The gospel is the one message the church must embody. Why don’t Aussies find it credible?
There was a time when the church held powerful influence in Western society. Bishops were on the chessboard, and in the House of Lords.
Today, Australians have told us they don’t belong under that influence anymore. It’s time to review our belief and practice, to ask if we have misrepresented our God or misused our influence.
Continue reading “The incredible message”
“Jesus Barabbas? Or Jesus called Christ?” What’s your response to Pilate’s question?
The governor was not convinced Jesus had done anything deserving death (27:23). He knew it was out of self-interest that the leaders had handed him over (27:18). He moved to pacify the crowd by offering a prisoner release, giving them the choice.
It seems both men were named Jesus (though this detail is omitted from some ancient manuscripts of Matthew). Pilate offered the people this choice (27:17):
Who do you want me to release to you?
– Jesus son of Abba (Bar-Abbas), or
– Jesus called anointed leader (Christ)?
Jesus was a relatively common name, meaning The Lord saves (compare Matthew 1:21). It’s the Hebrew name Joshua. But these two Jesuses have radically different views on how to save God’s people.
Continue reading “Which Jesus do you want? (Matthew 27:15–26)”
How did Jesus’ death “fulfill the prophetic Scriptures?” Here’s the explanation he gave in Gethsemane.
Fight or flight? Many kings have faced that choice. In a field just outside his capital, the true king rejected both options. Neither would bring peace to a divided world.
If you don’t flee and you don’t fight, you could die. Not very attractive, but it is an option: stay and die.
Instead of taking flight, Jesus stayed in Gethsemane, consulting his Father, the architect of human history. He triple-checked for any other alternatives (26:36-46). When the crowd with swords and clubs arrived to take him, he rejected the fight option too.
Matthew doesn’t name Peter as the disciple who unsheathed a dagger. It’s too late for flight. He sees no option but to fight for his king. He swings his sword. The high priest’s servant sees it coming and drops his head to one side. The blow aimed at his neck slices off his ear.
The king orders him, Put your sword back in its place! All who take the sword will destroy themselves with the sword.
What astounding insight! Jesus wasn’t merely saying that those who rely on weapons for survival probably won’t. He said the very act of choosing weapons to kill humans destroys our own humanity (ἀπολοῦνται = future indicative middle).
Ask returning soldiers who’ve seen killing whether Jesus is right. Ask them how many friends they’ve lost to the spectrum from shellshock to suicide. War destroys more than the enemy.
But what sort of option is stay and die? Is that what the Scriptures required of him? It’s not what previous kings had chosen.
Continue reading “Why did Jesus have to die? (Matthew 26:47-56)”
How does Zechariah’s story about a high priest in filthy rags relate to Jesus?
Read Zechariah 3.
The prophets inspired Jesus’ kingdom vision. After God’s nation disintegrated in the exile, prophets like Zechariah delivered God’s promise to restore his kingdom. He said that God had scattered them among the nations because of their unfaithfulness, and God would gather them as his kingdom again because of his covenant faithfulness (Zechariah 1–2).
The two markers of God’s kingship in Jerusalem were gone: the house of God (the palace for his throne), and the house of David (the anointed kingship representing his reign). Zechariah addresses these two problems in Chapters 3 and 4.
Continue reading “Priest of the restored kingdom (Zechariah 3)”
God’s king has a different authority to what we’ve known.
The king of peace is so different. When the disciples first recognized Jesus as God’s anointed, he told them to keep it quiet (16:16-20). Now others have had their eyes opened to the son of David, and they cannot be silenced (20:30-34). This growing crowd forms a festal procession, celebrating the return of the son of David to the capital in the name of the Lord (21:9).
Yet, this son of David does not look like the kings who came before him. Solomon had 12,000 horses and 1,400 chariots to defend his kingdom (2 Chronicles 1:14). Jesus doesn’t even have a donkey. If he’s to be carried into Jerusalem, he must borrow a pack-animal for this occasion — the return of the king to Jerusalem after 600 years.
Continue reading “The king who comes in peace (Matthew 21:1-9)”
How do you get a camel to go through the eye of a needle?
This is one of Jesus’ most puzzling statements: It is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than to get a wealthy person to go into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 16:24).
When you understand how Jesus saw the kingdom, you see what crucial insight he had. Without that understanding, people contort the camel and the text in ways that would be comic if they weren’t serious.
Continue reading “The camel that won’t go through (Matthew 19:23-26)”
“Jesus saves” from what? Tyrants (systemic injustice)? Tempests (natural disasters)? Transgressions (personal guilt)?
Open Matthew 14:22-33
Some disasters are manmade. We hurt each other in our families, businesses, and communities. We’re harmed by war, racism, the injustices of power. We also face disasters beyond human control: cyclones, earthquakes, pandemics. Which kind does Jesus save us from?
Matthew 14 answers that question.
Continue reading “Tyrants or tempests? From what does Jesus save? (Matthew 14:22-33)”
What God is doing is effective: it will transform the world.
You might think it’s always off, but Eurovision really is off this year (2020).
That didn’t stop a Dutch team using a computer to generate a new Eurovision song. They fed it input from previous Eurovision hits and from social commentary site Reddit. Reportedly, it wrote a song “that crescendos as a robotic voice urges listeners to ‘kill the government, kill the system.’”
Artificial Intelligence (AI) doesn’t create those ideas. It reflects what people say. There must be quite a few anarchists reacting to the oppression and systemic injustice in the world for AI to produce that song.
Unfortunately, many of us in church don’t think of sin like that. I think of sin as my faults, the ones for which I need forgiveness, because that’s how I get saved. We lose the world-transforming power of the gospel when we reduce it to a story about me and how I can get my forgiveness. Sin isn’t just a problem in each individual. It’s the oppressive power that dominates the world, causing all the wars, all the social devastation, all the problems the anarchists react to.
Jesus acknowledged the oppressive power of sin, but offered a very different solution. The problem with “kill the government, kill the system” is that it adds fuel to the fire, feeding the cycle of violence. Jesus’ radical idea was to replace the cycle of violence (the power of sin) with God’s reign.
Jesus took no sword to Caesar. He took the cross from Caesar. Continue reading “Solving the world’s problems”
What does it look like when Jesus unites humanity under his leadership as the kingdom of God? For the church today, that might be the most important question, because that’s our identity, and it defines our mission.
Firstly, this is a radically different kind of politics. We’re accustomed to the world of party politics. The Liberal Party seeks power from and for the business owners. The Labor Party seeks power for the workers. The Nationals seek power for the landowners, and so on. Within each party are factions (left, centre, right), each seeking to gain more control of the party, in the hope of their party controlling the country.
Then there’s the division of countries, with different political systems: democracy, socialism, monarchy, republic, and so on. On the world stage, countries fight for self-interest. Looking back, history looks like struggle of the species, a political “survival of the fittest.” The strongest beasts survive to rule the world, and the winners write history (compare Daniel 7).
The Bible describes an alternative story of politics. Earth’s true sovereign — the king we sideline when we grasp for power, fight wars, and subjugate each other — takes the side of the suffering, not those who cause their pain:
Continue reading “The powerful God who reigns in weakness”
“This man really is the Saviour of the world.” (John 4:42)
An International Red Cross survey found “millennials are nervous about their future and see cataclysmic war as a real likelihood in their lifetime.” Add catastrophic fires and climate disaster, and it’s not hard to see why many people live in fear.
Does the gospel address our global fears? Or is it about how to escape from a world that’s likely to blow up? Is Jesus merely a personal Saviour? Or is he the Saviour of the world? Continue reading “Saviour of the world”
What do we mean when we call Jesus “Saviour”?
Would you describe Jesus as your personal Saviour? That’s good, but that’s only a tiny fraction of what the Bible means when it calls Jesus Saviour.
Let’s try a story. What’s your favourite spy movie? You know those ones where our agents have been incarcerated in a foreign land and condemned to death. With meticulous planning, satellite intelligence, and drone support, we send in the commandos to bring them home. Commandos are the “saviours” in our culture.
The gospel is that kind of story, with more intrigue and less gunfire.
Continue reading “Jesus as Saviour”
The trouble with the cross is that it’s a counter-intuitive solution for the sin of the world.
The evil in God’s earthly realm is the rejection of his divine authority, people grasping power for themselves and using that power to deceive and dominate each other. It offends our sense of justice, so we want revenge. We can’t sit by and do nothing, but taking matters into our own hands and fighting back only perpetrates the cycle of violence.
We want God to act against evil, to put down his foot and crush it so it can’t continue. God doesn’t. God doesn’t act violently to overcome violence. God doesn’t use force against force. God does not control evil by doing evil against evil-doers.
So what does God do to deal with the injustice in his realm? He enters his unjust realm as one of us. He meets face-to-face with the rebellion against his reign, the people who will do anything to take divine power into their own hands. God confronts evil, from a position of powerlessness. Continue reading “The counter-intuitive wisdom of the cross”
Open Exodus 15:1-21.
What makes a great song? Lyrics that voice what you feel? Rhythm that moves you? Layers of rich harmony? Chord progressions that take you places?
A song rang out over the MCG at the final siren on 29 September 2018. It was the song every Eagles fan wanted to hear. The right song in the right moment sweeps you up and carries you like a raft on a white-water stream.
The first song in the Bible was that kind of song — the greatest victory song you could imagine. We waited 65 chapters to hear it. There’s only been one mention of a song, a song Jacob turned down. After 20 difficult years, Jacob slipped away quietly, rejecting the party Laban offered with mirth and song pretending everything is okay (Genesis 31:27). Our world is still full of escapist songs that don’t quite ring true.
Finally we get the true song, the authentic celebration. The song celebrates the moment they were released from serving Pharaoh to serve a new king. With his chariots on the sea floor, Pharaoh had no power to enslave them again. You can’t stop the music: Continue reading “The significant song (Exodus 15)”
Open Exodus 14:1-9.
Freedom! The Israelites are no longer Pharaoh’s slaves. They’re marching out of Egypt with a new identity: the people of YHWH! Their king is present in cloud and fire. He leads them south towards the Sinai Peninsula. There they will discover his character, and covenant with him to be his people.
But … there’s a problem. See that dust rising into the northern sky? It’s gaining on them. At chariot speed. The Middle East’s most powerful army is coming to take them captive again. Continue reading “When it feels like a dead end (Exodus 14:1-9)”
Dial 000, we teach our kids. There’s always someone there. If the threat is physical violence, the police will save us. If the threat is fire, the fire brigade will save us. If the threat is medical, the ambulance will save us.
Government provides these services, including 000. So thank God for governments. They are his servants, authorized by God to save us from a whole range of violent threats.
We rarely think about that when we talk about salvation at church. There we use the word saved to mean being saved from personal guilt or from condemnation in the afterlife. We use the same word to mean two completely different things, without stopping to think why. We can do that because we segregate the secular and religious dimensions of life into isolated compartments.
Continue reading “Who will save us?”
It won’t do to imagine salvation as a personal experience, unconnected to the woes of the world. In the Bible’s story, salvation is not relief from personal guilt. Salvation is God saving his people from enslavement to evil, from the crushing affliction we experience under rulers like Pharaoh. Salvation is God rescuing his creation from evil, into his reign. Continue reading “Salvation is bigger than you think”
Open Exodus 6:2-7.
Who governs the affairs of the world? That depends who you trust. Fox News would give you a different answer to China Press, Aljazeera, BBC, or Spiegel.
Truth is, none of the world’s leaders have the kind of control they’d like us to believe. There’s another hand behind history, beyond the best laid plans of mice and men.
Pharaoh was the biggest name in Moses’s world. At least, that’s what Moses thought. Until he learned the name:
Continue reading “The Saviour revealed (Exodus 6:2-7)”
What do you do when evil won’t let go?
Open Exodus 5:14 – 6:1.
Remember the time you tried to sort things out, only to make it worse? Moses knew that feeling.
He delivered God’s message to Pharaoh: “Hands off my people! Release them to celebrate with me in the wilderness.”
Pharaoh reacts like any self-serving tyrant: he comes down like a ton of bricks on those who dare to imagine themselves outside his control.
To stop them dreaming about freedom under YHWH, Pharaoh tightens his control over them. They won’t have time to dream of holidays and festivals: Continue reading “When it feels worse (Exodus 5:14 – 6:1)”
Movies reflect culture. If that’s true, the church doesn’t have a future.
Think back over the movies you’ve watched recently. What part did the church play?
If it’s there at all, it might be complicit with evil. Or it could be a symbol of something we’ve left behind, an artefact of the past. Continue reading “Does the church have a future?”
We recognize oppression, but where’s the liberation?
Open Matthew 12:22-29.
Any closed system, left to itself, runs down. Entropy is a law of nature. You don’t have to do anything for dust to build up in your house or for your garden to fall into disorder.
But earth is not a closed system. Enormous amounts of energy arrive from the sun. On a clear day, it’s about a kilowatt of energy for every square metre. Without it, we’d freeze. Plants and the whole ecosystem thrive on that incoming energy.
There’s another kind of energy as well, one that isn’t measured in kilowatts. Bette Midler was wrong. God is not “watching from a distance” while his realm deteriorates and spirals into disorder. His creative power sustains us each day. Our heavenly sovereign is restoring order to his troubled realm.
The sun powers our ecosystem, but it’s the Son who restores creation under God’s power, as the kingdom of God. Continue reading “Out of darkness (Matthew 12:22-29)”