Saturday, 21 May 2011

‘The just shall live by faith’

In Romans 1, Paul emphasizes why he is not ashamed of the gospel. It contains the revealed path to righteousness from God’s standpoint. It’s the one and only means by which God can get us on the right side of His perfect justice and thereby bless us eternally.

Paul backs this up with a supportive quote from Habakkuk. The prophecy assured Jews, dispossessed for their defection from the Old Covenant, that there would be a complete amnesty for a remnant. Those that God would declare JUST, i.e. under amnesty, He would miraculously deliver from captivity. The remnant would be characterised by their response and submission to His prophetic direction at that time, not by trying to maintain careful temple observances dating back to Moses (since that would be impossible in Babylon).

So, they would survive captivity as a chastened, humbled minority without the observances of the Law, anticipating God’s eventual deliverance: ‘the just shall live by faith’ (Hab. 2:4). Paul is saying that we can no more rely upon a return to ritualized observances to survive beyond this coming retribution than Habakkuk's Jewish remnant could. We will survive (as they did) by depending upon and responding to the higher challenge of immediate and prophetic direction provided by the Holy Spirit. Outnumbered and at odds with the whole world, but it’s the only way out.

Therefore Paul sets about explaining the outworking of universal retribution upon an ungrateful human race. This is why both the Jew and Greek find themselves in the same position: guilty before God and in need of the gospel. This view also explains Paul’s later castigation in Romans 2 of anyone who tried to damn his Gentile converts by moralizing over rituals. While he may have had his own era in mind, the scale of his declaration regarding God’s retribution towards man’s unyielding contempt is universal: ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (Romans 1:18)

This outpouring of God’s indignation is a current, rather than future process of supreme, inescapable justice. It is being revealed from heaven’: RIGHT NOW, current and inexorable. The scope of condemnation is universal, ‘against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men’.

THANK GOD WE NOW HAVE CHRIST, for without Him, we are marked men and women, aggravating our desperate guilt.

‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen’. (Romans 1:20 – 26)

Far from being overwhelmed with gratitude toward the transcendent eternal God who orchestrates all of His creation in congruous order for our providence, mankind wilfully degrades this naturally revealed truth with recklessly arrogant supposition. We have replaced sincere heartfelt devotion to God with a servile fear of the transient powers of nature as self-sustaining deities, even portraying them as supernaturally empowered humans and animals. Look at how steroid-loaded ‘comic-book’ super-nature dominates every aspect of popular culture. We even invest grotesque, feeble, unworthy and contradictory worldly ideals, values and pursuits with divine greatness. We re-direct supreme devotion towards them. The guilt is self-evident.

God is presented as delivering mankind over to this wilful rejection of natural revelation. He does not resist our distortions forever. Without saving grace, the retribution is that we eventually become helpless hostages to this distortion of His natural revealed purposes, even in our sexual desires.

This is important because it explains God’s justice in relinquishing the majority of mankind to the blind debasement of natural order. it was mankind’s prideful self-deception that began the whole  descent into idolatry. Through the abandonment of our revealed purpose, man embraced sense-worship. God justly let them have their way, only to face the eventual penalty.

Paul says that the result of this patent disregard for the conventional purpose of sex is disease and ruin:

‘Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.’ (vs. 27)

It would therefore distort the whole thrust of Romans 1 and 2 to limit the biblical description of how normative sexual expression was abandoned, as some liberal writers have done. Rather than relating to very specific types of violent, forced sexual activity, the resultant depravity plainly refers to homosexual acts, whether consensual or otherwise. Yet, as sinners, we have all participated in the terrible progression towards this result. We were all co-conspirators. In order to resonate with his audience, Paul describes the acts as unconventional: ‘para physis’ – beside nature, thereby reversing the familiar charge of his critics that his gospel ‘set forth customs (ethe) which it is not lawful for us to receive, or to observe, being Romans’ (Acts 16:21)

Paul is mapping out the guilt of all mankind and the consequences of this path that discards God: the complete degeneration of God’s purpose for humanity: ‘Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.’ (Romans 1:32) Mankind finally challenges God to all-out war by encouraging the final overthrow of conscience and divine government. This is why we all deserve death, both Jew and Gentile. It’s also why we all need Christ.

In our collective shame, we still cannot boast privilege and preference. As spiritual beggars before Christ, the only cure for us all (Jew, Greek, or otherwise) is to embrace the only amnesty of God by reliance upon the generous, eternal promises of His gospel.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Justice, Mercy and Humility

If we are to believe the Sunday Times Rich List, the rich are getting richer. In spite of the recession in 2009, which wiped £155billion off of their assets, the UK's 1000 richest people are now worth £395.8billion, up by 18% from last year.

If you’re rich, you can employ an army of tax advisers to exploit fiscal loopholes and transfer wealth to offshore accounts. One estimate suggests that the rich probably only pay 9% tax on their income.

Micah declared God’s message to Judah and Israel in the time of King Hezekiah. In a time of growing trade and prosperity, small holding farmers were being dispossessed of their land as rich property developers bribed judges to rubber-stamp their illicit deals.

We should be under no illusion about the underhand tactics that the big brands and the wealthy employ to destroy every threat to their expansion and dominance. The oligopoly of market visibility, a fawning press corps, threats of legal action against rogue critics, illicit sources of supply (employing child labour, foreign ‘sweatshops’ and depleting local economies of resources), even distorting the current legal framework that regulates competition. Yet, for all these practices, the rich also try to build a contrasting image of philanthropy through their claimed ‘contribution’ to the economy, self-promoting ‘worthy cause’ sponsorship, honorary titles, charity events and high-value tax-deductible donations. As Christ said: ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.’ (Luke 22:25)

Micah described the sacrifices that the rich proposed to regain God’s favour and salve their guilty consciences: ‘With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ (Micah 6:7)

They had forgotten Samuel’s censure of Saul: ‘Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.’ (1 Sam 15:22)

Instead of proposing extravagant diversionary reparations out of their expanding wealth, Micah clarified that God specifically wanted them to follow the stifled voice of conscience:

‘He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ Micah 6:8.

James re-iterates this demand of practical devotion to God: ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.’ (James 1:27)

The Old Testament delivers repeated and emphatic warnings to those who plunder, rather than do justice towards those whose rights are compromised by a lack of an advocate. The fatherless and widows are those who are helpless to defend their rights. Giving someone their due is not the same as being charitable towards them. To judge the fatherless is to fight for the recognition of their just claim against those who exercise undue influence. It is to break ranks with the system of favours that ensures the rich expand their empires at the expense of the less fortunate.

Consider Donald Trump’s vulgar, but successful bid for permission to build a £750million golf course in Aberdeenshire. Since the diggers were brought in, an 84 year old widow, Mrs. Forbes, has been threatened with a compulsory purchase order because she refuses to sell her home to him. Unsurprisingly, the council which gave full planning permission and the rich have shown no interest in advocacy on her behalf. Neither has any church made a public statement in her support. I suppose many would consider it suicide to take on Trump, so she becomes collateral damage. This is oppression plain and simple. The voice of the free press is far from stridently critical of Trump. Perhaps, he who pays the piper, really does call the tune!

James goes on to echo Isaiah in also condemning the mean-spirited companies who use deceit to cheat staff in lower pay-grades of fair pay in line with their employer’s financial performance. Today, that deceit might include extending a pay freeze unnecessarily, or unfair gender and race pay differentials: ‘Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, cries: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.’ (James 5:4)

The vast armies of heaven are arrayed in preparation to dispossess by sudden calamity those rich who steal, bribe and blackmail their way to greater wealth.

In contrast, Jesus calls His followers to service: ’But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.’ (Luke 22:26)

An attitude of service clarifies what others actually need by asking and listening. It then delivers personally where possible, leading others by example. Service does not just wield authority, telling others to execute our grand designs and aspirations for charity on command.

May the Lord help us to remember that difference!

As a footnote, although Mrs. Forbes lost the first case and is facing eviction, the Scottish Legal Aid Board is reviewing its decision to refuse her legal aid.

She is considering an appeal, so you never know…

Sunday, 8 May 2011

'We want to see Jesus'

These are the words of Greeks who have travelled to Jerusalem. Although relegated by the Jews to the status of a religious underclass, they are anxious to meet the Messiah. John 12 describes their relayed request as part of a rapid escalation in the course of events that lead to the crucifixion.

By this time, Christ's emphatic declarations on His rejection, suffering and gift of eternal life have finally resonated with Mary. She has had a foretaste of eternal life. Jesus has miraculously brought back her brother, Lazarus, from the grave. She has realised that the resurrection of all sinners, including herself, to eternal life will be procured at the tremendous cost of the sinless Saviour’s own death. He is the Lamb of God. She responds with a poignant tearful gesture, pouring expensive perfume on Him to honour the fatal ordeal that will befall her beloved Master.

Judas is openly critical of the presumed extravagance. The thief's flimsy pretext for treachery is formed. The hope of running the finances of Christ’s earthly empire has evaporated. In a few days, the chief priests and Pharisees will bribe him to help end Jesus’ escalating fame and authority. They are exasperated at their hitherto futile attempts to halt His popularity. Previously, even soldiers sent to arrest Him were transfixed by the charisma of His all-surpassing insight and power.

The Jewish leaders’ incensed rejection of Christ represents the culmination of rebellion against God by a people delivered, time and time again, by divine intervention from helpless oppression. Through Jesus, the Holy Spirit's unrestrained display of supernatural power over harm and evil is a clear, generous and final overture of reconciliation. The Messiah is clearly identified by divine acts intended to restore the Jewish nation to renewed harmony with their God.

Yet, Christ is completely spurned. The chief priests now know that Jesus has even imparted life to a dead man; yet they want both Jesus and Lazarus dead. Mankind, as represented by the response of these leaders, prefers darkness to light. Darkness accepts any plausible excuse to escape the rightful demand to surrender to Him on His terms and own our guilt over self-rule. Light, as insight into our true motives and duty to the Creator, banishes the hollow arguments against His absolute authority in our lives.

By expending all excuses, mankind stands condemned, yet hostile towards its Author. It won’t be long before lethal anger is unleashed against Him.

The mortal hatred is the final proof that, if we decline God's grace, human civilisation will always reject God with finality in favour of relatively short-lived semblance of self-rule under Satan, even with the highest, best and most obvious evidence of divine love, Jesus in supernatural life-giving restoration.

The rejection reaches its climax as God allows the Jews to carry out their murderous plot against His Son. The news that the Greeks are anxious to meet the Messiah is conclusive proof to Jesus that the grace of God is largely passing away from the Jews to those previously excluded from divine privilege. The parable of the two sons and that of the tenants are told to reinforce this idea.

So, now the guilt is overwhelming. The contempt and conspiracy to end His fame are beyond reversal. It only remains for the verdict to be handed down. Satan’s case for remaining in power over human civilisation has collapsed through our Messiah's embrace of unfaltering sinless obedience, even to death. The new Adam will endure a publicly humiliating execution without divine intervention, thereby aligning all of divine justice with God’s desire to bestow repentance, forgiveness and eternal life.

It is a decisive moment as the crucial events unfold that lead to His death on the cross:

‘Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.'

We should also take heart in His declaration about the immense power derived from His sacrifice to God:

"And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself."

Friday, 6 May 2011

Christ, Divorce and the Church

Under Moses, every divorce was a concession registered by certificate to ensure its occurrence was a matter of public record. At that time, conceding to and managing the fallout of an inevitable separation was the better way to defuse the abiding intolerance and unyielding vendettas of that era, than forcing one or both stubborn personalities to stay together. This behaviour was hardly a virtue to emulate, so Christ's response to the lawyers testing Him was 'why bother citing it?' 'It was allowed for the hardness of your hearts', He said.

Christ, here, is intimating that divorce can often be avoided by mediation, defusing the build-up of resentment and giving up the stubborn insistence that staying together is intolerable. Divorce involves maintaining a stubborn emotional wall (hardness of heart) without a readiness to forgive in order destroy the bond of marriage.

Of course, Christ's censure targeted those who invoked divorce as an automatic personal entitlement to end a marriage for every type of major spousal dispute and disenchantment. 

For instance, the Pharisees challenged Christ with the question: 'is it lawful to put away for any cause?' One religious sect of that time held that as long as it was properly registered in accordance with Moses Law, a man had the right to exercise personal (read, arbitrary) discretion in setting aside a failing marriage with its economic and emotional dependencies, and that he could then pursue a new relationship. 

Admittedly, the public record of divorce thwarted its serial abuse and was vastly more preferable to the disgrace of just 'putting away', the detestable wilful self-serving act of simply deserting a marriage without any notice or valid explanation.

In Christ, the concession of divorce is removed for all causes, except 'porneia': gross sexual neglect and misconduct. Beyond these cases, we are to seek reconciliation. It's unfair to hold longstanding grudges against a sexually committed spouse while God generously overlooks our many faults. 

A Christian may indeed divorce when their partner has ended the sexual union. For instance, by deserting the marriage, by long-term sexual neglect or by gross infidelity.

According to Christ, this sole divorce concession does not completely exonerate either party, nor are they completely absolved of responsibility. 

Divorce is not a licence to re-marry. However, the church leadership has a scriptural role in resolving escalated disputes between its members. According to Christ and the apostolic letters, it is an arbitrating authority that can prescribe ways to defuse and resolve disputes, including marital ones, peacefully. In some aggravated cases, leaders may even recommend separation, or divorce for sexual misconduct as a last resort. The church should also offer exceptional support akin to bereavement counselling to shore up those who are separated and grieving over their loss of a life partner. 

The lack of significant levels of support and fellowship to counteract the ensuing loneliness of separation and divorce is one of the most glaring, ugly acts of negligence in the modern church.

Church leaders and members will explain either now or on Judgement Day why their mission lacked any stated high-profile concerted efforts to stave off the loneliness of Christian separation and divorce. The woman that Christ met at the well would have suffered terribly in today's church.

How does the verse, 'In as much as you did it to the least of these my brethren...' end?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Love ended Old Testament Martial Law

In many countries, there is a provision for invoking martial law. Imagine that, as a result of domestic terrorist atrocities, our government declared a state of emergency. There would be a grim atmosphere of suspicion, harsh draconian penalties would be enforced without pity for even slight offences. A dusk to dawn curfew might also be established.

All citizens could be tagged and be expected to present their nationality credentials when challenged. Armed police could shoot on sight anyone who violated the curfew and any looters. Perhaps, under enforced rationing, the discovery of an extra loaf of bread in your cupboard would incur your arrest and summary conviction for hoarding.

It's not that these measures aren't lawful and necessary in extreme circumstances. Nevertheless, the level of suspicion and discouragement of individual discretion (even for desperately good reasons) reduces citizens to merely tolerated potential adversaries. This is called a state of martial law and this is not unlike the world of the Old Testament.

The nation of Israel was born in a state of hostility with Egypt. The arrangement that ensued after the Exodus required regulations that were tantamount to martial law. The Law of Moses demanded a multitude of observances, sabbath-keeping, national identification through universal male circumcision with a raft of harsh penalties for non-compliance. Although onerous, the regime was a necessary interim arrangement aimed at containing the threat of descent into idolatry, immorality, presumption and gross defection from God. Most of all, it prevented Israel's abdication of her central role in preparing the nation and world to receive the coming Messiah. As with martial law, it was provisional and never meant to be a permanent arrangement.

God slowly unveiled His promise, the New Covenant, through the prophets that He would eventually end the martial law of Moses and generously liberate us from a climate of fear by imparting the Holy Spirit of heavenly citizenship. As citizens, a spirit of inconspicuous generosity towards the destitute, love for enemies, and sacrificial brotherhood would ensue. Under the New Covenant, there is now no need to resort to the detailed regulations and externalised observances. These obligations were met in full by Christ's crucifixion in our place. In comparison to the complex Old Testament rites, Christian ceremonies should be simple, joyous and few. The focus is on practical love and the adoration of God through Christ.

Christ Himself outlined the full expectations of heavenly citizenship. He extended amnesty and citizenship to any who sensed their need for forgiveness and moral restoration: 'humbled offenders yearning and praying for a glimpse of and even full entry into the abode of God's perfection that they know their selfish choices have hitherto spurned.

Clearly, some who thrived by policing others under the Law of Moses found this change hard to accept. They lacked the will or power to extend acceptance towards converted outsiders under the new regime of liberty (as typified by the Good Samaritan). The scribes and Pharisees feared the New Covenant of citizenship, empowerment and trust. It made them redundant. They became ever more insistent that the threat of defection from God demanded strict adherence to the minutest details of their man-made protocols and of the Law of Moses, rather than looking at specific situations on merit. The criticism of Jesus healing on the Sabbath is a perfect example of this narrow and uncharitable outlook. Several Jewish sects of that time also considered non-Jews to be generally untrustworthy, defiling and inferior, even though the Jews themselves had failed God so miserably in their own history.

They wanted more surveillance, additional security measures, belittling the citizenship of the newly liberated Christians.

Paul insisted that Christians were not marginally tolerated slaves, but citizens of heaven under the overarching law of Christ: sacrificial love. He always challenged those who tried to make an industry of distrust and those who used badges of unwarranted seniority. How many of today's ministers exploit detailed self-serving protocols and procedures to advance their position of trust and status for selfish ends!

We would do well to challenge our modern-day Pharisees in the same way as Paul did. Let us never return to the enslavement of martial law.