Do we really want the end of gender?

Someone might respond to the traditional marriage argument- “But does it really matter if gay people can’t conceive children? They are going to adopt children anyway, and maybe letting them in on marriage will strengthen their relationships and make them feel validated as well. Is there really any problem with calling their relationships marriage as well?”

Well, if affirmation is what the gay community is seeking, then why not be open about it instead of just framing it as a case for equal rights? However, the problem is that this debate is more involved than just seeking to bring affirmation to the gay community. Rather, it is hard to ignore the fear that the same sex marriage campaign is really the beginning of the slippery slope to gender eradication. Same sex marriage says that gender does not matter, and in essence, it is a movement to eradicate gender. That is the logic here- it does not matter what sex you are, all that matters is love. Gender is fluid- some people are more masculine, some people are more feminine. People can be whatever gender they like.

The slippery slope to gender eradication has already well and truly begun. Facebook now gives you 71 gender options you can choose from. Calling someone your husband or wife is frowned upon, partner is the gender neutral politically correct term. In Canada and in Europe, there is the push to create new pronouns instead of he or she- “ze”, for example, and universities are penalizing students who do not use the correct forms. Recently the call has started to grow in Australia already to get rid of Mothers or Fathers Day, calling it “Special Persons day” instead. The logic which is inherently embedded in the LGBT belief system is that gender is a harmful thing which must be eradicated.

So, do we really want the end of gender? Well, let’s acknowledge that terrible abuse on the basis of gender has occurred in history, and it still occurs in shameful ways in many societies. Let’s also acknowledge that a small minority of people struggle for various reasons with gender identity issues. Let’s acknowledge that some women show some traditionally masculine traits, and some men show some traditionally female traits, and that’s perfectly ok.

However, in spite of all these disclaimers, the Christian understanding is that gender is a beautiful thing, and we should celebrate it, not eradicate it. Men tend to be taller in height, physically stronger and better equipped biologically to do the manual labour required to provide for a family. Women tend to be softer in nature, better at caring and nurturing of children. Not everyone fits into those tendencies, but those tendencies are typical for what most people do fit into, and they are linked to the way we are typically biologically made.

So who has made the decision that gender is evil and we’re going to eradicate it? We should always guard against the danger of gender becoming a reason for  abuse, but why should we not celebrate the beauty of gender? Since when do we have to eradicate it? Same sex marriage essentially says that gender no longer exists in any meaningful sense.

Traditional marriage celebrates the reality that we are made of two biological types which typically expresses itself in two gender types. While we are going to always love every single individual on the face of the earth with all our many different varieties, we can celebrate the fact that we are designed as two different types, and the institution of marriage is the celebration of the two different natures coming together as one.

A one line argument for traditional marriage

Many others have written arguments for traditional marriage. In a world in which people only have the patience to listen to 10 words or less, we need to express complex ideas succinctly. So here is a one line argument which I hope might help in expressing the argument for traditional marriage. Why traditional marriage? Here’s why. Heterosexual unions are unique and important.

Firstly, heterosexual marriages are unique. Same sex marriage will never be equal because same sex relationships are different. The heterosexual relationship alone is capable of creating a child. Two men cannot create a child, neither can two women, neither can 1 man alone or 1 woman alone, neither can 1 man and two women, or two women and one man. There is a uniqueness in the combination of 1 man and 1 woman. As much as we don’t want anyone to feel like their relationship is lesser in quality, the hard fact exists that there is at least one respect in which homosexual relationships are inferior- that is, they are biologically incapable of producing offspring. So the heterosexual relationship is unique.

Secondly, the heterosexual union is important. The relationship between male and female with the capacity of producing a child is such an important building block in our society that it is wise for the government to continue to legally validate it and promote its stability through this institution we call marriage.

There are many people in society who passionately love sport. But the government does not legally declare them to be a sport lover. There are many people who love music. But the government sees no reason to declare them a music lover. Of course, it may be inappropriate to compare the love of sport to the romantic sexual love of two humans together. But it prompts the question of why the government should need to legally celebrate any relationship. There are other kinds of sexual love relationships. In some societies a man could have a wife and a mistress- a wife for children and a mistress for sexual pleasure. Both could involve love, but only one is recognised as marriage. A group of 3 or 4 people could all love each other. But this is not marriage (so far at any rate!).

There is something unique about the relationship of one man and one woman, and that uniqueness is important enough for the government to legally recognise and promote it. The reason is that our society’s health and future is built on the foundation of heterosexual relationships who bring children into the world, and this should be celebrated and promoted as the norm of society.

Now, of course, the counter-argument. It is said that children are a red-herring because many gay couples already have children, and studies show gay parents make just as good parents as heterosexual parents. Well, even if you grant the assumption that this is what the studies say (consider this review for example), the issue is not whether gay couples make good parents. Of course they could make good parents. But the fact is, I could be an absolutely lousy parent, and my neighbours could be terrific parents, but of course this doesn’t mean my neighbours have a right to parent my children. I have a permanent biological link to my children which ideally should never be severed. Of course, sometimes a parent’s link with their children is broken. Perhaps the relationship breaks down, and sadly sometimes significant abuse necessitates a separation. Ideally however, children should never be taken away from their parents. There is a biological link which should be normalized, celebrated and promoted.

The same is true for children. A child has a biological link to both of his or her parents which should ideally never be severed. A child should grow up in the care of his or her parents. This is an issue of justice and compassion for them. The problem with same sex marriage is that it is not now just permitting children to be adopted by gay parents. It is now normalizing it and indeed promoting it as completely normal and equivalent. It is stating that there is no difference, and that the union of father, mother and children together is a matter of no difference or priority at all.

Other types of family arrangements will exist of course, but this does not mean we should pretend they are all as ideal as each other. The formation of the core family unit, bonded together by one man and one woman who together conceive and raise their children together is the ideal.  This ideal is the reason we legally recognise and promote the institution called marriage in society.

How to engage the gay marriage debate

Same sex marriage is at least really giving Christians some serious air-time. However, sometimes our manner of speaking on the topic is not creating an overly positive image! Here are four principles to consider on how we should engage on the topic.

Firstly, let’s discuss the issue with gentleness and respect. We need to recognise that this is a very emotionally charged topic with strong feeling on both sides, and often, we have the two camps completely talking past each other on this topic. I often hear Christians talking about this topic, mostly I can’t help thinking what you’re saying would completely infuriate a gay person, and also many just ordinary heterosexual Aussies. Many non-Christians I imagine could well hear what Christians say, and just respond by thinking- “you Christians just hate gay people, don’t you?”. So, let’s work hard at thinking and talking about this topic in a way that makes sense to non-Christians. My encouragement would be that whenever this topic comes up in your family or with friends, imagine you’ve got a gay person standing next to you as you talk about the issue and talk with them in mind. If you don’t practice talking about this complex issue in a sensitive way in a safe environment first, you are unlikely to be successful when the subject comes up in a more hostile environment.

The reason why this debate is so polarising is because Christians can be coming at this topic from a completely different starting point from secular people. It’s like an NRL devotee and an AFL devotee having an argument about the best shape of a football. You’re going to have a very frustrating discussion if you don’t realise you’re starting with two different frameworks. Similarly, Christians and secularists have very different starting points about marriage. Christians believe that God designed marriage, so we don’t get to make up the definition of what it is. Secular people believe that marriage is just a social convention we created, so we can adjust it as we like. So, this is why a lot of the arguments which Christians make against same sex marriage are just not convincing to non-Christians- they just roll their eyes at them, and this is why secularists are not going to be very successful at convincing Christians.

Let’s realise there is going to be differences of opinion in this question, and that arguments will only prove to have limited success. We need to speak with respect and gentleness on the issue.

Secondly, we can affirm the desire for justice and dignity for all people. A good place to start in any debate is by affirming the good points of an opponent’s point of view. Let’s start then by acknowledging that the motivation for changing the definition of marriage for most people is not a sinister socialist plot to re-engineer society, but rather a sincere desire to bring greater justice and dignity to a minority who have long struggled for social acceptance. It is to bring affirmation and acceptance for a group of people who typically suffer greater rates of depression, drug abuse and self-harm. If I was in a discussion with a passionate advocate for same sex marriage, I would start by complimenting them on their passion for justice and compassion. I would suggest that this is the fingerprint of God on their hearts. And I would far prefer to talk with them about why they are so passionate about justice and mercy for the disadvantaged- and whether they get that desire from God or not.

Now of course, they will respond, “well, if you believe in justice and compassion, why are you not showing justice and compassion to gay people by allowing same sex marriage?”. And the answer of course, is that there are other factors to consider as well which make us believe that it is not the ultimately most just and compassionate decision to make, and  that will be the occasion to present your case for a traditional understanding of marriage. But having started by affirming their passion for justice and compassion will lead to a far more healthy and respectful conversation.

A third factor we need to consider is that the Christian marriage horse has already bolted to some degree. The institution of marriage in most people’s minds is already a watered down concept from the Christian vision of marriage. The great majority of couples live together first before getting married, and when they do that, what are they saying? They’re saying that marriage doesn’t really matter. It is just a piece of paper. Divorces are easily obtained, and even fidelity within marriage is on the decline. So, the institution of marriage has already fallen off its lofty perch in the mindset of most western people- it’s already been treated very differently from a traditional Christian ideal. Thus it’s no surprise that many people don’t have any huge problems with tinkering with it even more. The virtue of chastity and the idea of sex being only for a married relationship is laughable for most secular people. That is another reason why the Christian view of marriage is difficult to get across, and why we shouldn’t be surprised if our point of view isn’t readily embraced.

Finally, I would say that in spite of the difficulties in presenting our view, Christians should engage in the debate and should participate in the postal  vote. Some good Christian friends argue that this isn’t an issue that we should get too worked up over. They say that we Christians are about helping people have a relationship with God. We’re not about telling non-Christians how they should live. So, therefore, it’s simply not our business to be making a big fuss about this.

I think there is some truth to this. We aren’t really a Christian society. Trying to force people to live by Christian ideals when they aren’t Christians is rather counter-productive. Our mission is to tell people about Jesus, not to be having a temper-tantrum when non-Christians live in line with their beliefs.

However, having said that, we live in a democracy. It is our privilege and responsibility to have our say in what we believe is good for the future of the country. Jesus spoke up when he was asked his opinion on the moral issue of his day- the issue of divorce, even when his conservative response was way out of line with the majority view of his day. So, as Christians, I do believe it is our responsibility to speak politely and winsomely into our culture with what we believe marriage should be, and why we believe the Christian view of marriage is best for our country’s future.

Let’s engage in the debate with wisdom, grace and boldness. Most of all, we will really need to be soaking all our words and actions in prayer for this is such a polarising and divisive topic which influences peoples perceptions of Christianity so easily.

Is the resurrection really a big deal?

tombChristians often claim that the resurrection of Christ is the piece of evidence that seals the deal- the game-changer. If Christ rose from the dead, then Christianity must be true! But let’s think about this. What’s so special about the resurrection?

It is probably true that Mohammed heard a voice speaking to him. It probably did happen. But is it really special? Lots of people hear voices. Joseph Smith may well have had a vision which started Mormonism. But is it really special and unique that he had a vision? Lots of people have had visions. Lots of people have funny spiritual experiences. Is there anything really special and compelling about the resurrection experience of Christ which compels our allegiance? The resurrection of Jesus is a battle with our greatest enemy- death- and therefore it is a more special experience to consider than most others for that reason alone. But furthermore, Jesus engages our greatest enemy death in a way that is entirely unique from how others have engaged with death. Consider these three factors.

1. Jesus did not just escape death- he confronted death. There are plenty of stories of religious experiences of heroes in history who escaped death by ascending up into Heaven without dying. Enoch and Elijah are two examples of people in the Bible who did that. The Greek god Hercules was said to have done this. There are various figures within Hinduism who are said to have ascended into Heaven without dying. These would all be fairly impressive stories if they were true. Unfortunately, there is no real historical evidence for them. But, even if they were true, Jesus does something more. He doesn’t just escape death. He doesn’t sidestep death. He enters into death, and challenges it head on. He has come to deal with death, not just fly away from it.

2.Jesus did not just survive death- he defeated death. There are many reports of people apparently surviving after death. I’m talking about ghost appearances. We hear the word ghosts- and we say, “ Oh that sounds spooky”. We laugh or even mock people who think they saw a ghost, but the reality is, many people claim to see or hear the spirits of their loved ones after they die. No one likes to talk about it though because people may well say you are crazy. A famous study done in Iceland of 900 people found 30% claimed to have had encounters with the spirit of a deceased person. Even Michael Shermer, the famous atheist and skeptic of all things supernatural recently confessed to having had a supernatural experience of a deceased person which he couldn’t explain. So, some people say that Jesus resurrection is not really special- because he was just appearing as a ghost to his disciples.

There are however a number of problems with that theory. Firstly, it is evident that whatever the appearances were, they were real, they weren’t just hallucinations. They were witnessed by groups of people at the same time, and they occurred to all sorts of people, at all sorts of places. Secondly, there is the problem of the empty tomb. There is a very strong case that can be made that Jesus tomb was found empty on that first Easter Sunday morning, and so, if that is the case, what happened to Jesus’ body? Thirdly, if what the disciples saw was just the ghost of Jesus, well, why didn’t they call it that? Why did they call it a resurrection? From day one- we know that the disciples all came out with what was for them in their day a radical claim, the claim of Jesus being resurrected. They could have used the term ghost. Resurrection meant a body coming back to life. Fourthly, we have reports of Jesus being touched and Jesus even eating meals with his disciples in multiple accounts. Only a body can do that.

You see, Jesus didn’t just survive death in a ghostly existence in the afterlife, and make appearances to us. There’s nothing really special about that. Jesus goes into death, and survives death- yes. But he also conquers death and comes back bodily from it. Death has lost its physical power over Jesus.

3. Jesus did not just return from death- he reversed death. Jesus does not just resuscitate from death. Again, there are plenty of stories of people who die in some sense, and come back to life. Lots of people have near death experiences where they have an accident, they are as good as dead, and they have an experience in which their soul goes up to Heaven, and then told they have to go back, and they come back into their body and survive. There are numerous resurrection stories- like Lazarus in the Bible- who die, and by a miraculous act, they are restored to life. Jesus’ resuscitation is more remarkable than all of these resuscitation stories. For him to be executed by crucifixion, remain dead for at least 36 hours, and then to resuscitate without any medical assistance and convince his followers he was the saviour of the world- that is quite a remarkable resuscitation.

But this is even more than just a physical resuscitation. Jesus transcends death. He reverses death. He comes back in a body which is physical, and which still bears the marks of his wounds, but this new body transcends the merely physical. It’s a body which can operate in the physical world, but it’s also a spiritual body which is not subject to the physical. Jesus’ new body, although it is physical, is also a bit like an angelic body which can appear and disappear. This new body of Jesus has authority over time and space, and is not subject to it. It is a body not just for this world, it’s for a new world, a heavenly world. The resurrection of Jesus is the opening of the doorway for us to have access to that heavenly world in a new creation body as well.

Now if you ask me, all this is pretty impressive. It’s unique. Jesus has just not successfully escaped the Grim Reaper as it were- Jesus has got in the boxing ring with the Grim Reaper, and hit him out of the stadium. That is what Jesus has done- that’s why he’s unique. And when you put that on top of all the other factors which show Jesus uniqueness- well, the claim of Jesus’ uniqueness is out of this world. No one else really comes close.

This is the claim of Easter Sunday, and I think you’ll have to agree- that if it is true- it is huge. He has lived an incredible life, he has died an incredible death, and he’s risen from the dead on top of everything else as well. The claim of the Bible is that someone has entered the world who is absoloutely unique- he is a game-changer. The resurrection is the event which demands our attention, both in its uniqueness in the past and its implications for our future life beyond this world.

On Women, Preaching and Church

In this post I will outline my position on the very controversial topic of the role of women in regards to preaching in church. This is an issue which draws ongoing debate  amongst evangelical Christians. We need to recognise that though this is not an all important issue, it is nevertheless significant for several reasons. To many it matters greatly as a matter of justice and opportunity for women to use their God-given gifts, while to others it matters greatly as a significant test case on our willingness to follow scriptural injunctions rather than cultural trends.

As will be explained, I take a conservative point of view on this issue, and the purpose of this post will be to explain why. Many theologians and church leaders I respect hold to an egalitarian position on this issue, such as John Dickson, Mike Bird and Craig Keener. It appears to me that the conservative position is not the “flavour of the month”, and more and more Christian people are openly critical of it. For what it is worth, there are many prominent theologians who do hold to substantially the same position as mine, such as Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Tom Schreiner, and DA Carson. It is a distinctive of conservative evangelical denominations and church movements such as Sydney Anglicans, evangelical Presbyterians, and Acts 29 churches. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, it is our responsibility to study the scriptures ourselves and come to our own convictions about them, rather than just following what other churches or people do.

The majority of this post will be taken up with responding to the most common arguments for women preaching (the “egalitarian” case). While people of different persuasions rarely change their minds on these sorts of issues, my goal in writing this is to at least express why I believe most arguments encouraging an egalitarian view fail, and to hopefully cause other people to understand and wrestle with this issue in a fresh light.

To begin, let me immediately respond to a few possible misconceptions. I acknowledge that women can probably preach just as effectively as men. I also acknowledge that not allowing women to preach effectively cuts your pool of preachers in two which doesn’t appear to be a very strategic move to encourage growth in churches. I also can only imagine that there must be a very significant degree of frustration and even anger commonly felt by gifted women who are restricted in their involvement in some churches on this issue. I acknowledge that to a younger generation not acquainted with this topic, my position must seem increasingly bizarre and totally antiquated.

I acknowledge the force of all of these arguments, and yet I still maintain that in fact women should have a restricted role in regards to the delivery of sermons in churches. Why? Simply because I’m unconvinced by all of the many arguments which respond to two key scriptural passages which appear to restrict the public teaching of women in church. The Bible must be our final guide, whether we like it or not, and whether we think it’s a good idea or not. This issue for me comes down to the matter of biblical authority, and is a challenging test in whether we are led by culture or led by God’s word.

Here are the two passages in question.

1 Corinthians 14:33-38.

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 

 

1 Timothy 2:11-15

11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

 

It is worthwhile simply citing the texts in question here, because these are the verses at the centre of this discussion, and often there is distraction from the issue by focussing at great length on many other verses which do not directly deal with the issue and only briefly touching on the main verses in question.  I will defend the conservative position simply by responding to the most common six counter-arguments made by egalitarians on why in fact women should indeed lead in preaching.

  1. Women in the Bible did something. Therefore they should be allowed to do everything.

This is a very common argument made for why women should be allowed to preach. We are pointed to the examples of Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla’s role in teaching Apollos, and Philip’s daughters prophesying (Judges 4-5, 2 Kings 22:14, Acts 18:26, Acts 21:9). But this argument does not follow. Just because women are reported doing something in the Bible doesn’t mean they are authorised to do everything- especially when there are other passages which do restrict them from doing something. No one is saying that women are not allowed to do anything. It is clear that women are allowed in certain contexts to do some activities, such as prophesying, yet there are also restrictions in some activities given. The examples of Deborah and Priscilla are both particularly poor as examples of women having equal authority to men. Deborah clearly urges Barak to take the lead; in his weakness he insists that Deborah come with him to bolster his confidence. This is not a clear example of a woman’s equality to a man in leadership. Rather, it is an example of a woman stepping up to assist a man in his lack of public leadership. Priscilla seems to have been the prominent influence in teaching Apollos, but she is rarely separated from her husband’s side. The passage would be far more indicative of her authority if she was mentioned on her own, but this is exactly what is not done. Furthermore, this is obviously a case of private counsel being given to Apollos; it is clearly not a public teaching role. Just because women are described doing something in the Bible does not mean they are encouraged to do everything.

 

  1. Women today are allowed to do something. Therefore they should be allowed to do everything.

This second argument is exactly the same as the first, except the appeal is made from current activities which women are involved in, instead of scriptural examples. For example, arguments are frequently made that since women are allowed to teach Sunday School, or lead secular companies, or lead worship, that therefore they should be allowed to preach as well. How does one draw the line between the “teaching” in a sermon, and the “teaching” in a testimony for example? It is a good question which will always be present in some way when you do try to make a restriction in some way. Where the line will be drawn will always be somewhat subjective, and open to charges of inconsistency. Yet, if the Bible is teaching that there should be a restriction in some contexts, then there will have to be a line drawn somewhere, and a church leadership will have to make a decision on what they believe to be an appropriate application of the biblical injunction in their cultural setting. To use this argument as justification for there to be no restrictions whatever in spite of the biblical teaching of course will lead just to the Bible being ignored when it gives these restrictions. Because women are allowed to do something in church today is not a justification for why they must be allowed to do everything.

 

  1. We must interpret the unclear passages in the light of the clear passages.

Here the two passages in question (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2) are labelled as “unclear” passages, and others, such as Galatians 3:28, Romans 16:7, and Acts 2:18 are labelled as “clear” passages. However, it is difficult to see how that decision is made. The two passages in question appear to be very clear in their explicit discussion of a woman’s public involvement in a church service, whereas none of the other passages are specifically in reference to a church service at all. Furthermore, there are numerous passages which speak in some way of a submission of women to men in some way- such as 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 18-19, 1 Peter 3:1-7. 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 are not two passages which are exceptions to the rule of what scriptures teach elsewhere. Rather, they are specific applications of a principle of female submission in the context of church life. It is clear that Jesus also followed this pattern in his selection of 12 male disciples. The other passages are rather the unclear ones which need to be considered in light of these clear ones.

 

  1. Paul’s restrictions relate to a specific cultural situation, not a timeless ongoing pattern.

Clearly there is a cultural context for these two passages. 1 Timothy 2:9 for example, immediately before one of the passages in question, tells women to “dress modestly. with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds”. There is undoubtedly a cultural situation also influencing Paul’s instructions for women not to teach.

I think this objection is valid, but insufficient in itself to dismiss the instruction from having relevance to us today. Every single passage in the New Testament is influenced by first century culture; this does not mean that they all have no relevance to us today. What makes it difficult however to completely dismiss Paul’s restrictions for us today though is the nature of his appeals. He makes his argument in 1 Timothy 2 on the basis of the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of the fall. It is not simply a case of “this is culturally dishonourable”. He argues- “13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” There is a symbolic meaning in both creation and the doctrine of the fall which is applied in a timeless way to leadership roles in church life. I personally think that the way we apply these instructions in our culture may well be different to the way they were applied in the first century, in a similar way that our views on appropriate hairstyles or jewellery might be different in our culture than what they were in the first century. The whole structure of our church service with a modern sermon is probably quite different to what was practiced in a first century church service. However, it is our requirement now to interpret and apply these biblical instructions in a way which are most appropriate for our cultural setting.

So the question might be- are Paul’s instructions restricting women from teaching (or speaking in 1 Corinthians 14) applicable to a sermon? At some point, a church leadership will need to determine how they will apply these instructions- whether they apply to teaching a Sunday School class or leading a small group, or to preaching a sermon in a gathered congregation. I would suggest that if they do not apply to a sermon, they do not really apply to anything at all in actual modern church life. Sermons are clearly the space of authoritative public teaching in the modern church, and so this is the most reasonable application of Paul’s instruction.

A further argument for the application of Paul’s instruction beyond a specific cultural setting of the first century is the strength of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14. Immediately before his statement on women’s role in church, he includes these words: “As in all churches of the saints”. This would appear to make the following statements apply to all churches no matter what their cultural setting. Furthermore, immediately after restricting women from speaking in the church service, he includes these forceful words: “37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” These are strong words, and I find them hard to dismiss with the lack of consideration which is commonly given to them.

 

  1. Junia was an apostle. Therefore, she would have been allowed to preach.

Romans 16:7 is considered by many egalitarians as an extremely important verse for their case. “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I.” The argument is that Junias was most probably a female, and she is said to be an apostle. Therefore, she must have been accepted as a church leader, and surely allowed to preach.

I find it strange that such a verse should be the key verse which dominates the whole discussion. There are at least two big problems which throw doubt on the use made of this verse by egalitarians. Firstly, the key phrase “outstanding among the apostles” (NIV) is translated as “They are well known to the apostles” (ESV), or, “They are of note among the apostles” (KJV). Clearly, the phrase is ambiguous in its meaning. Given that Jesus appointed only male apostles, it is queer to make a strong argument from this incidental verse that Paul instituted a new policy of appointing female apostles. Secondly, there are different senses of the word “apostle”. It can be used in the sense of a “messenger”, as seen in Philippians 2:25 and 2 Corinthians 8:23. Again, the case would be stronger also if Junias was mentioned clearly as an apostle apart from Andronicus who was probably her husband. Even if Junias was an “Apostle”, this still does not say anything about her role in a public church service. There are many women missionaries today who serve solo in traditional societies who take roles of leadership and yet honour the cultural setting by not taking a public role in a gathered church service.

 

  1. Women can preach if they are given authority to preach.

A final argument I will respond to is this common response that if an eldership empowers a woman to preach, then it is no longer an issue of authority. However, the problem is that this is exactly what Paul says we are not to do! Imagine how Paul would respond if Timothy was to write a letter back to Paul and say the following: “We note Paul that you said we were not to allow a women to teach or have authority over a man in our church service. We have decided to put this into practice by giving them authority to preach because we would like to have them preaching”. This would just be at best ignoring Paul’s instructions or at worst disobeying them. Compare the topic of sex being limited to marriage. The biblical requirement is that sex should be limited to a marriage relationship. However, if a church wanted to get around this, they could say that really the issue is one of commitment, and if a couple are committed to one another, then the church will grant them permission to have a sexual relationship before marriage. Of course, this is just changing the Bible’s requirements of marriage to suit our own standards of commitment, for the Bible’s standard of commitment is in fact marriage. Similarly, to say that we’re not going to treat teaching as an act of authority is simply changing Paul’s instructions for he appears to be saying that it is indeed an act of authority which should not be allowed.

 

Conclusion

Much more could be said on this topic. It is not the most important issue which confronts the church, nevertheless I believe it’s an important test case on our submission to scripture. It seems to me that the six arguments I have responded to above provide a very weak foundation for a case for women to be allowed to preach, yet these six arguments are frequently presented as providing sufficient reason. The conservative position will not be a popular one and as our society slides further into a secular worldview, it will be more and more subject to ridicule. However, I contend that the conservative position on this topic is more faithful to the guidance of scripture and therefore should be followed, even at the cost of the misunderstanding and disappointment of many who find it hard to agree with.

 

Top 10 Pre-Trib Arguments Examined

Pre-trib vs post-trib? It’s a slightly old fashioned argument which doesn’t get discussed much these days, at least not in the circles I move in. This debate was a liberating one for me where I first learned to really evaluate what the scriptures teach for myself and stopped just assuming that what I had always been taught was right. I write this series on eschatology simply so I can have something to point people to for those who from time to time bring the issue up. For those who question whether the issue matters at all, I refer them to my post “Why you shouldn’t be a pan-millenialist”.

The Burden of Proof

I come to the subject via a consideration of the burden of proof. Everybody agrees that Christ is returning at the end of time, unless maybe you’re a preterist, but that’s a subject for another day! The complication is that pre-tribulationists believe that Christ is returning twice, once before the tribulation period, and then again after the tribulation at the end. No one disagrees with the coming after the tribulation. The only question is whether there is any evidence for the coming before the tribulation. So, in my view, the burden of proof is on the pre-tribulationist to demonstrate why a second second coming is required. Often they will appeal to verses which they suggest may apply to a pre-tribulation rapture. But verses which show that such a rapture as a possible interpretation is not enough. They need to show that such verses cannot refer to the post-tribulation rapture, because having only one return of Christ is the simpler and more straightforward position. My approach then in this post will be to simply go through the top ten arguments used by pre-tribulationists and show that a post-tribulation interpretation is still possible, if not preferable, and thus there is simply no need to complicate our eschatology with another return of Christ besides the one we all agree on. It is up to the pre-tribulationist to show that the post-tribulation position is insufficient and there must be another return of Christ before the tribulation.

Argument 1: The 70 Weeks Prophecy- Daniel 9.

I refer to this argument only because it seems that many people think this is an important passage in the debate. However, it doesn’t necessarily even relate to the pre-tribulation debate. That is, a post-tribulationist may interpret the prophecy of the seventy weeks exactly as does a pre-tribulationist in terms of how the seventy weeks play out. A post-tribulationist may believe that the sixty ninth week refers to the death of Christ, and there has been a parenthesis in the present age, which corresponds to the period of “blindness” of Israel referred to in Romans 11. At some point however, the 70th week will resume when God turns his attention to Israel again, coinciding with a renewal amongst the Jewish people to faith in Christ. The pre-tribulationist asserts that this 70th week is initiated by the rapture of the church. However, clearly Daniel 9 has nothing to say about any such rapture. At the end of the day, to make any strong argument from such an obscure prophecy is to build a house with shaky foundations. As will be seen, it is a pattern of many pre-tribulationist arguments to base a lot of confidence in passages which are at best obscure in their interpretation.

Argument 2: Watch and Be Ready- Matthew 24.

One of the most common arguments for the pre-tribulation rapture is the argument from imminence. The Lord’s return is said to be able to happen “at any moment”- that is, imminently, and if the Lord’s return must be preceded by the tribulation, then this could not be the case. However, what is the evidence that the Lord’s return is indeed imminent? The answer given is that we are told in a number of ways to look for the Lord’s return- to watch, wait, hope and look for it. The clearest example of this is in Matthew 24:42- “Therefore, keep watch, for you do not know on what day your Lord will come”.

There is a simple response to this which removes the force of this argument entirely. That is, there are numerous passages which clearly use the concept of “looking for” and “waiting” for the Lord’s return after the tribulation. Therefore, it cannot be argued that such language must be imply an imminent rapture, for clearly at least some passages do not. If some cases do not, why must any passage? In fact the verse quoted above, although it sounds so imminent, in fact is clearly made in reference to the Lord’s return after the tribulation. Other examples include 2 Peter 3:10-13 and Revelation 16:15. The fact that such a concept does not imply imminence in relation to the Lord’s return may be seen in James 5:7-8 where our waiting for the Lord’s return is compared to a farmer’s waiting for harvest time and rain. Clearly one can be looking for something and waiting for something that is not imminent- such as looking forward to school holidays or waiting for a baby to be born (an image of the end times which is in fact used in Mark 13:8). In both of these cases, something bad has to happen before the event we are looking for occurs, as in the case of the tribulation which must precede the Lord’s return.

Argument 3: The Nations that Remain- Matthew 25.

The passage concluding the Olivet discourse concerning the sheep and the goats has a very unique interpretation from pre-tribulationists, and it is claimed by some that the details given in it deny the possibility of the rapture being at the end of the tribulation. The pre-tribulationist suggests that this is a description of a judgement that occurs at the Lord’s second coming but before the Millenium commences. It is asserted that the post-tribulationist here has a problem. Here the entire world’s population is divided into 2 companies; the sheep and the goats. The pre-tribulationist’s poser for the post-tribulationist is this: if all of earth is divided into two companies at the Lord’s second coming, being either raptured and glorified (the sheep) or cast into eternal fire (the goats), then who are the unglorified humans who we read about existing on earth during the Millennium? Where did they come from? Clearly from neither of the above two companies.

The pre-tribulationist schedule solves the problem perfectly, it is claimed, whereas the post-tribulationist theory has no answer for this question. The pre-tribulationist has a rapture and glorification of one people of God (the church) seven years before the second coming of Christ to earth. Thus there are seven years for the non-church Gentile people of God during the tribulation to grow in number. These will be gathered at the “Judgement of the Nations” as the above event is described, and will be the “sheep” who are commended for their treatment of their Jewish brethren, continuing on after the judgement in their nonglorified bodies on earth during the Millenium.

The crucial point in this particular argument by the pre-tribulationist is what happens to unbelievers at the Lord’s coming. The pre-tribulationist claims that all unbelievers are sent to Hell, whereas all believers (according to post-tribulationism) are glorified, and so there are no natural humans left to repopulate the earth during the Millennium. However, there is abundant evidence in both the Old and New Testaments that in fact not all unbelievers will have vanished from the face of the earth at the beginning of the Millennium (eg Micah 4:3, Zech 14:16-18, Rev 19:15). When this point is understood, the pre-tribulationist challenge evaporates. The nonglorified humans who are present on the earth during the Millennium are unbelievers who came through the Second Advent of Christ and live on in the new world in the Millennium. Like many of the judgement passages in the gospels, it must be understood that Matthew 25 is a summary description of a complex event, not a comprehensive one.

 Argument 4: In my Father’s House- John 14.

John 14:1-3 is one of the favourite pre-tribulationists texts raised in defence of their theory. It is said by many that this is a definite reference to the rapture by the Lord in the gospels, and that it proves the fact convincingly that the Lord will return prior to the tribulation. The pre-tribulationist argument is as follows. Here the Lord Jesus promises to return for His people, but the promise is to take His people back to Heaven with Him, after He has come. There is no way in which this can be made equivalent to the post-tribulationist coming, for there is no mention of a return to Heaven in a post-tribulationist return. Rather, after the tribulation, the Lord will return to reign on the earth. Therefore, John 14:1-3 must be referring to a different coming again to His return at the end of the tribulation. There must be a coming before the tribulation in which the Lord takes His people (the Church) back to Heaven with Him.

However, once again, a little critical analysis and consideration of alternative possible interpretations show that there is nothing compelling for the pre-tribulationist here. In making this argument, the pre-tribulationist has a number of problems to overcome before credibly being able to find fault with the post-tribulationist position. First of all, if this verse is teaching that Jesus was dying and going to Heaven so that we could have a “mansion” in Heaven, it seems strange that it is only going to be for a seven year temporary stay before suddenly it is deserted for a thousand years in the millenium on earth. Are these verses just referring to the 7 years stopover in Heaven we will have before the millenium – is that all that was Jesus was “going to prepare” for us?

Secondly, the methodology of building an entire system of prophecy on these 2 verses in John seems fairly questionable. There is very little detail about the timing and events which are in such abundance in the other gospels. All these verses really contain is a promise that the Lord would return. An understanding of the Lord’s coming should be built upon the large expositions given in the other gospels, not just 2 verses which are fairly scant on the details.

Thirdly, the pre-tribulationist has once again the problem of “Who’s who” in just arbitrarily assigning the disciples to represent the church here, but Israel in the other gospels. Just how is it decided that the disciples represent the church here but Israel in the other gospels ? Is it really feasible that the Lord would chop and change the disciples identity continually without even telling them? Just a few days earlier the Lord was telling them that they would go through the tribulation before the end would come, and that they must endure to the end. Now the Lord is (supposedly) telling them that they won’t go through the tribulation at all but will go to Heaven instead! In fact, we know that the Lord spoke these words in John 14 to the disciples on the same occasion that He spoke to them in Luke’s gospel (22:29-30) as to the representatives of Israel! There they are told they will judge the 12 tribes of Israel, apparently just after being told they were going to Heaven as the Church. If it is as the pre-tribulationist suggests, the disciples must have been completely muddled up about just who exactly they really were!

A final problem with the pre-tribulational argument which we shall enlarge upon below is that the text does not quite spell out exactly what the pre-tribulationist claims it says. The pre-tribulationist claims it says that at Christ’s return, He shall take us back to Heaven with Him. But the text never actually says that; what it does say is only three things. Firstly, it says that Christ has gone to prepare us a place in the Father’s house (which it is assumed means Heaven). Secondly it says that Christ will return for us. Thirdly, and most crucially, it says He will take us to Himself, that we may be where He is. The pre-tribulationist assumes because of the first statement that this means that we must be taken back to Heaven. But as we show below, there is another scripturally sound option of how this may be understood.

There are several possible ways of how the “Father’s house” may be understood from a post-tribulation perspective, including the temple in Jerusalem (cp John 2:16) or our spiritual abiding place of Christ in us (eg eg14:10,14:17, 15:4,15:6, 15:7, 15:9,15:10). However, I suggest a view which is not only simpler than both of these views and fits the text in a very neat manner, but it even goes so far as to grant the pre-tribulationist the assumption that Heaven is being referred to by the words “my Father’s house”. What if the Lord was not returning to take us to the Father’s house, but rather He was returning to bring the Father’s house to us, and us to Himself in His Father’s house?

This is referred to on three occasions in Revelation.
“He that overcomes will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and He shall go no more out: and I will write on Him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which comes down out of Heaven from my God, and I will write on Him my new name.” Revelation 3:12
“Then I John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband” Rev 21:2
“And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of Heaven from GodRev 21: 10.

These verses clearly teach that the eternal home will come down out of Heaven to us, not we up to it. John 14 is ambiguous about how we shall enter Heaven; all it says is that it has been prepared for us. It certainly never says that the Lord shall turn around and take us back to Heaven there and then at His second coming. However, in Revelation it is very clearly spelled out that the holy city shall descend down out of Heaven to earth. Thus there is no need to propose that in John 14 a return trip to Heaven is required for us at the Lord’s coming. All it says is that Christ has gone to prepare it for us, and that we will be with Him when He comes.

It is difficult to see why this should not be a plausible interpretation and even superior to the pre-tribulationist one, in the absence of other pre-tribulationist verses speaking of Christ taking us back to Heaven. The post-tribulation position is maintained.

Argument 5: In the Twinkling of an Eye- 1 Corinthians 15

This is probably one of the weakest arguments, but it’s a well known passage in the understanding of the rapture. The argument is that the rapture is said to take place “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52), and this according to William Macdonald, “strongly implies that it will not be witnessed by the world”. Therefore, in contrast to the public return of Christ after the tribulation, there must also be a secret return which is believed to occur prior to the tribulation. But this argument once more reads a whole lot more into a small passage than is warranted. All that this verse necessarily refers to is the moment in which we shall be transformed into a glorified body, and it has nothing to say on whether it will be public or private at all. It certainly says nothing about the timing of the coming of Christ in regards to the tribulation.

Argument 6: Saved from the Wrath to Come- 1 Thessalonians 1

Here is another very common argument, but a few critical questions quickly sees the argument evaporate. The pre-tribulationist argues that here we are told the church will be saved from the wrath to come, which of course must mean the tribulation. But- why must it mean the tribulation? Why could it not mean the judgement coming at the return of Christ? That this verse could well mean that can be seen from a comparison with 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7, where Paul explains how God will judge those who persecute the church and give relief to them from their persecution. This is said to happen “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels”. The question must be asked- if Paul can describe the judgement to come in reference to the second coming of Christ in 2 Thessalonians 1, why must the phrase “the wrath to come” in 1 Thessalonians 1 refer to the tribulation? It could conceivably do so, but how does one argue that it must do so?

Well, some answer that question by going to chapter 5, where Paul gives more detail about our “salvation from wrath” (5:9). The argument here sometimes is made that the wrath is in reference to the “day of the Lord” (5:2), and the day of the Lord is a reference to the tribulation period. But here we have the same problem. Why must the day of the Lord refer to the tribulation period? Let us assume that “the day of the Lord” may sometimes refer to the tribulation period. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen an adequate defense of that proposition explained. However, the problem is that clearly there are places where it does not refer to the whole tribulation period. For example, Joel 2:31 says that “the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the Lord”. These heavenly signs appear to be described as tribulation events in several passages, such as Matthew 24:29 , Revelation 6:12 and 8:12. Therefore, the day of the Lord at least in some passages comes at the end of the tribulation. The pre-tribulationist is left needing to show why the day of the Lord must refer to the whole tribulation in 1 Thessalonians 5.

 Argument 7: Caught up in the clouds- 1 Thessalonians 4

Many pre-tribulationists see a lot in the details of the rapture given in 1 Thessalonians 4. Some contrast the fact that Christ is only coming “to the air” in 1 Thessalonians 4, whereas in Matthew 24, He is coming to the earth. However, this is an argument from silence, as 1 Thessalonians 4 says nothing of where the Lord is going after collecting his saints in the air- whether back to Heaven or on to earth.

Other see a contrast in Jesus coming “for his saints” at the rapture (1 Thessalonians 4), and “with his saints” at the return of Christ to earth. Again though, this is a fairly superficial contrast, as there is no reason why Christ could not come firstly for his saints, in drawing them to Himself at the rapture, and then also “with his saints” as He continues on then to earth to bring his saints to reign with Him triumphantly in glorified bodies.

Argument 8: The Restrainer Removed- 2 Thessalonians 2

This passage could perhaps be read in a way friendly to a pre-tribulationist scheme, interpreting the “restrainer” as the church, which needs to be removed. However, the problem is that it is such an unclear reference, that to build one’s case on this is going to always leave room for significant doubts. Other options include the presence of law and order, the Roman empire, the archangel Michael (cp Daniel 10:13-21), and the preaching of the gospel to the nations. The fact is that the identity of the “restrainer” is simply not spelled out and the idea of it being the church is just as much a speculation as the other alternatives listed. Without significant support elsewhere, there is no strong argument for it being the church.

While here in 2 Thessalonians 2, perhaps we should mention that some argue that the word “rebellion” (NIV) can be translated as “departure”, and some argue that this is a reference to the rapture. Thus the sentence reads: “that day will not come until the “departure” occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed. Again here is another argument from suspiciously vague sounding language. However, there is little reason to translate the word as departure, rather than “rebellion” or “apostasy” as most versions translate it. The word elsewhere always refer to a departure from the faith in both Greek Old and New Testaments, and this fits the context of 2:8-12. Furthermore, this fits the parallel teaching about a “falling away” preceding the second coming as given in the gospels (Matthew 24:9-13).

Argument 9: Kept from the Hour of Tribulation- Revelation 3

This is probably the most well known and referred to argument. It is said that here Jesus promises the church that they will be kept “out of” (literally) the hour of tribulation that is coming on the whole world. “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” (Revelation 3:10). But like so many of the other examples we have examined, this verse could conceivably refer to a pre-tribulationist rapture, but there are several other interpretive options which are just as good as it, if not better. For example, if this paragraph written to the church at Philadelphia is indeed meant to be applied to the whole church, how does one demonstrate that the “hour of trial” refers to the entire period of the tribulation, rather than just the final judgement of the Lord’s coming at the end of the tribulation? It is conceivable that it could be. In numerous places in Revelation, the focus of the judgement which the people of God are rescued from is the final judgement at the return of Christ, not the whole period- see for example 6:9-16, 11:12-15, 14:1-20, 16:15-16, etc.

Even more powerfully though is the likelihood that this verse does not mean an escaping from the tribulation itself, but rather a preservation through the hour. This can be seen by a comparison with John 17:15. “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them (out) of the evil one.” Here exactly the same words “keep out” are used, and they clearly carry the sense of preservation through the midst of the evil, as this is contrasted explicitly with the idea of being “taken out” of the world. There is every reason to interpret Revelation 3:10 in exactly the same way, especially when this is the image which is given throughout Revelation to how the saints will be sustained in the midst of the judgements coming on the earth, as for example we see in Revelation 7.

Argument 10: The Church in Heaven- Revelation 4-19.

The final argument is an assortment based around the structure and events found in Revelation 4-22. It is suggested that the word “church” is found frequently in Revelation 1-3, but is absent after Revelation 4, representing the fact that the church has disappeared from earth once the tribulation begins in chapter 6. It is suggested that the rapture of the church is pictured in the “rapture” of John the Apostle in Revelation 4:1 (“Come up here”), and the presence of the church is symbolised in Heaven by the twenty four elders wearing crowns on their heads. Finally, it is suggested that the marriage supper of the lamb to which the Bride (the church) is invited in 19:7-9 shows the presence of the church in Heaven during the tribulation, not on earth.

This like many of the other arguments only sounds impressive until it is examined more carefully. The word “church” is used in chapters 1-3 to refer to local churches, and it refers to them because there are specific letters addressed to them. It never refers to the church in the universal general sense that the pre-tribulationist is using it in chapters 1-3. This argument is like saying that the letter to the Romans is addressed to Israel in chapters 1-15, not the church, because the word “church” is entirely absent in every chapter but the last, or 1 Thessalonians is addressed to Israel in every chapter but the first, because the word “church” only occurs in chapter 1. There needs to be actual evidence for such a change of focus- it is arbitrary to argue on the presence or absence of the word “church”. Furthermore, the descriptions of the seven churches in chapters 1-3 contain precisely the sort of terms which are relevant to the people of God in chapters 4 onwards. They are described as needing to persevere through tribulation, and to be watching for the return of Christ. What good reason is there for assuming that the rest of the book is not about them?

To read the rapture into Revelation 4 of course is purely supposition. One could alternatively argue that the rapture is represented in the rapture of the two prophets in Revelation 11:12, or in the escape from out of the tribulation of the people of God described in chapter 7. If one was trying to match the rapture up with an event in Revelation, these would be better matches, and there is nothing clear in the twenty-four elders which shows them as a symbol of the church. Finally, the marriage supper of the lamb referred to in chapter 19 gives no evidence of being an event occurring in Heaven to the church during the tribulation. Indeed it appears to be rather commencing with the second advent of Christ, and a blessing being given to those invited to it.

Conclusion

Our examination of the top ten arguments for pre-tribulationism comes to an end with the conclusion that we have not found any reasonable argument that shows a pre-tribulation rapture is necessary. Therefore, the burden of proof upon the pre-tribulationist remains, and we can be confident in the simpler assertion that there will be just one return of Christ at the end of the tribulation. In our next article, we will present a positive case for a post-tribulation rapture, and examine the top ten scriptures which affirm that this simplest view is indeed the correct one.

See also: Why you shouldn’t be a pan-millenialist.

 

What difference did the birth of Jesus actually make?

Again this Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, and take a day- well, really a whole month- to ponder the birth of a single individual in a tiny obscure village in ancient Palestine. If you go through the traditional Christmas carols about the birth of Jesus, you find they are full of incredible changes which they say the birth of Jesus has brought to the world. And if you were just a little bit cynically minded, you might think to yourself that all these changes are running just a little bit overdue- 2000 years, and we’re still waiting.

It came upon a midnight clear”- promises “Peace on the earth, good will to me”. Peace on earth? Really? “Joy to the World” promises in verse 3 that  “No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground”. Really, I don’t have too much troubles with bindis in my lawn- but actually I think that’s because I sprayed it a few months ago- not because of an event 2000 years ago. And as for sin and sorrows- well, they’re not gone yet. What about “Oh Holy Night”- “Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name, all oppression shall cease”. We haven’t had any problems with oppression or slavery for the last 2000 years, have we?  According to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, Jesus was “born that man no more may die”.  No more death- that’s a nice thought, but just a christmaslittle bit inaccurate as a description of the last 2000 years.

We Aussies are a cynical lot. We like to question. We don’t take ceremonies or traditions too seriously. We love to make fun of anything that gets a bit too formal or makes big claims. Anyone who takes themselves a bit too seriously, they’ve got to be taken down. So in the spirit of celebrating Christmas in Aussie style- I’d like to apply a bit of a baloney check to all these Christmas promises. I can just imagine a lot of Aussies sitting back with a beer in hand listening to these Christmas carols and saying- “I dunno about this Christmas thing, it’s all a load of baloney- Jesus ain’t done nuthin mate. Nothings changed. Peace on earth? My kids are still whinging, my missus is still cranky with me- nothins changed. Telly’s full of bad news mate. The whole thing is a crock.”

So- what do we say? Christmas 2016- what difference has Jesus really made 2000 years after his birth? Well, I think it is fair to say that Jesus was probably the most famous person who has ever lived, and whose life did change the course of history more than anybody else’s. But still, these carols go way beyond that. Are they just guilty of massive exaggeration which we’re supposed to smile and politely ignore because it’s Christmas?

Well- let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Yes, suffering is still here. War, violence, terrorism, slavery, injustice, heartache. And I think it is right that today- on what is one of our most lavish days of celebration- with food and drink in abundance- today we need to remember that many many other people today around the world live in poverty, danger, sickness, and injustice. We have it so good today- but many are suffering. Let’s remember that, and ask God what he wants us to do about it.

Suffering reminds us that something fundamental is wrong in our world. God is no longer here in the way He wants to be. There is a problem in our relationship. There is a light on the dashboard, as it were, flashing annoyingly at us. There is a warning message coming up on our computer screen. Not necessarily because of something specific which people who suffer have done wrong- plenty of relatively innocent people that suffer. Rather, as a disturbingly constant remind to all of us that there is a problem in humanity’s relationship with God. Suffering is the error message which keeps on reminding us that there is something fundamentally wrong between us and God. There is a chasm between us and God due to our spiritual fall into sin, and we live in a spiritual warzone, and suffer the fall-out.

But I don’t think the carol writers were ignorant of the suffering. I don’t think they were trying to con us into thinking there was no such thing as suffering anymore. They knew it, probably better than we do. So- what were they saying, when claiming that Jesus has changed everything?

Well, they were making a fairly astounding claim- a claim which some people in our society are sceptical of, but really- it’s something which 99% of all humanity have always believed in. That is, there is more to life than just the here and now- the 70 or 80 years of life on planet earth. There is a life beyond this life. This world, this life is not the only life to be experienced. Our life on earth goes so quickly. Here we are at another Christmas Day. Another end of year celebration. Our kids grow up so quickly. We grow up so quickly. On Christmas Day, true it seems like some of us Dads never seem to grow up- especially when the water pistols and nerf guns and pool toys come out from under the Christmas Tree. But we say it every year, don’t we? Christmas keeps coming round quicker. It doesn’t actually. It’s just that life is really short. We want it to slow down and be stretched out more. But not just our life- but the history of our whole world- it won’t last forever. Society is changing and growing at an exponential rate. One day the end will come- I don’t know how exactly- but history will come to an end.

But what Christmas is saying- is that there is something more. There is something more than the dirt and poverty and disease which millions of people spend their whole life trapped in. There is something more than just the cycle of life we get trapped in- of work, weekends, summer holidays, toys and new TV shows to entertain us till we get bored of them. The Christmas message is that proof has arrived that there is something worth living for beyond our own brief existence of suffering and pleasure for a few decades.

What is the proof? Has God given us a scientific experiment, which we can perform whenever we need reminders that there is more to this life? Is it some kind of message written in the clouds- “Dear humans, Don’t worry about your lousy life now, there is another better world coming?” I think a lot of people today would ask God for that.

But God had a different method of showing us- a method which if you stop and think about it- it is just staggering. We kind of get familiar with the story of Christmas, and we think- “well, isn’t it cute? The baby in the manger, the shepherds and the angels, wise men, star over the stable- what a sweet little story.” We easily lose just the staggering nature of what happens in the Christmas story- it’s a story which should make our mouths drop open every single time- if you really get it. The message of Christmas is that the God who made the universe- the God who invented physics and chemistry, the God who knows the name of every star and planet, who knows every fish in the ocean, every thought in every human mind- who has always existed, and always will exist- this God became a human baby. That is just an incredible, incredible, incredible concept. He just didn’t send a science experiment, nor a message in the sky, nor even an angel. He came Himself- became a human, became one of us. He came as a human baby, and became reliant on his mother’s milk, learned how to talk and walk. He lived amongst our dirt, poverty, disease- and showed us a glimpse of Heaven, the world to come. Then He went one step further- and laid his life down for us- going lower than the low- so that we could share in his resurrection life in the world to come. And if God has gone to all that trouble for us- then we can know for sure- there is more to this life than the here and now.

Tom Hanks has a reputation of being the ultimate celebrity nice guy from Hollywood. He has a reputation of turning up to weddings of random strangers and offering a photo with them on their wedding day. Recently, I read of a lady who had a bet with her friend about who could get a personal headshot from a famous actor. She wrote to Tom Hanks, got a letter straight back, with a photo, and a chatty letter as if he was one of her best friends. What a nice guy. Wouldn’t it be somewhat staggering though if he wrote back and said, I’d like to meet you and have coffee with you. Perhaps I’d like to live in your street so I can really spend a lifetime getting to know you. In fact, wouldn’t it be something we would talk about for years if Tom Hanks was in Brisbane one Christmas, and came and joined us for our Christmas service today. Wouldn’t we feel nervous and excited, and line up to get a selfie with him in the background?

Have you considered the stunning story of how the ultimate celebrity of all time- God himself- came to us- but not as a king in a Star Wars space ship, or in a loud and glitzy parade? He came as a human baby, was born in an obscure village, and laid in an animal’s feeding trough for his first bed. That is astonishing, and that is what makes Christmas worth coming back to and celebrating for a whole month every year. God has come to us, and He has shown us with clear demonstration- that there is more to this life, by revealing his power and glory in his love and humility in our present life.

Well Christmas Day is party time. I’m sure you’ve already had a few Christmas parties, I’m sure most of us have a pretty good party planned for today. One of the things Jesus was famous for was his parties. The religious people of the day gave his a really hard time over it- why do you spend so much time partying with such dreadful people? Jesus’ response was “the kingdom of God is like a party.” A party to which everybody is invited. An eternal party- in the world to come. Today as we party together- remember that Jesus has opened up to us an eternal party- to live life the way it was meant to be- eternally. He’s invited us all to be there. And that’s what we’re celebrating. Jesus has come to earth open the door to the eternal party of the new heaven and new earth that is yet to come. So- enjoy your celebrations today!