Thursday, 31 May 2007

Taking Lyotard to church

In a previous post, I started a review of James Smith's book, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church and considered what he had to say about Derrida and his theory of deconstruction. This post focuses more on Smith's chapter on Jean-Francois Lyotard.

Again the chapter opens with a film reference, this time O Brother, Where Are Thou? Smith sees a powerful message in the film's closing scenes, where despite apparent evidence to the contrary (and despite having just found himself praying in a moment of distress), the film's main character, McGill, ridicules religion as 'spiritual mumbo jumbo'. Smith describes it thus:

Everett Ulysses McGill is never quite disabused of his (religious) commitment to modernity. Despite the persistent challenges to his scientistic faith, he clings to the religion of the Enlightenment.

To this view, Smith contrasts the suspiciousness of the postmodern mindset. Postmodernity has led to the erosion of confidence in seemingly 'rational' and 'objective' deliverers of truth (what Lyotard calls 'meta-narratives'), such as modern science, which claims to have an ultimate theory of everything. Those of us who have studied geography, sociology or other social sciences will, for instance, know of the work of Bruno Latour and others, whose work in the 1980s showed that there are many subjective factors in the creation of seemingly objective 'scientific' knowledge. Postmodernism is therefore suspicious of knowledge that comes from all-encompassing meta-narratives such as science, which by nature then rule out other forms of knowledge. McGill's commitment to the meta-narrative of rationalistic scientism caused him to rule the spiritual out of hand completely, without even examining the pre-suppositions of the meta-narrative on which he had built his claims. Similarly Lyotard would seek to cast doubt on the claims of other meta-narratives, or 'all encompassing theories', such as Hegelian dialectics, the rationalism of Immanuel Kant and others, 'the invisible hand of the market' championed by Adam Smith, and theories of Marxism. All of these meta-narratives are, as James Smith puts it, 'opposed to narrative, which attempts not to prove its claims but rather to proclaim them within a story'. They are, 'universal discourses of legitimation that mask their own particularity ... [they] deny their narrative ground even as they proceed on it as a basis.'

All of this can seem bad news for Christianity, which forms its understanding of the world from Scripture. Is the Christian worldview a meta-narrative to be dismissed?

Not according to James Smith. Instead, he argues that 'the biblical narrative and Christian faith claim to be legitimated not by an appeal to a universal, autonomous reasons but rather by an appeal to faith'. In other words, Christians claim that Christianity is true not because of rational thought, but because of spiritual revelation (it should be noted that here Smith does admit that evidential apologetics do seek to present Christianity as meta-narrative in the way rejected by Lyotard). In other words, Christians can publicly share their narrative and should not be rejected because it is based on 'faith' - because 'faith' presupposions are everywhere, even in modern science. Smith sums up thus:

While in modernity science was the emperor who se the rules for what counted as truth and castigated faith as fable, postmodernity has shown us the emperor's nudity. As such, we no longer need to apologise for our faith - we can be unapologetic in our kerygmatic proclamation of the gospel narrative.
Taking Lyotard to church

Smith sees several implications from Lyotard's work on Christian life and witness:
  • Lyotard shows us that there is no such thing as 'neutral' public or secular space. Lyotard calls all thought to own up to the presuppositions it requires. Secular thought requires as much presupposition as thought more obviously based on 'faith'. The debates up and down the country a few months ago regarding the PURE course came based upon an argument that public space ought to be 'secular', on the presupposition that the secular is somehow 'faith-free'. According to Lyotard, this is a myth.
  • Lyotard's work has profound implications for our evangelism. Everyone makes presuppositions about the world. Evangelism that pays attention to Lyotard's work will require everyone putting their own presuppositions on the table and then narrating the story of the Christian faith, proclaiming the story of the gospel in the power of the Spirit (see Chris' blog for someone who is attempting to do this). Evidentialist apologetics which refuses to admit to its presuppositions will, increasingly, only be met with suspicion (and I have heard of how some of the great evidential apologetic speakers in the US have all but abandoned their campus outreach events for this reason).

Some of Smith's other suggestions seem to be somewhat more abstract. He speaks about the need for church-based hospitality (which I heartily endorse but fail to see how that comes from Lyotard's writings), an emphasis on biblical theology that shows how the story of the Bible fits together (amen!), but then also an emphasis on traditional worship. This was where I really failed to follow his line of thought. I think that Smith was arguing that Christianity should not be ashamed of its distinctiveness and the presuppositions it makes, and that it therefore should not pander to modern culture too much. But I wonder whether this is helpful - after all, the presuppositions of Christianity do not necessarily play to one style of worship more than another. I guess that sometimes modern evangelical worship can overly 'de-spiritualise' and I recognise that this is a balance that could be redressed, but does this demand a return to more 'traditional' styles of worship? Or am I showing my own evangelical presuppositions here?!

Tim Chester of the Crowded House Church in Sheffield, Director of the Northern Training Institute and all-round legend reviews the book more adequately than me here.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Reading List

I have set myself a task for the following year or so. I was looking on Wikipedia at the list of best-selling books globally and decided that I'd like to read those I've yet to read. This is helped somewhat by the fact that I'll soon be married and will inherit some of those titles!

I've already read some of the books on the list: The Bible (#1), the Qur'an (#3), Pilgrim's Progress (#6), Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (#9), The Da Vinci Code (#13), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (#14), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (#17), The Alchemist (#25), One Hundred Years of Solitude (#30) and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (#33).

I think this little challenge will be the incentive I need to finally read The Lord of the Rings (#11) - I was put off a few years ago because of all the hype - and to read the other Harry Potter books that I haven't yet tackled. To Kill a Mockingbird (#37) is one I've meant to read for ages but never started. I'm also looking forward to reading The Book of Common Prayer (#5) - I have read bits and pieces but could not say I've read the whole thing. Foxe's Book of Martyrs (#7) should also be interesting reading I think.

I guess I'm less excited about Quotations from Chairman Mao (#2) and The Book of Mormon (#8) and have yet to decide whether I'll bother at all with the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (#36) or Xinhua Zidian (#4), which turns out to be a Chinese dictionary...

I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Holy Spirit, living breath of God

... and whilst we're on the subject of the Holy Spirit, here is my favourite hymn about him and his work. I live how this song captures so many of the ways in which the Holy Spirit works in believers' lives.

Holy Spirit, living breath of God

Breathe new life into my willing soul
Let the presence of the risen Lord
Come renew my heart and make me whole
Cause Your Word to come alive in me
Give me faith for what I cannot see
Give me passion for Your purity
Holy Spirit breathe new life in me

Holy Spirit come abide within
May Your joy be seen in all I do
Love enough to cover every sin
In each thought and deed and attitude
Kindness to the greatest and the least
Gentleness that sows the path of peace
Turn my strivings into works of grace
Breath of God show Christ in all I do

Holy Spirit from creation’s birth
Giving life to all that God has made
Show Your power once again on earth
Cause Your church to hunger for your ways
Let the fragrance of our prayers arise
Lead us on the road of sacrifice
That in unity the face of Christ
May be clear for all the world to see

Keith Getty & Stuart Townend
Copyright © 2005 Thankyou Music

You can download it here.

Pentecost Sunday

It has been a lovely weekend. Not only spending my birthday at home with family, seeing some university friends and celebrating my grandmother's 80th birthday, but also celebrating Pentecost at Ferndale Baptist Church.

'To celebrate' is certainly the appropriate verb to respond to God's gift of the Holy Spirit. We see that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a wonderful thing. Jesus himself said that it was better that he left so that the Holy Spirit could be sent (see John 16:7).

However, a talk given by Maurice McCracken a couple of years ago helped me to realise the broader significance of Pentecost: Peter shows that the coming of the Holy Spirit is a fulfilment of a prophecy by Joel and far from a simply happy event. I was asked to give a talk on Acts 2 last Autumn and below is my reflection on it. In my introduction, I explained that Acts 2 stirs us to urgently take the gospel to the world for three reasons (I guess I should add that empowering gospel proclamation is not the only thing that the Holy Spirit in a believer, but that this is highlighted in this passage):

1. We have been given the Holy Spirit to do so (verses 1-13)

Verse 1 shows us that all of the events that followed took place on a day called Pentecost. Pentecost was the second of three annual Jewish harvest festivals, and Jews – both ethnically, and those who had converted to Judaism – would have thronged around the streets of Jerusalem. People from across the known world were already there.

Yet whilst the streets would have had a carnival atmosphere, Jesus’ disciples were huddled together. They were almost certainly still terrified – maybe even slightly unable to make sense of what had happened since Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

And then, suddenly the Spirit of God comes upon the disciples, accompanied by three supernatural signs. Verse 2 talks about a ‘sound like a blowing of a violent wind’ – not a violent wind, but something like its sound. Then they see something incredible – ‘what seemed to be tongues of fire’ – again, Luke is obviously showing that precisely what came was beyond concise description. Something incredible, something supernatural, is taking place. And then, thirdly, they began to speak in other tongues – verse 4.

I think if I was Luke, I would have had the temptation to spent more time thinking about the incredible sounds and sights that came at Pentecost – they were incredible! I’d maybe want to dwell more on the ‘sound like a blowing of a violent wind’ and ‘what seemed to be tongues of fire’. But Luke doesn’t do so. Instead, he concentrates on the new tongues that were being spoken by the disciples.

Now there’s some debate about the nature of these tongues. There’s been an awful lot of ink spilled by Christians down the ages as they’ve thought about whether the tongues here were the same as those spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12-14. And there’s probably some difference of opinion in this room here. I’d be happy to speak afterwards with anyone who’d like to chat more about it. But to get caught up in this detail at this point is to miss what Luke’s trying to say: here, speaking in tongues was a miracle of hearing – see verse 6: ‘when they heard this sound, a great crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking his own language.’ Luke’s emphasis is on the language that the people heard.

I’m a person prone to exaggeration. I quite often get told off by one of my students in Lancaster when I exaggerate. I’ll say something like, ‘That was the best meal ever’ and he’ll challenge me. ‘Really? You’ve never ever eaten a better meal in your whole life.’ And people like that can be really annoying, can’t they?! The great thing is that one of the Bible writers seems to do the same thing. In verse 5, Luke says that ‘every nation from under heaven’ was represented in Jerusalem that day. I remember reading this passage once with a guy who wanted to tell me that you couldn’t trust the Bible because presumably the Aborigines and native North American tribesmen were there, which was of course true. Nevertheless, the list in verses 9-11 shows that the whole of the known world was represented: it’s a clockwise list of all of the areas around the Mediterranean at that time. Between them, they would have spoken many, many languages. Furthermore, verse reminds us that the speakers were Galileans – I love the fact that Luke includes this point! – because at the time, Galileans were thought to be yokels, those who weren’t very cultured or good at speaking other languages.

And so do you see Luke’s point? The group of people that was in Jerusalem at this time was a diverse, cosmopolitan, multi-national group. God ensured so by sending his Spirit at the harvest festival of Pentecost. As I was prepared this talk this week, it was amazing to reflect that even when God gave the Law to Moses thousands of years earlier, he put in this law about a harvest festival in order that people might be in Jerusalem when he gave his Spirit. God has brought an international crowd to Jerusalem and then given them the Spirit so that, supernaturally, they might be able to explain the gospel to them. The whole miracle here is a clear sign that the Holy Spirit has been given for a specific purpose – to help disciples of Jesus spread the good news of Christ throughout the world.

John Stott puts it like this: ‘Christian mission is rooted in the nature of God himself. The Bible reveals him as a missionary God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - who has a missionary vision, creates a missionary Church, and sends it out on a missionary expedition throughout the world.’ He goes on, ‘the Holy Spirit of the Book of Acts is a missionary Spirit. Pentecost was essentially a missionary event. Jesus promised that after the Holy Spirit had come upon them, his followers would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth. And the Book of Acts is the fulfilment of that beginning. We watch enthralled as the missionary Spirit creates a missionary people and sends them out on their missionary adventure, beginning in Jerusalem and ending in Rome, the capital of the world.’

What a wonderful gift the Holy Spirit is! It’s he that convicts people of sin, and of righteousness and of the judgement to come! It is him who brings new life! We can’t do any of those things – without the Holy Spirit, our evangelism would be as successful as going into a graveyard and whispering to the dead bodies that they really ought to get up! And yet, we have the life-giving Spirit, who brings life to the dead. He accompanies us as we go and proclaim.

Yet we so easily forget this. I think that one of the great things brought to the Western Church in the 20th Century was a new discovery of the work of the Holy Spirit. I think the church at large is now more aware than, say, certainly one hundred years ago, of some of the things that the Holy Spirit does in our lives. It’s been great to see an explosion of joyful worship and service – we’ve been reminded that it’s a wonderfully joyful thing to be a Christian, to be rescued and to know God and have the prospect of spending eternity with him. But I wonder if, across all elements of the church spectrum, we have become indulgent in our relationship with the Holy Spirit. So we enjoy great times of heartfelt sung worship with God, and they’re wonderful as the Spirit ministers to us and applies his truths to our hearts – and yet, we then do not respond any further. Or the Spirit gives us wisdom and understanding as we delve into Scripture and discover the wonderful things there – and yet, we do not respond any further. Or we feel that we are being transformed and equipped for ministry – and yet never use that transforming and equipping. We’ve never had it so good – and yet one of the very things the church has been given the Spirit for seems to be systematically ignored. It’s a bit like a car enthusiastic who spends all of their free Sundays souping up their motor, but never actually ever get around to driving it.

John Stott, again, says this: ‘You tell me you believe in God. He is a missionary God. Are you committed to Christ? He is a missionary Christ. You claim to be filled with the Holy Spirit. He is a missionary Spirit. It is impossible to avoid these things. Mission is integral to authentic Christianity; Christianity without mission is Christianity no longer. For mission is rooted in the very nature of God himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’

And so this is my first point: a Spirit-filled Christian is going to have a heart for mission; for taking the gospel anywhere and everywhere. It’s as simple as that. They’ll care about taking the gospel where they are and they’ll care about taking the gospel to the nations. Because, as we’ve seen, God’s gospel is for everyone. All have rebelled against God – and the good news of forgiveness and life with God is for all too – for Chinese and Britons and Moldovans and Albanians and Zambians. God’s gospel is for all. It’s something we see as the gospel is taken to the nations in microcosm at Pentecost. The curse of the tower of Babel is being overturned, and now through the Spirit-breathed gospel, God is calling together a multinational group of people, united in Christ.

One of the chapters I love the most in the Bible is Revelation 7. Do you remember the great verses there, where there’s a vision of a great multitude of people in the new creation that no-one could count, with every nation, tribe, people and language represented?! And they’re all there because of the work of Jesus the Lamb. And I find this incredibly encouraging. I find it encouraging because we believe in a sovereign God, a God who is completely in control. And the God that’s in control has said that every nation and tribe and people and language represented. And because God has promised this, his promises are as sure as him himself! What an incentive to get involved in God’s work of reconciling the nations to himself! He’s promised it will happen, and so we can have every confidence our ministry is not in vain. God the Holy Spirit has a vested interest in it! And so the first reason from Acts 2 to urgently proclaim the gospel to the world is take we’ve been given God the Holy Spirit in order to do so.

2. We live in the last days (verses 14-21)

Secondly, we are to urgently take the gospel to the world because we live in the last days. In these verses, Peter gets up and explains the events of Pentecost that Luke has just described. Pentecost isn’t just something that affected the disciples – it had much greater significance. In fact, in verses 14-16, Peter says that this should not have come as a surprise to the Jewish people he was speaking to. For this extraordinary phenomenon of Spirit-filled believers declaring God’s wonders in foreign languages is the fulfilment of an idea from the Old Testament. In particular, Peter says the declaring of God’s wonders in tongues is the fulfilment of the prophet Joel’s prophecy that God would pour out his Spirit on all believers, in what Joel called the ‘last days’.

And so, Peter says – verse 17 – that a new era had begun; the last days. In the Bible, the last days stretch between the two comings of Christ, and the Spirit will play a new role. See, in the Old Testament, the Spirit had only come upon certain individuals, like kings and prophets, to equip them for specific tasks. But now, says Peter through Joel’s prophecy, he will be poured out. And he will be poured out generously – to sons and daughters, to old and young. So the pouring out will be to all Christians, irrespective of their gender or their age or their rank.

And this pouring out is so that they can prophesy. Again, there’s debate within the church today about precisely what prophecy is, but here it’s probably referring to any verbal communication of the gospel. The universal gift of the Spirit will lead to a universal ministry of prophecy. And this is the fulfilment of another passage from the Old Testament. In Numbers 11, remember this is in the Old Testament when the Spirit wasn’t given to everyone, Moses cries out in frustration with these words: ‘I wish that all the LORD's people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!’ So do you see what’s going on? The universal gift of the Spirit leads to a universal ministry of prophecy. All Christians can now communicate the gospel, aided by the Spirit, not just some. Martin Luther put it this way as he reflected on this passage: ‘the knowledge of God through Christ, which the Holy Spirit kindles, makes him burn through the word of the gospel we proclaim’. It’s not that as we leave, we’ve kind of got to ask ourselves: ‘Will the Holy Spirit use my witness?’ The answer is: if you are a genuine believer, then the Spirit will use your words in your witness.

This is such a reassurance! Not only does this mean that we don’t have to decide who to speak to – we’ve already seen that the gospel is for absolutely everybody! – but we also don’t have to wonder whether or not we’ve got God’s power. The Holy Spirit means that, because we know Christ, we can make him known, all of us. We may not be Billy Graham, but each of us is now fully equipped to speak. We may not be eloquent, but each of us is called to give a reason for the hope that we have.

And this ministry is urgent because we live in the ‘last days’. Verses 19-20 refer to God’s judgement of all people, which will come at the end of the last days. In redemptive history, now everything has happened so that only Jesus’ return and judgement is left. I guess we might want to say that Judgement Day is the next big day in God’s diary. And so the last days are days of Spirit-filled and Spirit-powered witness. They are urgent days, because the great and terrifying Day of the Lord could come soon. But they are also days of great opportunity, during which the gospel can be preached to all peoples and all nations, throughout the world. And amazingly, as verse 21 puts it, ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

I used to have a housemate who had an annoying trait, and that was to ask the question, ‘Does it matter in eternity?’ And she’d ask this question in an attempt to diffuse problems – only it could get quite annoying. Someone wouldn’t do the washing up, and then somebody else would get annoyed, and she’d say, ‘Does it matter in eternity?’ Or someone would record over someone else’s videotape of a programme they wanted to watch, and they’d get stressed out, and she would ask, ‘Does it matter in eternity?’ Now, as you can see, that sometimes became quite an annoying question! But actually, it is a good question to ask, because as Christians, we are called to be people who have eternity in view. And we’re reminded of this as we consider that we are indeed in the ‘last days’: the next day in God’s diary really is Jesus’ second coming and judgement.

So let’s ask, ‘Does it matter in eternity?’ Your witness here? Does it matter in eternity, or are you caught up with other things? I know myself that it’s very easy in CU to get caught up with the trappings – with room bookings and socials and emails and meetings and the rest – even though the CU has been set up with eternity in mind, we never do anything with eternal consequence. And CU just becomes a social club and our witness is non-existent. Or the other danger is this: we know that evangelism should be a priority, but we’ve forgotten about eternity and we’re only bothered about results in the short term. We’re only bothered about packed meetings and looking cool on campus. Does it matter in eternity?

Or what about the international students here? We’ve already thought about how the gospel is for all. And many international students come from countries where they’d have little or no chance to hear about the gospel, and their time in Britain is the best opportunity they will ever have to know Jesus. And yet I remember myself that, for several of my years at uni, I made little or no effort to get to know the international students on my course. It was only in my fourth year that I really got to know them and found out about the real gospel openness there was amongst them. Does it matter in eternity?

Or how about the state of the world? Country after country where there is little or no gospel witness – there are still 18 countries in the world less than 1% Christian. 3500 people groups who remain unreached. Thousands of languages which still have no translation of the Bible. Many countries where there is religious nominalism – where people would call themselves Christian but there is no sign of spiritual life. Millions who are trusting their good works rather than God’s grace for salvation. Many areas of Europe and Africa that are Christianised but not converted. Does it matter in eternity?

We live in the ‘last days’ and there stretches a time of opportunity during which the gospel must be proclaimed throughout the world. And we have been equipped by the Spirit – all of us – to speak for Jesus. Folks, let’s live with eternity in view, because ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

3. Jesus’ sacrifice is for all who will trust in him (verses 22-41)

Thirdly, we are to urgently take the gospel to the world because Jesus’ sacrifice is for all who will trust in him. I used to think that Pentecost was a really happy occasion, and of course, it is a really significant day in the life of the church, from where God had an intimacy of relationship with his people that those in the Old Testament could have only dreamed about. And yet, Peter’s speech in verses 22 onwards, we see that this Pentecost account was also chilling for the original audience.

I’m not going to go into much detail now, but, in his sermon Peter, having convinced the crowd of the fact that the miracle of Pentecost is a fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy, he now sketches out the connection of the events that day with the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. You can look at this in more detail yourselves, but effectively Peter does two things. He persuades them that Jesus of Nazareth really was the divine King, promised in the Old Testament – yet people rejected him and were responsible for his death.

Secondly, Peter convinces his listeners that the Spirit’s coming signals the fact that judgement is coming. Jesus is alive, the sin he took on the cross is now paid, and he has been raised to life forever. And the same Lord that promised to Joel that there would be an outpouring of the Spirit promised the Messiah. And the Spirit’s outpouring is proof of the beginning of his reign, that will come in its fullness when he returns in judgement. And Jesus himself will act as judge.

Now, put yourselves in the shoes of the Jewish audience who were there in Jerusalem at Pentecost. They’ve seen this incredible miracle of tongues, and they’ve realised the full Old Testament significance of this. We’re in the last days and judgement is coming. And now Peter has shown the full situation. Jesus, the King who has been raised to life by God the Father is the very one who will be judge. And there you are standing, a Jew. Perhaps one of those who condemned Jesus to death just a couple of months earlier. The one who had been sent by God, condemned to a cross. And now he’s been raised to life and coming back as judge. You’d be terrified, and rightly so! You’ve rejected the God of the Universe in human form, and now you know he’s coming back in judgement. It’s not even that you’d killed a prophet from God, but you had murdered the Messiah. Peter’s speech finishes with this chilling statement: ‘"Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."’

And so it’s no wonder that we read in verse 37, that those in the crowd were cut to the heart and asked, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ They must have been terrified, desperate, having crucified the Christ and Judge of the Universe.

And the amazing answer to their question comes in verse 38: ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.’ This is incredible! There is good news, even for those who killed Christ, because he welcomes even those who murdered him. The very act that showed their guilt, in crucifying him, was the very act used by God for their forgiveness! Even those that crucified Christ are forgiven by trusting in him.

One of the CUs I work with is St Martin’s College in Ambleside, in the middle of the Lake District. And sometimes I go walking up in the mountains with some of the students there who study Outdoors Studies [What a great course!]. Once, we came into a little glacial valley, and some of the lads there said it was OK to walk on the ice, because the ice there was thick. They were the experts, but I was a wuss, so I didn’t try. I thought maybe the ice would be too thin. Now imagine if, somehow, a juggernaught had been there that day, and had driven over the ice. What would I have thought? I’d think something like this, ‘Juggernaught – heavy. Yet the ice held the weight. Me – much lighter than the juggernaught – I’ll be fine.’

And the same principle applies here. If we were going to list the most horrific sin of all time, we’d probably go for unjustly and wittingly murdering the God of the Universe, the very one who is going to act as Judge. And yet, Peter says, forgiveness is possible for them because of the cross of Jesus. And so do you see what this passage is saying? Regardless of how bad you are, you can be forgiven. Jesus will welcome you because he has taken the punishment for your sin. He’s well able to forgive, because he’s taken the punishment. And regardless of how bad anyone else is, it’s possible for them to be forgiven. And that’s true for anyone here in Liverpool, and it’s true around the world. Even Saddam Hussein, someone who’s brutality we’ve heard a lot about in recent days, can be forgiven if he trusts in Jesus. The message is for all because the message is able to save anyone!

What an encouragement this is! Not only do we know that the message is for all nationalities, but it is for all people regardless of what they are like. And the Holy Spirit has been given to each of us in these last days so we can all speak this gospel message with God’s own power!

And so, we come to our conclusion. Why are we to proclaim the gospel? We’re to do it because all true believers have the life-giving Spirit with us, who uses our words as we proclaim to change hearts. We’re to do it because we live in the last days, and judgement is coming. And we’re to do it because the message that we have is potent – it really is able to bring forgiveness and life with God forever, because of Jesus’ sacrifice. So let’s keep speaking for Jesus, let’s keep praying for our world. Let’s pray that tonight some people resolve to start speaking for the first time. Let’s pray that tonight a few of our number commit to getting involved in world mission – perhaps committing to praying for a country and the gospel work there, or going on a short term mission. Let’s pray that a few people here are convicted to going as missionaries to other countries, or train as Bible translators. And the encouragement is that, as we do this, we are sharing God’s heartbeat. I’m going to finish again with that quote by John Stott: ‘You tell me you believe in God. He is a missionary God. Are you committed to Christ? He is a missionary Christ. You claim to be filled with the Holy Spirit. He is a missionary Spirit. It is impossible to avoid these things. Mission is integral to authentic Christianity; Christianity without mission is Christianity no longer. For mission is rooted in the very nature of God himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Taking Derrida to church

I think I had might as well admit it. I'm a geek. And so when I got an email from Amazon a few weeks recommending me a book that ties together two of my passions, it wasn't long before I found myself clicking and ordering.

The book? Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church. To some, these three French men won't mean very much at all. But to those who have studied social theory or social science at any level, they are recognisable as three of the most important postmodern French thinkers of the 20th Century. Much of the present postmodernist movement roots from their writings from the 1970s onwards. Derrida and Foucault, particularly, featured heavily in the syllabus of my Masters course that I undertook a few years ago in Bristol.

I always think that a good indication of how well you can understand something is shown in how clearly you are able to explain it. This book explains the theories (often made unnecessarily complex) admirably. The book includes references from films such as Memento, O Brother Where Art Thou and even The Little Mermaid to help the reader understand the philosophical challenges brought by the French trio. The author, James Smith, then seeks to think about how these writings impinge upon church life for evangelicals in the 21st Century.

The book has given me loads to think about, and I'm planning to share my thoughts on the chapters over the coming few weeks. In this post, I thought I'd start with the chapter on Jacques Derrida's writings (which I think was probably the strongest of the book) and Smith's understandings for the implications this has on church life.

Derrida in a nutshell

Derrida's writings focus on the central place of texts in mediating or understanding our experience of the world. By text, Derrida means something similar to 'worldview'. In other words, each of us has a necessarily filter through which we see things and the world appears to us. He's not doubting the reality of things we see, but shows that the way we see things varies depending on who we are and the position from which we see them. Derrida's best known slogan is 'There is nothing outside the text', but he later clarified more clearly what he meant, saying, 'There is nothing outside context.' As James Smith puts it, 'The context of both a phenomenon (whether a book, a cup or an event) and the interpreter function as conditions that determine just how a thing is seen or understood.' All this is very true: the way in which you diagnose a certain situation will depend upon several embodied circumstances that you possess - your period in history, your gender, your ethnicity, your socio-economic status and so on. We become wary of anyone who claims to know Truth - how can they possibly know the Truth when they only have a partial perspective on the world? (Derrida, like most people today, doesn't necessarily doubt the existence of Truth, but he would be suspicious of those who can objectively claim to know or tell it.)

The way in which Derrida's writings is most commonly experienced by Christians is probably in talking to non-Christians about the Bible. A Christian explains to a non-Christian something of the Bible's claims in a particular area. The non-Christian replies, 'Well, of course, that's just your interpretation of what it says. You can make the Bible say anything you want it to say.'

Taking Derrida to church

How should we respond to Derrida's writings. Interestingly, Smith makes a three suggestions.

  • Fascinatingly, Smith suggests that the first thing that a Christian who takes Derrida's philosophy seriously will do is resonate with the Reformers' claim of sola Scriptura. If all events are subject to interpretation, informed by our own horizons, presuppositions and experiences, then we can say that there is no 'uninterpreted reality'. All people - Christians included - see the world through an interpretative framework or lens. Smith says that this frees us as Christians to lay our pre-suppositions on the table (for they are as valid as anyone else's), but 'also to ask ourselves whether the biblical text is truly what governs our seeing of the world'. He goes on, 'If the world is a text to be interpreted, then for the church the narrative of the Scriptures is what should govern our very perception of the world. We should see the world through the Word. [...] To say there is nothing outside the text, then, is to emphasise that there is not a single square inch of our experience of the world that should not be governed by God in the Scriptures. But do we really let the Text govern our seeing of the world?'

    This is a very helpful observation. Like David, we need to realise that our understanding of the world can sometimes be clouded. We, too, need to see Scripture as 'a lamp to my feet and a light to my path' (Psalm 119:105). Scripture alone, through the power of the Spirit, can cut through our own pre-suppositions and those of the culture and society of which we are a part, and help us interpret the world as it really is.

  • Secondly, Smith says that Derrida's work will affect how we read the Bible. He calls for us to be honest. When we are charged with the fact that we might only interpret a text in a particular way, we need to admit that this is true. A case in point came for me in studying Romans 13 at church last Sunday on submitting to the authorities. It became immediately obvious that the fact that our Bible study group were all from democracies and historically situated after the regime of Nazi Germany affected our reading and interpretation of the text. The honest reply to the charge of is, then, 'Yes that could be true.'

    Smith's answer to this problem is community. He exhorts community as the way of, together, combining people's contexts and together forming an interpretative framework. Practically, then, he says that the serious Bible scholar will not only read commentaries and interpretations of passages from other people like them, but will also want to hear what other voices of people not like us have to say on these passages. Smith would, then, have Western Bible scholars look to the global church to hear the interpretation, say, an African can bring to a text (it would certainly be interesting to hear they interpret Romans 13!). As Smith puts it, 'These other voices - so often marginalised by the Western church - are received as voices of the Spirit at work in our global brothers and sisters, illuminating us by illuminating them.' I guess that this is what the Global Christian Library series is attempting to do, providing inter-cultural exposition and application of the Christian faith.

    However, Smith also wants to include historical voices in the interpretative community. As he puts it, ideally 'we recite the ecumenical and historic creeds because these are witness of our community past - the way for us to hear the interpretations of the ancient community, which was indwelt by the same Spirit that indwells us and grants illumination today. The pastor's preaching indicates a serious engagement with the early Church fathers and Reformers as co-interpreters. All of this helps us understand that the church is a community, a 'holy, catholic church', which has endured through millenia.'

  • Thirdly, Smith commends wide preaching of the Bible. In other words, in order to take the totality of the text of the Bible seriously, a church which is engaging with Derrida will not impoverish itself by staying in one part of the Bible alone. Rather it will be committed to a systematic teaching across all of Scripture, which, as Smith puts it, '... will guide us through the entirety of the Text's narrative, rather than leaving us to the private canons and pet texts of the pastor.'

    Smith doesn't use this terminology, but Scripture itself then becomes the third 'interpretative layer'. Of course, without the other interpretative layers mentioned above, we are open to the charge of mis-interpretation. But the 'golden thread' of Scripture is a third vital layer (which I think is underplayed in the book) that helps us to be more sure that our interpretation of Bible passages is correct. As the Westminster Confession puts it, 'The infallible rule of the interpretation of scripture is the scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any passage it must be searched out and understood by other places that speak more clearly.'

I find all of this very helpful. Smith's reading of Derrida makes us humble. We can admit that we do not understand all of Scripture, and that we need other voices and, above all, God's Holy Spirit to help us to understand it better. However, this needs to be balanced alongside the idea of 'spiralling into the Truth' - incomplete knowledge is not necessarily false knowledge.

So how would I now respond to the charge of, 'That's just your interpretation'? I think now I'd admit that, yes, it could be. But I'd then seek to show how orthodox views of theology are shared across history, across geography and across the Bible. Praise God that his truth is able to speak into all cultures and situations - praise God for Revelation 7:9: 'After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.'

I'd be very interested to see what you make of this discussion, and will add my thoughts on Smith's chapters on the writings of Lyotard and Foucault in due course.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007


I've had a good day.

I'm grateful to God for the many blessings he's given me today. It was great meeting Steffan in Chester to discuss our seminar we're giving at Relay 3 in a few weeks time. It was great to catch up.

It was wonderful to randomly end up in That Cafe Thing - the first coffee shop we found in Chester - and even more random to bump into Lizzie, one of the co-proprietors there, that I know from my Relay days. We'd not seen each other for years and it was wonderful to catch up!

I'm grateful for the time I had to spend in the Bible on the train. I'm even grateful for the hour delay which meant I was able to dig further into the book of Judges (thoughts coming soon...). I'm glad I had an opportunity to explain a bit about Judges to the woman sitting opposite me.

I'm glad to be a UCCF Staff Worker. I'm grateful to have been able to spend time with small group leaders at St Martin's College in Lancaster this afternoon, getting excited about Jesus' return and our resurrection bodies. I'm grateful that God kept 1 Thessalonians safe!

I'm very grateful for my fiancee Linda, and the time we had together tonight. Even a Liverpool defeat and Jadine being kicked off of the Apprentice didn't dampen the evening.

I'm grateful for life's little blessings.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Isaiah on Jesus the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)

Below appears the extended text of a talk I prepared for Lancaster University Christian Union as part of their series, 'The Gospel According to Isaiah'. In the end I cut the text down and so below is the 'unedited cut'! I was given the title 'Isaiah on Jesus the Suffering Servant' for Isaiah 52:13-53:12. I loved preparing the talk and learned loads myself too. What an amazing Saviour we have and how worthy of glory he is!

Since chapter 40 of his prophecy, Isaiah has been offering a word of hope to the people of
Israel in exile. It begins, ‘Comfort, comfort my people’. After judgement comes comfort. And the comfort that God has spoken about is a return from exile, a return to Jerusalem from Babylon for his people. Their judgement is over. Turn to Isaiah 48:20-21, where this is described: ‘Leave Babylon, flee from the Babylonians! Announce this with shouts of joy and proclaim it. Send it out to the ends of the earth; say, ‘The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob.’ They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split the rock and water gushed out.’ The people of Judah can celebrate because they will not be abandoned forever – the LORD will redeem his people and bring them home to Jerusalem under the Persian king Cyrus, and that is great news!

However, a problem remains. It was human sin – rebellion and wickedness against God – that caused the people to go into exile in the first place. God has dealt with the result of this problem – he promises to bring them from exile, but the problem of human sin remains. And so verse 22 is a tantalising prophecy: ‘“There is no peace,” says the LORD, “for the wicked.”’ Hand in hand with praise for the greatness of the LORD is a contrast: the destined misery for the wicked. And of course this is not something that can be dealt with merely by geography. There were wicked people in the people of Judah before exile, in exile and when they came back from exile. And so 48:22 shows that God has not finished yet.

In other words, Isaiah’s prophecy from Chapter 40 onwards that there is good news of deliverance is bigger than a return home from captivity under Cyrus from Babylon. God has something greater in mind. There’s a greater ultimate deliverance that the LORD will bring. And he will bring it through a mysterious character known only as his Servant. You saw him introduced last week.

There are several prophecies about the work of the Servant in the book of Isaiah. But today’s passage is both the most famous and the most graphic about what the Servant will achieve. What we will see is that the Servant’s actions illustrate God’s greatest desires and show how God will ultimately fulfil his people’s greatest need.

The passage is split into five stanzas, and we’ll look at these in turn as we consider more about what God is achieving through the actions of his Servant.

52:13-15: The Servant’s suffering makes him worthy of great exaltation

In the first stanza, then, we read that the Servant’s suffering makes him worthy of great exaltation. Let’s re-read 52:13-15:

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him - his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness - so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.

The first thing that we learn from this passage is that God’s Servant will be exalted or, to be specific, ‘raised, lifted up and exalted’. This in itself is an incredible thing to claim, because language speaking of exaltation has already been used in the book of Isaiah. Do you remember that during the first week of term, we looked at Isaiah 6, Isaiah’s vision of God? And this is how that vision opens: ‘In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted.’ And now this language of exaltation is used to describe God’s Servant. He will be exalted. In other words, God’s Servant is to become nothing less in glory than God.

That’s the first shock of this passage. God’s Servant will somehow be worthy of the same level of glory that the God of the Universe deserves. Think of the glory that he deserves: the one on whom we depend for our every breath! And yet the Servant will be worthy of the same level of glory.

Perhaps more surprising still is verse 14. All of us will be familiar with the ‘before and after’ photos that advertisers use. The ‘before’ picture features a large, overweight person or a bald man or a spotty face. The ‘after’ picture has someone who has lost stones of weight, no longer sullen-looking but happy and trim, or a full head of hair, or perfectly smooth skin. And if the ‘after’ picture of God’s Servant is something more glorious and amazing than anything that we can begin to contemplate, the ‘before’ picture of the Servant is at the other extreme. Look at sorts of words used in verse 14: appalled, disfigured, marred beyond human likeness. Somehow, the abuse and humiliation of God’s Servant will be such that – verse 15 – kings will shut their mouths because of him. In the ancient world, kings were supremely powerful and what they said happened, and yet through the Servant’s suffering, they will be completely overwhelmed by his glory.

Sometimes people receive glory and admiration for their suffering. The famous picture of a blood-drenched Terry Butcher will be familiar to some of you. He played on for England despite incredible personal pain from a head wound for England’s eventual victory a few years ago. More seriously, personal achievements against the odds in the face of illness or disease are celebrated in our media. But what sort of suffering by an individual could make them worthy of the same level of glory as the God of the Universe? For this we need to read on in the poem.

53:1-3: The Servant will be utterly despised by other humans

But before we get to unravelling how the Servant’s suffering leads to him being worthy of such great glory, we need to examine how Isaiah prophesies that things will appear at face value. Far from being considered worthy of great glory, the Servant will be utterly despised. Let’s re-read 53:1-3:

Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? He grew up like a tender shoot, a like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.

‘Who would believe it?!’ That’s what verse 1 is saying. The arm of the LORD revealed like this! We would have never have dreamt that the arm of the LORD – God’s power and glory – would have been revealed in such a way as will be revealed through his Servant, says Isaiah. We would never dream that God’s power would be shown in such weakness. And Isaiah prophesies that when the Servant arrives, he will not look worthy of such glory.

And so Isaiah prophesies that the Servant will be like a ‘tender shoot’, something vulnerable to wind and birds and insects. Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of how the Servant will suffer right from the beginning of his life, suffering just like a root in dry ground. And far from appearing worthy of glory, when the Servant appears, he won’t be conspicuous because of his beauty or majesty. The Servant won’t be good looking, says Isaiah. He won’t have any majesty to attract us to him, in the way that we are magically attracted to the Royal Family, wanting to know all about them. The Servant – well, he will be plain, says Isaiah. He’s the sort of person that, if he walked into the room now, he’d turn no heads through being impressive.

And, says Isaiah, the glory that will rightly belong to the Servant will be surprising as it’s not as if he’ll be everybody’s favourite person. In fact, in verse 3 Isaiah prophesies twice that the Servant will be despised. People will go out of their way to avoid the Servant. He will be completely shunned.

So let’s summarise what we’ve seen so far. Firstly, says Isaiah, a Servant, an individual, will be sent by God and because of his actions will be worthy of the same glory as the God of the Universe. And this will surprise everyone because the Servant is, well, distinctly un-glorious. He’ll be weak and he’ll suffer and he’ll be despised by pretty much everyone. And so, says Isaiah, his ultimate victory and exaltation will come as something of a shock to everyone.

53:4-6: Yet the Servant’s suffering is for us, and brings us peace with God

The third stanza – the middle verse – of this poem brings us right to the heart of this prophecy, because it is here that we begin to see how this enigma of the Servant’s suffering and ultimate glory can be reconciled. Let’s re-read verses 4-6:

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 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. 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.

Again, we see a juxtaposition here: Isaiah says that the onlooker will look at the Servant and decide that he is ‘stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted’. In other words, the Servant will suffer to such an extent that the onlooker will see his pathetic predicament and come to the conclusion that God was punishing him because of some great sin.

And yet in fact what is happening is sacrifice. The words used here to describe the actions of the Servant would have been very familiar to Jews who lived at the period that Isaiah wrote. The language used here is the same language as that used to describe the sacrifices that God had ordained centuries earlier for the people of God. Sacrifice is a key theme of the Bible; and this is because a holy God – a perfect and pure God – can’t tolerate sin, our evil and rebellion against him. Sin leads to death. And in his mercy, God allowed sacrifice – the death of an animal in the place of a human that deserved to die. An animal took the fate that a human deserved. The animal was the human’s substitute.

In the most important of those sacrificial ceremonies, known as the Day of Atonement, which you can read about later in Leviticus 16, two animals were sacrificed. One of them was burnt as an offering; and the priest laid his hands symbolically on the head of the other animal, known as the scapegoat. The scapegoat was then led out into the wilderness to die. Taken together, these sacrifices showed God’s holiness – that sin leads to death – and God’s mercy: that when the punishment has been taken, nothing else is left to pay. The animal was deliberately left out in the wilderness to die, never to return, to shown symbolically that sin had been dealt with completely.

And now this language of sacrifice is used to describe the Servant’s predicament. Look down at verses 4-6 again. ‘The punishment that brought us peace was upon him’ – just like the sacrificed animal in the Day of Atonement. ‘The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ – just like the priest laid on the scapegoat the iniquity of the people of Israel. Do you see what is going on here? The Servant is going to be a substitutionary sacrifice, just like the animals at the Day of Atonement.

What I am saying is this: to a holy God, a God who is completely just, sin must be punished. He would be unjust if he did not. That’s what the Old Testament sacrificial system shows. But an Old Testament believer would have had a problem. It’s this: the Old Testament Scriptures keep re-iterating again and again that humans are not the same as other animals. So in the very first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, we read that the only beings made in the image of God are humans. So how could an animal really substitute for a human? A human is more valuable than an animal! It’s true that God promised in the Old Testament that trust placed in God’s provision of animal sacrifices would deal with sin, but they also would have surely kept reminding those making the sacrifices that what they really needed was a human sacrifice for sin, where a perfect human, somehow unblemished by sin, took the punishment of death in the place of other humans. In other words, they needed a perfect human substitute that would take God’s punishment in their place.

And do you see that is exactly what Isaiah is prophesying the Servant will do. ‘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.’ We are healed spiritually – made right with God – because the Servant takes the punishment that we deserve. God can’t just forgive sin and magic it away. God is not omnipotent in the sense that he can do anything. God can only do those things which are consistent with his nature. And so can’t readily pardon guilty people, because he has revealed himself as a God of infinite fairness and justice. He is a holy God. He must punish sin. And through sending his Servant, this is what he does. Through sending his Servant, and placing his punishment on him, pouring out all of his wrath against the Servant as he is made sin for others, God has found a way of forgiving guilty people like us whilst remaining holy and pure.

53:7-9: The Servant will voluntarily and willingly suffer death for us

So far we’ve seen, then, that firstly the Servant’s suffering makes him worthy of great exaltation; secondly, that the Servant will be utterly despised by other humans; and thirdly that the Servant’s suffering for us brings us peace with God. But perhaps there’s one issue running through your mind: it sounds pretty harsh of God to crush the Servant. It seems that there’s the Servant, minding his own business, and then suddenly he finds himself crushed by God in a horrific way. God doesn’t exactly seem blameless here himself with all of this violence.

Well, if that’s your thought, then come back to verses 7-9:

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep is silent before her shearers, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgement he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendents? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

These verses make two points: firstly, the Servant’s death was undeserved. We see that especially affirmed in the last sentence – ‘though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.’ But the other thing that these verses stress is that the Servant’s suffering was completely voluntary on his part.

Look back at verse 7. The Servant was ‘led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.’ The image here isn’t that the Servant had no choice. That’s sometimes what we can think when we read these verses. A sheep en route to the slaughterhouse doesn’t have much choice if the farmer as decided it must die – is this verse suggesting the Servant had no choice either? No. The emphasis is on the last phrase: ‘so he did not open his mouth.’ The point is this: the Servant would have had every reason to object, to refuse to take the punishment. Verse 8 says that ‘by oppressive and judgement he was taken away’ – in other words, he was condemned without justice. The implication of the verse is that he could have spoken and freed himself from the ordeal he was about to undergo. But he did not. Instead, he remained silent. He did not object. He was calm and submissive as he put himself forward for sacrifice.

Imagine that you are a Jew held in a prisoner of war camp in the Second World War. For some reason there is a skirmish against the Nazi prison officers, and one of these prison officers gets beaten from behind by one of the men in the chambers, who is there with his family who are cowering in the corner. The prison officer gets to his feet and storms out. A few moments later, a whole company of Nazi soldiers enter the room with the beaten prisoner officer. The commander barks instructions explaining that whoever beat their comrade will get shot. But the beaten officer doesn’t know who beat him. Eventually, he comes to a man next to you. He wasn’t involved in the skirmish – in fact, he was trying to calm everyone down. But the prison officer is sure that the innocent man was the one who beat him. And so he is arrested. Everyone expects him to protest. But he looks at the guilty man and his family and bites his tongue. He does not protest. He is voluntarily led out of the room and shot dead.

And that is the picture we have of the Servant here. He voluntarily stays quiet and takes the punishment. We must never think that the Servant had no choice as he faced the punishment of God’s wrath. He knew exactly what was coming, and yet whilst completely innocent of any charge, he willingly and voluntarily sacrificed himself for others.

53:10-12: The Servant is worthy of glory because of his unique death

Onto the final stanza. Perhaps the most shocking of all:

‘Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and to cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great and will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.’

You know someone's heart when you know their deep desires and what satisfies them. And these verses tell us what God desires and how that desire is achieved by his Servant. Verse 10 puts it this way: ‘It was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer’ – more literally, and more shockingly, this verse might be rendered: ‘The LORD was pleased to crush him, putting him to grief.’ What? The LORD of the Universe was pleased to crush the Servant and cause him to suffer? The one true God was happy because of this violent mauling of the Servant? Yes.

Like the prophecy said earlier, we wouldn’t believe it had we not been told it was true. But here we see that God was pleased to crush the Servant. But before we start thinking that there’s a monster at the centre of the Universe, let’s realise that the LORD is only pleased because of what the Servant’s suffering achieved. He hated the action itself. But the Servant’s achievements are described in several ways in this stanza. Firstly – he was a guilt offering: again the language of sacrifice is used. The Servant’s death brings satisfaction for sin for a holy God. But secondly – note – ‘the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.’ In other words, the Servant achieves something that God has planned, that he wants to do, that he desires.

Verse 11 shows what it is that God is out to achieve: to justify many. The point is this: if the Servant has borne the sin of others in his death, then their sin has been punished. And if their sin has been punished, they bear it no more. And if they bear it no more, then they are without guilt before God, and if they are without guilt before God, then they are justified; that is, they are legally acquitted by God and declared righteous. And now we see what God has been up to in this great and awful work of the Servant. He is providing for the acquittal of sinners. We have all sinned and brought shame to the glory of the holy LORD God Almighty! Left to ourselves we will come under his terrible wrath and everlasting judgement. But that is not his desire. His desire is that the Servant should be crushed in the place of many, to bear our iniquities and justify ungodly people like us.

Amazingly, verse 11 points to the resurrection of this Servant. Somehow Isaiah prophesied that the Servant will see ‘the light of life’. And note a very precious thing here: the Servant too will be satisfied. It’s not only the LORD who administered the justice that is happy with the outcome of the Servant’s work. The Servant himself too will ‘be satisfied’. He will be happy with what all of his suffering and humiliation achieved. In fact, he will be delighted with it.

And all of this makes the Servant, just in case we have forgotten, worthy of the same glory as God himself. For he has achieved the will of the LORD, through his humiliation he has met the desire of the LORD: that through his death, he will justify many and bear their iniquities. And so look at the conclusion in verse 12. God says, ‘Therefore I will give him a portion among the great’ – he will be worthy of worship and praise and glory and adoration and honour and thanks. Yet he will divide the spoils. The Servant’s desire is that he shares his glory with the very people that he has justified, the very ones for whom he suffered, the very ones who mocked him and hid their faces from him and despised him. The Servant satisfies our longings at the cost of his own life: he justifies the ungodly; he makes us part of the family, the offspring, of God; and he shares with us the spoils of universal triumph – the promise of a restored relationship with our Creator forever.


Let me read some verses from Acts 8: the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. The Eunuch is reading aloud from the scroll of Isaiah as he travels home from Jerusalem.

Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked.

"How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture:
"He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth."

The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

The incredible news of the New Testament is that the Servant has come! Jesus of Nazareth is the Servant. And he is not only the Servant, but the Son of God, God in human form, who fulfilled the prophecy we read about in Isaiah 53: the incredible news that people can be made right through his death on the cross in our place, taking the wrath of God the Father against sin. It is Jesus’ death on the cross – and his death alone – that can justify us, and can legally acquit us before God. It is that which makes Jesus worthy of glory and honour and praise; because he was slain.

Many of us here will not be hearing this truth for the first time. We’ll be used to the idea that Jesus bore the anger of God the Father against our sin on the cross. But let’s not skip over this. Let’s think about what the cross reveals. It reveals God the Father’s heart – who desired to crush the Son – not because he enjoyed it, but in order to bring many back to him. And the Son, the Servant, is glad about this. Jesus is not resentful at God the Father for sending him to the cross. In fact, as Isaiah prophesies, he sees the good pleasure of the Lord succeeding through his own anguish and is satisfied – not frustrated or bitter – but satisfied. And so if you want to know the heart of God and the heart of his Servant Jesus, look at the cross. It is there that we see God as he really is: holy and just – sin must be punished, even if it means the tortuous death of Christ – and yet loving: delighting to go to the cross and delighting to punish in order to justify sinners like us. This is no wishy-washy or nostalgic love. This is incredible, breathtaking love – love shown in an incredible action: one that we would not have believed if it was not written in front of us.

And we need to be reminded of these truths. Many in the world hate the cross of Christ. They hate what it says about sin and the fact that it must be punished. Richard Dawkins spoke of the cross of Christ as ‘vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent’. Even some of those from within the church can struggle with the Biblical teaching about the cross. One writer recently described the idea of God the Father punishing the Son for our sin as being akin to ‘cosmic child abuse’. And yet what we’ve seen the cross reveals tonight is a God of love: not of sentimental love, but of a real love, a love that has met our deepest need. A God who has found a way of justifying guilty people like us and not condemning us all to hell. God’s response to our guilt isn’t to say that it doesn’t matter, but to sacrificially pay the price necessary that we might be forgiven through his sacrifice. And this is incredibly humbling, it’s an incredible to our pride, but just think about the God that all this reveals.

One final word. And that’s to any here who any who haven’t yet personally placed their trust in Jesus. Isaiah 53 is incredibly humbling. It’s humbling because this passage shows that there is nothing that we can do to justify ourselves. There’s nothing that we can do to make ourselves right with God. And yet there is great liberty in what we read too. Although there’s nothing we can do, if we humble ourselves, we can receive the great blessings of what the Servant, Jesus Christ, suffered for us. And so tonight, will you come clean? Will you admit that you deserve God’s judgement, God’s hell, like all of us? Will you admit that the solutions you trust in – good deeds or religious activity or anything else – won’t work? Can you see how serious the problem of sin and God’s wrath against it is? Can you see the danger you are in? Then humble yourself and realise that God has done everything you need to have a restored relationship with him. He has taken the punishment for your rebellion against him onto himself so that you might be forgiven. That is why Jesus came.

Let me close with a quote from the Christian writer John Stott:

As I look at the cross I cannot tell which is more apparent – the relentless antagonism of God against our sin and rebellion, or the inextinguishable love of God towards guilty sinners. Both are fully satisfied at the cross. God has done everything necessary for my forgiveness. What then is there left for me to do? Nothing – except to acknowledge my rebellion against God, turn from it, and receive Jesus Christ into my life as my Saviour, committing myself personally to him, and asking God to take my sins away.

Let’s pray.

Book Review: 'Tell the Truth' (Will Metzger, IVP USA)

I have to say I have no idea as to why this book is known so little in the UK. In all of the circles I have moved in: both within UCCF and within a number of evangelical churches, I have never heard it even mentioned. And yet this is probably the best book on personal evangelism I have ever read. I only heard about it through recommendation from the 9Marks website.

Metzger's heart is for genuine evangelism: in other words, he longs to see the gospel taught faithfully within a Biblical framework so that repentance and faith are clearly seen as the proper responses to Jesus' death and resurrection. He longs to see true conversions and new life, which only the Holy Spirit working through the power of God's word can give. And he longs to see evangelism that seeks God's glory and tells people of their utter dependence on God for salvation. Metzger warns against proclaiming a 'partial' or 'packaged' gospel that does not call for the whole person to repent and believe; in their emotions, in their minds and in their wills. He wants to see rebels transformed by God into worshippers of him as the gospel is proclaimed (and includes an excellent chapter on worship).

The first section of the book thinks about what the Biblical gospel is, and contrasts it with the 'me-centred' gospel that is so often pedalled in evangelism. As Metzger writes, 'My plea is that we taste and see the difference between modern evangelism with its methods / me-centred gospel and the historic God-centred gospel.' Fans of John Piper's emphasis on God-centredness will love Metzger's Bible overview (and Piper himself writes a commendation of the book). The section on sin is particularly strong, and Metzger expertly shows that sin can only be understood Biblically as a correlative of God, the soverign Creator. He writes that they need to be 'lovingly shocked' as they are told about their true spiritual position, in rebellion against the God worthy of all glory. Metzger quotes JI Packer on this, 'To be convicted of sin means not just to feel one is an all-around flop but to realise that one has offended God.' And so Metzger advocates strong teaching on the doctrine of God early on in sharing the gospel. Don Carson also commends the approach of teaching the doctrine of God as creator and sovereign in evangelising post-moderns (you can hear an example of this here). Why is this so important? Well, because until unbelievers realise this, they will never see the importance of repenting or the urgency to place trust in the cross of Christ with their whole beings.

Part 2 of the book is entitled 'To the whole person: the gospel to whole people'. This was perhaps the most helpful section of all. A true Christian is one who responds to the gospel intellectually (but not only with head knowledge), emotionally (but only with emotions led by truth) and in the will (as true conviction of sin will lead to a re-orientation of one's life). This section can perhaps best be expressed by one longer quote:

Our desire must be nothing less than to see the whole individual converted. We are looking to God for changed persons, not just a response from one segment of a personality. God's regenerative work is a thorough renewing that involves all the faculties of a mind, emotions and will. Scriptural language calls this a 'new creation', a 'new birth'. People are either saved or lost. To weaken this radical but scriptural cleavage of mankind by suggesting a third category for people is an attack on the biblical doctrine of regeneration. There is no such thing as being a half Christian - for instance, being a Christian but not a 'Spirit-baptised' Christian'; being a 'Christian' but not accepting Jesus as Lord; or being a Christian but living a life continually characterised by being carnal (spiritual adultery).

Part 3 of the book centres on God's grace. In fact, God's grace shocked me once more as I read through this section! Metzger spends time unpacking some of the sections of the gospel, focusing on the account of the rich young man who asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, and the parable of the prodigal son (or better, the parable of the two lost sons) in Luke 15. Both legalism and considering oneself unforgivable are blockers to the gospel of grace in which God calls us to trust. This all leads to a chapter on worship, where Metzger quotes from Piper's 'Let the Nations be Glad' at length, reminding us again that worship of God is the real passion and purpose of evangelism.

The final section of the book looks at personal evangelism, and here Metzger focuses more on method. However, what really impressed me is that the God-centredness that the book has displayed shines through all of the examples and tools that Metzger employs. The gospel outline he advocates (called 'Come Home') is perhaps quite complex for the average person to use in evangelism, but does demonstrate how the Biblical story can be taught faithfully in a few short steps, leading to the challenge to repent and believe with one's whole self. The book concludes with a lengthy set of appendices: including training materials for learning God-centred evangelism, learning the gospel outline 'Come Home', a study guide for the book, and a rather juicy essay called 'Doctrine is not an obscene word'.

'Tell the Truth' was initially published in 1981 (the most recent edition that I read was published in 2002), and as I said at the top of this blog entry, I have no idea as to why this book is unknown to the extent that it is here. I finished the book with a new passion for God's glory and with a new urgency for telling the gospel to others. It might perhaps be considered to be on the lengthy side at 272 pages, but is a must-read for all of those who want to be reminded of God's passion for people as evangeliser, and for those who want to see genuine repentance in unbelievers.