Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

Living By the Sermon on the Mount

[Taken from the monthly Notes, May 2012]

I am sure that many who read this editorial have heard at least one person say something like this: “I don’t believe all that religious stuff about Jesus, I just live by his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.” Really? If people realised the solemn danger of such a statement they would not be so quick to claim the Sermon on the Mount as their basis for life. To live perfectly according to the pattern given in the Sermon on the Mount is commendable; failure to live up to its demands, even in only one area, is condemnable. And, to date, no-one but Jesus has managed to reach such a high standard, and we can confidently say that before He comes again, no-one else ever will. So why does Jesus set forth such a high, impossible standard?

If we are honest, there’s a little bit of the bush lawyer in all of us that likes to argue like this, “I’m really not a bad person; not when compared with that person over there.” No doubt there were many in Jesus’ day who drew comfort from the fact that they had not murdered anyone, nor run off with another’s spouse. Perhaps they hoped that Jesus would commend them for their high moral integrity. They were well respected members of the community: pillars in fact; regular synagogue attendees who did not swear or dishonour the Lord’s Name. There have always been such people, and there are such in our own day: good citizens, outwardly moral and even church-goers! How shocking Jesus’ words must have been to them as he gave the words of the ancient Law an uncomfortable extension : “… everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty…” and “… whoever looks on a woman to lust …” has already broken the law.

When Matthew records that Jesus sat down to teach on the mountain, [Matt 5:1] he was very deliberately drawing our attention to another time that God had spoken on the Moral Law; Sinai. On that occasion, it thundered, and the people fled in fear. But with 1400 years of familiarity and self-righteous excuses, the law had lost its force. It was something to be applied to others, and then to external matters. It was the “low life” who sinned, not religious people. [For proof of this, see Luke 18:9-14]

A moment’s serious reading makes it unmistakably clear that the Sermon on the Mount is not intended to be an easy alternative to facing the Law of God! [5:17-18] God has not changed His morality or His ethics. Jesus was not going soft! Rather, He was deepening and intensifying the Law’s application in a way that few in His day may have cared to admit. Jesus’ words bring the Law of God to bear upon the inner person, yours included holding up thoughts, motives and affections to the searching standard of God’s holiness. As Jesus said on another occasion, it is what comes out of man, out of the heart, that renders him [or her] unclean. [Mark 7:17-23]

In my experience there is usually only one saying of Jesus in these chapters which people really cling to, and that is His “Judge not that you be not judged …” [Matt 7:1]. I cannot recall how many times those words have been taken out of context and turned around. Either the first two words, “Judge not, ” are read as a command and emphatically turned into a rebuke akin to, “How dare you speak of my sin!” or Jesus’ logic is completely reversed and His words are taken to mean, “If I don’t judge anyone, that must means God won’t judge me either.” Nonsense.

Yes, the Sermon on the Mount does speak of comfort, but it is a comfort appointed only for those who see their sin and who embrace Jesus as the Saviour He is. To them He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Facing Up to the Resurrection

[Taken from the Monthly Notes, April 2012]

For the most part, even the most vehement critics of Christianity are willing to accept that there was such a man as Jesus who lived in Judea and Galilee in the first century. Most will also accept that he was crucified by the Romans under Pontius Pilate. For them, this is quite safe to admit. After all, a dead person, even someone heralded as a saviour while alive, can be safely dismissed once dead. If the dead stay dead, then given enough time, resources and perseverance, history can always be re-written or conveniently re-interpreted as a myth. Or so they hope.

A Saviour who dies but lives again, is quite another story, particularly one who will never ever die again. Such a one is problematic, and not simply because it involves accepting the non-materialistic premise that death is not the end of all conscious existence. That concept has been accepted by various cultures and religions, and in the case of Hinduism, expanded so that existence is comprised of an infinitude of life-cycles but despite their myriad of gods, there is no real external accountability to anyone else. A risen Saviour of the sort that Jesus is, is problematic because of the clear implication that this One might one day confront and hold accountable those who deny His existence! Therefore, Jesus must stay dead! So, opponents of Christianity have resorted to various theories in their desperation to dismiss the clear Biblical claim that Jesus rose from the dead. In short, they have created their own myths, such as:

1. The Wrong Tomb Theory: In their confusion and grief, the women and disciples simply got the tomb wrong and went to an empty tomb instead of the real one. But this theory falls flat when one realises that when Peter & John were later arrested for preaching the resurrection, the easiest way to scotch the new faith and render it powerless would have been by producing the body from the real tomb. # BUSTED!

2. The Hallucination Theory: This claims that in their collective grief and stress, the women and disciples were all easily convinced to believe they had “seen Jesus.” Despite all the psychological problems with such alleged “group hallucination” the theory fails when again, it would have been a simple matter for the authorities to produce the body from the real tomb. #BUSTED!

3. The Swoon Theory: This says that Jesus was not dead but in a deep coma-like state, and revived in the cool of the tomb. He then managed to unwrap himself, and escape. This ignores the fact that it was Romans who signed off on the death, and ignores the physical violence of crucifixion, which usually broke bones in hands and feet. Jesus was in no fit state to escape anywhere! As D.F. Strauss, himself a critic of Christianity, wrote in the 19th century: It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the grave, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening, [& who had] at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given the disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of life… Impossible indeed. # BUSTED!

4. The Stolen Body Theory: This is that the disciples stole Jesus body and pretended he had risen. In order for this to be so, the disciples who had all fled for fear suddenly summoned the courage to overpower or to sneak past the guard, move a 2 tonne stone, carefully unwrap Jesus, and sneak out again carrying the corpse with them. Implausible as all this is in itself, the entire gospel narratives make it clear that until Jesus rose, the disciples had no understanding of anything Jesus had said which spoke of resurrection. They were in despair [see Luke 24:21] # BUSTED!

Once again, we see that people choose to exchange the truth of God for a lie, rather than serve the Creator who is blessed forever. Amen [Rom 1:25]. Don’t you do the same!

Reading the Book of 1st Samuel

[Taken from the monthly “Notes” for March, 2012.]

1st Samuel spans the years from the end of the period of the Judges and ends with King David as an old man contemplating how his young son Solomon will take over the kingdom. That is about 100 years covered in just 30-40 pages. We read of Samuel who gives the book his name, though clearly someone else finishes the book, because he dies at Chapter 25! We learn a lot about King David, of course, and the other key person is Saul, the first king of the united kingdom. But why?

Well, for one thing it is interesting history. We deal with military coups, palace & political intrigues, immorality, and why we should not be too quick to assume that leaders are really godly just because they look godly. Just like today! But why did God cause this collection of stories to be written? Is it merely so we can learn from the characters? — to be like David and not like Saul? Perhaps and in a little way, yes, but we will struggle to make sense of some parts if all we do is look for moral examples or warnings in the lives of Samuel, Saul & David. What shall we do when we are not sure whether someone should be copied or not? What will we say about ourselves when we try to copy the “good guys” but fail? Where is our hope then?

This is not just any old narrative; it is God’s history. If it is God’s history, then this book makes most sense in the context of all that he was doing throughout the Old Testament. So, it is real history and it is theological history at the same time. And because we read this book now from the perspective of knowing that Jesus Christ has come, we know that 1 Samuel must somehow taking us from the Garden of Eden to the Cross and Empty tomb of the Lord Jesus, and beyond. In this sense we know more than those who were caught up in these events as they happened – Eli, Elkanah, Samuel, David, etc – even though they had much more detail. The godly people in the narratives were all real people, and they all knew that God was doing something to fulfil his promise made in Eden to crush the head of the serpent, and the godly knew that this would somehow involve the seed of a woman [Gen 3:15]. But they did not know how it would all end; we do. As with any story, knowing how it all ends shines great light upon why the author weaves his many characters together. So it is with God’s story as “His-story” leads up to the coming Saviour.

Israel had already seen her “saviours” come and go in the personages of the Judges. Those “saviours” had worked – for a bit – but never sufficiently and they had never really provided security for the whole land as a “kingdom”; and kingdom is where Samuel takes us. Now we know that Kingdoms need kings, and that kings, for all their faults, can be of two sorts: God-worshipping and grace-appreciating as David was, or “God-using” and grace-despising as Saul was. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference but over time we’ll tend to know. From David on, this is the pattern.

So there we have it: 1 Samuel is the story of how God sets up his king, and sets him up in a way that exposes all other sorts of king. In time, the son of David [Solomon] will build the Temple but neither David nor David’s son will be adequate to keep God’s covenant. They sin, and their descendants eventually sinned their kingdoms into judgment and exile. The whole of the Old Testament brings us to the point where eventually, at the right time in God’s history and in fulfilment of promise, Jesus came, born as David’s royal descendant. He is the true “Son of David” and as our Champion secures an eternal kingdom, inherits all the covenant promises and builds a living temple out of living stones [I Peter 2].

Is he building with you?

Service of Induction for Principal Hastie

On February 10th Hawthorn hosted the Presbytery of Melbourne East as it conducted the Service of Induction for Rev. Peter Hastie, the incoming Principal of the Presbyterian Theological College. The Moderator General, Rt Rev. David Jones preached, and past principals Dr. Allan Harman and Dr Douglas Milne also participated, along with the State Moderator, Dr Robert Carner, and the Secretary of the Theological Education Committee, Rev. John Stasse.

It was a truly joyous occasion.

The entire service, including the Principal’s response, is downloadable from the Sermons link on this site, though it is quite a large file (17MB). Use the link:

http://www.hawthornchurch.org/sermons/2012/02/all-change-no-change

The Privilege of Unblocked Ears

[Taken from the Monthly Notes, February 2012]

In six separate contexts, the New Testament records Jesus as saying: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” No doubt he spoke it on other occasions too. It is a pithy little saying, but what was his point? The context helps us, and it is clear that Jesus was simultaneously warning against ignorance of the great saving acts of God [in terms of Ezekiel 12:1-2ff] and commending the great God-given privilege of being able to comprehend the deeper instruction in his words. In this he called his hearers back to Moses’ words in Deut 29:2-6, and so presented evidence that he should be considered the “prophet like Moses” who was to come. [Deut 18:18ff].

Jesus was concerned with both eye and ear because both provide input to the mind. He highlighted the importance of the eye when he reminded all that the 7th commandment extends to looking as well as doing. If the eye causes one to fall, put it out! [Mark 9:47] His words resonate in our highly visual culture. So much of our day to day information depends on the eye, and in our internet age, the eye can be the door-way for much that is unhelpful, and spiritually deadly. There ought to be a sign saying “Guard your eyes, all who enter here” above every internet portal. For all this, we might expect that Jesus would speak of the eyes as much a the ear, but Scripture tells us that he gave his emphasis to the ear. Why is this?

“Faith comes by hearing” we are told and God calls us to live by faith and not by sight. Thomas wanted to see before he would believe the resurrection. The Saviour graciously obliged, not because seeing was essential, but so that all the disciples would have an occasion to be instructed regarding the blessedness of all who would believe in Christ because of their preaching, and not their art. [John 20:29].

The eye cannot see the past except as someone else has already imagined it, and the eye cannot give us a picture of the future. It is fixed to the present, and is limited in what it can bring into the soul. Three disciples saw the Transfiguration of Jesus and all misunderstood it until the Father spoke; subsequently billions have heard of it and been overwhelmed by the majestic voice of the Father coming down from heaven: “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him.” The eye cannot deal with abstracts or intangible things without tying them to individual examples, which will always be reductionist. The eye may see an event caused by love but cannot see the actual love itself. The ear is freed from this limitation and the mind can hear about things like sin, righteousness, judgment & mercy, and by the grace of God begin to comprehend them. This is how we are made, and we must be thankful that it is so.

In its own way, hearing the word of God, [which includes what we call ‘reading’] allows for an awareness of the holy majesty of God that is properly suited to the limitations of our humanity. Seeing God as He is would kill us! Making pictures of Him as He is not, is idolatry! What can we do? Thankfully it is by hearing that the Spirit brings divine truth to mind directly, in ways that go beyond all that we could know by sight. We can learn of God and without falling into idolatry!

One day, we shall most surely see Jesus as he is. Until then, we must be content to hear [and know] him as he speaks in the Bible, and as he is opened to our minds by the work of his Holy Spirit. This is an unquantifiable privilege and one which through our own words and resources we have the honour of sharing. If God has condescended to speak to you concerning His Son, do not despise Him.

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