Dying to live

September 23, 2008

Jesus says, “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life will keep it for eternal life.”  (John 12v.25)

John Calvin comments: If to bear fruit we must die, we should patiently allow God to put us to death…it is not wrong in itself to love this life, provided we only journey in it as foreigners, always mindful of where we are travelling to.


Work Matters – a sermon

September 23, 2008

Mark Greene, of the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity complains that ministers don’t preach about work enough.  It seemed to me that I had a chance to rectify that when we reached Paul’s instructions to slaves and masters in Eph.6. 


Eph.6:5-9 with Gen.2:4-15



Here’s a statement for you to think about: the Bible is a book written by workers, about workers, for workers.  It’s the kind of thing that is easy to miss because it’s so obvious.  We know that Peter, James and John were fishermen.  We know that Matthew was a tax collector; more like a customs and excise man to be precise.  The Apostle Paul was a tent-maker by trade.  Luke was a doctor, Lydia a business woman, Joseph (our Lord’s earthly father) a joiner. 

In the Old Testament we meet farmers and shepherds; sailors and soldiers; and midwives too.  There are poets and musicians and artists.  Daniel was a top civil servant; so was Nehemiah (an awful lot of civil servants, just like today!)  We can say that Joseph spent some years as a prison officer.  Noah was a boat-builder. 


Of course the variety of jobs was a lot less than there are today.  There were no electricians or  mechanics or engineers.  But the kind of guys who nowadays take to those trades were there.  These were the guys who sunk the wells and constructed siege ramps and could calculate the trajectory of missile?  If they ate bread, it had been baked by a baker; if they ate meat, it had been prepared by a butcher.  The people we read about on the pages of the Bible were, by and large, workers.  Work is so much part and parcel of the everyday picture of life in Biblical times that we don’t see it.  And that’s a pity.  Because we have a tendency to under-estimate the value of our work.  We fall into the trap of separating our working lives from who we are and what we do as Christians. 


The attitude still prevails that what our Y-Zone teachers do for an hour on a Sunday morning is more spiritually worthwhile than what a Christian school teacher does for five or six hours Monday to Friday.  Am I not right in guessing that you still think my job is more holy than yours?  You have a job; I have a calling.  This evening I’m going to take the opportunity to speak about work.  What does the Bible say about work?  Is it a curse, or a blessing?  What difference does being a Christian make to how we work? 


In Eph.6:5-9 the Apostle Paul addresses those who did most of the work in the Roman empire—the slaves.  He tells them how to be Christian slaves, how to serve their masters.  He also has something to say to the masters, about how to be a Christian master.  It’s not difficult to transfer what Paul says into the employee/employer relationship.  The ruling principle holds good, whether you are slave or a master, a worker or a boss: we all belong to Jesus.  Everything we do, we do for God’s glory.    



In recent weeks we’ve been considering the impact being a Christian makes on the most fundamental of human relationships—husband and wife; parent and child.  Paul’s teaching comes within greater context of living the holy people of God.  Being a Christian means making a break with the old kind of life, life without Christ, life outside of Christ.  Paul says in 4:17:

So I tell you, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.

Again, he says in 5:8: For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Live as children of light


This will affect how we behave—we don’t tell lies, we tell the truth; we place a filter on our lips so that we say nothing unwholesome; we prize sexual purity; we stand back from anger and fighting and rage and malice.  For the Christian wife it means willingly submitting to a husband who is ready to die for her. For Christian children it means obeying parents who are doing all they can to teach you the true meaning of life, as much by example as anything else. 


Practical holiness.  A holiness that goes with us wherever we go—home, school, college, the office, the shop, the gym—wherever.  We’ve seen what practical holiness looks like in the home; let’s see what it looks like when we are at work.



Before we get down to details, I want to make one preliminary point rather similar to what I said when we looked at 6:1 and children.  Do not let the simple fact that Paul addresses slaves to escape your notice.  This is totally unprecedented in the ancient world.  There was plenty of advice for masters, about how to get the most out of their slaves.  But no where else in ancient literature are slaves addressed as people with a responsibility to others.  Again, the very fact that Paul writes specifically to slaves means he expects some members of the congregation to be slaves.  It’s remarkable that slaves and masters would be sitting together in church. 


Over the years certain people have criticised the early church for not agitating for the abolition of slavery.  Throughout the Bible there is tacit acceptance of slavery.  To criticise this is to have no understanding of ancient society.  There was no movement for the abolition of slavery in the Roman empire.  It never entered anybody’s head.  The early church was small.  It had no political clout whatsoever.  Slavery was so ingrained into the fabric of society that no one could conceive of a world without slaves.  The economy would collapse.  So did Christianity make any difference?  It certainly did.  The difference the gospel made was in the way Christians treated each other.  Paul writes in Gal.3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.


Here in Eph.6:9 he reminds masters that they and their slaves both have the one heavenly Master, with whom there is no favouritism.  When it comes to the faith, it is neither here nor there whether you are a slave or a freeman.  There wasn’t one faith for slaves, and another for masters.  In the eyes of God, they were equal.  It was this teaching, with its inherent value for all humanity, that caused a social as well as a religious revolution; not political agitation. 


Let’s look at what Paul says.  v.5:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and with sincerity of heart just as you would obey Christ.


Note, first of all, that in every verse—5,6,7,&8—Paul mentions the Lord.

v.5 just as you would obey Christ

v.6 but like slaves of Christ

v.7 as if you were serving the Lord

v.8 because you know that the Lord will reward everyone


What’s the point?  The point is that everything we do is ultimately done for the Lord.  It’s done for his glory.  Yes, we’re working to earn a wage; and yes, our work benefits our employer and somehow contributes to the economic prosperity of the country.  But if as a Christian I realize that the purpose of human existence is glorify God and enjoy him for ever, then that must include my work too.  Therefore, I have an inner commitment to my work that goes beyond any commitment my boss might expect from me. 


v.5 with sincerity of heart

v.6 not only to win their favour when their eye is on you

v.7 serve wholeheartedly


Think of Joseph in Potiphar’s house.  When Potiphar saw how Joseph could be trusted he put him in overall charge.  And with Joseph in charge, says Gen.39:6 Potiphar didn’t have to concern himself with anything except the food he ate.

Such was Daniel’s integrity that when his enemies tried to uncover any corruption with which to accuse him, they had nothing to go on, and had to invent a new law—prohibiting praying to any god other than the king himself.

Nehemiah was so trusted that whatever he asked the king for, he got. 


These were men who were acutely conscious of who their real master was, of who they were really serving.  And it made a difference; it made all the difference. 


Let me ask you: what is your attitude towards your work?  I’m not just speaking to those who’ll be leaving the house tomorrow morning a 8 am or whenever; I’m not just speaking to those of you who can look forward to a wage-slip at the end of the month.


I’m speaking to you who go to school, who are studying English and Maths and PE and Physics and Music and so on.  To you who are working towards your Standard Grades and Highers.  And to you who are college or university, hoping to get a degree. 

I’m speaking to you housewives, who stay at home to do the cooking and cleaning and shopping and gardening.

I’m speaking to you who are retired but have committed yourself to some voluntary project; or to helping with the grandchildren. 

As well as you are in the professions, or who have a trade, or not.  Whether you sit at a computer all day or are out in the rain getting soaked or give advice to puzzled clients.  And yes, you who are mangers, gaffers, bosses. 


What is your attitude towards your work—be it full-time, part-time, permanent, temporary, voluntary, blue-collar, white-collar?  Who are you doing it for?  Who is the real boss?  Who are you really serving?  Whose will do you truly want to fulfil? 


The answer to these questions will make all the difference to you as a worker, to your attitude to those you work with, to your attitude to how you do your job. 


There are two attitudes to work which are distinctly at odds with the Bible.  The first is hostile.  Work is a curse and to be avoided at all costs.  JM Barrie summed it up well:

Nothing is really work unless you’d rather be doing something else. 

For such people, work is a necessary evil, a way of earning a living, merely a means to an end. 


At the other end of the spectrum are the workaholics, those who regard work as the be-all and end-all of existence.  For them their entire identity is tied up in their work.  What they do is who they are. 


Neither view is Biblical.  Earlier we read from Gen.2.  I want you to note that when God created Adam he placed him in a garden, the Garden of Eden, and then gave him something to do (v.15):

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 


This is because humanity, male and female, is created in the image of God; and God is a worker.  The very act of creation demonstrates this.  Remember what the Lord Jesus said to those who accused him of breaking God’s law by healing the lame man on the Sabbath: My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.  (Jn.5:17)

Unlike the Greek gods, who loafed about on Mt. Olympus, the True and Living God neither slumbers nor sleeps. 


Work is a creation ordinance.  It is part of our vocation as human beings.  Our antipathy to work is due to the Fall.  In Gen.3 God curses creation and as a result work became a struggle.  Gen.3:19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food. 


There are few things more soul-destroying than working for no reward; to see the fruit of your labour go up in smoke (literally or metaphorically).  One of the things that distresses farmers these days is that often it costs them more to rear a beast than they can sell it for at market.  When you take into consideration the cost of feed and vets’ bills etc the farmer is out of pocket.  No business can survive those economics.  Work isn’t always a pleasure.  Happy the man, the woman who can say they enjoy their work.  Eccl.3:22 says:

So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. 


If you can’t at the moment, then let me at least hold out some hope.  Part of the redemption of all things, when all tings in heaven and on earth are brought together under Christ (Eph.1:10) will be the redemption of work.  Isaiah 65 has a wonderful picture of life in the new heavens and new earth.  v.21:

They will build houses and dwell in them (no repossessions); they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit…v.23 They will not toil in vain


John Stott has a very helpful essay on “Work and Unemployment” in his book “Issues Facing Christians Today”.  He identifies two truths about work which Christians need to understand.


The first is that work is intended for the fulfilment of the worker.  Because it is part of our basic make-up as human beings, we should find fulfilment in our work.  It’s true, isn’t it, that there is satisfaction in a job well-done.  Stott says that if we are idle (instead of active) or destructive (instead of creative) we are denying a fundamental aspect of our humanity. That’s not to say that work is essential to our humanness.  As Stott rightly points out, the climax of the seven days of creation is not working the Garden of Eden, but the institution of the Sabbath.  We are at our most human not when we are working, but when we set aside our work for worship.  The Sabbath rest protects us from becoming totally absorbed in our work, and forces us to look up and beyond this world to the Creator. 


The second truth about work we need to understand is that it is not just intended for the fulfilment of the worker but also for the benefit of the whole community.  We touched on this when we were looking at Eph.4:28:

He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands that he may have something to share with those in need.


We don’t work just for ourselves, but for others.  Stott says that the Bible regards work as a community project. Perhaps one of the most galling things about the current financial crisis is the knowledge that somewhere someone is making a lot of money out of everyone else’s misery.  That certainly is not a Christian attitude towards work.  It’s not about every man for himself.   Rather, everything we do should be for the glory of God.  How we work demonstrates that we belong to the Lord.  We should be striving for excellence.  We should stand against the petty bickering of office politics.  We should be a by-word for trust and helpfulness and reliability. 


More than that, if we are to salt and light in the world; and our work-place is as much a part of the world than anywhere else; then our very presence can help to transform the values, the structures, the very ethos of our companies.  Most workplaces are to all intents and purposes atheistic.  That is, the assumption is that God does not exist.  They are not accountable to him and he will not interfere in the affairs of business. 


Practical holiness challenges this assumption.  Practical holiness questions the dominance of the bottom line.  It shows concern for integrity and reputation and people’s feelings too.


Here’s another point.  We’re talking about mission to the parish, trying to discover the needs of the community and how the church can help.  We’re thinking about how we can reach out to our neighbours with the love of Christ.  But think about this.  Where do you actually spend most of your waking hours?  Where are you most likely to meet people who are not Christians?  It’s at work.  Your work-place is as much your mission-field as Kirkmuirhill and Blackwood—if not more so.  The people you work beside are stressed out, they are struggling with life, they are hurting, they are worried, and they are asking questions.  They want to know if there is more to life than work, work, work.  You know that there is. 


As the minister here I don’t get too many opportunities to meet non-church folk.  I have to create opportunities, I have to go out of my way.  But you don’t.  Nearly everyone you see from Monday to Friday has nothing to do with the church. 


I came across this quotation from a report commissioned by the Church of England in 1945.  The report is called “Towards the Conversion of England”.

We are convinced that England will never be converted until the laity use the opportunities daily offered by their various professions, crafts and occupations. 


In plain English, it’s not priests or vicars or ministers who are the key to revival in England or Scotland—it’s you who work in the offices, factories, schools, shops, clubs and so on.


My job, according to Eph.4:12 is to equip you for the working week; to enable you to function as a Christian through the week until next Sunday.  And not just to survive, but to thrive. 


Your work is important.  It matters to God. Thank him for your work.  Thank him that you have something to do.  If you’re struggling at work, perhaps due to pressure, or perhaps you are being asked to do something that is morally dubious, may I suggest that you have some physical object to remind you of whose slave you really are—maybe your screen saver, or a card with a text on it, a cross or the fish. 


The Bible is a book by workers, about workers, for workers.  Our faith is not just for Sundays; it’s for every day living.  Whether we are selling or buying; teaching or learning; out on the beat or behind the counter; doling out advice to clients or mucking out the barns; caring for others in hospitals or homes; let us serve wholeheartedly as if we were serving the Lord not men. 


Always remembering that whatever the rewards here on earth the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. 







John 11:45-57 and Lev.16:20-22  Sermon #24


They met in emergency session.  Events had taken an unexpected turning, and with the Feast of the Passover nearly upon them, something had to be done.  Jesus had raised a dead man to life.  He had done what only God can do, and many were putting their faith in him.  Messianic mania was rife.  If God was going to do anything—anything wonderful, anything spectacular, it would be during the Passover.  Time was short.

Messengers were sent round to gather the seventy-one members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, tolerated by Rome so long as they kept the peace.  That’s what was worrying them.  That’s what was playing on their minds.  If the Romans got a sniff of insurrection they’d be down on them like a ton of bricks.  Direct rule would be imposed; and the chief priests and elders could say good-bye to all their beloved perks and privileges. 

There’s an air of panic:

What are we accomplishing?  Here is this man performing many miraculous signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.


What are we accomplishing?  What have we achieved?  Answer: nothing. 


They’d tried the intellectual approach, debating with him, trying to expose him as a false teacher.  He’d run rings round them.

They’d tried underhand methods, devising trick questions to trip him up.  They’d ended up with egg on their chins. 

They’d spread rumours about his dubious parentage.

They’d even tried to stone him; but somehow he always managed to slip away. 


It must have been very frustrating, very depressing.  They can see power slipping from their hands.  The one thing they don’t do is acknowledge that Jesus might well be the Messiah.  He’s performing miracles—the kind of miracles associated with the messianic age—but they cannot bring themselves to admit that therefore Jesus must be the Messiah. 


Isaiah had prophesied: On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all people­­; a banquet of aged wine, the best of meats, the finest of wine (Isa.20:6).  Jesus turns the water into wine and feeds the five thousand. 

Isaiah had also foreseen the time when:

the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.  Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shout for joy.  (35:5,6)  Jesus heals the lame man lying at the pool of Bethesda, and gives sight the man born blind. 


Isaiah had said (25:7,8):

On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations, he will swallow up death for ever.  


Jesus had given notice that this prophecy was about him when, standing at the mouth of the cave in Bethany, with the resurrected Lazarus still bound in his shroud, he had ordered: Take off the grave clothes and let him go. 


What more proof do they want?  But it has always been that way.  People who have already made up their mind aren’t going to change, no matter the evidence.  It’s not that they dispute the evidence; they can’t do that.  It’s that the conclusion doesn’t suit them.  To acknowledge that Jesus is the Messiah necessarily means accepting his lordship.  They would have to surrender their power to him.  The high priest would have to stand aside for him.  The Messiah was to be the Holy One of God who would rid the Holy Land of all that was unholy, of all that was corrupt.  The people who stood to lose the most were the chief priests and their entourage. 


Perhaps if Jesus had been less confrontational, more respectful to the temple hierarchy, they would have left him alone.  But that fact is, he was far from respectful.  He had created a storm in the temple by over-turning the tables of the money-changers, calling into question their strangle-hold of worship and the sacrificial system. 


They longed for the coming of the Messiah—just not yet. 


We see the same attitude taken by many in our own denomination today.  The rapid decline in church membership has our leaders grasping at every new solution that appears on the market.  New books are being published weekly claiming to reveal the secret of church of growth.  Seminars are held and conferences are organised.  Statisticians, sociologists, futurologists, management gurus, are all called upon to share their insights into how the downward spiral can be reversed.


The one thing that is never considered, the one thing, in fact, which it is taboo to mention is preaching, preaching the gospel, preaching Christ crucified.  And yet it is the one method of church growth which has been tried and tested for over 2000 years and not found wanting.  The churches which are growing, the churches which are strong and vibrant, are the churches which take preaching the gospel seriously. 


The evidence is there for all to see—yet it doesn’t suit.  It doesn’t suit to talk about sin and judgement and hell.  It doesn’t suit to confront people with the ugliness of their rebellion against Almighty God.  It doesn’t suit to call sinners to repentance.  It doesn’t suit.  Because, we’re told, people don’t like that any more.  They’ll be offended.  And if we offend people they won’t listen to us.  And then we’ll lose any vestige of respect that the church still might have. 


We’ll lose our privileged position as the national church.  

We’ll lose our seat at the top table. 

We’ll lose our influence in the corridors of power. 


As if the church of the apostles, the church of the martyrs, had any influence within the Roman empire, or any seat at the top table.  What matters is not what the world thinks of the church, but what God thinks of the church.  What matters is not, is the world happy with what the church is doing, but is the Lord happy with what the church is doing. 


John Calvin, who faced much opposition to the reforms he was trying to introduce into the church in 1500s, as much on the grounds of politics as theology, says about this:

Our actions must not be dependent on the prevailing winds but constantly on God’s Word alone.  The person who ignores dangers, or at least rises above fearing them, and just obeys God will be successful in the end.


The members of the Sanhedrin were more worried about what the Romans thought than what God thought.  It’s a trap we must avoid.  Mission and evangelism will always offend.  It’s not that we behave in an offensive or aggressive manner.  Of course not.  Everything we do must be seasoned with grace.  But by the very nature of things, some people will be offended at the very suggestion that they are sinners in need of a Saviour.  That must not deter us.


By the very nature of things, people are going to be offended when we state the claims of Christ.  They will accuse us of being exclusive, intolerant, proud, self-righteous, even racist.  No matter.  Our only concern is the glory of God and the proclamation of Biblical truth. 

Our actions must not be dependent on the prevailing winds but constantly on God’s Word alone. 


The members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling class, can see that time is running out.  If nothing is done about this Jesus then it’s certain that a Roman fist will come crashing down upon their furrowed brows.


Then Caiaphas speaks.  Ah Caiaphas.  The great survivor.  According to the Old Testament law the high priest was appointed for life.  That didn’t suit the Romans.  So they appointed whoever they thought would best serve their interests.  Caiaphas managed to work hand in glove with the Romans for 18 years before falling out of favour—quite an accomplishment in those troubled times.  It’s not difficult to see why.  If what he says here is typical of his tactics then he was a shrewd and ruthless political operator.


You know nothing at all, he tells the Sanhedrin.  He is contemptuous of these small and frightened men. 

You know nothing at all. You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish. 


Note what he is saying—it is better for you that one man die for the people.  For you.  He’s offering them a solution that will save their necks.  The only way to prevent the mob from crowning Jesus as their Messiah King is to kill him.  He’ll have to be offered to the Romans as a sacrifice, a scapegoat.  This is what will keep the Romans at bay. 


It’s a solution of political expediency; of real-politick.  Bare-faced utilitarianism.  Sacrifice one man for the sake of the nation.  The Sanhedrin recognize the wisdom of what Caiaphas is saying; the wisdom, indeed, the necessity.  There is no other way out.  It’s horrible, calculating and self-serving.  The truth is that Jesus was no threat to the peace and stability of the nation.  When Pilate tried him he found him innocent of any crime and would have freed him if it hadn’t been for the pressure from the chief priests themselves.  No.  The threat was more imagined than real.  But it didn’t stop them making plans.


Yet ironically, Caiaphas had said something that was in fact true.  Unwittingly, his words turn out to be an accurate prophecy concerning why the Lord Jesus died.  John says in v.51:

He did not say this on his own but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God.

It’s a remarkable confirmation of the sovereignty of God in death of his Son. 


You can ask the question, Who killed Jesus?  Who was responsible for his death? 


You might want to blame Judas, who betrayed his friend for thirty pieces of silver. 

You might accuse, the chief priests, the Sanhedrin.  They arrested him and handed him over to Pilate on trumped up charges, and all out jealousy and fear.

Alternatively, you might point the finger at the Romans.  After all, if Pilate had any guts he’d had have freed Jesus.  He knowingly sent an innocent man to his death. 

A more pious answer would be “me”, I crucified Jesus.  It was my sin that sent him to the cross. 


In a sense all these answers are right; and yet they miss the point entirely.  In Acts 4:24-28 we can listen in on a prayer of the early disciples:

Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
   ” ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 26The kings of the earth take their stand  and the rulers gather together against the Lord  and against his Anointed One. 27Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.


They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.  This was always the plan.  This is why on previous occasions, when his enemies had tried to stone him, Jesus had always managed to slip away.  It wasn’t time; it wasn’t the right time.  He was going to die all right; but it had to be at Passover time, and he had to be crucified. 


I was speaking to Steven Reid earlier in the week about the experiment in Switzerland to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang; and all the scare stories about how it might lead to the end of the world.  We were amazed at how much this had gripped the imagination of the children and had led to fairly deep theological discussions in both our manses.  Steven made a very good point about why the experiment was unlikely to herald the end of the world: surely something so significant as the end of the world would be clearly and indisputably seen to be God’s work and not ours.  In other words, when the end does come there will be no doubt that Almighty God is the cause of what was happening.  Certainly his own children found that convincing, and so did I. 


The same principle is at work here.  When it comes to the death of the Holy One of God, then the timing, the circumstances, the method, are all clearly under the control of God himself.  Nothing is coincidental. So even the high priest is brought into the frame to explain the meaning behind the death of the Messiah: it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.


It’s the language of sacrifice.  One person should die, so that many others may live.  That’s precisely how Jesus himself explained his mission.  Back in 6:51 he had said:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread he will live for ever.  This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.


A couple of weeks ago we considered what Jesus said of his role as the good shepherd:

I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (10:11)


It’s all about sacrifice.  It’s about the one giving his life so that the many may live.  How?  How does Jesus do this?  He does it by becoming exactly what Caiaphas intended.  He does it by becoming our scapegoat.


Earlier we read from Lev.16.  In this chapter the Lord God explains how the sins of the whole nation of Israel are to be dealt with collectively.  Central to the ceremony was the selection of two goats.  One was to be slaughtered and its blood sprinkled on the altar.  That sacrifice reinforced in the peoples’ minds that the only punishment for sin is death.  That goat died in their place, as their substitute. 


Something different was in mind for the other goat.  According to Lev.16:21 the high priest was to: lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head.


Aaron, the high priest, represented the entire nation.  As he pressed his hands down upon the goat it was if all their sins—their lies and pride and greed; their sins of thought, word and deed—all their sins were being transferred on to the goat.  Once Aaron was finished they were to think of that goat as bearing all their sins, carrying their sins.  Then the goat was to be led into the desert, where the man appointed was to shoo it away (v.22):

The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place, and the man shall release it in the desert.


It was a powerful symbol to the people that God was removing their sin, and along with their sin, his wrath, his judgement.  The goat, the scapegoat, became the sin bearer.  And when, under the scorching desert sun, it perished, so did their sins.  One, innocent goat died that the nation might live.


It’s a perfect picture of what Christ was doing on the cross.  He was bearing our sins, the sins of his people.  This one innocent man was dying so that his people might live. 


Upon the cross of Calvary, he who had no sin became sin for us (2Cor.5:21).  He redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal.3:13).  Martin Luther (Commentary on Gal.3:13) says that our Lord Jesus Christ became the greatest transgressor, murderer, adulterer, thief, rebel and blasphemer that ever was or could be in the world. 

On the cross, Jesus was no longer the innocent and sinless Son of God.  He hung there, says Luther, as Paul the persecutor, as Peter the one who denied him, as David the adulterer, as the thief who hung beside him.  In short, he died as me, the sinner. 


He took my sins and my sorrows, he made them his very own

He bore the burden to Calvary, and suffered, and died alone.


That cross became a solitary place, a God-forsaken place.  The Lamb of God became our scapegoat and perished, not in the scorching heat of the desert, but in the chill of noon turned to night.  And as he perished, so did our sins.  And so did God’s wrath. 


My friends, the bread and wine on the table before remind us of Jesus, our scapegoat.  They remind us of what the Apostle Peter said (1Pet.2:24):

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.


The difference for us is that what is symbolised is not the transferring of our sin onto Christ, but the transferring of his righteousness, his merits, into us.  We are taking into ourselves the spotless Lamb of God.  We are, in effect, celebrating the fulfilment of Caiaphas’ prophecy. 


Indeed, as John points out, Caiaphas didn’t go far enough.  He was thinking merely of the Jewish nation.  John’s understanding of his Lord’s death goes even further, even wider (v.52):

and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.


The Lord Jesus himself did say (10:16):

I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen.  I must bring them also.  They too will listen to my voice and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.


One flock, one shepherd.  Comm-union. 


As we gather round this table, I ask you: do you not realize that it was better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.  Better for you. 


Better that Jesus die for your sins, than you.

Better that Jesus suffer God’s wrath, than you.

Better that he descend to hell, than you. 


Today, by faith, your sins can be removed, erased, blotted out.

Today I offer you Jesus, the scapegoat, the one who will carry your sins away as far as the east is from the west.

Jesus, who died that you might live. 










More on John 11

September 11, 2008

Still thinking about the passage in John 11v.45-53.  The members of the Sanhedrin meet in emergency session.  They’re getting no where in their attempts to thwart Jesus.  They are frightened of the messianic expectations of the mob leading to a clamp down by the Romans.  It would be just the excuse the Romans needed for imposing direct rule.  “If we let him go on like this everyone will believe in him and then the Romans will come and take away both our place [the temple] and our nation.”


Calvin detects in this the kind of fear that argued for moderation during the Reformation.  

“But here is the only godly and holy way to behave.  We should first of all find out what pleases God.  Then we should follow boldly whatever he commands and not be discouraged by any fear even if we are surrounded by a thousand deaths.  Our actions should not be dependent on the prevailing winds but constantly on God’s Word alone.  The person who boldly ignores dangers, or at least rises above fearing them, and just obeys God will be successful in the end.  Against all expectations God blesses the constancy which is based on obedience to his Word.  Unbelievers however are so far from benefiting from their cautions that the more timid they are the more snares they are caught up in.  In this story the form and character of our own age is graphically portrayed.  People who want to be thought of as prudent and cautious have this song constantly on their lips: We must take care about the public quiet; the reformation we are attempting is not without many dangers.”


I remember hearing a recording of Martin Luther King saying that the people who most harmed the cause of freedom were the white liberals who urged caution. 


It’s the same today.  There are evangelicals who in private and among friends will be strong in their allegiance to Christ and his kingdom.  But when it comes to action, they counsel caution.  “Rocking the boat will be counter-productive,” they say.  “Better go softly.” If Luther, Calvin and Knox had taken that approach there never would have been a Reformation.  

Christ our substitute

September 9, 2008

I’m preparing for Sunday morning’s communion service.  The text is John 11v.50, Caiaphas’ cynical statement, You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.

This is clearly the langauge of sacrifice. 

Anyway, I’ve been looking through Leon Morris’ brillian “The Cross in the New Testament” which I picked up a few years ago in our church charity shop “Second Chance”. I’ve always wondered who gave away this treasure.  This is a great example of his fine writing and theology. 

The modern world is ready to pay its homage to the Carpenter of Nazareth who lived simply, taught beautifully, was betrayed shamefully and died courageously.  He is given an honoured place among the noble army of martyrs who have suffered for their convictions throughout the ages and throughout the world.  But that was not the way the men of the New Testament saw his life and death.  It is important to be clear on this.  His death was not simply a martyrdom.  As the New Testament writers saw it he came to save sinful men and his death was the central feature in his accomplishment of salvation.  It was not simply a martyrdom.  It was a taking of the place of sinful men so that his death should avail for them.  

George Whitefield

September 6, 2008

I have just finished Arnold Dallimore’s 2 volume biography of George Whitefield.  I don’t mind admitting that I shed a tear at the end.  “Many may outlive me on earth but they cannot outlive me in heaven.”

I can’t admit to be an avid devourer of biographies but I have read a few.  I think it’s good for me as a minister to be familiar with the lives and thoughts of those who have shaped our world.

Dallimore’s work was published in 1970 and 1980 respecitively and had a massive impact upon the reading Christian public at the time.  They fell into my hands from the library of a retired minister otherwise I would never have bought them (I don’t think I had ever even seen them before).

Blogging gives me a chance to put down some thought on paper. 

First, the general effect of the book.  One of sheer bewilderment/amazement at how Whitefield could work at the rate he did.  Preaching to 10,20, 30 maybe 40,000, several times a week, several times a day.  Letters, pamflets, time counselling seekers.  I was relieved to note that even his contemporaries were amazed.  There is no way I would even try to emulate this.  He killed himself preaching.  But it is a reminder that we are here to work for the kingdom.  When we rest, it’s to renew our strength for service.

Also, holiness.  When I was reading Jung Chang and John Holliday’s biography of Mao, about a third of the way through, I felt physically sick, I was so disgusted with the selfishness and cruetly of Mao.  I had to put it down for a while.  Whitefield inspires me to holiness.  As a young man he may not have always been as wise as he could, but who am I to point the finger.  In everything he did he strove to be holy.  Integrity meant everything to him.  One thinks of how he took responsibility for the orphanage in Georgia.  Paying off the debts kept him awake at night. 

Another reflection.  JC Ryle said, when writing about Whitefield, that there are no Whitefieldians.  There are Lutherans and there are Weslyans.  They started movements/churches which continue to this day.  Whitefield wasn’t interested in creating a demonination.  It reminds us that there is value in living for today.  Whitefield affected hundreds of thousands of lives; they were converted to Christ through his preaching.  But he never left a body of writing for them to live by or follow.  OUr true legacy will be revealed in heaven.  Let’s be content to influence today. 

Finally, John Wesley.  He doesn’t come out terribly well.  I already had a low opinion of Wesley having read Roy Hattersely’s biography of him (interesting to read about a Christian from non-Christian’s point of view).  He made life so difficult for Whitefield, and Whitefield was so gracious in his dealings with him.  Sometimes I wanted to shake Whitefield and tell him to stop being so respectful to Wesley.  Wesley comes across as self-centred, ambitious, jealous, dictatorial, childish, capricious-a megalomaniac.  One does wonder how a denomination of such force could be built on such a rotten foundation. 

That’s all for now, but there may be more reflections in the days to come.

On writing sermons

September 4, 2008

I was speaking to a Masters degree student the other day who was groaning about how long her disseration had to be – 20,000 words.  I had to tell her that I churn out over 6000 words a week.  I write two sermons, both of which are a minimum of 3000 words.  There’s no real reason for that.  It just turns out that I speak comfortably for 25-30 minutes (or should I say, people are willing to listen to me for that long); and I tend to average 1000 words in 10 minutes.  I know preachers who speak less words and take longer to say it! 

Anyway, I’m churning out 6000 words per week.  I detest when people say “if you can’t say in five minutes it’s not worth saying”.  That’s just plain stupid.  My introductions take five minutes.  If something is worth saying it’s worth taking time to say it.  God’s word is so rich.  You don’t rush down smoked salmon as if it’s a poke of chips. 

Sometimes I feel like a sermon factory.  A week (and not even 7 days) never feels long enough to allow a message to mature.  The minimum should be fortnightly.  Research, write the first draft, and then marindade.  Go back to it after a few days. 

Thankfully, there is a dimension to writing sermons that helps beyond all imagining–the Holy Spirit.  The HOly Spirit takes my five loaves and two fish and turns it into a feast for God’s people (I’m speaking for all preachers).  It is truly astonishing just how relevant, how immediate, a sermon can be. 

Sometimes I know that a sermon is a real word from God – I myself have felt its power in the preparation.  Other times, I’ve done a workman-like job, followed the line taken by the commentators I trust, and present it as the best I could do in the time available.  And still there is Holy Spirit power.

There’s nothing quite like it in the world.  A good speech can have an audience clapping.  But I wonder how many politicians have had someone approach them, and remind them of a speech they gave two, three months before, to tell them that what they said was exactly what they needed to hear. 

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.