Category Archives: Bible

Pointed preaching, broad theology

When studying a Bible passage – in preaching, for example – it’s time to dig into the specifics of the verses you have. Find the purpose of that text, the ‘why’, the angularity of that part of God’s word.

Don’t be easily distracted. Listen well, with all the time it takes.

When trying to grasp the big picture of all God has spoken – ‘doing theology’, we might say – that’s a good time to go broad. Get all the information that’s relevant, chase the links and implications.

Consider these two examples from the Psalms.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5)

David, in confession, knows the depth of his sin. There was no time in my life, he concedes, that was ever pure. Sin is his constant. What a powerful observation of humanity’s problem before the Holy One! We need this in our preaching, Bible studies, individual reading, …

Upon you I have leaned from before my birth;
you are he who took me from my mother’s womb.
My praise is continually of you. (Psalm 71:6)

This is a less famous Psalm, so the contrast might not be well-known. But look how this Psalm has trust in the Lord from before the year dot. In utero praise! There was no time, says Psalm 71, when the Lord was not the only true refuge. God is what he has always been – our only hope. How we need this message in our preaching, Bible studies, individual reading …

If I was leading a study on either of these Psalms, I would not cross-reference the other one. It would kill the power of Psalm 51 to say, ‘David knew his sin, but of course we know also that Psalm 71 says …’ Don’t do it! In preaching, stay narrow, focus on the passage, and let its razor-sharp truth do the necessary surgery.

On the other hand, you might be thinking through what God teaches us about children and infants. Are they rebels? Or faithful? Or bank slates, waiting for maturity before choosing a ‘real’ status? I am not going to answer those questions! Yet both of our two verses need to be heard (and many others, too). For theology, go broad.

Now, an exercise. See if my idea works. Staying in the Psalms, take Psalm 73 and Psalm 74. Specifically, how do these passages speak to us of the temple. It seems such a relief, joy, and instruction in Psalm 73:17. But in Psalm 74:3-5 the temple is as hopeless as a clear-felled forest.

How is the sanctuary of God a powerful image in each Psalm? (That’s the preaching.)
How do these contrasting images build up a fuller picture of the Jerusalem sanctuary? (Our theology.)

Let me know what you think, and if you get anything from the comparison of the two Psalms!

How to break the second commandment

This is yet another internet ‘how to’, but one that I don’t really want you to follow.

The Ten Commandments are on the lips of Moses just after Israel is saved from Egypt (Exodus 20:1-17), and forty years later as they finally get close to entering the land of promise (Deuteronomy 5:1-21). The forty year gap had a lot to do with Israel’s failure to follow the law, especially commandment number two.

Here’s the commandment, from Exodus:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

It’s a strong warning about idols, false gods, and not competing with the one true God. Through the Old Testament, Israel (very!) slowly seemed to learn this lesson, so they became known for their opposition to idols of all sorts. Paul’s revulsion at Athenian idols (Acts 17:16) shows a pretty standard Jewish reaction to false religion.

The commandment says: don’t worship as God that which is creation, do not honour made things as in any way like their maker.

Sadly, Australians fall into this false worship all the time. Here are the two common sayings I hear that prove it:

“The best place to feel close to the divine is in the bush/garden.”

“Music moves me in a way that’s truly spiritual.”

That is: God is in the world; or, God is in a human manipulation of the world. They (metaphorically) bow down to creation, or serve something made out of creation. They are the same as saying, ‘I worship the sun,’ or, ‘Here is the god my silversmith manufactured.’

Christians, of course, should know this error – it’s sin in a most blatant form. But we mess it up all the same.

So often we (ok, yes, it’s me!) make the error of thinking God is more close in a beautiful garden than a city street. Or that the experience of fine music leads us more directly to the experience of the Holy Spirit than the Bible reading in church.

These are terrible errors, sins most awful.

Jesus, victor over death and ascended to God’s right hand, is with his disciples always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20). There was no mention by Jesus of ‘only in sweet gardens’.

I agree that singing and music work better when in tune. But we must remember that songs (any art form) do not mediate God to us. They are human responses directed to the God who is already with us – thanks, praise, honour, rejoicing.

We can be thankful to God for his good gifts to us. But to turn those gifts into ‘God’s presence’ is an assault the second commandment, an attack on God himself.

 

“You’re not listening” – main meanings

It seems to me there are three primary meanings to the statement, “You’re not listening to me!”

  1. You’re not listening to me.
    You really did fail to pay attention, and notice what was said.
  2. You did not do what I want.
    They said it, you understood but didn’t follow their idea, which they take as proof of not caring.
  3. You didn’t read my mind.
    Come on, you must have known what I wanted.

There are probably more, but I think these are pretty common. Which have you heard? What have you said?

 


 

Death: by Karl Barth

Commenting on Romans 5:12 (some paragraph breaks added) –

Death is the supreme law of the world in which we live. Of death we know nothing except that it is denial and corruption, the destroyer and destruction, creatureliness and naturalness. Death is engraved inexorably and indelibly upon our life. It is the supreme tribulation in which we stand. In it the whole riddle of our existence is summarized and focused; and in its inevitability we are reminded of the wrath which hangs over the man of the world and the world of man.

So completely is death the supreme law of this world, that even that which, in this world, points to the overcoming and renewing of this world, takes the form of death. Morality appears only as the denial of the body by the spirit; the dying Socrates is the only fitting emblem of philosophy; progress is no more than a restless negation of the existing natural order. No flame – except the flame of the Lord! (Exod. iii. 2) – can burn without destroying. Even the Christ according to the flesh must die that He be appointed the Son of God (Rom. i. 3, 4).

We too must pass through death, if we are to render unto God the honour due to Him. We have to learn that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We would like to turn our backs on all this, if we could. We would like to protest against death in the name of life, if it were not that the protest of death against our life is far more venerable, far more significant. We try to bury out of sight the suspicions and reservations which accompany every unbroken affirmation we make, and to protect our eyes against the grey light of the final negation which is preceded by a whole host of preliminary negations. But we are unable to persist long in our attempt; for it is all too evident that the grey light does not proceed from our caprice, but has a primary origin. It envelops our whole life (Rom. i. 10), for there is no vital and creative human action which is not born in pain and revolution and death.

We are powerless; we are lost. Death is the supreme law of our life. We can say no more than that if there be salvation, it must be salvation from death; if there be a ‘Yes’, it must be such a ‘Yes’ as will dissolve this last and final ‘No’; if there be a way of escape, it must pass through this terrible barrier by which we are confronted.

From The Epistle to the Romans.

Acts 10 & the importance of preaching

Acts 10 is at a revolution point in God’s wonderful work. It’s where the news of Jesus goes directly to a non Jew. The whole world has direct access to Jesus by trust – always God’s plan, now fully revealed because of the completed work of Jesus.

And God’s revolution comes by preaching.

Proclaiming the news of Jesus often feels and looks unutterably weak. Yet many indications of Acts 10 show apostolic preaching to be God’s chosen way. (Brackets for verse numbers.)

  • Cornelius needs to hear the gospel, so God sends an angel (=messenger) who says: send for Peter (5). Why not let the angel talk? Because it had to be the apostle. This is extraordinary preparation to hear preaching
  • Peter experienced a disturbing vision from God to show that all people have immediate opportunity to trust Jesus (15). God could have given Cornelius this vision. This is extraordinary preparation for the preacher
  • When Cornelius sent for Peter, the go-betweens specified that it was to hear what you have to say (22)
  • Even more than that, Cornelius himself knew that Peter had been commanded by the Lord to speak (33)
  • Cornelius is scared of the angel (4), but tried to worship Peter (25). Mistaken worship, but a right assessment of relative importance
  • Cornelius’ crowd already knew about Jesus’ ministry (37). This is not information transfer. They needed Peter’s preaching
  • The apex of Peter’s sermon is that God sent people to speak about Jesus (42-43). Beforehand were the prophets, and after the resurrection Jesus sent eyewitnesses to preach and testify
  • It was while Peter was speaking that the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius (44)

The major amazement of Acts 10 is that the benefits from Jesus are poured out freely “even on the Gentiles” (45). But along the way we read plenty of reminders that God’s chosen method of saving is by preaching the apostolic message.

May we never lose confidence in speaking the gospel of Jesus.

 


 

Wrestle the devil

Ephesians is full of memorable passages and memory-verse favourites. It’s a biblical letter chock-full of the greatness of God and his great plans for Christ’s church.

A common favourite is 6:10-20, in which believers are told to dress in the whole armour of God. Why do we need God’s armour? Because our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil. Why struggle at all? So we may stand, firm and unshaken on the foundation of Christ.

It seems to me that each item of armour shows us two things. Firstly, how to be strong in the Lord. Secondly, where our weakness lies.

What follows is a short look at each of the items, and what they say about Christian strength and weakness.

The belt of truth
The devil is a liar through and through, says Jesus (John 8:44). His character is to lie. So to hold to truth is to hold to God. Truth is not only a weapon against evil, truth is victory in itself. The category of truth is wonderfully rich. It includes such joys as: God is the creator of all; Jesus is the saving Son of God; Jesus died and rose again in victory over sin; Jesus is the final judge of all humanity.

Each truth is a strong wrestling grip to defeat the devil. Therefore weakness is to be loose on the truth. To not know what God teaches us of his gospel is to choose weakness and danger. Any Christian unconcerned for doctrine, the teaching, and truth is a Christian in danger.

We can have the belt of truth, or we can be belted without the truth.

The breastplate of righteousness
Righteousness is of God (you can read about the Lord’s armour in Isaiah 59:15-18). Jesus saved his people in order that we share God’s righteousness. For believers, righteousness means saying no to angry sin, to greedy idolatry, and to immorality. Take the example of anger. In Ephesians 4:26-27, we see that we refuse the devil a foothold by refusing to turn anger into sin.

The devil hates righteousness. Therefore we become his prey when we go soft on righteousness. It’s not that (self-)righteousness saves us. It is that unrighteousness kills us.

Shoes of gospel readiness
The shoes that go and share the gospel of Jesus are a double-barrelled weapon in the battle against evil. Barrel one: love for neighbour invites that neighbour to forgiveness and eternal life. Barrel two: every person who then follows Christ is a loss to the devil, and is no longer following the prince of the air (see Ephesians 2:1-3).

In contrast, if we are Christians who refuse to share the gospel of Jesus, we’re like pacifist soldiers – dressed like an army, but refusing to fight. What a crazy waste!

The shield of faith
Faith is our deep personal commitment and pledge to the Lord whose truth we trust. Faith clings to God. God – being the rock – is life’s sure and stable foundation. We’re not pushovers when built onto Christ.

But weak faith is like trying to balance tall on one toe, with eyes closed, in a gale. It’s unstable and precarious.

The helmet of salvation
Salvation is safety. God promises his children protection. Specifically, we will not face punishment for our many sins because Jesus has already taken the punishment. The devil has nothing he can accuse us of.

So it’s a great battle weakness if we fall back from Jesus’ salvation and start to trust our own behaviour. When we choose our own works to save, we actually choose our own sins to condemn.

The sword of the Spirit
This sword is the word of God – God’s attack weapon against evil. Jesus grabbed the sword of the Spirit to defeat the devil in the wilderness, quoting the law of the Lord (Matthew 4:1-11). And when equipping the church, Jesus gave people who speak the word of God (Ephesians 4:11-12).

A Christian weak in the word of God is a soldier without a weapon. Enthusiasm will not cover that weakness. Such a soldier may be physically present, but unable to help the battle.

The armour of God is a wonderful gift from the Father. It is from him, and its power is his – that’s why the description concludes with extended call to prayer (verses 18-20). We accept the items as gifts, take them up, and then ask God to empower us as servants,

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.

 


 

Unlucky Friday 13th

This month includes a Friday 13th.

It also includes a Friday 20th, but that date never seems to get any special attention. Though difficult to spell, we are all aware of paraskevidekatriphobia: fear of Friday the thirteenth.

Christians are to be people who know the Spirit, but also know the foolishness of superstition. Christian preaching caused a riot, led by a silversmith who made lucky charms – he could see his business withering (Acts 19:23-41). Before Israel reached the land of promise, they were warned against charms (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).

So I well know that Friday 13th is dumb.

Why, then, does it still register? Why does it always cross my mind that there could be an unlucky day, when I know it’s rubbish?

That’s not the only example. Without following the superstitions, I still note: when a black cat crosses my path; when there’s a ladder I could walk under; when Australian cricketers are on a score of 87. All folly – and all still in my mind.

I think this is a clear example of what each Christian struggles with: the persistence of sin and folly.

In Philippians 3, Paul warns against false teachers in church, those who would enslave us to laws and pride. Paul himself was the perfect candidate for such empty confidence, but he gave up all his ‘achievements’ in order to know Christ.

But note how Paul admits his ongoing weakness and failure. He’s not yet there:

not that I have already attained this or am already perfect

I do not consider that I have made it my own

I press on towards the goal

Do you struggle with sin? Does persistent error get you down? That’s normal! What’s not normal is thinking the Christian life is easy and always godly. Jesus will complete his remodelling of everyone who trusts him, but renovation is always messy.

So how about we use Friday 13th as a fun reminder. Let’s laugh at the folly of thinking one number can affect us (but only on a Friday), as we laugh at the folly of our own sin. And let’s remember to ‘press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’.

 


 

 

Not all desires are equal

Not all desires are the same.

Kind of obvious? Yes! But important in a world whose ethical arguments depend so much on desire. What rights rule today, in the western world? The right to self-determination, to self-expression, and to self-definition. Desire is all-knowing.

If I will it then it is OK. (The usual illogical caveat that follows is as long as it hurts no one.) And more than OK, if I will it then it’s morally required. Desires reign.

Proverbs 6 shows how false that is. The back end of the chapter warns at length about giving in to the desire for illicit sex: don’t go to the strange woman, the adulteress, your neighbour’s wife.

But in the flow of the argument, there’s comment about stealing food. Why? Have a look at these verses (29-32).

So [burned] is he who goes in to his neighbour’s wife;
    none who touches her will go unpunished.
People do not despise a thief if he steals
    to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry,
but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold;
    he will give all the goods of his house.
He who commits adultery lacks sense;
    he who does it destroys himself.

In the middle of warning against adultery, here is a hungry thief. He steals out of poverty and hunger. His desire for food is reasonable. We understand, and we don’t despise him for his crime. But we still punish him.

Theft remains theft, even when driven by the understandable desire for food.

But the point is not that the thief will still receive punishment. Not ‘the thief gets punishment, so too will the adulterer’.

The point is this: theft driven by hunger (though wrong) makes sense, but adultery is just plain stupid. Adultery is always self-harm.

He who commits adultery lacks sense;
    he who does it destroys himself.

Proverbs compares two desires here – the desire for food, the desire for sex. The comparison is in the realm of wrongdoing (stealing and adultery). And the comparison tells us to treat different desires differently.

Now there are lots of ways we need to heed this point. It’s pretty plain that there’s a trendiness in pushing for same-sex marriage. And it would be easy for me to go there (‘just because two people desire sex with each other does not mean it is good, or needs state validation’).

But I’d prefer us to see that ethical difference between desires applies all over the place. Perhaps I – and maybe you too? – need to consider where I err in this matter?

We might think of:

  • Any sexual desire outside of committed, life-long marriage
  • The desire to enjoy alcohol
  • Longing to see more of the world
  • The desire to succeed in your chosen employment
  • The longing for a successful ministry
  • A desire to be well thought-of
  • The desire for physical or mental health, for self or a loved one

And on and on we could go. Again and again, I believe, our desires take us. Then our reasons and arguments follow along to justify what we want.

So let’s remember that our desires can take us into error. Even the good desire for food can go feral. Jesus (in the final verse quoted below) said to desire first what is truly first – God’s kingdom.

The desire of the righteous ends only in good;
the expectation of the wicked in wrath. (Proverbs 11:23)

Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire;
he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)

 


 

Ashley Madison and the search for security

The folly of sin is when we flee from security in search of security. We run away from what’s good and justify it as the search for good. It’s a daily universal pattern. Sometimes this pattern becomes even more clear than usual.

Earlier this year there was big news for the customers of Ashley Madison – their personal details had been hacked and published on the internet.

This would be poor form for any online business, but was more nerve-jangling for these clients since Ashley Madison exists entirely to promote infidelity and sexual unfaithfulness. Who cares about credit card details once the whole world knows your secrets?

The irony of this hack is that it was a security breach of the company whose business model was to breach security.

Ashley Madison promote married dating (ie, cheating). They target people who have made promises to a partner, people who have also heard promises from their spouse.

Of course no marriage is perfect. Yet it’s wonderful that men and women seriously promise each other the security of life-long commitment, “until death.” That’s a basis for security!

But at some stage the clients of the Adultery Madison Ashley Madison opted for the fragile security of an on-line business. “Oh look”, they might have thought, “they have secure socket layer security. I will definitely trust that!”

And so the potential adulterer says farewell to the security of a spousal promise, and entrusts privacy to the security of the internet. Dumb choice.

That is like sin in the heart of every person. Just as in the Garden of Eden, where the man and woman lost the whole garden because they opted instead for the one banned fruit.

Or, in the Lord’s words through his prophet, “my people have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

The folly of sin: we run away from what we really want, under the impression that we will find what we want.

So Ashley Madison is a jolt to all of us, not only the individuals named.

  • It’s time to turn back from seeking good things in bad places.
    Repent of the adultery sites, of ‘financial security’, of looking as good as whitewashed tombs.
  • It’s time to turn back to the living water himself, Jesus Christ our good Lord.