[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?
[First published in the monthly congregational “notes” for March, 2019.]
On our recent holiday cruise to New Caledonia, the weather on the whole was pleasant and the sailing smooth. Waves of only a few metres do not trouble a modern cruise ship. Yes there was a cyclone around but the captain could navigate around the worst of it and changing the itinerary helped too. There was only one 24hr period when the weather was extraordinarily rough and I was one of the many who skipped dinner that night; six-metre waves make a difference! Yet for all that, the Captain and crew were unperturbed. He knew his ship’s capabilities and he had his instruments and charts. He knew where to head even though it was pitch black and nothing was visible beyond the bow. Besides, he had sailed these seas many times beforehand and doubtless had experienced far worse.
It would have been very different for Noah. He had never sailed before but that did not really matter as his ship was really just a large “cargo barge” with no power of its own, not even a sail. He just had to drift. [Various detailed marine engineering design studies have been done to show that the ark, built according to the design God gave (Gen 6:14-16) would have been extraordinarily stable even in very rough seas.] Any maps or charts of his region would quickly become useless when everything was under water. Even if he could see through the rain of 40 days, there was nothing he could do about his course until the Ark eventually ran aground. In every way he was utterly dependant upon God. And this was the point! God, having decreed the Ark as a means of salvation, was not going to fail those who exercised faith to take Him at his word. All in the Ark lived and walked out into a “new” world. And so Noah become one of those Old Testament saints (i.e. ordinary believers) who model what it means to be “justified by faith” (Heb. 11:7); if we do not take God at His word and surrender in faith and trust, we will die!
Noah’s faith began to be exercised long before the first drops of rain fell and the waters began to rise. It would have been too late to start building then. But it is clear that faith had been an integral part of his upbringing. Genesis 5 describes his godly heritage, and doubtless his father and grandfather had impressed on him all God had revealed about human history: Creation, Sin & Judgement and the Gracious Promise of Redemption. His deliverance was real even though the next few chapters of Genesis show that it proved not to be the radical new start humanity needed then and still needs now. Even Abraham the next great “man of faith” who left his past and family, could not by that obedience and renunciation, overcome sin in himself or his family. Nor could the Moral Law given by Moses, nor all the blood of bulls, goats or lambs offered up as sacrifice. There had to be a more effective Way—and there was, and is! The promise of the Old Testament is Christ!
In Matt 24:37-39, Jesus made it clear that Noah’s Ark is meant to be a powerful symbol of Himself. There is a coming judgment that rightly is deserved by all; “none are righteous, no not one” (Rom 3:10ff). Jesus came to bear that judgment in all its terrible fullness and He alone is able to bear it and not be “overwhelmed”. He bore it and “rose” above it, as it were, so that those and only those who “in Him” are delivered into a new world where righteousness dwells (Rom 8:1; 1Cor 15:22; 2Cor 5:17; 2Pet 3:13). It is Christ alone who delivers us through the judgement of God into the New Heaven and New Earth.
Noah preached for 100 years and people still did not want to hear. So far, the Church has been pointing to the open “Door” of Jesus Christ for nearly 2000 years, and people still will not listen! Is it not a wonder that God graciously still keeps the door open? But not forever. God is also Just. One day the opportunity will close and the wrath of God will fall. On that day, dear reader, will you be found “in Christ” or outside in the darkness?
[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for February, 2019.]
Here in the heat of a full Victorian summer with the ever present danger of bushfires, we have become used to days of total fire bans. We are well aware of the impact of just one spark. In the 1970’s, there was a popular Christian song that began with the lines, “It only takes a spark, to get a fire going, And soon all those around, can warm up to its glowing…” The song tried to capture the Christian’s desire to pass the love of God on to others and expressed the hope that just one “spark” of that love would be enough to stir a response that would lead them to embrace the love of God for themselves. Oh that it were so easy! But when dry hearts have been prepared by the Spirit of God, that certainly can happen in very short time. Revivals do spread like bushfires. More often than not, however, we will see the opposite: rumours, gossip and character assassination running wild and free.
The apostle James understood the effect of just one spark on dry tinder but was moved to apply the bushfire imagery to describe the awful consequences of a mischievous or malicious tongue. “See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity” [James 3:5b-6a]. He lived in an age without social media, but his words are so appropriate to describe the firestorms of confected rage that can erupt after just one anonymous “tweet” or a post on a fake Facebook page. Even respected news outlets can be misled. Something does not have to be true, it just has to be emotive enough and people will respond with knee-jerk reactions to things they think were said, and which they know nothing about. Whole reputations can be destroyed in a moment.
No Christian should be part of such a reaction, no matter how tempting it might be to jump in and be “relevant”, or how much of a witness we think our quick response might be. Instead (and it is not just James the first century church leader giving us his opinion but the Spirit of God Himself speaking for all time) we should be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (Jas 1:19). It is better to be right in the long run rather than immediate, partial and destructive. This is not always easy, especially when we may be pressed for “a Christian response” to the many issues that rightly raise our concerns, and when we may want to appear at the vanguard of social justice to show what we know to be true: that ultimately only Christianity is able to provide a strong and equitable social foundation without recourse to repression of one social class or another.
We must be very careful, which is hard in the midst of all our zeal, because James straight away cautions that “the wrath of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (1:20) which we may quite safely extend to apply to the indignation of man as well. “Surely it is a matter of common grace!” we say. Perhaps, or perhaps not. The indignation of man, especially that aroused suddenly and reactively, cannot take proper account of any context, and has no knowledge of the heart Worse still, it has no delight in the righteousness of God as a standard unless it furthers self-interest. Furthermore, it may well be that the mischief caused by an unbalanced reaction is worse than the original fault! That is why the Book of Proverbs also rebukes a perverse, lying or spiteful tongue (Prov 10:31, 17:4, 25:23b, 26:28) and praises the wise and truthful one.
This is not to say that God cannot use the angry & malicious in the providential ordering of history! Of course He does, and the events of the crucifixion show this without a doubt. But this still does not give us warrant to legitimise false witness or prioritise short term worldly acclaim while seeking to serve Him. The full approval of God is more important than having all men speak well of us! (Luke 6:26). We must no more sin with our lips or our pens and keyboards that grace may abound, than we would with our bodies.
[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for January, 2019.]
There is something about the end of a calendar year that causes us to look back in review just as there is something about the prospect of a new year opening up before us that prompts us to look ahead with hope and new expectations. And it does not seem to matter how many times we have done this; each new year presents the same double sense of imperative. We may look back in order to see how far we have come, or where we have failed or where there is room for improvement. We look ahead firmly resolved not to make the same mistakes again. We may be surprised at what has been achieved when at the time so little seemed to be happening. Or we may look back with a heavy sense of sameness that (once again for the umpteenth year?) there seems to have been little of any value to our existence. We ask ourselves, “What have I really contributed to anyone?” More than likely, our individual retrospects will be a blend of more or less of each of these aspects. Whatever the case we must be careful to ensure that we do not allow our looking back to dampen our expectations for the future. While we are alive, we are not bound to be captive to the past: “Where there is life there is hope” the saying goes, and it expresses a general as well as Christian truth.
Christian grace, like a coin, has two sides. The grace that ties us to Christ comes with the grace that initiates a new and growing spiritual life. There is, as Jesus says, a new birth (“You must be born again,” John 3:3) which is designed to grow as it draws its food from the “milk” and then the “meat” of the Word. (1 Pet. 2:2 & Heb 5:14). But after the first flush of Christian joy, the world makes it very clear to us that the only growth it willingly tolerates in us (if we may change the metaphor to that of the tree in Psalm 1) is that which creates “Bonsai Christians”. You have seen Bonsai plants—they are alive and growing but all new fresh growth is carefully nipped out, branches are bent into decorative rather than fruit-bearing shapes and roots are restricted and pruned severely. Such plants can be quite “mature” but function only as ornaments.
No Christian in their right mind wants to be a Bonsai! We see how much the love of Christ has given us and we genuinely want to live for Him in response! That is how it should be. Yet I suspect that every one of us can find areas of our faith where we have let “the world the flesh and the devil” prune and trim it to the point where it is little more than ornamental. If there is any fruit it is mostly decorative and tolerated by the world for “art’s” sake. If that is our retrospect for 2018, it can be a depressing one, but it need not stay so in 2019. We simply need to be re-potted and re-pruned!
The Christian life is to have deep roots (Mark 4:6,17 & Ps 1:3) and wide branches. It is not pruned for form but for fruit (Jn 15:2 & Luke 13:8) and its beauty is in showing the re-shaping power of Christlikeness in every believer.
Sometimes it might seem that He has to cut away so much that there is nothing left! We panic!—we have heard of well-meaning gardeners who killed a plant by pruning it too much!! But Christ does not prune to kill but to kindle new growth, growth that will flourish and be totally re-shaped according to His design. But our life looks so bare! Perhaps for now, but we must remember that “Christ has not finished with us yet”. It has not yet been revealed to us what we shall be (1 Jn 3:2) but He has all that in mind and is pruning for eternity. Let Him prune your life in 2019. As a start, we would do well to read and pray in the qualities we find set forth in Col 3:1-4:6 and Titus 2:1-14.