Verse of the Month: April 2019

“Blessed are those whose strength is in You,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”
(Psalm 84:5)

Road closed by landslip, Peak District

There’s no easy way to get closer to God. The world will do its best to pull you back. The path is littered with obstacles. But a genuine pilgrim will not be easily deterred – and will draw strength for the journey from God Himself.

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In the Beginning: Sabbath

Genesis 2:1-3

Why did God rest? Surely not because He was weary!
“The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary.” (Isaiah 40:28)
He rested because His work was complete; there was nothing left for Him to do. And yet the seventh day is an integral part of the ‘week’ of creation. It sets a pattern that is of universal significance: the Sabbath principle. This was later incorporated into the Law of Moses on two levels; as well as the weekly sabbath day, the Israelites were to allow their farmland to ‘rest’ every seventh year.

“Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” (Genesis 2:3) The seventh day of the week is meant to be ‘different’ in quality from the other days – a day of physical rest and refreshment for our bodies, but also a day of refreshment for our minds (by enjoying God’s creation with Him) and our spirits (by worshipping Him).

But in another sense, there is no end to the seventh ‘day’; it is ongoing. And yet God’s ‘rest’ is relative, not absolute; it is not inactivity. “My Father is always at His work to this very day.” (John 5:17) He hasn’t ‘wound up’ the universe (like a watchmaker) to set it going, so that He can now leave it entirely to its own devices. On the contrary, He watches over it and continues to sustain it (Hebrews 1:3). He performs acts of grace and salvation – and occasional miracles!

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Circumcision and the Gospel

Romans 2:25-29

Circumcision was the badge of Jewish privilege, the sign of participation in God’s great covenant with Abraham. It had been a cause for martyrdom in the Maccabean era, and was superstitiously regarded by many Jews as an insurance policy against the wrath of God (rather as some people now regard baptism).

But circumcision was a commitment to obedience, not a substitute for obedience. External rituals are meaningless if not matched by the inward reality; and so there is no point in bearing the scar of circumcision if you are not willing to live out the obedience of faith. In fact, obedience is so important that being circumcised (or not) is irrelevant (I Corinthians 7:19); an obedient Gentile actually has a better standing in God’s eyes than a disobedient Jew! The willingness of the Gentiles to submit to God’s word has thrown the unbelief of the Jewish nation into sharp relief.

Human beings are generally more comfortable with (and therefore put greater value on) things that are outward, visible, material and measurable (such as circumcision); but God, who sees the heart, has a very different perspective on reality.

And so physical circumcision has never been sufficient in God’s eyes to avert His wrath (Jeremiah 4:4). True circumcision (and therefore true ‘Jewishness’) is an internal operation, not an external one – and only God can perform it. “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love Him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6) So the true people of God are not necessarily those who claim physical descent from Abraham and bear the mark of physical circumcision, but those who have allowed God’s Spirit to transform their hearts (Philippians 3:3)!

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In the Beginning: Homo sapiens

Genesis 1:26-30

Human beings are a very late arrival on the scene, but they are no afterthought; Homo sapiens is the climax of God’s creative work, and its completion. Biologically we are part of the animal kingdom, created on Day 6, but we are also unique; God takes a special interest in us!
“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule…” (Genesis 1:26)

What is God doing here? The world is to be His dwelling-place, His temple, where He is to be worshipped. This perhaps explains why the creation takes seven days: the timescale for building God’s Temple is always measured in sevens (seven months to make the Tabernacle at Mount Sinai, and seven years to build Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem). And just as all ancient temples had an image of the deity in them, so too does this one – but it’s a totally different kind of image!

What is it about us that constitutes “God’s image”? Obviously not our physical appearance (because God is spirit and has no form), nor our intelligence (many other species of animal have a measure of intelligence). Although difficult to define, we recognise that there is a qualitative distinction between us and even the closest of our primate relatives. We have a capacity for abstract thought, a sense of morality, and the ability (and the responsibility) to make moral choices. In a small way, we are actually like God…

So here we are, representatives on earth of the God who made it. And we have a commission: to rule the earth as His stewards, and to oversee its future development. “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28) Incidentally, the fact the earth needed ‘subduing’ suggests that there were indeed some aspects of God’s creation that were less than ideal – even, perhaps, unruly!

This is our great privilege – but also a great responsibility, for the world still belongs to God, and we are accountable to Him for how we manage it.

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Gospel privilege – and responsibility

Romans 2:17-24

So where does that leave us? To have a special relationship with God is an enormous privilege – but it carries with it an awesome degree of responsibility. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48)

The Jews of Paul’s day relied on the Law in much the same way as their ancestors had relied on the Temple, parading it as evidence of their superiority over the rest of the world – while actually living pretty much as they liked. Because of their unique knowledge of God, they claimed to be qualified to guide, teach, expose and judge the ‘ignorant’ pagans. And yet (in many cases) this was blatant hypocrisy! They were enthusiastic in their criticism and correction of others – but less keen to apply the same scrutiny to their own lives.

In fact, the Jews (as a group) were just as dishonest and adulterous as the Gentiles were. And while they might claim to abhor idolatry, they were not averse to profiting from the idolatry of other people! In truth, they are the same as everyone else; being God’s chosen people has not stopped them from also being sinners.

In earlier times, it was military defeat that brought shame upon God’s name (because He appeared to be unable to protect His people). Moral defeat has the same effect – not so much the sin itself, as boasting of God’s favour while showing an utter disregard for His standards. And Christians are often no better: whenever we fall short of the standards that are expected of us, we bring Christ’s name into disrepute.

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All will be judged

We believe in Jesus Christ… who will come to judge the living and the dead.

II Corinthians 5:10

We must all stand before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

Some Christians believe that the Gospel gives us a ‘free ticket’ to heaven, allowing us to bypass God’s throne of judgement.

Well, it isn’t quite as simple as that. It’s true that we don’t have to worry about the verdict, but we do still have to appear in court! Our salvation will not be at issue, because that does not depend on what we do; but we shall still be assessed on our Christian service, and if we have not been faithful in its execution we shall forfeit the rewards we might have enjoyed.

This is in fact one of our principal motivations for living a holy life: the knowledge that one day we shall stand in the presence of our Lord and hear His judgement on us. May He say, “Well done, good and faithful servant… Come and share in your Master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21)

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What about those who have never heard the Gospel?

Romans 2:12-16

This paragraph is often used to support the theory that people who have never heard the Gospel may be saved by their works. But Paul is not here addressing the question of whether it’s possible for anyone to be saved without knowing the Gospel; he’s talking about whether it’s possible for Jews to be saved by the Law. “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.” (verse 12) One way or another, the entire human race will be judged – and all will be condemned! No-one will be saved by ‘living up to the light available to them’, whether they are Jewish or Gentile.

The Jews assumed that having God’s Law gave them an immense advantage over the Gentiles. Not so, says Paul: possession of the Law is of no value without obedience, and actually makes disobedience more culpable (Amos 2:4)! Merely knowing what the Law says (i.e. being a Jew) is not enough; you must obey it! And the same is true of the Gospel; it must not be merely professed, but lived out (Matthew 7:21).

When the Day of Judgement arrives, who will be declared ‘righteous’ (i.e. members of God’s people) and vindicated? Those – and only those – who act righteously. Bearing in mind that even our secret thoughts and motives will be taken into account (verse 16), it should be obvious that no-one can face God’s judgement with confidence in their own merit.

Verses 14 & 15 are probably a parenthesis. It could be argued that God is being unfair to the Gentiles, since they cannot possibly live righteously if they have never heard of the Jewish Law. But our most basic moral values (such as justice and loyalty) appear to be more or less universal; they are independent of cultural background or education. Everyone is aware of a distinction between right and wrong; and everyone knows what it’s like to feel guilty when we know that we’ve fallen short of our own standards. So the Gentiles are not disadvantaged by their ignorance of the Law. And as we know, unbelievers are not all depraved monsters; there are some pagans who are actually more righteous than God’s own people! It is therefore plain that they know enough of the moral law to be held accountable, and so they too are condemned – not by the Law but by their own consciences.

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