Monday, 31 December 2007

2007: some thoughts for evangelism

Last year, I wrote some thoughts about what I felt the events of 2006 meant for Christian outreach. It's interesting to look back at these thoughts a year later.

Some of these themes and trends have continued over the past year. The postmodern mindset is perhaps more pervasive than ever - and so, on campus at least, is scepticism. And Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, was followed in 2007 by other atheistic dogma like Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great.

However, on reflection, there are some other trends that have occurred over 2007 that are perhaps more important for the future of Christian witness.

The Environment

It's true that issues such as global warming and our use of the planet have been on the back-burner for many years. However, the green agenda has come well and truly to the forefront of many people's minds in 2007. The IPCC's report in February 2007 was just the latest in a series of scientific reports that pointed to the grave realities of global warming and the need to care for the planet. Increasingly, green politics came into effect as well. All three major political parties in Britain now have developed environmental policies. Surveys throughout 2007 have shown that green issues are likely to be a vote-swinger for an increasing number of the British electorate.

Many non-Christians view Christianity - or, more particularly, the Bible's view of the environment - as part of the problem here. A twisted view of theology (twisting the Biblical command for humanity to 'fill the earth and subdue it') combined with modernist Christianity that confused Christian living with Enlightenment ideals (of human progress at all costs) has left Christianity tarnished. Increasingly, many younger people and a handful of older people fail to see the relevance of a God that would allow his creation to be spoiled.

Contemporary Christians face the challenge of clearly thinking about and articulating a Biblical view of the stewardship of creation. It will not do to have a simplistic eschatology where care for the environment is seen as tantamount to moving around deckchairs on the deck of the Titanic. Instead, we must speak about the God who is good, whose creation is good (if cursed by sin) but who has designed humans to be the climax of his creation and for relationship with him.

Community and the Atonement

I've been reading a number of Christian critiques of penal substitution over the past six months, which proliferated in 2007. I'm absolutely convinced that penal substitution is central to an understanding of the gospel. However, what a number of these critiques have pointed to is a very simplistic understanding of the implications of this view of the cross. It's often assumed that if one holds to a penal substitutionary understanding of the cross, that the implications are only for the individual and primarily for the eschatological future. It's therefore seen to be neccesary to drop or adapt our view of the cross to make it more appealing to a culture that wants to see Christianity engaging more in society (and with environmental issues - see above).

Convinced that I am that penal substitution is throroughly Biblical, I'm equally convinced that the implications are much wider than just salvation for the individual. Penal substitution has a lot to say about justice, community and society. It's my hope that we evangelicals understand this more clearly and begin to link our engagement with the world in the light of the cross.

In the light of this, I'm planning (eventually) to blog on the wider implications of penal substituion and the world.


My final observation about 2007 is the growth in therapeutic evangelism: the sort of evangelism that speaks of life being made more comfortable with Jesus. A quick glance at many of the evangelistic sermon texts preached around the world in 2007 shows that this is becoming ever more popular. We're losing the idea that the gospel is public truth for everyone.

I used to be warned by a church leader in Bristol not to reduce gospel preaching to 'spiritual air conditioning', speaking about a gospel that makes life that little bit more comfortable. We'll need to increasingly be on our guard to prevent ourselves slipping into this. Reading Will Metzger's book, Tell the Truth, will be a great start to prevent this!

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

"But that's just your interpretation..."

I've been thinking a bit further about gospelling postmodern people and the challenges of the emerging church. More to come in future days.

In the meantime, Ray Ortlund comes up with very helpful advice in responding to the criticism, "That's just your interpretation...". I particularly like his third point: humility and clarity are beautiful when they go together.

Monday, 24 December 2007

The heart of God through the Christmas message

At this time of year, as I reflect on the Christmas message, I love taking a mental step back and thinking about what the incarnation reveals about the heart of God.

One of my favourite hymns, I think, captures this excellently. Verses 1 and 2 capture the depths of humility and grace that the incarnation reveals, pre-shadowing the further humiliation and kindness that Jesus would ultimately show in going to the cross.

I commend thinking deeply about these lyrics:

1. Astounding grace, that God the Son should choose
to leave the Father's glory and refuse
to clutch his dignity, exploit his right
and make himself a no-one in our sight.

All praise Christ and his astounding grace,
all praise his name.

2. The word made flesh, the Son of God a man,
the timeless one clothed in a mortal span.
Now born of dust, and in a manger laid:
transcendent God in human likeness made.

3. Astounding grace, that we should enter in;
he tore the veil, and cast away our sin;
he saw our hate, our dark and desperate lust;
he bore our guilt, and then declared us just.

4. Astounding grace, that Christ should suffer death,
and know first-hand the grave's corrupting breath,
the Prince of life, creation's gracious Lord:
he paid the price that we could not afford.

Words: D.A. Carson
Music: Steve James & Philip Percival

If you've never listened to it, let me also commend Mike Cain's sermon on Philippians 2:5-11 to you this Christmas.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

How not to shipwreck your faith

Some more thinking from 1 Timothy 1...

Interesting to note the verses below that draw the chapter to a conclusion:

18Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, 19holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. 20Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.
Paul seems to be saying to Timothy that the way in which he's to 'fight the good fight' is - as verse 19 puts it - to hold onto both faith and a good conscience. Note the flow onto the following sentence, which I've put in emphasis above. If we don't hold onto both faith and a good conscience, we're likely to find that our faith is on the rocks.

It's interesting to reflect exactly what it means to hold onto faith and to a good conscience. The word 'faith' is common in 1 Timothy (see 1:2, 1:4, 1:5, 1:14; 2:7, 2:15; 3:9, 3:13; 4:1, 4:6, 4:12; 5:8, 5:9; 6:10, 6:11, 6:12, 6:20). Here, Paul seems to be referring to the gospel message. To hold onto the faith is to watch one's doctrine carefully. To become theologically lax is to endanger one's spiritual health.

It's also important to hold onto a good conscience. This phrase is also found in 1:5 and 3:9 (contrast with 4:2). The reference in chapter 1 shows that a good conscience can come only through the genuine work of the gospel in one's own life - and therefore is an important criterion for spiritual leadership. It seems to refer to having a short account with God and having 'nothing to hide'. Perhaps having a good conscience is tantamount to having no unrepentant sin in one's life and having one's conscience clear in that respect.

Apparently Hymanaeus and Alexander had failed to hold onto these things. We don't know whether their failure was doctrinal or in lifestyle or both. But, nevertheless, their faith was ruined and Paul had instilled some form of apostolic discipline.

I'm personally very grateful for those who help me to watch my doctrine - church leaders, friends and readers of my thoughts here. I'd hope that if I did begin to slip doctrinally that these brothers and sisters would pick me up. The challenge I take from this passage is to make sure that I'm being equally vigorous in my lifestyle and in my godliness. As a leader it's very easy to foster private and public personae. But there's no kidding God - and so one of my prayers for the year ahead is to be able to say that I genuinely am 'holding onto a good conscience.'

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Some thoughts on the emerging church and eschatology

I've spent some of the past few days sifting through an incredibly weighty amount of literature on the emerging church, in preparation for a seminar I'm giving next year critiquing the emerging church's view of Scripture.

I guess I should make as an immediate caveat that I'm fairly novice to this area of Christendom, and that there seems to be an incredible amount of heterogeneity in what I'm reading. However, there are a few trends that I can see coming through.

The first is an underlying discontent with traditional conservative eschatology. I guess I'm fairly sympathetic with the emergent writers at this point. It seems to me that, since the Reformation, there's been such an effort made to untangle justification and sanctification as two different things (as opposed to the traditional Roman Catholic syncretistic view) that there's an overwhelming emphasis on justification and relatively little said about living as a Christian now. It's a caricature of the view but, it does sometimes seem that conservatives say (remember with good motives in wanting to highlight assurance, and so on), "OK, now we're saved. All we have to do is wait for the Lord Jesus to return." The gospel is caricatured as individual salvation and how to make sure that we avoid hell. Bible study is flattened to make every passage of the Bible say the same as Romans. Sermons are not applied to every day life. And all this has often meant that conservative Christians (and remember I speak as a conservative!) have been slow to be culturally engaged, slow to be involved in politics and slow to be involved in the alleviation of poverty and suffering worldwide.

In my opinion, one of the good things about the charismatic movement is that it seems to often have a fairer emphasis that eternal life has already started once a person becomes a Christian. Yes, we have the certain hope of heaven to come - but the Lord is powerfully at work now by his Spirit to free you from the effects on sin and to make you more like the character of Jesus. A more Biblical balance is that the kingdom of God, that Jesus so often wrote about, is not merely in the eschatological future, but exists now too. And it has implications way beyond just the eternal fate of individuals (although it is not less than this).

But the emergent writers seem to want to take things one step further (in, I think, a knee-jerk reaction to the conservatism I've described). Many of these writers seem unwilling to speak about eternity at all. To them, it's much more important being an authentic Christian now, in the present. Any talk of eternity seems to smack of being too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use. The Bible is reduced to being merely something that is intended to equip God's people for good works. Whether it's authoritative or infallible or inerrant doesn't really matter to these folks - in fact, these discussions are unnecessary and distracting from the task of seeking to live an authentic Christian life.

I think all this misses the point somewhat. There's some helpful critiquing of conservativism here (in particular as we think about our Bible studies and preaching). But wanting to merely see the Bible as a series of artefacts designed to spur us to good works is a flawed position:

- For one, I think it misunderstands what it means to be a Christian. I remember hearing a seminar by Michael Ramsden a couple of years ago (online audio here), where he demonstrated that Christianity is not rooted epistemologically in thinking, existentially in feeling or pragmatically in doing. It's true that we should be known for the things that we do, but Christ did not come to simply tell us how to live. Christianity is rooted in the person of Christ himself, and the life we have, we live in him.

- For another thing, most of the Bible's teaching on how we should live is rooted in doctrinal teaching about God himself (Romans 6:11-14, Colossians 3:1-4, the whole of Ephesians!). To throw out the doctrine leads us into a form of legalism whereby we separate our works now from what Christ has done and the Spirit he has given us.

- The most radical Christian lives are lived with eternity in view. Once I am safe in the knowledge that my eternal place with God is secure, that frees me up to serve others in love. This is the thrust of 2 Corinthians 4-5.

The emerging church - rightly, I think - longs for Christians to engage more and live more lovingly and authentically in the world. It's something I often feel myself. But I think the alternatives that they advocate are a severe case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Calvin on 1 Timothy 1:15

I'm preparing a series of small group Bible studies on 1 Timothy for next term. Found this gem of a quote from Calvin on 1 Timothy 1:15, which is perhaps particularly appropriate to reflect on at Christmastime:

"Even those who recognize that Christ's work is to save admit that it is more difficult to believe that this salvation belongs to sinners. Our mind is always prone to dwell on our own worthiness and, as soon as our unworthiness becomes apparent, our confidence fails. Thus the more a man feels the burden of his sins, he ought with greater courage to betake himself to Christ, relying on what is here taught, that he came to bring salvation not to the righteous but to sinners."

Sunday, 16 December 2007

What is the place of the OT Law for believers today? (6)

This posting is the last of the role of the Law in the Old Testament, providing context for what we read about the Law in the New Testament.

What I have endeavoured to show is that I believe that the Law has a very realistic view of human nature. The very fact that the sacrificial element was included in the Law points to this reality. As Chris Wright writes, ‘Without lessening the great moral absolutes of God’s demand, [the Law takes] full account of man’s moral predicament, ranging from sheer fragility to outright obstinate rebellion. […] The starting point to [walking in the way of the law] was God’s objective provision of atonement and the subjective experience of forgiveness.’

Alongside this, we have also seen that Israel’s fundamental problem in the Old Testament was not just a failure to keep the Law, but also a lack of desire and willingness to keep the Law at all. Israel showed a lack of faith in God. This showed itself in, amongst other things, idolatry, self-righteousness, syncretism and complacency. And for this reason, Israel faced God’s anger.

As that anger played out in the form of judgement and exile, the prophets began to promise a new covenant that would fulfil all of the earlier promises made to God’s people in a new and wonderful way. This new covenant is prophetically described like this (emphasis mine in both passages):

24 "'For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” [Ezekiel 36:24-28]

31 "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. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I 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.

33 "This is the covenant 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. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD.

"For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." [Jeremiah 31:31-34]

Note that the prophesied ‘new covenant’ will deal with the root of Israel’s failings. It will be unconditional (Jeremiah 31:34), with no possibility of being broken by God’s people; an indication that atonement will be made in full. Additionally, it will move the people to willing obedience to God's decrees, because God will put his Spirit in their hearts (Ezekiel 36:27 and Jeremiah 31:33): God will have an ‘internal’ relationship with his people.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Faithful unto death

Yesterday the UCCF North West team had an excellent team day, where Mike Smith spoke on the first two centuries of the history of the Church.

I came away from the teaching sessions with a mixture of emotions. The Christianity of the 2nd Century, particularly, seemed a very different expression of Christianity to our own. Part of this was the overt and dynamic persecution of the Church by the Romans. I can hardly imagine what it was like to be a Christian in the culture of fear when at times 10% of Church members were martyred and many more were tortured. I can scarcely take in the sort of pressure that churches must have felt in knowing how to deal with former members of their congregation that had denied Christ under such persecution and torture.

However, no doubt a great deal of the differences between the 2nd and the 21st Century owes to the fact that, nearly two millenia later, we are beneficiaries of the reflections that many godly people have made before us. There were evidently some bright 2nd Century theologians (some of the writings of Justin Martyr cited yesterday appeared particularly brilliant). Yet since then, the minds and souls and reflections of countless Christians (and the ongoing challenge of heresy) has brought us to the depth of theological insight that we have today. For that I am extremely grateful. Beautiful theology helps us to appreciate the beauty of our God. I'm glad that the Christians who have taught me have given me the teaching of grace to combat the deep legalism that many of the 2nd Century Christians grew up with.

However, and above all, the thing that struck me was that, despite their obvious lack of theological depth, the Christians of the 2nd Century really clung to Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. I guess the gospel at that time must have appeared very simple and unpolished, yet proclaimed Jesus as Lord. And the Lordship it proclaimed was to such a depth that folks like Polycarp and Ignatius went willingly to martyrdom. It was the same Lordship that saw Christians take the gospel from the North of England to India to the Sudan in just a few years.

It's true that, theologically, Christians are much more richly fed. Yet I wonder whether we grasp the simple gospel of Jesus Christ as Lord as deeply as our brothers in the 2nd Century.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

What is the place of the OT Law for Christians today? (5)

So far in this series, I've sought to establish the place of the Law in the lives of the Old Testament believers, through looking at what is said about the Law in the Law itself. Now we look at Israel's failure to keep the Law.

Near to the end of his renewal of the covenant with the people in Deuteronomy, Moses pleads with the people of Israel to keep their side of the covenant with God, yet prophetically also seems to recognise their future failure. And so, in addressing the people of Israel, he says in Deuteronomy 29:18-28 (see also 31:16-22 and also Joshua 24:19-20):

18 Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.

19When such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, "I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way." This will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry. 20The LORD will never be willing to forgive him; his wrath and zeal will burn against that man. All the curses written in this book will fall upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. 21The LORD will single him out from all the tribes of Israel for disaster, according to all the curses of the covenant written in this Book of the Law.

22Your children who follow you in later generations and foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities that have fallen on the land and the diseases with which the LORD has afflicted it. 23The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulphur—nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in fierce anger. 24All the nations will ask: "Why has the LORD done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?" 25And the answer will be: "It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt. 26They went off and worshiped other gods and bowed down to them, gods they did not know, gods he had not given them. 27Therefore the LORD's anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. 28In furious anger and in great wrath the LORD uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now."

Note the emphasis on ‘persistence’ in verse 19: the ungodly man says, ‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.’ The sad story of the Old Testament is that corporate Israel persistently and unrepentantly rejected the covenant that God had made with them. It’s not that Israel failed to meet God’s standards – which, of course, they did – but additionally that they refused and abandoned any idea of living by these standards at all. Particularly, as the sweep of Israel’s history goes on, we see an increasingly complacent community: a nation who thought they were immune from judgement because they were God’s covenant people. They had forgotten that the blessings of the covenant were conditional on their own commitment to obedience.

And so, for instance, we read in Psalm 78:9-10:

9 The men of Ephraim, though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle;
10 they did not keep God's covenant and refused to live by his law.

Israel also becomes an increasingly self-righteous group of people, even after the division of the nation, who legalistically sacrifice but have no intention of obeying the rest of the Law. Isaiah 1:11-17 uses strong language – God says he ‘hates’ the sacrifices brought to him (they have become ‘meaningless’) even though he instituted the sacrificial system, because they are not accompanied by obedience (see verses 16-17):

11 "The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?" says the LORD.
"I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations — I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even
if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; 16 wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong, 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.

Idolatry is also a regular feature of the life of the nation; for example, Jeremiah 2 has devastating words illustrating both the level of unfaithfulness to the LORD and a foolish complacency with it:

4 Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, all you clans of the house of Israel.
5 This is what the LORD says: "What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.
6 They did not ask, 'Where is the LORD, who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of deserts and rifts, a land of drought and darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives?'
7 I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.
8 The priests did not ask, 'Where is the LORD?' Those who deal with the law did not know me; the leaders rebelled against me. The prophets prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols.
9 "Therefore I bring charges against you again," declares the LORD. "And I will bring charges against your children's children.
10 Cross over to the coasts of Kittim and look, send to Kedar and observe closely; see if there has ever been anything like this:
11 Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.
12 Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror," declares the LORD.
13 "My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

34 On your clothes men find the lifeblood of the innocent poor, though you did not catch them breaking in. Yet in spite of all this 35you say, 'I am innocent; he is not angry with me.' But I will pass judgment on you because you say, 'I have not sinned.'
36 Why do you go about so much, changing your ways? You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria. 37 You will also leave that place with your hands on your head, for the LORD has rejected those you trust; you will not be helped by them.

Again, I'd want to emphasise that it was not that Israel failed to measure up to God’s standard in a legalistic sense (which, of course, they did not); rather, we see the nation completely forgetting the grace they had been shown in their redemption, and snubbing the God that had shown them such grace. This ultimately led to the exile, just as Moses had warned it would in Deuteronomy 29. There are high points in Israel’s history – such as the ‘rediscovery’ of the Law by Ezra and the exiles in Nehemiah 8 – but the over-riding sad story of the Old Testament is the rejection of the covenant by God’s people.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Daniel 5: The writing on the wall

Here's the text of a talk I gave at Liverpool CU on Daniel 5. Any comments would be very welcome.

I guess all of us here will have heard the story of the famous ship, the RMS Titanic, which crashed into an iceberg at on the night of April 12th 1912. In an accident which has become legendary, around about 1500 people died on her maiden journey, making it one of the worst peacetime maritime tragedies in history. The disaster has also made a group of people very rich and very famous off of the back of the film. Perhaps you’ve now got the Celine Dion soundtrack running through your head!

I think that the story of the Titanic is popular because it’s something of a parable for human pride. Part of a series of luxury ships, it was infamously deemed ‘unsinkable’ by those who made it. In fact, the claim was apparently made that not even God would manage to sink the Titanic. And one of the reasons that the death toll for the accident was so high was that as they believed the ship to be unsinkable, many passengers chose not to enter the lifeboats, and went down with the ship. That very detail was caught very well in James Cameron’s film. Well, tonight’s passage is another true story about human pride, and where it leads.

As Daniel 5 opens, the narrative has moved on at least 24 years from Chapter 4. It’s now the evening of October 12th 539BC. Nebuchadnezzar’s reign has ended, and a number of kings have ruled Babylon in the meantime. It’s the last year of Belshazzar’s reign – in fact, it’s the last night of his life. Technically, it’s Belshazzar’s father, Nabonidus, who is king. But Belshazzar has been positioned as co-regent of the city of Babylon. He’s been given the responsibility hold the capital against the invading forces, and has been given all the benefits of kingly authority, whilst his father marches north for a long campaign fighting the Medes and the Persians under Cyrus and Darius. Belshazzar probably doesn’t know that defeat is staring his father, King Nabonidus, in the face. Regardless, as the chapter opens, he’s hosting a massive drunken party, seemingly without a care in the world.

Verse 1 tells us that this was a particularly exuberant knees-up to which, it appears, at least a thousand guests had been invited. The custom at oriental feasts was for the king and the rest of the royal party to sit on a raised platform, above the guests. Babylonian feasts were always dedicated to the name of some god. In this party, however, Belshazzar and his party guests cried toast after toast to each god, probably not wanting to offend any of them by omitting them. As verse 4 puts it, ‘as they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.’ And as they got increasingly drunk, Belshazzar gave the order to ‘bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem’, as we read in verse 2. We’ve already read about these items in Daniel 1. Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar’s predecessor as head of state, had brought these items back to Babylon when he sacked Jerusalem. These goblets were special. Those of you who’ve read other parts of the Old Testament will know that these were the very silver cups that caught the blood from the neck of the lambs that were sacrificed for the sins of the people. They were holy items designed for a holy purpose.

So why is Belshazzar treating these holy items in such a way? Commentators disagree. It could be by through disgracing the LORD, the God of the Jews, that Belshazzar thought that his pagan gods might be pleased. At any rate, the passage makes it clear that Belshazzar is showing his contempt for the LORD, the God of the Jews, with his pagan partying. The holy and ceremonial cups have been reduced to use in a drunken orgy. Verses 8-9 show that he should have known better.

As Belshazzar and his buddies were drunkenly toasting their gods from these goblets, ‘suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace’ (verse 5). A ghostly hand suddenly and mysteriously appears and writes a message on the wall of the palace. The king’s evening is ruined. Verse 6: ‘his face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.’ Belshazzar is turned into a gibbering wreck.

Well the king immediately calls for the usual suspects: the enchanters, the astrologers, the diviners and the wise men. Those of us who’ve been to CU regularly this term or who’ve read this far in the book of Daniel know this is already a bad move. These folks have appeared several times before throughout the book, and have proved to be utterly useless on each occasion. And it's interesting to note that whilst Belshazzar was terrified, the experts are merely baffled. We're told that they couldn't even read the writing, let alone explain it. Perhaps the words were written in a code. But perhaps the advisors were unable to decipher the writing because they couldn't actually see it. Perhaps, it was, in fact, all in Belshazzar's head. A vision that he alone could see. It must have made a strange and comic scene for the original Jewish readers of this book.

Well, only one person keeps her presence of mind in all this: the queen mother, in verse 10. Given her evident authority she is unlikely to have actually been one of Belshazzar's wives. She may well have been the wife or daughter of Nebuchadnezzar himself, given her familiarity with the events of his reign, and frequent harking back to ‘the good old days’ of when Nebuchadnezzar was king. Daniel's abilities had clearly left a deep impression on her as she recalled them such a long time later. So she suggests to the king that Daniel be called in, and in due course our hero appears.

It's ironic, isn't it, that even in the midst of Belshazzar's rejection of the LORD, the God of the Jews, when the crisis comes it is to a Jewish prophet who serves the LORD that Belshazzar turns. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at such hypocrisy. Even the most sceptical critic of Christianity can be found crying out to God when a crisis befalls them. When the chips are down, God is so real that when all our pretensions are swept away, when we find that he is the only thing we have left.

Well, Daniel is finally found. The authorities knock on his door and he rubs the sleep out of his eyes and they bring him to meet the mightiest man in the world; the man whom he has loyally served for years but never spoken to. When Daniel went to bed that night, I guess he couldn’t have imagined that within hours he would have to be ready to give an answer for the reason of the hope he held when asked by the king. He probably hasn’t been into the royal court in three decades. But he’s ready nonetheless. And so he refuses the pleasantries, saying ‘give your rewards to someone else’ (verse 17). He’s not going to make a quick dollar for the honour of serving the word of God. Daniel takes command of the entire situation and from the start speaks with a calm authority.

God's prophet begins by reminding Belshazzar, his nobles, his wives and all his concubines of how God had dealt with Nebuchadnezzar. We already know the story, because we’ve read the previous chapter! Nebuchadnezzar had done whatever he wanted. As verse 19 puts it, ‘those the king wanted to put to death, he put to death; those he wanted to spare, he spared.’ He dominated the world absolutely. Then, at the height of his arrogance and ‘hardened with pride’, God intervened and humbled Nebuchadnezzar as never a man has been humbled. “He was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. He was driven away from people and given the mind of an animal ... until he acknowledged the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes.” Daniel displays no fear as he recalls to Belshazzar what was probably a hushed-up story regarding the fall of his predecessor.

Then, having hammered that point home, Daniel directs his next words to Belshazzar himself: “But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this” (verse 22). In other words, "You knew, Belshazzar! How could you forget that King Nebuchadnezzar lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like cattle; whose body was drenched with the dew?! You knew all this Belshazzar, and so why haven’t you humbled yourself before the LORD knowing that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God?" Belshazzar has no excuse. He knew what had happend to Nebuchadnezzar, yet he refused to humble himself before God. And there is no second chance for him; he's already been given his chance - and he’s blown it.

And so Daniel continues: "Instead you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven - taking God's goblets from the temple and getting drunk, with your women and praising your idols of gold, bronze, iron, wood and stone. You did not honour the Lord who holds your life and all your ways in his hands" (verses 23-24). The courage Daniel had displayed as a student is rekindled, despite now being an old man. And so he tells it straight: it is because of Belshazzar's sin of failing to humble himself and to honour God that those words written on the wall had come to the king. I don’t think that Belshazzar is shown by the passage to be a particularly sinful person. But the passage leaves us in no doubt nonetheless: Belshazzar is arrogant. He’s arrogant to the extent that he’ll stick two fingers up at the God of the Universe.

Perhaps part of us asks this: what is God’s issue? Why is he so bothered about us treating him properly, about us worshipping him? It seems to smack of dictators that have read Nietszche, who say ‘worship me or die’. But the difference is that the way we were created is to worship God. Imagine if I stood up tonight and said, ‘Students in Liverpool: worship me.’ Well, that would be ugly. Why? Because it’s a delusion. I’m not at the centre of the Universe. It’s ugly because it’s untrue. But God really is at the centre of the Universe. He has the absolute right to call the shots and when we rebel against him, the universe is thrown into moral chaos. And that’s why God is so concerned with people that rebel against him, people like Belshazzar. God’s own universe is being continually more ruined as people live in a way they were never created to live.

Anyway, in time, Daniel opens up the meaning of the words on the wall. “This is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN.” Three strange words: the first is MENE – ‘numbered’ – for “God has numbered the days of your reign”. ‘MENE’ is a word Belshazzar would have known well. It has the idea of keeping accounts. I guess that Belshazzar would have kept a close eye on the records that the civil servants of Babylon sent him. He would have checked how taxes were being paid. He would have kept a record of the behaviour of his people, and known how the judges were judged. In other words, he would have kept accounts, and counted income and expenditure. And now, says Daniel, the LORD, the King of the Universe has done the same to you. He has weighed you up.

The second word TEKEL means 'shekel'. A shekel is used both as a coin and as a weight; a bit like the word ‘pound’. And so Daniel says, “Belshazzar, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting” (verse 27). God numbers every day of our lives, but God also weighs a life. And now God has weighed Belshazzar’s life, he’s put him on the market scales – and Belshazzar is found to be deficient. He doesn’t tip the balance. His life is shallow, empty and flimsy, despite its famous name, wealth and recorded achievements. And in particular, there is no concern for the God of the Universe’s glory at it’s heart. Rather, Daniel says, “you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven” (verse 23). All this reminds us that all people must appear before God to be weighed by him. This is a moral universe, and we are made by God, in God’s image, and for God. Now Belshazzar must face the consequences for the life he has lived.

The third word is PARSIN. When Daniel gives the interpetation he uses the singular form 'peres' (verse 28). The word ‘peres’ means ‘divided’. A conqueror will divide up the nation in judgement. Belshazzar had more than most men could dream of, and the lifestyle that went with it. Yet his worst enemies, the Medes and Persians, were going to seize it all.

And so the writing on the wall spells this for Belshazzar: I have your number – and it’s come up short; I’ve weighed you – and you come up light; therefore, your kingdom will be taken away and divided.

So, what happened next? Well, history tells us that very night, 12th October 539BC, the army of the Medes and Persians swept into Babylon. There was hardly any resistance as the people slipped away quietly and handed it over to the invaders. A superpower that whimpered to its death, something akin to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. And that night Belshazzar lay as a corpse in his palace. The LORD had said to him, just as God said to the rich young fool in Jesus’ parable: ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ As Jesus warned, just as people raise their glasses and say ‘peace and safety’, thinking everything is OK, sudden destruction will come. And so we have the grim conclusion of this passage: the king is lying dead just six hours later. It’s such a tragic ending: Belshazzar lying dead amidst the temple goblets from Jerusalem, the dregs of the wine still in his stomach and spilled upon the floor. What was his life with its drinking, feasting and all its pleasures - what was that worth when it was weighed by God? Empty, noisy, and quickly over.

And so what does this chapter teach us? Surely, it’s this: you can set yourself up against God in any way you like, but it doesn't alter the fact that he is not an imaginary or distant irrelevance. He has our very life in his hands. Many people show their contempt for God and the gospel of Jesus outwardly like Belshazzar. Others set their hearts up against the LORD much more subtly. They go through the motions of Christianity, coming to church or CU, taking communion, even praying to God, but in the end never humbling themselves before him. They say to God, ‘This far and no further.’ They’ll obey God whilst what he asks is the same as what they want; but when he asks for something against their will, they’ll arrogantly stand up against him. Sometimes it’s a job, or a boyfriend, or just a comfortable life that comes along – and then the LORD ends up taking a back seat. And Jesus’ teaching to the Pharisees made it very clear: to profess faith in God but to have no humility before him is to have contempt just as surely as to slag him off in public. It’s possible to be very religious and yet for verse 23 to describe you: ‘you do not honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.’ But if a person sets themselves up against God, they need to realise that one day he will bring their life to an end. One person once put it to me like this: there is a final page in your book; does it say ‘The End’ or does it say ‘To Be Continued’? This passage reminds us that this hangs on the answer we give to this question: Do you walk humbly with your God? Or as the New Testament might phrase it: Have you repented yet? One day we are going to have to face up to God. And, like Belshazzar, it might be sooner than you think. That very night he was slain. For all we know, we might have as little time left as Belshazzar had on that night.

Well, the New Testament tells us that the weight of our lives, like Belshazzar, shows that we have fallen short. The Bible is clear that on the moral balance we have no weight of goodness, no weight of righteousness. Our sins are too great, our rejection of God too complete. It’s as if our sin sits on the other side: like lead weights inevitably pulling the scales down. Not a single one of us here tonight would be able to tip the balance in our favour. There is only one way we can pass the test: only if we are in Christ. For, if we are in Christ then it is his moral weight that will be measured as ours, his perfection. In addition, when he died on that cross he was weighed against our sin; it's already been dealt with, so in Christ our only weight is the weight of his goodness. How can we find ourselves ‘in Christ’? Only by humbling ourselves before God. This is the difference between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar: the former humbled himself; the latter refused to honour God. Turning back to God in repentance – saying “I'm wrong and you are right” – is perhaps the hardest thing we will ever do, such is the depth of our pride. Certainly for Nebuchadnezzar God took the most extraordinary and extreme measures finally to humble him. But what's the alternative? Belshazzar shows us that the other options are not too attractive.

And so, chillingly, I think Daniel 5 challenges us with the words of Jesus, that we can read in Luke 21:34: ‘Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.’ Ultimately Belshazzar died as he lived, without God and without hope in the world. Though he had all the wealth that people dream of, he refused the opportunities throughout his life given to him by the LORD to confess his sin and seek his mercy. And then it was too late.

And so let’s take the step back to see the God that this chapter reveals. Firstly, he’s the God that keeps his word. Back in chapter 2, as Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the huge statue, you’ll have seen how the LORD predicted the end of the Babylonian Empire. And this chapter records the end of one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen. Secondly, he’s the God that remains. This chapter reminds us God’s enemies will not succeed. Evil will not have the last say in God’s Universe. Justice will be done – and we long for that day. But perhaps above all tonight we need to remember that God is the Reality at the centre of the Universe. He will reign forever and his kingdom will last forever. And so we need to ask ourselves: will we be part of his kingdom? There is a division coming for all mankind. We opened by thinking about the Titanic. Well, the iceberg of God’s judgement is coming. At the Day of Judgement all who have rejected God's Word in whatever way they have known it will not be entering Heaven but will face an eternity without God. In John 5:24, Jesus said, “Whoever hears my Word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned but has already passed from death unto life.” What an incentive to urgently warn other people – those people who are proudly too stubborn to get into the lifeboat given in Jesus because they don’t think an iceberg is coming. And what an incentive tonight to repent and believe in Jesus.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Glad You Asked

Today saw the Glad You Asked course that I've been running at Myerscough College with the Relay Workers I supervise, Sarah and Nick, draw to a close.

I think it's been quite a learning experience for all of us. I'd never done an evangelistic Bible study course at Myerscough before - and I have to be honest that my expectations for it were quite low. I'd never known anyone to profess faith at Myerscough College. Additionally, whilst I know that God's word is extremely powerful, at a campus like Myerscough where peer pressure is incredibly high, you are made to be really aware that it really is a miracle if anyone chooses to follow Jesus. Combine that with today's session, where we saw that the right response to the gospel message is to lose your own life for the sake of the life that Jesus gives - and we really are left to pray that God moves!

The Glad You Asked material is excellent and it's worth getting a copy (you can do so here). Not only is it idiot proof, but it's really good at drawing out the genuine questions that people have and showing how the gospel can answer them. The material moves smoothly from thinking about questions that we have for God to the questions that Jesus himself asked. I think a turning point with our group was the What was Jesus really like? session, where we touchingly saw from the story of the healing of the leper in Mark's Gospel that Jesus is both authoritative and kind.

It's true that the sessions have been a mixed batch - sometimes we've had only four people attend, sometimes nearly twenty. Through it all, though, it's been humbling to see God at work in changing the lives of several of the young people. Please pray particularly for one 16-year-old lad, who made a profession to follow Jesus last Wednesday (thereby doubling the number of Christians on campus from one to two!). He's very scared about telling his parents and fearful of their reaction, yet absolutely convinced that Jesus is trustworthy with his life and death. Pray that he gets real boldness to do so.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Audio Advent

My friend Gareth Leaney is introducing people to the true meaning of Christmas through his 'Audio Advent Calendar'. I think we must always be thinking about new ways to present the wonder of the Christmas message, particularly to those for whom it is all completely new.

You can join Gareth at his calendar at

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Deal or no deal?

Deal or No Deal

Been asked to give a talk at a 'Deal or No Deal' related evangelistic event tonight at one of the small groups at Lancaster University. Here's what I came up with....

First – a bit of ‘Deal or No Deal’ trivia thanks to Wikipedia. Did you know that in the UK version, there’s still only been one winner of the £250,000 top prize – someone by the name of Laura Preece, who won in January of this year. And did you know that 77 countries in the world now have their own version of ‘Deal or No Deal’, the legendary John Fashanu presenting the Nigerian version?

What makes ‘Deal or No Deal’ such good viewing? Why is it such compulsive to watch?

Well, I think above all what makes the format appealing is the fact that you never really know when your best offer has come. It’s a game of chance and of judgement. And so the contestant is forced to keep thinking: do I accept what I’ve been offered or do I soldier on and hope that I’m offered something better? And so the show captures the fear that we might get stuck with something that’s second-best and then end up regretting it.

I guess we’ve all known that feeling in other areas of life. You spend the whole morning traipsing around town looking for the best deal on, say, an mp3 player. Eventually you find an offer that seems to be good and you hand over your hard-earned cash, only later in the day to find the next model up for the same price in another shop. And you think, “Gutted! I’ve been had! And now I’m stuck with second-best and I’m regretting it!”

And I guess it’s possible that there’s a few people that have been invited along tonight that feel similarly about Christianity. You’ve been brought along by a friend who seems keen that you trust Jesus and that you live your life as a Christian. But you can’t help thinking something along the lines of this: “Well, if I decide to be a Christian and live my life trusting Jesus, will I end up regretting it? Will I end up dealing too early and find myself committed to something that’s not really any different from what I already have, before I find something better comes along?”

Well if you are thinking at all like this, then you might be surprised to know that you’re not the first to think it. In fact, in one of his letters that appears in the Bible, written to one of the earliest churches, the Bible writer Paul spends time explaining why if you trust Jesus, you’ll never find yourself losing out. Let’s read together what we wrote:

15Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, 16for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see – such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. 17He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together. 18Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything. 19For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, 20and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross. 21This includes you who were once far away from God. You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. 22Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault.

There’s plenty that could be said about this passage – it’s one of the most incredible descriptions of Jesus and what it means to follow him in the whole of the Bible. But I just want to pick out two things in particular from this passage that show that if you are following Jesus, you will never have dealt too early.

The first point is this: if you have Jesus, you can’t know God any better. Have a look at verses 15 and 16: ‘Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created.’ In other words, Paul is making a massive claim. He’s saying that the one true God, the God of the Universe, has made himself known in the person of Jesus. And look down at verse 19: ‘For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ.’ It’s not that there are elements of God that you can see in Jesus. No – in Jesus, the God of the Universe, the Creator, has made himself known. And so it’s not that if you follow Jesus you’ve dealt too early in following God. There’s no way that you can know God any better outside of Jesus.

People sometimes say to me: ‘Why doesn’t God make himself known? If he wants us to bother with him, you’d think he’d bother with us and make himself known!’ Well, Paul’s claim is that it is just a quirk of history and geography that you weren’t born in Palestine two thousand years ago. If you had been, you could have seen the God of the Universe walking down the dusty streets. You have spoken with him. You could have touched him.

And notice, it’s not that Jesus just brings a message from God. It’s not as though God had a message to get out and wondered: “Hmm – a message to get out to people on earth. Big letters in the sky or come in human form?” No! Jesus hasn’t just come to bring a message, but as a human, he’s come to reveal God. A message in the sky would never show us what God was really like – his character, his passions, his heartbeat. But in Jesus, that’s exactly what we see. Which means, if you have Jesus, you can’t know God any better.

The second point that Paul is making from this passage is this: if you have Jesus, your very deepest needs are met. Let’s pick out some of the words that describe what Jesus has achieved: reconciliation, peace, words which imply that there’s been conflict and broken relationships. But notice who the conflict is between: it’s between God and us. In fact, one of the surprises of this passage is that people are described as being God’s enemies, separated from him by our evil thoughts and actions. And we say, “Hold on! I’m no Satanist! I’ve not treated God like that!” But the story of the Bible is that this is precisely how we’ve treated God. Sure, we may not have actually articulated like this, but through the way we lived we’ve ruled God out. We’ve said to the God of the Universe, “This far in my life – but no further.” There comes a point where we think that we have the right to run our lives, and so we cross God out and stick two fingers up at him. And so we’re his enemies – taking all of his good gifts, dependent on him for our very breath, but, in the name of freedom, not wanting him to be part of our lives at all.

Well, perhaps you’re thinking, “Well maybe this is true – but can’t I just start living out in friendship with God again?” And here’s the nub of the passage. Paul is saying: as you are, you can’t. You can’t. See, in ruling God out and in living our own way, we’ve ruined ourselves and we’ve ruined other people. Think of the times that you’ve been hurt by the gossip and lies of others, remember how much it hurt – and then we begin to see the sort of hurt that we’ve caused in the lives of others as we’ve done just the same. And to a God who is a God of love, who is perfectly fair, justice must be done. Each of us matters to him, he loves us, justice must be done. Which means that, as we are, none of us can just saunter into a friendship with a perfect God.

And so here’s the wonderful news of this passage. Here’s why Christians can look at Jesus and know that our very deepest needs have been met. Look at verse 20: through Jesus, God has reconciled everything to himself. How? By means of Christ’s blood on the cross. The idea is this: Jesus – himself God in human form – willingly went to the cross on our behalf and took the punishment that we deserved. Why? So that we can be reconciled to God. So that we can be brought back into the life for which we were creator, life with the Creator himself. Look at how verse 22 puts it: ‘Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault.’ Through Jesus, all those who trust him are considered holy (perfect), blameless (there’s nothing that can be pinned on us), and we stand before God without a single fault. Not because we’re wonderful, but because Jesus has come to meet our deepest needs at the cross.

And so, for a Christian, if we are trusting Jesus, then we can know that our very deepest needs have been met, in order to bring us back to life for which we were created. Let me tell you, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to wake up in the morning, to know why I am here, to know what makes me ‘me’. And that comes because as a creature, I know the Creator. It’s a wonderful thing to know forgiveness, to know that – despite my faults and my failings – I can approach the God of the Universe in friendship. It’s a wonderful thing to know that, because of Jesus, my eternal life has already started. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to look back to the objective reality of the cross of Christ, and to know that I am forgiven, even when I fail now. And it’s wonderful thing to have the hope of eternity – to look forward to the new creation, a place of solid joys and lasting pleasures where I will live out the relationship with my Creator in all it’s fullness. It’s a wonderful thing to have, as the Bible puts it, been invited to God’s wedding feast where I will see him face to face.

It’s these two facts - that if you have Jesus, you can’t know God any better and your very deepest needs are met that convinced Paul that there was no better way of living life. It’s these facts that have convinced the Christians here to keep following Jesus, even when it’s tough and costly. It’s these facts that prompted the Christians to invite you here tonight if you’re not a Christian. And it’s these facts that mean we’ll never look back at our lives and think, “Rubbish – I dealt too early.”

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Word and Spirit

Just preparing a session for Lancaster University CU's houseparty. I've come across an interesting article by Mark Heath on the relationship between God's Word and the Spirit. I don't think I agree with everything that the author has written, but I loved this section:

The Word and the Spirit have a common focus: The Word and Spirit both point us to Jesus.

The Word is the book of Jesus; it reveals truth about Jesus. The Spirit glorifies Jesus; he reveals the beauty of Jesus.

The Spirit inspired the Word (e.g Heb 3:7 "the Holy Spirit says"; 2 Tim 3:16). The Word tells us to be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) and the Spirit prompts us to be filled with the Word.

The Word says, "Have you received the Spirit?" The Spirit says, "Have you read my book yet?"

The Word helps us to understand who the Holy Spirit is, and the Spirit helps us to understand what the Word says.

There is a synergy between Word and Spirit – they work in harmony:

    • The Word orients us (points us in the right direction) and the Spirit energises us (pushes us forwards)
    • The Word gives us the truth and the Spirit gives us the power
    • The Word tells us how to behave and the Spirit enables us to live that way
    • The Word tells us that God is our Father, and the Spirit helps us to relate to God as Father

What is the place of the OT Law for Christians today? (4)

I've now finished the first section of my thoughts on the Law, looking at how the Pentateuch itself seems to render the Law. Thanks to Dave and all others that have read the posts and made comments thus far. This post will bring me up to where I think we've got so far and hopefully clarify some of my earlier points. As usual, I welcome comments and, given I'm at the end of a section, will try to make a special effort to give longer responses.

I think that one of the errors that some modern Bible-readers make is in understanding what it meant for Israel to keep their side of the covenant. Often, it is assumed that keeping the covenant was based on legalistic obedience to the Law. It's often assumed that this is how a person is made righteous. I don't think I'm wrong in saying that this is a false and rather short-sighted view. Both Old and New Testaments argue that a person is credited with righteousness by faith. Abram is the archetypal example in Genesis 15:4-6, in an episode that occurred hundreds of years before the issuing of the Law:

Then the word of the LORD came to him: "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them."
Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be." Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Rather, it appears to me that keeping the covenant meant trusting God and responding in loving obedience to what he had already done for his people, and relying on his ongoing grace. And I think that John Piper helpfully shows that God’s later judgement against Israel was not due to a failure in legalistic Law-keeping, but rather due to their hard-heartedness and unbelief, which led to abandonment of the covenant:

‘Again and again in the Old Testament the rebellion of Israel against the covenant is traced back to unbelief (Numbers 14:11; Deuteronomy 1:32; 9:23; 2 Kings 17:14; 2 Chronicles 20:20; Psalm 78:22, 32; 106:24). For example, Psalm 78:22 looks back and says that God's anger flamed against Israel in the wilderness "because they had no faith in God, and did not trust his saving power." And Hebrews 3:19 says that the reason the wilderness generation did not enter the Promised Land was unbelief. Or as Hebrews 4:2 says, "The message which they heard did not benefit them because it did not meet with faith in the hearers."

So there are at least three reasons to conclude that the basic condition required from Israel is faith.

1. First, because the covenant is renewed on the basis of grace and offers merciful forgiveness for sins (Exodus 34:6–7). Forgiveness can only be received by faith.
2. Second, God promises mercy to all who love him (Exodus 20:6). But loving God is just the opposite of trying to earn wages from a heavenly employer. Loving God must include delighting in his trustworthiness as one who "bore you on eagles' wings (out of Egypt) and brought you to himself" (Exodus 19:4).
3. Third, numerous Old Testament and New Testament passages say that the root of Israel's disobedience was her failure to trust God. Therefore, the obedience required in the Mosaic covenant is the obedience which comes from faith.

It's the same obedience required in the Abrahamic covenant when the Lord said to Abraham, "By your descendants shall all the nations of the earth be blessed because you have obeyed my voice" (Genesis 22:18). And it's the same obedience required in the new covenant under which we live. […] The Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and the covenant that Jesus sealed with his own blood are all various expressions of one great covenant of grace.’

In coming posts, I'll move onto the Law in the life of Israel - and her disobedience. For the time being, let's read the words again of David, the law-lover, in the opening lines to Psalm 119:

Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD.
Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.
They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways.
You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed.
Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!
Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands.
I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws.
I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.

Monday, 26 November 2007

So this is Christmas...

Well, for me at least, the Christmas season starts tomorrow, as I'm speaking tomorrow at an evangelistic event at Myerscough College.

There are, of course, incredible evangelistic opportunities that Christmas provides. I'm aware that some of the best chances to explain the gospel in recent years to friends and family have come at Christmas. However, I'm remembering again how difficult Christmas talks can be to put together. It's easy to sentimentalise, it's easy to inoculate people against the gospel message through religion and it's quite difficult to provide the context for the incarnation against the background of Old Testament expectations.

One thing that I have found helpful is a list that I believe the legendary Justin Mote of the North West Partnership put together of possible Christmas texts. It's been helpful to have some suggestions of passages rarely used at Christmas alongside some old favourites. Here they are:

Matthew 1:1-17, 1:18-25, 2:1-12, 2:13-23
Luke 1:1-4, 1:26-38, 1:39-45, 1:69-79, 2:1-7, 2:8-20, 2:22-36
John 1:1-5, 1:6-8, 1:14-18, 3:16
Isaiah 7, 9, 11
Micah 5
Romans 8:3
2 Corinthians 8:9
Galatians 4-5
Philippians 2:6-11
Colossians 1:15-17
Hebrews 1:1-3

... any others we could add to the list?

Saturday, 24 November 2007


I'm now back from Bournemouth having had a great week partnering the CU there in their mission. It was great to meet other Christian brothers and sisters, to see their confidence in the gospel increasing as the week went on, and to see their real boldness in inviting friends and seeking to speak about Jesus. It was also humbling to see God at work and some come to faith for the first time.

I've been reflecting a bit about the week since I've been back. In many ways the student scene in Bournemouth is slightly different to the one I normally work in up here in Lancashire and Cumbria. The Arts Institute means that the influence of art is pervasive. Bournemouth University itself has a strong media influence. However, I'd reckon that the student scene in a place like Bournemouth is more reflective of the cross section of the general population more than, say, a more academic institution where intellectual arguments hold influence. And the shock that we experienced time and again this week in Bournemouth (as I mentioned in my previous post below) was this: I don't care whether or not Christianity is true. Even if I was convinced of its truth, I wouldn't become a Christian.

Now, obviously, there are spiritual forces at work here: it's possible to know intellectually that the gospel is true but to reject it simply because one doesn't like its consequences. But having chatted to some of the students that said this sort of thing, it also reflects the idea that Christianity has nothing to say to how a person lives their life now. Life is for the living, and to most non-Christians, Jesus has nothing to say in this realm at all.

I think part of the problem here is a church that is isolated from non-Christians. Most unbelievers have no idea of the sort of difference that the Holy Spirit makes to a person's life as he transforms them from within. Certainly, in Bournemouth, those who were most willing to listen to the gospel's message were those that had already sensed a change in the lives of their friends.

I wonder if this is also a reflection of a church in Britain that has a gospel that is too small. Conservative Christians rightly emphasise Jesus' lordship and judgement - but perhaps to the extent that non-Christians never hear that Jesus is the bridegroom inviting all sorts of people to his feast, that he is the one that calls dissatisfied and dry people back into the relationship for which they were created, and that he is the one who frees people from slavery. Doing questionnaires this week has made me wonder: do we need to think again about how to reach those who perceive Jesus as completely irrelevant to their lives?

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Bournemouth CU Mission Update

Thanks to those who've been praying for the Bournemouth University CU mission. The timetable for events is here should you like to know the events that are taking place.

It's been great to be back in Bournemouth - albeit at a time when the south coast is unfortunately rainier than even up north! I've really enjoyed being part of a good mission team down here, and it's been great to partner with the students.

There have been a number of good conversations with Bournemouth students already. However, I've been struck by the real apathy across campus. I think the church more widely has really failed more vocationally skilled / less intellectual people - I've encounted several people that have said that they'd not become Christians even if the gospel was true because they percieve that it would make no real difference to their lives. All this has reminded me of the real importance of relational friendship evangelism, particularly in this sort of context.

The highlight, however, was today's lunchbar at Bournemouth Institute of the Arts. I spoke briefly on Jesus' exclusive claims to reconcile us to God and took questions for about 30-40 minutes afterwards. Please pray that some of these people come back to other events in the week. Pray also that real confidence in the gospel amongst Christians continues to grow here. Events are continuing on until Friday night.

Monday, 19 November 2007

What is the place of the OT Law for Christians today? (3)

Here's the third post in what I expect to be a series of many in working out what the role of the OT Law is for Christian believers today (Part 1 and Part 2 are older posts where I looked at the place of the Law in the unfolding Biblical story). Now before moving on, I want to dwell a bit further on the place of sacrifice in the Law. I think that perhaps this is the most underplayed theme in much of the writing about the Law.

As we saw in the section on Leviticus, the purpose of the sacrificial system as a whole was to enable people of Israel to maintain the relationship with the LORD that had already been established through the exodus and his covenant with them at Sinai. The sacrificial system was itself a form of grace – it provided a way of ritually cleansing the people from the sins that defiled them, thus enabling them to continue in covenant fellowship with God and each other.

The burnt offering, described in Leviticus 1, is of particular note. This is dedicated entirely to God and burned entirely for atonement for sin. It is entirely consumed by fire. The established principle is this: if you are to live in fellowship with the Lord, something must die in your place in atonement for sin. The four sacrifices that follow, described in Leviticus 2-5, have different but overlapping significance, and together with the Day of Atonement ritual (of chapter 14) synthesise a way in which Israel could be forgiven having transgressed the covenant with God in different ways.

This shows the place of grace from the LORD within the Mosaic Law. The sacrificial system clearly acknowledges the inevitability of human failure, yet sets such failure in the context of the much greater fact of God’s forgiveness and his ongoing mission to ‘bless the nations’ through the people of Israel. God never forgot that his people were human. He did not expect perfection from his people – rather I think the sacrificial system showed that he expected a commitment from his people to love him and each other in response to the grace that they had been shown and the rescue that had been performed. When they transgressed, they were to rely fully on the LORD's ongoing grace, shown in their commitment to the sacrificial system and the provision of grace that this represented.

When we hold such convictions about the place of the Law for Israel in the Old Testament, I think that this makes sense of many of the psalms that describe Israel’s relationship to God. For instance, Psalm 106 describes in detail the ways in which Israel had rebelled against the covenant God had made with them. Israel had failed both in the time of the psalm-writer (verse 6), and had failed here on numerous occasions throughout the history of the nation (verses 7, 13, 19-21, 24-25 etc.). The psalm also speaks of the punishment that Israel incurred for this rebellion (verses 15, 17, 26-27 etc.) Yet the psalm begins and ends – perhaps surprisingly to modern Christian readers – with the refrain ‘Praise the LORD’ in verses 1 and 48. The final verses of the psalm are of particular attention, following the long section about Israel’s ongoing rebellion:

44 But he took note of their distress
when he heard their cry;
45 for their sake he remembered his covenant
and out of his great love he relented.
46 He caused them to be pitied
by all who held them captive.
47 Save us, O LORD our God,
and gather us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise.
48 Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Let all the people say, "Amen!"
Praise the LORD.

These verses unlock the rest of the psalm. The psalm is not primarily about Israel’s sin, or even the LORD's punishment of that sin, but rather it concerns the LORD's amazingly patient grace shown to his people in the light of that sin. The Old Testament is full of accounts of Israel’s sin, stupidity, grumbling and rebellion (a mirror of all humanity). Yet, in spite of this, God shows his incredible patience in preserving them, providing for them and maintaining his covenant. The sacrificial system was a visual and God-given reminder of his gracious provision in the light of ongoing and desperate human failure.

This brings us to a question which the Law apparently leaves unanswered. How could so much grace be shown by God under this covenant? In other words, how can a God, who frequently has pointed to his own holiness and righteousness, appear to just simply forgive sin? How can a fair judge let guilty people walk free? Even with the institution of the sacrificial system, Israel would have surely known that the sacrifices of bulls and goats were no just satisfaction for their sin. The answer lies in a future intervention by God, and becomes increasingly clear through the witness of the prophets. Perhaps Isaiah saw it most clearly when he wrote:

4 Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
5 But 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.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
[Isaiah 53:4-6]

Even in the Old Testament, then, under the old covenant, the question of quite how a just God could be so gracious and so freely forgive is pervasive. Isaiah and the other prophets presumably understood that there could have been no covenant with Abraham and no covenant with Moses without God’s further future intervention. Perhaps, then, Israel’s worship would have had a future-oriented element to it, which is something that we seem to see reflected in many of the psalms.

Would love to hear your thoughts on all this - more soon as we look at the place of the Law for OT believers and the prophets' description of the covenant.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

What is the place of the OT Law for Christians today? (2)

This is the second in the series of what I expect to be occasional posts in considering the role of the OT Law for believers today. In part 1, I started to look at the giving of the Law in the place of redemptive history and the context of Genesis and Exodus. In this post, I briefly overview the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. As is no doubt evident, these thoughts are in progress and I'd welcome comments. I'd also commend popping over to Dave Kirkman's 48 Files, where he is drawing together and analyising a large amount of helpful scholarship.

Leviticus and Numbers: the covenant expounded

In the previous post, I sought to demonstrate that the legal sections of the book of Exodus make sense when they are placed in context of the larger narrative. The same is also true for Leviticus, which also includes a section of Law before the action continues in the narrative in the book of Numbers. Again, I think context is crucial: as Leviticus is issued, Israel is camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. The context of the narrative Exodus and Numbers, which top and tail Leviticus, shows that here the people are being formed into God’s people. As one writer has put it, the book of Exodus is concerned with getting the people of Israel out of Egypt, and the book of Leviticus is concerned with getting Egypt out of Israel. God sets at work to make his people unique. And so in the book of Leviticus, we see God concerned with Israel’s ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ relationships – namely, their relationships with God and with each other.

Accordingly, the first set of Levitical laws prescribes how Israel should relate to God, who is now dwelling amongst his people in the tabernacle. Particularly, the commands here concern sacrificial offerings from the people (1:1-6:7), then instructions for the priesthood (6:8-9:24). A narrative describing the fate of Aaron’s sons, who thought they could relate to God on their own terms (10:1-7) then follows, plus further instruction for the priests (10:8-20). Chapters 11-15 deal with ritual cleanliness – with a view to avoiding what happened to Aaron’s sons. All of these laws are concerned that the people of Israel have a proper sense for what it means for God to be present amongst them. It is about getting their ‘vertical’ relationship in its correct perspective, and builds up towards the Day of Atonement set of rituals in Chapter 16. The Day of Atonement was to be a solemn day of forgiveness that ritually cleansed the people of their sin and purified the tabernacle as a place of worship. Chapters 17-25 inaugurate a new section of Law. The whole section is governed by the refrain from God, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’. In response to God, the people of Israel are to love their neighbours as themselves (19:18). ‘Horizontal’ relationships with others are different because of their relationship with God.

The covenantal aspect of the Law in Leviticus, based on what God has already done, is a vitally important feature. But now, God reveals more of his covenant. He promises on his part to bless Israel, in response that they maintain a holy awe and obedience towards him. This can be read about in Leviticus 26:3-12 (cf Exodus 23:22). On the flipside, disobedience and rejection of God’s covenant will now bring curse on his people (see Leviticus 26:14-45). This provides a formal conclusion to the covenant structure that began in Exodus 20.

The book of Numbers also includes some additional laws in chapters 5-6, 15, 18-19 and 28-30. Most of these are further clarification of the laws in the Levitical Code (Leviticus 1-16). Including the Ten Commandments, a total of 613 instructions are given to the people of Israel in the Pentateuch.

Deuteronomy: the fundamental values of the Law

The setting of the book of Deuteronomy is forty years after Exodus. With the first generation all having died out, Israel have reached the border of the Promised Land, Canaan, and are camped on the banks of the River Jordan, just across from Jericho. Now before Israel crosses over the river to take the land, and before his death, Moses undertakes a major renewal of the covenant between the people and God.

In the first three chapters, Moses recaps ‘the story so far’ – what has taken place between Israelite slavery in Egyptian to that point, emphasising the LORD’s faithfulness to Israel in spite of their failures. Fresh commitment to the covenant is demanded. However, Deuteronomy is particularly helpful because more attention is given to the motivation and incentive of keeping the Law on Israel’s part. For this reason, Deuteronomy has historically been (and remains) central within the Jewish faith (see also Matthew 4:1-11).

The primary commitment of the Law is given, following the restating of the Ten Commandments, in Deuteronomy 6:1-9:

These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the LORD your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

These verses show what drives the theological agenda of Deuteronomy – as Gordon Fee puts it, ‘an uncompromising monotheism coupled with an equally deep concern for Israel’s uncompromising loyalty to Yahweh, their God’. This is particular seen in verses 4-5. Known as the ‘Shema’ (Hebrew for ‘hear’), these verses describe God’s uniqueness and became the distinguishing mark of Judaism. The primary commandment of all is that Israel should love Yahweh their God totally. It is these verses that Jesus quoted when questioned regarding the ‘greatest commandment’ (Matthew 22:37). Deuteronomy 6 develops this theme, with a particular emphasis on Yahweh being the only true God, on his redeeming action to make Israel his people, and on his gracious gift of the land of Canaan.

Verses 5-6 show the synonymy of love for God with obedience to his commandments. In other words, and reiterating what we have already seen, Jewish obedience to the Law was never designed to be legalistic, or the basis of salvation, but rather a proof of a relationship with God, coming from the heart and will of the redeemed. The call for the covenant people is to ‘love God’ in response to what he has done for them, where ‘loving God’ encompassed will, careful intention, emotion and regular discipline from childhood. As Chris Wright writes, ‘without this, the rest of the Law is just miscellaneous instructions with no unifying principle. It is for this reason Jesus called this the first great commandment of the Law, from which all of the rest follows (Matthew 23:37-40).’ Or as Douglas Stuart says, ‘everything is predicated on Yahweh’s love and faithfulness and his actions that flow out of that love and faithfulness.’ This is the key idea that flows throughout the rest of the book of Deuteronomy and its key themes: how Israel are to act in the land of Canaan, that the places of Canaanite idolatrous worship should be destroyed, and the requirement that worship should take place at the tabernacle (and not the places where worship of idols previously took place).

More soon (eventually!)

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

We do like to be beside the seaside

Just a quick prayer request. I'm speaking at Bournemouth University CU's mission next week. If you get a chance, please pray about the following:


Lunchbar: Big bang, big accident or big God? - how did we get here?
Evening: small group events


Lunchbar: Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die - is there more to life than this?
Evening: Grill-a-Christian panel


Lunchbar: TBC, held at Bournemouth Institute of the Arts
Evening: Quiz night, with a short talk on John 6 ('Don't Waste Your Life')


Lunchbar: "It's a wonderful life" or is it? - why does God allow suffering?
Evening: Open Mic night and talk on John 3 ('What Jesus said to the man who had everything')


Lunchbar: Reincarnation, rot or recompense? - what happens when we die?
Evening: Chinese buffet and talk on John 4 ('What Jesus said to the woman with nothing')

What is the place of the OT Law for Christians today? (1)

The Mosaic Law is a hugely important topic in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Law was a key part of the life of the nation of Israel. In the New Testament, many of the books are concerned with how the Law relates to the gospel. Over the next few weeks, I plan to try and draw together a Biblical synthesis of the Law, and then to think about how this impacts the way in which a Christian reads the Law, and lives and has a relationship with God today. Some of these thoughts are rather undeveloped, and so I'd value any comments.

What is the Law?

The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, is what Chris Wright calls ‘the foundation block of the rest of the Bible.’ It sets the stage for the biblical worldview on which the rest of the unfolding drama of redemptive history takes place. Whilst the Pentateuch is sometimes referred to as simply ‘the Law’, this is somewhat misleading, as the Pentateuch contains nearly as much narrative action as laws. In fact, there are almost seventy chapters of activity before the Ten Commandments are issued by God to Israel. As we shall see, this historical element provided by the narrative is very important in giving the Bible reader proper perspective on the Mosaic Law (by which, I mean the body of commands given to Israel in the Pentateuch) itself. Above all, it is important to remember that the Law is not just an isolated, arbitrary statute book, but part of a much broader story of God and his dealings with his people in the midst of the nations of the earth.

Many contemporary studies of the Law do so from either a purely Old Testament or purely New Testament (primarily Pauline) perspective. This is an error. The Bible is a story with development and change, and is properly understood as being ‘salvation history’ or ‘progressive revelation’. Unfortunately, the importance of salvation history in seeing the nature of the Law can be sometimes missed. In this first post in the series, then, I will seek to form a biblical theology on the place of the Law, starting in the Pentateuch itself, in Genesis and Exodus.

Genesis: the context of Israel’s calling

The theological-history of Genesis 1-11 presents the story of creation, the fall, and the spread of sin, which climaxes in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. There we find the human race scattered and divided because of their arrogant attempt to together build themselves up to heaven and make themselves ‘god’. The effects of sin are global in proportion. It is, at this point, that God launches his project to save the world, answering the problems set by Genesis 1-11. God makes his covenant with Abraham, recorded in Genesis 12:1-3:

The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.

"I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."

Here, as Vaughan Roberts puts it, “God declares his intention to bring back the scattered people of the world and to bless them once more.” In other words, we see that God’s purpose is still to redeem all mankind, just as sin had brought disaster and division on all mankind. In the Old Testament, Israel – the people made up of Abraham’s descendents – was the chosen vehicle of that missionary purpose. They were a particular people with specific promises, but through them God had a universal missionary intention.

Exodus: the giving of the Law

One of the defining moments of Old Testament history is the exodus. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is repeatedly reminded that ‘the LORD brought you out of Egypt’ (see, for instance, Deuteronomy 7:8). The LORD's initiative is highlighted by the narrative in Exodus: firstly, God ‘adopts’ Israel as his firstborn, who will be set free ‘so that he may worship me’ (Exodus 4:22-23, see also 3:12). His miraculous intervention on Israel’s behalf over Pharaoh and all of the false gods that he represents are also emphasised by the narrative.

By the time we reach Exodus 19, following the Passover and exodus, the people have at last reached Sinai to worship the LORD, just as he had promised they would (Exodus 3:12). Here the people of Israel see a spectacular visible and visible manifestation of the God who saved them (Exodus 19:2), presenting something of what was lost by humans in Genesis 3. Then, before he does anything else, in Exodus 19:3-6, the LORD gives his people a very clear statement of their identity and purpose:

Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, "This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites."

Only then is Israel issued with the Law. The thrust of this passage is clear: obedience to the LORD and to his Law is essential – not in order for Israel to be redeemed, as this had already happened (verse 4), but in order for them to be who the LORD wanted them to be amongst the nations. The people of Israel are to act in the way described in the promises with Abraham. They are called to ‘live out’ their identity, the reason for which they were redeemed. They are called to be a ‘priesthood’ – a theme that will be developed later – in other words, the people of Israel are to ‘interface’ between the LORD and other peoples. They are also to be a ‘holy nation’ – to be a community that is set apart and recognisably distinctive from the other nations around them. The LORD's heart for the nations transfers itself to the envisaged distinction for the people of Israel. It is the latest step in the fulfilment of the promises made to Abraham, the ‘father’ of Israel, whereby his descendents are ‘blessing the peoples.’

It is crucial that the Law is issued within this context. Israel has been set apart and blessed as ‘firstborn son’, ‘kingdom of priests’ and ‘holy nation’. The Law is given them to help them to fulfil this calling. And so the Ten Commandments are issued, in Exodus 20. This is followed by the Book of the Covenant (in chapters 21-24). Many commentators point out the order in which the instructions are issued: firstly, the people’s fundamental (‘vertical’) responsibilities to God are addressed (Exodus 20:3-11 and then 20:22-26); followed by the people’s ‘horizontal’ responsibilities to each other (20:12-17, and then chapters 21-24).

The Book of the Covenant (chapters 21-24) gives specific instructions, and is probably there to show what the Ten Commandments mean in practice. Each of the commandments is reflected in more detailed by the commands that follow. These instructions mainly cover various aspects of societal living – including the treatment of slaves (standing in stark contrast to how Israel was treated in Egypt), compensation and penalties for injuries, property, law, rape, fairness in dealings with others, and in worship. The Law reflects God’s priorities, which ran contrary to the values of the contemporary world around Israel at the time (illustrated by the narrative covering the period that Israel spent in Egypt).

The driving point of the book of Exodus is to narrate the matters that define Israel as a people in relationship to their God, the LORD. As well as God’s Presence continuing with the people (particularly highlighted by the long ‘tabernacle’ section in the second half of Exodus), Israel are defined by God as a redeemed people who live in the light of the revelation that they have received from him. The Law is prescribed as the way in which to do just this. Redemption (salvation) by works was never part of the Mosaic covenant. As Graeme Goldsworthy puts it, ‘When God gave his covenant stipulations at Sinai, he addressed Israel as his people. It is clear that this Law of Moses is not a program of works for salvation. Salvation is of grace, and the covenant of Sinai was given, not so that Israel might be saved, but because she was saved. The Law is thus a manifesto for the people of the kingdom.’

The later narrative in Exodus can also be placed within this framework. Within forty days, the people have already broken their covenant promise to God and made themselves a likeness of God – the golden calf (Exodus 32:8) – thus breaking the second commandment. Moses prays for the people and the LORD withholds his destruction (32:11–14). When Moses comes back down to the camp (32:19), he smashes the two tables of the covenant to show how the people have broken the covenant. The sons of Levi slaughter three thousand men (32:28) and the LORD sends a plague (32:35), but the nation as a whole is spared through Moses' prayer.

The covenant had been broken by Israel before it was even completed. If the covenant were based on works or on strict justice alone Israel would have already forfeited. But the covenant is based on grace. We see this as God renews his covenant to fallen Israel. So in Exodus 34:1, God tells Moses to make a new set of stone tables and to come up again. In 34:6–7, God reveals himself – and his character – as the basis of the renewed covenant with Israel:

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."

And so, in Exodus 34:27–28 God concludes this last meeting on Mount Sinai like this:

Then the LORD said to Moses: "Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel." Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.” The covenant has been made again.’

After this, work is allowed to begin on the tabernacle, the symbolic dwelling place of God’s Presence amongst his people. And so we see that, even in the Mosaic covenant, a major emphasis is on God’s promise to be merciful and gracious and to forgive iniquity and transgression and sin so that he can have relationship with his people. God will treat Israel with mercy and grace and will forgive her sins. Israel’s required response is to keep the covenant. Israel will receive and experience blessing from God, including forgiveness of sin, as Exodus 19:5 says, "if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant."

The narrative in Exodus shows that the condition of blessing is not sinless perfection or legalistic law keeping. The Mosaic covenant does not teach that if you commit a sin, that covenant blessings are forfeited. When Exodus 19:5 says that Israel must "obey God's voice and keep God's covenant," it does not mean earning blessing by works. Rather, Israel is called to ‘obey God’s voice’ – to keep themselves in an attitude of obedience, where they seek to keep his covenant, aware of their need for the LORD's ongoing grace and mercy and forgiveness.

More to follow soon.