Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Genesis 12-22: 'God restores what we have broken'

Whenever I do an overview of the Old Testament, I always try to get people to remember the letters P, P and B.  They stand for people, place and blessing.  These three things are at the heart of God’s good intentions from humankind.  Think of the Garden of Eden.  There were people (Adam and Eve), in a place (Eden) and they were blessed (and were to be a blessing to all around them).  But because of their sin, we live with a curse rather than blessing.  There is toil.  We are corrupt.  We are all going to die.

But our God is a God of abundant grace.  He will not let curse and death have be the last word.  He comes to a man in Ur, an ancient city in what is now Iraq.  This man had done nothing to deserve God’s favour.  His people worshipped other gods (Joshua 24:2).  The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you …  Then follows the promise that lies behind the whole of the Old Testament.

Promise rooted in kindness

This promise centres on P, P and B (people, place and blessing).

“I will make you into a great nation

and I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,

and whoever curses you I will curse;

and all peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.”

(Genesis 12:1-3).

Do you remember the tower of Babel?  There the people tried to make a name for themselves, with no reference to God.  Now God is graciously going to make a name for Abram.  From Abram will come a great nation (people), he is being shown the Promised Land (place) and through him all the peoples on earth will be blessed (blessing).  This promise will be reaffirmed on a number of occasions in the following chapters, and restated to Abram’s son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob.

But everything seems to be against this promise being fulfilled: Abram and Sarai are well beyond child-bearing age, Canaan (the Promised Land) is occupied by the Canaanites.  If this promise is to come to be then it will have to be by the supernatural work of God.  That’s the point.  The whole of the Old Testament teaches us that the battle belongs to the Lord.

When God makes this promise he is not striking a bargain.  He is not saying, ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’.  Rather, it is as if God is saying to Abraham, “out of the heart of love which is my nature, I want to bless the whole world, and therefore I choose you, Abraham, as my covenant man with whom I will begin.”  You and I, as Christians, have been directly blessed by this promise.  We have become children of Abraham, not by birth, but by faith.  The promise is accompanied by the sign of circumcision.

Faith demonstrated in action

What does Abraham contribute to all this?  Nothing!  All he does is receive God’s word and believe God’s promise.  In so doing he becomes an example of someone who is justified by faith.  Genesis 15:6 is a key verse in the Bible for understanding the nature of faith: Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.  This verse is repeated three times in the New Testament.  Faith is simply putting out an empty hand and receiving what God graciously gives.

But faith changes us.  Faith shows its reality is action.  Faith calls for a response.  Abraham demonstrates the reality of his faith by what he does.  It is not his actions that made him right with God—Abraham is counted righteous before God by simply believing.  Our good works, our church-going, our prayers can’t put us right with God.  But having been put right with God by faith, our lives change.

We see the reality of Abraham’s faith in chapter 22.  God calls him to go to Mount Moriah and sacrifice his son Isaac there.  What does Abraham do?  He believes God’s promises and obeys God’s command.  He knows that it is through Isaac that all the blessings would come.  He knows that God will fulfil his promise.  He knows that God can do anything.  He ‘knows that if God calls him to do this, and he is obedient to the command, God has a better plan than any plan than Abraham could see’ (Jackman).  Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham reasoned that God could raise Isaac from the dead if he was killed.  In Abraham is an example of a person who believes God’s promises and shows that he believes God’s promises by obeying God’s commands.  This is the mark of being a justified sinner, that we believe God’s promise, and show the reality of our belief by obeying his commands.

However, Abraham’s faith is not always strong (e.g. Gen.15:2-3).  Like all of us, he fails God at times.  Twice he lies about his relationship with Sarah, to save his skin.  But, at critical times he takes God at his word and believes his promises.  Abraham is not portrayed as a deserving man but rather we see him ‘warts and all’ (see Gen. 12:11-20; 20:1-18).  ‘The key thing is not the strength or perfection of Abraham’s faith, but the strength and perfection of the God he trusts.  Abraham learns that God is utterly reliable and faithful to his word’ (Goldsworthy).


John Stott writes, ‘It may truly be said without exaggeration that not only the rest of the Old Testament but the whole of the New Testament are an outworking of these promises of God.’ Everything that happens in the Old Testament from this point onwards has God’s promise to Abraham in view, and the Old Testament points forward to Jesus.  In 2 Corinthians 1:20 we are told that Jesus is the ultimate fulfilment of all God’s promises.  God’s promises to Abraham are no exception. 

But how does Jesus make people, place and blessing true for us?  He does so in both in the now and the not yet.  Now we are children of the promise, the true seed of Abraham, a part of God’s chosen people (Galatians 3:29).  In heaven we will be a part of the people from all the nations of the world that have been blessed through Abraham’s see (Rev. 7:9 and Genesis 22:17).  The place part of the promise is a little bit confusing—it is tied up with the Bible’s teaching on rest.  Eden was thought of as the place of rest, the Promised Land was associated with God’s rest.  Now Jesus calls us to him to enjoy rest (Matthew 11:28-30).  So, our place is in Jesus.  In heaven God’s people will enjoy rest (Revelation 14:13).  With regards to blessing, we now enjoy every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3) and in the New Heaven and New earth we will enjoy the fullness of God’s blessing (e.g. Revelation 22:3).   

The story of the Bible does not centre on good and religious people who prove their worth to people and God.  It is the story of God acting out of sheer kindness and love.  God rescuing idol worships like Abraham and us (idols being all those things that we love more than God).  God persisting with us when we fail.  And God enabling us to live changed lives.

Monday, 15 April 2019

The book and the coincidence

William MacKay was brought up in the wilds of Scotland, and when he came to Edinburgh to train as a doctor, his mother gave him a Bible in which she had written his name and hers.  
It was not long before he rejected her faith.  In fact he came to despise Christianity.  However, he did take a liking to whiskey.  He soon ran out of money.  In order to get some cash, he pawned the Bible.
Despite his drink problem he became a successful surgeon.  He still hated the Christian faith.  
One day a man was brought into the hospital who had been crushed in an accident.  The proud surgeon loved such a challenge.  When he met the man he could not get over how peaceful this man was.  The patient told Mackey that he trusted Jesus, and he was not afraid to die.
He asked Mackey how serious things were.  The surgeon said that there was little he could do, he had at most three hours to live.
'Thank you, doctor.  In my pocket is a two-week pay packet: please could you make sure that my landlady gets that to pay for my lodgings?  And could you get her to send me the book?'  He explained that his landlady would know what book he meant.
Mackey hardly ever went back to the ward after he had finished with a patient, but he went back because he was intrigued about how peaceful the man had been.  The nurse informed Mackey that he had died a few minutes earlier.  Then Mackey asked if he had managed to get the book.  He asked what kind of book it was.  Was it a bank book perhaps?
The nurse told him that the book was under his pillow.  Mackey went to the pillow and saw a Bible that looked strangely familiar.  He opened it, and there on the flyleaf he was startled to read his own name and the name of his mother, together with the verse of Scripture she had given him all those years earlier.  This was the very Bible he had pawned for whiskey.  
He hid the Bible under his coat, ran to his office, fell on his knees and asked God into his life.  

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

How pathetic is our pride? (Genesis 10-11)

Do you ever notice that it is the things that remind you of yourself that can annoy you about other people?  I remember a guy visiting our last church who was something of a hot shot in certain Christian circles.  I didn’t like him.  You see, he didn’t make much of me.  He didn’t see me as a hot shot and made no fuss to talk to me.  So, I wrote him off as arrogant.  
Why was I so aware of his arrogance?  I was aware of his arrogance because it surfaced my arrogance.  I disliked the fact that he acted like someone important, because I wanted him to treat me as someone important.  His pride merely surfaced my pride.  
We like to pretend that we are humble.  We are too cunning to tell you how great we think that we are, because we don’t want to appear proud.  But we would love other people to do our boasting for us.  In fact, boastful people annoy us because it is really foolish to be so obviously into yourself.  We would promote ourselves much more subtly!
This morning’s passage focuses on God’s judgement of human arrogance.  If you think that you don’t have a problem with pride, then you are probably far more arrogant than you realise.  You think struggling with pride is for lesser people than you.  This is a struggle we all have.
Proud people think they are like God
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.  As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar (in modern Iraq) and settled there.  They said to each other, “come let us make …” (1-3).  The words that they say echo the words of God in creation.  He, too, had said, ‘come let us make’ (1:26).  Humankind was not content to simply be made in the image of God.  In our pride we aspire to be God.
They wanted to make a name for themselves.  In other words, they were living for human approval.  When we live for people’s praise, we become very vulnerable.  We have given them the keys to our happiness.  They now have the power to destroy us with their criticism.  In fact, when we live for people’s approval, we can’t even take constructive criticism.  Rather than demanding that people make much of us, we should desire that they see the beauty of Christ.  Rather than seeking the praise of people, we should be living for the approval of God.  
Isn’t it amazing that the Lord of heaven and earth could be pleased with sinful and broken people like us?  I don’t think that I ever do anything with a completely pure motive, but when we step out for God Jesus breaths grace over the weeds that are our stained efforts and they are presented to God with the scent of roses.  Jesus makes our imperfect obedience beautiful in the eyes of the Father.
Live for the praise of people and you will be disappointed.  They are far too obsessed with themselves to be obsessed with you.  They may be jealous of your success.  They may even see you as a rival.  But God sees us as dearly loved children, and he enjoys singing over us.  Don’t seek your significance in the eyes of people, see that God has given you eternal significance.
Cautious people are in danger of avoiding our great commission
The people wanted to make a name for themselves, and they also wanted security.  They wanted to cluster together behind city walls.  But God had commissioned them (both before and after the flood) to ‘go and fill the earth’ (9:1).  In chapter ten it looks like that is what they have done.  But these two chapters are not in chronological order.  Chapter eleven describes events before chapter ten.  It explains that the only reason that the people spread out was because God scattered them.  Their desire for security stopped them from obeying the commands of God.
Where is our security based?  If your security is in our bank account, you will never be sacrificially generous.  If your security is in people’s acceptance, you will never be brave.  If your security is in comfort, you will never be adventurous.  Jesus promised a strange sort of security: ‘You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you will be put to death.  You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.  But not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your lives’ (Luke 21:16-19).  You may face bodily harm and hatred for being a Christian, but no-one can harm your soul!
We have a great commission to take the make disciples of all nations.  That may involve praying for missions and giving.  That may involve being prepared to go overseas or encouraging our children to go overseas.  It certainly involves breaking down the walls of racial hostility, being all things for all people, making cross-cultural friends, and praying for the opportunities to speak about the hope that we have in Christ.  It certainly doesn’t call us to huddle together behind the proverbial city walls!
Even great human achievements are small in God’s sight
Back to pride!  When we live to make a name for ourselves our world becomes terrible small.  
But the Lord came down to see the city and tower that the children of man had built (5).  There is a beautiful irony here.  They had built a tower to reach to the heavens, but it is so relatively minuscule, that God needed to come down to see it.  I doubt that the omnipotent God of all wisdom and understanding is all that impressed by how bright you or your children are.  I doubt that the God who created every person on the planet, and who will rightly receive the worship of an uncountable multitude, is all that impressed by how many Facebook friends you have.  I think he cares a lot more about the state of our heart than about any degrees or trophies or plaudits we can gather.  When he does a work in our heart it soars to heaven, but when we try to make a name for ourselves, he has to come down from heaven if he is to see it. 
Christ will one day bring an end to human arrogance    
There is a deadly serious lesson to be learned from this passage.  The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language, they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (6).  Genesis has repeatedly reminded us of the wickedness of the human heart.  Think of the potential for harm when millions of human beings unite together under a godless ideology or leader.  ‘Just as democracy is a check on the abuse of power, so is the multiplicity of language groups’ (Tinker).  Do totalitarian regimes produce religious liberty and human flourishing?  Look at the millions that were killed in the Soviet Union!  The European Union has done some undoubted good, but let’s pray it doesn’t push a godless social agenda on us!  Even in our own little country the power that be, and the media, want us all to think with one accord.  
The word translated Babel [which in Hebrew sounds like ‘confused’] is generally translated Babylon in the rest of the Bible.  In the book of Revelation, a new Babylon pictures humanity in united hostility against God.  For a brief season Babylon will be drunk on the blood of Christian martyrs (Revelation 17:6).  However, that rebellion will be stopped with a breath from Christ (2 Thess. 2:8).  The story of Babel in Genesis foreshadows the judgement on the last Babylon!  When Christ comes, those who have lived for the praise of people and the security of this world will realise then how foolish they have been!  When we boast and seek to make a name for ourselves, we are aligning our hearts with an attitude that is fundamentally anti-God.  God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.  May God’s grace and kindness humble us, and let us be glad to be what we are, however he has formed us.
I want to finish by telling you how kind, clever and beautiful our God is.
He is kind because he confused the languages and scattered the people in order to curb human evil.  Humankind is simply too evil to be allowed have one language and one government.  So often anti-Christian states have sought to crush those who stand for Christ.
He is clever, because he knows that confusing the languages will actually help the spread of the gospel.  That might not make sense if you are learning a language with the intention of speaking about Jesus to people from other cultures.  But the fact that a united humanity would seek to crush the church means that diversity of language actually helps missions.
And he is beautiful.  Christ is going to save people from every language group.  If you don’t like ‘foreigners’ or people who speak a different language or have different customs, then you are not going to like heaven.  What beautiful diversity we are going to witness in heaven as people from every tribe and language and people and nation sing in their own tongue: ‘salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the lamb!’ (Rev. 7:9-10).

Monday, 25 March 2019

Genesis 4-9: 'Life east of Eden'

The story is told of an occasion when the Times of London wrote to famous authors asking them what they thought of the world.  G. K. Chesterton is said to have written back, ‘Dear Sir, I am.’  Doesn’t it frustrate you that it seems that we have a bent towards doing what we know to be wrong?  Don’t you want to cry out, with the apostle Paul, ‘O, wretched man that I am’?  After the fall of Adam and Eve we see that people have a problem with evil.  What can we do to change?

Cain and Abel (chapter 4)

Last week we saw that after Adam and Eve rebelled against God, God told the serpent that there would be a dependent of the woman who would crush his head.  We could say that the rest of the Old Testament is a search for the serpent-crusher.  Cain is the first-born.  Will he be the one to crush the serpents head?  No!  In fact, Cain crushes his brother Abel!  In this murder we see how the breakdown in relationship between God and humanity inevitably leads to a breakdown in relationship among humans.  Human wickedness hurts other human beings.

Abel has no descendants, and when we read of Cain’s (4:17-24) we see little hope.  The line from Cain leads to Lamech, who boasts of killing a man for striking him (4:23).  Interestingly it is with this wicked man, Lamech, that we first read of polygamy.  While polygamy was tolerated in the Old Testament, it was never a seen as a good thing.  Indeed, Jesus closes the door on polygamy in the New Testament.

So where will the offspring of Eve that will crush the serpent’s head come from?  In verse 25 we read of the birth of another son born in the place of Abel, Seth.  This new line of descendants begins is associated with the worship of God— at that time men began to call on the name of the LORD (verse 26).  This is the line of descendants that we are to follow as we search for the serpent-crusher.

The account of Adam’s line (chapter 5) 

You might be tempted to skip over chapter 5, it is not the most exciting read: ‘so and so had lived for a certain number of years, he became the father of someone else, he lived for a certain number of more years and had other sons and daughters.  Altogether he lived a certain number of years, and then he died.’  The pattern is repetitive, but there are important things being taught here.

To start with a certain line is being traced, only one member in each generation is mentioned: we are moving in a direction towards one person.  This line, as we will see, continues right through Genesis and contrary to expectation it does not always continue through the first-born—it goes through Seth rather than Cain, Isaac rather than Ishmael, Jacob rather than his first-born twin brother Esau.

This line is also a reminder that the consequence of sin—death. Time and again we read ‘and then he died’.  Life east of Eden is characterised by death.  Death is a sad reality that we all live with.

The flood (chapters 6-9)

There are hundreds of flood stories from all around the world.  In one of the flood stories from the nations surrounding the Israelites, the gods send the flood because humans are too noisy.  However, our God is not like that!   

Chapter five begins with such promise.  Noah is introduced by his father’s hopeful words: “He will comfort us in the labour and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the LORD has cursed” (5:29).  Is this the serpent-crusher?

Although the story of Noah and the Flood is a favourite with Sunday school children, it is not an easy story.  I once shared a house with a friend who cited the flood as part his reason for not believing in God: ‘God wasn’t so loving when he drowned all those people,’ he used to say.  However, it should be noted that while God does act in judgement he does so with sorrow:  the LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain (6:6).  This is not some vindictive tyrant, this is a God whose heart is breaking.

God saw how great humankind’s wickedness had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time (6:5).  God announces judgement—I will wipe out mankind, whom I have created ...  However, as well as this being a story of judgment it is also one of salvation:  but Noah found favour in the eyes of the LORD (6:8).

Why did Noah find favour in the eyes of the LORD?  The obvious answer seems to be to look at verse nine and say that he found favour with God because he was a righteous man (6:9).  But that sounds like salvation by works; that sounds as if God looked for someone who deserved his salvation and then saved them.  Such an explanation seems very different to the salvation by grace that is taught in the rest of the Bible.  The key to seeing the grace in Noah’s life is to work from verses eight to nine.  Noah found favour in God’s eyes (8), therefore, Noah becomes a righteous man blameless among the people of his time (9).

In verse eighteen we have the first mention of what is a key unifying theme in Scripture: covenant.  This first mention of covenant involves God’s commitment to save Noah and his family from destruction.  

The flood comes, but God has provided a rescue plan for Noah and his family.  The ark carries them through the judgement into the salvation that lies beyond.  What a picture of the gospel!  For those of us who have put our trust in him Jesus is like our ark—he has taken the brunt of God’s judgement in our place, as we shelter in Christ the ark, we are carried through the tide of judgement into the world of salvation that lies beyond.

However, Noah is not the serpent-crusher.  Like all of us he struggles with sin.  The account of Noah ends with his getting drunk and his sons mocking him.  The judgement of the flood has not solved the problem of the human heart.  In chapter eight we read that every inclination of man’s heart is still evil from birth.


Things look pretty bleak in these early chapters of the Bible.  Two of the dominant themes of these chapters are human wickedness and God’s judgement. However, there is a third great theme: God’s amazing grace!

We see that grace in chapter 4, when God places a protective mark on the unrepentant Cain.  We see that grace in chapter 5, when we read of Enoch who walked with God; then he was no more’ (giving the hope that even in a fallen world, it is possible to know God and that death will be defeated).  We see that grace in chapter 6—God showing favour to Noah and rescuing him and his family.  We see that grace in chapter 9 with God’s covenant to preserve creation and never again destroy it with a flood.

An atheist friend of mine said, ‘I am just a flawed human being, just like everybody else.’  The sad truth is that evil inclinations influence all that we do.  But the serpent-crusher, Jesus, has come.  He died for our guilt so that guilty people like us could be considered righteous and blameless like Noah was.  We still struggle, like Noah, but we are being rescued from the influence of sin.  We live under a new covenant where God says, ‘I will give them my Spirit and incline their hearts to do my will.’  Jesus does give us the power to change.  We change when we humble ourselves, admit our weakness, and cry out for his strength.  And even though our inclinations are still tainted with pride and self-righteousness, he breathes his grace over what we do for God and makes them wonderfully pleasing to our heavenly Father.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Genesis 1-3 'Paradise Lost'

On December 24th, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 orbited the Moon.  More people were watching on their televisions than had watched any broadcast before.  The three crew members opened up a King James Version of the Bible, that had been given to them by the Gideons, from Genesis 1.  Not everyone was impressed.  Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists, responded by trying to sue the United States government, saying that it was a breach of the First Amendment.  Her lawsuit was dismissed.
The triune God creates everything with order and faithfulness (1:1-2:3)
There were other creation stories in the Ancient Near East.  Indeed, God gave this beautiful creation story to refute the errors of Israel’s neighbours.  For example, in the other creation accounts creation comes after a great struggle between the gods.  However, here we have one God who simply speaks things into existence.  While other nations worshipped the sun and moon, our God created everything, including the sun and the moon.  
There is a special Hebrew word (bara) used of the creation of heavens and earth (1), humankind (26) and the great sea creatures (21).  Why would special attention be given to great sea creatures?  In the Canaanite myths there was a sea dragon who was the enemy of the god Baal, but here God is telling us, ‘I am sovereign over all creation and did not need to do battle with anyone in order to create.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  God was there is the beginning, he has always existed.  God the Father took the initiative in creation; verse 2 also tells us that the Spirit was involved—the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters; and the New Testament tells us that the Son was his Father’s agent in creation—all things were created by him and for him (Colossians 1:16). 
Now the earth was formless and empty.  What does God do with this formlessness and emptiness?  He gives it shape and he fills it. We see this described in stages.  Days 1-3 have to do with shape and days 4-6 have to do with filling.  So, on day one, we have the separating of light from darkness, creating day and night; then on the corresponding day, day four, we have the filling of day and night with the sun and the stars.  On day two, we have the separating of the above from the water below, creating the sky and sea; then on the corresponding day, day five, we have the filling of the sky and sea with birds and fish.  On day three, we have the separation of the land from the water, creating the earth; on the corresponding day, day six, we have the filling of the land with livestock.
The sun and moon are lights as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and there is significance in the fact that the phrase ‘God saw that it was good’ occurs seven times—for seven is associated with perfection, fulfilment, and completion.  Imagine if God had created a world without order.  Where one season did not necessarily follow another, day and night were unpredictable in duration, and where gravity varied all the time.  We would not be able to live in such a world.  It is this ordered way of working that enables us to make scientific experiments. 
One of the repeated phrases in this creation story is and God said ... and there was.  When a king or ruler issues decrees things happen.  What an awesome figure God is; he brings matter out of nothing simply with a word.

Anthologist, Desmond Morris, has referred to humankind as ‘naked apes’, but the Bible affords us far greater dignity, we are the pinnacle of this creation—after humankind nothing more is made. And we are made in ‘the image of God’.  We reflect something of God’s nature in a way that nothing else in creation does.

While each of the first six days end with the description—and there was evening and there was morning—the first [or whichever] day, the seventh day doesn’t.  That day continues.  In a sense God has rested ever since.  The job has been perfectly done, there is no more to do—everything is as it is intended to be.  ‘The seventh day is a picture of God and humanity enjoying perfect rest together in an unspoiled world.’  Which leads us on to chapter two.
The creator provides (2:4-25)
We move from a wide-angle explanation of creation to a zoom-lens look.  We are brought to a garden.  In chapter one we have ‘Elohim’ (‘God’), in chapter two we have ‘Yahweh Elohim’ (‘LORD God’).  ‘Yahweh’ is the covenant name of God.  It is God in relationship with his people.

The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being (7).  Here is an image of startling intimacy!  We have been designed in intimacy by God for intimacy with God.

Eden (literally ‘bliss’) is a place of diversity—the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground; it is also a place of beauty and provision—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food (verse 9).  The LORD God took man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it (15).  ‘Human fulfilment includes the human creativity of work, and the Garden is the place for mankind to find that fulfilment’ (Atkinson).

Man was to live in Eden under God’s rule, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.  I will make a helper suitable for him’ (18).  A suitable helper literally means ‘a help as opposite him’.  In other words, she is made of the same stuff but is different from him.  She is equally made in the image of God, but she is a compliment to him.  Being a helper implies that she encourages and assists, but it does not imply inferiority—for the same word is used of the God who helps his people.  Adam delights in her!

The creator is rejected (3)  
Sadly, our world is not like Eden.  We live in a world that is not in harmony with God, not in harmony with our surroundings and where people are not in harmony with each other.  What went wrong?  Genesis 3 gives the answer.  The chapter begins by introducing us to the serpent.

The serpent seeks to damage the relationship between humanity and God.  He starts by misquoting God’s word: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  God had actually said that they could eat from any, bar one.  Then he denies God’s word: “you will not surely die”.   Finally, he slanders God’s character, ‘God is selfish.  He just wants to stop you becoming like him.’  His methods have not changed.  He still tries to persuade us that God’s commands are not for our good and he still tries to convince us that God’s character is not trustworthy.

‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good from evil’ (5).  He is tempting them to rebellion.  To live independent of God.  To set their own standards.  To be your own god.  The root of sin is not letting God be God.  ‘I did it my way.’

Eve takes and eats, and gives it to Adam, who was with her.  Where was Adam?  Adam was right there by her side.  What should Adam have been doing?  Adam should have been reminding her of the command that God had given to him.  He has abdicated his responsibility!  What is the result?  The result is alienation for God.  There is hiding, shame and fear.  Watch Adam pass the blame.  He says, ‘the woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it."  She denies her responsibility, too.  "The serpent deceived me, and I ate."  Toil, strain and pain are now a part of the experience of our lives.

However, God does not give up on humanity.  The LORD God says to the serpent: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers.  He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel (15).  The ‘he’ and ‘his’ is singular.  So, the rest of the Old Testament is a search for the descendant of Eve who will crush the serpent’s head.  Next week, we will begin our search for the serpent-crusher.


The Bible is not a book about you.  It is a book about Jesus.  As the Jesus Storybook Bible states, ‘every story whispers his name.’  The point of the Bible is not to fix your life, but to fix your eyes upon him.  The Bible is not a self-help manual.  It is the portrait of a king.  He is the agent of creation who was with God and is God.  He is the one who will crush the serpent’s head.  And when you look to him your life will change.  When you live in him you will discover your purpose for being on this planet.  As we read through Genesis, we will fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith.  Then we will discover what it means to live life in its fullness.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

The problem of God’s anger (2 Samuel 24:1-19)

‘God is good and angry.’

How does that statement make you feel?  I have to admit that I am often uncomfortable about God being angry.  That is because my experience of anger is not very good.  I get angry because I am selfish.  I get angry when people undermine my pride.  I am not very loving when I am angry.  I do and say things in anger that I later regret.
Perhaps you associate anger with an impatient parent, a harsh teacher or an unkind boss.  You could never see anything good in their anger.  If anger is wrong, then how can God be both good and angry?  But anger is not necessarily wrong.  It is our selfishness, impatience and pride that makes our anger sinful.
If God was not angry, he would not be very loving or good.  The opposite of a God who does not get angry is a God who does not care.  Could God be loving if he looked at the hurt that we do each other and not be moved?  Could God be holy if he saw the evil that we do and not react?
God is angry because of human sin.  But that presents us with a problem.  Because Jesus says that we are evil.  What can be done about God’s anger towards us?
God is angry at sin (1-4)
One of my favourite verses in the Bible is when Abraham declares, ‘I know that the judge of the world will do what is right.’  It is so important to be confident that our God always does what is good.  In this passage we are told that God is angry at the people’s sin, although we are not told what they had done.  We have to trust God that this anger is justified.
In his anger he incited David against the people.  Is that fair?  Given that David later feels responsible for what he has done, it would seem that this incitement involves David doing something he wanted to do.  His actions reflect his heart.
But what is wrong with taking a census?  In the book of Numbers, a census was seen as a good thing.  David’s census seems to reveal where his confidence lay.  It was a census of fighting men.  In fact, in this census he seems to be enlisting fighting men.  In the Psalms David wrote, ‘Some trust in chariots and others in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord’ (Psalm 20:7).  Now his confidence seems to be in the size of army he can put together.
David should no better.  Before he faced Goliath, he acknowledged that the God who had rescued him from the paw of the lion would rescue him from this Philistine.  Last week we saw, when faced with Absalom’s treacherous army, that more of the enemy died in the forest than by the sword.  The battle belongs to the Lord.  It is not his army that will build the kingdom, but his God.
What are the army and chariots that you place your confidence in?  Maybe our security lies in our savings.  Then it will be very difficult when God prompts you to be spontaneously generous.
But there is freedom here!  You don’t need an army or chariots.  You only need God to be a part of his kingdom work.  Be yourself for God.  You might have a dodgy past, but God can use you.  You may not be very good at explaining your faith, but God can use your stumbling efforts.  You may not have gallons of energy for loving people, but God can use your quite witness.  One of the clearest evidences that we care for God’s kingdom and are depending on his strength is that we pray.  A sense of inadequacy is a great motivation to pray.     
David realises that he has done wrong (5-15)
When Joab reports the number of fighting men to David, David was conscience-stricken.  ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done.  Now, O Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant.  I have done a very foolish thing’ (10).
David is in a much better place spiritually than he was after his adultery with Bathsheba.  There he tried to cover his tracks and hide his sin.  For a year David had acted as if nothing was wrong.  Now he immediately realises that he has done wrong.  He doesn’t try to justify his actions.  He repents.
As we grow in faith, we will be quick to repent.  When someone points out that we have been in the wrong we will not react by saying ‘who are you to judge me?’ but we will say, ‘I am even worse than you realise.’  Spiritual maturity means that we are ready to say sorry.  We are to say sorry often, but godly sorrow over sin moves steadily to celebration that our gracious God is so willing to forgive proud people like us.
The prophet Gad comes to David with a horrible choice: shall there be three years of famine, three months of fleeing from your enemies or three days of plague.  David doesn’t choose plague because it is the shortest punishment but because he has confidence in the character of God.  ‘I am in deep distress.  Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let us fall into the hands of men’ (14).  God’s mercy is what we need in the face of God’s holy anger against our sin.    Interestingly, he no longer is looking to his military might to defend the nation against their enemies.
God graciously provides a substitute to turn away his anger (15-19)
In his mercy, God stops the plague before the three days is finished.  Don’t think that God is some sort of unfeeling moral monster.  ‘I take no pleasure in the death of anyone,’ declares the Lord.  Repent and live!’ (Ezekiel 18:32).  When God judges he grieves.  ‘When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord was grieved because of the calamity and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, ‘Enough!  Withdraw your hand.’  The angel of the Lord was then at the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite (16).  Later a sacrifice would be offered at that place.  That sacrifice was credited with turning away God’s anger.  Second Chronicles (3:1) will tell us that the threshing floor of Araunah was later to become the site on which the temple was built.  The whole sacrificial system of the Old Testament teaches us that the death of a substitute is needed to deal with our sin.  The death of all those animals could not deal with our sin but pointed ahead to the one called the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
This idea of substitution is again seen in David’s words.  When David saw the angel who was striking down the people he said, ‘I am the one who has sinned and done wrong.  These people are but sheep.  What have they done?  Let your hand fall on me and my family’ (17).  He was wrong to assume that the people had done no wrong.  The people had incited the Lord to holy anger.  But notice that David is a shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for his sheep.  His heart points forward to Jesus, the Son of David, who is the good shepherd who lays down for his sheep (John 10:11,15).
I told Ronan that nothing could stop me from loving him.  He said, ‘what about when you are angry with me?’  I am a very imperfect parent, but I might be a less perfect parent if my children’s behaviour didn’t move my emotions.  I would simply be an indifferent parent.  God is a father who disciplines those he loves.
But there is a type of anger that God never feels towards those who are in Christ.  It is the anger of a judge.  Think of what happened in this passage.  God was angry at the people’s sin, a substitute died, and his anger was turned away.  Now when God looks at those who are in Christ, he always has the substitute in his sight.  
Back to this morning’s passage.  Can you see that it pictures what we sing in the hymn ‘In Christ Alone’?  ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.’  And now there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Hell: The doctrine that almost shattered my faith

I can’t tell you how difficult I have found the doctrine of hell to accept.  I doubt I am the only Christian who feels this way.  During a time of depression, I just could not accept the idea that our God who is love, would send people to hell.  A friend of mine packed in his faith over this doctrine, and I feared that I was going to join him.  The doctrine of hell nearly shattered my faith.  So, I wrote down some ideas to help us think through this doctrine.
The first thing I want to say is that it can be a godly thing to be disturbed about the doctrine of hell.  You do not struggle with this doctrine on your own.  You struggle with Jesus, who wept over Jerusalem when he considered the judgement that was coming to it, and who reminded them that while God longed to gather them under his wing, they were not willing (Matthew 23:37-39).  You struggle with the apostle Paul, who saw the unbelief of his people, the Jews, and said that he felt great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart (Romans 9:2).   There are times when it is appropriate for the doctrine of hell to make us miserable!
The second thing I want to point out is that while we speak of God sending people to hell, there is a sense in which God is simply giving people what they choose.  To people who don’t want to accept God’s mercy and live for Christ as their king, God says, ‘have your way!’  The responsibility for going to hell is placed squarely on the shoulders of the people who go there.  Paul writes, ‘they perish because they refuse to love the truth and so be saved’ (2 Thessalonians 2:10).  Theologian, J. I. Packer, writes, ‘nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so.  The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give men [and women] what they chose in all its implications.’  Indeed, given that heaven centres upon the adoration of the person of Jesus, there is a sense in which heaven would feel like hell for those who do not love the Saviour
Thirdly, hell stands as a terrible testimony to the hardness of the human heart in the face of amazing love.  Jesus sincerely invites all people to come to him (Matthew 11:28).  God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but would rather they repent and live (Ezekiel 33:11).  Yet people continue to try to justify themselves and refuse to come to Jesus in repentance and faith.  Jesus doesn’t seem to be shocked by the existence of hell, but he is dismayed over people’s stubborn refusal to come to him for rescue.
The thing that I find hardest to accept about hell is the eternal nature of the suffering of people there.  Some evangelical theologians in the last century toyed with the idea of annihilation (that hell would be the ceasing of our existence).  I would be much more comfortable to believe annihilation is true, but the evidence is against it (e.g. Revelation 14:11).  Don Carson points out that hell is not simply an eternal punishment for a finite lifetime of sin.  Hell is a place where the cycle of rebellion and punishment continues for ever—for all eternity people continue to resist God and they continue to receive God’s justice.
Fifthly, hell is a place of justice.  Those is heaven will look at the existence of hell and agree that the judge of this world has done what is right (Genesis 18:24).  Indeed, even those in hell will not be able to deny that their punishment is just.  It is interesting that there seems to be different degrees of suffering in hell that take into account differing degrees of hardness in the human heart (11:24).  We might not feel it, but it would actually be worse if God simply ignored human sin.  The alternative to a God who judges is a God who does not care if justice is done.
Sixthly, I realised that I had allowed my view of God to be distorted as I considered this doctrine.  I saw hell as the judgement of a mean-spirited and vindictive deity.  However, we have to remember that it is Jesus who warns us most consistently about hell and Jesus who comes as the judge.  Jesus was capable of holy indignation and righteous anger, but he was never vindictive, cruel or mean. 
Seventhly, one of the most significant reasons we struggle to accept the concept of hell is that we have not given serious thought to how serious a thing sin is.  This struck me when we were looking at the cross of Christ in small group.  There was the darkness for three hours in the middle of the afternoon, signifying God’s great displeasure.  There was the punishment of the Son of God, paying a price of infinite value to win a people to God.  There were the haunting words, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ (Matthew 27:46).  Look at the cross and you will see how seriously God takes human sin.  Look at the cross and you will see how far God goes to recue people from hell.
The doctrine of hell will make no sense to us until we can see that hell is what our sin deserves.  While we try to defend and excuse our sin, God’s judgements and justice will seem unfair.  But if we are honest about the evil that we see in our hearts, we will know that we have reason to be amazed that Christ has rescued us from hell.  Jesus warned us of our danger, the Holy Spirit convicted us of our guilt, and the Father delighted to accept us as his children as we came in repentance and faith.  And don’t give up believing that what God has done for you, he is willing to do for a great multitude (Revelation 7:9).
Finally, the doctrine of hell should motivate us to lovingly warn people of God’s judgement and rescue.  Rico Tice explains, ‘For me, as I look at Jesus' life and the way he treated people, I see the most loving man who ever lived.  Even people who were rejected by the rest of the world were deeply loved by him.  The reason that Jesus warns us about Hell is surely that he loves us and does not want us to go there.  He knows that if we reject God throughout our lives then ultimately God will be right to reject us.  He knows that our sin, if left undealt with, will take us to a place of unimaginable and unending suffering.  He warns us, because he loves us.’