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.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Joy to the world

OK, OK so I know that Christmas-speak is still forbidden for a few weeks more, but I know that many churches and CUs are already planning their carol services. I was asked to write a short article for the UCCF Transmission mailing to staff and Relay Workers, but thought it might be helpful for students too...

Carol services provide brilliant opportunities to present the gospel. Even a small CU not used to doing regular evangelism can often put on this sort of gospel event. Here are a few tips for ‘peace and goodwill’ on the night of your carol service!

1. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL. Students sometimes pressurised to do something ‘new’ in a carol service. They needn’t worry. Traditional carols played in a traditional way (with traditional refreshments afterwards!) are what most punters are after. Make sure there are copies of carol words so that all can join in.

2. ADVERTISING. Advertise widely in CU events for the fortnight preceding. The majority of non-Christians will probably be brought by CU members. Encourage them to bring people en masse! If they invite friends around for food beforehand, it’s often easier to bring them. Flyering is worth doing (maybe with mince pies) but rarely brings the hordes along.

3. VENUE. Because non-Christians are more willing to make an effort to come to a carol service, CUs may have a much wider range of venues to choose from. The event needn’t necessarily be restricted to campus – in fact, it’s often easier to create a traditional feel away from campus. Suitable churches can often be booked by CUs for a small fee. Students might also have ideas for venues. Ambleside CU held their carol service by candlelight a few years ago in National Trust caves: it had a novelty effect and was jam-packed. If there’s more than one CU in town, they might like to team up.

4. INVOLVE OTHER GROUPS. This can guarantee at least a few non-Christians hearing the gospel! Many universities have gospel choirs and chamber groups that might like to be involved. This works particularly well if there’s a few CU members in these groups. If there isn’t adequate musical talent within a CU, involve people from local churches.

5. BRIEF THE SPEAKER WELL. Unfortunately, many speakers don’t automatically think about how to pitch a carol service talk. Liaise with the speaker, clearly explaining what you’re after. A 15-20 minute talk is normally about right. If possible, find out which passage they are using, then make sure there’s a copy for each person. If you’re having a student testimomy (a good idea), then make sure they've gone through it with somebody beforehand.

6. INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS. Carol services are genuine British cultural events, so international students love them! Ensure they are made aware of the carol service. If the venue is off campus, make sure that there’s a map so those less familiar about town can find it.

7. FOLLOW-UP. Follow-up is notoriously hard after carol services. People unconnected to the CU may attend, and the timing of carol services means you may not see people again for weeks. Encourage the CU to talk with their speaker about follow-up. Will the CU give away literature to interested people? Will there be contact cards for people to fill out?

Monday, 5 November 2007

Blindness and sight

I've been going through some files on my computer and found a talk I gave about a year ago on John 9. Funnily enough, Dave Bish has also been blogging a short series on this chapter too. John 9 is a chapter that I dearly love and hold close to me. I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts on my talk.

It’s with some trepidation that I speak tonight on John 9, as I’ve been asked to speak on ‘encountering the blind man’. I’m scared because my most embarrassing moment in Christian ministry involved blindness. I was at another CU, a much smaller one, and I was speaking at the beginning of my talk on why it’s so great to bring a Bible to CU meetings, so you can check what the speaker is saying against the Bible. And I was saying, ‘You don’t have to have a big Bible, it only needs to be a small one.’ To which one girl shouted out, ‘No, I need a big one.’ Now I’m not very good at responding to heckling, but I said, ‘No it’s fine, bring a small one, you don’t need to show off.’ And she said, ‘No, I really do need a big Bible.’ And I said, ‘No a small one will be fine, and if you can’t see the writing, you really need some stronger glasses.’ And, you’ve probably guessed what happened: at the end of the meeting, the girl got up with a white stick tapping around. And I realised what I had done: told a girl who was 70% blind to get some stronger glasses!

Hopefully there will be no embarrassing faux pas of that nature tonight, despite the theme of the talk being blindness. Let’s dive into the passage.

An incredible healing – verses 1-7

The first thing we note from this chapter is that Jesus has incredible healing power. Let's look at the first two verses of our passage. 'As Jesus went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' 'Neither this man nor his parents sinned,' said Jesus, 'but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.'' Do you see what is going on? Jesus is walking along with his disciples and they come across a man born blind. And his disciples use it to ask Jesus a theological question. 'Was this man's blindness the result of some sin he or his parents have committed?' They want to talk about suffering in the world and ask the cause. What's gone wrong with the world, they're asking? Why is this man like this? Maybe he did something wrong or perhaps his parents sinned and he was the one who was punished.

We still sometimes hear this sort of thing in the world today. After the Asian tsunami, on Internet forums and blogs around the world, some people said that it must have particularly been people in those countries that had particularly offended God. Well, of course, Jesus has none of it. ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ says Jesus. Jesus’ words, in common with the rest of the Bible, remind us that suffering and sin are not personally correlated. It’s not that disabled people are particularly sinful, but that they suffer merely as being part of a sinful and broken world.

But then Jesus does an incredible thing. He doesn’t just give a theological answer to the disciples’ questions, but amazingly he heals the man! Did you see verses 6-7, ‘Having said this, he spat on the ground, made some mud with his saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. ‘Go,’ he told him, ‘wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (which is pictured above). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.’

Now I’m not an optician, but I know that this is an incredible miracle! Can you imagine it – blind people able to see just because of a spit and mud combination! It was absolutely incredible!

And incredible as it this story is to us, it would have been even more incredible to those originally there. See a person opening the eyes of the blind was prophesied in the Old Testament, hundreds of years beforehand. See the Jewish conviction was that their God, the God of the Bible, was the one true God. So their Bible starts with Genesis: the God of the Bible is the God who created the world and all who are in the world. And being the Creator means that he is the King. In the world that he has made, God says how things should be. Only, it didn’t look like God was King. If he is King, and he is good, and all he does is right, how come things got so messed up?

So God promised, way back in the Old Testament, written hundreds of years before today’s episode, that he would deal with all of the things that were wrong, and he’d put them right. He’d set up his own kingdom, which would exist eternally and where people would live in perfect harmony with him. And one of the ways in which he’d show the coming of his kingdom was through opening the eyes of the blind. So we can read, for instance, in Isaiah 42, these words:

"I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness."

Do you see the point here? Jesus is doing exactly what had been prophesied hundreds of years earlier. Through opening the eyes of a man born blind, Jesus was showing that he had God’s authority, that he was starting to put the world right again on God’s behalf. See healing had gone on before, but none quite like this. It’s easy to be sceptical about some healings, but this was incredible – the healing of a man that had been blind from birth. The healing was a sign that Jesus was no ordinary man, but that he was God in human form, and that, through his death on the cross, he would bring in the hope of God’s new kingdom, where people could live with God forever.

I guess that on the first reading it appears that John 9 is simply about another amazing healing by Jesus - a man blind from birth is healed. And of course that would be staggering in itself; it would point to Jesus' amazing authority and power as God’s Messiah. But there is more going on in this chapter than even what we’ve seen already. Because, as we read on, Jesus himself makes it clear that this miracle is an acted parable. Just like all of the miracles in John’s Gospel, it’s a signpost to an even bigger truth. And so the given of sight to the man is a real historical event but it's also teaching us a very important spiritual truth.

Responses to Jesus healing #1: the Pharisees – verses 8-34

See the thing that Jesus is teaching us about is the way in which we respond to him as God. In this passage we see different responses.

Firstly, we see the response of the Pharisees, which is mainly recorded in verses 8-34. Because, as you probably picked up on as the passage was read, a farce ensues following the healing. The healing is so amazing that a funny chain of events happens. So we read in verses 8 and 9 that the healing is considered so amazing by some that they think the man who can now see can’t possibly be the man that was blind before! I love the slapstick element to verses 8-9: ‘His neighbours and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, "Isn't this the same man who used to sit and beg?" Some claimed that he was. Others said, "No, he only looks like him." But he himself insisted, "I am the man."’ Poor bloke, having to convince everyone that he’s just him!

But his problems have just begun, because the formerly blind man soon gets hauled up by the religious establishment – verse 13. And the reason for this is that Jesus has already had run-ins with the Pharisees. Read John 8 and you’ll see that the Pharisees were upset because Jesus called them hypocrites and said that they had to rely on him, like everyone else, for their salvation. They didn’t like Jesus’ message.

And now, in spite of the evidence, in spite of the healing of the blind man that pointed to Jesus as God and the very Saviour they claim to be waiting for, they refuse to admit that Jesus might be God. So we read verse 16: "Some of the Pharisees said, 'This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.'" Or verse 24: "A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. 'Give glory to God,' they said. 'We know this man is a sinner.'" Or verse 28: "Then they hurled insults at [the blind man] and said, 'You are this fellow's disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don't even know where he comes from.'" We even get the bizarre case of the Pharisees calling the formerly-blind man’s parents to vouch that he really was born blind.

And the response at the end of it all? Verse 34 follows the man’s testimony of what had happened to him, and they say this: "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they threw him out.’ They result to name calling, both against Jesus and against the blind man. They respond to the sort of prejudice we thought about at the beginning. You were shown to be a sinner by the very fact you were born blind.

Do you see what’s going on here? Why did the Pharisees respond in this way? Was it that they didn’t have enough information to know what had gone on? No – they had more than enough. Information wasn’t what they were short of! They had the man standing right in front of them, proving that Jesus was God. No, they had more than enough information. Why did they reject Jesus? Because they couldn’t cope with him. Jesus was inconvenient to them and the way they lived their lives.

As I said, you can read more about that in chapter 8. Jesus challenged all of their preconceptions. He said that they weren’t right with God just because they were Jewish. He pointed out their hypocrisy and called sin ‘sin’. Jesus got in their way.

And do you know, often people respond to Jesus in a very similar way today. Jesus doesn't fit their mould. He doesn't tick the right boxes. He doesn't say what they think he should say. See the natural human condition is that we are willingly enslaved to sin. Each of us here was the same before we became Christians. We were in slavery to sin, and chose to be like that. It was a moral choice. And I don’t know if you can remember back to before you were a Christian, well perhaps you were offended by Jesus and his message.

A similar thing happened to me last week. I’ve just started catching the train to and from Preston on Fridays – it’s a form of making me feel good and making me think I’m doing something for the environment. So instead of driving on Fridays, I catch the train. Anyway, I’ve noticed that often on the 5.35pm train from Preston, I get opportunities to speak about Jesus. So, this last Friday just gone, I sit down and the guy next to me asks where I’m going. I say, ‘Lancaster’; he says, ‘Oh, poor you, you have a horrible one way system’; I say, ‘Well, there’s worse things in the world’; He says, ‘You don’t sound from your accent that your from up here originally’; I say, ‘No, I lived in Dorset before’; He says, ‘Why did you move up’; I say, ‘Because of my job’; He says, ‘What’s that?’; I say ‘I teach the Bible to students; half of my time with Christians, and half of my time with people who aren’t Christians but who are interested in Jesus’ life and claims.’ He says, ‘Well that’s a bit like me’ – and for the next twenty minutes we talk about Jesus.

However, this is not the end of the story. We’re chatting about Jesus, and then all of a sudden, the man sitting opposite me, a scary Victor Meldrew lookalike decides to weigh into the conversation. His first comment is this: ‘Well, of course, you can’t trust the Bible as it was made up by the church in the 15th Century!’ And I say, ‘No, that’s not true, we have fragments from the NT going right back to the beginning of the 2nd Century.’ And then, a little bit later, he says, ‘Well this all seems important to you.’ I said, ‘Well it’s a matter of eternal life and eternal death how we respond to Jesus and his teaching.’ He then gets to look a little bit uncomfortable and says, ‘Well what is Jesus’ teaching?’ I say, ‘Well, he claimed to come from God and said that we have all ruled God out and need to be forgiven.’ He says, ‘What? I need to be forgiven by God?’ I said, ‘Yes’. He says, ‘What? You’re saying I need to be forgiven?!’ Slightly more angry now. I said, ‘Well, it’s not me saying it! It’s Jesus, God in human form!’ He’s now angry, ‘I don’t need to be forgiven!’ I’m still speaking nicely to him. I said, ‘I’m not saying you’re a nasty person; what I am saying is that you have ruled God out. Can you not think of any way in which you’ve ruled God out and hurt others so that you might need to be forgiven.’ By this time he’s standing up and waving his finger at me. The whole carriage has gone quiet, ‘No. I WANT TO LIVE MY LIFE MY WAY. AND I HAVE DONE NOTHING SO THAT I NEED TO BE FORGIVEN BY GOD.’ At this point, I decide to end the conversation, but unfortunately he decides to carry it on, shouting abuse at me for most of the rest of the journey home.

Now what’s gone on here? Did I say something wrong? No. Was I particularly disrespectful or not gentle? No, I don’t think so. What went on? Well, the man saw something of the gospel, and reacted to it. He wanted to live his life, and he didn’t like being told that he needed to be forgiven by God; that he was sinful. And this is a reaction we will continue to see as we tell others about Jesus; about their sin and their need to be forgiven. As Paul puts it, ‘to some our message is the stench of unbelief.’ And when this happens, it’s not necessarily because we’re doing something wrong. We always assume that it must be our evangelistic method, that we’re doing something wrong. No. It’s that people would rather keep themselves at the centre, and keep living their way, than bow the knee to Jesus. They can't cope with a Jesus who is much bigger than they thought, who challenges their preconceptions and rattles their cages. It's a very humbling experience to come face to face with Jesus and have him challenge everything we stand for and live for. It’s challenging to be told that we need to be forgiven by God. It’s challenging to be told that God is angry with us because of our rebellion. And some react angrily in response.

But that is precisely what Jesus tells us. And do you know the most tragic thing? There is none so blind as those who think they see. And that is exactly Jesus' point at the very end of the story. So, in verse 39, he says: "Jesus said, 'For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.'" Do you see what Jesus is saying? Those who think they can see, those who seek to live life their way on their terms, those who keep rejecting Jesus despite knowing the truth – they are actually the ones who are really blind.

I think this is something that we’re going to need to keep hold of this term. We live in a spiritual battle, and the main need that people have is not information, but it’s a complete change of heart. And this is something we need to remember in order to keep going. See, if I think it’s just a matter of information, then I’m going to lose heart. I’m going to have experiences like the one I had on Friday, unpleasant experiences, and think one of two things. Either, number one – the gospel message is ridiculous, or, more likely, number two – I’m not an evangelist. If I make people angry when I tell them the gospel, maybe I shouldn’t bother. That’s what I immediately thought after my train conversation. But this passage says they are spiritually blind! Even Jesus, the master evangelist, and the most gentle and respectful person who ever lived got an angry response, and so sometimes will we. But it’s because they are spiritually blind, not because we’re doing something wrong.

All this means we mustn’t play the numbers game in evangelism. I have spoken at several university missions now, and the first question people ask afterwards is ‘How successful was the mission?’ And by asking that, they’re really asking, ‘How many people became Christians?’ Now, off of the back of tonight, do you see why that’s wrong? It’s implying that if we do everything right, we can persuade people to become Christians. What’s wrong with that? They’re blind! I can’t unblind blinded eyes – that’s God’s job! So, please, let’s remember this term that successful evangelism is where the gospel is clearly presented and we’re praying for God to do his bit. If this term, the gospel is clearly presented in a faithful way, and we’re praying for God to unblind eyes, that’s successful evangelism. We do our bit, and we leave the rest to God.

Responses to Jesus healing #2: the previously-blind man – verses 35-42

The truth is that sometimes we’re scared God won’t do his bit! But, let me reassure you, God the Holy Spirit has been doing it very successfully for thousands of years and will continue to do so until Jesus returns. See, the counter to the Pharisees showing their blindness, is the previously-blind man, who receives his sight. Of course, physically he receives his sight! But, do you see, he also receives sight in another way! He comes to realise who Jesus is! Do you see the progression in how he describes Jesus? So – verse 11 – he just says ‘the man they call Jesus’; by verse 17, he calls Jesus ‘a prophet’; by verse 33, he says that he’s ‘from God’ and then in verse 38, he realises who Jesus is – the Son of Man, a human given the authority of God to rule; God himself in human form!

So it becomes quite clear that the most significant thing that happened that day was not the blind man receiving his physical sight, but the blind man receiving spiritual sight to see who Jesus is and to bow before him in worship. This man came to see who Jesus was. And in humility he bowed before Jesus and worshipped him. And that is where each one of us needs to bow if we are to receive that sight we so desperately need. Blinded by our own sinfulness and rebellion, we too were unable to know God personally until he made the first move. And he did in Jesus Christ, the light of the world. He came to give us sight, to open our eyes so we can know God personally. And until we acknowledge our sinfulness and accept his rescue of us achieved for us on the cross we will be forever blind, unable to see and know God. But bowing the knee before Jesus, as the man did? Well, that is the mark of someone who has had their eyes opened. And we can join in with John Newton’s words: ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see!’

Let’s be confident. God is well able to open blind eyes. We know he is. We look around this room and there are countless testimonies of how God has given us sight as the gospel has been explained to us. That very same message that causes opposition and anger in some, like that man I met on the train, causes others to have sight. And we know that God is well able to do it. When I got home on Friday, I found myself praying for the scary shouty man. I pray that God will give him sight. Let’s have confidence in explaining the gospel this term, throughout the year and during mission week. People don’t need information, they need a miracle, but God is well able to do it! Let’s keep speaking for Jesus, let’s keep praying for God to give sight, and trust him to do the rest.

An update

Recent busyness has meant that I've not really had time to write much on this page, and so great thanks go to Gareth - both for coming up to visit and partner in the ministry, but also for his entry.

There have been plenty of highlights from the last couple of weeks. Gareth described many of them below. I've found it particularly encouraging to be around the folks from the University of Cumbria CU in Lancaster. It was great to be on their houseparty this weekend just gone. Alex and Julie Kittow opened up the book of Jonah and pitched their material brilliantly. It was awesome again to reflect on the God of grace who welcomes and forgives people just because he is the sort of God who loves to welcome and forgive. Praise God for Jesus and his amazing grace!

I've also been so encouraging by reading CJ Mahaney's Living The Cross Centered Life and JC Ryle's Christian Leaders of the 18th Century. Both are books that exult Jesus and his work on the cross, and also practically show what it means to live in the light of God's grace and his amazing gospel.

The coming weeks are exciting. This coming weekend, I'm heading down south to speak at Bournemouth CU's weekend away. Together we'll be opening Acts 1-8 as we prepare for the upcoming mission in Bournemouth, which I'm also speaking at. There's also a real treat in store on Thursday in Lancaster, as former UVF terrorist Billy McCurrie will be speaking at a lunchbar on the title Why Jesus forgives terrorists like me. Over the next couple of weeks, the evangelistic Bitesize Bible study courses draw to an end - it's been exciting to see how so many have wanted to look into Jesus' life and claims. Hopefully some will choose to follow Jesus for the first time.

As I prepared my Acts talks, I was reminded from Acts 1:1-2 that Jesus is alive and active in the world. Sure, he began to do and teach things climaxing in his death and resurrection, and now he is continuing to change people's lives through the Holy Spirit. It's a real privilege to see the Lord of the Universe at work.

Friday, 2 November 2007

We interrupt this broadcast...

This is not, in fact, Peter, but his friend and temporary houseguest Gareth. I've hijacked Peter's desk and his blog to make up for his lack of recent blogging. I've been in Lancaster on 'holiday' since Monday, so I thought I would tell you all my holiday highlights to give you an outsider's view of life in the frozen north... So, here goes:

Lovely curry, followed by hiding from Peter and Linda's youthgroup (which was a good chance to catch up on X factor gossip)!

9.30am trip to Sainsbury's, followed by a lunchtime CU at Myerscough college. Reliving my Relay days making mischief with Peter's Relay Workers, Sarah and Nick (and helping Sarah fulfill here dream of hunting Mooses on Ultimate Hunting). Spent the afternoon in the library (yay) while Peter did a couple of one-to-ones. Then Pizza in Ambleside and a visit to Ambleside CU (who were discussing the resurrection). Rounded off with a visit to see Lancaster CU people in bar.

Further reliving my Relay days by joining in with relay supervision - exciting stuff from Hebrews 5. Followed by lunch/fun/mischief with Relays, receiving constant threats of violence from Nick. Time for a quick cup of tea with Linda, fish and chips and hiding from trick or treaters, before heading off to Laserquest with the Myerscough boys. This is one of the highlights of my holiday for many reasons: listening to Rock FM to win respect from the boys, only to have them play Leona Lewis, Westlife and McFly; getting two 'shout-outs' on Rock FM; grumpy Scott who wasn't as fun as his job required him to be; Cassie, Katie and Hayley who made the laserquest perfect in every way ("I am completely confused!" "Can we crawl?!" "Can we roll?" "Let's roly-poly!"); getting 16000 points, when one of the girls got -10000; discussing the devil in the car on the way home. Surreal, but lots of fun!

Lie in (finally) followed by some housework, then lunchbar at Lancaster CU (Peter saying something about Jesus and Richard Dawkins, who is no relation to RW Sarah Dawkins apparently). Then steak pie in Asda, with the choice of gravy or no gravy, plus replacing my trousers which were destroyed doing lazerquest. Then I spent the afternoon writing a talk on John 6v35-40, which I then gave at a supper party at Lancaster Uni. I finished the evening at CU number 4, at the University of Cumbria, Lancaster Campus. Lots of fun discussing the crucifixion with some cool people.

Dossing around, waiting for books from Ireland to arrive now Peter has fallen out with IVP. I'm off home shortly, so I'm enjoying this opportunity to reflect on my days of rest and relaxation...

OK, reading this, I sound like a complete saddo, and Peter sounds like a bit of a slave driver - neither completely untrue conclusions. But I've actually had a great week. It's been brilliant to hear the gospel every day (sometimes more than once!). And it's been good to spend time with some lovely people. I'm quite sad I won't be able to go to CU next week. So thank you Peter and Linda for putting me up and entertaining/employing me so well!

Normal service will be resumed shortly...