Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Jesus - before, then, now and then (part 3)

Being a Christian involves a different perception of reality than that held by much of society around us.  Not only do many people see the church as irrelevant, they also see Jesus as being of little consequence.  Christians believe that Jesus is not only the greatest person to ever live, but that he is alive and well today.  We believe that he is not only the best known person in history but that he can be known personally now.  We think that ‘Jesus’ is not a swear word but the name of the living King of kings.  We even think that Jesus is committed to building the community of his people in this world.
So far in this series we have seen that Jesus has existed for all eternity and that his earthly ministry was anticipated in the Old Testament. We have seen that during the ministry recorded in the Gospels Jesus became fully human while remaining fully God, and that he died to reconcile a people with God.  In this sermon we are thinking about where Jesus is and what he is doing, now. 
Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth
The risen Jesus declared to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).  It is on the basis of this authority that we step out in mission.  Indeed we can be confident that this task will not be in vain.  Jesus had earlier promised, “... I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).  The church is not an irrelevant society.  Christ’s church is the most relevant of all societies.  Despite the fact that our mission involves opposition, rejection and hardship we are comforted that Jesus promised his disciples that he would be with them always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20)—he is with us now!
Jesus has ascended to heaven
The risen Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people (1 Cor. 15:6), and was taken up to heaven before his disciples’ very eyes (Acts 1:9).  He ascended in a glorious, physical, resurrected, human body and will return in the same way (Acts 1:11)—today he continues to be both human and God. 
It is amazing to think that Jesus has a physical body and that one day we will have a resurrection body like his (1 Cor. 15).  Of course this leaves us with a big question “how can Jesus have a physical body and yet be with all of his people?”  The answer seems to be that in a way which goes beyond our current understanding he dwells with his people and in this world through the person of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father
Having ascended to heaven he was seated at the Father’s right-hand side.  This had been anticipated in Psalm 110, ‘The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’
The right-hand side is the place of honour and authority. The fact that Jesus sits down demonstrates that his redeeming work is complete.  Yet he is not inactive.  We also read of Jesus standing at God’s right-hand side (Acts 7:56) and walking among the seven golden lamp-stands in heaven (Rev. 2:1).  At the beginning of the book of Acts its author, Luke, writes, ‘In my former book [Luke’s Gospel] ... I wrote about what Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven ... (Acts 1:1-2a). The implication of this statement is that the book of Acts records what Jesus continued to do and teach.  Indeed Jesus has continued to be at work to this very day.
Jesus continues to reign over all
The risen and ascended Jesus is referred to as being Lord of all (Acts 10:36).  Nothing or no-one escapes his authority.  The fact that Jesus is alive and rules over all creation is to be great comfort for us.  The world is not out of control, it is under his control.  Jesus is not simply the Lord of our lives he is the Lord over all things.  The stock-market may crash but Jesus remains on his throne, countries may go to war but they can’t overthrow his rule, our life may be in a mess but Jesus knows what he is at.
Wonderfully, the community of those who are born again, the true church, is central to his working in this world.  This is emphasised by the Apostle Paul who writes God placed all things under [Jesus’] feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church (Ephesians 1:22).
Jesus is being worshipped
In the book of Revelation we see that Jesus is the object of heavenly worship.  John writes, ‘Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand.  They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders.  In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!” (Rev.5:12).
Notice that their praise focused on who Jesus is and what he has done.  Some of our modern choruses can be weak on this.  They can be songs that are simply about our feelings rather than Christ’s achievements.  We must remember to sing many songs that focus richly on the cross and exalt our risen Lord. 
Jesus gives us access to the Father
In the Old Testament God’s presence was seen to be with his people in the tabernacle and then in the temple.  Only one priest, once a year, was allowed into the Holy of Holies where God’s glory was focused—the High Priest on the Day of Atonement.  Yet when Jesus died the curtain of the Holy of Holies was torn from top to bottom (Mark 15:38).  This symbolised the fact that because of what Jesus had done on the cross we can have access to God.  We no longer need to go to a temple to meet with God, nor do we need a special priesthood to represent us before God. We can go to the Father because of Jesus’ past work on the cross and his current ministry as our perfect High Priest.
As our great High Priest he continually leads us into the Father’s presence.  In the book of Hebrews we read that Jesus now appears for us in the Father’s presence (Heb. 9:24), and so we have a hope that follows him there (Heb. 6:19-20).  Indeed we may now have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, and so we are told draw near to God with a sincere heart and in full assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:22).  In prayer we have the wonderful privilege of coming to the Father through the Son. 
Jesus continually prays for us
In the Old Testament one of the functions of the priests was to pray on behalf of the people. Jesus, our great High Priest, now fulfils that role. We see this in two wonderful passages. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them (Heb. 7:25).  ‘Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us’ (Romans 8:34).  Moment by moment Christ intercedes for his people.   Because of his prayers we need not have a faith that is deficient and we need not fear that we will not make it to the end.  He knows what we can handle, he knows what we need and he is committed to our growth as Christians and our perseverance.  Who can condemn us when Christ died for our sin and continues to intercede on our behalf?  Who can defeat us when Christ knows our weaknesses and is praying for us to have the strength to endure?
Finally, the writer to the Hebrews encouraged his readers to keep going saying, Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Let us too fix our eyes on Jesus! The risen one who sits at the Father’s right-hand side is the one whose death made it possible for us to experience God’s forgiveness and acceptance; he is the one who should cause our hearts to rejoice and be moved to praise; he is the one who is committed to building his people, the church; he is the one who will be with us on this difficult road to heaven; and, as we will see in the next sermon in this series, he is the one who will one day return is the same way that he left this world.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Jesus - before, now and then (part 2)

The actor Richard Harris is one of Limerick’s most famous sons.  He explained that ‘Jesus is not just a word that I use to swear with.’  Indeed he isn’t.  He is the man who has turned the world upside-down and inside-out.  What was so special about him?
Jesus was born to a virgin
I was going to begin by saying that no one else has been born to a virgin.  However, with modern methods of IVF that may no longer actually be true.  But he was not born with the aid of a man.  He was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Belief in the virgin birth goes back to the book of Isaiah, where we read that a virgin or young woman) will give birth to a child, and he shall be called Immanuel (meaning ‘Yahweh with us’).  Both Matthew and Luke confirm this in their birth narratives.
The concept of Jesus being born to a virgin began to be attacked to the eighteenth century, and there is a great deal of scepticism about this important doctrine.  I was listening to the radio and recognised the voice of an old friend, a theologian who seems to no longer believe in the virgin birth.  Personally, I can’t understand why this is so hard to accept.  If we look around at creation and see the fingerprints of God, why do we not think that God could create a child without the aid of a father?
The virgin birth matters because it points to an important reality.  Jesus is uniquely both God and human.  His mother was a woman, and yet he is uniquely the Son of God.  He is the only one who can stand as God’s unique Saviour, who dies before the God as a sacrifice for humanity.
The Hidden years
If I was writing a biography of a famous person I would include plenty of details about his childhood.  However, the gospels only include one story about the boy Jesus.  Yet there are things we can gather about how he grew up.
He was an older brother (cf. Mark 3:31), he was conscious of his relationship with his heavenly Father (Luke 2:49), he was obedient to his parents (Luke 2:51), he learned a trade from his step-father and he grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men (Luke 2:52).
His baptism
While the gospels do not tell us much about Jesus’ childhood they spend most of their time on the three years of his public ministry. This public ministry begins with Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist.
The baptism of John signified the forgiveness of sins.  But why would Jesus need to be baptised if he had never sinned?  In Jesus’ baptism he was identifying himself with sinful humanity, as he would later do by dying on the cross to take the punishment for our rebellion.
The words spoken by the Father at Jesus’ baptism are significant.  ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1:11).  These words echo Psalm 2, a psalm which speaks of the enthronement of God’s king.  It appears that at this time the Father was installing the Son as king of his kingdom.
Tempted in every way, yet without sin
Following Jesus’ baptism he was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1).  Jesus was being tempted to take a different path than the one that would lead to the cross.  Whereas Adam failed when tempted in the garden of Eden Jesus remains obedient.  When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time (Luke 4:13).
The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that because [Jesus] himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Hebrews 2:18).  Wayne Grudem explains, ‘If Jesus had not been a man, he would not have been able to know by experience what we go through in our temptations and struggles in this life.  But because he has lived as a man, he is able to sympathize more fully with us in our experiences.’ He was tempted in every way yet he never sinned (Hebrews 4:15).
A ministry of compassion and truth
Jesus was often moved by compassion.  In fact there is a word used in the gospels, that is translated ‘compassion’, that is only ever used there of Jesus, or people who act like Jesus, such as the Good Samaritan and Father of the Prodigal Son.  He was uniquely compassionate.  He was also a teacher of unshakable conviction who taught with unique authority.
He performed many miracles.  He healed people and drove out demons.  But preaching was central to what he was about.  He said to Simon and his companions “Let us go somewhere else—to nearby villages—so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (Mark 1:38).
His preaching focused on the kingdom of God.  This kingdom is not a geographical area, but rather God’s reign over God’s world.  The prophet Isaiah had proclaimed the good news that God would establish his reign personally.   Jesus preaches that this time has arrived.  In his ministry God’s reign is been seen.
The appropriate response to the teaching of King Jesus is to repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:15).  Jesus calls from lives where we live simply for ourselves and to live under his loving rule.   We now live and speak as ambassadors of King Jesus!
As those who live under the Lordship of Christ we will want to imitate his compassion.  We should be moved when we see suffering around us.  Yet we must also remember that he came to share a message.  If we are slow to speak the good news we are ignoring humankind’s greatest need, which is to be restored to God.
Jesus knew that he was God
I am not sure which famous atheist it was who said that if Jesus thought that we would worship him as a god he would turn in his grave.  Yet the clear testimony of the gospels is that Jesus did believe he was God.
He did things that only God can do.  When a paralysed man was lower through roof by his friends Jesus looks at him and declares¸ “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  This prompts some teachers of the law, who were sitting there, to think to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that?  He’s blaspheming!  Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:6-7).
Jesus calms a storm by simply speaking a word to it.  This prompts the disciples to ask, “Who is this even the wind and the waves obey him?” (Mark 4:41).  The Psalms say that it is only God who can calm a storm.  ‘You are ruler over the surging seas; when its waves mount up, you still them’ (Psalm 89:9). 
When Jesus told his Jewish opponents that Abraham had seen his day, they exclaimed, “You are not fifty years old . . . and you have seen Abraham!”(John 8:57).  He responds, using the very words that God had used when he identified himself to Moses at the burning bush; when God explained, ‘I AM who I AM’ (Ex. 3:14). “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58).  His opponents knew the significance of this claim as can be seen by their reaction: … they picked up stones to stone him . . . (John 8:59). 
Near the end of John’s Gospel the risen Jesus appears to Thomas. John records that Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28)—it is fitting that this gospel that had opened declaring Jesus to the Word who was God (John 1:1) should end on a similar note, with a declaration of Jesus’ divinity.
Jesus came to die
While the gospel writers give us little about Jesus’ early life, focus on three years of public ministry and give detailed attention to the events surrounding his death.  Mark devotes six of his sixteen chapters to the week leading up to the crucifixion.  A chaplain in an Irish University told wrote in the college paper that the death of Jesus is not the crux of Christianity, nothing could be further from the truth.
Understanding Jesus’ death is essential to understanding his life.  Jesus saw himself as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.  He taught his disciples saying that “the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and his give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  In the Garden of Gethsemane we can see the agony as Jesus anticipates the cross.  He shuddered not just at the physical pain that awaited him but at the fact that he would be separated from his Father’s presence, and prayed “Abba, Father . . . everything is possible for you.  Take this cup from me.  Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).  The cup that Jesus is referring to is the cup of God’s wrath that is spoken of in Isaiah 51:17.  Jesus was going to endure the full weight of God’s righteous anger at the rebellion of humankind.   The apostle Paul would later summarise the whole of the Christian message by saying, ‘I preach Christ crucified.’
Conclusion – Jesus in perspective
John Lennon once claimed that the Beetles had become bigger than Jesus.  Pele once said that there were three icons everyone recognised—Pele, Coca Cola and Jesus Christ.   The truth is that Jesus is like no one else that has walked the earth. 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Review: Rebellion

In a hundred years’ time, when they are celebrating the bicentenary of the Rebellion, people may want to know how Ireland celebrated its centenary.  They may want to be informed by viewing the major drama produced by the national broadcaster.  When they do they will learn as much about our time as the time being portrayed.
I must admit I like this short series.  I am definitely no expert, but the production and acting seem to be of good quality.  I know that some have said that these programmes are boring, yet I have found them engrossing.  I would have preferred more focus on the main figures of history however this is definitely a more sentimental, historically dubious drama.
I have some complaints.  For example, I thought that the sex scene in the second episode was totally unnecessary.  It made me wonder if this was appropriate viewing and adding nothing to the plot (forgive my puritanical views).   
So in 2116 what will they learn about 2016 from watching Rebellion?  They will see that we have a cultural hang up about the Catholic Church, and have a need to give it a little kicking when opportunity arises (Caroline says I need to be careful with this sentiment as I have no experience of what it was like to grow up Catholic); they will see that our culture wants to impose its understanding  of sexual liberation onto our forbearers; and, on a positive note, that we do not need to portray history as simply being a black and white battle of good versus evil.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Can you submit to the truth? (Galatians 1:11-24)

One of my Bible’s is a red-letter edition.  A red-letter edition of the Bible is one that puts the spoken words of Jesus in red-letters.  Not only are there red letter editions of the Bible, there is now a movement called the ‘Red Letter Christians.’

Red Letter Christians want us to put more emphasis on the spoken teaching of Jesus.  They suggest that Jesus majored on compassion and caring for the poor, and so should we.  That’s good, but incomplete.  They tend to ignore the fact that Jesus warned about hell and taught salvation through grace.  They also ignore the fact that Jesus endorsed the Old Testament as the word of God and entrusted his teaching to the apostles.
Red Letter Christians seem to have a particular problem with the teaching of Paul.  This is nothing new.  It was a problem in the early church, and it is a problem today.  I remember listening to a Bible teacher saying that he had grown up hearing about Paul, but he was now more interested in the teachings of Jesus.  He believed Jesus and Paul taught things that were incompatible with each other.  But to set up a disagreement between Jesus and Paul is to start a fight that neither would consent to. 
In this morning’s passage Paul claims that his gospel is Jesus’ gospel.
Paul received his gospel by revelation
Tolerance is believed to be one of the great virtues our society.  Yet the Apostle Paul comes across as being less than fully tolerant.  He is writing to the church in Galatia (an area that is now in southern Turkey)—to churches that he had planted.  He is furious because they are being confused by people who are preaching a gospel that is different to his.  This does not bother Paul because his pride is being hurt but because the message matters.  He doesn’t say ‘I respect your opinion—that is an interesting take on the message of Jesus’, but rather ‘If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned.’
For Paul there is only one true version of the Gospel.  Those who distort his message are not preaching the gospel.  His gospel centres on the cross of Christ (1 Cor. 1:23), it concerns the good news that Jesus has done all that is needed to save a guilty world (Rom. 3:26), and teaches that it is by grace that we are saved (Eph. 2:8).  This gospel is not to be tampered with, for God’s glory and people’s eternal destiny are at stake.
But why should we believe that Paul’s gospel is the right message?  How can we be sure that the teachers who opposed Paul were not right?  Paul declares, ‘the gospel I preached to you is not something that man made up.  I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.  By grace Paul was called and commissioned (verses 13-16a).
Paul is a wonderful example of the gospel he preaches
Paul’s conversion and commission provide a wonderful illustration of the gospel he preaches.  He was one of the least likely people you could imagine coming to faith.  He was a religious zealot who hated this new sect that centred on Jesus.  He intensely persecuted Christians and tried to destroy the church.  ‘Yet God was pleased to reveal his Son in me.’  God had set him apart from birth, called him by his grace and revealed Jesus to him that he might preach Christ to those who weren’t Jews.
What had Paul done to deserve God’s favour?  Nothing!  Did he earn God’s mercy?  No—after all he demonstrated the reality of his rebellious heart by trying to smother God’s truth and defeat God’s people.  He didn’t even initiate his encounter with God.  Yet Paul was saved by the free, undeserved and unearned favour of God.
As an apostle, Paul may have unique authority.  However, as a Christian his conversion is much the same as ours.  If you are born again it has been God’s pleasure to save you.  Your heart was at enmity against God (Romans 8:7).  You did not start to seek him before he caused you to realise your emptiness.  His Holy Spirit convicted you of sin.  He drew you to himself and adopted you as a beloved child.  He has privileged you with works that he has prepared in advance for you to do.
Is this the gospel we teach our children and friends?  Please don’t teach your children to be good and proper; show them how to be forgiven and grateful.  I would hate for them to have a clean record and a cold heart.  The worst sinners in the New Testament were amongst the most respectable in their society.  Those who have been forgiven little love little.  Those who know they have been forgiven much overflow with love.
An eight year old was been baptised in a church up north and declared before the congregation, ‘I have been saved from a life a debauchery and sin.’  I doubt that he had been all that wild.  He reveals a slight misunderstanding the gospel.  You see the sin that we are saved from does not simply consist in the actions we commit.  You don’t have to have been guilty of debauchery to be a terrible sinner saved by amazing grace.  We are saved from the fact that we have been born with a rebellious heart that is bent towards self, and often this displays its wickedness in self-righteousness.  But while that young fellow may have not fully understood the gospel, he grasped it a whole lot more than the people who had a young boy sing, ‘Amazing Grace how sweat the sound that saved a “boy” like me’ (it seemed wrong to them to have a young lad declare himself to be a “wretch”).
Paul’s gospel was received directly from Jesus
From verse 16 to the end of the chapter Paul clearly wants to show that he did not receive the gospel from the apostles in Jerusalem.  Perhaps the distorting teachers were saying that Paul was only a delegate of the other apostles and that he had even distorted the message they had given him.  Paul makes clear that this could not have been the case.
After his conversion on the Damascus road he went to Arabia—in the opposite direction to Jerusalem.  There he would have studied the Old Testament Scriptures, and through the Holy Spirit God revealed to him the fullness of the Gospel of Christ.  
It was three years before went to meet the apostles in Jerusalem.  By this time he was established in the truth.  In Jerusalem he met only two of the apostles.  The purpose of his journey was merely to get acquainted with Peter, not to get a seal of approval.  He only stayed fifteen days—not long enough to be taught all the details of the faith.  He had received the gospel independently of them.  ‘I assure you before God that what I am writing to you is no lie.  Later I went to Syria and Cilicia.  I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.  They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.’
They praised God because of what he had done in Paul’s life.  They didn’t praise Paul for his conversion saying ‘well done for realising the truth and coming to faith’—they praised God! When we realise what God has done for us, when we see him adding people to his kingdom, when we watch him turn people to him and save them we should praise God!  Indeed, when we see how he turned us around; how he sought us before we sought him; how he made us anxious for him; how he showed us the sense of the cross; how he drew us to himself; and how is now doing a work in our lives, then we should praise God for his grace in our own lives.
I think that one of the biggest barriers to people accepting the gospel today is its demand that we submit our opinions to the teaching of Scripture.  The reformer Martin Luther wrote to his opponent Erasmus declaring that’ the difference between you and me is that you stand above the Word and judge it, but I stand beneath the Word and let it judge me.’ 
We live in a country where rebellion is a part of our cultural narrative.  We live in a constitutional democracy where are asked to decide issues like what constitutes marriage and if it is ever acceptable to terminate life.  We live amongst people who believe their church was a malignant authority.  We live in a post-modern world that tolerates anything but absolutes, and doesn’t mind what you believe so long as you are sincere.  Paul’s claim of absolute authority and divinely revealed truth don’t come easily to us. 
Why should I think that I must find it easy to agree with everything taught in this book?  I might have written it differently!  But I am a man tainted by sin and limited in understanding.  God’s ways are not always my ways, but they must become my truth and guide.  Loving God with my entire mind involves letting him reshape my thinking.  One day we will see all things as He sees them and know that He knew better than us.  Some of my opinions may be idols that need to be demolished.  May God enable us to submit to a truth that does not originate in the mind of any mere man, but comes from the mind of God!

Monday, 1 February 2016

Jesus - Before, now and then (part 1)

The story of the Jesus does not begin at the start of the New Testament.  It does not even begin with the start of the Old Testament.  In fact the story of God the Son does not have a beginning because he has always existed.  For eternity he has lived in relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, before the universe was brought into being, a decision was made—Peter writes that [the Son] was chosen before the creation of the world (to be a redeeming sacrifice), but revealed in these last times for your sake (1 Peter 1:18-20).  Humankind did not take God by surprise when we rebelled against him.  God created humankind knowing that we would rebel and that he would display his glory in judging evil, rescuing a people and restoring creation.
This morning we are going to look at God the Son prior to the New Testament.  We are going to briefly think about what he was doing before he was born as a humanbeing in Bethlehem.  We are also going to study the ways in which the Old Testament prepared for the coming of Christ.  It is important that we realise that the Old Testament is essentially a book about him.
His role in creation
The Bible opens saying that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).  John writes in his gospel that Jesus was the agent of this creation—through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made (John 1:3, see also Colossians 1:1516 and Hebrews 1:23).  We should marvel at the fact that the one who created the vastness of this universe was willing to be pinned to a cross by sinful people to rescue rebels like ourselves.
When we read of God in the Old Testament we should remember that we are reading about the triune God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  As a member of the Godhead Jesus is constantly at work in the Old Testament period!  
There are also a number of occasions when the Son seems to appear in person in the pages of the Old Testament.  These can be referred to as Christophonies.  
For example in Genesis 18 Abraham receives three mysterious visitors, he treats them with even more reverence than would have been expected by near eastern hospitality, and it seems that God the Son was among these three.  Was he the forth figure, that looks like the son of the gods, that was seen with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:2425)?  Other examples of Christophonies may include the occasional appearance of one whom is referred to as ‘the angel [messenger] of the Lord’ who sometimes is referred to as God.
In a small group, a number of years ago, we studied the book of Judges.  There is much that is disturbing in that book—things are not as they should be.  Yet in his mercy God repeatedly responds to the cry of his people and sends a rescuer, or judge.  Although these judges are flawed people their appearance nevertheless anticipates the sending of one who will rescue people from their real problem, the problem of sin.  This is what we mean when we speak of a type.
A type is a person, an institution or an event that looks forward to the saving work of Christ.  The Old Testament is full of such types.
So when we read of the Old Testament priesthood, that represents the people before God, our minds should be drawn to Jesus who is our great High Priest who represents us perfectly before the Father.  When we read of kings like David our minds should be drawn to Jesus who is the King of Kings.  When we read of the sacrifices our minds should be brought forward to Jesus who is the sinless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  When we read of the tabernacle or temple, where God’s presence was with his people, our minds are drawn to Jesus who came and dwelt among us.  The prophets anticipate Jesus being our ultimate prophet and even references to shepherds prepare us for the one who is our good shepherd.
Remembering that Jesus is the key to the Old Testament affects how we read it.  Take the story of David and Goliath.  It’s a favourite for Sunday schools, but how do we explain it? Maybe we have said something like, ‘we are like David, and Goliath is like the difficulties we face—such as a temptation that we struggle with.  David had five pebbles like we have Bible study, prayer, faith, fellowship and service.  With these we can defeat the foe!’  However remembering that David was a type for Jesus we can do better than that.
The story tells us that David was the ‘LORD’s anointed’ (the word ‘messiah’ is derived from the Hebrew for ‘anointed one.’, and the Greek for ‘messiah’ is ‘Christ’).  So David and Goliath is a picture of a messiahtype figure delivering God’s people. God’s people were helpless and sacred.  They were unable to defeat the foe, but the LORD’s anointed stood in their place and won the day.  Does that sound familiar?  It should!  On the cross Jesus our Messiah/Christ has defeated our enemies of sin, death and Satan so that we might share in the fruits of his victory.
As Bible teacher David Jackman explains, ‘... David prefigures Jesus in the victory that he wins by his own dependence upon God and through the power of God alone, through which the people of God are liberated from the enemies of God.’
So now where are we in the story?  Although David does give us a good example to follow, in his dependence on God, this is not where we begin.  We begin by identifying ourselves as the helpless Israelite army watching from the side-lines.  Then we are drawn to praise our conqueror and delight to share in his triumph.
In Genesis the rebellion of Adam and Eve is followed by a curse.  As God spells out the consequences that are to follow humanities sin he tells the serpent of one who will crush his head (3:15).  We could say that the rest of the Old Testament anticipates that coming of this serpentcrusher.  Of course the serpent was Satan and Jesus is the one who defeats him (Rom. 16:20).
The Old Testament contains many other prophecies that anticipate the coming Christ.  Isaiah 53 clearly speaks of a ‘suffering servant’ who will be rejected and killed for the sins of God’s people.  Some of the prophecies are very specific—for example Isaiah prophesied that a virgin would give birth to a son and call him Immanuel (7:14); in Micah we read that the promised ruler would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2); and King David writes a psalm (Ps.22) that seems to describe crucifixion, before crucifixion had even been invented as a punishment, and includes how lots were cast for the victims clothing (Ps. 22:18).
Finally there are titles that are used in the Old Testament that are taken on by Jesus. Jesus’ favourite title for himself was ‘son of man’—this is found in Daniel 7 and refers to mighty ruler whose kingdom will be never destroyed.  
Other titles found in the Old Testament that are used of Jesus in the New Testament include light (Ps. 27:1 and John 1:9), rock (Ps. 18:2 and 1 Peter 2:68), First and Last (Is. 41:4 and Rev. 1:17) and the Lord of Glory (Is. 42:8 and 1 Cor. 2:8).  It is interesting to note how many of the titles used of God in the Old Testament are used of Jesus in the New. This is evidence of Jesus and the early church’s belief that he was God.
Near the end of Luke’s Gospel the risen Jesus appears to two men as they walk on the road to Emmaus (24:13).  They don’t recognise him and talk to him about the things that happened in Jerusalem in the days just passed.  Then Jesus explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures [our Old Testament] concerning himself (24:27).  Later they asked each other “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (24:32)
Jesus’ opening of the Old Testament to show how it pointed to him stirred those disciples deeply. Similarly as we begin to see Jesus foretold in the Old Testament we should be renewed in our awe of him—that the Jesus we know is the eternal Lord of creation and that the one who calls us his friends is the centre piece of the whole Bible.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Offensive Grace (Galatians 1:1-10)

Imaginary Trevor is a typical Irishman.  He likes to believe he is tolerant.  Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and atheism are all legitimate viewpoints, according to Trevor.  He believes no-one should claim that what they believe is uniquely true.  However, Trevor is not really that tolerant.  If a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist claims that their belief-system is right, and all others are wrong, then Trevor writes them off as a dangerous narrow-minded fundamentalist.  He is intolerant of those he judges to be intolerant!  Trevor’s understanding of religious tolerance is not only intolerant, it’s illogical. 
Can you imagine if Trevor applied his understanding of tolerance to other areas of his life?
So, Trevor is a pharmacist.  One day an elderly man with a heart condition comes in asking for his advice.  Trevor recommends the best heart medication on the market.  However, the old man thinks that Trevor is mistaken.  This old man explains that his uncle lived off a diet of Mars bars, and never had a heart problem.  ‘Mars bars must be the key to a healthy heart’, the old man proclaims.  According to Trevor’s understanding of tolerance it would be arrogant to disagree.  ‘Surely it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are sincere’, doesn’t actually make sense in matters of life and death!
As Trevor walks home through the village he comes across a tourist.  He greets this stranger, ‘Good evening, I hope you are enjoying your holiday.’
‘Oh yes,’ replies the tourist, ‘I am off to see the beautiful castle.’  Trevor knows that the castle is in the other direction.  Trevor considers pointing this out, but if he is consistent with his understanding of tolerance it would be unloving to suggest that the tourist was on the wrong path?  ‘All paths lead to the same place’ doesn’t actually make any sense in the real world! (Illustration adapted from Melvin Tinker).
Many people have accused the Apostle Paul of intolerance, but I want to show that what he teaches about Jesus is very logical.
1. What right has the Apostle Paul to define the gospel?
It is obvious that not every opinion carries equal authority.  The pharmacist has a better idea about what drugs to use than the customer.  The doctor knows more about treating illness than the patient.  The mechanic will do a better job fixing your car than you will.  But what makes the Apostle Paul’s opinions about God’s gospel so special?  There were people in Galatia asking just that sort of question.  So, Paul begins by asserting his authority as a teacher of Christian truth.
Paul, an apostle…  This word ‘apostle’ means ‘someone sent’.  It was used of an ordinary massager, but also of an ambassador or envoy.  In the Christian church it was applied to the twelve whom Jesus had called to be his close associates.  The early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.  The message of the apostles focused on the beautiful life and sacrificial death of Christ.  The apostles laid down the foundation of the church.  The important thing about these apostles was their divine appointment.  Paul’s divine appointment was wrapped up in his personal story.  The people in Galatia knew Paul’s story.  They knew how this persecutor of the church became a missionary and church planter.  They knew that encountering the risen Jesus had turned his world upside-down.  Not long after his conversion Paul claims that Jesus commissioned him as an apostle.  He is an apostle, not from men or through man but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead.  The other apostles recognised Paul’s apostleship.  The apostle Peter refers to Paul’s teaching as Scripture.
It is pretty hard to argue with Paul’s qualifications to define the Christian gospel.  A friend of mine exclaimed that she didn’t really care what the apostle Paul taught on a certain issue; that is not a healthy thing for a person who calls themselves a Christian to think.
2. What was the Apostle Paul’s message?
Apostles were sent with a message.  But what was the Apostle Paul’s message?  What did Jesus tell him to go and proclaim?  Paul opens all his letters by mentioning grace and peace.  Paul’s gospel is the gospel of the grace of Christ that leads to peace.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Grace is God’s free, unmerited and undeserved favour.  In fact grace and merit are opposites.  If you do a week’s work for me and I pay you at the end of the week that is not grace—that is a wage that you deserve and have earned.  But if you come to my house, break my windows and let the air out of my car tyres, yet I respond by going to you with a delicious apple tart that’s grace—you have done nothing to deserve it, in fact you have done everything not to deserve.  In a song entitled ‘Grace’ U2 sing, Grace ‘she takes the blame, she covers the shame, removes the stain … Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.’ 
Jesus took the blame, covers our shame, removes the stain and makes beauty out of ugly things.  For this grace comes through the life and death of the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, in order to deliver us from the present evil age according to the will of our God the Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever, amen.  This gospel leads to peace, as we come to terms with the beautiful truth that, in Christ, God has done everything to deal with our guilt and accept us as his dearly loved children.
3. Why was Apostle Paul angry?
Normally at this stage in his letters the apostle commends his hearers in some way.  He writes something like ‘I thank my God every time I remember you because of you faith which demonstrates itself in a love for God’s people.’  But in his letter to the Galatians he heads straight into rebuke.  I cannot believe that you are so quickly turning away from him who called you in Christ’s grace to a different gospel which is not a gospel at all.
Let’s step back in time to somewhere between fifteen and eighteen years after the death of Jesus.  We are in the Roman province of Galatia, which is now in modern Turkey.  The apostle Paul had been in that part of the world, and his missionary efforts had resulted in the establishment of a number of churches.  These churches meet in people’s homes, and these church members are sharing the good news of Jesus with their neighbours, work colleagues and friends.  The message had been beautifully clear: ‘Jesus lived the perfect life and died for our sins, so that we could be forgiven and treated by God as if we had always obeyed him.’
But then a group of Jewish leaders, who claimed to be Christians, infiltrated those churches and insisted that in addition to believing in Jesus you needed to obey the Jewish laws and be circumcised if you were to be saved.  In other words they were teaching a gospel of faith plus rituals and effort.  Such religion dishonours God because it says that the life and death of Jesus was not sufficient to deal with my guilt.  Such religion cannot save people, so the apostle Paul says that even if he or an angel preaches a distorted gospel they deserve to be accursed.    
4. Why would anyone oppose the Apostle Paul’s gospel?
Finally, notice that sharing this gospel won’t make you popular.  Am I now trying to appeal to men, or to God?  Or am I seeking to please men?  The implication is that the apostle’s message will be opposed by people. 
Why would anyone want to oppose the gospel of grace?  People oppose the gospel of grace because of pride.  As one writer explains, ‘there is a natural (and sinful) inclination within us which resists the notion that there is nothing we can bring or contribute … The message of the cross is not only that there is nothing you can do to oblige God to accept you, but nothing you need to do.  It’s all been done.  But we have to have the humility to accept it, and luxuriate in it.’ 
People want to take some credit for a right standing before God.  I remember a woman visiting the last church I was in—this respectable woman was offended by the suggestion that our goodness is not good enough for God.  The apostle Paul says that even the faith that puts out an empty hand to accept grace is itself a gift from God.
I started by telling you about Trevor.  Trevor says that it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are sincere.  Trevor likes to talk about his neighbour, who is an atheist, ‘a finer person you will not meet.’  ‘How could God send him to hell?’  Trevor thinks it is arrogant to claim that what you believe is truer than what other people believe.  Trevor is a typical Irishman.  Typical Irishmen don’t like the gospel.  But we are to prayerfully share the gospel of grace with people like Trevor.  We are to ask God to show Trevor that he is worse than he ever imagined, and yet more loved than he ever dreamed.  We long for Trevor to stop saying that is not such a bad lad, and delight that God offers to save a wretch like me.  We long to see that God’s grace abounds to the worst of sinners, and that it is only those who see themselves as the worst of sinners who abound in grace.  We want Trevor to see that, ‘nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.’

Friday, 29 January 2016

The atheist who didn't exist

I really looked forward to reading this book by Andy Bannister, which carries the sub-title 'the dreadful consequences of bad arguments.'  This book is clever and readable, and addresses the some of the common arguments put forward by the 'new atheists.'  If you have ever argued with an atheist who claimed that 'I believe in God in the same way as I believe in Santa' (as one friend said to me), 'atheism has enriched my life' or 'atheism is not a belief system' then this book is for you.

I have only one reservation about this book.  Those who know me will be aware that I have an over-the-top-and quite-annoying sense of humour.  So I was surprised to find that I found this book contained too many wisecracks for me. The humour in the main body of the book appealed to me, but I got irritated with the endless funny comments in the footnotes.  Nevertheless, don't let that put you off a really engaging book.

You can read a sample chapter here: