No You Can’t, Uh Uh, No Way!

Hi All,

I am, in addition to many others, re-blogging this blog from Bread For the Bride (Cheryl McGrath from Australia) because it is so biblical, beautifully written, so disturbing and yet inspiring. It reminded me of Bonhoeffer’s classic ‘The Cost of Discipleship,’ which I have turned to again and again. May I commend Cheryl’s blog to you all…

Bread for the Bride

FollowJesus

So there was Jesus making His way along the road. And there was the usual crowd, pressing, squabbling, gawking, chattering.  Seems a familiar scenario – Jesus and crowds go together, right?  No, not this day.  This day Jesus turns, faces the crowd and presents them with something they didn’t come for.

“You can’t follow Me” He tells them.

“He’s joking, right?  Here we are, right here, Jesus, right behind You.  You can plainly see we’re following You.”

“No, you can’t follow Me” He repeats.

Not “you should go home now and come back tomorrow”; not “I need some quiet time”; but simply “You are unable to follow Me!  To be frank you don’t have what it takes.”

Well, we know that Jesus was good at drawing crowds but we don’t always realize how good He was at dispersing them. This day He’s sure to do just that. …

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‘CHRISTUS VICTOR!’ ANOTHER LOOK AT THE ATONEMENT [PART 3]

A group of firefighters were checking up on hot spots after a forest fire had been contained. As they marched across the blackened landscape between the wisps of smoke still rising from the smouldering vegetation, a large lump on the trail caught one firefighter’s eye. As he got closer he noticed it was the charred remains of a large bird. Since birds can so easily fly away from the approaching flames, the firefighter wondered what was wrong with this bird that it could not escape. Had it been sick or injured? Arriving at the carcass, he decided to kick it off the trail with his boot. As he did, he was startled by a flurry of activity around his feet. Four little birds flailed in the dust and ash, then scurried down the hillside. The bulk of the mother’s body had absorbed the fierce heat and covered them from the searing flames. Though the heat was enough to consume her, she had stayed with her young and rescued them from certain death. The mother bird had made the ultimate sacrifice to save her young! [a story from Wayne Jacobsen’s He Loves Me!’]  Please don’t press the metaphor (the mother bird did not resurrect – Christ and his followers are in the habit of doing so), but it does illustrate in a miniscule measure the saving and atoning sacrifice of Jesus for the likes of us. Jesus ‘absorbed’ into his sinless body and being all that the law, sin, the world, the flesh and the devil could throw at him and by his life, death and resurrection purchased salvation, forgiveness and eternal life for all who take shelter in him. He died as our substitute, and by his sacrifice brought us full atonement and reconciliation.

After the meal of ‘strong meat’ [Part 2], here follows a good pudding!

I am a Luther fan, so allow me the licence of sharing with you some of his rich and colourful perspectives as to Christus Victor!’

  1. Luther graphically describes how the law assailed Christ but couldn’t defeat him. The devil attacks Jesus through the law, but he (the law) exceeds his rights and therefore loses them. ‘Thou hearest that Christ was caught in the bondage in which we are all held, was set under Law, was a man full of grace, righteousness, etc., full of life, yea, He was even the Life itself; now comes the Law and casts itself at Him and would deal with Him as with all other men. Christ sees it, lets the tyrant perform his will against Him, lets the reproach of all guilt fall against Himself as one accursed, yea, bears the name that He Himself is the curse, and goes to suffer for this cause, dies, and is buried. Now, thinks the Law, He is overpowered; but it knew not that it had so grievously mistaken itself, and that it had condemned and throttled the Son of God; and since it has now judged and condemned Him, who was guiltless and over whom it had no authority, it must in turn be taken, and see itself made captive and crucified, and lose all its power, and lie under the feet of Him whom it had condemned!’
  2. Concering God’s wrath, Luther wrote “The curse, which is ‘the wrath of God’ against the whole world, was in conflict with the blessing – that is to say, with ‘God’s eternal grace and mercy in Christ.’ The curse conflicts with the blessing, and would condemn it and altogether annihilate it, but it cannot. For ‘if the blessing in Christ could yield, then God himself would have been overcome.’ But that is impossible!” [I am reminded here of God’s promised eternal blessing to Abraham and all his spiritual offspring, a promise that cannot be broken for God cannot deny himself – see Gen. 12]
  3. Luther loves the strong colours of the Bible [which scholasticism had discarded], especially when it comes to God’s dealings with the devil. It was ‘the Lord of Glory’ [Luther is very strong on the lordship of Christ, rightly so], not a mere man who was crucified – but God concealed this from the devil. God acts like a fisherman, who binds a line to a fishing-rod, attaches a sharp hook, fixes a worm on it, and casts it into the water. The fish comes, sees the worm but not the hook, and bites, thinking that he has taken a good morsel; but the hook is fixed firm in his gills and he is caught. So God does; Christ must become a man; God sends him from high heaven into the world, where the devil finds him like ‘a worm and no man’ (Ps. 22:6), and swallows him up. But this is to the devil as food which he cannot digest. ‘For Christ sticks in his gills, and he must spue Him out again, as the whale the prophet Jonah, and even as he chews Him the devil chokes and is slain, and is taken captive by Christ.’ Marvellous stuff!
  4. Christ is triumphant over objective evil. His love prevails over his wrath, and yet love’s condemnation of sin is absolute. Every attempt to force this conception into a purely rational scheme is bound to fail [in his commentary on Galatians Luther refers to ‘reason’ as the quack doctor]. For true theology lives and has its being in these combinations of seemingly incompatible opposites.

As we begin to wrap up, a summary of the main thrust of our three blogs may be useful. Aulen reminds us that the Classic Idea of the Atonement is [note, all bold type is my emphasis] ‘above all, a movement of God to man, not in the first place a movement of man to God. We shall hear again these tremendous paradoxes:  that God, the All-ruler, the Infinite, yet accepts the lowliness of the incarnation; we shall hear again the old realistic message of the conflict of God with the dark, hostile forces of evil, and His victory over them by the Divine self-sacrifice; above all, we shall hear again the note of triumph. For my own part (Aulen’s), I am persuaded that no form of Christian teaching has any future before it except such as can keep steadily in view the reality of evil in the world, and go out to meet the evil with a battle-song of triumph. Therefore I believe that the classic idea of the Atonement and of Christianity is coming back – that is to say, the genuine, authentic Christian faith.’ [It’s interesting that Aulen first published ‘Christus Victor’ in 1931. It had been re-printed 8 times when I bought my copy back in the late 60’s]

For me, now in the mature years of my life, and as one who for many years clung to and preached the Latin View of Penal Satisfaction, a re-discovery of the Classic View in the last few years has been instructive, inspiring and very practical! [remember how at the beginning of Part 1 we agreed that one’s view of God and the Cross are determinative of how we think, live, relate and behave in the Church and in the world] [Greg Boyd asks why in the USA (could also be in SA), where the penal view has been preached for so long, nominal Christianity continues to be so rife? Why has it not been  transformative?]

I am a person with pretty settled emotions – on the one or two occasions I have felt somewhat ‘down’ about myself, the state of the Church and the world, I have been moved to tears and love and humility as I have looked again at Jesus and his love for me a sinner, for His people and a lost world. I have been freed from thinking that we need the law and fear to keep us from sinning, for I recall a statement by my son shared with me some time ago, Love will lead you where fear never will! A true understanding of God’s love (a Cross-shaped love) will never lead anyone to spiritual or moral laxity, but to greater depths and higher heights in their walk with the Lord.

Dear reader, whatever YOUR conclusions, the Lord richly bless you and make his face to shine on you and yours!

‘CHRISTUS VICTOR!’ ANOTHER LOOK AT THE ATONEMENT [PART 2]

[It would really help new readers if they read Part 1 of this conversation on the atonement]

In Afrikaans we have a saying, vasbyt! lit. bite tightly! This blog is not a light piece of toast but ‘strong meat’ and indeed a large portion of it!

As promised, the ‘pro’s and con’s’ of the Penal View (def. in Part 1):

Briefly, some of the ‘pro’s’ of the Penal View:

  • The Penal View does represent a more important metaphor concerning the atonement in both OT and NT, although not the only one or the major one.
  • It takes the holiness of God and the sinfulness of sin seriously. Sin is undoubtedly an affront to God, both in his holiness and love [a question, can we actually separate these??]
  • It takes the law of God very seriously, as did Jesus. [Greg Boyd (I don’t go with all his writings) asks whether the Penal View doesn’t take it more seriously than God’s love – the law is deep, God’s love is deeper]
  • It takes Christ’s sacrificial death as our substitute very seriously.

Some ‘con’s’ with regard to the Penal View:

  • As already pointed out, though often seen as the main club in the golf-bag, it is one among others, although an important one.
  • It seems to have so focussed on Christ’s death that it doesn’t give enough attention to his incarnation and life.
  • It is strongly based on a legal relationship between God and man. According to the Penal View, Jesus earns an excess of merit which is paid to God as satisfaction or compensation. One sees here the influence of the pentitential system of the Middle Ages Church. The root idea is that man must make an offering or payment to satisfy God and his justice, which explains the work of Christ. However, Boyd points out that God is not a lawyer, but a Father – cf. the Parable of the Lost Son/Loving Father (Lk. 15:11-32). 
  • It makes much of God’s law and wrath against sin (not wrong per se), but they seemingly compete or even over-shadow his love. As a result, in my own experience, non-Christians and even many Christians have a warped perception of God as an angry judge or divine policeman. I have encountered Christians seemingly ‘obsessed’ with the law. They maintain they ‘love sinners’ but ‘hate their sin’ – why then do they often not hang out with ‘sinners’ as Jesus did? [I heartily recommend Jon Zens’ marvellous ‘This Is My Beloved Son, Hear Him!’ (The Foundation for New Covenant Ethics and Ecclesiology)  – so much depends on a biblical understanding of ‘The New Covenant’] 
  • Closely linked with the judicial character of the Latin View is its rational character [we are not denying man’s ability to ‘reason,’ surely a God-given gift]. Nothing can be more ‘reasonable’ than the demand for ‘satisfaction,’ and the way in which the demand is met. However, often such reasoning becomes a kind of ‘system’ into which Scripture is forced [my quarrel with some Reformed Theologians]. As Luther pointed out, law and rationality are often inseparable allies, but God and the cross defy rationalisation and systematisation. The cross is an antinomy (contradiction in a law or between two laws, a paradox), according to which God is simultaneously Reconciler and Reconciled). [R.P. Martin and N.T. Wright believe that Paul’s main theme in the NT is reconciliation rather than justification, although of course the latter is of critical importance to man’s salvation]
  • Wright and Boyd point out that the Penal View can portray a God of ‘violence,’ whereas Christ came to defeat violence on the cross (Col. 2:13ff). According to Wright we simply can’t see God as ‘a kind of bullying headmaster in dealing with his class which includes his son:  the rest of the class are bad, so in his anger he picks on his own son and beats him up.’ This contradicts God’s very nature! Boyd asks why it is that we ‘love Jesus’ but ‘fear God?’ The fact is that in the Penal View the debt/punishment of sin is transferred (is guilt transferable?) whereas in the Bible it is cancelled (Col. 2:14).

So why are so many taking another look at the Classic View of the atonement? 

  1. Because it gives better recognition to Jesus’ incarnation, early life, and his ministry leading up to the cross and beyond [N.T. Wright, a Pauline specialist, has often noted the Church’s neglect of the Gospels. My comment: test the preaching/teaching in your assembly]. Christ obeyed the Father in every part of his mission:  Jn. 14:9 (Jesus’ response to Philip) ‘”Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?'” Think of his invaluable teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7). Here’s the point, the disobedience of one man which inaugurated the reign of sin in the world is answered by the obedience of One Man who brought life. ‘By his obedience unto death the Word annulled the ancient disobedience committed at the tree’ (Irenaeus). Paul wrote to the Corinthian ecclesiae, ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19). The cross must never be seen in isolation but always in connection with Christ’s life-work, including his resurrection and ascension.
  2. God is not ‘placated’ by the death of Christ as the Latin Theory believes. Augustine rightly asked, how can God the Father in any way be ‘placated’ by the Son’s death? This would imply a difference, even a conflict, between the Father and the Son. This is unthinkable, for there is always perfect harmony between Father and Son.
  3. The Classic View displays Christus Victor in a way the Penal View doesn’t. We are talking about Christ’s victory in his life, death and rising: over sin, death and the devil. Heb. 2:14-15, ‘Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.’ Jesus as our merciful and faithful High Priest ‘made atonement for the sins of the people’ (v.17). The deliverance of man from the power of sin, death and the devil is at the same time his deliverance from God’s judgment! Paul is clear:  God has come in Christ to destroy the power of evil, demons, principalities, powers and all that bear rule in this world, God having permitted them for the time being to have limited power (Eph. 6:10-20). Christ descends from heaven, becomes subject to the powers of this world, whereby he finally overthrows them by his death and resurrection.
  4. The Classic View is beautifully underpinned by the OT and NT drama of ‘redemption.’ My seminary dissertation confirmed this [referred to in Pt. 1]. For a detailed study, cf. G. Aulen’s classic, Christus Victor. It includes a good survey of the redemption motif in the Gospels, Pauline and General Letters of the NT:  pp. 66-80]. The Classic View builds on the OT (Exodus, Isaiah, Daniel etc) and Jesus’ words in Mt. 20:28), ‘For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (cf. Mk. 10:45). The Pauline Letters abound with the redemption theme:  Rom. 5:18, 6:11; 1 Cor. 15:26,56; Gal. 3:10,13; Col. 2:13-16a, ‘When you were dead in your trespasses and sins and in the uncircumcision of the sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross…’                                                          Note:  it is misleading to argue that Christ’s triumph over the powers of evil whereby he delivers man at the cost of the cross, is a work of ‘salvation’ but not ‘atonement.’ The two themes are inseparable! It is precisely the work of salvation wherein Christ breaks the power of evil that constitutes the atonement (at-one-ment) between God and the world, for it is thereby that he removes the enmity between God and man and the judgment that rested on the human race. 2 Cor. 5:17ff, ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone and the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation… God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ As N.T. Wright has pointed out, in the cross the biblical narrative of God’s love for mankind becomes focussed:  sin and the devil ‘did their worst’ at Calvary, yet he was raised from the dead and vindicated by the Father. Since Christ by his death has both redeemed us and atoned for our sin, this provides the key to all the passages which speak of Christ’s work as ‘vicarious,’ ‘for our sake,’ ‘in our place,’ ‘our Passover sacrificed for us, ‘the new covenant in his blood,’ etc. [other NT references to the redemption-atonement drama include:  Jn. 12:31, Heb. 9:12, 1 Jn. 3:8, Rev. 1:5]
  5. The Classic View puts the OT law into biblical perspective. While some may dispute this, it appears that in Paul’s Letters the law at times is seen as a ‘hostile’ power to the believer. While on the one hand the law is ‘holy and righteous and good’ and the expression of God’s will and commandment, on the other hand 1 Cor. 15:56 tells us that ‘the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Gal. 3:10ff talks about ‘the curse of the law.’ That the law is sometimes considered a hostile power does not depend chiefly on the fact that it inexorably condemns sin – more profoundly, the way of legal righteousness which the law demands can never lead to salvation and life. Just like human merit, it leads not to God but away from God (Rom. 4:4, 7:9). Gal. 3:13, ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law.’  Rom. 10:4, ‘Christ is the end of the law so there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.’ In summary, the law, as an enemy, is overcome in/by Christ. God’s love can never be imprisoned in the categories of merit and justice; it shatters them in pieces, and creates a new order to govern the relation of man with God, i.e. grace!

Until our final blog in this series on the atonement, ‘May the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, our rock and our Redeemer.'(adaptation of Ps. 19:14).

       

‘CHRISTUS VICTOR!’ – ANOTHER LOOK AT THE ATONEMENT [Part 1]

Most of us would agree, I think, that our view of GOD and the CROSS are absolutely critical to the way we think, are, relate and behave as his creatures. Would you also agree that our view of GOD and the CROSS are equally critical to the Church of Jesus Christ?

Hence my series of blogs on ‘the atonement’ from a biblical, historical, practical and even devotional point of view…

Here’s my motivation in brief:

  • As we re-read the Bible message today, especially from a non-instutional and non-denominational perspective, we recognise some frailties of Bible students (with great respect) in times past who did not have the research and perspectives and information facilities we are privileged to have today. We are very much ‘a product of our times.’
  • Historically there have been three main views on the atonement:  the Classic Theory; the Penal Substitution Theory [most common in Evangelical and Reformed theologies]; the Moral Influence Theory. Let us, in this instance, try and disprove the dictum that ‘History teaches us that history teaches us nothing!’  [cf. the nation of Israel]
  • In recent times there has been a powerful resurgence of interest in the Classic Atonement Theory on the part of serious biblical theologians like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight and others. I include my own interest here (as just a ‘regular guy’):  forty years ago I wrote an L.Th dissertation on ‘The N.T. Teaching on Redemption,’ which opened some windows in my mind and spirit on the subject of the atonement. Then, quite recently I commented on an excellent blog by my friend David Bolton entitled, ‘The Cross – the Unlevel Playing Field of Satan’s Defeat’ (well worth a visit) – at his request I committed to share something of my reading on the subject [I must confess I almost backed out because the subject is so profound! Two brothers, and most of all I believe the Holy Spirit, prompted me to go through with it].

We start with a brief definition of the three main theories, with help from the Swedish scholar Gustav Aulen, who impressed me those many years ago at Seminary and whose Christus Victor I re-read over the Christmas holidays. At the outset my brothers and sisters, please be patient with my treatment of this subject – if you track with me all the way, hopefully your patience will be rewarded!

  • The Moral Influence Theory. This stemmed from the assault of the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, which had little respect for the authority of the Church and the Scriptures. It focusses almost totally on the subjective response of man to the Cross, which is seen as Jesus’ seal on his teaching, a vindication of the moral order of the universe and a symbolic expression of God’s readiness to be reconciled. Proponents include the existentialist theologian Schleiermacher and some of the Pietists. In this view the Cross influences us morally rather than making atonement for sin as such.
  • The Penal Substitution Theory (or Latin Theory). While hinted at much earlier by Tertullian and Cyprian, it was established by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109 AD). According to Anselm, the atonement was necessary to satisfy the majesty and holiness of God. The payment for sin is primarily the work of Christ as man. It strongly emphasises the Law. In summary, the Latin doctrine is in accord with the general nature of mediaeval theology with its typical emphasis on penance and on the Sacrifice of the Mass (G. Aulen). The Penal Substitution Theory was refined by Thomas Aquinas, and has since been bought into by much of Evangelical and Reformed theology [a view I held and preached for many years, but which left me somewhat dissatisfied].
  • The Classic Theory of Atonement. God is pictured as in Christ carrying through a victorious conflict against powers of evil which are hostile to his will. This constitutes ‘atonement,’ because the drama is a cosmic one, and the victory over the hostile powers brings to pass a new relationship, one of reconciliation between God and the world – still more because the hostile powers are regarded as being in the service of the Will of God the Judge of all, and are thus executants of his judgment. I.o.w. the reconciling is regarded as a reconciling springing from God himself – he is reconciled by the very act in which he reconciles the world to himself in Christ. The main difference between the Classic Theory and the Penal Theory lies in the fact that the former sees atonement or reconciliation as from first to last a work of God himself, a continuous divine work. The Latin Theory has its origin in God’s will, but is in its execution a suffering offered to God by Christ as man and on man’s behalf.

The Classic Theory has held a place in history whose importance it would not be easy to exaggerate. ‘It is the dominant view of the Atonement throughout the early church period. It is also in reality as I shall hope to show, the dominant idea in the New Testament; for it did not suddenly spring into being in the early church, or arrive as an importation from an outside source. In the Middle Ages it was gradually ousted from its place in the theological teaching of the church, but it survived in her devotional languages [e.g. Wesley’s hymns – my comment] and in her art. It confronts us again, more vigorously and profoundly expressed than ever before, in Martin Luther… It has therefore every right to claim the title of the classic Christian idea of the Atonement… any account of the history of the doctrine which does not give full consideration to this type of view cannot fail to be seriously misleading’ (Gustav Aulen).

Note, proponents of the Classic View certainly take seriously the other views, but do not see the Penal Theory as the main or only plausible theory of atonement. As Scot McKnight has pointed out as a golfing man, no golfer plays his game with just one club, although there are usually one or two clubs that tend to dominate his game.

In our next blog we shall look at the ‘pro’s and con’s’ of the popular Penal Theory…

I conclude Part 1 by reminding my readers and myself of our total dependence on the Holy Spirit to teach and guide us (cf. Eph. 1:17-23), especially in such profound matters. Crede ut intelligas – ‘Believe that you may understand!’ (Augustine of Hippo)

EXACTLY WHO ARE ‘THE PEOPLE OF GOD’?

So many would claim this title for themselves today – Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians,  Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, those holding to Reformed Theology or Charismatic Experience [witness the current sad Strange Fire debate in the USA], ‘Back to Israel’ Christians, etc. Let’s complicate the issue even more:  who exactly constitute ‘the Israel of God’ or his covenant-people?

Let’s have a look at the apostle Paul’s words on this issue. I am referring to his Letter to the Galatian ecclesiae of ancient Asia Minor, more specifically to Gal. 6:16 (NLT), ‘They are the new people of God.’ Or the NIV rendering, ‘The Israel of God.’ Some contextualisation will help:

  • These young believers in the Roman province of Galatia, through Paul’s teaching about Jesus, had come into a new and liberating relationship with God based on grace and experienced through faith. They were ecstatic about their new-found freedom in Christ. After Paul had moved on, he received the disturbing news that the Jewish religious leaders of the old school were questioning his credentials and attempting to herd these freedom-loving Christians back into the ‘corral’ of religious rules and regulations. He now writes to the Galatians to remind them of the Gospel of grace which had bought their freedom from law-keeping, and with great seriousness exhorts them never to forsake the simple message they had first received.
  • Taking the pen from his amanuensis, Paul scribbles a personal and final warning to the Galatian churches in 6:11ff, and then in words of benediction refers to them as the new people of God’ or ‘the Israel of God’ :  v.16 (NLT), ‘May God’s mercy and peace be upon all those who live by this principle. They are the new people of God.’

Ah, but what is the principle ‘God’s people’ live by? Paul explains in 6:14-15 (NLT), ‘As for me (in contrast to the Judaisers), God forbid that I should boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that cross (or lit. ‘because of him’), my interest in this world died long ago, and the world’s interest in me is also long since dead. It doesn’t make any difference now whether we be circumcised or not. What counts is whether we really have been changed into new and different people.’ Some explanation is necessary (Dr. R.A. Cole, among others, is particularly helpful here):

  • The Judaisers were after ‘statistics’ to prove their claim to be the true ‘people of God’ – how many circumcisions had they registered in the past year for their Jerusalem report? Sound familiar? How misled are those who notch up so many ‘first time decisions’ for Jesus or so many ‘baptised’ to bolster their particular denomination’s or organisation’s evangelistic report for the year.
  • Paul on the other hand recognised that to accept circumcision (or any other ‘plus’ to Jesus) as a gateway to God’s covenant people, implied that the whole ‘sting’ or ‘offence’ of the cross was gone. Our present peace-keeping churches need to re-visit Paul’s explosive theology of the cross for a change.
  • Paul doesn’t boast in Gentile un-circumcision but in the cross, which makes all human and outward distinctions meaningless. Later he would put it like this to the Corinthian ecclesiae:  2 Cor. 5:16-17, ‘So we have stopped evaluating others by what the world thinks about them. Once I mistakenly thought of Christ that way, as though he were merely a human being. How differently I think about him now! What this means is that those who become Christians become new persons [the Greek kaine ktisis i.e. ‘new creation/creature’ is a favourite thought of Paul’s, probably reflecting back to Gen. 1-2 and Is. 65:17 and possibly anticipating Rev. 21:1]. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!’ The Judaisers were still looking at things ‘from a human point of view,’ they had not been inwardly re-created by God, they were not yet ‘in Christ’ by faith alone.
  • The ‘principle of life’ God’s people live according to is that of living from the cross, Christ’s person and perfect sacrifice for sins. It is that spiritual experience and resultant attitude of being re-created inwardly through faith in Christ plus nothing. They have been ‘circumcised’ in their hearts by the Spirit, not by a written code (Rom. 3:28-29). They belong to the ‘third race’ of men, neither Jew nor Gentile but ‘Christian.’ They constitute ‘the new people (Israel) of God!’ Such people have ‘written off’ the ‘world’ viz. that system of selfishness and materialism and pride opposed to God, and that very same worldly system has ‘written them off.’ I can imagine some right now laughing off Paul’s definition of ‘the people of God,’ thinking what ‘arrogance,’ ‘obscurantism,’ ‘narrow-mindedness,’ ‘exclusivism,’ ‘how irrational,’ what ‘simplistic non-sense,’ etc. So be it – for God’s people it’s part of the package, it comes with the territory.
  • The critical question is:  do you, does your ‘church’ or denomination or group boast only in Christ and the grace of his cross? Have you and your faith community experienced that inward total transformation that only Christ and his Spirit can bring? Does your/their lifestyle bear out Christ’s indwelling and his supernatural love, kindness and gentleness? (Gal. 5:22ff). Only such can boast that, by grace alone, they form part of the true ‘people of God,’ the true ‘Israel of God.’

Recently I discovered a verse from Isaac Watts’ famous hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ I had not come across before:

His dying crimson, like a robe,

Spreads o’er his body on the tree;

Then I am dead to all the globe,

And all the globe is dead to me.’

Why don’t we quietly pray these words right now, and may God’s mercy and peace be upon us all. Amen.

A POLISHED ARROW

Thirty seven years ago Melanie and I, one Sunday morning, stumbled across the well-known Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh in time for corporate worship. The preacher was the renowned Derek Prime, and he preached from Is. 49:2b (KJV), ‘in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me.’ Somehow the main thrust of that message has stayed with me over the years.

Melanie and I came across the same verse a few weeks ago in our evening reading, and the words struck me again [NLT]: ‘He has hidden me in the shadow of his hand. I am like a sharp arrow in his quiver.’ Other renderings refer to the arrow secure in the arrow-bag, an arrow ‘ready for use,’ ‘a select arrow’ (NASB). Lovely little nuances…

The million dollar question of course is the identity of the ‘servant’ Isaiah is referring to? What were the circumstances? OT students differ [my readers, please let’s not be lazy (as many believers are today) but apply our minds – nothing ‘unspiritual’ about that as long as it’s done in dependence on God], but most agree that this section forms part of Isaiah’s second ‘Servant Song,’ firstly addressed to the godly remnant of the Jews in Babylonian exile.

On Is. 49 A.E. Cundall suggests that at times the ‘Servant’ appears to be the prophet himself (v. 2), at times the nation of Israel (v. 3, 5) but this is qualified in v. 5 with its picture of a ministry to Israel. There is also an anticipatory hint of the Messiah in v. 7. With regard to understanding the OT writings particularly, I like Bruxy Cavey’s comment that ‘If the Bible is God’s instruction manual on how to live, Jesus is God’s instruction manual on how to read the Bible’ – you’ll find a good example of this in Lk. 24:25ff.

From Is. 49 Cundall expounds 8 points:

  • God had called and prepared the true, spiritual Israel for a unique purpose (v. 1ff).
  • God, despite their failure, had not rejected them and he would in fact restore them (v. 4ff).
  • Beyond this ministry to Israel there would be a witness and a ministry to the whole world (v. 6)
  • Instead of being the underdogs, the rulers of the nations would do them homage (v.7, 22)
  • The exiles would be restored to their homeland (v. 8-13)
  • In God’s faithfulness and compassion he had never forgot them (v.14ff)
  • There would be a glorious homecoming to a restored and re-populated Jerusalem (v. 17-21)
  • God reveals himself as the God of the impossible, the Champion and Redeemer of his people (v. 24ff)

From an OT and NT perspective we can clearly see how:

  • Israel as a highly privileged people failed to fulfill their considerable responsibilities toward God and toward the nations (Ex. 19:6). Privilege became presumption, leading to an air of superiority over the Gentiles, illustrated in later Pharisaic Judaism.
  • The new spiritual Israel (the Church) (Rom. 9:6ff; Gal. 3:29, 6:16) has infinitely greater privileges in Christ than ancient Israel. This is precisely why the temptation of spiritual pride must always be resisted by his people. How the institutional Church has failed in this regard, and of course the many little simple ecclesiae scattered around the world are not exempt! A humble, compassionate and sacrificial ministry to all people, after the example of Jesus in the Gospels, is to characterize the new Israel at all times. Easier said than done!
  • Jesus in himself is the true Israel, he is the true Vine (Jn. 15), and those who remain in him will organically bear fruit in terms of Christlike character and fulfilling God’s divine purpose in the world, viz. to crown his Son the totally Pre-eminent One (Eph. 1-2; Col. 1). Strong medicine for a Church largely pre-occupied with herself, religious institutionalism, materialism, individualism, pop psychology, ego-centricity, etc – the result of poor preaching and teaching, particularly in the West. The task God has given us is not hard, it’s impossible – unless empowered by the indwelling Christ, who bears his divine fruit in/through us. The Father is determined to display the servant’s splendour in a dark world (Is. 49:3).

Allow me to draw out some ‘New Year’s lessons’ for ourselves as Messiah’s followers:

  • We are always protected and sheltered in God’s quiver, the recipients of his splendid faithfulness and love, even when we have messed up and disappointed him, others and ourselves…
  • There is always a preparing and polishing process going on in our lives. The sandpapering is often rough but absolutely necessary to a polished and prepared arrow for God’s kingdom purposes…
  • What often seems to be wasted years, years of sweat and struggle, times of feeling forgotten and misunderstood and shunted into a siding, is all preparation for the present and the future. I spent 38 years in some institutional desert lands, only to find my truest calling in the last 8 years. Ask Joseph, Moses, Esther (cf Mordecai’s question to Queen Esther in 4:14, ‘and who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?’), Jesus, Peter and Paul. Desert places are always ‘training for God’s moment’ (Derek Kidner).
  • Avoid like the plague over-busyness, obsession with many things and ‘doing’ rather than ‘being.’ An Ethiopian proverb reads, ‘You do not climb two trees at once just because you have two feet.’
  • Ensure that you hit the target GOD has set for you. Years ago my children sent me a birthday card from the US depicting a moose with perfect ‘target-like rings’ on its chest – a fellow-moose comments, ‘Bummer of a birthmark, hey Hal?’ Sometimes I’ve felt like Hal, haven’t you?? However, God has a ‘select’ target for a ‘select’ arrow (Is. 49:2, NASB). The Bible reveals God’s general purpose for his Church – pray him to reveal your specific role in it. [A recent BBC article read ‘”Young people ‘feel they have nothing to live for'”: apparently three quarters of a million young people in the UK feel that way because of unemployment, and many have contemplated suicide. Of course the situation is infinitely worse in Africa/S. Africa. A matter for earnest prayer and practical action in our small corner]

God in Christ make us all, corporately and individually, his ‘polished arrows,’ for Jesus’ sake!  [PS, this is serious stuff. You might have to leave your highly controlled and stifling institutional congregation and seek out like-minded brothers and sisters elsewhere for this to play out in your life – of this be sure, God in his faithfulness will lead you and make you the sharp arrow he has always planned you to be as you obey him].