A mistake

April 7, 2014

Walking back to my car having been rummaging around a couple of charity shops for books (you never know what you might find) I spotted a wayside pulpit.  The verse was Isaiah 53:5 and was in the shape of a cross—that’s why I noticed it.  I felt obliged to read it, just as I feel obliged to take a tract from anyone who hands me one—it’s what I’d want them to do for me if I were in their shoes.  Anyway, in order to encourage the poster I read it.  And was taken aback.  For instead of “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities” it read “he was hurt for our mistakes.”  Our mistakes!

Is this dumbing down or is this making scripture more comprehensible to the lay-person, particularly the biblically illiterate lay-person?

You’ll not be surprised to learn that I am not a “dumbing down” sort of person.  I particularly hate this in the re-writing of well-known hymns.  This past Sunday, actually, some of us had a discussion about which version of “And can it be” to use.  For some strange reason the compliers of the Praise hymn book (a hymn book aimed at some of the most theologically literate congregations in the country) chose to re-write some of the lines.

Second verse:

What mystery here, the Immortal dies, who can explore his strange design?

In vain the highest angel tries to sound the depths of love divine?

 What is wrong with, Tis mystery all; and the first born seraph?

Credit where credit is due, though.  We’ve to thank the Praise compliers for scratching the questionable emptied himself of all but love, and allowing us to sing humbled himself in all his love.  But this is a theological decision.  Why Thine be the glory has to be changed to Glory to Jesus, is beyond me.  Schools don’t present their pupils with re-writes of Shakespeare or Burns.  The kids learn the meaning and are the better for it.  Worship leaders (ie the minister) should take a moment to explain an obscure phrase or allusion in a hymn.

 Likewise, preachers are always being told to avoid jargon in our sermons.  “Don’t talk about justification, sanctification, or the parousia.”   Let me confess—I do talk about justification, sanctification and the parousia; and I use the words too.  So I explain them.  I illustrate them.  People aren’t idiots and they like to be treated as intelligent, sentient beings.  And, they are Biblical words; words that any serious student of the Bible is bound to come across.

So back to “he was hurt for mistakes.” I tried to discover which translation this came from.  Obviously, my knee-jerk assumption was the Good News Bible or the Living Bible or even the Message.  I apologise. They are not guilty.

Guilty of what?  Guilty of more than just dumbing down.  Guilty of misleading.  The Hebrew words mean he was wounded or pierced, not just hurt.  You can be hurt with words; a slap on the wrist can hurt you.  Our Lord Jesus was more than hurt.  Sticks were used to beat him; thorns were twisted into a crown and forced upon his head; he was whipped within an inch of his life.  Pierced perfectly describes his crucifixion (nails through wrists and feet) and the soldier thrusting his javelin through our Lord’s side to ensure he was dead.  That’s a more than being hurt.

Our Lord suffered all this for our transgressions.  The root Hebrew word means “rebellion”.  Various translations say “transgressions” (the idea of going beyond a fixed limit), “iniquities” (contravening justice), “sins”, “wrong-doing”, “rebellion”.  All these convey the idea without dumbing down what Isaiah means.  Even the Good News version is good “because of the evil we did.”  I can’t find the translation that says “mistakes”.  I hope that’s because it is an obscure one.

What’s the problem?  The problem is that the idea of a mistake is morally neutral.  One can make a mistake in good faith.  You can’t sin or rebel in good faith.  So, what does the uninformed reader of that way-side pulpit conclude about the death of our Lord Jesus?

Does he conclude that Jesus’ death was a mistake?  An innocent person was executed by mistake?  And somehow I am implicated in that mistake?  How?

Or, because of a well-spent childhood, does he know that Christians believe Jesus died for our sins, and conclude that his sins are simply errors of judgement—he should have known his wife would have found about the affair sooner or later?  The ultimate sin: to be found out.

To err is human.  I made a mistake; so what, I’m only human.

I fear that whoever thought that this translation of Isaiah’s great exposure of human culpability would be helpful was mistaken.  It deprives sin of its core meaning, that it is rebellion against our Sovereign God, our declaration of independence from our Creator.  That sin is a mistake is undoubted.  But that it is only a mistake is to underestimate its seriousness.  After all, it was because of our sins and in order to deal with our sins, that Christ died.

Advertisements

CHRIST DIED FOR OUR SINS

August 20, 2011

1 Corinthians 15:3; John 4:43-54; Leviticus.1:1-9

 RECAP

Last week we entered what I called the last lap of 1 Corinthians.  Having considered such obscure issues as food offered to idols and head-coverings for women; having blushed as we listened to the sexual antics of the Corinthians condemned, and squirmed as our marriages were held up for scrutiny; we at last feel that we are on safer ground.

For in chapter 15 Paul will counter the argument that there is no resurrection of the body.  This is what some of the Corinthians were saying (v.12):But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 

 The super-spiritual Corinthians did not like the idea of a resurrected body.  In the life-to-come, they wanted to be blessed spirits, free from all the constraints that a body inflicts upon a soul.  Paul’s answer is (v.13):

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 

 And if Christ has not been raised then the whole of apostolic Christianity come tumbling down.  v.14:And if Christ has not been raised our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

 Paul feels the need to take the Corinthians back to basics, back to first principles. So he says to them in v.1: Now brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you

Denying the resurrection of believers—with its implication of denying Christ’s resurrection too—is not one of those matters over which we can agree to disagree.  It strikes at the heart of our faith. 

There’s never any harm—indeed, there is often a lot of good—in returning to the basics of our faith.  So that’s what we’ll be doing for the next few weeks.  This week we’re going to examine the phrase Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. 

 TEXT

A gospel received

But just before we do so I want to draw your attention to the fact that Paul says to the Corinthians,  For what I received I passed on to you.

 There’s a bit of a fad these days among historians which is to describe the Apostle Paul as the founder of Christianity.  For example, in Simon Segbag Montefiore’s most recent book “Jerusalem: the biography”, he calls the Paul the “creator of Christianity”. 

 It’s a very subtle way of undermining Paul’s theology and any form of Christianity which takes his teaching seriously.  Their point is that it was Paul who transformed the man Jesus of Nazareth into the Son of God.  Because he was more energetic and visionary than the Jerusalem-based apostles; because he was willing to break free from the constraints of Judaism and preach to the Gentiles—Paul’s version of Christianity won the day. 

Without Paul, Christianity would simply have become another Jewish sect, like the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Essenes. 

 Therefore, Paul, rather than Jesus, is the true founder of Christianity; the implication being that what Paul created was a million miles from anything Jesus had envisaged.  It’s a way of driving a wedge between Jesus and Paul.  It’s purpose, as a I say, is to undermine Paul’s theology, especially his interpretation of Christ’s death. 

 Well, look at what Paul says in v.3 about the content of the gospel he preached to the Corinthians: For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance

 For what I received.  Paul is saying that he is not the inventor of the gospel.  For all his original thinking in many aspects of the faith, he does not claim the gospel as his own bright idea.  That Christ died for sins and rose on the third day are truths he himself was taught.

 In v.8 he talks about how the Lord Jesus appeared to him, that is, on the road to Damascus:and last of all he appeared to me as to one abnormally born.

 That encounter with the Lord Jesus convinced Paul that Jesus was none other than the Messiah, the Son of God.  But thereafter it was brave Christians like Ananias and others in the Damascus church who took Paul under their wing.  And later it was Barnabas who persuaded the apostles to accept Paul—their former persecutor—as a brother in Christ. 

 They would have taught Paul the facts about Jesus.  They would have recalled his teaching—the Sermon on the Mount, his parables—and particularly the teaching done in private, such as in the upper room before his arrest.  And he would have heard from them about our Lord’s resurrection appearances, which he lists here in chapter 15. 

 Friends, let me make this one point of application.  Our faith is a received faith. 

Be very suspicious of anyone claiming to have discovered something new about our faith, something that the church has neglected since New Testament times.  On a popular level there are the Da Vinci Code-type conspiracy theories about secret teachings and suppressed Gospels.  But even among academics, there are those who want to make a name for themselves by claiming that we’ve misread the Bible, or even that those who wrote the New Testament misunderstood Jesus. 

When you come across these theories either in books or on the TV, don’t panic.  There’s nothing new under the sun.  Just about every crazy idea has had an airing at some point or another during the last two thousand years. 

Ask yourself—who gains by this?  Is there a book deal behind all this?  A TV series perhaps? 

And more to the point, ask yourself—do I gain by this?  Does this help my faith?  Does this new perspective enrich me spiritually, or does it leave my soul impoverished? 

One of the great comforts of our faith is that despite so many efforts to stamp it out, and despite times when the simple gospel has been suffocated by elaboration and ornamentation, the message of the apostles has been passed down to us so that we too can discover that Christ died for our sins. 

Christ died

Now then, let’s focus on this phrase, which Paul says is of first importance:Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures

 1. Christ died for our sins

The first point we need to note is that there is a connection between Christ’s death and our sins. 

Sin is a problem.  Your sin is a problem.  Your sin is so serious that the Lord Jesus recommends that you cut off your hand or gouge out your eye rather than go to hell with them intact.  (Mt.5:29,30)

Your sin has stirred up the wrath of Almighty God.  Just as we have taken his beautiful creation and trashed it with our polluting gases and chemicals; we have polluted the climax of his creation, ourselves, with our greed and lies and pride and selfishness. 

How did you feel when you saw pictures of those muggers pretending to help that Malaysian student who’d been hurt, while they were actually stealing from him?  Or watching the furniture store going up in flames—a beautiful Victorian building which had been in the family for over a hundred years?  Or listening to Tariq Jahan, father of one of the young men run over and killed as they tried to defend their property? 

Who could remain unmoved?  Who could remain impassive?  Were you not enraged?  Just as we are enraged when we hear of millions starving because of corrupt governments; or of children suffering because of abusive adults; or of the innocent being jailed while the guilty walk free? 

What kind of God, then, would the Living God be, if he remained indifferent to the cruelty that human beings inflict on one another; or the vindictiveness that we spit at one another; or the malice towards others that swirls around our minds?  It makes God angry that we fail to love our neighbour as ourselves.

And it makes God angry that we do not love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  Our sin is a personal affront to our Maker. 

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.  (Ps.51:4)

Sin is a problem.  It separates us from God, and will continue to do so through all of eternity unless something is done about it.

The marvellous truth is that something has been done.  The Living God, the one we have offended, has acted in grace and mercy. 

A couple of years ago we did a short series of sermons on the book of Leviticus.  It’s one of the most neglected books in the Bible, regarded as unintelligible and irrelevant.  After all, in the light of the cross isn’t it redundant, with all its rules and regulations about rituals and sacrifices? 

True, it is redundant in the sense that because of Jesus we no longer need to put into practice its stipulations about sacrificing bulls and goats and lambs. 

But if you want to understand the connection between Christ’s death and our sins, it is essential that you get to grips with Leviticus.  For it is in Leviticus that the concept of substitution is explained.  The animal dies as the worshipper’s substitute.  

Leviticus 1 contains the basic rules for making a burnt offering, which was offered in order to obtain forgiveness of sins.  v.3 says that the offering must come from the herd (that is, it must cost the worshipper something, it can’t be road kill) and it must be a male without defect (the most valuable in the herd).  Look at v.4:He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.

By laying his hand upon the animal’s head, the worshipper was doing two things.  First, it was an act of connection.  He was identifying the animal with himself.  He was saying, “This animal is me.  What happens to this animal is done to me.”  Second, he was symbolically transferring his sins to the animal.  It would die as his substitute.  It was dying for his sins. 

He had to slit its throat, collect the blood in a basin, and then the priest would sprinkle the blood on the sides of the altar. 

Paul makes the connection between our Lord’s death and the concept of substitution by using  that little word “for”—Christ died for our sins. 

When you do something for someone you are doing it because they can’t do it for themselves.  A child can’t cut up their food; you do it for them. 

The Apostle Peter does the same in 1Pet. 3:18:

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God

The interesting question is, how did the apostles come to make the connection between our Lord’s death and the sacrificial system of the Old Testament?  After all, there was nothing intrinsic in the crucifixion to link Jesus’ death to sacrifice and atonement. 

The only plausible answer is that it was Jesus himself who made the connection.  As he celebrated the Passover with them, Jesus said to his disciples, (Mt.26:28): This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins. 

Christ Jesus gave his life, poured out his blood, so that the “many” (those who trust in him) need not.  He died as their substitute.   The same idea lies behind our Lord’s statement in Mk.10:45 when he says:

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

What is a ransom?  It’s money paid so that a prisoner can go free.  The money takes the place of, is the substitute for, the prisoner. 

Theologians refer to this teaching as the doctrine of penal substitution.  Substitution speaks of someone taking someone else’s place.  That’s what happens in sport, when a player is injured or isn’t playing well.  The Lord Jesus Christ is our substitute, he takes our place.  In truth, it should have been me on that cross. 

The word penal refers to the fact that in becoming our substitute our Lord was punished for our sin.  We talk about the penal system, that is, the system by which criminals are punished for their crimes.  Again, in sport, when someone breaks the rules a penalty is awarded.  The Lord Jesus bore, endured, suffered the penalty that we deserve. 

This is what the Bible teaches and this is how the Church has always understood Christ’s death. 

Here is love vast as the ocean, loving-kindness like the flood

When the Prince of life, our ransom, shed for us his precious blood.

 2. according to the Scriptures

Let’s move on the second phrase; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.  Why does Paul feel the need to add that phrase, according to the Scriptures?   We can identify various reasons, but the most important is to demonstrate that Christianity, far from being a new religion, is in direct continuity with Old Testament religion. 

For Christians to say that Jesus was the promised Messiah was ludicrous to Jewish minds.  At first they had wondered.  He seemed to act like the Messiah—giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, even the way he had stormed through the temple.  Hosanna to the Son of David, they cried. 

But then he had categorically proved that he could not be the Messiah—he got himself crucified.  As Paul says in 1Cor.1:23: but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews

Yet the first Christians insisted that this Jesus, this crucified Jesus, was indeed the Messiah.  Again, we have to ask, Where did they get this idea from?  1st century Palestine was a hot-bed of Messianic expectation and there were no shortages of claimants for the title.  But as each pretender was dispatched by the Romans, their followers evaporated.  Not so with Jesus.  Why were his disciples so dogged? 

One answer is his resurrection. 

Another, is the Scriptures.  And it was the Lord Jesus himself who taught them this.  Lets walk behind those two distressed disciples hurrying back to Emmaus, and eavesdrop on their conversation with that stranger who had joined them.  We know it’s Jesus, but they don’t.

He said to them, How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.  Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning him.  (Lk. 24:25)

I’ve often wondered what specific Scriptures the Lord spoke about.  Let me suggest that he probably talked about how the whole sacrificial system, with its insistence on the shedding of blood, pointed forward to him. 

Then there’s Exodus 12, the Passover story.  The lamb was to be without defect and it’s blood was to be smeared on the lintels of the door-posts.  That lamb died so that the eldest son within the household would live—substitution.  Remember that the Passover was the backdrop to our Lord’s death.  While the bleating lambs were being slaughtered in the temple, the bleeding Lamb of God was dying on the cross.

And surely Isaiah 53.  The language of penal substitution runs through the chapter like a motto through a stick of rock:

            he took up our infirmities

            he carried our sorrows

            he was pierced for our transgressions

            he was crushed for our iniquities

            the punishment that brought us peace was upon him

            and by his wounds we are healed

 For he bore the sin of many and made intercession for transgressions (last sentence)

The cross was not a tragic mistake.  It was the culmination of God’s plan of salvation.  The Apostle Peter leaves us in no doubt when he says in Acts 2:23:

This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you with the help of wicked men put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

Faith

If the doctrine of penal substitution demonstrates how a holy God can forgive unholy sinners, how does the individual appropriate Christ’s sacrifice for him/herself?  Does it happen automatically; or is there something we must do?

Lets return to the opening verses of 1Cor.15.   Paul says:

Now brothers I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.  Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 

The Corinthians received this gospel and if they now reject it, they would have believed in vain. 

The benefits of Christ’s death are not applied universally and automatically to everyone.  The gospel is to be received, it is to be believed.  We are to have faith in or on or even into the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Sounds simple, but what exactly do we mean?  Let me refer you to John 4 and the story we read earlier of the royal official who asks the Lord to heal his son.  The man pleads with Jesus (v.49)  Sir, come down before my child dies. 

But Jesus has no intention of going, and in v.50 the Lord tells the official: You may go.  Your son will live. Then John tells us: The man took Jesus at his word and departed.

The man took Jesus at his word and departed.  That is the essence of faith.  He believed that Jesus didn’t need to lay hands on the boy for him to be healed; he believed that when he returned home the boy would be well.  And he demonstrated the reality of his faith the moment he turned away from Jesus and took his first step homeward.

Faith is taking Jesus at his word: that he poured out his life, his blood, for the forgiveness of sins; that he gave his life as a ransom for many; that he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep; that he is the bread of life and the living water.  With all the consequent humiliating implications: that we are sinners in need of a saviour. 

Sirs, what must I do to be saved, says the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:30,31)

Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, is Paul’s answer. 

Christian faith is not faith in faith; that as long as I believe something, anything, I’ll be ok.  Nor is it a passive admiration of Jesus.  It is not about turning over a new leaf.  It is not about undergoing certain initiation rites.  It is about taking Jesus at his word about who he is and what he has done; and staking your life on it. 

 

CONCLUSION

Have you taken Jesus at his word?  Do you believe him; believe in him? 

At the close of the service we’ll be singing that magnificent hymn “Man of Sorrows”.  The second verse says:

Bearing shame and scoffing rude/In my place condemned he stood

Can you say that, that Jesus Christ died in your place, as your substitute? 

If you’ve never done it before, do it now, do it today; tell the Lord that you believe this. 

Christ died for our sins…By this gospel you are saved…

 

 

 1 Corinthians 15 with Isa.40:6-11

RECAP

With chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians we arrive at the last major block of teaching in this letter. We are entering, if you like, the last lap, of what has been a bit of a long distance run. 1 Corinthians has forced us to tackle a diverse variety of subjects—unity and division among Christians; church discipline; marriage and singleness; the proper use of our spiritual gifts; the ministry of women; and most recently, the dos and don’ts of public worship.

Sometimes, the subject matter has, at first sight, appeared rather esoteric, irrelevant to our 21st century situation—particularly those sections dealing with food offered to idols. Yet with a little digging, a little probing, we’ve discovered that this letter is God’s word to God’s people today.

It’s a messy book, primarily because it is written to messy people—to people whose lives were as confused and confusing as any today. The fascinating thing for myself as your minister is that during the course of the last year certain pastoral issues have arisen among members of our congregation which are dealt with directly in this letter. Therefore, I am in no doubt of its relevance for the modern church. The Corinthians themselves are not particularly attractive.

From the word go we learn that they have divided themselves into parties: I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Cephas, I follow Christ. As we continue through the letter it goes from bad to worse. There is spiritual snobbery in this church, with those who have certain gifts looking down their noses at those whose gifts are less spectacular. Those who felt strong in their faith made no allowances for those struggling to avoid relapsing into paganism.

There is social snobbery too. The richer believers behaved insensitively in the presence of their less wealthy brothers and sisters. And there is sexual promiscuity, the result of an attitude encapsulated in the slogan “everything is permissible.”

There are times when we just want to slap these people and say to them: don’t you realize that you are supposed to be Christians? Don’t you know what that means?

Well, actually, that’s the problem. They don’t realize what being a Christian really means. That haven’t worked out the full implications of professing faith in Christ. Paul says to them in 6:19: Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own, you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.

Do you not know, asks the apostle. It’s a reality check for preachers like myself who sometimes despair at the behaviour and attitudes of some members of our congregations. We imagine that a few years of sitting under our ministry should be enough to form a Christ-like spirit in even the toughest of characters; and we’re shocked and dismayed when we witness veteran believers acting in ways that make us question their salvation. Or expressing an opinion about the faith that makes us wonder if they’ve ever listened to a word we’ve said.

The Corinthians had the apostle Paul as their father in Christ (as he puts in 4:15) and yet in so many areas they were way off-message. That’s why, like the apostle, preachers like myself should never shirk away from the kind of sermon that says: I know you know this already, but I’m going to tell you again. This is how Paul starts chapter 15.

CONTEXT

Now brothers I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you which you received and on which you have taken your stand.

I want to remind you of the gospel, says Paul; I want to take you back to basics. There’s never any harm in being reminded of first principles. This is especially so when it appears that something is going wrong. Many a golfing pro, whose game has gone awry, has had to go back to lesson #1—how to stand when addressing the ball, how to grip the club. I remember a driving instructor telling me that he dreaded teaching people who had already had informal lessons from friends or relatives.

Before he could teach them the basics of driving, he had to unteach them the bad techniques they had picked up. The Corinthians were getting something wrong, and it was because they had forgotten, or had not fully grasped the gospel basics. v.12 reveals to us what they were getting wrong: But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

It appears that some of the Corinthians were saying that there is no resurrection of the dead. Why would they be saying that? The most likely answer is that it is connected to the kind of thinking we uncovered in chapter 7 when we thought about marriage. There we learned that some of them were so super-spiritual that they thought they should avoid marriage—more to the point, the marriage bed. Behind such thinking lay the idea that the soul is good and the body is bad. That’s what the Greek philosophers taught.

These dear believers got it into their heads that they were as spiritual as is humanly possible and they looked forward to an afterlife free of the body, with all its sinful faults and failings. The idea of a resurrected body was not so much ludicrous to them as appalling. Their thinking was all wrong because they hadn’t got the basics right.

Paul has to take them back to first principles and returns to the very kernel of the gospel, to what CS Lewis called “mere Christianity”; the indispensible fundamentals of our faith. Get these wrong and you get everything wrong.

Let me give you a brief summary of the whole chapter. In vv.1-11 he reminds them of the gospel he preached to them and which they received, the gospel which proclaims Christ’s death and resurrection. The main issue revolves around the resurrection of believers so he makes a point of listing those who were witnesses to Christ’s resurrection.

This is because in vv.12-34 he counters those who claim there is no resurrection for believers by arguing (v.13): If there is no resurrection of the dead then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised then the whole of Christianity comes tumbling down.

 It’s like a game of Jenga. Remove this one brick and it all collapses. The apostles are shown to be liars and sins remain unforgiven.

However, v.20: Christ has indeed been raised from the dead and he is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

In other words, just as Jesus rose physically from the dead, so shall we. In the third section, vv.35-58 Paul explains how the dead are raised. That is, in what form are we raised? His answer is that we are raised as bodies, not as incorporeal spirits. It is a body adapted to the new conditions of the new heavens and new earth. Just like Jesus, who after his resurrection was recognizable, who ate and who spoke with the disciples, but who also could appear and disappear, our resurrection bodies will be the same but different from what we have now. v.42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable

And the chapter ends with that rousing battle-cry against death: Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (v.54,55)

These are basic truths, which Paul tells us all the apostles preached (v.11): Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach and this is what you believed.

TEXT

Let’s home in, now, on the opening verses of this wonderful chapter, which commentator Gordon Fee describes as one of the great theological treasures of the Christian church. We’re going to be in the chapter for a few weeks, so today I’m laying foundations.

vv.1,2: Now brothers I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

During the course of this letter Paul has dealt with many of the Corinthians’ questions: about marriage, about food offered to idols; about public worship; about spiritual gifts. These issues had not arisen during his ministry there, so we can excuse them for being confused.

But there is no excuse when it comes to the gospel, the core teaching of the Christian faith. This is what Paul preached when he was in Corinth. Back in 1:17 he tells them: For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel

What exactly is “the gospel”? What does the word mean? It gets bandied around these days. People talk about the gospel of socialism, or the gospel of nationalism; the gospel of this diet, or that exercise regime. When people want to assure us that they are not lying to us they’ll say: it’s the gospel truth.

The English word “gospel” translates the Greek word euangelion which means “good news” or “glad tidings.” It’s the word the Romans used when proclaiming the birth of an heir to the throne.

The prophet Isaiah used this word when he declared to the Jewish exiles in Babylon that they would soon return to their homeland. Earlier we read Isa.40:9: You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tiding to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with shout

And we sang from Isa.52:7: How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, Your God reigns.

It’s no wonder then, that our Lord Jesus Christ appropriated this word to describe his ministry. In Luke 4:18 we hear our Lord reading from Isa. 60:1: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

“Good news”, “glad tidings”, “gospel” – the phrase, the word that encapsulates the whole story of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and return. So when John the Baptist sends some of his disciples to check out if Jesus is really the promised Messiah, Jesus sends them back with this message: Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. (Lk.7:22)

The gospel—the good news about Jesus. This is what the apostles preached as they travelled through the Roman empire.

Acts 8:25 Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.

Acts 8:40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

And Paul, what about Paul? Acts 16:10 After Paul had seen the vision we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. 1Thes.1:4,5 For we know brothers loved by God that he has chosen you because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. Rom.1:14,15 I am bound both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.

The gospel is what the apostles preached. And the gospel is what their converts received. Receiving the gospel, believing the gospel is what turned pagans into Christians. What exactly is content of the gospel? What was it that the apostles preached?

Paul tells us in v.3: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve.

That in a nutshell is the gospel—Christ died for our sins, and rose from the dead on the third day, all in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. Now, in future weeks we’re going to consider these statements very carefully. For the moment I want you to note three things.

1. Paul does not simply say that Christ died. He says Christ died for our sins. Jesus Christ died for a reason. He died as a sacrifice, as a substitute. The fact of our sins means that we are alienated from God, separated from him, and liable to be punished by him. Jesus did something for us. He died for our sins. He took our place, our punishment, so that God could forgive us.

2. Paul says that Jesus rose on the third day. Why this insistence on a day, on a time? Because that’s what actually happened. This places Christ’s resurrection firmly in the realm of historical fact. When the apostles preached Christ’s resurrection, they did not mean that he lives on in our hearts; nor that he was now in heaven—that’s not what resurrection means. They meant that on the Sunday after the Friday he was crucified, Jesus physically rose from the dead.

3. All this happened in fulfilment of scripture. In other words, Christ’s death for sins and his triumphant resurrection were at the heart of God’s plan of salvation. Whether it’s the Passover lamb or the sacrificial system detailed in Exodus and Leviticus; or the Suffering Servant of Isa.53 who took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, the Old Testament repeatedly teaches us of our need for a substitute if we are not to suffer the consequences of our own sins. So too with the resurrection of our Lord.

The “third day” has a curious habit of being the key day, the day of salvation, the day of rescue. Jesus himself spoke about the sign of Jonah, for Jonah was in the belly of fish three days and nights. It was on the third day of fasting that Queen Esther plucked up the courage to approach her husband, the king, thus preventing the Jews from extermination.

More directly, there is the Messianic prophecy of Ps.16:9,10, quoted by Peter on the Day of Pentecost: Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices, my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.

How could David, the author of the psalm, be referring to himself, says Peter, when his tomb is right here in Jerusalem? No, says Peter (Acts2:31,32): he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave nor did his body see decay. God raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.

This is the content of the gospel, the message which Paul says the Corinthians received and upon which they took their stand. And he continues: By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

Let me say a couple of things about this before we finish.

1. This gospel is to be received. It’s not like the sun which shines on all and sundry, warming the wicked as well as the righteous; or like the waves of the sea which wash every shore. It is to be received, believed. Not just an intellectual assent, so that our Christianity goes no further than a box ticked on a census form. When the Corinthians received this gospel their lives were transformed. For all their faults, they were no longer what they once were.

Remember Paul’s list in 6:9 of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God? Idolaters, adulterers, the sexually immoral, thieves, the greedy, slanderers, swindlers and so on.

And then he says: And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

If the good news is to be good news it must be believed. We must act upon it. Like the Corinthians we must take our stand on the gospel. In other words, we become gospel people. It’s our faith in what the gospel tells us about Jesus that distinguishes us from everybody else.

This is why Paul says: By this gospel you are saved. To receive this message, to believe this message is to receive its content. So Paul can say to the Romans (1:16): I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

Conversely, he says in 2Thes.1:8 that when Christ returns: He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

 2. So secondly, Paul warns the Corinthians: By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

Paul is making a very serious point, one which we all must heed. By denying the resurrection of believers the Corinthians were denying the resurrection of Christ—if the dead are not raised then Christ was not raised. And to deny the resurrection of Christ is to deny a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith.

Therefore, whatever it is you do believe, you believe it in vain. It’s pointless. It will do you no spiritual good. It’s not the gospel.

The modern church is full of people who do not believe the gospel. They do not believe that Christ died for their sins. They do not believe that they are sinners. As far as they are concerned Jesus died as an example of what this world does to good people. He died as an example of perfect love. But they no notion at all of his death as a sacrifice for sins. God would never send anyone to hell; so why is a sacrifice for sins necessary? Whatever it is they believe, they believe in vain.

And as for Christ rising from the dead, 21st century people can’t be expected to believe such nonsense—as if people in the 1st century didn’t realize that once you’re dead and buried, that’s it. The Athenians gave Paul a polite hearing until he mentioned Christ’s resurrection—then they scoffed at him. The resurrection has never been easy to believe; yet as I hope to show you in coming weeks it’s the most reasonable thing to believe. If you don’t believe that Christ rose from the grave then whatever your faith is, it isn’t Christianity. It isn’t Biblical, apostolic Christianity.

CONCLUSION

Have you received this gospel? This gospel that tells you that Christ died for your sins and on the third day was raised from the dead? Is this is gospel upon which you have taken your stand; the gospel upon which you rely for your salvation? If your hope is in any other so-called gospel—the gospel of your own morality, your own respectability—then you are believing in vain, for that is no gospel at all. Receive the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is by this gospel that you are saved.

Talking God #8

January 8, 2011

GOD’S WISDOM

God is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his wisdom. This means that God always chooses the best goals and the best means for achieving these goals.

We’ve been thinking about the wisdom of God in our morning services as we’ve studied 1 Corinthians 1. The ultimate goal to which God applies his wisdom is his glory. So, we see in his plan of redemption that he chose to save those who believe through Christ crucified. Foolishness to the world; but wisdom to God, because it ensures that no one can boast of their own merits. God’s wisdom is seen in our individual lives.

(Rom.8:28) And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose

And what is the good that the apostle is speaking about? It is, as he says in the next verse, that we should be conformed to the likeness of his Son. God’s purpose for his children is that we should be like Jesus.

Everything that happens to us is geared towards that ultimate conclusion. And that includes those things that we’d rather avoid. 1 Peter. 4:19: So then those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator, and continue to do good.

Within the attribute of God’s wisdom we include God’s knowledge. Last time we spoke about God’s omnipresence—that he is everywhere. Our new big word is omniscience—God knows everything. His knowledge is infinite, eternal and unchangeable.

His knowledge is infinite because there is nothing that God does not know. His knowledge is eternal because he has always known what he knows and always will. His knowledge is unchangeable because there is nothing unknown to him that he is yet to learn. God is at every moment aware of everything that ever was, or is now, or shall be in the future; and that’s the way it always has been.

He knows it all instantaneously and simultaneously. If you were to ask God how many grains of sand there are on the seashore or stars in the heavens he wouldn’t have to count them. He knows.

There is almost no end of scriptures to support this doctrine. One will do for the moment: Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give an account. (Heb.4:13)

God knows things which we would consider of the least significance. Jesus says (Mt.10:30) that not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from God’s will; and that he knows the number of hairs on our head. He knows what we’re going to say before we say it (Ps.139:2): Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. He knows what is going on in our hearts and minds. Ps.94:11: The Lord knows the thoughts of man, he knows that they are futile. He is a loving heavenly Father who knows what we need, even before we ask. (Mt.6:7,8): And when you pray do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. He knows the future. (Isa.44:7,8): Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and lay out before me what has happened since I established my ancient people; and what is yet to come—yes, let him foretell what will come. Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago?

Once again, we assert that what is true about God is true of all three persons of the Holy Trinity. There’s plenty of evidence of Jesus’ omniscience. He knew what his enemies were thinking. He knew that Lazarus had died. He knew that Judas would betray him. He knew that he would be arrested by the chief priests and handed over to the Romans for execution. He also knew that he would rise on the third day.

Question: if God knows everything, if he knows the future, if he knows what I am going to say before I say it, does that not destroy my free will? After all, if God knows exactly what is going to happen then it sounds as if everything is pre-determined and there is no such thing as free will. This is really a question about the sovereignty of God, and, indeed, predestination. And I hope to cover this more fully at some future date. But let’s just think about this for a moment.

Some theologians are so determined to protect the idea of human free will that they are willing to suggest that God, in fact, is not omniscient, not all-knowing. They argue that we ourselves don’t know what we’ll do in any given situation, so how can God? They are happy to believe in a God who learns, who grows, who develops, along with creation. This makes the future as much a mystery to God as it is to us and is clearly contrary to what the Bible teaches. There are others who try to find a middle path. They argue that as human beings we act with complete freedom and independence. But God is never taken by surprise and his plans are never upset, because he has taken into account every possible eventuality, every permutation of human action and has decided how he will act in any given situation. Although he doesn’t know precisely what I’ll do, he has all the options covered, and knows how he will respond no matter what I do.

The problem with this is that it makes God dependant on our decisions, our choices. God is constantly responding to us. In effect, God stops being God. He is no longer sovereign over all. If we are going to be Biblical, if we are going to be consistent, then we have to acknowledge that if God knows all our thoughts, words, and actions, before they occur, then there is a sense in which our choices are not absolutely free. Yes, there seems to be freedom of the will; but somehow that freedom is incorporated within God’s perfect will.

I’ve just returned from the Crieff Fellowship New Year Conference.  This year Sinclair Ferguson gave four talks expounding Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Not to put too fine a point upon it, Sinclair was at his best.  In culinary terms this was prime beef at its most tender, most edible.  Quality that was a joy to digest.

I have preached Philippians twice but listening to Sinclair makes me wonder if I have ever even read the book.  Let me give you some juicy morsels:

From chapter 1 – thanksgiving is characteristic of Paul – but this is not always true of Christian ministers.

Paul prays that the Philippians will be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.  We need to keep the end, the judgment in sight.  The pastor’s job is to prepare his people for the end.

Paul’s attitude to those who preached the gospel out of rivalry – is my ministry what’s most important to me, or is it the gospel? Paul is not defined by his ministry but by God’s designs for him.  To live is Christ, to die is gain. 

From 1:29 – suffering is as much a gift of grace as faith.  Suffering is subservient to the gospel.

From chapter 2 – there was a lot about how the imperatives (the commands) flow from the indicatives (the facts).  Thus the command for unity flows from the fact of Christ’s humility. 

To love Christ is to hate any misdescription of him. 

Christ’s obedience to the Father increased over his life – he was at his most obedient on the cross. 

Fear and trembling – we are so superficial that we fail to tremble at the love of God. 

Grumbling is one of the most destructive dangers for the church. 

The secret of unity is humility. 

Most profound of all to my mind – from chapter 4 – Rejoice in the Lord – I am here to bring joy.  My aim is to produce this Christ-ful joy in my people.  This is the funnel through which I want to pour out my ministry this year.  May it be a Ministry of Joy!

Escape to Egypt

December 26, 2010

THE ESCAPE TO EGYPT

Matt.2:13-18

 INTRODUCTION

The scene is one of mayhem.  In the centre of a snow-covered village a massacre is being perpetrated.  In the near distance a troop of mounted soldiers stands, spears at the ready, prepared for any counter-attack.  But they won’t be required.  The villagers are in disarray.  They are weeping; they are down on their knees, pleading.  One woman sits in the snow, clearly in a state of shock.  Others are wringing their hands in grief.  For running amuck among them is a gang of assassins, killing their babies.  Little ones lie on the ground, wrapped up tight against the cold.  They are being skewered by these ruthless killers. 

I’m describing a painting called “The Slaughter of the Innocents” by Pieter Brueghel, the Flemish artist who lived in the mid-1500s, who was giving the Biblical story a contemporary setting.  It still works.  Somehow Bruegel manages to convey the horror of this ancient massacre so that it transcends time and place. 

Given that Bethlehem was really only a village, the numbers involved would have been quite small.  Hardly a dozen.  Herod was capable of far worse barbarity.  This was the man who ordered that all the leading citizens of Jerusalem should be executed on the day of his death, just to ensure that there was some mourning that day.  He had killed three of his sons on suspicion of treason, causing the Emperor Augustus to quip that it was safer to be one Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.  He wasn’t going to lose any sleep over a dozen or so children. 

It’s ironic that Herod, who was infamous for his cruelty, should be best remembered for an atrocity so small that it was not considered worth mentioning by anyone else; for Matthew is the only historical writer to tell us about what happened in Bethlehem to those innocent babies and toddlers. 

Why?  Why does Matthew think this story is worth telling?  It’s not simply because he wants to give us an example of how cruel Herod was. 

The reason Matthew wrote his gospel in the first place was to reveal the true identity of Jesus.  Jesus is, as Peter proclaims in 16:16: the Christ the Son of the Living God.  Jesus is the one who has the right to claim: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  (28:18)

What part does this heart-breaking story play in revealing to us the true identify of Jesus?  How does it fit in to the big picture of who Jesus really is?  Let me make three suggestions. 

PROTECTION

The first concerns the preservation of Jesus’ life.  Jesus’ life was under threat.  We’ve suspected this all along.  We’ve been suspicious of how Herod enthusiastically pointed the Magi in the direction of Bethlehem.  His professed desire to worship the one born king of the Jews didn’t quite ring true.  It turns out we were right.

v.12 tells us that the Magi had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod.  So they head home without going via Jerusalem. 

v.13 Tells us that when they had gone the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, warning him:

Get up and take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.  Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child and kill him.

And we read that Joseph got up and under the cover of darkness took his family to Egypt.  It wasn’t too far away but it was outside Herod’s domain.  They would be safe there.

I wonder if you are making some connections.  Can you think of another Biblical story where God’s people were preserved by going down to Egypt?  That’s how Jacob and his family were saved from the famine, thanks, of course, to another Joseph. 

 Then, after about 400 years the survival of the people of God was again under threat.  This time it was from a despotic pharaoh who embarked on what we would label as genocide.  He ordered that all Hebrew baby boys be killed at birth. 

One child, however, slipped through the net: Moses.  It was he who led his people to freedom and to the land promised by God to their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

And that’s the point.  God had made promises.

To Abraham (Gen.22:18): through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

To Isaac (Gen.26:4): I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed

To Jacob (Gen.28:14) Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.  All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.

God repeatedly promised that through a descendant of Abraham, all the earth would be blessed.  It should be no surprise, then, that Satan, whose aim is to render God’s promise null and void, has made God’s people his primary target.  Pharaoh and Herod were only puppets in Satan’s hands. 

Sometimes the target has been God’s people in general.  Think of Haman, the Persian Prime Minister, who wanted to obliterate the Jewish people from the face of the earth.  But God had his woman on the inside, Queen Esther.  In saving her people from destruction, she also preserved God’s promise.

Sometimes the target was more specific.  Think of how King Saul hounded David, though David had done him no wrong.  If Saul had succeeded there would have been no Son of David.  Less well known is the story of Queen Athaliah (2Kings 11) who thought she had wiped out all of David’s descendants in a bloody coup.  She didn’t know that little Joash had been saved by his aunt Jehosheba.  If there had been no Joash, there would have been no Messiah. 

During the season of Advent I have been following a prayer booklet prepared by the Barnabas Fund entitled “Praying for the Persecuted Church”.  Each day we are given information about a country where it is dangerous to be a Christian.  All my life I have been involved in praying for persecuted Christians, and yet it still never ceases to amaze me how some governments can be so cruel and vindictive towards believers. 

How is it that there can be such hatred towards Christians?  They are not subversive; they are not terrorists.  They are, by and large, the most loyal, hard-working citizens any country could ask for.  Yet across the globe Christians are harassed, imprisoned, tortured and killed. 

The only answer I can come up with is that there are certain governments which feel threatened by anyone whose ultimate loyalty is not to them.  Like Herod, they cannot abide the fact that within their kingdom there exists another king.  As Ps.2:2 says:

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.

But the psalm also tells us: The one enthroned in heaven laughs, the Lord scoffs at them. (v.4)

It continues: Therefore you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.  Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling.  (v.10)

Jesus is the Lord’s Anointed and neither Satan nor any earthly power will prevent him fulfilling his mission, to be the One who blesses all nations. 

THE TRUE ISRAEL

Which takes us to our second point.  As he reflects on the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt, Matthew makes another connection.  If Egypt was initially a place of safety for God’s ancient people, it became a place of danger, a place of near extinction.  As a promise-keeping God, the Lord could not allow them to be wiped out, or assimilated into Egyptian society.  So he raised up Moses to lead them freedom.

Centuries later the prophet Hosea pointed back to the exodus as a prime example of God’s love for his people.  Hos.11:1:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. What’s Matthew doing with this verse?  Is this just a verse that comes to mind, a verse that seems to suit the occasion, as we might quote Shakespeare or Burns?  There’s a lot more going on than that.  The clue lies in the reference to Israel as “my son.”  Matthew says in v.15:  And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet, Out of Egypt I called my son.

Matthew sees a direct correlation between what God did for Israel, and what he did for Jesus. 

One of the ways the Bible describes God’s relationship with Israel is that of father and son.  This comes out very strongly in the exodus story.  In Ex.4:22 the Lord tells Moses to tell Pharaoh: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, Let my son go, so that he may worship me. 

This is why the final plague is the death of the Egyptian first born sons.  It is pure justice. 

Yet as Hosea observes, Israel was hardly the ideal son.  (Hos.11:1,2)

When Israel was a child I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son.  But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me.  They sacrificed to the Baals, and they burned incense  to images. 

Israel failed as son, failed to be a blessing to the world, failed in their calling to represent the Living God to their pagan neighbours, failed to shine the light of truth into the dark corners of ignorance and idolatry.  It’s a theme that runs all the way through the prophetic books.  Israel is an adulterous wife, a rebellious nation, a disobedient son. 

It’s going to take a perfect Son to fulfil God’s promises.  So Jesus succeeds where Israel failed.  During those 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, he doesn’t yield to Satan’s temptations.  Unlike Israel, he doesn’t grumble and complain about the lack of food.  He doesn’t fall for Satan’s lies.  He is the light which those living in darkness have seen.  He is the true vine.  And when the ultimate test presents itself, he doesn’t run away, as the Israelites ran away at the sight of the Canaanites.  Instead, he says, Not my will but yours be done. 

Friends, we cannot be the people of God in our strength.  If we are to be what God wants us to be, we must be “in Christ.”  We must recognize that the church is his body, and he, he, is the head.  We are the branches, he is the vine, and we must draw our strength, our life, from him.  Apart from him, we can do nothing.

Surely this is at the heart of the modern church’s failure to be the people of God, the root cause of our failure to reflect his character to a lost and desperate world.  Like the ancient Israelites who wanted to be more like the world around them, preferring other gods to the Lord God Almighty, we have fallen into the trap of thinking that if the church is more like the world, the world is more likely to listen to us.

For example, the Presbytery Plan Review Group has circulated a paper asking congregations to look closely at our parish and ask ourselves certain questions, among which is “asking where we see the ministry of Jesus in secular guise.” 

What do they mean by that?  They mean, we are to look for Jesus outside of the church.  We are to look for Jesus among those who do not love him, who do not even acknowledge him.  And then, presumably, ask if we can join in too!   

Now, if we’re talking about property maintenance or the good management of finances, I’m happy to concede that the church would be foolish not to learn from the latest thinking.  But I draw the line when we are told that we should be looking for Christ where Christ is not loved or even acknowledged.  It cannot be.  According to Jesus, Apart from me you can do nothing. 

The more the church becomes like the world, the less notice the world takes of the church.  The church becomes irrelevant, for we have nothing unique to say, nothing distinctive to offer.  And in the end, the church—I mean the institution—becomes indistinguishable from any other charity or social club.

The people of God are those who are “in Christ”, who have “put on” Christ, who are clothed in his righteousness.  He has become for us, as Paul says in 1Cor.1:30: wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

Or as the old chorus puts it: He is my everything, he is my all

Out of Egypt I called my son.  Matthew is preparing the ground for the revelation that Jesus is none other than the Son of God.

This is my Son whom I love, with him I am well pleased.  (3:17)

HOPE

This takes us to the massacre itself so graphically depicted by Pieter Brueghel.  Herod, the deceiver, is deceived.  Given that Bethlehem is only five miles from Jerusalem, it wouldn’t have taken him long to realize that the Magi were not coming back. 

v.16 tells us that in a fury he ordered the murder of all the boys in Bethlehem and the vicinity who were two years old or under.  It seems that the Magi may have first seen the star two years previously.  That doesn’t mean that Jesus was by then two years old; but it does suggest he wasn’t a new-born.  Herod isn’t going to take any chances.  If a rival king exists better to widen the net.  There was always going to be collateral damage

I don’t think we need Brueghel’s painting to evoke scenes of bloodshed.  Television means that we are well acquainted with the sight of bodies scattered among the rubble of a village or town.  And all too often children are the innocent victims of such violence.

Matthew quotes a most poignant verse from Jer.31: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more.

The context is the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians.  As the survivors are carried off into exile, Jeremiah pictures Rachel, who was regarded as the mother of the nation, weeping for her children.  If you remember Rachel’s story it took a long time for her to get pregnant, in stark contrast to her very fertile sister Leah.  There is an added pathos, then, in this symbolic evocation of Rachel, watching the destruction of her descendants.  

But this is not the whole story.  The Jeremiah quote is set in the midst of a prophecy of hope.  Rachel is weeping, says the prophet, but the Lord says (Jer.31:16): Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded, declares the Lord.  They will return from the land of the enemy.  So there is hope for your future, declares the Lord.  Your children will return to their own land.

Indeed, if we had read on we would have discovered that this is the context for the Lord’s promise of a new covenant (Jer.31:31-33).  Listen to this, and make the connections:

The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers and took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant though I was a husband to them, declares the Lord.  This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord.  I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people.

Thus, the massacre in Bethlehem stands for all that causes us to weep, all that breaks our hearts.  In that village we see in microcosm all the evil that has ever been perpetrated, all of man’s inhumanity to man.  Could there be a more appropriate example of humanity’s exile from God than the slaughtering of innocent children at the command of a paranoid king?  To murder a child, who poses no threat to anyone, is sin at its ugliest, its foulest.  That’s how far human beings are separated from God. 

And yet one child survives.  The child of hope.  The child who will reconcile God and humanity, the child who will ransom captive Israel and bring the lonely exile to an end.  He is the perfect Israel, the obedient Son.  By his death he inaugurates the new covenant so that when we trust in him God writes his laws on our minds and hearts.  Then, and only then, can God truly say to us: I will be their God and they will be my people.

CONCLUSION

Friends, if Christmas is about anything, it is about hope: hope for the world, hope for the church, hope for us as individuals. 

The world of 2010 is in no position to point a condemning finger at the world into which our Lord Jesus was born.  The hope of an end to the exile from God is still required.  Praise God, through Jesus Christ that hope is still on offer.

The church in 2010 still suffers as Christians throughout the world are persecuted for their faith.  It’s creeping into British society too as Christians are told to leave their beliefs at home and not bring them to work.  We shouldn’t be surprised.  Nor should we despair.  The God who preserved his Messiah will preserve his church.  The Herods of this world will never prevail. 

And for many of us as individuals, 2010 certainly brought its fair share of heart-aches, perhaps more than we thought we could bear at the time.  In our darkest moments we thought we could never survive, we couldn’t go on, there was no future for us. 

But here we are.  For we have discovered that in Jesus Christ there is hope, hope for today and hope for tomorrow.

May the hope of Christ which has sustained you in this last year continue to sustain you in the year to come.  “Apart from me,” he said, “you can do nothing.”  Let us then, as individuals and as a church, remain in him.  He is the Beloved Son; he is our everything, he is our all.

 

TALKING GOD #7

December 23, 2010

TWO TRICKY QUESTIONS

I want to tackle a couple of questions that this doctrine of God’s unchangeable nature sometimes raises in people’s minds. 

The first is this: if God never changes, then how can we talk about God becoming angry, for example, or grieved?  How can we talk about God having compassion for his suffering people?   When we becoming angry or grieved, when we are filled with pity, there’s a change in us.  One moment we’re not angry; then something happens; and now we are angry.  One moment we hadn’t heard of someone’s plight; now we have, and we’re filled with pity.  Is God emotionally detached from his creation?  Is he unconcerned and unaffected by the plight of his suffering children? 

That is certainly not how the Bible portrays God.  He does not live in glorious isolation, insulated and insensitive to what happens in the world.  We only have to read the Gospels to discover just how much the heart of Jesus goes out to us in our distress.  So are we wrong to say that God never changes?

The answer is to recognize that God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us.  Our emotions are subject to our circumstances.  Things happen, we are taken by surprise, and we react.  God is never taken by surprise.  He knows what will happen.  And he has chosen how he will respond.  His emotions are never an involuntary response to an unexpected situation. 

The other question is this: if God never changes, why are there passages in the Bible which talk about God changing his mind?  The most famous example of this is in Jonah in relation to the Ninevites.  In Jonah 3:4 the prophet proclaimed the word of the Lord:

Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.

Nineveh was not overturned.  So what’s going on? 

Turn with me to Jeremiah 18:7:

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down, and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I planned.

That’s exactly what happened in Nineveh.  The people repented—which was the point of the warning.  Jonan 3:10:

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. 

God was being consistent with his character.  It is God’s nature to hate sin and to love repentance.  God changed his mind with regard to destroying the Ninevites, but the change of mind was consistent with his character.  Warnings are meant to be heeded.  They need not be the last word. 

Let me remind you of Jesus’ parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt.18).  The king had cancelled the servant’s massive debts; yet the servant was unwilling to overlook the tiny amount his friend owed him.  The result?  The king changed his mind; he cancelled the cancellation.  Jesus says (Mt.18:35):

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart. 

It’s unnerving.  But nobody can say they don’t know where they stand with God.  He is the God who by his very nature is looking for an excuse to show mercy.  When we repent he will receive us.  But if we are presumptuous, if we “take a loan of him”, he will judge.