Four reasons to preach from the Old Testament.


“From every town, village, and little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London… and so from every text in Scripture there is a
road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ. Your business is, when you get to a text, to say, ‘Now, what is the road to Christ?’ and then preach a sermon, running along the road towards the great metropolis. “1

Charles Spurgeon thus challenges preachers to regard any part of the Bible as a place from which to preach Christ, including (we presume) Deuteronomy, Job and Jonah.

But how many sermons on Deuteronomy or Job have your heard in evangelical churches, and how many on the gospels, Acts or epistles? A brief survey of sermons published on the web in the UK in the last year suggested that 90% of sermons even in churches that follow a systematic Bible-based programme are based on New Testament texts. So only one in ten sermons is based on over three-quarters of the Bible.

This is not surprising. The gospels especially have a special attraction for Christian preachers who rightly want to “preach Christ”. The Old Testament includes lengthy historical, ethical and prophetic books that are intimidating to most preachers. A preacher may want to preach more Old Testament, but fear the reaction of their congregation if they do. The Old Testament spans a much greater period of history, and therefore raises many more questions of culture and interpretation, than the New. The Old Testament has been on the receiving end of greater criticism of its historical reliability than the New: did Noah’s flood happen, or the Exodus, or Jonah’s escape from the fish, or Job’s suffering? The God of the Old Testament is accused of being violent and moralistic, where Jesus in the New Testament is seen by contrast as merciful and liberating.

Nonetheless I have personally found it deeply enriching to my love of Christ to preach often from the Old Testament, and I believe our congregation have felt the same! In the church of which I became pastor a year ago, we have enjoyed series in Daniel, Ruth, Genesis 12-20 and the early Psalms. Then, having completed a series of seven sermons on Ecclesiastes this autumn prior to Advent (which itself presents so many canonical prophetic opportunities, especially in Isaiah 7-12), we embark upon Exodus 1-18 through New Year and Lent to Easter.

Even so I find we only preached about 30% of sermons this year from Old Testament texts, but it has been a healthy step in the right direction.

The subject of how to preach Christian sermons from the Old Testament is the subject of several great books. But to answer the question why preach more from the Old Testament, here are four reasons:

Jesus and the apostles preach from it.
Jesus came, the Synoptic gospels agree, to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. Although it can be debated exactly what that entailed, it seems a good place to start to examine the recorded teaching of Jesus in the same gospels for the detail. Matthew especially is generally agreed to place special emphasis upon Jesus as a teacher/preacher, and to be perhaps a manual for pastors/preachers to follow. So how does Jesus preach according to Matthew? Often by reference to or explanation of the Old Testament, and most clearly in the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). Here it is that Jesus importantly preaches, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets: I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus interprets the Law in new ways, bringing ‘new wine’ as well as continuity. He does not simply parrot Scripture without explaining its true meaning, but like the apostles in Acts later, Jesus preaches from His “Bible”, the Old Testament.

The gospel is revealed in it.
Paul says that the Scriptures are God-breathed and able to make us wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15-16). Jesus says that the Scriptures “testify about me” (John 5:39). Although there is some debate amongst evangelical theologians about how assiduously one should “Look for Christ” in every Old Testament text, it is clear not only that the gospel is in the Old Testament but so is Christ. The rediscovery of Biblical theology as a discipline in the last generation has recovered confidence that the whole Bible points to God’s saving work in Christ. On the road to Emmaus Jesus opens “the Scriptures” (the Old Testament) to his disciples, beginning with Moses and all the prophets to show what they said “concerning himself” (Luke 24:27, 32, 44-45). The gospel pattern of human fall and divine redemption is repeated again and again in Genesis-2 Kings and epitomised in the experiences of the Psalmist, Job and many others. The search for a king and a restored kingdom for God’s people emerges in Samuel and the prophets, and leaves us with the longing for Christ. Adam, Moses, Joshua, David and others act as “types” that prepare us for Him. So preach the Old Testament with Christ as the “prism” (Sinclair B Ferguson’s happy image2) and the gospel will shine from it.

The New Testament is interpreted by it. 
Whilst we cannot fully understand the Old Testament without the New, the reverse is also true. What did Jesus mean by claiming in Mark 10 to be the servant of God and ransom for many? Or in John to be the bread of life, good shepherd, and light of the world? If we don’t preach Isaiah and Exodus, just to pick two of the most important Old Testament texts, we will leave New Testament readers in the dark. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 can easily be shown to interpret the Old Testament in light of the New, but it also does the reverse. The meaning of the Pentecost signs (disciples speaking in languages/tongues)  is that Christ has been exalted; and the dramatic events witnessed in his life, death and resurrection are explained in Joel 2. Why is sacrifice, priesthood and atonement so important to the writer of Hebrews? If we don’t preach Leviticus and Deuteronomy we will not really know. So preach the Old Testament and your congregation will have a richer grasp of the New. Not only that…

The gospel is impoverished without it.
It was the early church teacher Marcion who tried to argue that Christianity does not need the Old Testament, and that attempt to cut loose from Scripture’s moorings found sinister embodiment last century in Hitler’s anti-Semitic ideology. Modern versions of Marcionism write off the Old Testament as portraying God as immoral and vindictive. So why can’t we just carry a New Testament in our pocket and do away with the Old?

The answer? Because so many examples from the Old Testament highlight both the depths of human depravity and the heights of God’s grace that preaching them adds colour and beauty to the gospel of Christ. What does the fulfilment of a promise mean to us if we don’t appreciate what the promise was? How much more can we worship Christ as the antitype of Old Testament types if we preach those types and their fulfilment? How can we rejoice that men and women of faith such as Abraham, Moses and Rahab are justified and sanctified along with us by faith in the promised Saviour, as Romans 4 and Hebrews 11 tell us? The Old Testament gives us so many sparkling jewels that adorn the gospel’s crown and without which it loses its lustre.

Brothers and sisters, let’s preach the Old Testament, and through it the gospel about Christ, and we will see God’s people become more wise for salvation.

Footnotes
1 C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “Christ Precious to Believers” in “The New Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit”(Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994 reprint).

2 Sinclair B Ferguson,  “Preaching Christ from the Old Testament” , in Part 4

Further reading

Bryan Chappell, “A Redemptive Approach to Preaching”, in his “Christ-centred Preaching”  (Baker Books, 1994)

Ed Clowney, “Preaching Christ in All of Scripture” (Crossway, 2003)

J. Ligon Duncan III, “Preaching Christ from the Old Testament”,  in “Preaching the Cross”, Eds Mark Dever, J. Ligon Duncan III, R. Albert Mohler Jr, C.J. Mahaney (Crossway, 2007)

Sinclair B. Ferguson Preaching Christ from the Old Testament , (in ten parts),  August 2014

Sidney Greidanus, “Preaching Christ from the Old Testament” (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999)

R. Albert Mohler Jr, “Studying the Scriptures and Finding Jesus (John 5:31-47), in “The Scriptures Testify About Me: Jesus and the Gospel in the Old Testament”, Ed. D.A. Carson (Crossway, 2013)

Alec Motyer, “Look to the Rock” (IVP, 1996)

 

Advertisements

What has Qoheleth to do with Camus? Rethinking the message of Ecclesiastes

Ahead of a sermon series on Ecclesiastes I gathered our preaching team to discuss its message and how to preach from this book.

I had been heavily influenced by Derek Kidner’s excellent book, in particular his view of Ecclesiastes as preparing us for Christ through exposing the meaninglessness of this life.  To my surprise, but confirming an unease I had about seeing Ecclesiastes as modern nihilism before its time, I was forced to rethink this interpretation by other material and by a closer look at the text.

In preparing for the team session I sent round some notes, which reflected this question I have about the “Ecclesiastes as pessimist” approach and its accuracy to the text in context. Below is the content of the paper sent to our preachers.

Who wrote the book?

Any of the substantial commentaries review this question thoroughly.

More sceptical writers assign the book to post-exile, pointing to its allegedly late Hebrew style and on the debatable basis of its sceptical message.

However the royal/court language, and apparent context of a time of peace and blessing in Israel/Judah suggests rather that the origin is at least pre-exilic and perhaps close to or among the royal family. I am persuaded that the author could quite easily be Solomon himself, since the links between the themes and message of the book and the events recorded of his reign, especially in 1 Kings 4 and 8, are so strong. The closest link of the title “Ecclesiastes” (literally, “the gatherer of the people”) is also to Solomon in 1 Kings 8:1, 5, 22) (the verb “to assemble”; the noun “assembly” = qahal (Heb.) = ecclesia (Gk)).

 

What is the purpose of the book?

See the excellent article by Philip H Eveson who first reviews the history of interpretation and then gives his view of why the author is writing. Also the detailed work in Daniel C Fredericks (Apollos OTC).

Three readings which Eveson (to me, with very well-argued reasons) is critical of:

Ecclesiastes as apologetics: moving the hearer along a pathway towards conviction of their need of God (see eg Eaton, TOTC).

Ecclesiastes as regretful testimony: Solomon in old age is repenting of living for this world and forgetting God. Again, the text as a whole does not seem to support this – 12:8-14 is not a contrast to the previous tone of the book but rather (in the third person now) a summary of its consistent message.

Ecclesiastes as pessimism preparing us for hope (Kidner, Tremper Longman). Both authors, excellent in much textual commentary, take the view that Ecclesiastes is about the “meaningless” of life IF lived without God. Von Rad goes as far as to describe Qoheleth as a bitter sceptic, “suspended over the pit of despair”. This interpretation hinges on these writers’ (disputed) translation of the word “hebel” as meaningless (on which see below).

So here is the interpretation I find most faithful to the text of this remarkable book:

Ecclesiastes as wisdom for the life of faith in the real world. It is written to be a corrective to naïve interpretations of the promises of Proverbs and Deuteronomy – the false teaching that there is a simple link of righteousness and blessing, “do good and God will bless you”. It is a reaction to simplistic views of the world of faith, rather as Job is to simplistic answers to the presence of suffering. Ecclesiastes is observing that it is not always so “under the sun”, in this life; but that does NOT mean that righteousness, the fear of God is not still the wisest and best course, or that much in this life is not to be enjoyed for its own sake.

 

In support of this fourth interpretation, Eveson helpfully discusses the meaning of the key repeated word “hebel”. His argument, convincingly to me, is that it consistently means “transient/temporary”, “short-lived” or “vain”. It should not be taken to imply “meaningless” (as NIV unfortunately translates it). The related noun means “breath”. A great deal of how we read and preach Ecclesiastes hangs upon which way we go on this translation of the Hebrew, and as I understand it, the weight of evidence falls upon the meaning being “temporary/transient”, not “meaningless”.

The two related phrases of Qoheleth, “under the sun” and “chasing after the wind” make this same point – not that life is pointless without God, but that this life is short – with or without him . Eveson makes the excellent point that, writing nearly 3000 years ago, we should not read his work as if coming from the pen of an enlightenment or post-modern philosopher musing on the “meaninglessness” of life – a very “modern” question. As Provan put it, “Qoheleth is not Camus”.

Rather we should read him in historical and Biblical context as a writer of wisdom for life. He is teaching us how to order personal life and surroundings according to the teaching of Scripture.

So we should almost certainly translate “hebel” as “transient” or “temporary”, and see the writer as giving us an honest evaluation of how life is experienced, as temporary and short-lived, despite its moments of joy coming from the goodness of God. The value of anything in this life is therefore real, but short-lived, and so there is nothing better than to “fear God and keep his commandments” in light of eternity.

 

What are the main messages and themes?

The creation and its fallenness. Contrary to some commentators, Ecclesiastes is full of references to other parts of the Bible, especially to Genesis 2 and 3. Creation is celebrated in its potentiality and diversity, but is also mourned over in its decay and transience. “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (3:20) directly seems to quote Genesis 3:19.

The relevance of this today is multiple: it is a critique of materialism (the present is not our ultimate hope or home); also of the health and wealth gospel (God does not promise perfect life or health); it refreshes us that the Bible describes life not with rose-tinted spectacles (as sceptics accuse) but as it really is, a mixture of life and decay; it helps us to have realistic expectations of life and God, and so is an antidote to disappointment with God when things “go wrong”.

Time and its brevity. Along with the key word, “hebel” described above, other common ideas are the short and cyclic “seasons” of life (especially in the famous poem of ch. 3), the idea of how “few” or short are our years on earth, and the reality of ageing (11:7-12:7) Parallel teaching that this life is short and temporary are found throughout the OT and NT (Isaiah 40:6; Psalm 39:4-6, Psalm 90:12; Job 7:6-7 & 14:5 James 4:14.)

Other key themes which seem self-explanatory upon reading the book are:

Wisdom lies in doing what is good

Contrast of good and evil

Joy and pleasure (a bigger theme than many commentators acknowledge)

Sovereignty and responsibility (God gives good gifts, time and wisdom, but his ways are ultimately above comprehension for us, and it is best to seek godliness, not understanding)

Where is Jesus in Ecclesiastes?

We have a gospel as NT believers and our task as preachers is to teach the message of the book (see some ideas on that above), and also how it points ahead to Christ.

Jesus entered our fallen world and suffered its futility like us. He suffered death to take the curse of sin (mortality) on our behalf, releasing us from its ultimate grip and giving the hope of resurrection that makes the temporary and fruitless nature of this life look pale (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). So our realism is mixed with hope.

This life, as Ecclesiastes says, makes us yearn with creation for eternity, for something that lasts, just as Romans 8:18-24 teaches. In Christ we know that redemption is coming not just for our mortal bodies but for all of creation, and it is secure through the love of Christ – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Him. We groan, but without yearning; we grieve, but not as those without hope (1 Cor. 15; 1 Thess. 4:1-12). The Preacher prepares us for the resurrection by making us face the brevity of this life.

Eveson’s concluding section entitled “The Preaching” expands some of these ideas.

Structure of the book

Again much-debated: some say there is none owing to the repetitive/cyclic nature of material! Subsections are listed by commentators, totalling anything from 12 to 36! Fredericks gives a useful structure in around 13 sections.

However AG Wright came up with this one in 1968 which has been very helpful:

1:1-11           Prologue

1:12-6:9        Part One: Intro followed by six sections each beginning “vanity” or “chasing the wind”

6:10-11:6      Part Two: Meditation on the themes of “who can find out?”/”who can know?  – the elusiveness and value of wisdom

11:7-12:7     Poem on youth/old age

12:8-14        Epilogue in the third person

(see Murphy (below) p.xxxviii)

What are the best commentaries or articles to help preachers?

 

Article, “Preaching from Ecclesiastes” Philip H Eveson

 

Best commentary:

Daniel Fredericks, “Ecclesiastes” in Apollos OTC  Vol. 16

 

Others (shortest to longest)

Goldsworthy (in Gospel and Wisdom) good overall summary, though sees no sequence to the book and thinks author is later than Solomon

Kidner (BST) – good, excellent on meaning of verses, but see above comments on the purpose of the book

Michael A Eaton (IVP OTC) – good solid reference; but see comments on message/purpose above

David Gibson “Living Life Backward” – helpful on the frustration theme and NT fulfilment.

Roland Murphy (Word) – very good on pre-critical interpretation of the book, structure and textual work – a bit more technical. Takes a similar line to Eveson & Fredericks on “hebel

Philip Graham Ryken (Preaching the Word series) – good on application and finding Jesus in Ecclesiastes; but see comments on message/purpose above

Tremper Longman (NICOT) – solid; but see comments above

Ten books to recommend to a new Christian

Have you ever wished you had something to give a new Christian to read alongside the Bible, to encourage them in their faith and help them begin to live for Christ from a Christ-centred Biblical worldview? Over the years I have recommended countless good books 1:1 or from the pulpit, but I thought it was about time to be more intentional about this habit, for my own sake, and that of our church members. Maybe what follows will help you too.

The idea of a “top ten” list (yes, I realise that such a thing is usually shameless marketing) came from a visit to Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church in Manhattan two years ago during a sabbatical. The service was thoughtful and deeply Christ-honouring, but one of my main take-homes came afterwards, over coffee a couple of floors up from the worship auditorium. An unremarkable folding table was set out to one side of the room, with a selection of books for sale,  a couple of signs, and a friendly church member on hand.

What was the stroke of genius? A simple guideline as to which books to read, and in what order. The books were arranged into three groups, not by the usual categories, “Bible”, “Christian living”, “Prayer” etc, but as “Read first”, “Read next”, and “After those”  (maybe not the precise titles, but you get the idea). Keller had written a short explanation of the book-recommendation policy he had followed,

“instead of a bookstore for the whole community, we offer a book table carrying “next step” reading for worshippers at Redeemer…the order in which you read books has a big impact on the kind of believer you become…That is why many people will ask me – “Is this a good book to read?” and my answer is, ‘Yes – eventually, later, in the right place – but not now’.”

Keller had thought hard about the best books to start young believers with, and those to recommend later. I think that is incredibly good pastoral care, and am planning to introduce this wise approach when we move to pastor our new church in Norwich in the summer.

So here are my ten “Read First” books, copies of which I’d have always on hand to give away or to sell. The order doesn’t mean much. In future posts I will suggest my “Read next” and “After those” selections.

Read First (Top Ten):

Knowing God (J.I. Packer)

The Prodigal God (Tim Keller)

How to read the Bible for all its Worth (Gordon Fee/Douglas Stuart)

The Freedom of a Christian (Martin Luther)

Just do Something (Kevin DeYoung)

Discipling (Mark Dever)

How to Walk into Church (Tony Payne/Colin Marshall)

God’s Big Picture (Vaughan Roberts)

The Cross of Christ (John Stott)

Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis)

 

I hope this gets you asking what you would recommend to a new believer – and what you’d agree they should read, but only later. Let me know what you think.

Why it’s not always best to preach expository sermons

OK, I realise this depends upon how you define “expository”. If you mean that when you preach, every sermon should allow a text (or more than one) to set the agenda for what is said, then I’d have to agree that every sermon should be expository.

“Expository” defined as the opposite of “thought for the day” or “context-driven” has to be right because it reflects the Bible’s presentation of preaching as coming as words “from God” not just “from the preacher’s head”. Expository as “exposing the sense of a Bible text” is (for me) a non-negotiable. That is surely true whether preaching evangelistically or to edify believers. All sermons should (in my view) be not only Christ-centred and gospel-rich (good news) but Bible-driven and derived from the Bible text they are based upon.

My argument with expository sermons here is not that expository sermons can be boring, either, though they can. “Exposing” the text can become a dry lecture that fills the mind and doesn’t speak to the heart or will. But if I am boring, it is not the fault of the Bible or its logic – DM Lloyd-Jones called this kind of preaching “logic on fire”, and it should be! Others* have convincingly and rightly listed the benefits of “expository” preaching in the true sense of the word.

But if you define “expository” more narrowly than that – as “preaching from the same book of the Bible in sequential order” then I’d argue that is not always wise as the long-term diet of a church family. The main diet, yes, but not the only. To say this may alarm those not from traditions like the Anglican one, where our lectionaries and feast days encourage us to mix it up. What about Charles Simeon and D.M. Lloyd-Jones, you asked, who (it is said) just “preached the Bible in order” and let the Word do the work?

Here are three reasons I can see for not always preaching the Bible “in order”:

  1. Biblical: The Bible doesn’t always work that way. I’m not arguing the textual critic point – that texts are out of order compared to their original composition – here. But some books of the Bible just to not lend themselves to preaching every part of a text in order. Maybe the text is repetitive (Revelation from Chapter 4 onwards, for example) and mirroring that in a sermon series is not going to do justice to the meaning. Maybe the text was not designed to be read aloud in sequential order in the way it is printed in our Bibles today (the Psalms, for instance, seem to be a collection of liturgical and pastoral songs to be sung, and who would argue we have to preach 1-150 in order, with no omission or cherry-picking?) Maybe the text was designed to be read for impact in one sitting, but expository preachers so often pride ourselves upon taking an inordinately long time to preach through a book (Romans, or Hebrews, are two letters many take years over, but I would put in the category of “read fast for impact and overall message”). Maybe the text lends itself to being linked with other similar ones that are not found in immediate proximity in the Bible (a series on the Parables, for instance).
  2. Pastoral: The people of God need help constructing a doctrinal framework for life. A member of our staff team recently asked why we do so many sermon series that don’t just “go through a Bible book in order”. The answer I gave is that the people of God need the preacher of God to help them see what the whole Word of God says about the mind and works of God. We might do this by digressing on doctrinal points when a text invites it (the Puritan John Owen did this when preaching through Hebrews) but that simply makes my point that only preaching what a text says is not always enough. We might also do it by preaching every text of the Bible over (say) a ten-year period, but how many church members will hear every sermon, and make the connections between them all? But we can certainly do this by preaching sermon series that teach “systematically” the truths of the Bible about God and the world. Over my seventeen years in my church we have typically included one or two series each year on themes such as Creation, God’s Attributes, the Cross, the Holy Spirit, The Church, Prayer, Personal Evangelism, A Theology of the City, Church Planting, Service and Ministry, Stewardship/Giving, Spiritual Disciplines, Desiring God, Seven Deadly Sins, Biblical view of Humanity, Temptation/idolatry.
  3. Apologetic: Seekers in our congregations need help grappling with big questions. These are stumbling blocks to hearing the gospel unless we address them. Some preachers find this comes more naturally than others (Tim Keller is especially good at connecting with the seeker and sceptic in his sermon series) but we all, I would argue, need to try. The obvious way is to pick up the big questions in one series every couple of years: The Meaning of Life, The Existence and Knowability of God, the Issue of Science and Faith, the Challenges of Religious Exclusivism, Hypocrisy and Extremism, the Problem of Suffering. We’ve also tried to connect with the non-believing culture when a public moment demands or offers an opportunity: debunking the Da Vinci Code when it was published, responding to publications from new atheists like Dawkins, or events like 9/11 or natural disasters. Such moments are on open door for the gospel.

So there are three reasons why I don’t always preach sermon series through a section of the Bible in order. I could add that evangelistic sermons are better done from texts that clearly portray the heart of the gospel, and that even great preachers like Spurgeon did not preach from the same book of the Bible each week at all, though his sermons brilliantly expound the texts he chose.  

I am sure there are lots more reasons why preachers should stick to preaching through a text in sequence, and lots more why we should keep mixing it up. Let me know your thoughts.

 

  • eg Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching (IVP, 1996), Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centred Preaching (Baker, 1994), David Helm, Expositional Preaching (Crossway, 2014), William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Banner of Truth, 1996), John Stott, I Believe in Preaching (Hodder and Stoughton, 1983)

“Is it true?” is still the question

Questioning the truth

There were over 100 talkative students packed in to the marquee which had been set up in a prominent spot at the centre of the university campus, and the guest speakers for this week of gospel-sharing events were wrapping up the final sessions. What struck me was not only the level of spiritual interest within this supposedly post-Christian generation, but the topic: is the resurrection of Jesus “true”, and what does it mean for us today? The speakers did a great job of outlining in an attractive and compelling way both the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning, and the implications of it for our life today.

I am used to hearing speakers enthuse about the “difference Jesus makes”, and even also the hope he to argue that the “post-modern” unconverted need to see that faith “works”, and are not asking “is it true?” The seekers that I meet want to know both, and they are smart enough to know that one (pragmatic relevance) rests upon the other (historical truthfulness). So what a joy to find that in 2017 spiritually interested undergraduates are hearing about the truth of the resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus is true?

One speaker rehearsed the historical probability of the gospel accounts being literally true when they speak of a tomb with no body in it, and of appearances to a number of disciples on different occasions. He had clearly read and spoken on this theme many times before.

He offered Karl Venturini’s  swoon theory, proposed early in the nineteenth century and later adopted in form by Friedrich Schleiermacher (and more recently, Michael Baigent and Barbara Thiering). According to this, Jesus fainted on the cross, and then revived in the tomb and was rescued by his followers. The experienced student evangelist pointed out the historical improbability of this theory, given the professionalism and effectiveness of Roman execution, and the powerful effect of Jesus post-resurrection on all who met him.

The theory that the women who were the first at the tomb on Sunday morning mistook an empty tomb for the grave of Jesus was rightly dismissed as not only sexist (!) but as poorly fitting the gospel accounts. These record that multiple visits were made to the tomb by followers of Jesus, who had noted his burial place carefully. Furthermore, if they got the wrong grave, why did the Jewish authorities not immediately point out the mistake?

The speaker then alluded to the idea that Jesus’ body had been stolen by the authorities, and pointed out that if this was the case, the corpse is very likely to have been revealed since, but it has not. The suggestion that the disciples were creating a hoax about Jesus’ resurrection to achieve public fame for themselves was shown to be equally unfit as historical theory, given the same absence of a body, and also that most of them soon willingly faced prison and execution for this claim.

Finally, the theory that the disciples and women who saw the risen Jesus according the first written sources were hallucinating was recounted, and against it, the evidence of eminent psychiatrists that the appearances in the accounts do not remotely fit the pattern of hallucinations.

The speaker finished by challenging his sceptical listeners to come up with a better theory that has not been thought-of in the last 2000 years, or to accept the truth of the resurrection.

Time and again, historians and lawyers (see further reading, below) have trawled through the historical evidence and concluded that the interpretation of the eyewitness authors of the gospels is the most likely: on Easter morning Jesus had left the tomb and was about to appear to numbers of people over the following days and weeks showing his victory over sin and death to be complete and commissioning his Church to tell the world this news.

Evidence for God?

There are other strong arguments for the existence of God:

The cosmological (the existence of material objects and causes point to the existence of an immaterial Being who was before creation and initiated change and motion)

The teleological (the order, design and purpose in material objects point to the existence of a final cause, or Being, who has sovereignly overseen their creation to his own glory)

The ontological (the fact that we can imagine a Being as perfect as God points to the existence of such a Being)

The existential (the presence throughout history of a sense of the divine in human culture, especially in the witness of Christians to a transcendent and personal encounter with God through Jesus Christ, points to the existence of God as the source of these experiences)

The moral (the universal sense of right and wrong in human culture points to a Creator whose moral goodness has left this spark of conscience in us)

The aesthetic (the presence and awareness of beauty in the cosmos, whether in the form of music, art or nature, points to the perfect beauty of its Creator, of whom these things are each a taste or scent)

The ecclesiological (in the 2000 years since Jesus’ incarnation, the Church has made mistakes, but its influence upon culture, education, art, compassion, community life, and upon our attitudes to the sick, the disabled, slavery, race, women, and children, has been overwhelmingly good)

Even if some of these evidences for God are arguably stronger than others, I personally, like many, find these evidences for God compelling when gathered together.

Historical evidence that it’s true

But for me the most compelling and reliable place to look for the existence of God, and even more important, for His knowledge, is in His self-revelation in the historical events of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, for which the historical accounts of the eyewitnesses provide testimony. One of Jesus’ first followers, the apostle Paul, writing within two decades of the events, underlines the centrality of the historical resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”. The reliability of the gospel accounts, on which the truth of the resurrection largely rests, has endured more than a century of sceptical attack from those arguing that the stories are embellished or concocted, but most of this attack has been upon the records of Jesus’ words (not the resurrection accounts), most of it has been well refuted by Biblical scholars, and none of it has yet found a convincing means or reason by which the gospel writers could have invented the resurrection as an explanation for Jesus’ extraordinary influence.

Further reading

Frank Morrison, Who moved the stone? (Authentic Media, 2006)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998)

John Wenham, The Easter Enigma: are the resurrection accounts in conflict? (Wipf and Stock, 2005)

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (SPCK, 2003)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bishops, the Bible, and marriage

general-synod2

According to newspaper headlines about General Synod last week, the Church of England is in turmoil. True, in the sedate world of church committees, this amounts to a few teacups rattling. But there was a surprise.

The Bishops’ recent report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships was written after much “listening” to the views of church members and clergy. Going against powerful trends in secular culture which redefine marriage, it basically affirmed with commendable clarity the Biblical teaching that marriage is and remains a lifelong exclusive commitment between a man and a woman, and also recognised that gay people have at times been made to feel unwelcome in church, urging the Church to review its tone and pastoral care in this area.

The surprise was that whilst the Bishops and lay members supported the Report, the clergy members of the General Synod voted (by a narrow margin) not to “take note” of it. This refusal to “note” the report is a long way from the Church of England “moving towards gay marriage”, as some headlines had it. Yet some of those who spoke in the debate are apparently so determined to force the Church to change that Scripture can be ignored and the Church  divided towards that end.

Nonetheless it was widely acknowledged that one of the most moving and courageous speeches in the debate came from Sam Alberry, an evangelical minister who described his feeling of being bullied, first at school for being “gay”, and now at Synod for being same-sex attracted but faithful to Christ. His three-minute contribution is worth listening to here and starts at 1:07 into the recording.

Those who hold as I do that the Biblical teaching on marriage is based on Genesis 2:24 , “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, NIV), do not do so because we are being difficult or “fundamentalist”. We believe in taking the Bible literally – in the sense of meaning what the “letters” or words in it mean. We believe in interpretation of the Bible using the best tools of  learning – but not to make a text mean what the author could never have meant. We believe in being aware of the culture behind a text – but not in changing the text to fit our culture. We believe in reading the Bible as a whole, taking note of its diversity – but not in using one part to contradict another.

At their consecration bishops affirm their commitment to the Scriptures as revealing all things necessary for salvation, and to teaching the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it. The Bishops should be honoured for doing their job and faithfully teaching what the Bible says about marriage and relationships.

None of this absolves the Church from repenting that at times we have made gay people feel unwelcome – and for that matter, singles, or unmarried parents. All of us equally need the grace of Christ and the love of the Church, and we can start sharing these things today. But if Genesis 2:24 marriage is, as Paul says in Ephesians 5:31-32, not just a social convention, or a way to raise a family, but a sign of the union of Christ with His Bride the Church, it is surely right to defend its Biblical definition and value with every ounce of conviction that we have. Let’s pray for the bishops.

How Holiness Happens

Do you know the story by Revd W Awdry of little Toby the tram engine being asked to help push the train over the mountain when Gordon (a much bigger engine who had earlier scornfully told Toby that he was no use) is unable to do so? He puffs up the steep incline with his friend Thomas the Tank Engine’s words echoing in his ears “You can (puff) do it, you can (puff) do it…”. He slows to a near standstill as the hill becomes harder, sheer grit carrying him forward, until at last they reach the summit. He did it.

youcandoit

Without suggesting the Christian life is always an uphill slope,  that is not a bad picture of the path to holiness for God’s people. We have not yet arrived at the summit (perfect Christlikeness) – at least until we reach glory. And yet it is not beyond us. We can (puff) do it. We can become holy.

In fact we are holy already. We are God’s ‘holy’ (dedicated, or God-orientated) people from the moment we begin to follow Christ and are born anew. The Holy Spirit who unites us cannot make us anything else but holy.

And our lives please God.

Because that sentence may sound heretical, I will repeat it: our lives are pleasing to God. Surely, you say, we are all sinners equally in need of God’s forgiveness of our sins, undeserving of grace,  and everything we do is polluted by sin, every good deed is tainted by wickedness, our righteous acts are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6)? I’m as Protestant and Reformed as Luther, Calvin and Cranmer, and I sign up to all these statements of human fallenness and incapacity to save ourselves or please God fully.

Holiness: we can please God

Yet there is a strong and unmistakable theme in Scripture that God’s people are capable of being righteous and pleasing Him. We are not only expected to be holy , we are empowered to be holy! We can do it. There are plenty of examples of believers in the Bible who pleased God: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David (in his better moments), Job, Elizabeth, Mary. But also all Christian believers who serve, love and pray (see Romans 12:1; Colossians 3:20; 1 Timothy 2:3; Hebrews 13:21, etc). Supremely, Jesus at his baptism stands before God as the new Adam/king/Messiah, and the words “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased” come from heaven. In Jesus we are made anew to please God. “He will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17). Holiness is possible, and (without overlooking our many sins) God is pleased with his people.

This makes so much more sense of the imperative (“so do this…”) sections of the epistles, where we are told to keep in step with the Spirit, flee sexual immorality and greed, pursue kindness and patience, be reconciled to our enemies, and forgive each other. These commands only make sense if we have with the help of the Spirit (that’s the grace of the New Covenant) and the hope that obedience is possible (that’s the purpose of the New Covenant). Kevin DeYoung in his book “The Hole in our Holiness” puts it like this:

God does not expect our good deeds to be flawless in order for them to be good…There will always be elements of corruption in us. But by the power of the sanctifying Spirit in us, true believers will genuinely grow in grace. (p.67)

How does this happen?

As we’ve already hinted, holiness comes by the Holy Spirit in us. The Spirit empowers us to love God and neighbour, to fulfil the Law of Christ (Galatians 5:13-16) . The Spirit reveals our sins, and grieving Him prompts us to renounce them (Ephesians 4:30). The Spirit points us to Christ and transforms us as we gaze on his glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). That is not to say that we sit back and do nothing: holiness requires effort on our part – hard work, in fact – to collaborate with the Holy Spirit. We press forward (Philippians 3:12-14). We are not lazy but endure and persevere (Hebrews 6:12). We “make every effort” (2 Peter 1:5). But we can do it, because the Spirit in us does it with us.

There is a second way to look at how holiness happens. Theologians call it “union with Christ” and the New Testament calls it being “in Christ”. Jesus calls those connected to Him to “remain in me” (John 15:4). Ephesians 1:3 describes the spiritual blessings of election, redemption, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification, which all flow from our spiritual location “in Christ”. These two little words occur over 200 times in the New Testament. Although many occurrences do not carry a deep “incorporative” sense, but mean simply “in Christian matters” (eg 1 Corinthians 3:1), many clearly do imply that a profound change of metaphorical position has taken place through our relationship to Jesus (eg Romans 8:1) (see Moule Chapter 2, in ‘Further Reading’, on this). This makes me think this is not a marginal idea but a key way to understand where we sit as believers! We are spiritually no longer in the world, or in sin, but “in Christ”.

How does holiness work in practice?

By letting where we are in Christ change how we think in everyday life. We live in Christ’s kingdom, so sin has no power over us now. So Paul says “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). In sports imagery, we changed team, and now wear the bright colours of Jesus instead of the murky kit of sin. In baptism imagery, we died to the old life and rose to the new.  Holiness happens by acting in the light of the truth that I am “in Christ”. It starts in my mind. Become what you are.

How do we grow holy and close to God in mind and life?

Through the five key disciplines (yes, effort!) of prayer, Bible reading, Christian community, good use of the Sabbath rest principle, and holy communion. As we draw near to the throne of grace in prayer, meet Jesus in Scripture, experience the Spirit uniting us as “church”, set aside a day to remember God’s gifts of life and freedom, and encounter Christ through the symbols of bread and wine, we find sin ever more bitter, and Jesus ever more delightful.

Further reading

“The Hole in our Holiness”, Kevin DeYoung (Crossway, 2012)

“The Origin of Christology”, C.F.D. Moule (Cambridge University Press, 1977)

“Communion with God”, John Owen (abridged R.J.K. Law) (Banner of Truth, 1991)

“A Passion for Holiness”, J.I. Packer (Crossway, 1992)

“Christ our Life”, Michael Reeves (Paternoster, 2014)