July 21 2015

What would Jacob do? (a story to think about baptism)

what would jacob do

There is a long and beautiful biblical tradition of exploring ideas through stories. From Samuel’s “you are the man” hypothetical that he uses to confront King David in 2 Samuel 12, to the parables of Jesus, stories have always been used to draw people in and help them think about how spiritual beliefs might play out in the real world.

This is a story I have written to try to explore how I think about baptism and whether or not Christians should baptise their kids. The question that is left hanging at the end will answer for me whether I sit more comfortably in the credobaptist or pedobaptist position. It may or may not help you also if you are thinking through this issue. Either way, I hope you like it.

 

WHAT WOULD JACOB DO?

Jacob loved and followed Yahweh, the God of his ancestors, all the days of his life. His parents poured the scriptures into his heart from the moment they held him in their arms. He can not remember a time that he had not had the promises of God, the stories of God’s great works and the songs of the psalms filling his ears and mind. He knew the prophets as well, and longed for the day that the promised Messiah would come to establish God’s kingdom and bring the great shalom that this world so desperately needed.

Now in his late 20s, Jacob was a father himself. Sadly, his wife had died giving birth to their first daughter Mariah, but Jacob had promised her that he would pour the scriptures into the heart of their daughter in the same way that it had been poured into him. As Jacob has learnt from Deuteronomy, Yahweh wanted him to do just that… Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 11:18-19)

And so that is what Jacob did. Every day, he sang to Mariah the psalms he knew, told her the stories of God’s great acts of salvation and reminded her of the promise that God’s Messiah would one day be sent and that they should be ready. “Yahweh has made a promise, little Mariah,” he would say to her. “And when our Lord makes a promise, he never breaks it. You will see. The Messiah will come and make all things right again and like our father David, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

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Now, Jacob lived with his daughter in a fairly isolated village and although he had relatives in Jerusalem, he rarely visited them. Consequently, he knew little of the great events that had taken place there only a few weeks earlier. Over the last couple of years, he had heard rumours about the Nazarene man, Jesus, and his claims to be the Messiah, but he had never seen him and so didn’t give him too much thought. There had been people claiming to be the Messiah before Jesus and there were sure to be ones after as well. Also, the latest rumours were that this Jesus had now been arrested and killed by the authorities for being a trouble-maker and so any hopes that God’s promises were now being fulfilled were put to rest in Jacob’s mind.

As Mariah had been sick, Jacob had not been able to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover meal with his relatives there. Fortunately now she was better and so he decided to make the belated journey for the feast of Shavuot.

Jerusalem Via Dolorosa1 Crucify ChristAs he travelled through Jerusalem, with Mariah strapped to his back, he marvelled at the crowds of people from all walks of life. The sounds of different languages buying, selling and trading, the interesting colours of clothing and the smells of food and animals were an exciting feast for the senses.

He had not gotten too far, when suddenly out of nowhere, the sound of a great wind came racing through the streets. It started off as a whispering breeze, but eventually thundered as a gale that raced past the crowds of people and disappeared around a building. Everyone ducked to the ground and Jacob reached for his daughter to shield her from the roar of the tempest. After it had gone, everyone stood up slowly, stunned and confused as to what had just happened. People began talking amongst themselves and it didn’t take long for people to follow where the wind had gone. The trickle of curious people became a river as the crowd moved down the dusty road, everyone chatting away in their own tongue about what it could mean. Was there a dust storm on its way? Why did the wind travel in such a curious manner? Where was it going? And is it crazy to even think that wind could be “going” anywhere?

Jacob checked that his daughter Mariah was ok before joining the swarm of people as it moved down the street, following the path of the wind. As they turned the corner, Jacob could hear people shouting praises to Yahweh and speaking of the Nazarene Jesus. This confused Jacob as he thought all interest in Jesus was as dead and buried as Jesus was himself, but what was even more confusing was the discussion that began to spread through the crowd. Somehow, it seemed, everyone could understand what these men were saying as if they were speaking in their own language! Amazed and bewildered, the crowd started to realise that something supernatural was happening. A stranger, standing next to Jacob looked at him and said, “What does this mean?” “I don’t know.” Jacob replied, “But the Spirit of Yahweh is at work here!”
As he said this, a couple of sceptical men stood up on a cart and began making fun of the men who were praising God. “Ahh, stop your crazy yelling!” they hollered mockingly, and then turning to the crowd they said, “Let’s get out of here. These men are clearly just drunk.”

Then one of the men who had been praising God motioned for his friends to stop. He climbed up on a ledge so that he could address the crowd. “Fellow Jews” he began, “and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you… listen carefully to what I say.”

His voice boomed with a sense of earnestness and strength, and Jacob hushed those who stood near him so that he could hear what the man was about to say…

—————————–

“These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of Yahweh. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him: ‘I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest in hope, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.’

“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah!”

—————————–

This last word, “Messiah”, rang out and echoed across the crowd as everyone stood in stunned silence. For Jacob, this word cut straight through to his heart and rested there like a seed falling on good soil. God opened Jacob’s heart so that he could receive this word and all at once Jacob knew it was true.

“Mariah! Mariah!” he cried, taking his daughter out of her sling and holding her up to his beaming face, “Jesus is the Messiah! Jesus is the Messiah!” Jacob’s heart filled with joy as he realised that all the promises, all the stories, all the songs and prophesies had finally come to pass! The Messiah that he had longed for and spoke to his daughter about every day, had finally come and his name was… Jesus.

People in the crowd were responding in a variety of ways. Some scoffed and walked away, some were debating passionately amongst themselves, and others were pushing forward, wanting to speak to the man who had made the speech. Jacob was one of this last group and he moved through the crowd, his daughter in his arms and his mind racing. So Jesus was the Messiah. Now what? What should we do now? God’s Spirit was poured out on these people. What does that mean? How do I receive this? And how could I? These and many more questions raced through his mind, but instead of doubt or fear holding him back, the joyful opportunity to embrace the Messiah compelled him forward.

When he finally reach the front of the crowd he stepped forward and knelt before the men, holding Mariah close to his heart that was racing in his chest. “Brothers,” he asked them earnestly, “What shall we do?”

peter speechThe man who had spoken earlier, who people nearby were calling Cephas, looked at Jacob and smiled. He then looked around to all those who were standing there wondering the same thing and invited them with joy, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit! The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom Yahweh our God will call.”

For all whom Yahweh our God will call. Jacob looked down at his daughter Mariah and whispered to her, “Mariah, that is us. Yahweh is calling us to follow the Messiah Jesus.” Mariah, looked up at her dad, squinting in the sunlight and looking around at all the sights and sounds that she wasn’t used to in their small village. Jacob knew Mariah had no idea of the significance of this day, but he also knew they were forever changed. They had always been a family who worshipped Yahweh, but now Yahweh had sent his Messiah and nothing would ever be the same.

For a few moments Jacob was lost in thought, staring into his daughter’s face and wishing his wife could have been there with them this day. When he looked up, the man Cephas had climbed back up onto the ledge, trying to appeal to those in the crowd that were still unconvinced or had began to walk away. He pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation!” Some stayed to hear more, some left shaking their head, but a large portion of the crowd, like Jacob, had heard Yahweh’s call and wanted to respond.

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They journeyed to the edge of the city where a spring of water formed large pools. The men who had led them there waded into the water and began to baptise those who had accepted Cephas’ message about Jesus. Jacob stood at the edge of one of the pools, as person after person stepped forward to accept Jesus as the Messiah. They each went in differently. Some joyfully, some solemnly. Some with a weary heart and some singing psalms of salvation.

baptism manJacob watched them wade in and watched them wade out and he thought about what this beautiful ritual meant. The water of these springs was not magical, but they were powerfully symbolic and it evoked for Jacob the many images of water throughout the Scriptures – The waters of creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea, the waters used in ritual cleansing. It reminded him of God’s promises spoken by the prophet Ezekiel: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I 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. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36:25-28). In this simple ritual, all of these promises and images were being embraced as being fulfilled, just as much as Jesus was being embraced as the Messiah.

As Jacob watched the crowd filing in to be baptised, waiting for his turn, he also noticed an interesting thing. Some waded into the pools with their young children in their arms. There were even some whole families with infants who came forward to be baptised. But Jacob noticed that others didn’t take their children. Jacob saw one man who had just come out of the pool after his baptism, go to his wife, take their baby from her arms and then she went in to be baptised.

This perplexed Jacob and made him wonder, when it came to his turn, what he should do. Should both he and his daughter be baptised together, signifying that Jesus was their Messiah and they would follow and love him as they had followed and loved Yahweh? Responding to Jesus as the Messiah seemed to him the most natural thing for a Jew. If only he was baptised, would that mean that his daughter and he were separated in a way that they had never been? Would it mean she was no longer a Jew? Or that he wasn’t?

But on the other hand, should he only be baptised, to signify that he had received the forgiveness and cleansing that the Messiah offered. He could tell God had moved his heart to respond and although he knew the call went out to his daughter as well, it was he who was consciously responding to it. If little Mariah was baptised, what would it mean? Would it be meaningless? Would it be a lie? Would it be offensive to Yahweh? Or would it be the right response for a Jewish family embracing the Messiah? In fact, would it be offensive to Yahweh if he did not baptise her?

His head was filled with questions and confusion. In his arms, Mariah began to cry. As Jacob calmed his daughter he thought to himself, “This is ridiculous! Today is a day of good news! Where has my joy gone? A moment ago I was in awe that Yahweh had fulfilled his promises and shown my family such kindness, and now, I am stressed about causing him offence?” Then he prayed this prayer, “O Lord, please forgive my lack of faith in your compassion. Some people are taking their children with them to be baptised and some people are not. I am not sure of your will. Help me make the right choice with joy in this great day.”

When Jacob opened his eyes, it was his turn to step into the pool.

And so, Jacob stepped forward his daughter in his arms…

baby lake

I looked at Jacob as he waded through the water, towards the apostle James who stood in the middle of the deep pool. James was smiling and speaking to all those who came forward briefly before baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus had commanded. I was very curious to see what Jacob would do when he reached the front of the line, but suddenly, my view was blocked. At first I was frustrated, but I couldn’t stay that way. Stepping in front of me was a group of newly baptised converts, dripping wet and singing praises to the Messiah with laughter and tears and dancing and joy. “God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah!” they cried, echoing the words Cephas had spoken to the crowd earlier. I looked around at the crowd that was full of others doing the same – praising God and declaring the gospel. All those who had accepted this message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

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This story was inspired by the record of the events on the Day of Pentecost,
which you can read for yourself in Acts 2.

 

 

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March 29 2015

Palm Sunday & the Unexpected King

donkey

Today is Palm Sunday. It’s a day we remember the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. It’s a relatively small and seemingly insignificant story in the Bible, so why do we stop to remember it? Well, have a read of the text from John’s gospel below and see what’s happening…

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!”, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, “Blessed is the king of Israel!”

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

“Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”

At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.

(John 12:12-16)

So, a fairly simple story. Jesus is coming to Jerusalem, lots of people get all excited, calling him the king and shaking palm branches (hence, “Palm Sunday”), and Jesus gets on a donkey and rides into town. In verse 16 it says, “At first his disciples did not understand all this.”  Well, at first, you also might not understand all this either. Here are a few thoughts to help you see the significance of this event.

“Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem”

This line has two major points of significance. Firstly, from Jesus’ perspective. From other parts of the gospels we learn that Jesus had been planning to go to Jerusalem for a while and his purpose was to die. Jerusalem was (and is) the central city of all Judaism. It was where all the powerful leaders were. Jesus’ claim to be the prophesied king of God’s kingdom and the Son of God, was not that big a deal as long as he stayed to the little country towns in Israel. But if he went to Jerusalem that was like walking into the lion’s den. And Jesus knew it. So did his disciples. There is a key moment in Jesus’ ministry when he turns to head towards Jerusalem and his disciples are shocked and scared, but Jesus very clearly explains his reasoning for going. Read Mark 10:32-34…

They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Jesus was going to Jerusalem in order to be captured. He was going there to die. He was going there to be resurrected. He was going there to bring about the first Easter.

Now, this was Jesus’ perspective. But the crowds who greeted Jesus had a different idea.

From their perspective, Jesus coming to Jerusalem was him finally putting his money where his mouth was. He had been talking about the kingdom of God and how he was the prophesied “Son of Man” from Daniel 7, and it was well known that he was a prophet and a miracle-worker and even called the Son of God. Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the promised king who would establish God’s kingdom, destroy the Roman Empire and allow the Jews to rule the world in prosperity and harmony with God forever! But until he came to Jerusalem, all his talk of being a king was just talk. It would be like if someone said, “I am the rightful Prime Minister of Australia!” but they always stayed in Coober Pedy and never went to Canberra.

From the people’s perspective, Jesus coming to Jerusalem was his triumphant entry where he was truly saying “I am king! And now I will take over!”

That’s why they were waving palm branches like it was a ticker tape parade and cheering battle cries: “Hosanna!”, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, “Blessed is the king of Israel!” The word “Hosanna” means “Lord, save us” and it shows the crowd was basically quoting a couple of verses from Psalm 118…

“Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you.” (Psalm 118:25-26)

They saw Jesus’ arrival as a king coming to assume his throne. Jesus saw his arrival as a dead man walking coming to be executed. Two very different perspectives.

“Jesus found a young donkey”

Why did Jesus enter Jerusalem on a young donkey? Was it because he was tired of walking and donkeys were easier to find than a horse and chariot? Well, the text doesn’t suggest that. In Matthew’s account of the story it gives even more detail about how they got the donkey. Jesus says to his disciples before they get to Jerusalem: Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” 

It seems the donkey is something very, very deliberate for Jesus. So what is he trying to say? Well, both accounts of this story tell us that Jesus is using the donkey so that he would fulfil a prophecy made by the prophet Zechariah hundreds of years earlier.

In Zechariah 9:9-11, God spoke through the prophet to give a picture of what it would be like when his promised king would come to Zion (or Jerusalem).

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.”

The picture is definitely of a king. He is righteous and victorious. His rule will extend to the ends of the earth. And he will bring peace to all the nations of the world and freedom from those imprisoned. This is definitely a king. But it is an unexpected king.

His righteousness and victory doesn’t appear as strength or brute power. He comes lowly and riding on a young donkey. You can’t go to battle on a donkey! You can’t destroy the Roman Empire on a donkey! You can’t fight your way to the throne, destroying all your enemies in your way, and claim your rightful role as king of Jerusalem, if your warhorse is a donkey!

But that is the unexpected king. He takes away all chariots and warhorses and battle bows. He is the one who proclaims peace to the nations, not war.

Now, this act of weakness and lowliness, doesn’t mean he will not be victorious in establishing his rule. As the prophecy says, his rule will extend from seas to sea, and his lowliness does not jeopardise that one bit. In fact, his lowliness will be the very means by which his kingdom is established, peace is brought to the world and the prisoners are set free from the waterless pit.

You see that alluded to in verse 11 of the prophecy. It is because of the “blood of the covenant” that all this will happen. If you want to explore deeper as to what that phrase means, have a read of another blog I wrote on this topic HERE. To summarise though, it is pointing to the atoning sacrifice that was made on behalf of the people that established their relationship with God in the Old Testament (the story is found in Exodus 24:4-8).

For those that know the Easter story, they will remember that on the night before Jesus was crucified, he told his disciples that his own death would be the new “blood of the covenant”. Jesus saw his death as the ultimate atoning sacrifice that would free people from the pit, bring peace to the world and establish an everlasting relationship between God and all those who trusted in it.

That is why he comes lowly and riding on a donkey. That is why Jesus came to Jerusalem at all! He came to die. But not just to die. He came to die as an atoning sacrifice for people. Even his enemies. That’s why he doesn’t come on a warhorse. He doesn’t want to destroy his enemies. He wants to rescue them and embrace them into God’s kingdom. He wants to die on their behalf. He wants to save them.

The crowds were right.

So the crowds were right! They were right to praise Jesus as king – for that is who he is. They were right to say “Hosanna!” which means “Lord, save us” – for that is what he came to do. They were right to expect that he had come to Jerusalem to establish God’s kingdom and reconcile people to God. But they were wrong in how they expected he would do it.

The story finishes with the disciples being confused: “At first his disciples did not understand all this.” But then it tells us that, like us, they eventually understood what was going on: “Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.” When it says Jesus was “glorified” it is referring to Jesus’ death and resurrection (see John 12:23 & 17:1).

At first, the disciples were confused by what was going on. There was a juxtaposition. Jesus was the king, but he came to Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah, but he talked about dying. How did it all fit together? Well, after Jesus was glorified in his death and resurrection, then they realised that “these things had been written about him”. It was only after Easter that they remembered the prophesy of Zechariah and the puzzle pieces fit together.

Fortunately, we live in the time after Jesus has been glorified. And every Easter we can remember the great work on the cross he did to die for sinners like you and me.

For today, let us grab our palm branches and praise the king. Not having a false expectation of him establishing his rule through aggression and force, but seeing the mission from Jesus’ perspective, pointing to the cross as the great moment that reconciled God and people.

Let us remember that our king came lowly, riding on a donkey, and join in the cry, “Hosanna!

(1911)

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February 21 2015

Baptism & the Sinner’s Prayer

river-baptisms-112

As some of you may know, I have been reflecting on baptism for a while now, especially considering the issue about whether or not to baptise my daughter who is due in June. You can read my previous blog on why I am thinking about this issue HERE.

As I’ve been reading, researching and reflecting on the appropriateness of infant baptism, I have started with a simple question… What is baptism? When Jesus said to his followers who were mostly simple fishermen, “Go, make disciples and baptise them” (Matthew 28:19) they understood what he meant. So in my research, I didn’t want the super theological, highly complex, only can be understood if you have a Masters Degree of Divinity, understanding. I wanted the simple fisherman’s version. When they went out and said to someone, “Hey! You should become a disciple of Jesus and get baptised!”, when the other person said, “Why should I get baptised? What’s that about?”, I wanted to know how they would answer.

How would YOU answer?

 

BAPTISM THEN

One thing I’ve noticed is that for the first Christians, baptism was part and parcel of becoming a Christian. Right at the beginning of the Church’s mission to the world, after the first ever public evangelistic sermon, those that wanted to respond to Jesus asked the very simple question…

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:37-41)

They asked, “What shall we do?”, and Peter answered “Repent and be baptised.”  And that’s what they did. It was fairly simple.

This is the pattern all the way through the Book of Acts as well:

When they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women.
(Acts 8:12)

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?”
(Acts 8:36)

Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptised.
(Acts 9:18)

The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home.
(Acts 16:14-15)

The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptised.
(Acts 16:29-33)

Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptised.
(Acts 18:8)

‘And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’
(Acts 22:16)

baptism-photoNow, it may seem (to those who know the different sides of the debate) that I am trying to put forward the case for credobaptism or “believer baptism”, but I’m not. I’m simply showing how, for the early Church, baptism was the way people responded to Jesus. What happened in their heart? God helped them believe the message. What happened in their mind? They repented from their sin and put their trust in Jesus. And what did they do with their body? They got baptised.

Baptism is so intimately connected with the response of believing and repenting that Paul recalls in his own story, how Ananais had said to him, “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” (Acts 22:16) The act of baptism, the miracle of being forgiven (having your sins washed away) and the response of calling on Jesus’ name are all in the one package. This is why Peter in his first epistle, says that we are saved through the waters of baptism (1 Peter 3:21). This passage use to confuse me, but he goes on to describe baptism as “not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.” Baptism was the handshake that sealed the deal. It was the signature that signed the contract. It was the step over the line in the sand. It was the pledge of a clear conscience towards God.

Now, to be very clear, the Bible never says that baptism itself is what saves us or forgives us of sin. That would be to commit the mistake that the Catholic Church sadly has fallen into (I make mention of this in my previous blog on baptism). Even after Peter’s potentially confusing statement about being saved through baptism, he clarifies that it is actually “the resurrection of Jesus Christ” that saves you (1 Peter 3:21). It is Jesus that saves us, through his work not ours. We don’t even prompt Jesus to save us by our faith. As shown in many of the episodes in Acts, it is God who opens people’s heart to respond in faith. Our faith is a gift, so that our salvation is from God and by God from start to finish. As Paul writes so succinctly in Ephesians 2:8-9, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this faith is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

So baptism doesn’t have any magical saving powers, but it is still tied very intimately to our response and to God’s salvation. They are all wrapped up together. Can you be saved without baptism? Of course! Think about the thief on the cross (Luke 23:38-43). But what should we do to respond to Jesus? Repent and be baptised. Simple as that.

 

BAPTISM TODAY

The sad thing I see today is that much of the church seems to have lost this simple approach to baptism. Both sides of the baptism debate have made it more complex than it needs to be. Pedobaptists churches can sometimes turn baptism into a highly complex, theological statement about the seal of God’s promises and the sign of the new covenant. I fear, they can sort of kill it with theology at times, like a joke that stops being funny after you have explained it in too much detail.

Credobaptists churches on the other hand, should be all for a simple “believe and be baptised” approach, but many of them can make it overcomplicated as well. Because they are committed to not baptising children from Christian homes unless they are really believers, they have developed systems for establishing this with supposed certainty. Many make people partake in several week-long baptism courses which you have to register for and in some churches they get you to wait until Easter when they do a mass baptism of lots of converts. In most churches, baptism is also connected with the idea of becoming a “member” of that particular church and so it begins to take on even more complexity. If you’re thinking about becoming baptised, you might be encouraged to wait until an appropriate date on which you can invite your friends and family along. It gets put off to an available Sunday service that isn’t too busy. And then there’s your testimony. Of course, you have to give a public testimony explaining how you came to trust in Jesus. And because of this, help in how to write a clear testimony is often worked into a baptism course, and people are given time to feel comfortable with standing up in front of a crowd and sharing their story. I know of Christians who have put off their baptism indefinitely, purely due to their fear of public speaking.

Where did it go so wrong? When did we lose the simplicity? When did baptism turn into such an event? In the New Testament, baptism is like a shotgun wedding. “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?” the Ethiopian in Acts 8 says when he believes in Jesus. Nowadays, it can be more like a big ceremony, that looks like a wedding but the couple made their marriage vows a month or two earlier. People get baptised weeks, months or even decades after they repented and believed in Jesus. I think it’s weird. I think it’s sad. I think we’ve missed the point of baptism. It’s not just that it loses the excitement of the moment of conversion. It also loses the connection with the act of conversion itself. Remember, the passages from Acts? Conversion and baptism were part of the same package. You repented and were baptised. At the same time. On the same day.

This is maybe why we get so confused about what baptism is and how we should administer it. We’ve turned it into something with more complexity, more theology, more process and more red tape than it ever was meant to have. Now, I’m not saying that we should take it lightly or encourage people to do it willy nilly. But we don’t encourage people to repent and believe lightly either. Jesus tells us that we must count the cost of being a disciple (Luke 14:25-33) and he also warns us not to be one of those people who respond to the gospel with superficial enthusiasm, but who dump it all when times get tough (Matthew 13:20-21). Becoming a disciple of Jesus is huge. It is giving up your autonomy and your sin and your allegiance to anyone or anything other than Christ. It should not be done for foolish or selfish reasons. Like wedding vows, becoming a disciple of Jesus is a life-long commitment that should be entered into “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God” (“The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony” from “The Book of Common Prayer”).

Having said this, the call to repent and believe in Jesus is an immediate call. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6:2, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation.” We are all called to respond to Jesus now. Not to wait or put it off. True, we must count the cost, but count the cost now. The warnings are generally not about responding to God too quickly, but too slowly. Like the man in the story Jesus told in Luke 12:16-21, who stored up his wealth and put off being rich towards God, and then one night God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.” We are told to respond now. And baptism, I think, was meant to be part of that response.

 

THE SINNER’S PRAYER

The role baptism had in the response of a brand new believer, has today been replaced in part by what’s known as the “Sinner’s Prayer”. The “Sinner’s Prayer” is a simple prayer that acknowledges our sin, asks Jesus for forgiveness and accepts Jesus as your Lord. There are no strict formulaic words to the “Sinner’s Prayer”, but at the end of every evangelistic tract you’ll find one. If you’ve ever been to a big evangelistic rally or event and they ask people to come to the front if they want to become a Christian, the prayer they get everyone to say is a version of the Sinner’s Prayer”. It is a decisive, verbal prayer of repentance and commitment. It is quite useful in evangelism because it has a beginning and it has an end, so you can say to people who have prayed it (if they truly meant it) that they are now saved and that they are now part of God’s family.

Sinners-Prayer-card_f_improf_629x495Some Christians are strongly against the idea of the “Sinner’s Prayer” (like Paul Washer who brings up some great points in this VIDEO). Mainly, their criticisms are about people’s confidence in their salvation being based on the prayer they said once, rather than the daily reliance on the work of Christ. I agree that the “Sinner’s Prayer” has a danger of being treated like a magical spell that once said with conviction, compels God to forgive you and make you born again. But I don’t think it has to be that way. When I repented and believed at age 16, it was through saying the “Sinner’s Prayer” around a kitchen table with some Christian friends who had shared the gospel with me. I can’t really remember all the words I said, but it was a clear moment to that reminded me that I had crossed the line and given my life to Jesus. Now I am under no illusion that it was the “Sinner’s Prayer” that saved me. It was Jesus who saved me. And like Lydia in Acts 16:14, I know that God was the one who opened my heart to accept the gospel, without any prompting from me. In fact, it was that opening of my heart that prompted me to want to say the “Sinner’s Prayer”.

Some people critique the “Sinner’s Prayer” because they say it is unbiblical. Nowhere in the bible do we see people reciting a particular prayer in their moment of coming to faith. When the men came to Peter and asked, “What must we do?”, Peter didn’t say, “Bow your head and repeat this prayer after me, line by line.” No, he said, “Repent and be baptised!” Now, although that is true, I do think there is biblical precedent for the idea of a prayer being the physical act that shows repentance. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable about a Tax Collector who beats his breast and says, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ and then goes home justified before God. Surely, that is as close to the “Sinner’s Prayer” as you can get. Also, in Romans 10:9-13, Paul writes: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” This “calling on the name of the Lord” has been maybe made a bit too formulaic in the “Sinner’s Prayer” but it seems their is definitely biblical for encouraging people to talk to God as part of the mark of their repentance.

The thing I think is unfortunate about the “Sinner’s Prayer” is that it seems to have replaced the role of baptism. Today, if you were asked by a friend you have shared the gospel with, “What must I do?”, would you answer with “repent and be baptised” or the “Sinner’s Prayer”? Part of the role of baptism I think was to give the convert a clear and decisive moment in time when they make the decision to become a disciple of Jesus. In the act of going into the water, they were identifying themself with Jesus and their acceptance of the gospel message. Today, we use the “Sinner’s Prayer” functionally in the same way, and baptism is left as this strange ritual that we do a long time afterwards, or for some, we never get around to doing at all!

 

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

I think for us to regain the purpose for baptism that is pictured in the Bible, I have a few thoughts:

  • Include baptism in our evangelistic call.
    • It may seem weird, but when we encourage our non-Christian friends and family to turn to Christ, I think we should encourage them to be baptised as part of that call. If we are worried that they would be turned off by such a tactile and public display of commitment, then maybe we don’t trust that God would be at work in their hearts. God is the one that opens people’s eyes and hearts to the beauty of the gospel. Maybe, when God does that, the idea of baptism wouldn’t be such a weird idea.
  • At evangelistic events and Youth Rallies, there should not be an alter call without baptisms.
    • altar-call1Either be ready to do baptisms when you want people to turn to Christ, or, probably more appropriately, don’t do alter calls. I asked one friend why he thought they thought they didn’t do baptisms at Youth Rally evangelistic events, he said it was because they expected that some kids were only responding due to the hype of the moment, and so they shouldn’t get baptised just in case it wasn’t genuine. If that is the case then why do an alter call? Why do the “Sinner’s Prayer”? What assurance can you give the new believer if you doubt that they truly are a new believer?
    • Some also think it’s simply impractical to call people to be baptised at such a large event, but that issue didn’t faze the early Church. When Peter told his hearers to “Repent and be baptised”, it goes on to say, “Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41) Can we even fathom an evangelistic event where thousands of people respond to the gospel and do so by being baptised? I’m not saying if we don’t have baptisms, the converts aren’t real Christians. It’s just that when baptism is left out, I feel it loses its meaning and intended purpose.
  • Stop putting up so many barriers to baptism.
    • This is a controversial one, but hear me out. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about who gets baptise and I even think we should refuse baptism to anyone who is doing it without “counting the cost” or wanting it for non-gospel reasons. But some churches have drowned the process of baptism with process and paperwork. There is no biblical reason why baptism has to be done at church. There is no biblical reason why it has to wait for Sunday. There is no biblical reason why it has to be done by an ordained minister.
    • I’m not saying that it’s wrong to wait to do it if you want to have family and friends present. There can be something very special about that. But it should be easy. It should be a natural response to Jesus, and pretty much, whoever wants to repent and be baptised should be allowed to. Think about the “Sinner’s Prayer”. If a friend told you they want to be saved and asked if you could pray with them, would you get them to do a “Sinner’s Prayer” course? Would they have to do it at a Sunday Service after they shared their testimony? Would you call the minister to do it for you? I really hope not! Sure you might ask them some “counting the cost” type questions to make sure they understood what it meant, but once you were fairly convinced that their desire to respond to the gospel was genuine, you would probably pray with them there and then! I think we should do baptism in the same way. Like the enthusiastic Ethiopian in Acts 8:36, we should encourage people to say, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?”
  • Get baptised!
    • This last point is for those Christians who have never been baptised. Get baptised! There are only two rituals that Jesus commands Christians to do – partaking in the Breaking of Bread and baptism. If you have never gotten around to getting baptised, go and get it done. Speak to you minister today, talk to a Christian friend. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. You can do it at church, or at the beach, or in a lake, or in your bathtub! It is sad that it is so far removed from your initial act of repentance and conversion, but the truth of the symbolic act is still as true today as it would have been if you had done it then. Getting baptised is a wonderful physical response to Jesus, and it is something that he commands, so doing it shows everyone your submission to and love for the Lord.

 

BAPTISM & CHRISTIAN KIDS

Now, all this talk about baptism being part and parcel with our response to Jesus, doesn’t necessarily answer the question about what Christian parents should do with their kids. A credobaptist may have read this blog and be saying, “It’s obvious! The call is to repent and then get baptised! Not to baptise and then hope they repent!” But I don’t think it’s that easy.

Child-with-Bible1As I have already mentioned, many credobaptist churches turn the process of baptism into a convoluted series of hoops that you have to jump through to prove that you are really truly genuine in your repentance. But the child born into a Christian family has a unique experience. They are not being called to convert, they are not being called to repent. They are (hopefully) being brought up with the truths of the gospel. They don’t come to respond to Jesus. They’ve been taught to respond to Jesus right from the beginning. Ideally, they have grown up knowing and believing the gospel and relating to Jesus as their Lord and God as their Heavenly Father.

The question remains, if this is their experience and they have no conversion “moment”, then when should they be baptised? Some credobaptists might argue that kids should be encouraged to get to a time when they “own” their faith and publicly profess themselves to be a Christian, and that that is the appropriate time for them to be baptised, but I don’t see any clear biblical basis for that as much as I don’t see any clear biblical example of infant baptism. The biblical model is that, for first time believers, they should repent and be baptised. For those that are brought up in a family that has already repented, there really is no clear biblical model. I have questions and concerns about infant baptism, but I think I have more of a problem with the uniquely credobaptist “ownership of faith” baptism.

This blog isn’t my final thought on baptism. In fact, it is really just the starting point. Repentance and baptism are supposed to go hand in hand. That I am clear on. Maybe I should ditch the terms “pedobaptist” and “credobaptist” and call myself “repentobaptist”. In any case, I will continue thinking about how this starting point relates to what I should do with my daughter that is due in June. Getting this initial understanding about the place of baptism is for now, enough for me to chew on.

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January 3 2015

Why worry about baptism?

WHY WORRY

Lately, I have been thinking lots about baptism. I am talking to people, posting thoughts on facebook, listening to talks and reading a really helpful book called, “Baptism: Three Views“. My aim is to reach a biblically faithful understanding of baptism and come to some conclusion as to which “camp” I sit in. There are many different understandings of baptism and people have debated it for centuries, but I am only considering three basic views – “pedo-baptism” (the idea that it’s appropriate to baptise children of Christian parents), “credo-baptism” (the idea that only professing Christians should be baptised) and “inbetweedo-baptism” (not a real term, but represents the view that either position is ok and there does not need to be uniformity between Christians on the issue).

But as the title of this blog asks… why worry about baptism? Why go to such lengths to think through an issue that may not be resolvable and is definitely not core to the gospel? Well, firstly I do want to acknowledge that I do think this is not a core gospel issue. Baptism is not necessary for salvation, a point that is most clearly shown by the story in Acts 10:43-48 where people respond to the call to believe in Jesus for forgiveness, are born again and given the Holy Spirit, and after all that are baptised. Only Jesus saves us and he does so when we put our faith in him, which is why Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Baptism doesn’t save us, so why worry about it?

great_commissionWell, baptism might not be necessary for salvation, but it is connected with salvation. All the views of baptism that I respect (namely the three that I mentioned above) acknowledge that baptism is an important ritual that Jesus commanded his disciples to perform as they spread the message of the gospel and made disciples. The final words of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s gospel record this command: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) Any Christian that takes seriously Jesus’ authority and his command for us to make disciples and spread his teaching, has to engage with what he means when he commands us to “baptise”.

First and foremost, it must challenge all Christians to get baptised themselves. There may be much debate about whether or not we should baptise our kids, but if you are an un-baptised Christian, then the call and biblical expectation to get baptised is a no-brainer. I understand some Christians may want to think through exactly what it all means, or they may be unsure about the mode of baptism (dunk or pour), or they want to make the event something their friends and family can come to, but those concerns should not drag on too long. We should rather have the enthusiasm of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:36, who after comprehending the gospel, said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?” To put it off indefinitely or to simply ignore it, is I think, dishonouring to the beautiful ritual that baptism is supposed to be. At best it is a sign of being ignorant of the importance Scripture puts on it, and at worst it is an act of willing disobedience to the clear command of Jesus. So, if you haven’t done it and you’re a follower of Jesus, then get your bathers and get on with it!


MY JOURNEY WITH BAPTISM

So baptism is important to think about for all Christians, but why am I particularly engaging with this issue now? Well, the answer is in the blog I wrote before this one. I have a baby on the way. And so, I feel I need to come to some conclusion as to whether or not God wants me to get my child baptised. One thing I have come to realise is, I can’t do nothing. I can’t sit on the fence indefinitely. Basically, if I think about it for 20 years and then decide I believe that the pedobaptist view is correct, it’s a bit too late. It’s like someone driving towards a cliff as they are asking themselves “To be or not to be”. Once they hit the cliff, they have decided “not to be” whether they are ready for it or not! In the end, I do think there is some merit to the case for pedobaptism and so I think I should consider it before my child is too old and I have accepted the “credobaptist” position by default!

Even though my child’s impending birthday does create a sense of urgency (if you can call 6 months “urgent”), even before I was married I was interested in understanding baptism. You see, I was brought up in a Catholic family and so was baptised as an infant myself. For most of my childhood I didn’t contemplate my own baptism, but it did effect the way I understood Christianity. I was always taught that my baptism was like my ticket into heaven, and because of it, I was a child of God.

Baptism.146174950_stdAs opposed to what I now know the bible teaches, the Catholic Church’s position is that God uses the actual act of baptism to save us. The Catholic Catechism teaches: Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.” 

Due to this teaching, I always just presumed I had a relationship with God and so I did not engage with the message of the gospel or the call to put my trust in Jesus for my forgiveness. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I started to question this idea. Despite being told I was right with God, I didn’t feel it. It didn’t ring true to my experience.

At aged 16, I finally heard the message that I could be freed from my sin and received this rebirth as a child of God, not through my baptism, but through trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection. I heard this message through a pentecostal family, who were very much “credobaptists”. The daughter, who I was dating at the time, even told me how she accepted Jesus as her Lord and Saviour and was baptised at the young age of 5!

After becoming a Christian I developed a real disgust with the idea of infant baptism. After all, it was my infant baptism that lied to me that I was already right with God and prevented me from seeking the truth about the gospel. At least, that’s how I felt. I came to think that infant baptism was the primary thing wrong with the Catholic Church and was the cause of most of their problems. Also, I had such a wonderful example of “believer” baptism in this pentecostal family’s testimony and now, my own experience.

I would have happily remained a devout credobaptist if it wasn’t for the Christian Union. If you haven’t heard of them, they are a wonderful evangelical group that meets on University campuses around Australia, teaching, evangelising, training and mentoring students. It was through the Christian Union (or CU as we called it) that I really started to delve into studying the Bible. The pentecostal church I had started going to was loving and full of enthusiasm, but they were not good at bible teaching. It was the CU that helped me study the bible, write bible studies, ask questions, seek answers, engage in robust theological discussion and get a fuller and clearer understanding of the gospel.

The CU (and its parent organisation, AFES) is made up of lots of denominations, but clearly there was a dominance of Anglican and Presbyterian churches. It was through the CU that I started attending Bundoora Presbyterian Church (a church I have now been going to for around 14 years). It was also through the CU that I heard the crazy idea that some Christians who knew the gospel and studied the bible, also believed that you could baptise infants!

You can image how shocked I was. For nearly 5 years I had believed that infant baptism was the biggest poison to true Christianity. I was thoroughly convinced that no valid biblical argument could be made for pedobaptism, but, not wanting to be stubborn in my beliefs, I was willing to be swayed. I looked for a solid biblical article that would explain the position to me, and low and behold… I found one! I am very sad to report I can’t supply a copy of this article, but I can testify to it’s arguments being solid and biblically based. It didn’t completely convince me, but it did show me that there was more to this debate than just what I had experienced in my childhood and conversion.

fenceFrom that point on, I was pretty much “on the fence” on the issue. Over the years I have done some thinking and discussing on the issue, but nothing that would compel me to pick a side. I would hear one argument and find it robust and convincing, but then I would hear a valid rebuttle and a presentation of the opposing view that was also robust and convincing.

As I said earlier, with a child on the way I feel I should once again pick up this issue and see if I can come to any settled position. Although I am an active member in my local presbyterian church, I feel no specific loyalty to agree with its position on this matter. My minister, Neil Chambers, is wise and very biblical, keeping our church focussed on the core issues of the gospel and not forcing people to agree with the official presbyterian position on an issue is not clear in Scripture. He definitely is a pedobaptist, but he would not expect I would have to agree with that position in order to be a member or be involved in church ministry. His focus has always be that Christian parents raise their children to love Jesus, whether they baptise them or not.

So, here I am, still on the fence. After years of reading and discussing, I feel I am getting a good grasp on both sides of the debate. In fact, if you are fully convinced of either position, I reckon I could happily and passionately argue for the opposing view. This doesn’t help me in my goal to reach some conclusion myself, but it does give me a respect for both sides, a humility when it comes to these issues, and an acknowledgement that neither side is “clearly” wrong or wildly unbiblical.

Now, I haven’t actually gone into the arguments for either position in this blog. This is partly because I am still reading the book “Baptism: Three Views” and wanting to solidify my thoughts a bit more. I will hopefully write another blog down the track to reveal and explain which position I have decided upon, when (or if) I eventually reach a decision. I just thought I’d write this blog to explain a bit of my journey so far and why I find it personally very stimulating, engaging and interesting to think about the issue of baptism.

To aid my journey, please feel free to do the following, either in the comments on this blog, or in an email to me personally:

  1. Share your own journey and questions relating to this issue.
  2. Pass on any articles, sermons or thoughts that you find explain either position well.
  3. Catch up with me to ask your own questions or to discuss or debate the topic with me. I’d love that!

 

Please also pray for me. This issue may be complex and both sides may have valid arguments, but I do want to be faithful to Scripture and the commands of Jesus, in how I think about this issue. At the same time, I don’t want to give this issue more time than I should. As my brother Tony advised me, I believe with the first child your primary thought will be “I must not drop you” until you relax. Just enjoy those early days.’ Good counsel.

So, why worry about baptism? Well, I don’t plan to worry too much. But I am looking forward to the journey. 

In the meantime, if you want a laugh, have a read of a funny post I wrote on this topic last year…

10 alternatives to “credobaptism” & “paedobaptism”

 

 

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August 7 2014

The Black Letter Gospel – Miracles

black letter gospel

In some Bibles the words of Jesus are printed in red. These “red letter” bibles are well meaning, encouraging us to consider Jesus’ teaching by drawing attention to his words, but it’s also a bit of a misleading thing. It implies that the red letters somehow hold more authority as the “Word of God” and that the black letters are somehow less important. Nothing could be farther from the truth…

Back in July, I posted on Facebook this question: “What do you think is the best way to clearly explain the gospel (the message that is at the heart of Christianity)? If you’re not a Christian, what would be the most helpful way that it could be explained, if you ever wanted to get your head around it?” My cousin posted a great response that I took as a wonderful challenge. He wrote: “I’d love to see something based on Jesus’ actions, with contextual discourse. As opposed to the usual focus on what he said.” It was a wonderful insight and revealed to me how many people hear Christians talking about Jesus.

Sometimes, we can focus on Jesus as simply a moral teacher. Jesus said this, Jesus said that. It all nice to hear someone talk, but what did he DO? How did he live? Did his actions back up his words? What can we learn about Jesus and his message and his mission, from what he did rather than what he taught? It’s a great challenge. It encourages us to look at the black letters, not just the red. Well, this four-part blog is a summary of my thoughts on that topic.

niner-slapA word of caution: Now, as much as the old saying, “actions speak louder than words” is very true, I will not completely ignore Jesus words in my exploration of his actions. If someone suddenly gives you a slap on the head, the words they say next might be vitally important. If they say, “You’re an idiot!” then you know the intention behind the action. But if they say, “You had a spider crawling on your head!” you might respond with thanks rather than a punch in the nose. Likewise, Jesus’ actions sometimes can be confusing or easily misinterpreted and so his words of explanation can be very insightful.

Ok, now there’s lots that could be said about Jesus’ actions and it’s pretty hard to go through each one (as wonderful an exercise as that may be), so I’ve summarised them under four categories: MIRACLES, MEALS, DEATH & RESURRECTION. You might be able to find many actions that he did that don’t exactly fit under these categories, but when it comes to the most significant actions recorded in the gospels, I’d say these four pretty much cover them all.

In this first of four blog posts, we will look at: Miracles.


MIRACLES

Possibly the most memorable actions that Jesus is known for is the miracles he performed. Ask the average guy on the street and he might remember the stories about how Jesus turned water into wine, healed people, fed the 5,000 and walked on water. But what were his miracles all about? Were they like super powers that he used when he saw someone is trouble?

Well, the word that is often used alongside (or instead of) the word “miracles” is the word “signs”. The apostle Peter, when he summarises the life of Jesus before his crucifixion, says: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22) In fact, in the New Testament, supernatural actions are called “signs” around three times more often than they are called “miracles”.

The reason why Jesus’ miracles are called “signs” is because they weren’t simply super powers on display. They were a sign pointing to or SIGNifying something. Jesus’ miracles were deliberate demonstrations of the authority and identity of Jesus. They showed that he was from God. 

You see this very clearly throughout the gospels. In John 3:2, when Nicodemus the Jewish religious ruler met with Jesus, he says: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” When Jesus calms a storm with his word in Mark 4:35-41, his disciples are terrified and wonder, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”  Also, when John the Baptist was in prison and starting to lose faith about whether Jesus was who he said he was, Jesus pointed to his miracles as proof. Read the following passage from Luke 7:18-23…

“John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ When the men came to Jesus, they said, ‘John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’’ At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.'”

Jesus’ saw his own miracles as signs that pointed to the fact that he truly was “the one who is to come”.

turning-water-into-wineThe very first public miracle that Jesus performed is probably his most famous – turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana. You can read the whole story in John 2:1-12. Now, you may think that Jesus may have done this miracle in order to help out the thirsty wedding guests or the bride and groom who were embarrassed by running out of booze, but the text says something different. It says in verse 11, What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” The point and purpose of the sign was to reveal his glory, and the response Jesus expects is for us to believe in him. This is the point of all the miracles, as John writes at the end of his gospel account: Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

The miracles are supposed to be a signpost pointing to the identity of Jesus. Jesus performed them to show us that he has divine authority over nature, over sickness, over evil and over death. He is God in human form and we should respond to him as such. But how should we respond to someone who is demonstrating the authority of God? How should we respond to God?

Well, when Peter first saw Jesus perform a miracle, his response wasn’t joy or amazement – it was fear for his own soul. In Luke 5:1-11, after Jesus has just caused a miraculous amount of fish to be caught by Peter, it says, “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!'” Peter knew he was in the presence of God his Creator – the one who was holy and perfect, the one who knew the darkness of his heart and the one who one day would judge all the world. This is the response that the miracles should inspire – A deep awareness of our own sinfulness before a holy God. It should inspire repentance.

This is what Jesus expected. You see that in Matthew 11:20-24 where Jesus rebukes the people who had seen lots of his miraculous signs: Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.'” 

So the miracles of Jesus show us that Jesus is more than a mere moral teacher – he is God in human form. Those, like Peter, who are honest with themselves do not find Jesus’ miracles good news. When God shows us that means that you and I will be held accountable for our sin. The expectation of Peter is that Jesus has come to bring God’s wrath.

Well, Peter was right to respond to Jesus with fear of being condemned. But Jesus does something spectacular. In Luke 5:10, Jesus responds by saying “Do not be afraid” and by inviting Peter to follow him. That’s how Jesus responded to sinners. He doesn’t run away in disgust or turn away in anger, like Peter thought he would. In fact, he draws near and extends the offer to follow him. This actually a simple definition of what it means to be a Christian – someone who knows they are a sinner, but believes in Jesus and takes up his offer to follow him.

Jesus, even though he was our Creator in human form, did not come to condemn sinners. He came to welcome them and call them to repent and come back into friendship with God. This offer to sinners of mercy and reconciliation is demonstrated no more powerfully than by the second category of Jesus actions – meals.

 

Post on “Meals” coming soon…
Please ask your questions about this post or make a comment below.

 

 

 

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April 19 2014

Jesus’ death & Isaiah 53

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There are many passages in the Old Testament that help us understand what Jesus was on about and why he died, but none is clearer than the 53rd chapter of the Book of Isaiah.

Isaiah was a prophet who lived around 1,000 years before Jesus. He received many visions and messages from God, some of which were fulfilled in his own lifetime, some which point to the end of the world, and some that point to the promised Messiah, Jesus.

The vision recorded in Isaiah 53 is so strikingly accurate to the suffering and death of Jesus is it hard to ignore it. Definitely the New Testament writers and even Jesus saw the connection.

Not only are the parallels in Isaiah 53 interesting, they are also very helpful to explain the purpose of Jesus’ death. There is a fairly recent philosophical movement in some circles to argue against the idea that Jesus died as a substitute for sinners. This theological idea – known as “Substitutionary Atonement” – is I believe at the very heart of the Christian gospel and is supported not only throughout the New Testament epistles, but also the gospels as well.

There are some though that argue that this concept was made up many years after Jesus by the apostle Paul and is not found at all in the teaching of Jesus. I met a minister in the States years ago who told me that the idea that Jesus took our place on the cross and died on our behalf was nowhere to be found in the gospels. He challenged me to think of one place where it could be found, and at the time, I was nervous and didn’t know the bible as well as I do now, so I went blank.

If I had my time again, I would have pointed this minister to Isaiah 53 and all the places in the New Testament that say that Jesus’ death was a fulfilment of it. If you are interested in looking up some of those references you can check out: Luke 22:371 Peter 2:21-25Acts 8:26-40 and Romans 10:16.

If you want to understand the message of Christianity, if you want to get your head around the Good Friday and the purpose behind Jesus’ death, I could point you to many places in the New Testament, but I’d say you could read the Old Testament prophecy found in Isaiah 53 and that would be sufficient.

I will not write a big explanation of this passage. Rather, I will simply post it below for you to read yourself and reflect on how it helps you understand Jesus’ death:

ISAIAH 53

Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

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

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

 

May you reflect on this passage this Easter and know that when it says “he bore the sins of many” that not only is the “he” referring to Jesus, but that you may be included in the “many”.

That is the offer of the gospel and the message of Easter.

If you’d like some reflection questions, read through Isaiah 53 again and think about the following:

  • What are the parallels in this prophecy to the suffering and death of Jesus?
  • What does this teach me about WHY Jesus died?
  • What is God’s part in all of this?
  • What does this prophecy teach me about the sort of people Jesus died for?
  • Do I think of myself in the terms described in this prophecy?
  • If Jesus died for me, how should I respond to his death?
  • Do I think this prophecy gives any hint about the resurrection?

Write your answers, reflections or further questions in the comments below…

HAPPY EASTER!

BC

 

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April 16 2014

The Cry at the Crucifixion

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At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 

These words found in Matthew 15:33-34, record an incredibly powerful moment in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. The gospel writers Matthew and Mark record the words, “Eloi, Eloi lema sabachthani?” as one of the final words of Jesus before breathing his last. They are words that, as the story shows, can be misunderstood, as some standing nearby mishear the word “Eloi” and make the assumption that Jesus is crying out to the Old Testament prophet Elijah to save him from the cross. Fortunately, the gospel writer gives us the correct translation of the Aramaic words and so points us to what was going through Jesus’ mind as he approached death.

The words, we are told, are translated into “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As with those standing nearby, a superficial reading of these words could easily lead us to a wrong understanding. We could think Jesus was wondering why God had not saved him. It could seem that Jesus was confused after all the good stuff he had done as to why God seemed to had forsaken him and left him to die. Wasn’t he the Messiah? Shouldn’t he be rescued by an army of angels, proving that he was who he had claimed to be? Only now, as he struggled to breath, knowing death was near, it dawned on him that rescue wasn’t coming and all he could ask God was “why”.

Well, if you read these words in complete isolation to the rest of the Bible, you could be forgiven for concluding that’s what was happening. But as with most confusing verses in Scripture, having a wider knowledge of the Bible is often very helpful. The fact is, these words of Jesus don’t just come out of nowhere. They are actually a direct quote from the opening line of a very relevant ancient poem… Psalm 22.

The 22nd Psalm is an emotional poem written by King David during a time where he faced intense persecution and danger. The suffering that Jesus was experiencing during his execution, powerfully echo the events described in Psalm 22. I recommend reading the whole of Psalm 22 to get all the context, but here are a few highlights, along with the parallel texts from the crucifixion story:

“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
‘He trusts in the Lord,’ they say, ‘let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.'”

(Psalm 22:6-8)

“In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him.
‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel!
Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.
He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’'”
(Matthew 27:41-43)

“Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.”
(Psalm 22:16-18)

“When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
And sitting down, they kept watch over him there.”
(Matthew 27:35-36)

It is amazing that the events described in Psalm 22 were written over 1,000 years before the events described in Matthew 27. Maybe their parallel is not just a coincidence. Maybe Jesus saw all these things taking place before him and quoted the first line of Psalm 22 as a way of expressing this connection. Jesus often described events in his life as “fulfilling” events described in the Psalms an other places in the Old Testament. In fact, Jesus said that much of the Old Testament is really all about him (Luke 24:25-27). Maybe Jesus knew that Psalm 22 was not simply a record of events similar to his own circumstance, but a type of prophecy that pointed to this moment in history? David’s kingship pointed to its fulfilment in the “Son of David” – the Messiah. Maybe David’s sufferings pointed to Jesus’ as well.

Now, although Jesus may be expressing some theological point in quoting Psalm 22, we should not forget that Jesus was also in incredible anguish. The words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” shouldn’t be read as simply an interesting Bible cross-reference. They also speak of the suffering Jesus was going through. I mean, if Jesus just wanted to point us to Psalm 22, he could have chosen a much more uplifting quote like verse 24: “[The Lord] has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” or verse 26: “The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise him – may your hearts live forever!”

the-passion-of-the-christ-imageNow, when reflecting on the crucifixion of Jesus, our first instinct is to think that Jesus’ suffering is primarily physical. Watch a movie like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and you’ll get a graphic picture of Jesus’ physical suffering. But interestingly, the gospel writers don’t actually focus on this at all. The crucifixion, which was a long, brutal and bloody form of torture and execution, is never described in any detail. In all the gospels it is simply mentioned in a rather matter-of-fact sort of way: ie. “When they had crucified him…” (Matthew 27:35) We are not given a blow by blow account of what is happening to Jesus’ body, but rather, the focus is put on everything that is happening around Jesus. Why? Because the real suffering that Jesus was enduring was not physical, it was metaphysical – it was between him and God the Father. This suffering was unseen and so the gospel writers tell us about everything around the cross, that points to this reality.

The crowd’s mock. Jesus is rejected as the Messiah. Yet ironically, the sign above the cross declares that “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Darkness covers the land for three hours in the middle of the day. And at the end of this, after Jesus cries out the words from Psalm 22, he finally breaths his last – which brings a whole new series of events. The thick curtain in the temple that separated the people from the Most Holy Place was torn from top to bottom. There was an earthquake that split rocks. Even some dead people were raised to life and entered Jerusalem!

Now, there’s lots of ideas about what each of these events mean and I’m especially moved by the powerful symbolism of the temple curtain being torn in two, but at the very least it highlights that Jesus’ suffering and death wasn’t anything ordinary. Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t simply an unfortunate act of injustice. It wasn’t an object lesson by Jesus as he taught us to “die for what we believe in”. Something majorly supernatural was taking place. The testimony of Jesus’ words, the gospel writers, the Old Testament Prophets and the New Testament Church all points to one simple and powerful word – substitution.

When Jesus suffered, he was suffering on behalf of sinners like you and me. Jesus suffered and died in our place. He is our substitute.

cupOn the night before his crucifixion, Jesus explained this during the Last Supper (I explain this in more detail here) and during his prayerful agony in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus is grappling with the reality that he is about to drink the cup of the wrath of God spoken about in Isaiah 51:17-23. It’s not physical pain that he fears. It’s the wrath of God. That is the “cup” that Jesus wants the Father to take away from him.

During the crucifixion, Jesus bears the wrath of God that we deserve. As Jesus’ closest friend, the apostle Peter writes: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) The idea that Jesus is our substitute is the heart of the message of the gospel. It is the reason why Good Friday is called “good”.

Surely, in Jesus’ cry of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” we should not only hear the echo of Psalm 22. We should also hear the cry of someone experiencing the wrath of God. It’s unclear exactly how Jesus (the incarnate Son of God) could be “forsaken” by God the Father, but his words are a little window into the supernatural suffering he was facing on our behalf.

As Good Friday approaches, and we reflect on the events and words that took place in the last moments of Jesus’ life, may we be filled with awe, with grief and with humble wonder. But most of all, I pray we may be filled most of all with gratitude. It is because of Jesus’ death, you can be free of fear and guilt and condemnation. It is because of Jesus’ death, you can be reconciled with your Creator both now and forever.

Jesus was forsaken so that we all could be forgiven, and it is because of Jesus’ death, I will never have to cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

Those words will never be mine. Jesus said them for me.

 

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April 3 2014

Simon’s review of “Noah” – the film

noah_sad

This is titled “Simon’s review of Noah – the film” because my last blog was titled, “Jesus’ review of Noah“. If you haven’t read it, please do, as I talk a bit about the movie (before I had seen it) and I discuss what I think is a fascinating topic – namely, what Jesus said about the original Old Testament story of Noah. If you’d like to read it, CLICK HERE.

About 40 minutes ago I had just finished watching Darren Aronofsky’s new film, “Noah”. I went into the film with a few clear expectations…

1. It was not going to be biblically accurate.bible
Even Aronofsky called his own film, “the least biblical biblical film ever made”. So there was no way I was going to get offended by the fact they were going to stray from the source material.

2. It’s directed by Darren Aronofsky.
This is the same guy who did Requiem for a Dream  and Black Swan. So, I knew it was going to be a bit weird.

3. Darren Aronofsky is an atheist.
I’m Godless.” He has said, “And so I’ve had to make my God, and my God is narrative filmmaking.” So I didn’t expect a reflection on biblical themes or a portrayal of “the Creator” (as God is constantly referred to in the film) from the perspective of someone who has an intimate relationship with God.

4. It’s had mixed reviews.
Some have said it’s amazing. Some have said it’s just a bad film. Lots of Christian commentators have critiqued its distortions of the Bible and its message. So I was going in with not very high expectations.

5. There are rock monsters.
These creatures are very loosely inspired by the “Nephilim” from Genesis 6:4. I didn’t know how much of a part they played, but I knew they had been getting lots of flack. So I was at least prepared for their presence in the film.

So, having all that in the back of my mind, I went to see it tonight with my wife, ready for anything. I thought I was prepared. I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong. Here are a few of the things that surprised me…

(Spoiler Alert! I will be conscious that you may not have seen the film, but I probably will reveal a few details that you do not get from the trailers. I’ll try not to spoil anything that would spoil the experience if you do go see it)

1. I hated the rock monsters.original
Not because they were an unbiblical and unnecessary silly addition to the film. I just thought they looked crap! I can cope with an atheist butchering a bible story. What I can’t cope with, in this day and age, is an esteemed director like Aronofsky letting such shockingly bad CGI get on the silver screen! They looked like they were either puppeteered against a green screen or done with stop motion! Maybe they were animated in that way to pay tribute to Ray Harryhausen (the master of stop motion monsters) who died last year. Personally, I think they added very little to the film and were more of a weird distraction that made me feel like I was watching Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth” at times. Hey, Jennifer Connelly was the lead actress in both those films so maybe it was intentional!

2. It was pretty cool.
It had a consistently interesting and cinematic look to it. The costumes were cool, the sets were cool, the acting was cool, the actors were cool, the sound effects were cool, the visual effects (apart from the rock monsters) were cool. It was a cool movie. Well worth seeing on the big screen for the visual feast that it was.

3. It wasn’t at all Godless.
I had heard some criticisms that God is absent in the film just because the word “God” is not used. But the “Creator” (as God is called) is not only mentioned throughout the film, he clearly and unambiguously makes things happen. I was worried they were going to sort of make out that it was all in Noah’s head. Now, sure, he received the message to build the ark through dreams (whereas in the Bible God just speaks to Noah), but God is very clearly acting when a forest miraculously appears and all the animals come to the ark and the worldwide flood comes along. Even the rock monsters are evidence of a divine being. There’s no hint that Noah is just making it all up or it was just a localised flood or something like that to turn it into a Godless story. God is depicted as just and merciful, directly active and working through the lives and choices of people. There is a reoccurring theme of characters asking why God is silent (it’s mentioned by at least three separate characters), which was disappointing because that’s the exact opposite of what the original story says, but at least God was present throughout. If you know your Bible, he was a lot more obvious in this film than he is in the Book of Esther, that’s for sure!

God’s direction and command was an interesting theme in the film I thought. When Noah is given the command to build the ark because the flood is coming, that is all pretty clear (albeit given through a series of dreams). And it’s the right thing to do, no question. But later (spoiler alert) when Noah feels that because humans are so sinful, even he and all his family should not be spared and so he plans to kill his granddaughter so the human race will die out, abraham-and-isaac-on-mount-moriahthere is no dream from God. There is a sort of dream sequence where he sees the evil of mankind and realises that he and his family have the seed of evil in them as well, but the idea that everyone must die to save the earth, is one mission that he concludes on his own. He feels that that is what God wants him to do, but everyone else disagrees with him and he has no vision or sign to prove otherwise. Just is own convictions. It has echoes of Abraham being commanded to kill his son Isaac, just without the command.

I thought it was great reminder to not just conclude what God might want you to do when he has not given you instruction on the matter – especially when it comes to something you can’t take back, like killing someone! I’ll try not to spoil what he does with his moral dilemma, but I was a bit disappointed with how they handled it. There were lots of opportunities for the message that “mercy triumphs over judgement” (James 2:13) to shine through, from the rock monster who asks God for forgiveness and then is saved, to the act of a character being healed from her barrenness, to the perfect provision of the girls (it’s a bit creepy but you have to see the film to understand the point of that one). But in the end, it all sort of got watered down to, “mercy only triumphs over judgement when it’s mercy for your own cute granddaughters that you’re feeling loving towards”.

4. It was all about how sinful humans are.
Now, some have criticised the film for being just environmentalist propaganda, and sure it laid it on pretty thick especially with Noah and his family all being vegetarians (though correct me if I’m wrong, but were they wearing leather?). Despite this, the idea of humans destroying the earth was just one of the ways that “Man” is shown to be corrupt. They rape, steal, kill, covet and generally are just plain bad… except the girls of course. Interestingly, the women are all good in this film. There was not one really evil woman in the entire story. But that aside, the theme of how bad we really are, was scattered throughout. The flood itself is seen as a just judgement for mankind’s wickedness. The big question that is raised, is “Are Noah and his family innocent?” At first Noah is content to ride along with the animals (who are deemed innocent because they live as they did in the Garden of Eden), but about half way cainthrough the film, he realises that even he and all his family have mixed motives and sinful inclinations. His wife tries to get him to see that there is also good in all of them as well (I had flashbacks of Luke Skywalker trying to convince Darth Vader), but he concludes that the world would be better off without us. Even in the end, when it doesn’t all end in humanity’s extinction (shock horror), Emma Watson’s character asks him to stick around and not kill everyone so he can be a grandfather and help us all be better this time.

The funny thing is, we know the rest of the story! Noah’s descendants are not much better! The whole point of the environmentalist theme is to convict us about the fact that we still kill and ravage the planet and we are still full of sin and conflicted desires. The question of the “goodness” of humanity is sort of concluded with a message like: “HUMANS – WE REALLY ARE SINFUL, BUT WITH LOVE IN OUR HEARTS WE DESERVE ANOTHER GO”.

Now, if you know the original story, this has elements of the truth. Noah is described as a “righteous” man, but this doesn’t mean he was perfect. It means he was “right with God”. But he was still sinful, and so was all his family. This is most clearly shown in the fact that the very first thing they did when they got out of the ark was make a sacrifice. (see Genesis 8:18-21) That’s right! They killed an animal and offered it as an act of humility and appeal to God for mercy. And God responds to their sacrifice by promising not to wipe everyone out with a flood ever again “even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21). Nothing has changed in the human heart by the end of the biblical story. God’s justice and mercy has been clearly shown, but mankind’s sin remains the same. That’s why the sacrifice was needed.

In fact, the sacrificial system (though only a new thing back in Genesis) was a bigger part of the Noah story than people realise. It definitely was completely skipped in Aronofsky’s version of the story. You see, Noah wasn’t actually told to put two of every kind of animal in the ark. Check out Genesis 7:1-4. He was told to put two of every kid of “unclean” animal, but he had to put SEVEN of every kind of “clean” animal. Why more “clean” animals? Because they were the ones you were allowed to sacrifice. Even before the flood came, the biblical story tells us, God was providing a way for Noah and his descendants to remain in righteousness (right relationship with God). It wasn’t through being more good than bad. It wasn’t through puttin’ a little love in your heart. It was through sacrifice and the mercy of God. It’s actually the sacrifice of a “clean” animal in the place of an “unclean” sinner, that makes way for God’s mercy to a people that actually deserve judgement. This theme is carried all the way through the bible and is ultimately fulfilled in the one person the whole system was pointing to – Jesus. The original story of Noah concludes with the message that “mercy triumphs over judgment through sacrifice”. Which is a very simplistic, but accurate, description of the New Testament gospel.

I wasn’t surprised the Aronofsky missed this message in his film, but I was surprised of how much he explored the theme. Apart from his weak ending, I thought he explored it well and raised great questions and moral dilemmas about the sinfulness of the human heart and whether we can overcome it.

noah sacrifice

5. My last surprise is that I can heartily recommend this film.

Now, if you’re the sort of person who gets offended by films like “Life of Brain” and “Constantine” due to their biblical inaccuracies, then give it a miss. On the other hand, If you’re the sort of person that bases your knowledge of the bible on films like “The Da Vinci Code” and “End of Days”, then please also give it a miss. Remember Aronofsky’s comment that it’s “the least biblical biblical film ever made” and just go read the Bible itself. Noah’s story is only 4 short chapters (Genesis 6-9).

But if, like me, you are interested in what a weird atheist director like Darren Aronofsky might do with a tale like Noah, and you’re fascinated by how the world explores issues like judgment, mercy, love, sin and human nature, then you don’t have to boycott this film to make some sort of protest. If you have the ability to think and critique and discuss and reflect, then go see this film with a big bag of popcorn and a good friend to chat about it afterwards!

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March 31 2014

Jesus’ review of “Noah”

Noah movie

There’s lots of movie reviews about the new film “Noah” by director, Darren Aronofsky. Some praise it, some can it, some grieve that it’s not a close enough depiction of the actual Bible story, and some have even said that the film is “the least biblical biblical film ever made”. Actually, that last quote is from the director, Darren Aronofsky himself (see here), so I don’t know what some Christians are getting so offended by. It’s not a biblical film. End of debate. The film has even been released by Paramount with the following clarifying statement:

“The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”

NoahAndTheFloodWell, I think it’s maybe a bit of a stretch to say the story of Noah is a “cornerstone of faith”, but at least they point to where you can actually read the biblical account.

Some people debate whether the story of Noah is true history or just a fable. Whether it can be adapted with rock monsters, or whether it is just totally irrelevant for modern audiences. What interests me, as a follower of Jesus, is whether Jesus has anything to say on the topic.

You might not worship Jesus as I do, but most people have a general respect for Jesus and his teaching. Christians are criticised if they ignore things that Jesus clearly taught on, like caring for the poor, and they are also criticised if they focus too much on topics that Jesus didn’t specifically talk about, like homosexuality. And rightly so, I say. Jesus’ teaching matters, and if he taught on something clearly, it should be acknowledged as a core part of Christianity.

Now, Jesus didn’t give a movie review of Aronofsky’s film, but it may surprise you that he did give a commentary on the source material. In both the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke it is recorded that Jesus referred to the story of Noah and taught how we should apply it to our own lives. Aronofsky, said in an interview with MTV (see here) that the biblical story of Noah is “the first apocalypse story – it’s about the end of the world” and Jesus picks up on this exact theme. When Jesus reviewed Noah, he uses it as an analogy of the last apocalypse story – the actual end of the world – referring to his Second Coming.

Now, if you have never read the actual original story of Noah, you should probably read it before you hear Jesus’ review of it. It’s not that long and you can find it in Genesis 6-9. But if you are familiar with it, let’s read Jesus’ teaching from the gospel of Matthew (you can find the same account in Luke 17:22-36).

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (Matthew 24:36-42)

Now, for a bit of context, this passage fits in a larger section where Jesus is teaching about the “coming of the Son of Man”. This is referring to the idea that jesusbrb-434 copysome time after his death, resurrection and ascension, he will return as judge and saviour of the world. If the idea of the Second Coming of Jesus or “Judgement Day” is new to you, then you might want to read other places in the Bible that talk about it (like the whole of Matthew 24-25, or much of the Book of Revelation, or even the end of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament) Hebrews 9:28 sums up the first and second coming of Christ very nicely I think: “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

So if Jesus is teaching about the “Second Coming”, why does he talk about the story of Noah? What do they have in common and what aspects of the Noah story does Jesus apply to us as relevant for our lives? He says in verse 37, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” So basically, he uses it as a simile. It’s a sermon illustration. Jesus is saying, experiencing his Second Coming will be like experiencing Noah’s flood. But in what way? Well, Jesus mentions 3 aspects:

1. It will be unexpected.

That seems to be Jesus’ main point. He stressed that only God the Father knows when the Second Coming will happen and concludes with the warning to “keep watch because you do not know on what day your Lord will come”. The story of Noah is used by Jesus as an analogy of this. People were just going about their daily lives (eating, drinking, marrying etc.) and were completely unprepared for the flood to come. In the verse after the passage above, Jesus uses the analogy of a thief coming to rob a house to make the same point. And what is the point? Don’t be like them and be unprepared. You won’t know when it’s going to come, so make sure you are ready for Jesus’ Second Coming. Everyone around you may be unprepared, but don’t you be.

2. Some will be taken away for judgement.

Jesus isn’t in any way afraid or embarrassed to talk about an ultimate final judgement. The idea that God will one day separate all of mankind into two groups – one to live with God forever and one to be separated from God forever – is a reality that is spoken throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testament. Anyone who wishes to engage with Jesus’ teaching (and especially anyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus) must engage with the fact that Jesus taught very clearly about Judgement Day. He spoke about hell. It’s unpleasant. It’s unfortunate. But you can’t argue that it’s un-Jesus. The most foolish thing to do would be to simply live your lives – eating, drinking and marrying – without engaging with this part of Jesus’ teaching. That would really miss Jesus’ point! Jesus uses the story of the flood that took some away to point us to a future event that will also take some away. Not all will be saved and Jesus is warning us to so that we might not be in that group.

3. Some will be left.

The other parallel to the story of Noah and the Second Coming is that not all will be taken away. Some will be left. Some will be spared. Who are these people? Well, in the story of Noah Jesus says it’s those who “entered the ark”. This is quite similar imagery to the parable of the “Ten Virgins” that Jesus tells in the very next chapter (you can read it in Matthew 25:1-13). In both this parable and the story of Noah, those who are prepared go inside something and those who are unprepared are stuck outside the door. Jesus links both of these as analogies of his Second Coming. In the parable of the Ten Virgins, Jesus is represented by the returning Bridegroom. In the Noah story, who is Jesus? Is Jesus saying he is like Noah, ushering people into the place of safety in preparation for the coming judgement? Or is Jesus saying he is the ark itself, and that only in him are we protected from being taken away? Either way, he uses the story of Noah to point to himself as the one who can bring salvation.

JusticeandMercyIn his MTV interview, Darren Aronofsky said of his film, “It’s about justice. And over the course of the film, mercy and grace are learned.” Now, I know as a staunch Atheist he has taken a lot of liberties with the text and probably doesn’t care what Jesus thinks about the message of the story of Noah, but I think the above quote is pretty on the money. Both the story of Noah and the Second Coming are not simply about judgement and justice. They are about mercy and grace as well. That is what the Christian gospel proclaims. That is why Jesus came. That is what we see in the crucifixion of Jesus. Justice as God condemns sin in the sacrifice of Jesus, and mercy as Jesus dies in our place and we are offered forgiveness.

I might be seeing Aronofsky’s interpretation of Noah later this week. If you want a review of it, there are tons on YouTube (here’s one I like). But in the end, I’m more interested in Jesus’ interpretation of Noah. Jesus’ review is that the biblical story of Noah is an action-packed, dramatic morality tale that also has a redemptive theme and makes relevant commentary for a modern audience as to how they should live and what their future may hold.

I think Jesus would give the biblical story 5 Stars.

 

 

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December 27 2013

When Santa learned the gospel – a poem

santa gospel 2

 

UPDATE! This poem has now been turned into a children’s book and animated video.
Find out more at

www.SantaGospel.com


When Santa learned the gospel, he first heard it from an elf.

This tiny Santa’s helper had just learnt of it himself.

*

A child had asked for Christmas to receive a Bible book.

This elf had made one in the shop, then paused to have a look.

*

He read all about Jesus and the call to follow him.

He learned how Jesus lived and taught and died to pay for sin.

*

He learned how Jesus rose again and how he will return

And then this elf read how he should respond to all he’d learned.

*

He shut the book, put down his tools, then closed his eyes and prayed.

Right there and then this little elf trusted in Christ that day.

*

The next day he told Santa. It was awkward, unprepared.

He knew he didn’t know that much, but what he knew he shared.

*

He told Santa the gospel. It was simple. It was short.

But a seed was sown in Santa’s heart, which grew into a thought.

*

Santa reflected on his life and the message he supported,

Then compared it to the gospel that the elf had just reported.

*

He’d always thought that everyone was naughty or was nice.

He had them all on two big lists. He even checked it twice.

*

He’d always thought that you got gifts only if you’d been good.

The naughty kids got lumps of coal. That’s what he understood.

*

They’d all line up in shopping malls and sit upon his knee

And claim that they were always nice. As nice as nice can be.

*

Of course, he saw them when they slept and knew when they awoke.

He also knew their nice attempts were pretty much a joke.

*

Their heads were filled not with nice thoughts of kindness, peace and joy,

But with the never-ending list of their desired toys.

*

He knew their hearts, but he had thought, “They’re trying to be good.

That’s good enough to make the list. Otherwise no one would!”

*

So every year their “good enough” with toys would be rewarded.

And every year (he realised) this message he supported:

*

THE “GOOD” WILL GET THE PRESENTS.

THE “BAD” WILL GET THE COAL.

AND TRYING TO BE GOOD ENOUGH

IS GOOD ENOUGH A GOAL.

*

That was the message that he knew, but now he knew another.

He had just heard the gospel. So he compared them to each other.

*

The message of the gospel turned his message upside down.

The good, the bad, naughty and nice, it switched it all around.

*

“There’s no one good but God alone” he’d heard Jesus concluded.

And those who claim they’re “good enough” are simply just deluded.

*

If there’s a list of who is “good”, the standard we’ve all missed.

And Santa saw that even he was on the naughty list.

*

That shook his world. That rocked his boat. That gripped him in his soul.

To think that even Santa Claus deserved a lump of coal.

*

But that was only half of what the gospel message said.

It also flipped what happened to the naughty on its head.

*

Instead of being written off as just not good enough.

The message to the naughty list was one of grace and love.

*

The gospel offered mercy to all those deserving coal.

The gospel offered forgiveness and cleansing of your soul.

*

The gospel told how Jesus died our death to pay the price

To reconcile us all to God – both naughty and the nice.

*

This offer was a real gift, unlike presents ‘neath the tree.

It was not earned by being good. It was offered for free.

*

For all his life Santa had claimed that if you had been bad

Then you would not get presents and your Christmas would be sad.

*

Santa compared his message with this new one he had learned.

His message said you get the presents your good deeds had earned.

*

The message of the gospel offered something so much greater…

Jesus had come to reconcile the world to their Creator.

*

When Santa grasped the gospel, he did not know what to do

And so the elf said nervously, “How ’bout I pray with you?”

*

Then that night at the North Pole, by the fire in his den,

With a simple prayer led by an elf, Santa was born again.

*

And now, in Christ, forgiven, free – his new life had begun

and Santa had a new message to share with everyone.

(27378)

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