Egypt he made them into a nation, a special nation set apart from all others to belong to God (Exodus 19:5).  Such things as what they ate and what they wore were important as it marked them out as different from the surrounding peoples.  However, with the coming of Christ such laws become redundant; food and clothing no longer serve to set God’s people apart.

Following Sinai obedience to the Law was the distinguishing mark of the people of God.  However after the coming of Christ it not obedience to the Law of Moses that is the distinguishing mark of God’s people, but our faith in Christ, and the transformed life he brings through his Spirit.

God’s presence-The Tabernacle

God blessed the people by giving them the Law, so that they might live under his rule and enjoy his blessing; he also blesses them by giving them the Tabernacle (which means ‘tent’) where his presence is focused among them.

The Tabernacle consists of a courtyard and a tent.  The tent is separated in two—there is the Holy Place, and the Most Holy Place (or Holy of Holies).  A curtain or ‘veil’ screens the entrance into the Most Holy Place.

Inside the Most Holy Place is a piece of furniture—the ark.  Inside the ark are the stone tablets on which God inscribed the Ten Commandments.  Above the ark is a lid, which has been called ‘the mercy seat’ or ‘atonement cover’.  At either end are representations of a cherub (a heavenly creature).  The wings of the Cherubim spread horizontally over the cover to form the throne of the invisible God.  God tells Moses in Exodus 25:22, ‘There, above the cover between the two cherubim hat are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites (NIV).’  The book of Exodus finishes by telling us that the glory of the LORD fills the tabernacle and stays with them (Exodus 40:34-38).  God blessed the people by his presence.

Approaching a holy God—the Day of Atonement

While God’s presence with his people is a magnificent blessing, it also creates a problem—‘How can a holy God live among a sinful people?’  The system of sacrifices is designed to deal with this problem.

Every day sacrifices were offered in the tabernacle for the sin of the people.  There was also the annual Day of Atonement (Lev. 16).  On that day the High Priest took two goats, he killed the first as a sin offering for the people and then he sprinkled its blood on the atonement cover in the Most High Place.  The people deserved to die for their sin, but God provides a goat to die in their place.  The people can live because that animal has died. 

As for the second goat—this is the scapegoat.  The High Priest confesses the sins of the people over this goat and then it is driven far away, taking away the sins of the people.

The sacrifices enable some measure of relationship with God but it is not a close one.  Indeed only one man, once a year, can enter the Most Holy Place: the High Priest of the Day of Atonement.


The Law, the Tabernacle, and the sacrifices all point to something better beyond themselves.

With regards the law we have seen that it was a temporary measure dealing with the problems arising from human sinfulness, prior to the coming of Jesus.  Insofar as it was temporary, every part of it pointed to Jesus and his teaching, although different parts of it pointed in different ways.

God’s blessed his people with his presence in the tabernacle.  In the New Testament we read that Jesus is the true tabernacle—John 1:14, ‘The Word become flesh and made his dwelling place [literally ‘tabernacled’] among us (NIV)’.   If we want to meet with God we must go, not to a tent, but to Jesus.

The sacrifices were needed if God’s sinful people were to have a relationship with their holy God.  These sacrifices point beyond themselves to the perfect sacrifice Jesus offers through his death on the cross.  His death deals with sin once and for all.  His sacrifice opens up the way into God’s presence ‘beyond the veil’.  

Shortly before Bobby Moore died he was asked what it felt like to up to the balcony of Wembley and receive the world cup from the Queen. “It must have been a wonderful experience to do that in front of the home crowd,” said the interviewer.  But he replied, “No, it was terrifying, because as I was going up the steps to the balcony I saw that the Queen was wearing some beautiful white gloves.  I looked at my hands and realised that they were covered in Wembley mud, and I thought ‘How can I shake hands with her like this?—I’ll make her gloves dirty!’” Apparently, if you watch footage of him as he walks up the steps he can be seen desperately wiping his hands against his shorts to try to get them clean.  

God not only has white hands, he is white all over, perfect in his holiness.  And we had not only dirty hands but in our sin we are dirty deep within.  But through Jesus we have been cleansed from all our sin and so we who have put our trust in what he has done for us are invited to enter the Most Holy Place with confidence.  As Hebrews 10:19-20 declares, ‘. . . we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain . . .(NIV)’

Extra notes: Exodus (16-40)

  1.  Manna – Jesus as bread of heaven (John 6:31-58)
  2. Jesus as the rock from which water flowed (Exodus 17 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-4)
  3. Glory on Moses face verses new covenant (Exodus 34:29-35 and 2 Corinthians 3)

Extra notes: ‘Five ways Leviticus points to Jesus’

  1.  Offering of an unblemished male (1:3)
  2. The concept of atonement (1:4)
  3. Jesus as the fulfilment of the law (Matthew 5:17-19)
  4. The two goats of the Day of Atonement
  5. Priesthood pointing the High Priesthood of Jesus    

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The mystery of suffering

I listened to an excellent talk, by Andrew Wilson, on the question of suffering.  Perhaps you have had someone ask you, 'how can an all-powerful, all-loving God allow people to suffer?'

Andrew points out that this argument against the existence of God only became popular, in western culture, in the last two-hundred-and-fifty years.  This was when western people began to assume that, if God exists, they should be able to understand his mind.

So, their argument went: (1) An all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God would not permit suffering without good reason, (2) I cannot think of any good reasons why he would allow certain tragedies, (3) therefore, there isn't one, (4) suffering exists, (5) so an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God does not exist.  

The problem obviously centres on point 3.

Most cultures look at this issue differently.  They do not assume that they have full knowledge of the mind of God/gods.  So they would reason: (1) An all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God would not permit suffering without good reason, (2) I cannot think of any good reasons why he would allow certain tragedies, (3) my knowledge, however, is hugely limited, (4) suffering exists, (5) this is a mystery.

'The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law' (Deut. 29:29).

Friday, 9 January 2015

How you deal with annoying people demonstrates if we are born again (Matthew 5:38-48)

What do you do when someone wounds you?  How do you deal with people who don’t like you?  What do you do when someone says things that hurt?  How do you react when people are rude?  I want to suggest that how you deal with difficult people reveals whether you are born again.
1.  Don’t get mad, and don’t get even

The religious teachers of that day had taught the people badly, so Jesus corrects some popular misunderstandings.

“You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’”  It’s true that the Old Testament teaches this principle, but as a guide for the courts.  We should want a legal system where the punishment is proportional to the crime.  However, the Old Testament expressly forbids taking the law into our own hands and exacting personal revenge.  Therefore, the religious teachers were out of line when they applied the ‘eye for an eye principle’ to personal vendettas.  Instead, we are not to resist the evil person.

‘If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’  Striking someone on the right cheek with a blow from the back of the hand is still an insulting act in the Middle-East.  Don’t get uptight when someone insults you.

‘If anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let them have your cloak as well.’  Remember that the context is about not resisting the evil-doer; the case against you may be unjust.  Don’t get bitter when someone treats you unfairly. 

It is very satisfying to be a volunteer and to be appreciated for what you do.  However, when a Roman soldier commandeered a Jewish man to carry his baggage, that man had no choice and was not going to receive any thanks.  Instead of being resentful, we are to go the extra mile.

We are also to be generous, by giving to the one who begs from us.  How easy do people find it to ask us for a favour?  We are to give to the one who asks, and not to turn away the one who wants to borrow from us.

Of course, by not resisting the evil person, we are following in the footsteps of Christ.  Peter tells us that, ‘Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps … when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but entrusted himself to him who judges justly’ (1 Peter 2:21-23).
2. Love the one who wrongs you

Augustine wrote, ‘Many people have learned to offer the other cheek, but do not know how to love the person who struck them.’  Not only do we not resist the evil person, we love our enemies.

‘You have heard it said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.”’  The Scriptures do teach that we are to love our neighbour, but it never commands us to hate our enemy.  ‘I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’  When I was in theological college, one lecturer pointed out that it is difficult to keep on hating someone you are praying for every day.

We are to love our enemies, ‘so that you may be sons of our Father in Heaven.’  God not only provides for those who love him but also for those who remain hostile towards him.  His love should inspire us to go beyond the worldly love that only loves those who are like us, and nice to us.  After all, ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’

Conclusion—‘Be perfect’ (48)

Jesus concludes his six ‘you have heard it said’ statements saying, ‘therefore, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’.  Not that Christians will live without moral failings; he later teaches us to pray ‘forgive us our trespasses.’  But by calling us to be perfect Jesus is comparing the imperfect, superficial, outward religion being taught by the Pharisees and teachers of the law, with the heart-transforming, life-changing religion that he points to.

The fruit of God’s presence in our lives demonstrates that we are spiritually alive, like the fruit in an orchard reveals that the apple trees are healthy.  So if you want to be sure that you are truly a Christian, depend on God to help you with difficult people.  ‘For, not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven’ (5:21).