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!

Romans 7: Christian or Non-Christian Experience?

To whom does the inner struggle between good and evil apply in Romans 7: 7-25 ?7 What is Paul’s view of sanctification from Romans?

 Throughout church history, Romans 7:7-25 has proved to be a passage which has divided the opinions of commentators sharply. The controversy has been whether it is a description of a Christian or a non-Christian in their struggle with evil. After surveying some of the major arguments for both sides, this essay follows Schreiner’s (1998:390) argument in suggesting that the passage has relevance to both in its discussion of how the law has no power to transform the sinful nature of humans. Paul’s view of sanctification flows out of an understanding of the tension between the present age and that to come, and the appropriation by faith of the blessings of the gospel.

The sharp division in opinion over this passage arises because of the remarkable strength of arguments on both sides. Some commentators strongly contend that the passage must be a description of the life of Paul before he was converted. Firstly, the passage is summarised it is suggested by 7:5-6, in which is contrasted our unconverted life in the flesh with our new life in the Spirit (Schreiner 1998:1385). Throughout the passage there is a strong emphasis on the flesh, with a complete absence of the Holy Spirit. This ties closely to the description of our unconverted life in the flesh as described in 7:5. Secondly, the language used of the person in 7:7-25 contradicts the language Paul has already used to describe Christians (Moo 1996:448). Christians have had their “body of sin done away with“ (6:6) and have “been set free from sin” (6:18), yet the person described in this passage is “sold under sin“ (7:14), in captivity to the law of sin (7:23), and longing for deliverance from “this body of death” (7:24).

A third argument is the way chapter 8 succeeds chapter 7 (Schreiner 1998:1387). Chapter 8 speaks of two types of people, some who walk according to the flesh and some who walk according to the spirit. These are clearly non-Christians and Christians in view, as is seen in v9: “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God dwells in you”. Thus, the logic of the argument implies that if in chapter 8 there are only two types of people, Christians and non-Christians, the person described in chapter 7 living by the flesh must by implication correspond to the non-Christian. There is no mention of a third “carnal Christian” type in Romans 8: 1-14 which would be expected if it was present in chapter 7.

However, others contend that on the contrary the passage must be a description of the struggle of a Christian to live a sanctified life. Firstly, it is argued that Paul’s use of the first person and the present tense most naturally leads to the assumption that Paul is referring to the sort of struggle that he himself goes through in his present experience (Morris 1988:1285). Secondly, it is argued that the desire to please and serve God that is in evidence in v18 and v22 is not a natural description of a non-Christian; by contrast, the non-Christian does not “seek after God” (Rom 3:11) and cannot “submit to the law of God“ (8:7) (Moo 1996:446). Thirdly, in verse 25, after Paul’s reference to Christ’s deliverance, Paul again reiterates the fact of the conflicting struggle of the will, showing that it is an ongoing feature of the Christians life (Cranfield 1985:170).

The most compelling argument of this second view would be the use of the present tense. The second argument regarding the unbelievers desire to please God may be contested easily by pointing to examples such as Romans 9:31-32 and 10:2 (Schreiner 1998:388). Furthermore, the third argument may be rebutted by pointing out that the phrase after Paul’s thanksgiving for Christ’s deliverance doesn’t easily fit either view of the passage. If it is referring to a Christian’s life, why does Paul still serve with the flesh the law of sin even though he has just mentioned the deliverance that is his through Christ?

However, the argument regarding the use of the first person and the present tense is more difficult. Some argue that Paul here takes on the identity of another, such as Adam, or the nation of Israel. But there is no explicit indication anywhere from Paul that he has suddenly started “impersonating” somebody else, and it would be expected that Paul would make this clear if it was his intention. Certainly Paul’s description may have elements in common with Adam or Israel, but this does not in itself demand an identity switch. The fact that he speaks with such passion and so personally later in the chapter (eg v24) gives the most straightforward expectation that he speaks about himself (Cranfield 1985:157).

But neither must he be talking about himself in terms of real historical experiences that he has undergone. The words “I was alive once without the law” (v9) or “by it sin killed me” (v11) are very difficult to assign to actual events that he has undergone in real life (see Stott’s (1994: 199) summary of the difficulties). More likely is he possibly speaking of himself in a rhetorical narrative style to describe a theological point with more vividness. This is suggested by the fact that both sin and the law are continually personified throughout the chapter (eg v1,8,9,23) as actors working on Paul. The events described regarding the effect of the law and sin on Paul do not have to convey real historical events, but rather may be understood to be there to answer the theological question “Is the law sin?” in a dramatically vivid way (Cranfield 1985:156).

This leads us to now consider the second half of the passage in which the present tense comes into play. If the context gives us the expectation that it should refer to an unregenerate man, why does he speak as if his struggle for sanctification is one he is engaged in as a Christian? Firstly, continuing from the paragraph above, it should be seen as an explanation of Paul’s theology before being seen as Paul’s recount of his biography (Morris 1988:284). Paul is expressing himself in a vivid personal manner to illustrate his theology, not to tell his life story. It is a portrait of how it is to live under the law, without the aid of the Spirit of God. Morris (1988:284) writes, “there is autobiography here, but the passage is not basically Paul’s account of his experience. He is not saying “ I will tell you what happened to me. You can profit from my experience.” Rather he is saying ‘This is how the law confronts people. Let me illustrate from my own experience.” Had it been simply a piece of autobiography it would have doubtless been clearer whether we should see the regenerate or the unregenerate here. But Paul is talking about the law and its demands and showing the reader what it cannot do.” Rather than being primarily a historical description of Paul’s experience (whether regenerate or unregenerate), it is a theological description of the flesh, which is present in Paul, and also in all humanity.

Does this passage apply then to the regenerate or the unregenerate? It certainly applies to the unregenerate. That is who Paul has in mind in saying “when we were in the flesh” in 7:5 and in his description of those who walk according to the flesh in 8:6,13 who are heading for death. But as Bruce (1985: 143) writes, “Christians live in tension between two worlds, having passed spiritually from death to life, but being still present in their sinful bodies. Although we have been set free from sin (8:2) and are under no condemnation (8:1), Paul still has to tell the Christians that they are not debtors to the flesh (8:12), and that they need to “put to death the deeds of the body” (8:13).

Thus in as far as the sinful nature is still present in the believer’s mortal body, this passage which describes the sinful nature has relevance to the Christian. This is possibly why so many Christians do immediately relate to Romans 7 in their struggle with sin in their daily lives. It is also possibly why Paul uses the present tense here, because he is aware of the sinful nature which still lurks within him, seeking to rob him of his freedom in Christ.

Thus, Paul’s view of sanctification is consistently clear throughout Romans 6-8. True Christians live in consistence with the spiritual blessings God has brought them into in Christ. Our body of sin has been “done away with that we should no longer be slaves of sin”(6:6), we have been “set free from sin“ and become “slaves of righteousness”, we have been “delivered from the law” (7:6) and we have received the Spirit of life who sets us free (8:2). However, we are also told that it is our responsibility to appropriate these truths in our lives by “reckoning yourself dead to sin“ (6:11) by not “letting sin reign in your mortal body” (6:12) and by “putting to death the deeds of the body through the Spirit” (8:13).

It is by living out the truths that God has blessed us with that we prove the reality of the blessings of salvation and the presence of the Spirit in our lives. This tension between having already received by faith blessings such as freedom from sin, and yet our ever present responsibility to deal with it personally in our lives is the paradox involved in our sanctification according to Paul.

Thus, it is suggested that this passage, does not deal specifically with either the regenerate or the unregenerate, but rather with the flesh which all men have in their struggle with the law. This conflict is present in unbeliever as they lack the Spirit’s power to live in righteousness, but also in the Christian as they live in this present age, having received spiritual blessings yet still being physically present in their mortal bodies. Sanctification according to Paul involves an appropriation by faith of the blessings of the gospel in our freedom from sin and reception of the Holy Spirit for a life of godliness.

References

Bruce, F. (1985) Tyndale New Testament Commentary Series: Romans,2nd Edn, IVP, Leicester.

Cranfield, C.E.B. (1985) Romans: A Shorter Commentary, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.

Moo, D. (1996) The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The

Epistle to the Romans, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.

Morris, L. (1988) The Epistle to the Romans, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.

Schreiner, T.R. (1998) Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament:

Romans, Baker, Grand Rapids.

Stott, J. (1994) The Message of Romans, IVP, Leicester.

Explaining holy war in the Bible

One of the chief battlegrounds for Christian apologetics is concerning moral issues in our society today. These questions are emotional questions that criticise Christianity on the grounds that it teaches old fashioned values or even immoral values. In this article I will discuss the classic issue of the presence of holy war in the Bible. Throughout the Old Testament, God gives instructions to the nation of Israel to wipe out their enemies, even their women and children. So how may we respond to this?

This certainly is a difficult question which is not to be downplayed at all. However, I would start by keeping the question in its place. This question is concerning the Bible’s morality or truthfulness, and so it is secondary to the main question of the truthfulness of Christianity, which starts with merely the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ. Furthermore, as usually it is atheists who bring this question up, the atheist may be asked on what basis is holy war wrong in a world which has relied on survival of the fittest for our origin? Of course, atheism in just the twentieth century had its own “holy wars” to account for.   Vox Day writes: The total body count for the ninety years between 1917 and 2007 is approximately 148 million dead at the bloody hands of fifty-two atheists, three times more than all the human beings killed by war, civil war, and individual crime in the entire twentieth century combined.  The historical record of collective atheism is thus 182,716 times worse on an annual basis than Christianity’s worst and most infamous misdeed, the Spanish Inquisition. It is not only Stalin and Mao who were so murderously inclined, they were merely the worst of the whole Hell-bound lot.” So these aren’t great records for what happens when religion is replaced by atheism.

However, let us move to giving a positive response to the question. We can present a response by moving through 5 questions about it.

1.Why does God take lives in the Bible? God has right to take people’s lives as he sees fit. He is not obliged to give anyone 80 years of life. He gave people their life, he does have the right to take it whenever he should choose. So it is silly to call God a mass murderer, as if He is subject to some human rights law which says he has to give people 80 years of life.

2. Was it reasonable for God to kill the Canaanites? The reason for this judgement in OT is not their race- it is sin. In addition to divination, witchcraft, and female and male temple sex, Canaanite idolatry encompassed a host of morally disgusting practices that mimicked the sexually perverse conduct of their Canaanite fertility gods: adultery, child abuse, bestiality, and incest. Worst of all, Canaanites practiced child sacrifice. So, holy war is a matter of God judging these people for their depraved level of sinfulness.

3. Why did God use a holy war as opposed to another method of judgement? The manner of their destruction probably reflects something of the destruction they had wreaked on others. See Judges 1:7- “ThenAdoni-Bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them.” Obviously, the Canaanite nations were saturated in brutal and barbaric wars with one another, if this king has done this to 70 others. God has had enough and is stepping in to bring his judgement on them in the only language which they will understand.

4. Why the killing of everyone, including women and children? For starters, there is good evidence to suggest that the language used may have been deliberately hyperbolic- it probably didn’t literally mean everyone. It’s like us saying we’re going to walk all over our opponents in a football match- it’s not meant to be taken literally. Furthermore, most would have been driven out of the land rather than actually killed. However, the killing that did take place was the nature of holy war- communicating in their cultural language God’s total rejection of their culture. An analogy may be that during wartime, things are done which ordinarily would never be contemplated-eg bombing towns risking civilians’ lives. In World War 2, after Hitler began bombing hospitals and synagogues in London- there was only 1 way to communicate with him- to flatten his own country. It’s easy for us now to look down our nose at such a strategy but when you are on the receiving end of such ruthless and barbaric tactics from such an enemy, you cannot merely respond with gestures of peace and good will. So the judgement of the Canaanites may seem harsh according to our modern sanitized standards, but may have been the only thing to communicate to these hardened peoples that their sin was no longer going to be tolerated. 

5. Does this not give religious people a precedent for violence today? For example, if I thought God told me to kill someone today, should I do it? No, that is like deciding to murder a German today because I read a history of an assassination attempt taken against Hitler in WW2.  The instructions given about holy war were for a very specific time and situation- they were not general rules for normal life. So if I thought God commanded me to murder someone or go to war: this would go against whole thrust of scripture, and contradict many commands of scripture. I would therefore conclude it is far more likely I am being deceived in thinking God told me to do this.

The challenge about holy war in the Bible is certainly a difficult one. However, when thought through properly in terms of its historical context we can see the reasons why such unpleasant historical accounts may be present in our Bible.

Should we be afraid of God?

I had an older brother who was very wicked in many respects, and it was a provision of God, because it has given me plenty of good sermon illustrations. One very wicked thing I remember witnessing my brother do one day was the time our youth fellowship visited a young family from our church. They had a little girl about 5 years old, and this little girl had an imaginary cat she was quite attached to. Apparently it is quite common for children, particularly when they are an only child, to play with an imaginary friend. This little girl, Joanne, had an imaginary cat she was devoted to- she would pat it, feed it, sleep with it, take it everywhere, and show it to everybody.

We were sitting round this family’s lounge room, and someone suggested that Joanne introduce us to her little cat. She very foolishly agreed to let us pass it around the room, and each of us had a pat and said something complimentary about it- until it reached my brother Stephen. Stephen I guess had a strong conviction that kids should face reality, and get over their imagination, so Stephen received the cat, gave it a few pats, and then promptly put it into his mouth. He gave it a few chews, and then with a big gulp, swallowed it. At first poor Joanne thought it was a bit of a joke, but when she asked for her cat back, Stephen said, “I’m sorry, I’ve eaten him. I can’t give him back- he’s scattered throughout my digestive system”. I think even Stephen felt a little guilty after seeing Joanne break down into wails of grief on the passing of her imaginary cat.

Today I want to do what my brother did to Joanne that day- to snatch from you, not an imaginary cat, but an imaginary god which you may carry around with you. I want to confront you with the brute reality of what the true God is really like. Because many Christians carry around with them an imaginary god- and they have ceased to worship the true God.  Moses over and over again warns the Israelites of the danger of idolatry- and what is idolatry? It is creating an idol and worshipping it instead of the true God- it is dumbing God down, and creating an imaginary God, a god who conforms to what they might like to imagine what God is like- instead of what the true God is really like.

A few years ago a survey was done in Australia about teenagers views on life and religion, and they found that consumerism reigned supreme. Most teenagers viewed God as a sort of heavenly butler- a God who exists to serve them when they are in need, a God who may be called upon, but who preferably should stay out of sight except when required. He is like an imaginary cat we carry around with us, to comfort us, to speak to when we get lonely, to make us feel better. He exists to come to our rescue when we get in trouble. He is a teddy-bear God. He is a God who never gets angry, He never makes demands of us, other than suggesting we try to be nice, and try to make ourselves happy.

Similar to this is the “old man upstairs” God or the “my best mate” Jesus. A classic picture of this idea of God is in the movie Bruce Almighty- where Bruce Nolan, a TV reporter, is having a rough time in life, and so he complains that God isn’t doing his job very well. Consequently God, appearing just as a laid-back humble sort of guy dressed in white overalls, meets up with Bruce,  and says to him, “Well, if you think it’s so easy being God, I’ll give you a go of being God and see if you can do any better”. So he lets Bruce be God to see what it’s like. And what is God like according to Bruce Almighty? God just wanders around, appearing to people sporadically to give them a little gem of wisdom here and there. When Bruce blasphemes to God’s face, God just responds with a little chuckle, and plays a practical joke on him to get him back. God is just a very tolerant friendly fun-loving family uncle who tries his best, who never gets angry, who finds it hard to get around to listening to everybody’s prayers, let alone answering them, who needs to go on holidays every now and then, and who exists to provide amusement  to people he takes a shine to.

What is God really like? Well, God is a God of love. God is a God of faithfulness. God does care about us. God is always near to us. It is right that we call to him when we are in times of trouble. But God is also a God of holiness and righteousness. God is a God of great majesty and power. God is a God we should fear. God is  a God of anger and judgement. Really? An angry God? Well, does it anger you to hear of terrorist madmen beheading and crucifying random individuals for the most trivial of crimes? Does it anger you that the most common offence local courts deal with is possession of child pornography and sexual assault? Does it anger you that now one of the biggest types of child abuse comes from children abusing other children in the playground because they have become so messed up? Should it anger you that there are so many countries in which the masses are living in abject poverty, and yet they are run by a corrupt dictator who uses his people’s suffering to live a life of luxury in a palace?

God is a God of righteous anger. God is a God of jealousy- righteous jealousy. This is the God which Israel encountered at Mt Sinai. And when Israel meets God at Mt Sinai, and God gives them His 10 commandments to live by. What happens? Israel starts trembling. The people of Israel think they are going to die. God is a God who makes us afraid when we come near to him.

Should we fear God? I’ve heard many Christian people want to back away from this thing about fearing God. And they say, fearing God is not actaully being afraid of God. Wait a minute. What is the difference between having fear and being afraid? Isn’t it exactly the same thing? And at Mt Sinai, weren’t the people afraid? Some people say, fearing God is just respecting God. But I’d want to say it’s more than respecting God. Reverence is getting closer, but I’d say it is still not close enough. Awe? Yes, but does awe make you tremble? Does awe make you feel like you’re going to die? That’s what happens in the Bible when people meet God.

When Jesus’ closest disciples see Jesus revealed in glory up the Mount of Transfiguration- what is their response? It says they were terrified. John was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, He walked with him for 3 ½ years, He is so close to Jesus that he lays his head on his breast to show his affection. That was before Jesus died. But when John sees the risen, exalted glorified Jesus, Revelation 1 tells us he falls down at his feet as if he was dead. He was overwhelmed. He was speechless. He was overcome.  And Jesus touches him, and says, “do not fear”. You see, his natural response was utter fear. Then Jesus lifts him up, and says, ‘you may have confidence in my presence’. But you know what we have lost- we have lost that sense of natural fear.

No one has explained this better than CS Lewis in the Narnia tales when the 2 beavers are describing who Aslan is to the 4 children. Lucy says, ‘Is Aslan a man?’ ‘Certainly not’, replied the beaver. ‘Aslan is a lion- the lion, the great lion, the king of the beasts’. ‘Oh’, said Susan, ‘I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous meeting a lion’. ‘That you will, dearie, and no mistake’, said Mrs Beaver. ‘If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly’. ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ asked Lucy? ‘Safe?’ said Mr Beaver. ‘Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But He’s good. He’s the king’.  “I’m longing to meet Him, even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point” said Peter.

Should we fear God? Yes, we should fear God. But of course, there is something more which Christians can also do. We can also love God. If we just fear God, we will run away in terror from Him. But if we fear God and love God, then we will be drawn to worship Him. Because that is what worship is- it is a response to God of the fear of God and the love of God perfectly mingled together.

Do you fear God? You should. Because you don’t even have to read the Bible to discover that at the heart of our universe, at the heart of our existence, there is someone who is infinitely majestic and awesome. At the heart of the universe is someone who is infinitely great. Behind this physical world we see and touch, there is something or someone utterly majestically awesome. At the heart of our universe, exists a being who is unimaginably powerful- He is the one who created a star in the sky for us which lets off a 400 million tonne hydrogen  bomb every second in its core, to keep us nice and warm on planet earth.  He is the one who is unimaginably big- not in his physical size, but in his scope, the extent of His influence. He created a universe that is at least 100 billion light years in diameter. You could travel nonstop at 8.5 million miles per hour during a lifetime of 80 full years, and the distance would total about one light year – and that’s just all we are able to see at the moment- who knows how bigger the universe actually is. I think it’s telling that God allowed us only to discover how big the universe actually is in the twentieth century, when our human arrogance and pride with its technology reached a maximum, just so that we would know something of how puny and insignificant we are in comparison to Him.

He is a God who is infinitely clever – He has written the code for the DNA for each living thing on earth, and it is vastly more complicated than all the computer programs we have ever written put together. Do you know if you were to get hold of a tiny piece of our DNA, the size of a pinhead, and write out the information content of that tiny DNA, how many average size books would you need to write it all down? 10 books ? 20 books? A stack of books as high as the ceiling? No, as high as the distance from earth to the moon, and back- multiplied by 500. He is an infinite God.

He is a God who is infinitely beautiful. Do you know why all around the earth everywhere we look, we see things of beauty? Because God Himself is an infinitely beautiful being- His creation is an expression of His nature.  Furthermore- God is also infinitely pure and righteous and holy. He is perfectly loving.  Our levels of morality just do not cut it. No wonder the Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No wonder that when God gave his 10 commandments to the Israelites at Mt Sinai, their response was one of fear.

Some people ask- where did God come from? Answer- He has always existed. Some people ask- why does God exist? Consider this- God is the source of existence itself. God is self-existent. Existence comes from God. The question should be- why does the concept of existence exist? The very property of existence comes from God.

Can you see why it is right for you to fear Him? Can you see why, when you are brought into His presence, you will fall down, and you will be speechless? Can you see why in Revelation 4, we read about 4 living creatures, angelic creatures- they are in God’s throne room, and all they ever do, day in, day out- year after year, century after century- all they ever do- is cry out “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come. ” You see, a really good movie, a really good football game, it might keep us captivated for an hour or two- eyes to the screen. But if you are in the presence of God, you will be overwhelmed and awe-struck with the infinite beauty and glory of God- it will captivate you for all eternity. Do you follow?

Can you see how blasphemous it becomes to commit idolatry, and bring God down to our level, and make Him our heavenly butler, who exists to serve us? Can you see how wrong it is to trivialise God, to say, “I’m doing fine in my life, I don’t need to worry about God too much”. The question is not whether we need God- of course we need God. The real question is, ‘how much do you owe God?’ The answer is an awful lot. An infinite amount.
There are many people in our society, they don’t worry too much about God. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought like this- most people don’t worry about God, and they seem to get on okay. You know, they never really talk about God on any of your morning breakfast shows, yet they seem to be happy sorts of people. The consensus of our society seems to be that the main thing in life is to try to be a decent person, but if you want to talk about God, well, that’s just an optional extra. It’s not important. But do you know, there is something more powerful and more compelling than the consensus of our society that we don’t need to worry about God. That is, the reality that there is an infinitely glorious and holy God. His glory compels us to worship Him- no matter how many millions of people around us neglect him.

You might go through times where you think- I have tried Christianity, it hasn’t worked for me. My life is no different from a non-christian. My Christian life is just a struggle, and sometimes I wonder if it’s worth the bother. But there is something greater than our disappointments and failures- the infinite glory of God still compels you to worship him, whether you have made something of your life or not. You may have been hurt and discouraged by the behaviour of other Christians in your life- and you think, if that is how Christians can behave, I’m going to forget about Christianity. But there is something that transcends the many failures and sinfulness of other Christians- the infinite glory of God compels you to worship Him, whether you have been wounded by the sins of Christians or not.  You might say, I have unanswered questions which trouble me from time to time. Ok, that’s fine, but the reality of an infinitely glorious God still compels you to worship him, whether you ever get those questions answered or not.

God is a God whose nature demands your worship. When the day comes in which you stand before Him, you will be full of fear, because suddenly you will be full of an awareness of how miserably inadequate you have lived your life, how you’ve failed to live up to the 10 commandments, and how you are deserving of his judgement. But there is one more thing. There is another mountain in the Bible where God revealed Himself at. Just like Mt Sinai, this mountain surrounded by darkness, there were earthquakes, people were trembling. But God didn’t descend from a cloud and speak from Heaven. This time the great infinite God of the universe had taken upon Himself a human body- just like you and me- and His destination was a wooden cross at Mt Calvary. There 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ, God in human body, was crucified. And in the death of God the Son, an amazing transaction was completed- the penalty was paid for all our failures and sinfulness, and sinful human wretches like you and me can now stand accepted and forgiven before an infinitely perfect God.

The Bible says, For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life. All that we have to do is place our faith in Jesus, who did this incredible act on our behalf, so brilliant it could only have come from the mind of God- we must place our faith in Him, and we will stand accepted, and forgiven before God- and we will not only just fear God, but we will also love him, as our Heavenly Father.

We cannot trivialise God. We dare not procrastinate with God. The infinite God of the universe demands your worship, your allegiance, your obedience. Maybe you realise that you’ve just been treating God as a low priority amongst all the other busy things of your life- and you realise that in fact you’re guilty of idolatry- because you have trivialised God of His glory, and imagined him to be far less glorious than what he really is. You have imagined him to exist for your purposes on the rare occasion that you need Him, rather than realising that you exist totally for his purposes. If that’s you, then you need to repent, before you come under the judgement of a totally holy God for your idolatry. There is mercy for us in Jesus, freely available for us all- but we must not, we dare not take this mercy lightly. We must cast ourselves upon it while we may.

The Gospel of the Kingdom

If you had 10 words to share with the world, what would be the most important thing you could say? Of course, in days gone by that would be a totally hypothetical question, but in today’s world, it’s a very real question. Everyday we are now bombarded with  hundreds of little 10 word sayings from social media, each of which have the potential to take off and get millions of views, if only we get enough other people to pass them on. So, if you had to reduce the most important thing in the world to just 10 words, what would you say? I want to suggest to you that we have 10 words from Jesus in Mark 1:15 which sums up his whole message. So, what does he say?

Jesus uses different language to the way we put things. We develop our own little Christian clichés and slogans to talk about Christianity- we talk about inviting Jesus to be our “own personal Saviour”, we talk about “Asking Jesus to come into your heart”, we talk about “going to Heaven when we die”. Some of these slogans are ok, some are better than others. The problem with Jesus’ slogan and His terminology is that I’m not sure it is an incredibly catchy slogan today. It’s not all that clear what he means, it doesn’t relate instantly to our culture. But if we are really going to understand Christianity properly, it really helps to go back to what Jesus was on about- even if we then adapt his language for our society today.

What is Jesus slogan? He says, “the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel.” Let’s think about these first 5 words – “the kingdom of God is near.” The gospel according to Jesus is that the kingdom of God is arriving. This doesn’t relate hugely well to us, because we don’t live in kingdoms anymore- well, technically we do- long live the queen- but really we have prime ministers, and elections, and senates, and double dissolutions- and kingdoms don’t really enter too much into our thinking these days. But the kingdom- this is Jesus’ gospel. This is really the message of the whole Bible- starting back in Genesis 1, where God tells man to rule the earth in his image- on through to the reign of King David in the Old Testament, whose kingdom was said to be an everlasting kingdom- Jesus in the gospels, Paul in Acts- right through to Revelation- where Jesus is said to be king of kings and lord of lords. If you look through Jesus’ teaching in the gospels- kingdom is the slogan used again and again, kingdom is the core concept which everything revolves around.

Jesus comes preaching the gospel about his kingdom. Gospel of course means great news- it was the word which was used by the Romans often to signify important news about the emperor- a messenger would come to a town proclaiming the latest important news about the king- our king has been victorious in battle; a baby has been born to the king; we have a new king who has been crowned today. It was the latest big news. So when the New Testament writers talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is this in the background- there is a new king who has come- He is the greatest king of all- His rule will change everything- His name is Jesus Christ. But the other background to the word gospel comes from Isaiah 40, where Mark quotes from in verses 2-3.

Isaiah 40 starts a new section of Isaiah- and it starts with good news. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” What’s he saying? The hard times are over. Judgement is past. Verse 3: A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” God is coming. Look at v9. “Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news;lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” 10 Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” There is it- the gospel is that God is king, and He is coming. One more verse from Isaiah. 52:6- “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”” This is the gospel. And so, when Jesus says- the kingdom of God is near- repent and believe the gospel- this is the gospel he is talking about, and He is claiming to be the one Himself who brings God’s kingdom to earth. The kingdom of God is coming- in Him, right now.

What did Jesus mean by saying- his kingdom was near? Because last time I looked,  our world is still a pretty messed up place. Let me summarise what Jesus meant by the gospel of his kingdom with 5 statements.

1. Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual kingdom.
When people heard Jesus say- the kingdom of God is near- they probably thought of a soldier riding into Jerusalem on a warhorse. Jesus teaching of the kingdom is very different. In Mark 4- he explains how his kingdom will come- and he doesn’t use the image of a soldier, he uses the image of a farmer, planting seeds in a field- and those seeds slowly growing over time- until at the end of the world, there will be harvest time. Then there will be a public, physical kingdom- and there- evil, corruption, injustice, death itself will be done away with. But the present nature of the kingdom which Jesus was instituting was a spiritual one. Jesus was not coming to set people free from Caesar, or Herod, or any other earthly human ruler. Jesus was coming to set us free from our spiritual slavery- because that is our big problem- not our political system, or our educational system or our economy. The big problem we have is we have a heart which is enslaved- we worship idols of money, of sex, of religion, of status- idols which we don’t even know about- we are addicted to loving ourselves, we are in slavery to sin, and ultimately, we’re enslaved to Satan. Jesus comes to interrupt our world on a spiritual level, by setting individuals free- and bringing them into a new spiritual kingdom of freedom.

2. We need to enter into Jesus kingdom.
Jesus talks a lot about entering his kingdom. Usually, he talks about our entering the future kingdom- “going to Heaven when you die” if you like. Sometimes he talks about us being in his kingdom now. For example, Mt 11:11- “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. Jesus talks about how we enter his kingdom- he gives several different images for how we do that. For example- Mt 18:3- “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn andbecome like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Later Paul describes us who are Christians as being already in God’s kingdom- Col 1:13- He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

So the question we need to ask ourselves is- do I belong God’s kingdom yet? Have I entered into it? Are you a citizen of Australia?  The answer is yes or no, not I hope so. Yet many people say they hope they are a Christian. You are either in God’s kingdom or you’re not in God’s kingdom yet. And if you never become a citizen of God’s spiritual kingdom in this life, then you will never enter into God’s physical kingdom in the world to come.

3. God’s kingdom enters into us.
Not only do we enter God’s kingdom, but God’s kingdom enters into us, and demonstrates its presence in our lives and in the world around us. Luke 18:17-  “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” We receive the kingdom of God- it comes within us- and Jesus starts to be Lord in our life. And the kingdom of God makes its presence felt around us. Mat 12:28- But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Luke 10:8 “Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’” As God’s people live in our world, people should see the kingdom of God bursting out of us in all of its life, and so, they see the kingdom of God coming near to them.

Like in the novel- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe- Aslan has arrived to rescue Narnia from reign of White Witch. The children are on a hike through snow to meet with Aslan- and what do they see? They see the snow melting, flowers starting to bloom, birds start to chirp, and signs of spring are everywhere to be seen. Why? Because Aslan is on the move. His kingdom is coming, his kingdom is invading. God’s kingdom invades our world now- the signs of the future kingdom are to be revealed in us right now- as God’s people show the beauty of God’s coming kingdom- in way we live, in compassion we show, in way injustice is dealt with. The kingdom of God is appearing, in our lives, and through our lives around us. A really good question to consider- what would it look like for the kingdom of God to invade my workplace? Where does the kingdom need to come? Where is there sin? Injustice? Sadness? Fear? How does God want me to announce his kingdom?

4. God’s kingdom is a subversive kingdom.
God’s kingdom operates differently to the kingdoms we are used to. Jesus says some fairly outlandish things. He says- in my kingdom- blessed are the poor in spirit- for theirs in the kingdom. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. He say- in my kingdom the first shall be last, and the last first. The rich will barely find a place in the kingdom. The religious will often be thrown out, and sinful no-hopers will be rescued. In my kingdom it is more important to serve than it is to be served. It’s more important to be generous than it is to be rich. It’s more important to be pure in your heart than correct in your theology. God’s kingdom is one which will challenge our natural way of thinking over and over again. It challenges our selfishness and the way we live.

It’s a little bit like Jarryd Hayne, Rugby League superstar, returns to break into the NFL- American football- for his second season. And when he returns, he gets interviewed by a reporter, and he says- I’ve got an important announcement. The days of the NFL are coming to an end. The NRL is coming to America. He says- at the end of this season, I’m going to return to Australia, I’m going to bring back an incredible team, called the NSW Blues, we’re going to play another fairly crummy team called the QLD Maroons, and when all America sees how we crush the Maroons, they will never play NFL again, they’ll all just start playing NRL. The NRL is coming. So now- Jarryd says- the time has come guys. I have come to set you free- from your shoulder pads and helmets. You need repent of all these forward passes you’re throwing. From now on, you need to stop all this constant subbing on and off- everybody gets to play all the time, except you get 4 on your interchange bench, but just 4, no more. And the ball, it’s going to change shape, it’s too pointy. A new era of true football is coming, and it begins now. God’s kingdom has invaded our world in the person of Jesus, and in Jesus people, the kingdom of God continues to invade and express itself, showing a glimpse of the future to come.

5. God’s kingdom is entered through death and resurrection.
The most surprising thing of all about Jesus kingdom- is that his kingship is inaugurated through the death of the king. The king dies for the sake of his subjects. Above Jesus head, there was the sign placed- this is the king of the Jews. Ironically, they were proclaiming a central truth of God’s kingdom without even knowing it- that God’s kingdom is begun and is experienced through the death of its king, and through his resurrection. And for us, we enter God’s kingdom and experience God’s kingdom through our death and resurrection- coming to an end of our old life, and beginning a new life through His Holy Spirit within us. Jesus says- “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

This is Jesus message for the world. His kingdom is near. And so, the mission Jesus has entrusted us with is to declare this truth- God’s kingdom is here. God’s kingdom is breaking in. God wants to pull us further into his kingdom, He wants to push his glorious kingdom deeper into us, and through us to the world around us.

Why would God test his people?

Why would God deliberately take his people for a wander in the wilderness after setting them free from Egypt instead of travelling up a road straight to Canaan? Well, it is quite clear what God was doing. God was testing His people. Exodus 16:4 says “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not.” (See also 15:25). God testing his people? Doesn’t that sound a bit rough? I mean, what sort of tests are these, starving people and making them parched with thirst in the desert? A pretty tough test, isn’t it?

Well, we mustn’t get the idea here that this is sort of a like a test to see if the Israelites made the grade – and if they didn’t they were going to get punished by God. These tests were rather primarily designed to teach the Israelites, not to fail the Israelites. Remember what James says- “My brothers, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” God was teaching the Israelites important lessons – that is why God did not respond to the Israelites complaints here with judgement but rather with a gracious provision for their needs.

It’s like what we’ve got in Exodus 20:20, where Moses says, “God has come to test you, that the fear of Him might be before you, that you may not sin”.  Why was God testing? What was He trying to teach the Israelites? Firstly, He was teaching them to obey God’s word. The Israelites, and us today as well, have a stubborn habit of assuming that we know better than God and don’t need to follow His instructions. Secondly, He was teaching them to rely on God’s provision- the Israelites needed to learn that God was their provider and could be relied on. Thirdly, He was teaching them that God’s way was the good way- the manna tasted great! We need to trust that ultimately, God’s way is the best way to live, although the pathway sometimes can be challenging in the short term.