Last year, I wrote some thoughts about what I felt the events of 2006 meant for Christian outreach. It's interesting to look back at these thoughts a year later.
Some of these themes and trends have continued over the past year. The postmodern mindset is perhaps more pervasive than ever - and so, on campus at least, is scepticism. And Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, was followed in 2007 by other atheistic dogma like Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great.
However, on reflection, there are some other trends that have occurred over 2007 that are perhaps more important for the future of Christian witness.
It's true that issues such as global warming and our use of the planet have been on the back-burner for many years. However, the green agenda has come well and truly to the forefront of many people's minds in 2007. The IPCC's report in February 2007 was just the latest in a series of scientific reports that pointed to the grave realities of global warming and the need to care for the planet. Increasingly, green politics came into effect as well. All three major political parties in Britain now have developed environmental policies. Surveys throughout 2007 have shown that green issues are likely to be a vote-swinger for an increasing number of the British electorate.
Many non-Christians view Christianity - or, more particularly, the Bible's view of the environment - as part of the problem here. A twisted view of theology (twisting the Biblical command for humanity to 'fill the earth and subdue it') combined with modernist Christianity that confused Christian living with Enlightenment ideals (of human progress at all costs) has left Christianity tarnished. Increasingly, many younger people and a handful of older people fail to see the relevance of a God that would allow his creation to be spoiled.
Contemporary Christians face the challenge of clearly thinking about and articulating a Biblical view of the stewardship of creation. It will not do to have a simplistic eschatology where care for the environment is seen as tantamount to moving around deckchairs on the deck of the Titanic. Instead, we must speak about the God who is good, whose creation is good (if cursed by sin) but who has designed humans to be the climax of his creation and for relationship with him.
Community and the Atonement
I've been reading a number of Christian critiques of penal substitution over the past six months, which proliferated in 2007. I'm absolutely convinced that penal substitution is central to an understanding of the gospel. However, what a number of these critiques have pointed to is a very simplistic understanding of the implications of this view of the cross. It's often assumed that if one holds to a penal substitutionary understanding of the cross, that the implications are only for the individual and primarily for the eschatological future. It's therefore seen to be neccesary to drop or adapt our view of the cross to make it more appealing to a culture that wants to see Christianity engaging more in society (and with environmental issues - see above).
Convinced that I am that penal substitution is throroughly Biblical, I'm equally convinced that the implications are much wider than just salvation for the individual. Penal substitution has a lot to say about justice, community and society. It's my hope that we evangelicals understand this more clearly and begin to link our engagement with the world in the light of the cross.
In the light of this, I'm planning (eventually) to blog on the wider implications of penal substituion and the world.
My final observation about 2007 is the growth in therapeutic evangelism: the sort of evangelism that speaks of life being made more comfortable with Jesus. A quick glance at many of the evangelistic sermon texts preached around the world in 2007 shows that this is becoming ever more popular. We're losing the idea that the gospel is public truth for everyone.
I used to be warned by a church leader in Bristol not to reduce gospel preaching to 'spiritual air conditioning', speaking about a gospel that makes life that little bit more comfortable. We'll need to increasingly be on our guard to prevent ourselves slipping into this. Reading Will Metzger's book, Tell the Truth, will be a great start to prevent this!
Monday, 31 December 2007
Last year, I wrote some thoughts about what I felt the events of 2006 meant for Christian outreach. It's interesting to look back at these thoughts a year later.
Wednesday, 26 December 2007
I've been thinking a bit further about gospelling postmodern people and the challenges of the emerging church. More to come in future days.
In the meantime, Ray Ortlund comes up with very helpful advice in responding to the criticism, "That's just your interpretation...". I particularly like his third point: humility and clarity are beautiful when they go together.
Monday, 24 December 2007
At this time of year, as I reflect on the Christmas message, I love taking a mental step back and thinking about what the incarnation reveals about the heart of God.
One of my favourite hymns, I think, captures this excellently. Verses 1 and 2 capture the depths of humility and grace that the incarnation reveals, pre-shadowing the further humiliation and kindness that Jesus would ultimately show in going to the cross.
I commend thinking deeply about these lyrics:
1. Astounding grace, that God the Son should choose
to leave the Father's glory and refuse
to clutch his dignity, exploit his right
and make himself a no-one in our sight.
All praise Christ and his astounding grace,
all praise his name.
2. The word made flesh, the Son of God a man,
the timeless one clothed in a mortal span.
Now born of dust, and in a manger laid:
transcendent God in human likeness made.
3. Astounding grace, that we should enter in;
he tore the veil, and cast away our sin;
he saw our hate, our dark and desperate lust;
he bore our guilt, and then declared us just.
4. Astounding grace, that Christ should suffer death,
and know first-hand the grave's corrupting breath,
the Prince of life, creation's gracious Lord:
he paid the price that we could not afford.
Words: D.A. Carson
Music: Steve James & Philip Percival
If you've never listened to it, let me also commend Mike Cain's sermon on Philippians 2:5-11 to you this Christmas.
Saturday, 22 December 2007
Some more thinking from 1 Timothy 1...
Interesting to note the verses below that draw the chapter to a conclusion:
18Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, 19holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. 20Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.Paul seems to be saying to Timothy that the way in which he's to 'fight the good fight' is - as verse 19 puts it - to hold onto both faith and a good conscience. Note the flow onto the following sentence, which I've put in emphasis above. If we don't hold onto both faith and a good conscience, we're likely to find that our faith is on the rocks.
It's interesting to reflect exactly what it means to hold onto faith and to a good conscience. The word 'faith' is common in 1 Timothy (see 1:2, 1:4, 1:5, 1:14; 2:7, 2:15; 3:9, 3:13; 4:1, 4:6, 4:12; 5:8, 5:9; 6:10, 6:11, 6:12, 6:20). Here, Paul seems to be referring to the gospel message. To hold onto the faith is to watch one's doctrine carefully. To become theologically lax is to endanger one's spiritual health.
It's also important to hold onto a good conscience. This phrase is also found in 1:5 and 3:9 (contrast with 4:2). The reference in chapter 1 shows that a good conscience can come only through the genuine work of the gospel in one's own life - and therefore is an important criterion for spiritual leadership. It seems to refer to having a short account with God and having 'nothing to hide'. Perhaps having a good conscience is tantamount to having no unrepentant sin in one's life and having one's conscience clear in that respect.
Apparently Hymanaeus and Alexander had failed to hold onto these things. We don't know whether their failure was doctrinal or in lifestyle or both. But, nevertheless, their faith was ruined and Paul had instilled some form of apostolic discipline.
I'm personally very grateful for those who help me to watch my doctrine - church leaders, friends and readers of my thoughts here. I'd hope that if I did begin to slip doctrinally that these brothers and sisters would pick me up. The challenge I take from this passage is to make sure that I'm being equally vigorous in my lifestyle and in my godliness. As a leader it's very easy to foster private and public personae. But there's no kidding God - and so one of my prayers for the year ahead is to be able to say that I genuinely am 'holding onto a good conscience.'
Labels: 1 Timothy
Tuesday, 18 December 2007
I've spent some of the past few days sifting through an incredibly weighty amount of literature on the emerging church, in preparation for a seminar I'm giving next year critiquing the emerging church's view of Scripture.
I guess I should make as an immediate caveat that I'm fairly novice to this area of Christendom, and that there seems to be an incredible amount of heterogeneity in what I'm reading. However, there are a few trends that I can see coming through.
The first is an underlying discontent with traditional conservative eschatology. I guess I'm fairly sympathetic with the emergent writers at this point. It seems to me that, since the Reformation, there's been such an effort made to untangle justification and sanctification as two different things (as opposed to the traditional Roman Catholic syncretistic view) that there's an overwhelming emphasis on justification and relatively little said about living as a Christian now. It's a caricature of the view but, it does sometimes seem that conservatives say (remember with good motives in wanting to highlight assurance, and so on), "OK, now we're saved. All we have to do is wait for the Lord Jesus to return." The gospel is caricatured as individual salvation and how to make sure that we avoid hell. Bible study is flattened to make every passage of the Bible say the same as Romans. Sermons are not applied to every day life. And all this has often meant that conservative Christians (and remember I speak as a conservative!) have been slow to be culturally engaged, slow to be involved in politics and slow to be involved in the alleviation of poverty and suffering worldwide.
In my opinion, one of the good things about the charismatic movement is that it seems to often have a fairer emphasis that eternal life has already started once a person becomes a Christian. Yes, we have the certain hope of heaven to come - but the Lord is powerfully at work now by his Spirit to free you from the effects on sin and to make you more like the character of Jesus. A more Biblical balance is that the kingdom of God, that Jesus so often wrote about, is not merely in the eschatological future, but exists now too. And it has implications way beyond just the eternal fate of individuals (although it is not less than this).
But the emergent writers seem to want to take things one step further (in, I think, a knee-jerk reaction to the conservatism I've described). Many of these writers seem unwilling to speak about eternity at all. To them, it's much more important being an authentic Christian now, in the present. Any talk of eternity seems to smack of being too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use. The Bible is reduced to being merely something that is intended to equip God's people for good works. Whether it's authoritative or infallible or inerrant doesn't really matter to these folks - in fact, these discussions are unnecessary and distracting from the task of seeking to live an authentic Christian life.
I think all this misses the point somewhat. There's some helpful critiquing of conservativism here (in particular as we think about our Bible studies and preaching). But wanting to merely see the Bible as a series of artefacts designed to spur us to good works is a flawed position:
- For one, I think it misunderstands what it means to be a Christian. I remember hearing a seminar by Michael Ramsden a couple of years ago (online audio here), where he demonstrated that Christianity is not rooted epistemologically in thinking, existentially in feeling or pragmatically in doing. It's true that we should be known for the things that we do, but Christ did not come to simply tell us how to live. Christianity is rooted in the person of Christ himself, and the life we have, we live in him.
- For another thing, most of the Bible's teaching on how we should live is rooted in doctrinal teaching about God himself (Romans 6:11-14, Colossians 3:1-4, the whole of Ephesians!). To throw out the doctrine leads us into a form of legalism whereby we separate our works now from what Christ has done and the Spirit he has given us.
- The most radical Christian lives are lived with eternity in view. Once I am safe in the knowledge that my eternal place with God is secure, that frees me up to serve others in love. This is the thrust of 2 Corinthians 4-5.
The emerging church - rightly, I think - longs for Christians to engage more and live more lovingly and authentically in the world. It's something I often feel myself. But I think the alternatives that they advocate are a severe case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Monday, 17 December 2007
I'm preparing a series of small group Bible studies on 1 Timothy for next term. Found this gem of a quote from Calvin on 1 Timothy 1:15, which is perhaps particularly appropriate to reflect on at Christmastime:
"Even those who recognize that Christ's work is to save admit that it is more difficult to believe that this salvation belongs to sinners. Our mind is always prone to dwell on our own worthiness and, as soon as our unworthiness becomes apparent, our confidence fails. Thus the more a man feels the burden of his sins, he ought with greater courage to betake himself to Christ, relying on what is here taught, that he came to bring salvation not to the righteous but to sinners."
Sunday, 16 December 2007
This posting is the last of the role of the Law in the Old Testament, providing context for what we read about the Law in the New Testament.
What I have endeavoured to show is that I believe that the Law has a very realistic view of human nature. The very fact that the sacrificial element was included in the Law points to this reality. As Chris Wright writes, ‘Without lessening the great moral absolutes of God’s demand, [the Law takes] full account of man’s moral predicament, ranging from sheer fragility to outright obstinate rebellion. […] The starting point to [walking in the way of the law] was God’s objective provision of atonement and the subjective experience of forgiveness.’
Alongside this, we have also seen that Israel’s fundamental problem in the Old Testament was not just a failure to keep the Law, but also a lack of desire and willingness to keep the Law at all. Israel showed a lack of faith in God. This showed itself in, amongst other things, idolatry, self-righteousness, syncretism and complacency. And for this reason, Israel faced God’s anger.
As that anger played out in the form of judgement and exile, the prophets began to promise a new covenant that would fulfil all of the earlier promises made to God’s people in a new and wonderful way. This new covenant is prophetically described like this (emphasis mine in both passages):
24 "'For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” [Ezekiel 36:24-28]
31 "The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD.
33 "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD.
"For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." [Jeremiah 31:31-34]
Note that the prophesied ‘new covenant’ will deal with the root of Israel’s failings. It will be unconditional (Jeremiah 31:34), with no possibility of being broken by God’s people; an indication that atonement will be made in full. Additionally, it will move the people to willing obedience to God's decrees, because God will put his Spirit in their hearts (Ezekiel 36:27 and Jeremiah 31:33): God will have an ‘internal’ relationship with his people.
Thursday, 13 December 2007
Yesterday the UCCF North West team had an excellent team day, where Mike Smith spoke on the first two centuries of the history of the Church.
I came away from the teaching sessions with a mixture of emotions. The Christianity of the 2nd Century, particularly, seemed a very different expression of Christianity to our own. Part of this was the overt and dynamic persecution of the Church by the Romans. I can hardly imagine what it was like to be a Christian in the culture of fear when at times 10% of Church members were martyred and many more were tortured. I can scarcely take in the sort of pressure that churches must have felt in knowing how to deal with former members of their congregation that had denied Christ under such persecution and torture.
However, no doubt a great deal of the differences between the 2nd and the 21st Century owes to the fact that, nearly two millenia later, we are beneficiaries of the reflections that many godly people have made before us. There were evidently some bright 2nd Century theologians (some of the writings of Justin Martyr cited yesterday appeared particularly brilliant). Yet since then, the minds and souls and reflections of countless Christians (and the ongoing challenge of heresy) has brought us to the depth of theological insight that we have today. For that I am extremely grateful. Beautiful theology helps us to appreciate the beauty of our God. I'm glad that the Christians who have taught me have given me the teaching of grace to combat the deep legalism that many of the 2nd Century Christians grew up with.
However, and above all, the thing that struck me was that, despite their obvious lack of theological depth, the Christians of the 2nd Century really clung to Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. I guess the gospel at that time must have appeared very simple and unpolished, yet proclaimed Jesus as Lord. And the Lordship it proclaimed was to such a depth that folks like Polycarp and Ignatius went willingly to martyrdom. It was the same Lordship that saw Christians take the gospel from the North of England to India to the Sudan in just a few years.
It's true that, theologically, Christians are much more richly fed. Yet I wonder whether we grasp the simple gospel of Jesus Christ as Lord as deeply as our brothers in the 2nd Century.
Labels: Church history
Sunday, 9 December 2007
So far in this series, I've sought to establish the place of the Law in the lives of the Old Testament believers, through looking at what is said about the Law in the Law itself. Now we look at Israel's failure to keep the Law.
Near to the end of his renewal of the covenant with the people in Deuteronomy, Moses pleads with the people of Israel to keep their side of the covenant with God, yet prophetically also seems to recognise their future failure. And so, in addressing the people of Israel, he says in Deuteronomy 29:18-28 (see also 31:16-22 and also Joshua 24:19-20):
18 Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.
19When such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, "I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way." This will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry. 20The LORD will never be willing to forgive him; his wrath and zeal will burn against that man. All the curses written in this book will fall upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. 21The LORD will single him out from all the tribes of Israel for disaster, according to all the curses of the covenant written in this Book of the Law.
22Your children who follow you in later generations and foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities that have fallen on the land and the diseases with which the LORD has afflicted it. 23The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulphur—nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in fierce anger. 24All the nations will ask: "Why has the LORD done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?" 25And the answer will be: "It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt. 26They went off and worshiped other gods and bowed down to them, gods they did not know, gods he had not given them. 27Therefore the LORD's anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. 28In furious anger and in great wrath the LORD uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now."
Note the emphasis on ‘persistence’ in verse 19: the ungodly man says, ‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.’ The sad story of the Old Testament is that corporate Israel persistently and unrepentantly rejected the covenant that God had made with them. It’s not that Israel failed to meet God’s standards – which, of course, they did – but additionally that they refused and abandoned any idea of living by these standards at all. Particularly, as the sweep of Israel’s history goes on, we see an increasingly complacent community: a nation who thought they were immune from judgement because they were God’s covenant people. They had forgotten that the blessings of the covenant were conditional on their own commitment to obedience.
And so, for instance, we read in Psalm 78:9-10:
9 The men of Ephraim, though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle;
10 they did not keep God's covenant and refused to live by his law.
Israel also becomes an increasingly self-righteous group of people, even after the division of the nation, who legalistically sacrifice but have no intention of obeying the rest of the Law. Isaiah 1:11-17 uses strong language – God says he ‘hates’ the sacrifices brought to him (they have become ‘meaningless’) even though he instituted the sacrificial system, because they are not accompanied by obedience (see verses 16-17):
11 "The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?" says the LORD.
"I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations — I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even
if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; 16 wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong, 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.
Idolatry is also a regular feature of the life of the nation; for example, Jeremiah 2 has devastating words illustrating both the level of unfaithfulness to the LORD and a foolish complacency with it:
4 Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, all you clans of the house of Israel.
5 This is what the LORD says: "What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.
6 They did not ask, 'Where is the LORD, who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of deserts and rifts, a land of drought and darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives?'
7 I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.
8 The priests did not ask, 'Where is the LORD?' Those who deal with the law did not know me; the leaders rebelled against me. The prophets prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols.
9 "Therefore I bring charges against you again," declares the LORD. "And I will bring charges against your children's children.
10 Cross over to the coasts of Kittim and look, send to Kedar and observe closely; see if there has ever been anything like this:
11 Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.
12 Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror," declares the LORD.
13 "My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
34 On your clothes men find the lifeblood of the innocent poor, though you did not catch them breaking in. Yet in spite of all this 35you say, 'I am innocent; he is not angry with me.' But I will pass judgment on you because you say, 'I have not sinned.'
36 Why do you go about so much, changing your ways? You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria. 37 You will also leave that place with your hands on your head, for the LORD has rejected those you trust; you will not be helped by them.
Again, I'd want to emphasise that it was not that Israel failed to measure up to God’s standard in a legalistic sense (which, of course, they did not); rather, we see the nation completely forgetting the grace they had been shown in their redemption, and snubbing the God that had shown them such grace. This ultimately led to the exile, just as Moses had warned it would in Deuteronomy 29. There are high points in Israel’s history – such as the ‘rediscovery’ of the Law by Ezra and the exiles in Nehemiah 8 – but the over-riding sad story of the Old Testament is the rejection of the covenant by God’s people.
Wednesday, 5 December 2007
Here's the text of a talk I gave at Liverpool CU on Daniel 5. Any comments would be very welcome.
I guess all of us here will have heard the story of the famous ship, the RMS Titanic, which crashed into an iceberg at on the night of April 12th 1912. In an accident which has become legendary, around about 1500 people died on her maiden journey, making it one of the worst peacetime maritime tragedies in history. The disaster has also made a group of people very rich and very famous off of the back of the film. Perhaps you’ve now got the Celine Dion soundtrack running through your head!
I think that the story of the Titanic is popular because it’s something of a parable for human pride. Part of a series of luxury ships, it was infamously deemed ‘unsinkable’ by those who made it. In fact, the claim was apparently made that not even God would manage to sink the Titanic. And one of the reasons that the death toll for the accident was so high was that as they believed the ship to be unsinkable, many passengers chose not to enter the lifeboats, and went down with the ship. That very detail was caught very well in James Cameron’s film. Well, tonight’s passage is another true story about human pride, and where it leads.
As Daniel 5 opens, the narrative has moved on at least 24 years from Chapter 4. It’s now the evening of October 12th 539BC. Nebuchadnezzar’s reign has ended, and a number of kings have ruled Babylon in the meantime. It’s the last year of Belshazzar’s reign – in fact, it’s the last night of his life. Technically, it’s Belshazzar’s father, Nabonidus, who is king. But Belshazzar has been positioned as co-regent of the city of Babylon. He’s been given the responsibility hold the capital against the invading forces, and has been given all the benefits of kingly authority, whilst his father marches north for a long campaign fighting the Medes and the Persians under Cyrus and Darius. Belshazzar probably doesn’t know that defeat is staring his father, King Nabonidus, in the face. Regardless, as the chapter opens, he’s hosting a massive drunken party, seemingly without a care in the world.
Verse 1 tells us that this was a particularly exuberant knees-up to which, it appears, at least a thousand guests had been invited. The custom at oriental feasts was for the king and the rest of the royal party to sit on a raised platform, above the guests. Babylonian feasts were always dedicated to the name of some god. In this party, however, Belshazzar and his party guests cried toast after toast to each god, probably not wanting to offend any of them by omitting them. As verse 4 puts it, ‘as they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.’ And as they got increasingly drunk, Belshazzar gave the order to ‘bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem’, as we read in verse 2. We’ve already read about these items in Daniel 1. Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar’s predecessor as head of state, had brought these items back to Babylon when he sacked Jerusalem. These goblets were special. Those of you who’ve read other parts of the Old Testament will know that these were the very silver cups that caught the blood from the neck of the lambs that were sacrificed for the sins of the people. They were holy items designed for a holy purpose.
So why is Belshazzar treating these holy items in such a way? Commentators disagree. It could be by through disgracing the LORD, the God of the Jews, that Belshazzar thought that his pagan gods might be pleased. At any rate, the passage makes it clear that Belshazzar is showing his contempt for the LORD, the God of the Jews, with his pagan partying. The holy and ceremonial cups have been reduced to use in a drunken orgy. Verses 8-9 show that he should have known better.
As Belshazzar and his buddies were drunkenly toasting their gods from these goblets, ‘suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace’ (verse 5). A ghostly hand suddenly and mysteriously appears and writes a message on the wall of the palace. The king’s evening is ruined. Verse 6: ‘his face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.’ Belshazzar is turned into a gibbering wreck.
Well the king immediately calls for the usual suspects: the enchanters, the astrologers, the diviners and the wise men. Those of us who’ve been to CU regularly this term or who’ve read this far in the book of Daniel know this is already a bad move. These folks have appeared several times before throughout the book, and have proved to be utterly useless on each occasion. And it's interesting to note that whilst Belshazzar was terrified, the experts are merely baffled. We're told that they couldn't even read the writing, let alone explain it. Perhaps the words were written in a code. But perhaps the advisors were unable to decipher the writing because they couldn't actually see it. Perhaps, it was, in fact, all in Belshazzar's head. A vision that he alone could see. It must have made a strange and comic scene for the original Jewish readers of this book.
Well, only one person keeps her presence of mind in all this: the queen mother, in verse 10. Given her evident authority she is unlikely to have actually been one of Belshazzar's wives. She may well have been the wife or daughter of Nebuchadnezzar himself, given her familiarity with the events of his reign, and frequent harking back to ‘the good old days’ of when Nebuchadnezzar was king. Daniel's abilities had clearly left a deep impression on her as she recalled them such a long time later. So she suggests to the king that Daniel be called in, and in due course our hero appears.
It's ironic, isn't it, that even in the midst of Belshazzar's rejection of the LORD, the God of the Jews, when the crisis comes it is to a Jewish prophet who serves the LORD that Belshazzar turns. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at such hypocrisy. Even the most sceptical critic of Christianity can be found crying out to God when a crisis befalls them. When the chips are down, God is so real that when all our pretensions are swept away, when we find that he is the only thing we have left.
Well, Daniel is finally found. The authorities knock on his door and he rubs the sleep out of his eyes and they bring him to meet the mightiest man in the world; the man whom he has loyally served for years but never spoken to. When Daniel went to bed that night, I guess he couldn’t have imagined that within hours he would have to be ready to give an answer for the reason of the hope he held when asked by the king. He probably hasn’t been into the royal court in three decades. But he’s ready nonetheless. And so he refuses the pleasantries, saying ‘give your rewards to someone else’ (verse 17). He’s not going to make a quick dollar for the honour of serving the word of God. Daniel takes command of the entire situation and from the start speaks with a calm authority.
God's prophet begins by reminding Belshazzar, his nobles, his wives and all his concubines of how God had dealt with Nebuchadnezzar. We already know the story, because we’ve read the previous chapter! Nebuchadnezzar had done whatever he wanted. As verse 19 puts it, ‘those the king wanted to put to death, he put to death; those he wanted to spare, he spared.’ He dominated the world absolutely. Then, at the height of his arrogance and ‘hardened with pride’, God intervened and humbled Nebuchadnezzar as never a man has been humbled. “He was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. He was driven away from people and given the mind of an animal ... until he acknowledged the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes.” Daniel displays no fear as he recalls to Belshazzar what was probably a hushed-up story regarding the fall of his predecessor.
Then, having hammered that point home, Daniel directs his next words to Belshazzar himself: “But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this” (verse 22). In other words, "You knew, Belshazzar! How could you forget that King Nebuchadnezzar lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like cattle; whose body was drenched with the dew?! You knew all this Belshazzar, and so why haven’t you humbled yourself before the LORD knowing that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God?" Belshazzar has no excuse. He knew what had happend to Nebuchadnezzar, yet he refused to humble himself before God. And there is no second chance for him; he's already been given his chance - and he’s blown it.
And so Daniel continues: "Instead you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven - taking God's goblets from the temple and getting drunk, with your women and praising your idols of gold, bronze, iron, wood and stone. You did not honour the Lord who holds your life and all your ways in his hands" (verses 23-24). The courage Daniel had displayed as a student is rekindled, despite now being an old man. And so he tells it straight: it is because of Belshazzar's sin of failing to humble himself and to honour God that those words written on the wall had come to the king. I don’t think that Belshazzar is shown by the passage to be a particularly sinful person. But the passage leaves us in no doubt nonetheless: Belshazzar is arrogant. He’s arrogant to the extent that he’ll stick two fingers up at the God of the Universe.
Perhaps part of us asks this: what is God’s issue? Why is he so bothered about us treating him properly, about us worshipping him? It seems to smack of dictators that have read Nietszche, who say ‘worship me or die’. But the difference is that the way we were created is to worship God. Imagine if I stood up tonight and said, ‘Students in Liverpool: worship me.’ Well, that would be ugly. Why? Because it’s a delusion. I’m not at the centre of the Universe. It’s ugly because it’s untrue. But God really is at the centre of the Universe. He has the absolute right to call the shots and when we rebel against him, the universe is thrown into moral chaos. And that’s why God is so concerned with people that rebel against him, people like Belshazzar. God’s own universe is being continually more ruined as people live in a way they were never created to live.
Anyway, in time, Daniel opens up the meaning of the words on the wall. “This is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN.” Three strange words: the first is MENE – ‘numbered’ – for “God has numbered the days of your reign”. ‘MENE’ is a word Belshazzar would have known well. It has the idea of keeping accounts. I guess that Belshazzar would have kept a close eye on the records that the civil servants of Babylon sent him. He would have checked how taxes were being paid. He would have kept a record of the behaviour of his people, and known how the judges were judged. In other words, he would have kept accounts, and counted income and expenditure. And now, says Daniel, the LORD, the King of the Universe has done the same to you. He has weighed you up.
The second word TEKEL means 'shekel'. A shekel is used both as a coin and as a weight; a bit like the word ‘pound’. And so Daniel says, “Belshazzar, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting” (verse 27). God numbers every day of our lives, but God also weighs a life. And now God has weighed Belshazzar’s life, he’s put him on the market scales – and Belshazzar is found to be deficient. He doesn’t tip the balance. His life is shallow, empty and flimsy, despite its famous name, wealth and recorded achievements. And in particular, there is no concern for the God of the Universe’s glory at it’s heart. Rather, Daniel says, “you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven” (verse 23). All this reminds us that all people must appear before God to be weighed by him. This is a moral universe, and we are made by God, in God’s image, and for God. Now Belshazzar must face the consequences for the life he has lived.
The third word is PARSIN. When Daniel gives the interpetation he uses the singular form 'peres' (verse 28). The word ‘peres’ means ‘divided’. A conqueror will divide up the nation in judgement. Belshazzar had more than most men could dream of, and the lifestyle that went with it. Yet his worst enemies, the Medes and Persians, were going to seize it all.
And so the writing on the wall spells this for Belshazzar: I have your number – and it’s come up short; I’ve weighed you – and you come up light; therefore, your kingdom will be taken away and divided.
So, what happened next? Well, history tells us that very night, 12th October 539BC, the army of the Medes and Persians swept into Babylon. There was hardly any resistance as the people slipped away quietly and handed it over to the invaders. A superpower that whimpered to its death, something akin to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. And that night Belshazzar lay as a corpse in his palace. The LORD had said to him, just as God said to the rich young fool in Jesus’ parable: ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ As Jesus warned, just as people raise their glasses and say ‘peace and safety’, thinking everything is OK, sudden destruction will come. And so we have the grim conclusion of this passage: the king is lying dead just six hours later. It’s such a tragic ending: Belshazzar lying dead amidst the temple goblets from Jerusalem, the dregs of the wine still in his stomach and spilled upon the floor. What was his life with its drinking, feasting and all its pleasures - what was that worth when it was weighed by God? Empty, noisy, and quickly over.
And so what does this chapter teach us? Surely, it’s this: you can set yourself up against God in any way you like, but it doesn't alter the fact that he is not an imaginary or distant irrelevance. He has our very life in his hands. Many people show their contempt for God and the gospel of Jesus outwardly like Belshazzar. Others set their hearts up against the LORD much more subtly. They go through the motions of Christianity, coming to church or CU, taking communion, even praying to God, but in the end never humbling themselves before him. They say to God, ‘This far and no further.’ They’ll obey God whilst what he asks is the same as what they want; but when he asks for something against their will, they’ll arrogantly stand up against him. Sometimes it’s a job, or a boyfriend, or just a comfortable life that comes along – and then the LORD ends up taking a back seat. And Jesus’ teaching to the Pharisees made it very clear: to profess faith in God but to have no humility before him is to have contempt just as surely as to slag him off in public. It’s possible to be very religious and yet for verse 23 to describe you: ‘you do not honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.’ But if a person sets themselves up against God, they need to realise that one day he will bring their life to an end. One person once put it to me like this: there is a final page in your book; does it say ‘The End’ or does it say ‘To Be Continued’? This passage reminds us that this hangs on the answer we give to this question: Do you walk humbly with your God? Or as the New Testament might phrase it: Have you repented yet? One day we are going to have to face up to God. And, like Belshazzar, it might be sooner than you think. That very night he was slain. For all we know, we might have as little time left as Belshazzar had on that night.
Well, the New Testament tells us that the weight of our lives, like Belshazzar, shows that we have fallen short. The Bible is clear that on the moral balance we have no weight of goodness, no weight of righteousness. Our sins are too great, our rejection of God too complete. It’s as if our sin sits on the other side: like lead weights inevitably pulling the scales down. Not a single one of us here tonight would be able to tip the balance in our favour. There is only one way we can pass the test: only if we are in Christ. For, if we are in Christ then it is his moral weight that will be measured as ours, his perfection. In addition, when he died on that cross he was weighed against our sin; it's already been dealt with, so in Christ our only weight is the weight of his goodness. How can we find ourselves ‘in Christ’? Only by humbling ourselves before God. This is the difference between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar: the former humbled himself; the latter refused to honour God. Turning back to God in repentance – saying “I'm wrong and you are right” – is perhaps the hardest thing we will ever do, such is the depth of our pride. Certainly for Nebuchadnezzar God took the most extraordinary and extreme measures finally to humble him. But what's the alternative? Belshazzar shows us that the other options are not too attractive.
And so, chillingly, I think Daniel 5 challenges us with the words of Jesus, that we can read in Luke 21:34: ‘Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.’ Ultimately Belshazzar died as he lived, without God and without hope in the world. Though he had all the wealth that people dream of, he refused the opportunities throughout his life given to him by the LORD to confess his sin and seek his mercy. And then it was too late.
And so let’s take the step back to see the God that this chapter reveals. Firstly, he’s the God that keeps his word. Back in chapter 2, as Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the huge statue, you’ll have seen how the LORD predicted the end of the Babylonian Empire. And this chapter records the end of one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen. Secondly, he’s the God that remains. This chapter reminds us God’s enemies will not succeed. Evil will not have the last say in God’s Universe. Justice will be done – and we long for that day. But perhaps above all tonight we need to remember that God is the Reality at the centre of the Universe. He will reign forever and his kingdom will last forever. And so we need to ask ourselves: will we be part of his kingdom? There is a division coming for all mankind. We opened by thinking about the Titanic. Well, the iceberg of God’s judgement is coming. At the Day of Judgement all who have rejected God's Word in whatever way they have known it will not be entering Heaven but will face an eternity without God. In John 5:24, Jesus said, “Whoever hears my Word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned but has already passed from death unto life.” What an incentive to urgently warn other people – those people who are proudly too stubborn to get into the lifeboat given in Jesus because they don’t think an iceberg is coming. And what an incentive tonight to repent and believe in Jesus.
Tuesday, 4 December 2007
Monday, 3 December 2007
My friend Gareth Leaney is introducing people to the true meaning of Christmas through his 'Audio Advent Calendar'. I think we must always be thinking about new ways to present the wonder of the Christmas message, particularly to those for whom it is all completely new.
You can join Gareth at his calendar at http://www.audioadvent.podomatic.com/.