Friday, December 24, 2010

Exodus Reloaded

From the archives...

You don’t usually need a TV guide to know what films are on over Christmas. Every year, without fail, there are some classic films that return to our screens. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, or It’s a Wonderful Life.

There are two seasonally shown films that strike a chord with the events recorded in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. They are The Great Escape and The Italian Job. The latter is that classic British movie with Michael Caine and Noel Coward, but starring three Mini Coopers. More recently another film with the same name, loosely based on the original, was released.

A remake rarely lives up to the original. That observation, however, does not hold true for Matthew chapter two. In fact we will miss Matthew’s point unless we see that the events surrounding the birth of Jesus are in fact a remake of Old Testament events that surpass the originals.

A lesson in history

The connections between the OT Matthew 1-2 are obvious if we take a bird’s eye view of these chapters. We start off with a lesson in history. Matthew shows us the fulfilment of a promise made to Abraham and the descent of the crown through the line of David (1:1-17). We need to know that Jesus is descended from this particular family, a royal family. Matthew tells us about the birth and infancy of Jesus in five sections. Each section has a passage from the OT that is being fulfilled. The sections are:

Matthew 1-2 OT passage
1:18-25 Isaiah 7:14
‘all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet’ (v22)
2:1-12 Micah 5:2 (2 Sam 5:2)
‘for this is what the prophet has written’ (v5)
2:13-15 Hosea 11:1
‘and so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet’ (v15)
2:16-18 Jeremiah 31:15
‘then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled’ (v17)
2:19-23 ‘So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene”.’ (v23)
With this overview in place we can focus in on some of the details.

The king who opposes God’s Son (Matt. 2:1-16)

When Matthew shows us what happened when the Magi met Herod we are witnessing a remake of the opening chapters of the book of Exodus.

The remake has some surprising reversals. For one thing the OT has consistently portrayed the magicians and wise men of the nations as the bad guys who always come second when they clash with God’s people. Witness the power encounter between the magicians of Pharaoh’s court and Moses and Aaron (Ex. 8:7,18). Fast forward to the time of Daniel and we see the same outcome (Dan. 2:1-16,25-28). Yet here in Matthew 2 the Magi have greater insight than the Jews. They are coming to worship the Christ. Herod, even with the knowledge he has of the Messiah’s birth, seeks to destroy him.

A further reversal of roles unfolds in Herod’s decree to slaughter all the male children in Bethlehem aged two and under (2:16). Whilst this may ring true to what we know of Herod’s character we are also meant to see in his attitude and actions an echo from the OT. Herod, king of the Jews, is playing the part of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. This takes us back to Exodus 1:15-22. Herod is doing what Pharaoh did in opposition to God and His people.

But there is more. Even though Matthew has five sections where the prophets, or the words of the OT are said to be fulfilled, these do not exhaust his OT references. Some of the connections are subtle. We have seen in the actions of Herod an echo of the actions of Pharaoh. We can also see a further reference behind the words in verses 19-20:
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead’. So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.
Compare Matthew’s account with the words of Exodus 4:19-21:
Now the LORD had said to Moses in Midian, ‘Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead’. So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt. And he took the staff of God in his hand.
In the original it was Moses who had to flee Egypt and was later told to return. In the remake it is the land of Israel, not Egypt, that they have to flee from, and the land of Israel that they are eventually told to return to. Everything has been reversed. Israel has become Egypt, and Herod has become Pharaoh.

This is a shock and a warning. This is a sign of judgement on Israel. This is also a sign of things to come. We see here the pattern of rejection for Jesus who will deliver His people. Indeed Moses the redeemer was rejected by Israel and welcomed by the nations (Ex. 2:1-22; Acts 7:35) foreshadowing what would happen when the true Redeemer would come. This is also a sign of hope. God is safeguarding the Saviour, just as he did with Moses.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hunting down heretics this Christmas

I have acquired a helper.  In fact I told Kezia that I was going to train our new puppy to hunt down heretics, to which she replied "What's a heretic?"

So you see, I'm not so obsessed with heretics that my children have learned the Heretical alphabet (A is for Arian, Anthropomorphite and Anabaptist, B is for...) and know their Ebionites from their Samosatians.  The dog however is in training to track down anti-trinitarians of all descriptions, Nestorians and Eutychians.

Remember, a heretic is not for life but should be excommunicated after the second admonition.

Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends

The following is an extract from a poignant letter written by Private Frederick W. Heath about the Christmas Armistice in 1914:
Jumping up onto the parapet, a few of us advanced to meet the on-coming Germans. Out went the hands and tightened in the grip of friendship. Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends.
Here was no desire to kill, but just the wish of a few simple soldiers (and no one is quite so simple as a soldier) that on Christmas Day, at any rate, the force of fire should cease. We gave each other cigarettes and exchanged all manner of things. We wrote our names and addresses on the field service postcards, and exchanged them for German ones. We cut the buttons off our coats and took in exchange the Imperial Arms of Germany.
But the gift of gifts was Christmas pudding. The sight of it made the Germans' eyes grow wide with hungry wonder, and at the first bite of it they were our friends for ever. Given a sufficient quantity of Christmas puddings, every German in the trenches before ours would have surrendered. 

And so we stayed together for a while and talked, even though all the time there was a strained feeling of suspicion which rather spoilt this Christmas armistice. We could not help remembering that we were enemies, even though we had shaken hands. We dare not advance too near their trenches lest we saw too much, nor could the Germans come beyond the barbed wire which lay before ours. After we had chatted, we turned back to our respective trenches for breakfast. 

All through the day no shot was fired, and all we did was talk to each other and make confessions which, perhaps, were truer at that curious moment than in the normal times of war.
You can read the whole thing in The Independent

We Three Kings

From the archives

Matthew 1-2 tells the story of three kings.

These kings are not however the ones known in the West, from the eighth century on, as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. The visitors from the East were Magi, not kings. No, Matthew 1-2 tells the story of King David, King Herod and King Jesus. They are the three kings in the narrative.

King Herod may well be the king of Israel but he acts like Pharaoh king of Egypt. Joseph must flee Israel for Egypt, and later return there just as Moses did in Exodus 4. There is a great reversal theme in Matthew 2 as Israel and Egypt swap identities, and as we realise that Israel is a nation under judgment.

This reversal theme extends itself to the Magi. The wise men and magicians of the nations always come off badly in the Bible in comparison to God's people. Witness the court of Pharoah in Genesis 41 and the inability of the magicians to interpret his dream. It was God who gave Joseph the understanding of the dream. Fast forward to the contest between Moses, Aaron and the magicians, and the same story is told.

This unfavourable comparison continues with Daniel in Babylon. Again we see that God gives his people insight. The magicians, sorcerers and enchanters are unable to gain access to Nebuchadnezzar's undisclosed dream (Daniel 2:1-11). Daniel, however, seeks God and God, in his mercy, reveals the dream and the interpretation. No wonder that Daniel then confesses that to God belong wisdom and might, for:

he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding;
he reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what is in the darkness,
and the light dwells with him.
What does this have to do with Matthew 2 and the Magi? The situation has now been reversed. The pattern established in Scripture has been turned on its head. We find Gentile magicians behaving like Israelites, and Israelites behaving like Gentiles. The Magi have more insight, more wisdom, and they come to worship Christ the King.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour

"His self emptying was not a single loss or bereavement,
but a growing poorer and poorer, 
until at last nothing was left him
but a piece of ground where he could weep 
and a cross whereon he could die." 
Abraham Kuyper

Jesus is both God and man, having two natures in one person.  Scripture emphasises this, in part, by telling us what he became, and in doing so also telling what he was before that.  The Shorter Catechism helpfully expresses this truth in the twenty first question and answer (emphasis added):
Q. 21. Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect?
A. The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever.

2 Corinthians 8:9; Phil. 2:7; and John 1:14 lie behind the words of Maxentius (below), and the first of these verses lies behind the anecdote about the Welsh nineteenth century preacher David Morgan:
We do not confound the diversity of natures, howbeit we believe not what you affirm, that Christ was made God; but we believe that God was made Christ.  For he was not made rich when he was poor; but being rich, he was made poor, that he might make us rich.
He did not take the form of God when he was in the form of a servant; but being in the form of God, he took on him the form of a servant.  In like manner, he was not made the Word when he was flesh; but being the Word, he was made flesh. 
 On 23rd December 1858, David Morgan ministered at Pen-llwyn and his preaching had a marked prophetic quality:
In the middle of his sermon he startled his audience by suddenly exclaiming, 'If any of you tonight deny the deity of the Son, I have nothing better to tell you than what Morgan Howell, Newport, shouted on Lampeter bridge, "Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor. He became poor when He came to Bethlehem; tell me, when was He rich?"' 
This remark was utterly irrelevant to the preacher's subject matter, and no one could conjecture whence it came, and wither it went. The mystery was solved in the after-meeting, for among the converts were three Unitarians...whose presence in the service was quite accidental, and certainly unknown to the preacher.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The tumour is benign

We had a phonecall from Kezia's surgeon this afternoon to confirm that her tumour is benign.

We will return to Alder Hey on the 4th January for an MRI scan and a meeting with the surgeon to discuss the plan for the next step of sugery and treatment.

We are profoundly thankful and deeply touched that so many friends and churches have been praying for us around the UK and all over the world.

Kezia is fighting fit at the moment, eating heartily, talking constantly, and brimming over with energy.  The improvement in her general health is remarkable.  She has also adjusted very well to her daily regime of medication (tablets are easy to take when you can have them with Galaxy chocolate).

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas and the Providence of God

Yesterday morning I preached from Ruth 1 on the time when Christmas seemed to hang by a thread and how God by his providence was providing, upholding, governing and directing people, nature, and history in order to bring his Son into the world. 

We never preach in a vacuum.  The personal context is always significant as well as the experiential context of the congregation.

You can download it here

Friday, December 17, 2010

When the riddles are not resolved

God has called his children, this side of heaven, to live by faith and not by sight, to live looking for a city with enduring foundations, and to live by his promises and not by exhaustive explanations.

I found these reflections by Herman Bavinck, on the grace of God in the gospel and the providence of God in the world, really helpful:
In the case of the Christian, belief in God's providence is not a tenet of natural theology to which saving faith is later mechanically added.  Instead, it is saving faith that for the first time prompts us to believe wholeheartedly in God's providence in the world, to see its significance, and to experience its consoling power...the Christian has witnessed God's special providence at work in the cross of Christ and experienced it in the forgiving and regenerating grace of God, which has come to one's own heart.

And from the vantage point of this new and certain experience in one's own life, the Christian believer now surveys the whole of existence and the entire world and discovers in all things, not chance or fate, but the leading of God's fatherly hand.

Special revelation is distinct from general revelation, and a saving faith in the person of Christ is different from a general belief in God's government in the world.  It is above all by faith in Christ that believers are enabled -- in spite of the riddles that perplex them -- to cling to the conviction that the God who rules the world is the same loving and compassionate Father who in Christ forgave them all their sins, accepted them as his children, and will bequeath to them eternal blessedness.

In that case faith in God's providence is no illusion, but secure and certain; it rests on the revelation of God in Christ and carries within it the conviction that nature is subordinate and serviceable to grace, and the world [is likewise subject] to the kingdom of God.  

Thus, through all its tears and suffering, it looks forward with joy to the future.  Although the riddles are not resolved, faith in God's fatherly hand always again arises from the depths and even enables us to boast in afflictions.
Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 2: God and Creation, p. 594-5

To which I say, "Amen."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why do they hate Aslan so? Polly Toynbee on the repugnancy of the atonement

One from the archives:

The columnist Polly Toynbee wrote an article in The Guardian on 5th December 2005 with the rather acerbic title “Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion.”

I will spare you the full extent of her invective against the Christian imagery found in C.S. Lewis' children's stories. But among her numerous thorny remarks the following stood out:

Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?
Perhaps the most obvious thing to say by way of explanation about her choice of adjective, is that it is indicative of a heart wedded to the wisdom of this passing age. It is as straightforward a statement of aversion and distaste at the very notion of a substitutionary atonement as one could wish to find. And yet, to those who hold to the presuppositions laid out by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:8, it hardly comes as much of a surprise.
It stands in marked contrast to the expression of the regenerate heart that sees in the cross both the wisdom and power of God. Of all the great confessions of faith perhaps it is the Belgic Confession (Q. 26) that best verbalizes the sentiments of the regenerate mind:
If, then, we should seek for another mediator who would be favorably inclined toward us, whom could we find who loved us more than He who laid down His life for us, even while we were His enemies? And if we seek for one who has power and majesty, who is there that has so much of both as He who sits at the right hand of God and to whom hath been given all authority in heaven and on earth?
And what should we make of her question? Of course we did not ask Christ to die for us. None of us wanted him to. 

This is a point underlined, as it were in thick marker pen, time and again on the pages of the Bible. From Isaiah's description of Christ as despised and rejected by men (Isaiah 53:3) all the way to Paul's retrospective description of Christian believers as being ungodly and enemies toward God (Romans 5:6, 10). 

In the book of Judges there is the pattern of apostasy, oppression from enemies, and cries to God for relief from this misery. In his grace God raises up judges who save the people of God from the hands of their oppressors. Judges 13 seemingly opens with this same pattern. Israel has turned from God to their evil ways, and God has handed them over to the Philistines. But the pattern ends there. Just when we expect to hear a cry to God for relief and rescue there is nothing but silence. 

When the Angel of the Lord announces the birth of Samson, who will begin to save Israel from the Philistines, it is therefore clear that this is an act of sheer grace on God's part. God sent them a Savior, even though they did not ask him to. The span of time between the book of Judges and that column in The Guardian may have spread over several millenia, but chronology cannot cover up the similarities that exist. 

The very glory of the atonement is that Christ died for his enemies. We were not seeking after a Saviour from heaven, but running and hiding from the God who is really there. As Paul reminded the Colossians, it was for those who were hostile in their minds toward God that Christ hung on the cross. It was by that death that he made peace and effected reconciliation with God (Colossians 1:19-22). 

Like Polly Toynbee, I never asked him to do this. That he did it at all is all to the praise of his glorious grace.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Not by chance

Great providence of heaven--
What wonders shine
In its profound display
Of God's design:
It guards the dust of earth,
Commands the hosts above,
Fulfils the mighty plan
Of his great love

The kingdoms of this world
Lie in its hand;
See how they rise or fall
At its command
Through sorrow and distress,
Tempestuous storms that rage,
God's kingdom yet endures
From age to age

Its darkness dense is but
A radiant light;
Its oft-perplexing ways
Are ordered right.
Soon all its winding paths
Will end, and then the tale
Of wonder shall be told
Beyond the veil.

David Charles, 1762-1834;
Translated from the Welsh by Edmund Tudor Owen

Article 7: 
Of God's Providence 
in the Preservation and Government of the World
Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Confession of Faith 

God, in his wise, holy, and righteous providence, 
upholds and governs 
all creatures and their actions. 

His providence extends over 
all places, 
all events, 
  all changes, 
    and all times. 

His providence, in its operation,
is full of eyes to behold, 
powerful to perform, 
makes all things work together for good 
to them
that love God. 

It overrules the sinful actions of men; 
it neither causes nor occasions the sinfulness of any of them.

Monday, December 06, 2010

An update on Kezia

Our youngest daughter Kezia (9) was diagnosed with a brain tumour on 24th November and underwent surgery on Thursday 2nd December.  The operation went well.  The tumour has been drained and decompressed and we will wait and see if this improves her eyesight (her peripheral vision has been damaged).  The surgeon will wait until the New Year before deciding on the exact procedure to remove the solid parts of the tumour.  Either way she will have long term health issues because the tumour has been affecting her pituitary gland and all those complex and delicate mechanisms that regulate thirst, water balance etc.  All being well Kezia will return home tomorrow.

Kezia is just remarkable.  She has not complained once and has taken all of this in her stride.  For us as parents there have been many tears and tremendous relief when we saw her in the recovery room.  We are profoundly grateful for the expertise, medical facilities and care at Alder Hey in Liverpool, and for the support of family and friends locally and from across the world. 

Above all we are profoundly thankful for the sustaining grace of God.  I cannot express this better than in the words of Q & A 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism:

That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who of nothing made heaven and earth with all that in them is, who likewise upholds, and governs the same by His eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ, His Son, my God and my Father, in whom I so trust as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul; and further, that whatever evil He sends upon me in this troubled life, He will turn to my good; for He is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father.


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Truly, this doctrine brings immeasurable comfort to us

The Belgic Confession
Article 13
About the Providence of God

We believe that this Most High God, after He created all things, did not in the least hand them over to fate or the rule of fortune, but continually rules and governs them according to the precept of His sacrosanct will so that nothing may happen in this world apart from His decree and ordination. 

Neither is it possible to say that God is the author of or the guilty party in the evils that occur in this world. For both His power and goodness lie widely open as immeasurable and incomprehensible, and His work and proceedings are sacredly and justly determined and executed, although both the Devil and the wicked unjustly act. 

Truly, whatsoever He does, having exceeded human constraints, we do not wish to inquire about these things pryingly and beyond our constraints. In fact, on the contrary, we nevertheless humbly and reverently adore the hidden and just judgments of God. For it is enough for us, as disciples of Christ, to learn no more than that which He Himself teaches us in His Word, without transgressing the limits that we regard as lawful. 

Truly, this doctrine brings immeasurable comfort to us. For from it we know that nothing happens to us by fortune, but only all things by the will of our heavenly Father, Who truly keeps watch for us with fatherly care, having subjugated all things unto Himself so that not even a hair our head (which have all been numbered down to the individual one) can be plucked out, nor can the smallest chick fall to the ground, apart from the will of our Father. 

And so we thoroughly rest in this, acknowledging that God restrains the devils and all our enemies, just as curbed with whips, so that no one is strong enough to hurt us apart from His will and good permission.