[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for August, 2019]
The product doesn’t work as it should so we “exercise our rights” and take it back, expecting a new one. We know the law! Imagine our surprise and annoyance if we were to be told, “You no longer have any right to complain about this product. The government has changed the law and all warranties are now invalid. Your product came from the factory that way and you will just have to accept it. There will be no exchange and no refund.” We would feel cheated. Of course, depending on the type of fault we may be able to repair it and perhaps we will be surprised at how long it lasts. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it was not what it should have been and we will feel wronged. No-one likes a broken product.
So what do we do with broken people? We need think carefully before responding because we are broken people as well. We “came from the factory” that way, along with everyone else. We also need to define brokenness. We know that people are born with all sorts of functional disabilities and challenges, and we can rejoice that human learning is working to overcome these things so that more may live a fuller life. We recognise that this functional brokenness is not good; even Jesus did (John 9:1-3). But that is only part of the story. Human brokenness is moral as well as functional and there is a world of difference between the two. Moral brokenness means we will fail because we want to and that there will be times when we will like being broken.
This is the key to understanding the Bible’s message. Despite the warning he was given, Adam deliberately chose moral brokenness (willing disobedience) rather than his created perfection, and with that choice passed this moral brokenness on to every one of his descendants. This brokenness is what the Bible calls sin and why it can say, “There is none righteous…there is none who seeks after God…there is no one who does good… all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:10-23).
Moral brokenness perversely denies that anything is broken and tells us we must not complain or criticise if someone else lives according to a different moral standard. “It is just how people are.” Each person becomes their own moral arbiter and everything must be accepted as morally good so long as “no-one is hurt” or “society consents.” We are seeing this view come to its ascendancy in our own day backed by the full force of law. But this “freedom” is no more liberating that the freedom Adam sought in Eden, and will lead to exactly the same result: decline, death and separation.
Mercifully God did not throw us away in our brokenness and leave us to decay even further. Instead, He appointed the righteous moral perfection of Jesus as a gracious substitution for all who repent. It is Jesus’ life for ours. He not only paid the penalty for our sin but guaranteed our full restoration. In a sense, God takes the morally broken and repentant person back under the warranty purchased by His Son, even though the faults were not His responsibility. He then re-brands us as His own work.
As we come to understand this, we should be amazed and over-awed by such a love! When reminded of our own moral brokenness we will never want to say, as others may, “That is a part of who I am!” as if somehow our brokenness is essential to our identity. We do want to not call the broken, Good! Instead, we will look forward in hope to the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21) in the new heaven and new earth where righteous dwells ( 2 Pet 3:13). And as we go on, we will pray for grace to live holy and transformed lives.
[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for July 2019]
Christians are often accused of believing in an imaginary God who dwells in an imaginary heaven and who holds out imaginary ‘rewards’ (as they call it) for good behaviour. Those who say such things show that they have little understanding of the rules of evidence, of science or the Bible. Grace is most certainly not a reward! A moment’s reflection shows how inadequate is the argument that only visible things are real. A little child will happily explain that just because we cannot see something does not mean that it does not exist or has not existed. Our experience tells us that reality is not limited to physical things, and only the most doctrinaire materialist would tell us that ‘love,’ ‘joy,’ ‘peace’, etc., are not real simply because they cannot be seen or put in a bottle! It is the same with people. I cannot now “see” my great-grandparents but that does not mean they never existed. There are photographs and the testimony of those who knew them personally and one can go to places where they lived and left evidence of doing real things in the world.
So is the God whom we cannot see merely a relic from an unscientific age? Speaking scientifically, the intricacy and fine tuning within our universe bears witness that it could not have come into being as a result of slow, unguided evolution. It is designed for life. The same evidence for design is there in even the most basic living cell. All creation bears witness to its Creator (Rom 1:18-23). God has “signed” His work.
We also have the recorded testimony of those who saw God’s amazing acts or heard His voice first hand, such as Abraham and Moses and all the prophets. Someone may dismiss this as ancient unreliable testimony. Then what of John the Baptist who heard the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism or the apostles who heard it at Jesus’ transfiguration? (e.g. Mk 9:7). “Ah,” someone may say, “these simple folk misinterpreted what they experienced!” Shall we say that the brilliant Jewish scholar Saul (aka the apostle Paul) ‘misinterpreted’ when he heard and saw what others could not (Acts 9:1-19; 2Cor 12:1-5)? It changed his life. He will be dismissed as a another narrow-minded fanatic!
But what shall we do with the testimony of Jesus, whom many will accept as a fine ethical and moral teacher? Will He also be dismissed as the product of His time? He knew the importance of first-hand witness (Jn 3:11; 20:27) and when He spoke of God it was not something secondhand. His testimony was bold. “Verily, verily, I say unto you…” are words of One who insists, on pain of complete dismissal, that He is not a liar. We cannot be selective. If we hear Jesus at one point, we must hear Him on all points. He did not merely teach from human insight but spoke of the Father’s glory and claimed to have shared that glory prior to His own incarnation (Jn 17:1-26). He claimed to have predated Abraham (Jn 8:57-8), to know the Father intimately (Jn 10:15, 30, 36-38) and to speak His very words (Jn 8:28). He said that to hate Him is to hate His Father also (Jn 15:23). As C.S. Lewis said, “He is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord!”
Jesus believed the Old Testament to be true in every respect and taught that it spoke of Him (Jn 5:39). He also promised the enabling of the same Holy Spirit who inspired those writings (e.g. Mk 12:36) to validate its apostolic interpretation and to oversee all we now have in the New Testament (Jn 15:26, 16:26-27). Once again God has “signed” His work.
As we read carefully and prayerfully we shall meet and hear the One we cannot see, who will tell us of things we (presently) cannot see. But this is not forever. One day, we shall see Him as He is, and His word will be demonstrably true. But by then, it will be too late to change our minds. Far better to heed Him now—even if we cannot see Him.
[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for June, 2019.]
When the Apostle Paul reminisced about his first visit to Corinth, he summed it this way, “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Of course, that did not mean that when he spoke he only ever gave the same one talk or series of talks over and over again. The Bible itself contains more than the events of the cross for us to know. Nor did it mean that he ignored the resurrection, as if somehow believing in that great event was not essential (though amazingly one does hear of people who call themselves Christians who don’t believe it). And he certainly would not have omitted the extra-ordinary events of Pentecost and the implications of that amazing day for the whole Church for all the time that the Lord Jesus was away before his return. We can read in his letters that Paul spoke of many things regarding the Church, and even his two Corinthian letters show that he taught much more than what happened in Jerusalem those years earlier.
Someone may think that Paul was simply exaggerating for emphasis as well trained rhetoricians of his day would do. Well, no doubt there is a degree of truth to that idea because the cross is foundational to the Christian message and Paul would have given it the emphasis it deserved. But there is another, related sense, that Paul meant to convey as well. That is, that all of the wonderful truths of the Old Testament, and anything he had taught them about Jesus would never be of any profit to them or to anyone else, if the events of the cross had not occurred.
The cross is the key that unlocks for us the whole message of the Bible (not just the New Testament) and gives us hope. This is because it deals with the great issue of the Justice of God. Sin must be punished; it cannot be glossed over as a minor irritation or merely a weakness. Justice commits God always to do what is right, so unless the Justice of God is settled completely and for eternity, there can be no righteous (i.e. just) exercise of God’s love, grace, mercy, or the restraint of His wrath!
Sin turns us into debtors, incurring a debt we cannot pay, either now or throughout eternity. Sin establishes us as enemies of God incapable of doing anything ourselves (or even wanting to do anything ourselves) that would effect our reconciliation to Him. And sin makes us criminals; lawbreakers who rather break the law of God than suffer our wills to be inconvenienced or go without. So now, unless there is some way in which our status as debtors, enemies and criminals can be justly dealt with, and permanently, God’s love can never rest on us, grace will only be a dream and mercy will at best only ever be a temporary stay of the wrath to come.
This is why it is important to note that the Bible tells us that the cross was part of the Divine purpose from before the foundation of the world (1 Pet 1:20, Rev 13:8). God knew that Adam and Eve would sin at Satan’s deception thus adding to Satan’s guilt. (Note that this does not excuse Adam in any way!) But He also knew that through the Incarnation of His Son, sin would be justly dealt with at the cross. This knowledge allowed grace to be shown to Adam and Eve, and to all who seek His mercy. It also proves that all God’s attributes (e.g. justice, wrath, love, grace, mercy etc.) can co-exist without compromise to any. Thus when Satan receives his final judgment, he cannot “demand” that grace and mercy be shown to him for God to prove His character.
We may say then, that because of the Cross you can have a just salvation and Satan can have no argument against the justice of his condemnation
[first published in the monthly congregational Notes for May, 2019.]
When we read the events of the crucifixion and the empty tomb, we read them from a distance of almost 2000 years. That does not mean that their significance is lessened —far from it—but it does mean that we have to be careful and diligent in our reading so that we do not miss all that God wants to teach; things which would have been much closer to those in 1st century Judea even if they too struggled to comprehend the magnitude of the changes God was bringing in. At a basic level, if Jesus rose from the dead after dying as one under the curse of God, what did this say about all that the Old Testament said about the Justice of God? Either it had been somehow satisfied, or it was no longer important.
And what about the curtain? It was clear that God had torn it from top to bottom (it was too thick and heavy to be humanly torn) but that curtain had been an essential component of the Temple and Tabernacle ever since the days of Moses! How and why would God “change His mind”? Were all the rules and priestly provisions unnecessary after all? The answer to these questions, and others, are worked out in the progressive unfolding of the New Testament, and we cannot hope to come to clear and consistent answers unless we read it as a whole and unless we also read it in light of the many promises of the Old Testament. Those 39 books were never meant to be read on their own! This is where many readers (both scholarly and ordinary) come unstuck. We must not read the Old and New Testaments as if there was no essential harmony between them.
With the tearing of the curtain that separated off the Holy of Holies, it was clear that God was declaring something about how He could be approached. Ever since Jerusalem’s destruction in 586 BC and the disappearance of the ark of the covenant, there had been no “Mercy Seat” where the High Priest could sprinkle the blood (see Lev 16) but at least he could take incense and blood beyond the curtain and go through the motions of sprinkling, and release the “scape-goat”. Without a curtain, even that limited ceremony was further diminished! It seemed that God was saying, “It is My will that this Temple never be used in this way again!” But why?
As we read the New Testament, the explanation unfolds. The tabernacle and temple and all their rituals had a dual function. They were promissory and symbolic, and with the coming of Jesus the promises had been fulfilled and the symbols were no longer needed. Jesus Christ is the One true High Priest and Himself the offering. And by virtue of His resurrection, He never needs to be replaced. The true Holy Place is not on earth but in Heaven, the presence of God; the place from where Jesus came and to which He has returned. With His death as the true propitiation for sin (Rom 3:25, Heb 2:17, 9:11-12) there is no longer any other sacrifice and Heaven is no longer “veiled” to those who come to God through Him. There is therefore no need for a temple of the older sort. (See Jesus’ words: Matt 24:1-2).
Yet God has established a “dwelling place” where He would meet with His people—not a physical location as such but His Church. Wherever it might meet, the Church is His building (1 Cor 3:9), His holy temple (Eph 2:21), collectively (1 Cor 3:16-17) and individually (1 Cor 6:19. If we would meet with Him we do not have to make pilgrimages! But Christ must define the Church, not us. We cannot simply put up a sign saying “Church” or even do religious and “churchy things” such as baptisms and sacraments. He must be there!
Thankfully He has promised to be wherever people meet in His Name, where His atonement is foundational (1 Cor 3:11; Rev 3:20) and where His Word is honoured by repentance and faith. The question then, dear reader, is simple: “Does Jesus see you as part of His Church?”
[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for April, 2019.]
I expect that if you have been a Christian for some time you are reasonably familiar with the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Once we have read them they are hard to forget. The week was certainly full of drama! There is all the colour and noise of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, the praise of the crowd with their palm branches and coats, and muddled expectations of a liberating King to set them free from Rome. There is the cleansing of the temple and the overthrow of the buyers and sellers, the treachery of Judas’ betrayal for 30 pieces of silver, the godless and devious plotting of religious leaders who were happy to break almost all of the 10 Commandments and the ugly, inhumane cruelty of the crucifixion as a method of execution. We go on, imagining ourselves there as we hear the heavy clang of the hammer on the nails, and more… . Whole books have been written on these few days and a great many famous artworks from the Renaissance onwards have used the events of “Passion Week” as their theme. In recent years people have tried to capture that drama on the movie screen. There is drama, and it is engaging. But it is not merely human drama!
It is a drama in which the three persons of the Trinity are the chief protagonists and everyone else, from Pilate the Roman governor down to the humblest watcher, had only “supporting parts” as God allocated them to real-life willing players. It is because God is at work here that the whole series of the Easter events are profoundly important and lead Christians to be utterly amazed and worship. And if you read this as a non-Christian, it is my prayer that you will soon find in these events what it is that brings Christians to worship every Sunday. Why? Because as the apostle Paul writes in Romans 6:5-11, the events of the Cross and Empty Tomb have the power to make a profound difference to any who understand what was really going on.
Now, a sceptic might accept that someone, who was who had seen these things with their own eyes in Jerusalem 30 years before Paul wrote, could be dramatically changed. It would likely change us forever if we saw someone crucified, let alone then saw them risen from the dead as the apostles and others did of Jesus. But Paul was writing to people who had not seen those events for themselves (apart from perhaps just a few). And they had been just as powerfully changed as those who had, and more, as they began to understand and accept for themselves the enormity of what God was doing.
They found that by an amazing confluence of justice, wrath, mercy and grace, they could be reckoned as having died when Jesus died and therefore reckoned as having the penalty for all their sins paid through Him. Furthermore, their on-going bondage to sin had been broken and in Jesus’ resurrection they were reckoned as recipients of a new and eternal life. By faith in Jesus they could be sure that their lives were as precious to God as the life of His Son! That was “Good News” (ie gospel) indeed!
And that is the Easter message for us here in Melbourne in the 21st Century if we are to benefit from its “drama”. The God who acted at the first Easter must break into our present, and we must not harden our hearts to Him when He does. In a summary of Romans 6:5-11, and indeed the whole Bible, the Easter events must Embrace us and when they do, they will Deliver us and they will Transform us! Either that, OR we leave ourselves completely unchanged and under the condemnation of God.
Embraced, Delivered and Transformed, or unchanged & condemned: Which is it be?