The glory in the Temple

I Kings 8:1-11

King Solomon built a magnificent temple for God in Jerusalem. It took seven and a half years; and when the building was complete they waited another eleven months before moving the Ark of the Covenant into it and consecrating it for worship. For almost a year that beautiful building (almost oozing with gold and precious stones) lay empty and unused – a body without a soul.

But eventually the Ark (the symbolic throne of God) was carried in by four priests and laid down in the centre of the Most Holy Place. “And when the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the LORD.” (verse 10) This was the Shekinah, the cloud of glory that surrounded God’s presence. God had come to dwell visibly in His temple!

Both as individual Christians and as churches, we are temples of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 6:19; Ephesians 2:22). This is a fact, regardless of our spiritual ‘state of health’. But our lives will be filled with the visible glory of His presence only when Christ is enthroned at the centre, where He ought to be.

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Focus on Jesus: He is eternal

“Fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1)

Hebrews 13:8

Is Christianity a suitable faith for the modern age? Can we really put our trust in someone who lived and died 2000 years ago?

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews has gone back over more than 2000 years of Biblical history, demonstrating how those who believed in God were vindicated (Hebrews 11). And in the 2000 years since this letter was written, countless thousands of followers of Jesus have trodden the same path of faith. Now we believe in the same God as they did. And He has not changed; so neither will His Son. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.” Jesus will be the same to us as He has been to believers in every past generation – faithful and all-sufficient! He has promised to be with us always (Matthew 28:20), and He will never let us down.

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Eschatology for beginners (part 2)

(read part 1 here)

Mark 13

Some explanations

“The abomination that causes desolation” (Mark 13:14)

This phrase comes from the book of Daniel (Daniel 9:27, 11:31), where it foretells an act of desecration committed by the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BC (he erected an altar to the Greek god Zeus in the Temple courtyard in Jerusalem). What Jesus means is that something very similar will happen again as the End draws near.

The Antichrist

The Antichrist is the villain of Revelation, the ‘beast’ who blasphemes God and makes war against Christians (Revelation 13:1-8). And everyone knows that his name is “666” (Revelation 13:18)! Virtually every powerful world leader, whether religious or secular, has at some time been labelled by somebody as “the Antichrist”. Needless to say, so far everyone has been wrong…

The odd thing is that Jesus doesn’t mention the Antichrist at all. He does refer to “false Christs” who will try to lead Christians astray (Mark 13:6,22). If you consider that in Greek ‘anti’ means not only ‘against’, but also ‘instead of’, the link becomes more obvious. For the Antichrist will not only be the enemy of God but will also try to usurp God’s place (II Thessalonians 2:4). And according to John (writing at the end of the first century), “the spirit of the antichrist is already in the world” (I John 4:3). There have therefore been very many little ‘antichrists’, and maybe it’s not unreasonable to consider certain infamous individuals as ‘antichrists’ (e.g. Hitler, some of the Roman emperors). There is a repeating pattern to world history that will eventually culminate in the last and greatest Antichrist, just before Jesus returns.

The Rapture

This is not really spelled out in Mark 13; Jesus simply says that He will “gather His elect from the ends of the earth” (Mark 13:27). He goes into a little more detail in Luke 17:26-36. Just as Noah’s family went into the Ark just before the Flood and Lot’s family escaped from Sodom just before its destruction, so Jesus will snatch away all those who belong to Him just before He judges the world. (Revelation 14:14-20 describes this graphically as two harvests, first of the ‘righteous’, then of the wicked.) Paul tells us that this will happen as Jesus returns, and that the dead will be raised at the same time (I Thessalonians 4:13-18).

Part 3

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Focus on Jesus: He is the way to God

“Fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1)

Hebrews 10:19-23

The blood of sacrificial animals gave safe passage into the Most Holy Place only for the high priest, and only for a few brief moments; but the blood of Jesus gives all His people free right of entry for all time, without fear of judgement. His physical body was the true Temple, the interface between heaven and earth. When He died, the curtain in the Jerusalem Temple was also physically torn apart, dramatically symbolising the breaking down of the barrier between God and sinful human beings, and the opening of the way into heaven (Luke 23:44,45).

The Israelites were warned to keep their distance from the holy presence of God; but under the new covenant we are invited to come closer! Now, when we draw near to God in prayer and worship, we find that the old barrier has been removed. Because of what Jesus has done, we are no longer defiled by our sins (past or present), but can stand before God without shame or fear and can even address Him as ‘Father’. What other religion can offer this? “No-one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6)

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Eschatology for beginners (part 1)

‘Eschatology’ is just a fancy word for ‘the last things’ – i.e. the events leading up to the return of Christ and the Day of Judgement. Many people find it a confusing subject. Scripture is often ambiguous regarding the details, and Christians therefore hold widely differing opinions.

Mark 13

Christians in the first century lived in eager anticipation of Christ’s return. However, since the end of the first century, the Church has generally lost this sense of expectation. Christians have tended towards one or other of two extremes: either not to believe in Christ’s coming at all, or to spend a great deal of effort in trying to predict exactly when it will happen.

When talking about the ‘last things’ and Jesus’ second coming, everyone immediately thinks of the book of Revelation (sometimes called the ‘Apocalypse’). However, the ‘Little Apocalypse’ in the gospels (Mark 13/Matthew 24) is actually more important than Revelation for our understanding.

For one thing, the first two generations of Christians did not have the book of Revelation (which was not written until towards the very end of the 1st century AD).

Secondly, in the gospel we have Jesus speaking to us directly in (more or less) plain language, rather than in the sometimes obscure symbolism of Revelation.

In Mark 13, like many of the Old Testament prophets, Jesus talks about two separate events at the same time – the destruction of Jerusalem (which actually happened about 40 years later, in AD 70), and the end of the world (for which we are still waiting). This is because the first event foreshadows the second (yes, history really does repeat itself!). It is not always absolutely clear which parts of the chapter are about which event, but it is generally assumed that verses 13:14-23 refer to the Roman invasion of Palestine and the fall of Jerusalem and verses 24-37 to Jesus’ return at the end of the age. Verses 5-13 could refer to the time leading up to either (or both).

Some certainties:

1) Jesus will come back to earth one day, not secretly as a baby but in splendour as the King and Judge of the whole world (v26).

2) The exact time of His return is a well-kept secret (v32,33).

3) Before then, both the world and the Church will go through a long time of suffering (v7-13).

4) But God remains in control (v20).

Some matters of dispute:

When Jesus refers to the fig tree (v28,29), is it just because it’s a good illustration of a sign, or is He using it as a symbol for the nation of Israel? Many people believed that the reappearance of Israel as a political entity (in 1948) was a sign that the End was near. Or was Jesus referring to a spiritual reawakening – as Paul seems to predict (Romans 11:25,26) – that is still to happen? Personally, I think the latter is the more likely.

What did Jesus mean by “this generation” (v30)? Did He mean that the world would end within a few decades of this conversation (it hasn’t)? Or that Jerusalem would be destroyed within that timeframe (it was)? Or that the generation witnessing the first sign of the End would also see His return? (Which rather begs the question: what is the ‘first’ sign of the End? We don’t know)

Part 2

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Focus on Jesus: He is the ultimate sacrifice

“Fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1)

Hebrews 9:1-10:18

The worship of the old covenant took place in the Tabernacle (and, later, the Temple, which was constructed in a similar way) The sanctuary was divided into two rooms by a heavy curtain. In the outer room, the priests would perform certain duties (such as burning incense and tending the lamps); but they could not enter the inner room, where God was present. Only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, was the high priest allowed to enter the Most Holy Place – provided he took with him the blood of sacrifice to sprinkle onto the lid of the Ark. Thus the very nature of Tabernacle worship bore witness to its inadequacy. God was not really approachable; even while living symbolically in the midst of His people, He remained at a distance, and access to His presence was severely restricted. There was an impenetrable barrier between the first and second rooms that no amount of animal sacrifices could break down. This symbolised the real barrier between human beings and God – which was never a physical barrier in a building but an internal, spiritual barrier located in the conscience. And so it could not be removed by the physical rituals of the old covenant.

But the death of Jesus has changed everything! “He went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood, so obtaining eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:11,12) What made the difference was the nature of the sacrifice that He offered and the location where He offered it. For He alone was able to enter God’s actual presence in heaven – not once a year, but once for all. And the death that He presented as atonement was not that of an animal but His own. Thus He paid the full redemption price for all God’s people – a price for which nothing in this world would have been sufficient (I Peter 1:18,19).

The animal sacrifices had to be endlessly repeated because they never actually achieved anything. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:4) But Jesus was a willing, rational and morally perfect Victim, and His sacrifice was accepted by God – which is why it will never need to be repeated (Hebrews 10:14). He had to die only once to save everyone!

Only one sacrifice could effect this momentous achievement – but now that it has been made, there is no need to repeat it or add to it. It is ‘the sacrifice to end all sacrifices’; the old system has been abolished at a stroke. The real, heavenly sanctuary has now been cleansed, signifying that God has forgotten our sins and that we shall be welcomed into His presence. We can neither be shamed by them now, nor condemned for them later! So while the repetition of the old covenant sacrifices was a reminder of sin’s continuing dominion (Hebrews 10:3), the repetition of the Lord’s Supper is for us a reminder of sin’s definitive removal.

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The fishing net

We believe in the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints…

Matthew 13:47,48

‘The Kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.’

Fishing at sea with a net can be an inefficient technique. What your net brings up out of the water isn’t necessarily what you want to catch: some fish will be too small, others too large, or the wrong species. If you’re really unlucky, most of your initial catch might have to be thrown back into the water.

According to Jesus, evangelism (‘fishing for men’) is very similar. When the Good News is being preached, it’s like throwing out a net – and in order to bring the maximum number of people into the Kingdom, Christ casts His net very wide indeed. So there will be a surplus… not all those who make an initial response to the Gospel (and not even all those who get as far as joining a church) will actually end up inside the Kingdom.

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