At my home church, Belmont Chapel in Exeter, we have been working through a series in Ephesians. To supplement the weekly Sunday teaching my colleague, John Allan, has been adding additional material on-line. He has posted a series of bite-sized pieces of information about Paul’s letter at along with longer articles at John has also been tweeting on the same subject. You can follow his posts at @ephesianstweet.

By way of coincidence I was asked to speak on the second chapter of Ephesians at Burnham-on-Sea Baptist Church where a friend of mine is the pastor. My sermon transcript is below and you can find my accompanying PPT here … PPT for Ephesians Ch.2 vs.1-10

You may find it helpful to have the text in front of you … Ephesians Ch.2 vs.1-10 (NIV)

SLIDE 1  William Randolph Hearst, the wealthy newspaper tycoon, invested much of his fortune in purchasing priceless works of art. One day, upon learning of the existence of an item which he very much desired to own, he instructed his agent to make enquiries as to its whereabouts. After some months of painstaking research Hearst’s agent reported back that he had managed to find that one particular artistic treasure. Upon enquiry, as to its location, the agent had the rather uncomfortable task of telling Hearst that what he was looking for was to be found in the private collection of no less a person than Mr William Randolph Hearst. This treasure had, so it transpired, been locked away in a warehouse for several years; Hearst had been searching frantically for treasure he already owned.

SLIDE 2  I mention that story because I think it helps to illustrate the main theme of Paul’s prayer that concludes the first chapter of this NT letter that you’ve been considering together in your morning services these past few Sundays, the verses immediately before the passage we read a little earlier. And it also helps us, I think, to understand why it is that Paul unpacks for his readers that breathtaking resume of all the spiritual wealth that is theirs because they are now children of God; those earlier verses in Ch.1, from vs.3-14, that one long unbroken, unpunctuated Greek sentence. Paul’s point, surely, is to give his readers an inventory of all the personal spiritual wealth that is theirs; given to them freely to possess, by God, through the saving work of Jesus Christ.

SLIDE 3  In fact, says Paul, all three persons of the Trinity were involved. The blessings of God the Father, reveal those who know and trust the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour to be, adopted, blessed and chosen. The blessings of God the Son reveal them to be delivered, enlightened and forgiven. And the blessings of God the Spirit reveal them to be gathered and hallmarked.

But all of these treasures need to be both understood and enjoyed if they are to make a difference in a Christian’s life, and so Paul prays for his fellow believers that they may know in greater measure the extent of the treasure that they already possess in Christ. The truth is that just like William Randolph Hearst all Christians throughout all generations are prone to forget what God has given them as treasure for their lives; we run the risk of looking for something we already own in Christ.

SLIDE 4  And, I guess, one reason why we might lose something of our understanding as to the nature of God’s lavish blessing and therefore run the risk of failing to grasp the enormity of what God has done for us, could possibly be because we have formed the wrong idea as to why it is that God bestowed His blessing on us in the first place. Do you think it’s possible that we could be tempted to think that we are deserving of God’s favour to some degree or another ?

Now in order to expose and challenge that possible train of thought Paul at the start of Ch.2 completely changes the focus of his writing. He moves quickly away from the breathtakingly wide panorama of God’s blessing and focuses down with pinpoint precision to reveal in stark uncompromising language the devastatingly bleak spiritual common denominator for all humanity. And he does this to remind us that we will never be able to praise and worship God as we should, thanking Him for what He has done for us in Christ, if we lose sight of the depths of sinful rebellion from which God has saved us. And that’s why I’d like us to consider our passage this morning by focusing in on God’s grace to us; the theme that has permeated our sung worship this morning.

The Bible has a lot to say about grace and Paul mentions the word twelve times in this short letter but there’s no way we have time this morning to even scratch the surface to reveal much about what the Bible means by such a multi-faceted doctrine as grace. But it’s clear from the verses that we have read, that the specific nature of grace that’s in view here in these verses is God’s saving grace. So whilst defining God’s grace in totality is notoriously difficult, I would suggest that we can have a good go at describing God’s saving grace.

SLIDE 5  One of the most helpful definitions I’ve come across to describe saving grace is found in J.I. Packer’s book, Knowing God. He writes this, ‘… grace means God’s love in action towards men and women who merited the opposite of love. Grace means God moving heaven and earth to save sinful humanity who could not lift a finger to save themselves. Grace means sending His only Son to descend into hell on the cross so that we guilty ones might be reconciled to God and received into heaven …’

So let’s take another look at our passage and see the works of God’s saving grace through examining the past, present and future experience of those who profess Jesus Christ to be their Saviour and Lord.

Firstly then, we see this … SLIDE 6

1.            God’s grace is UNDESERVED grace (vs.1-3)

Let’s read those few verses again, ‘… as for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the Kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest we were by nature objects of wrath …’ (vs.1-3).

Paul clearly has no intention of holding back in his description of sinful humanity, and it’s a very uncomfortable, but at the same time, brutally honest and realistic description of life in rebellion against God. Paul describes our condition using three positional statements. Firstly he says … SLIDE 7

  • we were dead … in our transgressions and sins (vs.1)

Now what does that mean exactly ? Well, sin is trying to live as if God isn’t there and transgressions are the ways that we express our sinfulness through the specific wrongs that we do. So Paul tells his readers that when we live as if God isn’t there, it is then that we embrace death; because true life is only found when we live in relationship with God, who created us to know and love Him. And the overriding characteristic of dead people is that they can’t make themselves alive. Then Paul goes on to say …

  • we were enslaved (vs.2-3)  SLIDE 8

The oldest lie of all, and we see evidence of it right back in the Garden of Eden, is the lie that says we can find freedom by ignoring God. But it’s foolishness. It’s rather like a goldfish believing it would enjoy a freer experience if only it could get out of its bowl. But, you and I know that’s nonsense, because the goldfish would just die. The reality is that God is the source of our freedom and not the end of our freedom. So when we ignore God we give ourselves over to slavery. And Paul goes on to say that there are three types of slavery. SLIDE 9  Firstly, slavery to the world; where the norms and expectations of our godless society heap a variety of pressures upon us such that we end up conforming to certain modes of behaviour that are in conflict with God’s intention for our lives. Secondly, and more sinisterly, there is slavery to the devil; that one who is the hidden orchestrator of everything that is both evil and destructive. And then thirdly, there is slavery to ourselves, where we act upon instinct where every sinful action only serves to make the next sin easier.

And as a result Paul says, in vs.3 …

  • we were guilty (vs.3)  SLIDE 10

And being guilty, says Paul, finds us objects of God’s wrath. I guess God’s wrath isn’t something that we think or speak about much but it’s an important part of who God is. SLIDE 11 John Stott writes this definition, ‘… God’s wrath is His personal, righteous, constant hostility to evil … it is His settled refusal to compromise with it … and it is His resolve instead to condemn it …’. And yet, amazingly, as we shall see as we move into vs.4, God’s wrath is not incompatible with God’s love, since both the wrath that judges and the grace that saves are personal attributes of the same One true God.

SLIDE 12 So then, this is the human condition outside of God’s grace. We are dead people who cannot makes themselves alive; we are slaves who can’t free themselves; we are guilty people who cannot acquit themselves. And yet, the wonder of the good news of the gospel is that it is to undeserving people such as you and I that God pours out His grace, in Christ; which leads us on to our second point …

2.            God’s grace is SAVING grace (vs.4-6)   SLIDE 13

Right at the start of vs.4 our attention is grabbed by one very small yet unbelievably pivotal word; a word that alters everything, a word that acts as the fulcrum that re-orientates humanity; the word but. Paul writes, ‘… but because of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ …’ (vs.4-5a). First of all we see the motive of God’s grace, it’s because of His love for us, then we see the source of His grace, its all about God’s mercy and then Paul tells us about the means of God’s grace, its the work of salvation that makes us, ‘… alive with Christ …’. And all of a sudden, all those things that we saw from those earlier verses as being humanly speaking unassailable difficulties, those things that keep us outside of God’s Kingdom, are remarkably resolved and transformed.

It’s important to notice that we aren’t saved by God’s love but rather we are saved by the outworking of His love; God’s love in action, His grace and His mercy as revealed in the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus Christ.

SLIDE 14 And God’s saving grace means that God gives us mercy in exchange for judgement (vs.4). God gives us life in exchange for death (vs.5), and God gives us freedom and dignity in the place of slavery (vs.6). Such is the transforming power of salvation. And then thirdly we see that …

3.            God’s grace is RICH grace (vs.7-10)  SLIDE 15

Paul goes on in these verses to make it clear to us that God’s purpose in salvation is not merely to save us from a lost eternity. As great a work as that is it’s not the entire story, since the ultimate purpose of salvation is that for all eternity the church might glorify God’s grace. And once more Paul is keen to stress the reality of the hopelessness of our condition without God. Salvation cannot be earned through our personal endeavour since it is a gift from God. Salvation is God’s finished work and we cannot add to it, and whereas sin worked against us, God works for us. And our lives now and throughout eternity are living examples of the, ‘… incomparable riches of God’s grace …’ (vs.7)

But there’s something more that we can’t ignore since there is work going on, albeit not work that attains our salvation, but let’s read that last verse again. SLIDE 16 Paul writes, ‘… for we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do …’ (vs.10). There’s a dual work that God continues to do in the lives of all those who love and trust him. God is working in us through His Spirit. Whereas Jesus finished the work of salvation on the cross, the work of the Holy Spirit continues day by day as God seeks to shape everything about us to make us more Christ-like.

If we were to turn back in our Bibles to John’s gospel and Ch.11 we would read the story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life, and I often think of that story as a very visual reminder that the work of salvation in my life isn’t the only important experience. You’ll know the story I’m sure. The grave having been opened, SLIDE 17 Jesus stands at the entrance and calls to Lazarus to come out. And whilst the miracle of bringing Lazarus back to life is amazing it’s Jesus’ next words that are just as crucial, ‘… take off the grave clothes and let him go …’ (vs.44). In affect what Jesus is saying is, this man is alive, so now free him so that he can live. We need to ask God to get us out of our grave clothes and ask Him to help us put on our grace clothes. That is the work of God in us through His Spirit. Previously, as we saw in vs.2, it was the devil that was at work in us, but now it is God, through the person and work of the indwelling Spirit.

SLIDE 18 The story is told of Michelangelo the great Renaissance artist who having accepted a commission to carve a marble figure for the tomb of St Dominic in Bologna travelled to the cathedral in Florence in order to see what pieces of marble the masons had available that might be suitable. To the surprise of the masons, Michelangelo chose a block of marble that had remained unused for over thirty years. Other sculptors had attempted to use it, including Agostino di Duccio, a renowned sculptor, but with no success. But Michelangelo stood by his choice and arranged for the block of marble to be delivered to his studio where he set about working hard with hammer and chisel. One afternoon a young boy, hearing the noise of splintering marble looked in to see what was going on. Upon enquiry as to what was happening Michelangelo suggested that the boy come back to the studio in a few weeks time. Upon his return the boy saw standing in the same spot as that uninspiring lump of dirty rough-hewn marble, an angel. The boy was thrilled and running over to the sculpture he asked, ‘… Sir, tell me, how did you know there was an angel in the marble ? …’. Michelangelo replied, SLIDE 19  ‘… in every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to other eyes as well as mine …’

But I said just now that it’s a dual work that God continues to do in our lives and we see evidence of that in the final half of this last verse since not only does God work in us but also God works through us.

SLIDE 20 There are the good works that God has purposed that we should be doing. These aren’t works that bring glory to ourselves but rather these are the things that we do that prompt people to question what motivates us. These are works that bring glory to God and point those who don’t know the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ in their lives as yet towards Him. This is a re-statement of what Jesus said previously in words from the Sermon on the Mount that we read near the start of Matthew’s gospel. SLIDE 21 Jesus said, ‘… let your light shine before me, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven …’ (Matthew Ch.4 vs.16). These are actions born out of lives and hearts that are overwhelmingly grateful to God who saved them.

SLIDE 22 There’s so much more we could say about this passage and I was intending to point you towards a story in the OT that in narrative form wonderfully illustrates these verses that we have considered this morning but I think I’ll put up the reference and encourage you to go home and read that story for yourself and let you draw the parallels and explore the richness of the analogies it reveals.

SLIDE 23 So let’s simply close by reviewing what we have learned together this morning. Without God you are I are without hope. But through the work of salvation as an act of God’s mercy and grace our lives can be transformed if we turn away from our rebellion of God, admit the hopelessness of our situation,  admit our sinfulness and accept God’s offer of rescue. We were dead, enslaved and guilty. But we can be made alive, free and acquitted from the judgement and punishment of God’s wrath. The question is have we ?

SLIDE 24 Let me leave you with a few questions to take away and think over. Is sin working against you because you have not as yet experienced Christ’s saving power ? Are you experiencing God’s work for you, in you and through you ? Are you wearing grave clothes or grace clothes ? As a Christian are you living out the position you have in Christ through seeking to serve Him ?

May God continue to pour out His grace to us as we continue day by day to know him more and more.

Recently I was asked to contribute to a preaching series on the life of Jacob. I’m posting my notes below in the hope that they might be useful to you in your Christian walk and discipleship.

The reading can be found here :

This morning we’re going to spend a few moments considering a passage from the book of Genesis, a short episode from the life of Jacob.

Jacob, we know, was the younger of twins, a brother to Esau, both sons of Isaac and Rebecca, and right from the very start of the narrative we learn that this wasn’t going to be a heart-warming story of brotherly connectedness. God’s words to Rebecca, even during her pregnancy, spoke of separation rather than unity, of enmity rather than love. The writer of Genesis records these words, ‘… the LORD said to her … two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated … one people will be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger …’ (Genesis Ch.25 vs.23). And, even from the outset God’s words started to bear fruit, since, at the moment of arrival into the world the younger twin Jacob was born grasping hold of the older twin Esau’s heel, trying to pull the older back, striving to gain personal advantage and predominance, desperate to be first.

Jacob’s name is a play on the Hebrew word for heel and it literally translates as twister or deceiver, an apt name, so it transpired, since the story goes on to tell instances of Jacob’s deceit and scheming, firstly by out-witting Esau into selling him the birthright that legally resided with the elder twin in exchange for a bowl of soup,  and then secondly, with help from his mother Rebecca, Jacob tricks his almost blind father Isaac into laying hands on him so that he might be in receipt of the family blessing that was rightfully Esau’s.

Philosopher George Santayana describes family life as ‘… one of nature’s masterpieces …’, but this family is something quite different, instead of being a masterpiece, all we see here is a mixed up jumble of unconnected pieces that will never be interlocked without the help of the Master, God Himself.

And so it was that when the deception was exposed, Jacob had no choice but to run away from the family home. Yet despite the mess he was in God met with Jacob through two dramatic circumstances, one, by way of a dream that he experienced the first night of his journey running away from home, and the second, by way of a wrestling match that occurred the night before he returned home – a return that would eventually find him reunited with his brother Esau – a wrestling match, with none other than God Himself.

Some twenty years separated those two encounters with God and we know from reading the story in Genesis that Jacob returned home a wealthy married man with two wives, Rachel and Leah, with a growing family, comprising of ten sons, and a whole assortment of possessions, livestock and servants.

But, if we were hoping that Jacob’s life story would turn out to be a happy one from here on in then Genesis Ch.34, the very next chapter, brings us up with a start. Because it’s a twisted, mangled train-crash of a chapter, and whilst we aren’t going to read from it together this morning, it does provide an important backdrop to the passage we are going to read, because whereas Ch.34 makes no mention of God, the first fifteen verses of Ch.35, in contrast is full to the brim with God, and it’s here that we find Jacob, having first returned to the family of his earthly father Isaac, now returning to his heavenly Father, to God Himself, as once more God speaks to him.

Wherever we look in the unfolding story of the good news of the Bible we find a stream of evidence reminding us that God, at the very heart of His character – is a relational God. Time and time again we see God’s patience working within the lives of individuals – patience that reveals His restorative grace, as God seeks to draw people back to Himself. Jacob, like all of us at some time or another, finds himself spiritually distant from God. Jacob, as we can see time and time again in the unfolding story seeks to gain advantage through self-reliance. Jacob believed that his timing was better than God’s that his actions alone, separate from God’s will, would bring the results he was looking for. In reality the whole catalogue of stories that are bound together to form Jacob’s life story up to this point reveal a chain of poor choices that reaped their inevitable consequences – and yet, as we commented earlier, God wasn’t finished with Jacob.

The verses we read together have as their starting point a fresh revelation of God to Jacob – and we find that in the introductory phrase, since despite the bleakness of the situation that was threatening to consume Jacob and his family in Shechem this is what we read, ‘… then God said to Jacob …’ (vs.1).

Let’s consider for a few moments something of the substance of what God has to say to Jacob, words that lead to repentance and renewal. But let’s not merely limit our thoughts to the outworking of those words within the structure of this well-known story but rather let’s see if we can draw encouragement and hope from the lessons they teach – lessons that are just as relevant for us today in our encounters with the same God, the God of Jacob.

Firstly, I want you to notice that …

  • God speaks about PLACE

‘… go up to Bethel …’ (vs.1)

God’s first words to Jacob are by way of a reminder to him that he was living and worshipping in the wrong place. At the end of Ch.33 we read that Jacob, soon after his reunion with his brother Esau, bought a plot of land from the sons of Hamor, at a place called Shechem, rather than returning to Bethel the place of his first encounter with God and the place where he had vowed to God that he would return. And so we learn that despite knowing what God required from him he stopped short in his obedience. I guess for many of us we can find ourselves in similar circumstances to that of Jacob. God’s call upon our lives is one of obedience, and the evidence of God’s word and the reality of the indwelling Spirit within us confirms God’s leading to be essential for our spiritual lives, and yet, because of our self-reliant nature we, at times, believe we know better and we chose self over God – and as a result we find ourselves living in a spiritual wilderness, a place where we have chosen to live, rather than where God desires longs for us to be.

Yet even when we find ourselves spiritually in the wrong place God persists in working to draw us back to Himself, not physically of course, to a geographical Bethel, but rather we are directed towards the cross of Jesus Christ. Because there, for all of us who know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, is the place to which we need to return. If our spiritual walk with God has come to a halt then we, like Jacob, need to find our way back to the place of our first encounter with God – return to the place where we made a vow to follow Him, the place where we made a choice to accept Him as Lord, that place of faith and trust – and that place, for us, is always the foot of the cross.

Secondly, we see in the same verse that …

  • God speaks about PURPOSE

‘… go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God who appeared to you …’ (vs.1)

God’s intention for Jacob is clear. He isn’t merely asking him to travel as a sightseer to Bethel, but rather God is re-settling Jacob in a place of His choosing – Bethel is the place where God wants Jacob to both live and worship, and whilst there’s some uncertainty amongst scholars as to the exact geographical site of OT Bethel the reality is that both of the suggested locations, though disputed, are within only a few miles of Shechem. Jacob had come so far and yet he had missed out on finding God’s intended purpose for his life – because, he had stopped relying on God.

Discerning God’s will for our lives and His intention as to where He wishes us to live, work and worship for instance, is, I would suggest, never easy or straightforward, and maybe God’s guidance is only truly revealed in hindsight. However, what we do know for certain is that in accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour we have been given, by God’s grace, an eternal address in an eternal kingdom, the Kingdom of God, a kingdom with counter-cultural values and topsy-turvy principles to many that we see championed around us.

Thirdly, we see in the next few verses …

  • God speaks about PREPARATION

‘… get rid of the foreign Gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes …’ (vs.2)

It’s refreshing that in the next few verses we see Jacob taking the initiative within his household by relaying God’s message to them, as a family. Jacob recognises the seriousness of God’s words to him and he recognises his need to be reconciled with the LORD God. Rachel, Jacob’s wife, we discover back in Genesis Ch.31, had stolen her father’s pagan idols just before she and Jacob’s household has fled Paddan Arran, and it is clear from the reading that Jacob knew of the presence of other idols too, as well as the outward signs of idolatrous acceptance that the members of the household displayed publicly, such as ritual rings. The evidence of scripture shows, of course, that worshipping the god’s of the neighbouring pagan nations would always be a temptation for the children of Israel. Even despite the confirmed reality that there was no god that could possibly be compared to the LORD God, the children of Israel were time and time again seduced by the confidence and prosperity they saw around them – yet, such attractions were temporary illusions. Maybe even in these verses we glimpse reluctance amongst the people to truly rid themselves of idolatry. Why did Jacob choose to bury these things rather than destroy them ? Why leave open the possibility of uncovering again these tangible and seductive tokens of idolatry rather than ridding themselves of them for good ?

Being challenged by God to change the habits and patterns of our lives, those habits and patterns that are not God-honouring, can be deeply uncomfortable since what God demands from us is evidence of our faith and trust in His Lordship over and above any self-appointed position of rule that we proudly flaunt as being our right. So much of what our sinful human nature finds attractive – is ultimately destructive and so God strives, through His Spirit to reveal to us the true nature of such things. And, the good news of God’s provision for us through His Son is that not only that are we ultimately saved from the penalty that our sin deserves, through the vicarious death of Jesus Christ on the cross, but also, through the indwelling of His Spirit we are being changed, albeit very slowly in my case, towards Christ-likeness, as we allow the Holy Spirit to act through His sanctifying power. God’s intervention on our behalf to deal with the sin question was a costly one – and in response the question I have to ask myself time and time again is how serious am I about dealing with those areas of temptation that, if unchecked, have the potential of causing such great harm ?

The people put away their idols and signalled their willingness to follow God by washing themselves. Throughout scripture we find the action of changing clothes and washing revealed as a re-occurring motif signalling the start of something new. Old garments signify an old way of life, and just like dirt, sin spoils and defiles and must be washed away – repentance and faith go hand in hand and God reveals His power, in response to the people’s obedience, by providing safe passage to Bethel (vs.5) – a miraculous intervention when viewed in the light of Ch.34.

Lastly, we see in the next few verses …

  • God speaks about PROMISE

‘… I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number … a nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body … the land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you …’ (vs.11 & 12)

Back in Ch.28 God had promised to bring Jacob safely back to Bethel, and He kept His promise, since God is always true to His nature. And Jacob responded by keeping his part of the agreement He had made with God by building an altar and leading his whole household in worship. For Jacob Bethel was a special place, yet it’s important to see that in renaming again the place formerly called Luz he is careful to give God the pre-eminence – and he calls the place El Bethel. And then, in vs.9 God appears to Jacob once more and this time, unlike the story concerning the wrestling match where God refused to reveal His identity, this time God tells Jacob His name, ‘… I am God Almighty …’, here is El Shaddai  – the provider God, the God who is all-sufficient.

I’m sure this is a good place to finish our brief look at the life of Jacob this morning. Not only do we find Jacob reunited with his brother but now he is re-united with his God. Now he is in the place of God’s choosing, he has returned to God in an attitude of repentance and faith, typified by his sacrificial pouring out of a drink offering that speaks volumes about determined dedication – but also, the LORD God has spoken with him and God has re-affirmed his promises. Jacob, the deceiver and self-serving grasper has had his new name Israel re-affirmed to him. The name Israel means ruled by God – clearly God is at work in the life of Jacob.

As we close our thoughts about Jacob it’s important that we take a moment to consider individually where we are spiritually with God. Have we in faith and trust come to the foot of the cross in repentance ? Are we continuing in the way that God would wish us to go ? Do we daily acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour and live in the reality of His Kingdom ? Are we allowing God to change us, removing those things that would damage the effectiveness of our Christian lives ?

The Christian life should be a thrilling and vibrant adventure. It’s not devoid of heartache and sadness, a fact that Jacob would discover again as the story of this chapter unfolds, but life with God is ultimately a secure life, a life held tight within the grasp of the covenant of God’s continued blessing – a blessing that stems from the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Only recently during a conversation at Home Group I was reminded of the trend amongst some Christian groups to call those leading them Apostles. I don’t mean small ‘a’ apostles, the ‘sent ones’ or ‘ambassadors’ of the gospel, which is what the word ‘apostle’ literally means (more or less) – a term that should have relevance to everyone who professes to be a Christian. But I mean capital ‘A’ Apostles, those who view themselves to be modern-day equivalents of Peter or Paul.

Whilst it appears to be a common practice to do this capitalising of the word in order, I assume, to denote importance either by the individual themselves or by those in their congregations I remain unconvinced that Scripture gives support to such a claim, and here are some brief reasons why I say that.

1.         Eyewitness … implies actually being there
Firstly, at the end of Ch.1 of Acts, we read about the election of a new Apostle, an event which provides some descriptive evidence for the things that were important about that office. We read these words, spoken by Peter, ‘… therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection …’ (Acts Ch.1 vs.21-22)

Of course, this describes only what was important in those days, and so it is not necessarily prescriptive of what qualifies one to be an Apostle for all time, yet nevertheless, in the absence of other clear qualifications, it is at least true that the twelve were appointed as eye-witnesses of Jesus’ life and resurrection. Throughout the NT, we see that the Apostles are described as doing miracles that mimic those of Jesus himself, and their message is the gospel (ie. if your message doesn’t match theirs, it isn’t the Christian gospel). Paul is quick to emphasise that his teaching was approved by the other Apostles, i.e. his message (not learned from any man, he says) matched theirs well. We read this in Galatians, ‘… those men [the Jerusalem church leaders] added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews …’ (Galatians Ch.2 vs.6-7)

2.         Abnormally born … implies the existence of normally born
Secondly, Paul describes his election as an Apostle as something not just unusual, but out of time and out of step with the ordained pattern. We read this in his letter to the church in Corinth, ‘… then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God …’ (1Corinthians Ch.15 vs.7-9)

If Apostleship was an ordinary church office, there would be no need for the regular apologies made for Paul’s Apostleship. Certainly there would be no need for the kind of language that he uses here in 1 Corinthians. If one’s birth can be described as abnormal, then it implies that there is a normal Apostle, and normal equates to an ordinary eyewitness of the resurrection. In any event, Paul was a witness of the resurrected Christ, so the suggestion is that his abnormality has more to do with the fact that he was appointed at the wrong time (after the possibility for eyewitness discipleship had expired) and outside of the ranks of the Twelve.

3.         Aiming for second best … implies first best is unobtainable
In 1 Corinthians, Paul lists Spiritual gifts in order of importance, and he tells the church to aim for the greater. In Ch.12 vs.28 we read this, ‘… and in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues …’, then in vs.31, ‘… but eagerly desire the greater gifts …’

After a chapter-long digression into matters of character that surpass matters of giftedness (ie. love is better than impressive ability), Paul returns to Spiritual gifts, saying, ‘… follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy …’ (1 Corinthians Ch.14 vs.1)

In the cited bit of Ch.12, Paul shows the gifts that God has ordained, listing Apostleship first, and prophecy second. At the beginning of Ch.14, Paul reminds the church again to desire the greatest gifts, but specifies the second gift, prophecy, not the first, Apostleship. Why is Apostleship best for the church, yet we’re supposed to desire second best ? Because Apostleship belonged to a small group of eyewitnesses of the resurrection, who were commissioned to speak on behalf of Christ himself, but it does not belong to the church of every age. Prophecy is the best of the gifts that are offered to the whole church. Apostleship never was.

So, Christ appointed Apostles to speak for him after his departure, and they have done that speaking. There is no indication anywhere that Apostleship itself was passed on; that primary office in the Church died with the last of the Twelve. Yet Apostles remain first of all for the church, because they continue to bear witness in scripture, by their word in letter.

‘… he called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter …’ (2 Thessalonians Ch.2 vs.14-15)

Following on from my previous post about the need to correctly set the parameters for both science and faith if we’re to understand their inter-relationship correctly here is a transcript of my sermon on a very closely related theme …

You can upload a copy of my PPT here which will, I trust make more sense of the slide annotation shown throughout the notes :

SLIDE 1  In 2005 Time magazine carried an essay by the Nobel prize winning physicist Eric Cornell in which he posed this question; Why is the sky blue ? Cornell went on to offer two brief answers to his own question, firstly he said, ‘… the sky is blue because of the wavelength dependence of rays scattering …’, and he continued by saying, ‘… secondly, the sky is blue because that is the colour God wants it to be …’. Cornell wrote further that, as an expert in the field of optical phenomena, he was well qualified to speak about his first answer. However, he said, the second answer, whilst having been voiced for thousands of years was not in the least undermined by the advances in scientific understanding that gave rise to the first answer. SLIDE 2  There is, Cornell went on to say, ‘… a legitimacy in thinking of the wavelength dependence of rays scattering as the method by which God chooses to implement His colour scheme …’.

I wanted to start our consideration for this morning with Cornell’s comments because they follow on from the topic you thought about last week about science and theology coexisting together as complimentary sources of information rather than, as is so often assumed, opposing viewpoints that stand poles apart and by their nature, consistently at odds with each other.

Quite clearly this morning we run the risk of having some overlap from the topic last week since there’s no way we can think about the creation of the universe without touching on matters of science; but I trust that what I say this morning will add to what was said last week rather than merely repeating it.

SLIDE 3  So, let’s spend some time looking at our question for this morning. Is the universe just an accident ? or to put it another way, Why does anything exist and not nothing ? Whilst these might be short questions they doesn’t have short answers since these are questions that impact upon other huge questions such as Why are we here ? and, Does my life has any meaning ? So, whilst we can’t hope to look at every avenue of thinking that feeds into a complete answer, even if that could be done, I trust that we will together be encouraged to think more about the impact of such questions upon our personal faith and also the kind of thinking required in attempting to formulate answers to this and similar big questions.

SLIDE 4  So where do we start ? Well, the most obvious place is to start at the beginning, and the beginning of the story is the opening verse of the book of Genesis. Whilst we don’t have time to consider the chapter in any depth it’s worthwhile noting that Ch.1 acts as the prologue to the book, and in its turn, the book of Genesis acts as the prologue to the entire Bible since it’s the book of beginnings. And just as an operatic overture introduces all of the themes of an opera to the expectant audience, so it is that Genesis introduces the reader to the great themes that will dominate scripture. It is in Genesis that we learn of the creation of the world and of humankind’s rebellion against God’s rule. It is here that we learn of God’s decision to restore his creation back into relationship with Himself and we learn of God’s intention to do that through His chosen people and ultimately through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ; through his death and resurrection. In short, Genesis sets the scene for the unfolding story of salvation, which is the story of the rest of scripture.

So let’s read a few verses from Genesis Ch.1, word that I’m sure you will be very familiar with   SLIDE 5

… in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light …’ (Genesis Ch.1 vs.1-3)

Yet in starting at the beginning we’re immediately aware that Ch.1 of Genesis is not a straightforward piece of writing and, in part, that’s because it’s written in a style that we aren’t overly familiar with, since the writing is much closer to poetry than it is to prose.

Now that’s not to say that what the writer wishes to communicate to us is in anyway less true than say the narrative historical writing style of Luke as he writes his gospel, but we have to be mindful that literal reading of poetry can at times become nonsensical. In the Psalms for instance we find David talking about God’s creative sovereignty. SLIDE 6  In Psalm 8 the Psalmist writes, ‘… when I consider the works of your fingers the moon and the stars that you have set in place, what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them ? …’. And when we read that, of course we know that God isn’t flesh and blood like we are and so He doesn’t have fingers; so we don’t read this in a literal way. But, and this is important, in no way does that fact take anything away from the truth that is being spoken about. The Psalmist wants us to know that God is personally and intimately involved, not only in the creation of the world, but also, he writes, God has a desire to draw us into relationship with Him. And in many ways that truth is better presented for us in this poetic style because the use of language and imagery engages us on a very personal level.

It’s also worth noting in passing something about the context in which these opening words of scripture were written. Most Biblical scholars seem to be in agreement that Genesis was written some 1500 years BC, at a time when there was a plethora of competing views about creation circulating around the pagan lands that bordered the land of Israel. All of the major nations of the time had their own myths and stories, and Genesis was written as a direct challenge to the myths of the Babylonians, the Canaanites, the Egyptians and the Assyrians.

It’s true that some of these myths have certain similarities with the poetic account of Genesis Ch.1 but in reality they are fundamentally different as we will see. One of the many creation stories tells of a war between rival deities that resulted in the victorious god slitting open the stomach of a god he has defeated, and from the divided contents of the stomach, that god created the heavens and the earth. In another creation story a band of lesser gods go on strike and the higher gods are forced to create humankind in order to do the manual labour that the lesser gods are now refusing to do. But here in Genesis we note a fundamental difference from these kinds of stories since in the Biblical account there is no hint of conflict or warfare, no disagreements between competing deities, and neither is there any confusion regarding the identity of the creator, since it is God. And it’s the God who is eternally present because He was, ‘… in the beginning …’. So God purposed creation, He chose to create the universe, and more than that, He was overjoyed with what He had made; we see that repeated through Ch.1 of Genesis. The poet speaks of God as an artist, standing back, as it were, to view his masterpiece and commenting upon it. The Hebrew word for good used here, is elsewhere translated as beautiful, such is God’s work of creative activity.

SLIDE 8  But there’s more, because we are told that the pinnacle of God’s creation is humankind, you and I. And it’s because of the opening chapters of Genesis that we accord dignity and value to one another. If this opening chapter of the Bible is mere myth or poetic fiction then, it ought to follow, that there is no sanctity to human life since we are no more sacred than a worm; but of course no-one believes that. But where does that belief come from ? Well, put simply, It’s derived from the fact that we are made in God’s image and likeness, whether we acknowledge it or not. God designed a world for us to live in. He purposed creation and brought it into being as a direct act of his free will.

SLIDE 9  So how ought we to view God’s interaction with creation ? Well, the early part of Genesis tells us that pantheism is wrong, that idea that God is part of the created world and exists in everything; but that’s not what scripture tells us, since God is eternal and outside of time. And neither is deism right, that idea that God is unmoved by and distanced from His creation, the thinking that, whilst God might possibly have set everything in motion, He now has no further interest. SLIDE 10  But neither of these points of view stand up against the revelation of scripture, because here, we meet an Almighty and personal Creator God. A God who is both transcendent, that is He is different in substance from created things, and who is also imminent, that is, He is involved in His creation. And more than that, amazingly, God desires to share in a relationship with you and I.

And it’s when we turn to the NT that we discover more about what that means and the way by which God chooses to become intimately involved in His creation; and it’s through the person and work of Jesus Christ. The first few verses of John’s gospel are strikingly similar to the beginning of Genesis, and we’re reminded that God’s response to humankind’s rebellion is not to distance Himself from us, but rather, it’s the reverse, since He draws closer to us. And the imagery of light is important. In both accounts, whether that of creation or the unfolding story of God’s re-creation; His work of salvation and restoration through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, both are described as bringing light and life.

SLIDE 11  Let’s just read those verses from John Ch.1 in order to see the similarities. John writes, ‘… In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it …’  (John Ch.1 vs.1-5)

SLIDE 12  And whilst we may have differing views as to the interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis, it’s fundamentally important that we notice the fact of God’s creation over and above any consideration as to the manner of God’s creation. Since, in reality, Genesis wasn’t written to answer the how question but only the why question since Genesis Ch.1 introduces us to the personal Creator God who despite His transcendence is knowable – a fact we see most clearly in the person and the work of Jesus Christ God’s Son.

That said, it’s interesting that the current pervading scientific position of cosmologists purports that the creation of the universe happened at a moment of unimaginable power some 15 billion years ago, an event that saw the creation of all matter and elements out of nothing; the so-called Big Bang. I mention that purely because it’s a scientific theory, that at least at first glance, seems more in tune with scripture than any scientific theory held sacred by previous generations of cosmologists. Is it very difficult for us as Christians to see God in the Big Bang ? Interestingly many scientists are re-evaluating their positions in the light of what they have discovered because the implications are huge.

SLIDE 13  Francis Collins, who until recently was the head of the Human Genome Project wrote this in 2007, ‘… I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship …’

Yet it’s the story of the one time atheist Anthony Flew who died only last year that is so remarkable. Up until almost the end of his life Flew had been a staunch and vocal atheist having written several books and given numerous lectures on the subject as well as being chair of the British Secular Society for many years. Then in 2007 Flew published what would be his last book titled There is a God which carried the subtitle of How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind. In an interview he said this, SLIDE 14 ‘… with every passing year the more that was discovered about the richness and the inherent intelligence of life the less it seemed likely that a chemical soup could magically generate the genetic code. If Richard Dawkins’ comical efforts in the God Delusion concerning the origin of life being attributed to lucky chance is the best argument that atheism has to offer then the game is over …’

The appendix to Flew’s book includes the transcript of a discussion with NT Wright, the Bishop of Durham, in which Wright challenges Flew to think further. In reality Flew had moved from a position of atheism to a position of theism, the belief in some God rather than no God at all. But, says Wright, the clues in the universe points to a God who is knowable and relational, a God who stepped down into this world in order to restore and re-new His creation, a God who through the person and work of His own Son Jesus Christ brings purpose and life to a world ravaged by sin. Yet whether Anthony Flew reached that point of acceptance before his death only God knows.

And Jesus’ supremacy as the creative channel for His Father’s decision to create the world is nowhere better seen than in the opening chapter of Colossians. It’s another poetic work in fact, a similarly subversive work that sought to challenge the worldview of the culture of the time, that belief that Roman Caesars were gods. Paul sets out the full extent of the power and the majesty of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Let’s finish this morning by reading Paul’s words, inspired as they are by God’s Spirit. These words are a reminder of God’s purpose in creation and of God’s intent to restore His creation back to Himself. They speak of the Servant King and the one who will one day finish the work that was started way back in the beginning of the book of Genesis.

Listen to Paul’s words as we close … SLIDE 15

‘… the Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross …’

Let’s pray

Just recently I was invited to preach on the relationship between science and faith and inevitably in discussions with individuals afterwards I was asked this question … Can I believe in both science and the Bible ?

In reply I gave the short answer to the question, which is yes, as many scientists who are Christians will tell you. However, the longer answer is more complicated ! Whether you think you can believe in both science and the Bible depends upon what you’re expecting to get from each of them. For example, where should we go for answers to questions as diverse as: Where does rain come from ? What is lightening ? Is there a God ?

So let’s start with the Bible. It is an ancient document produced over at least 1,000 years in many diverse settings, as well as being God’s word. The question is: what should we expect from the Bible, and how should we correctly read it ? The key thing is to consider the genre of the thing you are reading; in other words, what type of literature is this ? We all know about genre, but rarely realise it ! We read a letter from our bank manager differently to a letter from a spouse, because they are different genres. In the same way we read the poetry in Psalm 18 vs.2: ‘… the LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer …’, differently to Acts Ch.27 vs.29, ‘… fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight …’. The latter clearly refers to a physical rock which destroys a boat, the former means that God is like a rock to the Psalmist, ie. He is dependable, strong and solid. So genre matters when we read the Bible, otherwise we might mistake what the author was trying to say.

  • the importance of genre …

The genre of a text determines the kind of thing you should look to get from reading it. Let’s look at Genesis Ch.1, for example, which is the narrative of the seven-day creation (it may help you to go and read it before you carry on reading this post). What kind of literature is Genesis Ch.1 ? It’s a narrative, because things happen in it,  and it has some features of poetry as well: repeated phrases (for instance, ‘…and God said …’ and ‘… according to their kind …’, and many others), and a repeated structure in how each day is described. In Genesis Ch.1, many words and phrases are found three, seven or ten times; the introduction contains thirty-five words, earth is mentioned twenty-one times, God is mentioned thirty-five times (interestingly, all multiples of seven). All this suggests that the genre of Genesis Ch.1 is a mix of poetry and narrative, and that the author was very interested in the symbolism of numbers, as well as telling us something about God. Is this the kind of text which you would expect to get scientific information from? As Ernest Lucas says in his book Can we believe Genesis today (IVP, 2005): ‘… the more we look at Genesis Chs.1-3 … the more it becomes clear that the meaning of the passage is essentially theological, not historical or scientific …’ In other words, the point of Genesis Ch.1 is to tell us that God is the Creator of the universe, not exactly how (scientifically) God did it. The main point here is that the Bible is not a scientific document, it’s a theological one. We should go to the Bible to find out about God, not about science.

  • mechanisms and morals …

Now let’s turn to science. What should we expect science to tell us ? The aim of science is to explain how things happen in our world. Science is concerned about mechanisms – how does an earthquake occur for instance, or how does a cell turn cancerous ? Science is limited to studying repeatable, observable and measurable phenomena – and it’s very good at doing it ! However, the study of mechanisms is not all there is to life: we could describe in great scientific detail how butter, flour, sugar and eggs, when combined and heated, make a cake, but it would tell us nothing about what the cake was for – a birthday party, maybe. Similarly, we may think that it’s good to care for the poor and to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves but that’s not a scientific conclusion, it’s a moral one. Science isn’t everything and, more specifically, it certainly can’t tell us whether there is a God or not. God is not a mechanism within the universe, and therefore, quite rightly pure science leaves to one side the question of God and simply gets on with studying things within the world.

  • added meaning …

So science and the Bible are concerned with very different parts of life: science with how this world works, and the Bible with questions of meaning: why are we here ? Is there anything worth living for ? Is there a God ? As a Christian, science for me is about finding out how the world which God made works. Science is thinking God’s thoughts after him, but we cannot even begin to try and answer the question as to whether there is a God or not using science.

So can we believe in science and the Bible ? Yes ! In fact I think we need both. Let me finish with a quote from Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific method, who died in 1626: ‘… let no man think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well-studied in the book of God’s Word [the Bible] or in the book of God’s works [science] …’

Isaiah is the king of the major prophets. His writings are among the most profound of all literature, and his prophecies are the most distinctive in all the Bible. Isaiah was a prophet, a statesman, and an accomplished orator. His ministry was extensive, spanning many years and many topics, and it was far-reaching in its influence. The final forty years of the eighth century BC produced many great men and world leaders, but the greatest of these was the prophet Isaiah. His name means the eternal One is salvation, and he often engages in a play on words using his own name to emphasize the central theme of his ministry: salvation by faith.

The historical background of Isaiah can be found in 2 Kings Chs.15—20 and 2 Chronicles Chs.26—32. The first verse of Isaiah Ch.1 gives us the vital historical information that allows us to pinpoint precisely when the prophet lived, where he lived, and, if we are the least bit familiar with Hebrew history, what the conditions were like while he lived and worked.

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

We know nothing about Isaiah’s father, Amoz, except that Amoz shouldn’t be confused with Amos, the minor prophet. What we do know is that by the time young Isaiah arrived on the scene, Israel had fallen into degenerate times. His arrival on the scene was just as timely and fortuitous as Moses’ many generations earlier. In Acts Ch.7:20, Moses is called no ordinary child and we can say Isaiah was also no ordinary child. In a world that had become so distorted through sinful rebellion, and full of despair and hopelessness, the vision that came to Isaiah came at exactly the right time. God’s time is always the right time and God always has the perfect way of revealing to human beings both their sin and guilt and His compassion and mercy. Both of these aspects of God are revealed in this chapter.

1.  The people’s guilt

With one startling sentence, God charges His people with the sin of rebellion:

I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. (verse 2b)

Even though God was addressing His people only, His message was meant to be heard by both heaven and earth. Here we see God, standing up as it were, stating His case before the whole universe against His stupid and disobedient people. God is calling all creation, terrestrial and celestial, to hear His complaint – His lawsuit.

Isaiah pictures God as a father whose children have snubbed their collective noses at Him and gone their own way and are doing their own thing without regard to what their Father wants. God had nourished them and brought them up out of the wilderness and into the land of privilege and plenty. He had given them everything and more, yet without a moment’s hesitation, as soon as they were able to, these children spurned their heavenly Father, turning against Him.

We as Christians have got to ask ourselves, have we not also been the recipients of tremendous blessings ? Have we also shunned and ignored God, our heavenly Father ?

Let’s think about that as we look at how Israel had rebelled against God.

  • They were inconsiderate my people do not understand (verse 3b)

To be inconsiderate means to be thoughtless and thankless. The house of Israel had become just that toward Jehovah, their owner and provider. It is a terrible thing to become so self-centered that we cease to think about the work of God and stop considering all that He was done and is doing for us.

Think about it; what preoccupies your thought-life during any given day ? Do you reserve thought about God for just before you drop off to sleep at night, before each meal, and a little longer on Sundays ? You may justify that thoughtlessness by saying, God understands I have to work … raise my family … God knows how busy my life is … there are only 24 hours in a day, you know ! The thing God understands is that when you spend 95% of your waking hours thinking about your life and 5% thinking about Him, you’re inconsiderate !

When you start treating God as shabbily as that, you are already on your way to becoming a backslider, whether you know it or not.

  • They left GodThey have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. (verse 4b)

It isn’t much a walk from treating God with contempt and presumption to leaving Him altogether. Their thoughtlessness resulted in a willful, deliberate departure from Jehovah.

When a Christian begins to take God for granted and when he treats God with an arrogant presumption that says , He’ll always be there no matter how I treat Him then pretty soon that Christian slips into a backslidden state. This is an incredibly dangerous position to settle into, for the backslidden state happens so gradually that when one is aware of it, it no longer matters.

  • They became perverseWhy should you be beaten any more ? Why do you persist in rebellion ? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. (verse 5)

From the dictionary : Perverse – obstinate in the wrong; stubborn; intractable; hence, wayward; vexing; contrary.

The people were living in a backslidden state, in a state of perpetual rebellion, and they were suffering terribly on account of a lifestyle that was contrary to God’s will. How that must break God’s heart. Having to chastise His people, yet His people responding with even more rebellion. Here the terrible sadness in these words:

In vain I punished your people; they did not respond to correction. Your sword has devoured your prophets like a ravening lion. (Jeremiah Ch.2:30)

  • They had become totally corruptFrom the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness – only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with olive oil. (verse 6)

This pitiful description of Israel was both real and symbolic. Physically, they were suffering as a result of sin and spiritually they were killing themselves bit by bit. Nothing they did could stop the national hemorrhaging.

What Isaiah’s people didn’t comprehend was that healing only came from God. When people are right with God, spirits are healed, sin is overcome, bodies and minds restored. No pill or treatment or therapy can heal the total person apart from Jesus Christ. He is the Source of life. Therefore to shun Christ is to shun life and prefer death. That is corrupt ! We know how the Lord deals with people like that:

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Matthew Ch.5:13)1.

2.  God’s offer

It all sounds so depressing and hopeless. But we serve a God of hope ! We serve a God who doesn’t give up easily.

Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. (verse 18)

These incredible words contain:

  • a startling revelation

Just when we think there is no hope; when we think we’ve committed the sin that would forever separate us from God, along comes God with this amazing offer. Israel of Isaiah’s day had fallen far but not so far as to be out of God’s reach.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans Ch.5:8)

That’s how God works. He doesn’t wait for us to get right before saving us. While we were at our worst, Christ died for us. Amazing love.

  • a strong invitation … Come now, let us settle the matter … (verse 18a)

God’s call couldn’t have been stronger:

The first thing we need to understand with this statement is that God is pressing His people to make a decision. It’s an invitation, but it is also an ultimatum: repent and be forgiven.

The second thing that strikes us is God’s use of the word us in His call. God recognizes and declares our kinship with Himself. God does not reason with animals. He reasons with people capable of reasoning with Him.

The last thing that should be pointed out is the word settle (or reason as we have it in other versions). It is a legal word that means to decide a case in court. But instead of pronouncing judgment on guilty human beings, our Judge offers us pardon !

How easily it would have been for God to wipe Israel off the map. But He is ever patient, loving, merciful and full of grace. We may be thoughtless, but we are always on God’s mind. God’s invitation is continual; to this day His words resound: Come now, let us settle this matter …

  • a precious promise …  “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (verse 18b)

God condemns sin and sinners, but thank God that’s not the end of the story. Scarlet and crimson were the colours of the robes worn by the princes to whom Isaiah preached. God’s promise was that, even though one’s sins may be as irremovable as the stain of blood, grace could restore purity of character.

God can do that because not only is He the offended One, but He is also the Judge. God’s power is in and behind this great promise; His power can turn the sin-stained, scarlet-dyed clothes that make up our filthy rags into a the white robes of a blood-washed saint !

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (1 John Ch.1:7)

  • a clear condition …  If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” (verses 19, 20)

This is God’s ultimatum. A lot of us wish God had finished speaking at the end of verse 18 ! This condition, or warning, cannot be ignored. That little word if is most important and it makes it plain that God has honoured the soul of man by giving him a part in his own salvation. Man cannot and does not initiate the call to salvation nor can he save himself in any way, but note this: God cannot forgive an unrepentant soul. A sinner must exhibit repentance – God cannot do the repenting. That is man’s responsibility.

Human beings are always given a choice.  In our day, people don’t like to choose; we like others to make the hard choices for us.  But in the Kingdom of God, it all begins with choice.  God chooses us, and we must choose to follow Him.

But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. (Joshua 24:15)

There is a certain poignancy to this book – it is John Stott’s farewell – his final publication. Over the years he has produced dozens of books covering Biblical exposition right through to engagement with all kinds of contemporary issues. His book The Cross of Christ is certainly a contender for the best Christian book I have ever read, and his contributions to the Bible Speaks Today series are amongst the best on offer (Sermon on the Mount, Romans, Acts, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy & Titus, 2 Timothy). He is one of the most widely respected evangelical leaders in the UK, and deservedly so. So when he writes a farewell book, it’s definitely going to be worth paying attention to.

The book is a call for us all to be radical disciples. To be radical is to be deep-rooted and whole-hearted. Stott picks out eight areas to explore in which we can become more committed followers of Jesus.

Our common way of avoiding radical discipleship is to be selective; choosing those areas in which commitment suits us and staying away from those areas in which it will be costly. But because Jesus is Lord, we have no right to pick and choose the areas in which we will submit to his authority.

The first area is non-conformity. Both escapism and conformism are forbidden to the believer. We are called to engage with our culture without compromise. Stott identifies four areas in which we need to refuse to conform: pluralism, ethical relativism, materialism, and narcissism (love of self).

The second area is closely related – Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God. Stott takes us on a Bible-study showing the call to Christlikeness, some specific ways in which we are to be like Christ, and some implications of our Christlikeness. One of the reasons our evangelistic efforts fail is that we don’t look like Christ.

God’s purpose is to make us like Christ, and God’s way is to fill us with his Holy Spirit

The third area is maturity. Stott laments the fact that the modern church can be summed up in the phrase ‘… growth without depth …’. He draws on Colossians Ch.1 vs.28-29 to bring out some aspects of maturity. In particular, we need a fresh vision of Christ, from the pages of Scripture. We must look for Christ as we read the Scriptures, in order to love, trust and obey him, ‘… ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ …’

A fourth area is creation care. The simple fact that this chapter is here shows Stott’s commitment to applying Scripture to contemporary issues. He starts by building a biblical case for our responsible stewardship of the earth, avoiding the two extremes of deification of nature and exploitation of nature. He commends the work of Tearfund and A Rocha, and calls us to be deeply committed to care for the creation.

He quotes Chris Wright and says, ‘… it seems quite inexplicable to me that there are some Christians who claim to love and worship God, to be disciples of Jesus, and yet have no concern for the earth that bears his stamp of ownership. They do not care about the abuse of the earth and indeed, by their wasteful and over-consumptive lifestyles, they collude in it …’

A fifth area is simplicity. John Stott speaks from a position of integrity on this subject, since his book sales and speaking engagements could have made him a millionaire, yet he practices what he preaches, giving all his book royalties towards the work of providing books for believers and pastors in poorer countries. He feels grieved that the International Consultation on Simple Lifestyle which took place in March 1980 received very little attention, and this chapter is simply given to republish their statement (which he co-wrote with Ron Sider). This is a very challenging chapter, and one that exposes deep-seated idols that we are reluctant to part with.

The sixth area is balance. In this chapter Stott expounds 1 Peter Ch.2 vs.1-17 and brings out three areas to hold in balance:

  • Both individual discipleship and corporate fellowship
  • Both worship and work
  • Both pilgrimage and citizenship

The seventh area is dependence. He movingly speaks of his experiences of growing increasingly frail and weak. Humiliation is the road to humility. He notes that we start and end our lives completely dependent on others. We are not designed to be independent from one another. ‘… you are designed to be a burden to me and I am designed to be a burden to you … Christ himself takes on the dignity of dependence. He is born a baby, totally dependent on the care of his mother. He needs to be fed, he needs his bottom to be wiped, he needs to be propped up when he rolls over. And yet he never loses his divine dignity. And at the end, on the cross, he again becomes totally dependent, limbs pierced and stretched, unable to move. So in the person of Christ we learn that dependence does not and cannot, deprive a person of their dignity, of their supreme worth. And if dependence was appropriate for the God of the universe, it is certainly appropriate for us …’

The final chapter deals with death. In it he explores from several angles the paradox of Christianity that death is the road to life. Our disicipleship involves a death to self. Our mission leads to the cross. He speaks of persecution and martyrdom, before moving finally to consider our mortality, and how death has been robbed of its horrors for the Christian.

Basic to all discipleship is our resolve not only to address Jesus with polite titles, but to follow his teaching and obey his commands.

In conclusion, this is a book you will want to read if you have had any contact with John Stott’s teaching ministry before. Though he is far too humble to say it about himself, it comes from a man who has fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith (2 Timothy Ch.4 vs.7). He has not asked us to do anything that he has not modelled first in his own life. It is a fitting farewell from a remarkable servant of God and I pray that his vision of radical discipleship will be fully embraced by the next generation.