Bible Study for Wednesday 12th August
Practical Paul Study 6: Christian maturity 101
Galatians 2:15-21; 5:16-26
The passage in Galatians 2 is concerned with the start of the Christian journey. The passage in chapter 5 speaks about the way Christians grow towards maturity.
2:16 This verse contains the central statement in the first passage. The word “justification” comes from the legal sphere and is the opposite of being found guilty. Our sin separates us from God. No-one can procure a “not guilty” verdict before God by simply trying hard enough. We can only be justified (found not guilty) by excepting salvation as a free gift by faith in Jesus Christ. This is the only way we can enter the Christian life.
2:17-18 Paul counters the argument that, if justification is to be gained by merely accepting the gift in faith, Christians would simply stop trying to live better lives and regress into sin. That would make Christ the author of sin. He first gives a resounding “No!” to this view and also to the thought of resuming the effort to live a sinless life by willpower after receiving salvation by faith.
2:19-21 Paul paints a completely different picture of the life of a Christian. Before accepting the grace of Christ, we were slaves to the law. We had no freedom. Now we are in union with Christ and our lives and that of Christ is intertwined in such a fashion that Christian living becomes a free choice.
5:16 This verse contains the main statement of the passage. All that follows elaborates on what Paul says here. The Christian life is portrayed as a battle between “the flesh” and “the Spirit”. “The flesh” is our worst selves, that part of us that provides entry for temptations and produces thoughts and acts not in accordance to God’s will. The Spirit is the Holy Spirit that becomes part of our lives and is present to continuously lead us deeper into mature and holy Christian living.
5:16, 18, 25 To be “led by the Spirit” (verse 18) is the way we live the Christian life in a passive sense. We allow the Spirit to take charge of our lives. To “live by the Spirit” (literally: to walk by the Spirit), in verses 16 and 25, is to actively follow the guidance of the Spirit. In practical Christian living both these passive and active aspects are vitally important.
How much of living Christian living is effort and how much is trusting God to shape and guide us? It should be obvious that it is both. We all know that we often fail though trying our best to live up to the standards we are set in the Bible. None of us doubt that we need God’s help if we are to live the Christian life in full. There is an old Russian proverb that comes to mind. It invites you to imagine a rowboat in a storm and advises us: “Pray for all you are worth, but never stop rowing!”
This still leaves us with a problem: How much of Christian living is up to my effort and how much does God provide? Is it take an equal amount of effort and trust? Or does God provide as much as I am unable to attain through my own efforts? In fact, both my total and sustained effort and God’s provision are both essential to Christian living. There is one proviso, though: The initiative is always with Christ. Our effort is a response to the grace of God. In the Reformed tradition we have learned to speak of it as a life of gratitude. The key to this is our relationship with Christ – a relationship so real and life-changing that it impacts all we do and think.
Let’s first take a step back before focusing on Christian maturity. Let us first pay attention to Christian foundations. How does the Christian life start? The continuation to maturity can obviously not be at odds with the way it started.
In the passage we read in chapter 2, Paul compares two approaches to get into God’s favour – which is to say, the way to start the Christian journey. The first approach is to assume that we become Christians by cleaning up our act – by being good enough to win God’s favour. This approach is popular, because it is flattering to imagine that we could earn God’s favour by simply pulling up our socks a little bit, by just a little bit more polish. John Stott calls this “the biggest lie by the biggest liar the world has ever known”. We should know from experience that we can only ever attain this in a superficial and external way – as the Pharisees did. The main point in the whole letter to the Galatians is to free them of this lie and to point towards a better approach: Justification by faith in Christ.
Christian life starts by entering into a relationship with Christ – a relationship so intimate that it is alluded to as union with Christ. This is true from its very inception and continues to be the central truth of all of Christian life.
When I was a student at Stellenbosch University a little book with the title “Mister God, this is Anna” was very popular. It was the simple story of Fynn and his mother taking in a little girl they found on the street that had obviously been mistreated. The little girl (Anna) has a very special relationship with God (“Mister God”, in Anna’s way of speaking). One day she potters around in Fynn’s workshop while he is fixing something and comes across two metal rings inserted in one another. She is fascinated by them and, after studying them for some time, she says: “You know, Fynn, this is what me and Mister God are like; he goes right through the middle of me and I go right through the middle of him.” Union with Christ. Explained by a child.
This, according to Paul, is the true source of Christian living: Christ who lives in me. His death on the cross becomes, in a very real sense, the penalty paid for my sin. His resurrection becomes, in a very real sense, the energy I receive for a new life. Now we are ready to bear fruit – the fruit of the Spirit. We should not think of ourselves as puppets without will or personality and the Spirit as the puppet-master. He does not move us as a hand in a glove-puppet. No, indeed, he moves us as we are moved by music, but love. Our will becomes fused to the will of God. Our lives display the goodness of God towards all who cross our paths.
This is a deeper transformation than the kind we could produce by our efforts to simply stick to the rules. Its source is the life of Christ, induced by the Holy Spirit. Imagine: every stirring to do something good, to resist temptation, to serve others is the life of Christ, the energy of our beloved Lord stirring inside my body and mind! He evokes new desires in me: for holiness, for wholeness, for God, for service.
In practice it means that we give it our all, while trusting God completely. Are we going to fail at times? Certainly! But we should not be discouraged. The longer we travel on the road of Christian living with Christ, the deeper these patterns will become ingrained, and the more natural and nuanced our responses to God’s overpowering grace.
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
Take the two lists in Galatians 5 one by one:
- Which of the items in the list of the works of the flesh had previously been part of your life but, over time, have lost their hold on your life? Take time to thank God for releasing you from them.
- Which of the items in the list of the fruit of the spirit have grown in your life over time? Take time to thank God for making this a reality.
- Find one item in the list of the fruit of the spirit where you would like to grow. Think about ways in which this would enrich your life and those of other people in you circle. Then, pray for the Spirit to help you produce this fruit and start purposefully living in these ways.
Celebrate the guidance of God by praying Psalm 119:105-112 slowly and thoughtfully, adding some of your own thoughts to verses that strike you most.
Bible Study for Wednesday 5th August
Practical Paul Study 5: Relationships 101
5:21 Verse 21 is the point Paul is trying to make in all that follows – the golden rule for family life. It is a summary of all he has to say about relationships in the family – including the slaves that were part of families at the time. All of us, without exceptions, are to subject ourselves to one another. This should be done out of reverence for Christ and not merely as duty or out of fear.
5:22-33 Wives are encouraged to subject themselves to their husbands, but in terms of what was said in verse 21 – as a sign of reverence to Christ. Husbands are told to love their wives by doing all in their power to enrich their lives and to build them up as human beings. It is therefore not a matter of one person ruling over the other, but of two persons fully focused on the well-being of the other. This was a major shift in the way marriages were perceived and conducted at the time. The pater familias (man of the family) had virtually unchecked power and was expected to enforce his will on all in the family. He was also the only person with legal status in society. Wives were viewed as their husbands’ property and were there merely to fulfil their duties, of which providing an heir was deemed important. Marital fidelity was not expected from husbands and sexual licentiousness was the norm. Husbands could (and often did) exact cruel punishments on their wives for insignificant transgressions.
6:1-4 Children were not held in any regard at the time. Unwanted children were often killed and children as a whole were treated with disdain. Cruel punishments (even the death penalty!) could be meted out by the pater familias and was seen as his right and duty. Obedience was mostly out of fear. Paul changes all of this by encouraging children to be obedient “in the Lord” and by curbing the excesses of fathers. Their discipline and instruction should be reasonable and done “in the Lord” – which is to say in reverence for Christ. Again, we find reciprocal subjection the rule to follow.
6:5-9 Slaves were part of households in the Greco-Roman world. Businesses were run as cottage industries and were part of home life. In cities the ground floor was normally the shop, with sleeping quarters above. (The Greek word for a household was oikonomos – clearly the word from which our word “economy” comes.) Slaves provided labour for businesses and in the fields (if there were any), and did household chores. Paul’s injunctions for slaves are a seismic departure from the way slavery was viewed at the time. Owners of slaves had absolute control of slaves and there was no protection for slaves. They basically had no rights. Yet Paul depicts them as “slaves of Christ” that serve their masters as obedience to Christ. Reminding masters that they are on equal footing before God with their slaves is a revolutionary thought for the time.
I have a friend who is a retired professor in Theology at the Lutheran seminary in St Paul, Minnesota. He also taught constitutional law to post-graduates at the University of Minnesota. He had a unique way of starting his course in constitutional law with the first-year students. My friend would start them off by saying that when studying the American constitution in the coming year they had to be aware of a flaw that runs like a crack through the whole document. “We cannot eliminate the flaw,” he would say, “but if we are aware of it, we can limit the damage it does. The flaw is this: The United States of America was instituted by people who had left Europe where kings and queens ruled and, after winning their liberty from the British monarch, wanted never to be ruled over by a king or queen again. And so, they wrote a constitution that saw to it that henceforth every citizen would be a king or queen. They would be ruled over by someone they had decided upon to be the king (or queen) over the other kings and queens, but only for a limited time – and a time that could be curtailed if he or she lorded it too much over them.”
My friend would then read them the passage in the second chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians where Paul pleads with them for unity in the church by pointing to the example of Christ: “Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something determined to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…” (Philippians 2:5-7). What Paul was suggesting for the Philippians was, following the example of Christ, to become a society where every person was the other’s servant!
“Now,” my friend would say, “be honest. In which kind of society would you prefer to live? In one where every person is a king or queen, or in a society where every person is the other’s servant?”
Paul does much the same thing in Ephesians when he speaks about the way a household should run. In Ephesians 5:21 he writes, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This is the thrust of all that follows in the passage we have read: Wives and husbands. Children and parents. Slaves and owners. No-one gets to lord it over anyone else. The church of Christ is an alternative society – one in which we are all one another’s servants.
We in the Western world in the 21st century have little idea how radical Paul’s injunctions were in the cultural world where they were uttered. Women had no social standing in society – neither in Jewish, Greek nor Roman society. Marriage was not seen as a curb on sexual licence. Divorce, unreasonable demands, harsh punishments and even murder was hardly frowned upon. The pater familias (the man who was head of the household) had power over women, children and slaves that we would balk at. Children were not held in any esteem and were ruled over as long as their parents (and especially their fathers) lived. Unwelcome births were summarily disposed of and cruelty to children was common. Slaves were not only taken from far off lands, but debt could land you in slavery in your own country. Slaves had no rights and were hardly viewed as human by most of their owners. The fact that the pater familias was the only person with legal standing in civil society made him indispensable for all in the family and served to cement his rule.
Now, notice what Paul does. He starts each section by addressing the group that were expected to be servile to the pater familias: wives, children, slaves. His first word to each of these groups sounds as if he will now support the power given to the pater familias by society: Wifes should subject themselves, children and slaves should obey. But then he explodes the impression by adding the reason for doing so: It should be done as service to Christ and not out of fear or a sense of civil duty. And then he turns to those in power – husbands, parents and masters – and finally demolishes the Greco-Roman system by calling upon them to imitate Christ, the one who gave himself to us in humility, even to the extreme of allowing himself to be crucified. This should be done by subjecting themselves to their wives, their children, and their slaves. They are to seek the advantage of others, even if it means disadvantaging themselves. This does not in any way eliminate roles of leadership in the household, nor does it lead to permissive parenthood or slackness in the workplace. It does, however, cut deep into the basic attitude towards one another by all parties. It turns us into a society where we seek the good for one another.
The fact that modern society has softened our attitudes in all these spheres of domestic life is a direct result of Christian mores over many centuries. Yet it should not allow us to think we have arrived at Paul’s new society. We should constantly ask ourselves if our way of interacting with our families emanates from a deep concern for the well-being of the other persons. No two marriages are exactly alike, and parenthood has no single workable recipe. Even individual children in one family need to be treated differently. Labour relations are complex. Yet Paul’s guidance is clear: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
We will need to be creative to find the exact way to do it in our unique circumstances. The question to ask is not “Who’s the boss?” Dominance is out of place in Christian families and workplaces. Initiative and leadership, though, is not. The question to ask persistently is, “Am we serving one another? Are we living for one another’s advantage?”
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- Consider your relationships with family members: In which ways do you serve and benefit them? How could you do this even better?
- Consider your relationships with people who provide services for you in your home and elsewhere: In which ways do you serve and benefit them? How could you do this even better?
Celebrate the guidance of God by praying Psalm 119:65-72 slowly and thoughtfully, adding some of your own thoughts to verses that strike you most.
Bible Study for Wednesday 29th July 2020
Practical Paul Study 4: Christian ethics 101
Ephesians 4:1; 4:17-5:2
4: 1-2 For Paul, ethics is not simply about rules. It is about living a life worthy of your calling. He reminds the Ephesians that they are called by God to be and do certain things. To effectively answer their calling, they are urged to lead a life worthy of God’s call. The two aspects of such a life is Christian unity (verses 3 to 16) and holiness (4:17-5:5).
Verse 17-19 In these verses Paul contrasts the lives of Christians with those of pagans, as they themselves previously were. The origin of their condition of being “alienated from the life of God” is their “hardness of heart” (v 18). By this Paul refers to their obstinate rejection of God’s known truth. From this starting point there is a logical trajectory to darkness of understanding, then to deadness of soul and, eventually recklessness of life.
Verse 20-24 Now he turns to the Christian life. It has a very different starting point and, therefore, develops on a radically different trajectory: It starts by “learning Christ” – not merely “learning about Christ.” The verb is the same one that is at the core of the Greek word for a disciple. Learning Christ is following him and being taught by him like the first disciples. It is more than intellectual assent, since there are the term has very strong relational dimensions. “Getting to know Christ” comes quite near to this meaning. The same goes for verse 21, where “heard about him” could be better translated simply as “heard him”. “Taught in Him” also intends to convey a personal learning process; one in which our Lord is personally involved in our development as Christians.
In contrasting the two ways of living, Paul does not mean to say that all unbelievers’ lives turn to evil and all Christians’ lives sparkle with holiness. He is spelling out the likeliest trajectories that logic dictates. We still need to be reminded that we have to rid ourselves of all vestiges of this old way of life and to clothe ourselves with the new self that was given when we committed ourselves to God as his children and followers.
Verse 25-5:2 Here we see Paul being very practical. Note that all his injunctions are deeply relational. Only by living holy lives in the most practical ways can the unity he pleads for in the previous section of his letter be attained.
Verse 26 Verse 26 seems to contradict verse 31. Anger is permitted, though restricted in this verse, while it is forbidden in verse 31. It seems that there are two kinds of anger: righteous anger and unrighteous anger. Blatant evil should call forth anger (note God’s anger in 5:6!), but we are cautioned not to allow it to take over our lives. This is what verse 26 advocates. But anger should not be a persistent state for a Christian. Hence verse 31.
Verse 30 “…do not grieve the Holy Spirit.” What grieves the Holy Spirit? Obviously, unholiness and disunity – the opposites of the unity and holiness that is worthy of our calling.
5:1-2 In these verses we are given a summary description of a life worthy of our calling. We are to imitate God – and specifically Christ’s self-sacrificial love.
It almost sounds as if Paul is saying that all unbelievers are awful people and that all Christians are good people. We know from experience that this is not true. We all know people who could honestly be described as good people, but are not Christians. And, as we all know, many Christians would need a lot of spit and polish before we could describe them as good people. What Paul is actually saying in this passage is that there are two different processes to becoming either a good or a bad person. And the most important thing about both these processes is the starting point.
Philip Yancey tells the story of a friend who met him in a coffee shop and asked his opinion about a important decision he needed to take. His marriage was not going well and now he was involved in an affair. He was considering leaving his wife for the other woman and wanted to know from Yancey if God would forgive him if he went through with his plans and simply asked for forgiveness afterwards. Yancey answered him very carefully. “Yes,” he said, “God forgives our sins, but that was not all that should be said.” And then he continued to articulate his fears for his friend. If you enter on a path of sin with full knowledge that it is wrong, you put yourself on a slippery slope. It makes a next, similar transgression just that bit easier. And it makes your own willingness to return to God that much harder. “Therefore,” he pleaded with his friend, “do not start out on this road. It takes your further and further away from God. It leads to ruin.” Yancey was warning his friend against striking out on the trajectory of sin.
This is exactly what Paul is speaking about. If you start walking with your back towards God, you start a process that takes you further and further away from him and from the life he gives.
Ah, but there is an opposite road to travel – a road that leads to life and not to ruin. We are to nurture our relationship with God, following Christ, living with our ears close to God’s mouth, daily learning about life from him. And this needs to be more than an inner process. It needs to show in the way we conduct ourselves. It is like taking off the old rotten garments of the life without God bit by bit and replacing them with the magnificent clothes of the life of a child of God.
This process is not accomplished over-night and we do not all start at the same place. CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity, asks why we get Christians that are so hard to get along with, while there are unbelievers who are such nice people. Is this not an argument against the efficacy of the gospel? No, he says, the unpleasant Christian is probably someone who was born with a temperament that is not naturally bent towards friendliness and spontaneity and who was deeply wounded as a child, while the nice unbeliever was endowed with a sunny disposition and natural friendliness. The question we should ask, he says, is not why the unbeliever is such a nice person, but how he would have been if he were also a Christian. Likewise, we should not merely ask why the Christian is not a better person, but rather how much less Christ-like this person would have been without God’s love.
We all have a road to travel to Christlikeness. None of us has reached the end of it. Some of us have a longer road than others, but we travel this road with the full assurance that we are accompanied by the risen Lord Jesus himself and that He will not leave our side until his work is completed.
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- Give some thought to the way God has shaped you over the years. Can you name at least one practical aspect of your life where you have grown?
- Give some thought to the future journey with God. Can you name at least one aspect of your life where you would like to grow?
Celebrate the guidance of God by praying Psalm 119:57-64 slowly and thoughtfully, adding some of your own thoughts to verses that strike you most.
Bible Study for Wednesday 22nd July
Practical Paul Study 3: Scruples 101
1 Cor 1:22-23; 8:1-13
1: 22-23 You can sum up the theology behind all that Paul says in this letter in two words: “Christ crucified.” For Jewish people in Corinth a crucified Christ was a sign of weakness. They would have preferred a strong and conquering leader as a Messiah – preferably a miracle maker. For the Greeks this was too unsophisticated. They would have preferred a convincing new philosopher with theories by the dozen. Yet, Paul insists on using the image of Christ on the cross to provide wisdom for the solution of a number of very practical solutions the Corinthians had questioned him about.
8:1 The situation Paul is speaking to, was a common one the church faced in the Greek-Roman world of the time. All the major cities in Paul’s day were littered with temples to the gods. The larger temples had inner courts where meat could be bought at cheap prices and eaten on the premises. The catch was that this meat had been offered to the gods of the temples and participation in the meal perceived to honour them. Some of the early church’s adherents had recently been converted from these religions and had powerful associations with this practice. Other members of the first faith communities could shrug this off in the firm conviction that the gods were, in fact non-existent. They participated freely in these meals and caused consternation among the Christians whose faith was still weak in this matter.
8:7 “…their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” Paul uses the language of purity/impurity from the Old Testament, but applies it in a surprising fashion. Defilement, in Jewish tradition, was ascribed to physical bodies and objects. Here Paul applies it to consciences – to be exact, to weak consciences. This is a beautiful description of scruples with no real base.
8:9-12 Up until this point, after the first three verses, Paul has been squarely in support of the inescapable truth that meat offered to idols can be eaten with no qualms. Now he returns to his initial statement about love building up, while knowledge (without love) leads to arrogance. Instead of commending the meat-eaters for their superior theology, he cautions them that the liberty their insights has given them, could cause the weak in conscience among them to stumble. This is a very practical concern. Paul is always concerned with right teaching but displays equal concern with right living. Right living, for him, is not merely ‘sticking to the rules’, but allowing the image of our Lord expressing his love for us on the cross to shape the way we conduct ourselves. In a telling statement in verse 13 that imitates Christ on the cross he resolves to rather give up his freedom than to cause a brother or sister to fall.
Christians do not always agree. That is plain to see. Some of our disagreements are about practical Christian living. And this is where the subject of scruples becomes important. Scruples are burdens on a person’s conscience imposed by herself/himself. They are practices that are not sinful of themselves, but are judged to be morally wrong by an individual or group. We seem to have much fewer scruples about now than in the past. I can still remember very strict views on the sabbath, proper dress codes and the like from my childhood days. Nowadays the wind seems to be blowing in the opposite direction; anything smacking of strict adherence to ethical and moral standards is frowned upon as prudishness or excessive puritanical zeal.
Neither of these approaches seem to help us towards proper Christian daily living. This where our passage becomes very important. Paul’s approach to scruples seems to be the only proper way to steer out of both excesses. He desists from full endorsement of either of the Corinthian Christians’ positions on the specific issue of eating meat offered to idols, but without liquifying into compromise. He does this by simply staying with his emphasis on Christ crucified and not giving in to either the Jewish or Greek tastes in Messiahs.
A strong Messiah, catering for Jewish taste, would simply have made “might makes right” the way to go. The group who could impose their will on the others by means of numerical superiority, social class, financial contributions, or any other measure, could impose their opinion on the others as “the truth.” As we all know, this never ends well. The history of the church is littered with schisms and disgruntled individuals leaving the fold rather than succumbing to being bullied.
On the other hand, a Messiah who emulated the famous Greek philosophers of Greek history would have led to a situation where the case would be argued along rational lines and the most convincing side would win the argument and shut the opposing opinion down. Paul refuses to force the correct theology on the scrupulous Christians. He reminds me of a poem by CS Lewis called “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer”:
From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.
In one of his poems GK Chesterton says it very succinctly: “Take not thy thunder from us, Lord, but take away our pride.”
Neither of these approaches are Christian. The route the Crucified Christ would have us take is one of service to our fellow-believers and love for our enemies – which, sadly, is often what adversaries in the church become to one another. Yet, one should not mistake this for a permissive attitude towards truth. Paul never lets go of the truth. Simultaneously, he never lets go of his brothers and sisters in the Christ even when it necessitates him to sacrifice some of his freedoms. When differences in opinion on Christian living arise among us, let us travel the route of love that builds up, without losing our passion for truth in the matter. Loving conversations, seeking the truth and respectful accommodation of one another is the sign of a community following Christ crucified.
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- Which scruples are not shared by all the members in our church?
- Where do you find yourself in these matters?
- How can we address these matters without sacrificing truth or the unity of the church?
Celebrate the guidance of God by praying Psalm 119:41-48 slowly and thoughtfully, adding some of your own thoughts to verses that strike you most.
Bible Study for Wednesday 15th July
Practical Paul Study 2: Community building 101
Romans 12:1-2; 9-21
Verse 1-2 is not only the introduction to verses 3 to 8, but to the whole of what follows. Everything Paul encourages us to do is thereby depicted as practical responses to the mercies of God and not as attempts to be good enough to earn the mercies of God.
Verse 9 is the statement from which all that follows flows. Practical love is unpacked in a practical way in the verses that follow and is put forward as the antidote to evil.
Verse 10-12 emphasize the kinds of persons Christians are to be; none of them specifies what we are to do. Of course, this assumes that we are doing a lot of things in the community.
Verse 13-21 tells us what to do and what not to do. Our deeds should pass God’s love for us on to others within and outside the faith community in a variety of practical ways.
Verse 14 Note that Paul echoes Jesus’ in Matthew 5:44-45 by going beyond both nonresistance and nonretaliation to persecutors. Jesus’s maxim asks us to love our enemies and pray for them. Paul ask us to bless them and not to curse them. Verse 19-21 elaborates further on this theme.
There are so many different admonitions in the brief space of 13 verses that it is hard to keep up with Paul’s train of thought. It seems like Paul is presenting us with a random selection of disparate thoughts here. This impression changes once we realise that all of it flows from the first, very simple injunction: “Let your love be genuine…” What follows might sound haphazard, but there is actually only one theme. “Let your love be genuine…” Paul gives us a lengthy list of concrete ways in which to respond to God’s love for us by loving others. Responding to God’s love is all about relationships, about love. Paul’s injunctions that follow his initial call to let your love be genuine tells us how to love different groups of people: the poor, outsiders, fellow believers, enemies, the suffering. These are no more than examples, since opportunities to extend God’s love to others crop up all the time in all kinds of different ways. When Christians do this, a new kind of community starts to emerge around them – first the church and then even wider in the places where God has planted them.
What Paul does in this passage is to save us from the damaging notion that love is merely some warm fuzzy feeling towards others. Love is meaningless if it is not expressed in practical ways. The shape love takes is determined by the person in need and the situation in which it is to be expressed. In the church this is done in a context of mutual affection, where we honour one another without reserve (verse 10). The previous verses described the humble service we provide for one another by putting our gifts to use. Here Paul urges us to make the church a haven of acceptance and encouragement in a world where a competitive spirit reigns and where we feel the constant need to be on our guard to avoid slights and put-downs. After verse 12 the scope broadens. The physical needs of both fellow believers and strangers should be tended to (verse 13). Our love should even extend to our enemies where we respond to persecution and animosity by blessing and forgiving our enemies (verses 14, 17 and 19) and even by caring for them when they are in need (verse 20).
Some of these commands will be easy for you to keep, while some will be difficult. It will not be the same for everyone. Paul is concerned that our response to the mercies of God should be as wholehearted as God’s love for us was revealed to be at the cross. Jesus gave his all for us. Our self-giving to others can be no less.
I find verse 21 very encouraging. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This is precisely what God is already doing. Practicing this kind of genuine practical love is to join God in overcoming evil in the world. Paul points out the only way for the world to become a better place. God grants us the honour of participating in his wonderful healing work in a world in such dire need for it. When we do this, we receive the full extent of God’s healing work ourselves.
The kingdom of God does not come by grand gestures – though they have their place. It comes by thousands and thousands of small daily acts of love. This is how evil is overcome by the children of God.
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- Which of the injunctions in this passage would be most difficult for you?
- Why is this so?
- Think of a concrete act of obedience to one of these injunctions that you could do this coming week. How would this make the world a better place – even in a small way?
Celebrate the guidance of God by praying Psalm 119:33-40 slowly and thoughtfully, adding some of your own thoughts to verses that strike you most.
Practical Paul Study 1: Church 101
Verse 1-2 is a verse that connects the unusually long and detailed doctrinal part of the letter to the encouragement towards practical Christian living that starts at Romans 12:3. (Note the word “therefore” in verse 1, that refers back to the first eleven chapters.) From here on Paul launches into explicit advice on practical living. He depicts this as a response to “the mercies” of God – as described in detail in the preceding chapters. In short, this refers to the fact that God loved and saved us while we were still undeserving sinners (Romans 5:8). We respond to this by presenting our whole physical existence (“your bodies”) to God as a sacrifice. Three words describe how this is done: Our lives are “living” sacrifices – an ongoing steady commitment. Our lives are “holy” sacrifices – not in the sense of being morally perfect, but in the sense of being dedicated to God, belonging to God in the fullest sense. Our lives are “acceptable” sacrifices – not in the sense of meeting the minimum requirements, but in the sense of pleasing God.
Note the start of this passage: “I appeal to you…” This is a very strong word and demonstrates the importance practical Christian living has for Paul. Christian practice is not an afterthought. Paul pleads with them to put the gospel into practice in the strongest language he has to his disposal.
It is striking that this responsive living is called “worship”. Worship is not only what we do on Sunday mornings in church. It is what we do with our lives seven days a week! It is also our “reasonable” worship (as the Greek word logikos is mostly translated instead of “spiritual”). What Paul is saying here is that, in the light of God’s amazing mercy and goodness towards us, the only thing that makes sense (that is logikos/logical) is dedicating your whole life to God. Anything else would not make sense.
Of course, this is only done imperfectly when we strike out on our journey with God. In verse 2 this is depicted as a process of transformation in which the way we grow in the responsiveness of our lives to the mercies of God. We become less and less influenced by the sinful ways of the world and become more and more focused on doing the will of God.
Verse 3-5 The section from verse 3 to 8 is concerned with our response to God as part of the church. We do not live our Christian lives in isolation, but as part of a community of faith. Our impact on the world is measured first of all by the way we can demonstrate community life. The section starts with Paul’s exhortation to humility. Without humility no community life is possible.
The reason for this is simple: God allots gifts, roles, and functions in the church. The “measure of faith” that God assigns is not meant to convey that God gives some of us more faith than others. The idea here is to present faith as trust in God and specifically to trust God for inserting you in your proper place in the church. The church is a mutually beneficial community where we serve one another with our gifts. For this to occur, we need to appropriate the gifts God grants us with humility, as service to others and not for applause. We are like a human body, where each of us has a unique and essential role to play. There is no rank of gifts, since they are all necessary for the well-being of the body of Christ.
Verse 6-8 Paul describes how we are to respond to God’s grace by providing seven examples of gifts in the church. He is urging that each gift is used in keeping with its nature. The list of gifts is not exhaustive. Many other gifts are named in other letters to other congregations. Christians serving according to their gifts shape and empower the church, but they also shape the world we live in.
Verse 6 When Paul speaks of “prophecy” he is not referring to an ability to foresee the future, but to the gift of explicating the faith in preaching and teaching.
Verse 7 “Ministry” (Greek: diakonia) could be translated as “service” and should not be seen as the work of a minister of religion, but as service in the broadest sense: anything from washing dishes to leadership, if it is done as a response to the mercies of God.
I once heard someone described as “a good person in the worst possible sense of the word.” Ouch! Christian service if done from my own need to be needed or my desire for acclaim is not what Paul is propagating. This can take quite unattractive forms. This is true not only in the letter to the Romans, but in all his letters. He takes care to always start by giving us a glimpse of the glorious love and grace of God before going on to practical advice for Christian living. But (and this is important!) he never stops there. Paul’s understanding of faith is that it does not only discern God, but that it jumps to its feet whenever it encounters God and responds in words and in deeds. Paul is practical, but his practicality is more than mere legalism (of which he was stripped on the road to Damascus) or duty. Mere assent to the gospel is incomplete if it does not flower into Christian living.
We have developed a language for this in the Christian tradition. We have come to the insight that every Christian is called to a vocation. This calling is a wonderful thing. We are called to do what we most desire to do and are best at doing. Frederick Buechner says it beautifully: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This place might be inside or outside the church, as part of the church’s commitment to God’s world.
The trick seems to be to match my gifts with the needs of the church and the world. It is important to know here that the list of gifts Paul provides us with does not cover all the gifts that God bestows. There are a number of lists in the letters of Paul and they all differ in the kinds of gifts put forward. The reason for this is simple: God provides what is necessary in each congregation and in each setting in the world. Since the needs in congregations differ and since locations differ, the gifts that emerge would also be different from each other. A gift for computer technology would be out of place in ancient Rome, but extremely helpful in modern Edinburgh. The point Paul makes here is that every Christian is gifted in some way or another. All of us are equipped with the abilities and energy for certain tasks that is vitally important somewhere. Discovering this match and serving according to your gifts is a wonderful and rewarding way of responding to God’s grace. It not only benefits the people you are serving but fills your own existence with meaning and joy. Only then can you truly say that you are living in touch with the fullness of God and of your humanity.
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- What help does Paul provide for Christians who find it hard to persevere with a committed Christian life when he depicts our lives as a response to God’s mercies (verse 1)?
- What would your response be to a person who finds it unnecessary to make any life-changes, but views worship on Sundays as sufficient? (See verse 1.)
- What practical advice would you give to someone who struggles to motivate herself/himself to make the hard choices necessary for Christian practice? (See verse 2.)
- Paul starts his discussion of the way a church fits together with a call to humility (verse 3). Why is this an important point of departure?
- Which of the gifts that Paul lists in verses 6 to 8 are present in our congregation? (Think of persons who practice these gifts.) Can you name a few gifts that are important for our congregation, but not mentioned in Paul’s list?
Celebrate the guidance of God by praying Psalm 119:1-8 slowly and thoughtfully, adding some of your own thoughts to verses that strike you most.
Practical Paul – An introduction
St Paul was a very practical man. He was steeped in the Jewish tradition the study and application of the law. In fact, he had been trained by Gamliel the elder, one of the most famous teachers of Jewish law in his time and son of the famous rabbi Hillel. You do not get more practical than that!
The problem with such an exclusive focus on the law is that it could make you lose the essence of the Jewish/Christian religion – the fact that it was to its core relational. In the first instance, a relation with God, initiated by God and mirrored by his people. The law describes a way of life in accordance with the way God acts. To be law-abiding is not driven by the desire for a good reputation or by fear of punishment. It is a loving response to God. It is a very practical way of telling God, “Lord, I love you too!”
In the second instance the law is utterly relational by opening us up to one another. Jesus sums up the intention at the heard of the law by adding the injunction of loving our neighbour to loving the Lord our God.
Both these perspectives have massive implications for the way we interpret the specifics of the law. Paul’s earlier interpretation of the law was rigid and literal, to such an extent that the God-centred and neighbour-centred intent of the law got lost. After his encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus this changed dramatically. From then on, he was no less serious about the law, but made it a habit, before getting into practical specifics, to first focus on who Jesus Christ was and what God’s plan of salvation for us is. This is what we are to respond to in practical Christian living. If you get this wrong, you will certainly get Christian living wrong. If you get this right, your response will reflect the glory of God and be appropriate to the challenges of our particular context. A rigid and angry God would saddle us with a rigid one-size-fits-all system of laws. A sentimental and permissive God would allow us to live as we see fit. The crucified Lord gifts us with the clue to respond to God and also to the needs of our world in ways that emanate from the grace-filled heart of God.
This explains why all of Paul’s letters display a distinct structure: The first part of each letter focused on what God had done for us and who our Saviour is. The second part of each letter gets down to practical Christian living as a response to what God has done for us. By starting with God’s love and grace-filled intervention in our lives, Paul gets Christian living right. He is prevented from making the same mistakes he made as a Pharisee and becomes the pre-eminent guide to practical Christianity.
In this series of Bible studies, we will focus on six passages that speak about Christian practice, but we will start each study by first focusing on what Paul had said about God’s initiative for our salvation. This should help us to get things straight when we head out to live the Christian life.
Romans 12:1-8 Church 101
Romans 12:1-2; 9-21 Community building 101
1 Cor 1:22-23; 8:1-13 Scruples 101
Ephesians 4:1; 4:17-5:1 Christian ethics 101
Ephesians 5:21-6:9 Christian relationships 101
Galatians 2:16-20; 5:16-25 Christian maturity 101
Study for Wednesday 1st July
Study 6: Psalm 147 – Praying our joy
Verse 1 An important word in this verse is the word “for”. The psalms of praise call us to sing praises to God and then gives us the ample reasons for doing this; they tell us who God is and what he has done and continues to do. The rest of the psalm unfolds from this point on. We have ample reason to sing God’s praises. Once you have said “for…” you can continue for a very long time!
Verse 2-3 The psalm is composed during the restoration years after the exile when Jerusalem had to be rebuilt and fortified and farming had to be restarted. (See also verses 13-14.)
Verse 2-6 Notice how the psalm combines God’s concern for his people with his concern for the world at large and the cosmos.
Verse 19-20 God who is worthy of all the praise contained in the psalm and much more, is not an aloof and far-off God. He enters into a relationship with his people and provides them with the key to life: his law. This is done to facilitate our flourishing as his people, but as Abraham was blessed to be a blessing for all the nations, so are we blessed to be a blessing. Read in its context in the whole of Scripture this verse should not be seen as a statement about a blessing for God’s people alone. By living according to God’s ordnances, we provide a living example of the life God offers for us as humanity.
I need a psalm like this to detox. Let me explain what I mean by this: As a child I had many heroes. In my eyes they were without flaws. The world, in my eyes, was a wonderful place where you could expect good things if you played by the rules. Much of this was due to a stable and happy home life out in a little farming community, but most of it was pure childhood naivety. As I grew older, I was regularly disappointed by my heroes and learned the hard way not to be so trusting. Of course, you pay a price for this mindset. You become cynical. You lose much of your ability to simply enjoy life, to trust things to turn out well, to be carefree. In the long run this can become toxic. And so, I come to worship services to praise God – the only being that can be praised unreservedly. When I do that some of the cynicism leaks out. I am reaffirmed in the knowledge that there is a God who can be trusted without any doubt, who can be praised without any fear of exaggeration, who will always be more than I can imagine. The feeling it leaves me with is something like, “Ah, fresh air!” I need to do this on a regular basis to quell some of the cynicism that seeps in against my will.
There are five books in the Psalms, each with a similar sounding ending to mark it off from the next book. After the end of the fifth book (Psalm 145), we are given five praise psalms – one for each book, offered as a summary of the whole of the Psalms. Yes, the Psalms are filled with troubles and lament, but it was always heading towards praise. God is good. God is powerful. God’s will shall prevail. And then his people will rejoice. Psalm 147, with the other four, provides us with the means to do this. We are given numerous reasons to praise God, but by the time we reach Psalm 150, it becomes like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture where a full orchestra could not do justice to the music and the help of cannons had to be called in! This is where the Psalms are heading. This is where the life of every child of God is heading. This is where history is heading.
One more remark needs to be made. If this is who God is, then religion is not a private concern, not merely a personal opinion that I should keep for myself. It is about as public as it can be. It concerns the whole earth. The message needs to get out and the church has been given the task. The famous missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin famously said that the gospel can only be understood by the world if there is a church who is living according to it. He spells out a number of characteristics of the kind of church whose existence can make the gospel intelligible to secular society. The first characteristic of such a church is that it is a church that praises God. In a world steeped in deep cynicism, we are the people who have found the one, the only one who can be admired without any reserve. This is bound to draw attention, being so unusual. And this provides the opportunity for others to discover the God who far exceeds any praise we could ever offer. Then they can join us in saying, “Ah, fresh air!”
Psalm 147 begins with praise of praise itself: “Hoe good it is to sing praises to our God…” How good indeed!
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- Make a list of all the attributes of God named in Psalm 147. How would you describe the impression it makes on you to imagine these acts of God?
- Make a list of all the things God is said to do in Psalm 147. How would you describe the impression it makes on you to imagine these acts of God?
- When we imagine Psalm 147 as a psalm composed while rebuilding Jerusalem after the calamity of the exile, we can clearly see that it has something to say for the church. (See verses 2-3 and 13-14.) The past decades have seen the church seemingly losing ground in Scotland and many other parts of the world. How does Psalm 147 speak to this situation.
- We are now approaching the post-covid19 Scotland. How does the psalm inform the way we are to emerge from lockdown and resume life in a world that has suffered so many losses and faces challenges that were absent a mere six months ago?
- What are the implications of verse 20 for us as the church, who are the recipients of this knowledge of God and of his way of life?
If you are able, listen to the beautiful rendition of Psalm 147 from the Scottish Psalter at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LB2efUp33B0. Then, simply pray the Psalm with joy. Where it anticipates the rebuilding of Jerusalem, anticipate the end of the pandemic and the rebuilding of the world as a place that care for us all. Anticipate the flowering of a church dedicated to the honour and praise of God.
Study for Wednesday 24th June
Study 5: Psalm 90 – Praying our fragility
Verse 1-2 is an introduction that reminds of God’s care in the past, coupled to the power and majesty of God.
Verses 3-12 deal with the struggles of the human condition and the transience of human life. It prays for the wisdom to live well under these conditions.
Verses 13-17 prays for God to turn a time of affliction and mourning to one of joy and satisfaction.
Within this simple flow, there are several notable statements:
Verse 1: Two words in this verse deserve our attention. “Lord” is the Hebrew name for God that depicts him as ruler, as mighty over all. This also casts the Israelites as God’s subjects. This name seems to be chosen intentionally as the foundation from which the poet can face up to the frightening fragility of human life. If our God is “Lord”, we are not destitute.
The second word we attend to is “dwelling-place” or “refuge”, as it is sometimes translated. There are two Hebrew words for a house. The most common word (bajit) refers mainly to the structure. The word mahoon has overtones of safety and warmth – something like the connotations we have with the word “home”. Note that the poet (most probably during the Babylonian exile, when they had lost their homes and country) follows Moses who calls God their home!
Verse 11: This verse might sound like a description of a vengeful and angry God, but should be read in light of the whole of the psalm and in the light of the meaning of “fear of the Lord” in the rest of the Bible. “Fear of the Lord” is a description of reference and not fear that God might harm you. God can certainly anger, but this is not capricious anger. It is a response of God’s righteousness, that is often quelled by his grace.
Verse 12: The prayer for God to teach us to count our days to gain a wise heart is a prayer for practical wisdom, wisdom gained from experience that enables one to live better. The prayer asks for insight into the workings of life by understanding the meaning of what we experience. This is more than learning from books or teachers.
Psalm 90 is a prayer that starts with a backward glance and ends by leaning forward, towards the future. Between these two glances it turns to God in the most fragile and helpless frame of mind, praying for wisdom to live life well.
Let us look at the at the backward glance. Psalm 90 is the first psalm of the fourth book of the Psalms and follows on the heels of Psalm 89 – a heart-rending lament for the loss of king, country and – worst of all – the temple. They are in Babylon, far from all the old familiar securities. How do you pray when the rug is pulled from under you? It strikes me that this is a prayer of Moses, not of David. They cast their eyes back to a time when they were equally homeless and vulnerable and then (ah!) then they remember: Moses was there to remind them of the presence and protection of God. So, let us pray a prayer of Moses. In the very first sentence the hopelessness of their troubled situation is given a new perspective: God is addressed as “Lord” – the ruler of all. They are still in a world where God rules! And then the striking acknowledgement, “Lord, you have been our dwelling-place in all generations.” The word translated as “dwelling-place” has all the associations of a home: safety, warmth, comfort. Not Jerusalem, not the temple, not even their own tents or homes; God has always been their refuge. This is true now as it was then.
Praying this prayer reminds us that this is true for every Christian. One only needs a backward glance to be reminded that God has always been there to provide and protect, to save and comfort. We should never lose sight of this.
Once we have regained this perspective, we can look to the future. To be sure, we do not do this from a position of arrogance. We are, indeed, like grass that withers and fades. But God… God is immense in reach and power. The same God who has been our refuge is the one we can turn to in the full confidence that absolutely nothing is beyond his power and wisdom. He can teach us to live our lives with wisdom. He helps us flourish.
Verse 17 ends with the great prayer that our lives may be a manifestation of God’s work on earth, that the work of our hands may prosper. This is a prayer that all of us may pray. Our work, what we do today is not deemed to be inconsequential, no matter how marginal we may be in the eyes of the world. We are allowed to participate in the mighty works of God! Every little thing we do, when done from the desire to serve God’s purposes, becomes the work of God in our world.
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- The psalm starts with the memory of the ways in which God has been a dwelling-place, a refuge, a home. Think back on your own life to specific episodes where this was demonstrated, maybe making a list that you can use for a prayer.
- In verses 3-10 the psalm discusses our mortality, but it does so in the light of God. Compared to God we are dust, a mere dream, withering grass. Yet, inconsequential as we are, we have a long history with God. What difference would it have made to face up to our transience without this knowledge?
- Verses 16 and 17 prays for God’s work and favour to become visible for us and our children. What would you ask for yourself and your family as a sign of God’s work and favour?
- When Christians read Psalm 90, we are reminded of Jesus Christ as God’s answer to the plea in verses 13-17. In which ways did God answer this prayer through Jesus?
Let your thoughts go back to times in which God provided in special ways. Now read the first two verses of the psalm as your response to these memories.
Now turn your thoughts forward – maybe to something quite significant you will be doing in the weeks ahead or just to the normal tasks that will take up your time. Pray the prayer of the last part of verse 17 in you own words about this: “…prosper the work of our hands”. Pray that God will work in this world in these activities.
Study for Wednesday 17th June
Psalm 51 – Praying our failure
Verse 1: The first words of the psalm is the theme throughout: “Have mercy/be gracious…” It is an appeal to the graciousness of God that Israel knew so well as one of God’s great attributes. The psalm is not merely an expression of remorse or a preoccupation with failure and guilt. At heart it is an approach to God anchored in the deep knowledge of both our sin and God’s pervasive graciousness.
Verse 4: Although at first sight it might seem so, this verse does not deny the damage sin has done to human beings – quite obvious when one takes the superscription of the psalm into account. What it does is to uncover the deepest reality of sin: that it is an offence against God. Therefore, the first step to restoration after sin is to turn to God in repentance.
Verse 5: This verse is meant to lay before the feet of God not only a particular transgression, but a life marked by sin from the beginning. Forgiveness and restitution are sought for all that falls under the description of sin. The outcome sought is a life totally renewed and free from all vestiges of sin, as the rest of the psalm demonstrates.
Verse 7: We find here a description of the cleansing rituals in the temple, always conducted by a priest. It is striking that God is asked to conduct the ritual here.
Verse 10: The psalm teaches us to seek more than forgiveness. Here we are led to ask for renewal. It is not satisfied to merely say, “Forgive me for what I have done.” It petitions God, “Change me; I am the problem.” The word “create” is a God-word. This is something only God can do.
Verse 11: It is striking that the Holy Spirit has remained with the sinner. It alerts us to the Spirit as the source of God’s presence in the believer, urging him/her to true repentance.
Verse 15: We should notice that the petition is quite unusual. If it had been “Open my ears, Lord, so that I might hear and obey you” or “Open my eyes, Lord, so that I may better see your way” it would not have been a surprize. But it is “Open my lips.” It is as if David, after the heart-wrenching confession of sins is totally spent but would desperately want to enter into freely praising God. So, “Open my lips” it is. And this is what God does to a repentant sinner. We are set free to revel in the goodness and grace of God again.
She was an artist, with all the wonderful and painful attributes of the artistic personality. When she was happy, she made the world seem a mystically beautiful place; a joy to inhabit. Her house was filled with colour and interesting objects, seemingly eclectic, but always in harmony. Every time I looked in on her and her husband, the piano was painted a different colour. Unfortunately, she was also prone to long spells of depression and severe self-doubt. During these spells she would stop going to church, only reappearing a few weeks after the depression had worn off. Eventually the depression deepened and stayed for an unbearably long period. She stopped going to church altogether. One day, during a long conversation she breached the subject of her absence in church. It was the confession of sin that did her in and coloured the rest of the proceedings. “I already feel bad enough about myself,” she said. “Why rub it in like that? I emerge feeling even more depressed than when I arrived!”
Why, indeed, do we do this in the Reformed tradition? Every Sunday we say the words: “We confess to God almighty, to all the company of heaven, and to each other, that we have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed, by our fault, by our own fault, by our own most grievous fault.”
The reason for this is not to implant a kind of “worm-theology” in Reformed Christians – the kind of theology that leaves us with perpetual guilt feelings and a grovelling approach to God. Quite the opposite is true. John Calvin (who is often charged with this) states that we are so willing to confess our sin so that grace may abound. The more acute we are aware of our sinful nature, the greater our realization of God’s infinite grace and love. Exposure to the fullness of God’s grace and the unconditional nature of God’s grace leads to freedom and great joy and a willingness to be diverted from our sinful ways.
There is another consequence of admission of our sin before God: It opens the path for personal growth. Eugene Peterson once remarked that the reason communism failed was not in the first place the fact that they denied the existence of God, but that they denied the existence of sin. They were under the illusion that they could merely change the economic system and then all would be well. The same holds true if we imagine that we can grow in Christian maturity if we do not deal with our mistakes and recurring sins. Honesty and openness before God lead to a life of growth in the fruit of the Spirit. There is no other route towards Christian maturity.
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- Which attributes of God are stressed in the psalm? (See verses 1 and 16-17.)
- When you read verse 2, how would you describe the state of mind of David here?
- What, according to verse 10, is David’s greatest desire, apart from forgiveness?
- What, according to verse 11, is David’s greatest fears if his sins are not forgiven?
- The last two verses broaden the scope of the prayer. Here David prays for God’s grace for Jerusalem. What would be a similar prayer we could pray in our day?
Read verses 1-5 as a prayer. Then listen to Fernando Ortega’s “Open my lips” (a musical rendition of verses 15 and 17) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pquW0NEf73I. Alternatively, you could read Psalm 103:1-13 as a prayer with which to embrace God’s forgiveness.
Study for Wednesday 10th June
Psalm 23 – Praying our security
Verse 4: Note that the psalm turns into a prayer as, instead of making statements about God, it now addresses God directly.
“…the darkest valley” refers to a common experience of shepherding in David’s time. The hillsides where the best grass was to be found mostly forced a shepherd to lead the flock through a shadowed valley where dangerous animals or criminals could lie in wait. If the flock were to get to the green pastures, they had no other choice but to follow these dangerous routes.
“…your rod and your staff” refer to the two instruments of shepherding: The rod was a blunt stick used for fighting off wild animals that threaten the flock. The staff had a crook at the end of it and was used to retrieve sheep that attempted to wander off from the flock or that needed to be pulled back from dangerous places that the shepherd could not easily reach.
Verse 5: Note that the psalm leaves the images of shepherding behind and now depicts God as a generous host.
Psalm 23 can serve as a confession of faith if used as the answer to four questions:
Who is your shepherd? 1The Lord is my shepherd…
Who is your shepherd in times when life is ordered and tranquil? 1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Who is your shepherd in troubled times? 4Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me. 5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Who is your shepherd when the future is uncertain? 6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Using Psalm 23 in this way makes us aware that its significance is far greater than mere sentimentality. It is an elaborate answer to one of the greatest of life’s questions, a question that has come to the fore strongly in our time of lockdown. I am referring to the question concerning security: How can I be safe? Being able to say “The Lord is my shepherd” in a time like ours is a very significant confession of faith.
This is especially so if we acknowledge the fact that the Lord we are referring to is the Lord of all, Jesus, who gave his life for me and has promised to be with me to the end. In John 10:11 Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd”, clearly connecting Psalm 23 to his ministry on our behalf. By calling himself “the good shepherd” he allows us to read the psalm with the knowledge that his last words on the cross (“it is finished”) underlines the reality Psalm 23 alerts us of as something firm and certain.
One last remark: We need to take note that the reference to “the darkest valley” allows us no grounds to imagine that we will never experience times of suffering and danger. Our paths will incorporate the dark valleys, but with the promise that our shepherd will be there with us, leading us and guarding us. The green pastures and still waters can often only be reached by taking the difficult and perilous route through these dark places. Dark times are sometimes the times in our lives where we are shaped decisively and truly become who God created us to be.
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- Psalm 23 is a favourite for many people due to a significant life experience that is tied to it. If this is the case with you, what did the psalm do to you in the specific situation in which it became so meaningful for you? Is there a particular image or verse in the Psalm that is especially important for you?
- Psalm 23 resonates with pure gratitude. List some of the things for which you are grateful to the Lord and, then, pray the psalm as a response to what God has done for you. Alternatively, you could read the psalm bit by bit and ask yourself, “How has God done this for me
- Psalm 23 is filled with wonderful word pictures, all of them related to specific aspects of our lives. What, in your life, are the green pastures, the still waters, the dark valleys, the rod and staff, the table prepared for you, the house of the Lord in which you can dwell?
- The problem with a passage that is as well-known as Psalm 23 is that its meaning loses its power through overfamiliarity. Here is an exercise with which to regain the full impact of what the psalm offers: Read the psalm in the negative: “The Lord is not my shepherd, I shall not He does not make me lie down in green pastures…” Do this all the way to the end and notice what distresses you most. Realise that this, fortunately, is not true. Then read it as it is written again and own the psalm as a wonderful prayer you can, in fact, pray.
Listen to Fernando Ortega’s “The Good Shepherd” on YouTube. The song sets Jesus’ appropriation of Psalm 23 in John 10 to music. Note that in the first verse Jesus is speaking. Simply listen to the words and imagine him saying them to you. The second verse is a prayer, directed to our Lord. Listen to it as your own prayer. Copy and paste https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=361OpSxEs6M to find the song on the internet.
Study for Wednesday 3rd June
Psalm 42 – Praying our fragility
Verse 1: The poet is not satisfied to describe the deer in the dry place’s longing as a longing for water; it is a longing for “flowing water.” He conjures up the image of a crystal-clear mountain stream with sweet water – obviously not something foreign to the deer. It might be a reference to the headwaters of the Jordan. As a description of the longing for God he intuitively takes something highly desirable as metaphor.
Verse 2: “the face of God” is a Hebrew way of speaking of the presence of God.
Verse 3: The enemies’ taunts in this verse and in verse 9 has led to a long tradition of reading the psalm either as one set in the time of the Babylonian exile when or in the time shortly after the exile, when the Jewish nation were at the mercy of the surrounding nations.
Verse 4 and 5: Note how the poet combines the past, the present and the future. He remembers a time of joy in the presence of God, then focuses on the present experience of the absence of God, and then casts his focus forward to the future. Remembering past experiences with God enables him to be hopeful about the future, even while he remains resolutely realistic about his present predicament.
Verse 7: “Deep calls to deep” is a poetic description of being overwhelmed by wave after wave in the dreaded sea. In Hebrew poetry the sea was given mythical meaning of a collection of all we dread as humans.
We all know Saint Augustine’s famous prayer: “You have made us for yourself, Lord. Our hearts find no rest until they find their rest in you.” Augustine’s prayer springs from the knowledge that our most basic desire is a desire for God. When we find ourselves in times where God feels distant or even absent all of life tends to shrivel and dry. Meaning is hard to come by.
This experience can be caused by personal crisis. We can all remember times when it seemed as if our lives were falling apart. Especially if protracted these times tend to insert a feeling of being godforsaken.
Many Christians, though, speak of times of spiritual dryness when God seems absent even though there is no discernible crisis that precipitated the experience. This has been called “the dark night of the soul” since its definitive description by Saint John of the Cross. It can be a bewildering experience, feeling as if one is losing your faith. Yet, as many wise Christian guides have pointed out in the past, it is most often a sign that God is moving you to a new phase in your relationship with him. The advice given for believers who find themselves in this fragile time is to do exactly what the poet in Psalm 42 does. Remind yourself of touchstone experiences in the past and allow them to colour your present predicament with hope for the future. And, above all, speak to God about this. Tell him, as the poet does, how you long for him. If your own words dry up, use prayers like Psalm 42 as your personal prayers. Don’t feel guilty as if this is you failing to be faithful to God. Rather engage in the constructive self-talk we find in the psalm: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”
Robert Louis Stevenson tells of a time when, as a little boy, he watched a man lighting the streetlamps outside their home. He called out, “Mother, mother, come look! Someone is poking holes into the darkness!” This is what Psalm 42 does when we are in a time where God feels distant. Our faith is fragile. We need prayers like this to poke holes in our darkness when they arrive.
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- Psalm 42 uses the powerful image of thirst for our longing for God. In which ways is thirst like experiencing God as distant?
- What could lead to experiencing God as distant?
- In verse 2 the poet describes his longing for God as a longing for “the living God.” What does this description of God convey to you?
- In 2 Cor 5:7 Paul states, “…for we walk by faith, not by sight.” How does this apply to the faith of the poet in this Psalm? What practical help does this offer in times when we feel disconnected from God?
- Psalm 42 can be prayed in any season of faith and not only in times of distress. Our deep need for the presence of God is never fully satisfied; we always want more. Therefore, we can pray the psalm as it is, even if you do not currently feel far from God or as if God has forgotten you. You might even insert a few phrases of your own after the passages of lament, where you thank God for his presence now and ask him to remind you or these times of closeness if you should ever lose the awareness of his presence.
- It is interesting to note that only the first verse is addressed to God. The rest is self-talk in the presence God. This does not make it less of a prayer than the first verse. Yet it could be a good practice to end the prayer by repeating verse 1.
- If you are presently in a difficult time, praying the psalm might offer you an opportunity to speak to God about this – either by elaborating at certain points while praying the psalm or after praying it as it is written down.
Introduction to 6 studies of the Psalms: Taking God seriously, taking life seriously
Welcome to Canongate Kirk’s Bible studies of the Psalms. We will be looking at 6 Psalms – mostly old favourites.
An interesting track record
The Psalms have had an important role in the history of the Christian church. To this day they structure of prayer in monastic communities. The communal prayer in monasteries is done by singing the Psalms, covering the whole of the Psalter before starting a new cycle. In the past some traditions even prayed through the whole of the Psalter every week! The Psalms have also played an important part in the liturgy of churches from the start. It has been common practice for faith communities to sing and pray the Psalms whenever they meet for worship.
The Psalms also have a long history as a resource in private devotions. In the middle ages, when Bibles were kept away from lay Christians for fear of heresy, one exception was made – the Psalms. Many Christians had their own handwritten copy of the Psalms as a treasured personal prayer book. It was widely perceived as the Bible of the laity. Since the advent of the printing press the use of the Psalms for private devotions became even more common.
The Psalter was central to the spiritual life of the Reformation and, right from the beginning, especially in Reformed liturgy. Martin Luther’s field of speciality was the Old Testament and his favourite part of the Old Testament was (you guessed it) the Psalms. He knew them by heart in the original. In his German Bible translation, it seems that he did not even refer to a printed text, but did the translation from memory! For many ages it was not uncommon for monks to be able to recite the whole of the Psalms without any recourse to the written text. John Calvin promoted the Psalms for congregational singing and, since then, the Psalms have even been established as the only congregational singing allowed in some Reformed churches.
Why have the Psalms been given such a central place in Christian worship? I would venture to state that this due to our urge to respond to God when feeling spoken to by him. When we attempt to put our true response into words we always come up short in our ability to express what we feel we ought to articulate. The Psalms remedy this situation. There is a psalm for every occasion, for every state we might find ourselves in. John Calvin describes the Psalms as “an anatomy of every part of the human soul.”
Add to this that the Psalms are presented as models for our informal prayers. Christians have constantly been surprised to find permission to express even extremely negative thoughts and emotions in some of the psalms. In this fashion the healing impact of prayer has been unlocked, since we are encouraged to appear before God “warts and all”, hiding nothing and working through negative emotions such as anger (even anger directed at God), self-deprecation, guilt, and shame. Laying these negative emotions at the feet of God is done in the Psalms in ways that bring healing and that draw us closer to God instead of separating us from him.
Some inside information
You don’t need to know the information that follows, but it does give us a broader appreciation of the meaning of many or the Psalms. If it does not interest you, by all means skip this section and carry on with the next.
Psalms 1 and 2 act as an introduction into the Psalms. The express the two basic practical beliefs of God’s children: Only in doing God’s will does life flourish (Psalm 1) and only with God is true security to be found (Psalm 2). The problem then is this: How do we pray when we seek a meaningful life by doing God’s will and by seeking refuge in God and it does not work out? The rest of the Psalms are prayers that reflect the ebb and flow of life where the godless sometimes seem to be better off and where we often feel threatened by things beyond our control. They help us to celebrate the seasons when things work out according to these two tenets of faith, and they also help us to hold fast to them when our very faith in God is threatened.
The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann has a very useful little scheme with which to understand the relation of individual psalms to these seasons of our lives. He states that there are three main types of psalms, viewed in terms of the seasons in our lives:
- Psalms of orientation. These are Psalms that fit in best in times when our lives run smoothly and there is order and coherence. Praying these Psalms prevent us from taking these seasons for granted and turns us towards God in worshipful gratitude. The faith expressed in these Psalms leave no room for doubt. They display absolute certitude.
- Psalms of disorientation. These Psalms are prayed when life falls apart. Some gently question the state of affairs, but many others display desperation and even despair. Others display anger at enemies and even at God! Yet they are given to us as ways to face up to the rawness of life in ways that keep us engaged with God. Only then can we work through our emotions and gain the perspective and inner coherence to face these realities constructively and not lose our faith.
- Psalms of new orientation. These are Psalms prayed at the other side of suffering and trouble. They display joy and gratitude and awed reverence for God who delivered them from their troubles. The have survived with their faith intact. They can say that God is good with total conviction. This is not a cheap confession, but a hard-won verdict.
The Psalms are divided into five books, each concluding with a similar passage of praise at the end of the final psalm in the book. After the introductory Psalms (1-2), the five books consist of Psalms 3-41 (Book 1), 42-72 (Book 2), 73-89 (Book 3), 90-106 (Book 4), and 107-145 (Book 5). Then, after the five books, we find five praise songs (Psalms 146-150), placed at the end as representative of the five books of psalms. They are a kind of summary. The striking thing is this: They are five praise songs while the lament and anger in the books they pretend to summarise is dominant – much more prominent than the praise. This presents us with an important perspective when reading these difficult psalms: The person praying them has not finished praying yet! The issues that led to these hash and woeful words have not found their resolution yet… but they will! There is a movement in the whole of the Psalter and in every individual prayer in the Psalms towards praise. When we get to the end of the Psalms, we can confirm the truth of the faith expressed in the first two Psalms. Truly, life is good when we live in accordance with God’s words. Truly we are safe when we find our refuge in God.
Praying the Psalms
There are three basic prayers that we always need: “Help!”, “Thank you”, and “Wow!” This is a good foundation for prayer, but we need to deepen our prayer life if our faith is to deepen. This is where the Psalms are vital. The Psalms are in the first instance prayers. After so many generations of God’s children praying them, it would be apt to describe them as well-worn paths to God. We are setting out to study six of them in the following weeks, but if we stop short of praying them, we will not receive their full benefit. I would go as far as saying that you only really understand the Psalms after you have prayed them. No amount of close reading or theological study can get you deeper into the spark of a psalm than praying it as your own, personal prayer will. When you do that you notice things that have gone unnoticed before. A phrase or a word would suddenly light up and become an exact expression of what has been hovering unspoken beneath the surface of your consciousness for a long time.
There are many ways to pray the Psalms as a personal discipline. Simply reading them slowly and with attention as your own prayer (as we do in church) works well. Some people even personalise them by changing the third person address to the first person, where necessary. Psalm 90 would then be changed from “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations” to “Lord, you have been my dwelling place in all generations”. It might feel a bit contrived at first, but soon becomes second nature. In Psalms like Psalm 23 this does not need to be done, since it is already written in the first person. It is also recommended to stop when a phrase or word strikes you when praying a psalm. You can, then, merely stay with it and savour it for a while. You could also start a conversation with God, discussing your response to the phrase. After giving proper attention to this, you can then return to the psalm and pray it through to the end.
One last remark needs to be made. The Psalms, comprehensive as they are, are not to be taken up as the only prayers we should pray. They function as a way of “priming the pump.” Having grown up on a farm, I often saw my father or one of the labourers priming a pump in our irrigation system to get it going. Since a pump cannot suck air, they would pour some water into it before switching it on. Once it had a column of water to push forward, it would effortlessly continue gushing the water it took from the irrigation canal. The Psalms get us started with the intention to enable us, in time, to express ourselves fully before God in prayer in our own words and in ways that give unique expression to our lives before God.
The following psalms will receive our attention in the coming weeks.
Study 1: Psalm 1 – Praying our rootedness
Study 2: Psalm 42 – Praying our suffering
Study 3: Psalm 23 – Praying our security
Study 4: Psalm 51 – Praying our failure
Study 5: Psalm 90 – Praying our fragility
Study 6: Psalm 147 – Praying our joy
Study for Wednesday 27th May 2020
Psalm 1 – Praying our rootedness
Verse 1: “Happy…” is not a particularly good translation of the Hebrew word used at the start of Psalm 1. The Hebrew word has a much stronger meaning, incorporating a cluster of possible translations like “fortunate”, “lucky”, “blissful”, “prosperous”. Maybe the best translation is “blessed”, since it conveys the source of the happiness referred to here (God) and, by doing that, gives us a sense of the superlative. The poet is speaking of the kind of happiness that surpasses anything we can gain for ourselves.
Verse 2 “…their delight”. The poet is not referring to mere rule-keeping. He is referring to those who have discovered obedience to the law to lead to true joy.
“…meditate…”. A rare Hebrew word is used here, that is used metaphorically in two telling ways in the Old Testament. It is once used for the contented cooing sound of a dove and elsewhere for the purring sound a lion makes when gnawing a meaty bone. Both these metaphorical uses provide us with a sense of distracted enjoyment.
Verse 4 The picture this verse intends to conjure up is that of a winnowing floor – usually a level space on a hill, where wind is more likely to occur. Here wheat was strewn and beaten, and then tossed up in the air with winnowing forks so that the chaff can be blown away, while the wheat drops to the floor to be gathered when all of the chaff has been gotten rid of.
Psalm 1 has many striking aspects. The most striking is the way it depicts life in obedience to the law of God as pure joy. In fact, it does not even use the word “obedience”. It speaks of “delight”! Once one gets a taste of a life in accordance with the will of God it becomes such a joy that obedience is the most natural and obvious course. The law becomes much more than a set of rules to obey. It becomes something to ruminate on with deep pleasure.
Psalms 1 and 2 express the two basic practical beliefs of those who worship God: the belief that true happiness and human flourishing can only be found in obedience to God’s will (Psalm 1) and the belief that true security can only be found in God (Psalm 2). This faith is not mere abstract beliefs but are supposed to be the foundation of a life as a child of God. It is easy to express one’s faith in terms like those used in Ps 1 and 2, but these beliefs are often put to test when one puts them into practice. It sometimes seems that the godless flourish at the expense of the god-fearing. The rest of the Psalms are in conversation with God when these two tenets of faith are put to the test in real life. The hard-won verdict in the Psalms is that these two statements of faith remain true, even at the limits of our endurance. We are always to be compared to trees planted by streams of water; the wicked are always to be compared to chaff blown away by the wind.
There is a wonderful traditional interpretation of the metaphor of the tree planted by a stream. All indications are that Psalm 1 was composed during the Babylonian exile. The exiles had not only lost their land, possessions and freedom; the destruction of the temple left them feeling godforsaken. Some of them were forced to work the fields watered by the irrigation system fed by the Euphrates river. The areas where the irrigation canals led were hot and arid and treeless. And so, the Babylonians had trees dug up on the riverbanks and planted next to the irrigation canals to provide shade for the foremen. At first the trees wilted when taken away from their water-rich environment on the riverbanks. But then they discovered the clay canals at their feet and started flourishing again.
Israel had been ripped up by their roots from the land God had promised to their forefathers, the land where the presence of God was like a broad river providing and protecting day by day. Now they were planted out here in the barren and hot semi-desert of Babylon. And then they made the discovery: Even here the water of God’s nourishing presence ran at their feet – the same water they had drunk in their own country! And Israel flourished again…
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- If you ask people in our time what would make someone really, really happy? What would their answer be? What is Psalm 1’s alternative view?
- In our time, who are the wicked, the sinners, the scoffers whose advice and influence we should be careful of? What do they imagine would make them happy?
- Ponder on the kind of believer described for us in the first two verses of the psalm. Which person or persons have you had the good fortune to know who exemplified this? What made you pick this person?
- Which elements of a happy life do you find symbolised in the image of the tree? Which of those elements in the description do you discover in your own life?
- The last two verses in the psalm presents us with the reason why the children of God flourish, while the wicked do not. What course does this recommend for our lives?
The psalm is more like a confession of faith that a prayer. One could pray it as a confession of faith, ending with a simple prayer like, “Lord, this I believe. Draw me even further into this way of living. Amen.”
An alternative would be to read the psalm slowly and thoughtfully and then to pray your response to it. You might respond to the psalm by confessing the extent to which you seek joy in the things the world advertises as the answer our needs and by asking to be more like the tree planted by a stream. The prayer need not be long or eloquent, but it needs to be truthful.
Wednesday 20th May 2020
Study 6: Revelation 21:2, 9-22:5. The new Jerusalem descending
After the three sets of seven verbal photographs depicting the broken world, we find a set of seven more verbal photographs of the coming salvation and redemption (Revelation 19:11-22:5). As the first three sets of seven culminated in the elaborate description of the fall of Babylon, this set of seven ends in a description of the new Jerusalem, the goal of all creation. We would be mistaken to take John’s description of the new Jerusalem literally. What we have is an attempt to describe the indescribable, to describe the heavenly in earthly language in much the same way as in chapter 4 and 5 where the heavenly throne room is described. To do this, John mostly utilises language and symbols from the Old Testament. We should be aware from start to finish that the description is not intent on satisfying our curiosity but on providing us with a goal to live towards in place of the values and priorities offered by a world gone wrong. What we encounter here is nothing less than God’s will for the world, God’s preferred future. Implicit in this description is an invitation to join God in a journey towards this bright new world by our choices, words and actions.
Notes on the passage
21:9 It is interesting that the afterlife is described as life in a city and not a return to the garden of Eden. In Greek mythology we find the Elysian fields as a beautiful meadow. In Native American lore it is cast as the happy hunting fields, while Eastern philosophy speaks of Nirvana – a kind of dream garden. The way the New Jerusalem is presented sets it in opposition to Babylon (Rome) and casts it as the alternative dwelling place. It also presents God’s goal for his people as a community and not merely ‘the good place’ for individual Christians to be happy in. The walls and gates are named after representatives of God’s people and we find many series of 12 – alluding to the 12 disciples and the 12 tribes of the Old Testament.
The fact that the new Jerusalem descends from heaven should alert us to two things: It is not merely the product of human ingenuity and labour, but a gift from heaven to be gladly received. The second thing to take note of is that it descends from heaven and settles down on earth. It is a heavenly reality that is to be discovered and entered on earth. Earthly existence is not written off as worthless but brought to its fulfilment.
21: 11 The whole city shines with the radiance of jasper – the gemstone associated with the glory of God in the Old Testament. The most important thing to be said about the city is that it is drenched in the presence of God. Even the wall around the city (verse 18) is made of jasper. This quality of the city is the source of all that is good about it.
21: 13 The wall around the city has gates on all sides to make it accessible to all peoples and all nations.
21: 15-16 The city is in the shape of a cube – a giant replica of the holiest of holies in the temple, but open to all nations.
21: 19-20 The gemstones that adorn the foundation of the city are the gemstones in the breastplate of the high priest – the person that encountered God in special ways. We are all invited to find a home in a place where this is an everyday occurrence.
21:21 The gates are made of giant pearls. Pearls were regarded at the time to be as precious as the most precious gemstones. The streets of gold resonate ironically with the tears shed by the businessmen in the description of the fall of Babylon. In Revelation 18:12-13 the list of losses the businessmen bewail starts with gold and silver and (almost as an afterthought) ends with human beings – the exact opposite of the values of God. In Babylon gold is revered and people are downtrodden. In the new Jerusalem people are treasured and gold is walked on!
21:22 There is no temple in the city, since the whole city is now a kind of temple where God dwells with his people.
21:23 There is no sun or moon since the shekinah (the glorious radiance of God’s face) lights up the whole city. The risen Christ participates in emanating this glorious light.
21:25 The gates are always open to be accessible to all people. The only persons that are excluded are the sinners (chapter 21:27), but they have excluded themselves. The book of life is referred to six times in Revelation – in Revelation 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 20:15, and 21:27. It does not contain a list of all our good deeds and sins. All that is written in it is our names, entered by the grace of God.
22:1-2 The river with the water of life is a symbol of the life God grants that flows through the city and animates everything in it. The source of this river is the throne of God and the Lamb. It is an allusion to the river in the river in the garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10) and the lifegiving river in Ezekiel 37:1-12. Both these rivers find their fulfilment in the river in the new Jerusalem.
The tree of life reminds of the tree in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:32) and the fruit trees on both banks of Ezekiel’s river (Ezekiel 37:12). In Revelation 2:7 the image of the tree of life is used to draw the attention of the church in Ephesus to the consummation.
Points to ponder and discussion questions
- The fact that the new Jerusalem is depicted as descending from heaven as a gift from God means that heaven is not an escape from this world, but a healing of this world. It is also not something to be deferred until after death, but something that is already in motion. What could be some practical implications of this when we take account of the various elements of the description of the city?
- There are so many elements in John’s description of the city that it is difficult to pay attention to them all. Which element or elements struck you most? Why is it so meaningful for you?
- The holy of holies was a place where only one priest could enter on one specific day of the year. There is even the folk tale that a rope was fastened around his ankle so that he could be pulled out if something happened to him inside without anyone else needing to enter. What does it do to you to imagine the city as a giant replica of the holy of holies where you will be allowed to enter freely and to settle down in?
- As we discovered in the study, the value system of Babylon is one that places gold and silver at the head of the list and people at the end, while the value system of the new Jerusalem is the exact opposite. What would that mean in our time and context to start living towards this value system and to discard that of Babylon?
- What difference does it make in our time of international crisis to believe that, despite all the bad news, the new Jerusalem is indeed descending?
Meditation: Study 6
Revelation 21:2, 9-22:5
John’s intention with these last two chapters is to give us a picture of the future to which God is steering the world that is alluring – so alluring that it would draw us into a way of living that is already in harmony with the way things will one day fully be. We are to be spurred into action by our desire for this wonderful world that we know is already on its way.
Unfortunately, John’s message has been turned into what has been described cynically as “a pie in the sky when you die.” This is true if it is merely appropriated as something that only has to do with life after death. But we are not to wait passively to escape the awful reality of this world to enter the world that God has prepared for us only after death. This is at odds with the message of John’s vision.
John tells us that the new Jerusalem is descending from heaven. It is not depicted as a totally different world, but as our present world set right. And we certainly do not have to wait for some of that – even a great deal of that – to take shape. God will one day take away all that scars and spoils his creation (yes, including viruses) and he will heal all that is broken. All our physical needs will be taken care of. That is depicted by the image of the stream and the fruit trees bearing fruit twelve times a year. All our social needs will be met, for the new Jerusalem (God’s kingdom) is a city – a community where all are welcome. And, best of all, it is a city without a church. No church is necessary, since God will be there with us, enveloping us in his light and warmth like the sun. Even when things seem to head in the direction of a totally dystopian future, we are given the assurance that this picture of perfect peace is the way history will resolve.
But John is not satisfied to have us know that we will enter heaven at the end of our lives. No, why wait? We can taste some of it already, for it is already taking shape in the lives of Christians and, through their service, in the world. When we live in accordance with the values of the new Jerusalem (that are the complete opposite of the values of Babilon) we become a force of change in our world.
This knowledge turns John’s vision into an incentive for Christian action in a troubled world instead of it being merely something to cling to while we withdraw from the world into our Christian enclaves. We are to turn from the values and lifestyle of Babylon, but without losing our place in this world. Babylon is doomed to perish. The kingdom of God is on the rise (or should we say it is descending from heaven) and we have the great privilege to participate in this by all the seemingly trivial things we do every day. Anything done with the promised end in sight is participation in the coming of God’s kingdom.
So, we are included in the advent of the new Jerusalem. But there is another side to it that we we should always keep in mind: It comes from God, as a gift! It is not the kind of kingdom that we could ever dream of building. Yes, it is not the tower of Babel that we build to reach heaven, but the complete opposite: a gift God reaches down to present us. Yet, we do not receive it passively. We serve God by working towards his goal for this world and the next, but we do this with the sure and joyous knowledge that all will end well. The outcome is assured, for it is in God’s hands!
The Russian nuclear physicist, dissident, Nobel laureate, and activist for disarmament, peace and human rights, Andrei Sakharov was once asked how he and others of his group of dissidents managed to hold their course in the years of Soviet repression, he made a startling statement. He said, “We pretended that we were in a free country and simply started to live accordingly.” Let us as God’s agents in this world do something similar by “pretending” that we can see the new Jerusalem descending from heaven and living our lives in all their facets according to our sure and glorious future. The world will be forever changed. John Calvin said that one of the most important Christian practices is meditating on heaven. That, he said, will give us joy here on earth! And this joy will become our driving force for Christian living.
Wednesday 13th May 2020
Study 5: Revelation 18. The fall of great Babylon
Revelation 17 and 18 are extensions of Revelation 16:17-21, where the fall of Rome and the great cities of the Roman empire are described. Revelation 17 is an extended announcement of the fall of Babylon (a very transparent cypher for Rome), while Revelation 18 describes the fall of the city as if it is something occurring offstage, that we can follow by listening to the comments of the actors on stage – the kings, businessmen and sailors. The fall of the great and seemingly indestructible Rome (te so-called ‘Eternal City’) was meant to have a double impact on John’s audience: In the first place it was the removal of a threat. The Roman empire was gradually becoming a dangerous and inhospitable place in which to be a Christian. In the second place it cast Rome as an unstable and transitory power on which to base your trust and towards which to orient your life. This prepares the way for the New Jerusalem, announced and described in the last two chapters of Revelation, to be embraced as the stable and proper focus towards which to orient your life – the Eternal City in the true sense of the word.
Notes on the passage
Verse 3: The portrayal of Babylon (Rome) as a harlot is not in the first place a reference to sexual practices in the city but takes up the Old Testament usage of referring to idolatry in these terms. Rome has practiced idolatry by worshiping false gods and by setting up the emperor as a god and has seduced other nations to join them in this.
Verse 4: John’s call to come out of Babylon was not a call for Christians to literally flee the city, but a call to emigrate from it spiritually – to let go of her values and mores and of their reliance on her goodwill and protection. This should be done since all of it falls under God’s judgment.
Verses 5-8: These verses sound vengeful and harsh to our modern ears but should be read against the background of the judicial practices of the time. There was an important principle of law that was in force in the courts of the time, namely lex talionis. This determined that punishment should be meted out in accordance with the seriousness of the crime. The harshness of this passage means to reveal how serious Rome’s misdeeds were in the eyes of God. The call to “repay her double for her deeds” (verse 6) should not be taken literally but was a figure of speech at the time to express that she should carry the full burden of her punishment with no mitigation possible.
Verses 11-17: Rome is not judged for being rich, but for her lust for riches, as it is succinctly expressed in verse 14. It is striking that the merchants (who had fallen under the spell of Rome in her lust after riches) lament the loss of possessions (naming slaves as possessions too) and only mention the loss of human lives right at the end!
Verse 20: The call to rejoice here should not be viewed as a call to take delight in the misery and demise of the people of Rome. It is in fact a call to celebrate their deliverance from her rule now, while she is still superficially in control.
Verse 21-23: It is telling that John’s vision does not merely demonise Rome but ends on a note of sadness for all the good things that will also come to an end with the demise of Rome.
Points to ponder and discussion questions
- The call to flee Babylon has tremendous implications for modern-day Christians. Which elements of our society would have been in the list of imprecations that the voice from heaven would have mentioned if we heard it today, speaking of our society?
- It is plain to see that the aspects of Roman life the kings (verse 10), the businessmen (verses 11-13 and 17) and by the sailors (verses 18-19) regret losing are very different from those the voice from heaven laments losing (verses 22-23). This gives us a clue to the values of heaven. If you were to make a list of the false values of our day what would you put on the list? If you were to make a list of things that are in accordance with what is really important for Christians, what would you put on this list?
- Not only does the voice from heaven tell Christians to flee spiritually from Babylon, but it does not encourage them to undermine or overthrow the city. Does this mean that heaven finds it in order for the city to carry on as it does, or does the person behind the voice have something else in mind?
Click here for Meditation
A (very) short digression on predestination
Keeping a written piece on predestination (the much-maligned element of our Reformed heritage) short and simple is best done in story form. So here it is:
The father of a good friend of mine, Martin, got the job as the principal at a high school in a country town. His wife to be, Elsa, lived in this town with her family. One day Elsa walked by while her mother was reading their local town newspaper. Her mother said to her, “Look, here is a photograph of your new principal and his family.” Elsa took a good long look at the photograph in the newspaper and then pointed to Martin and said, “I am going to marry him one day.”
Within months of his arrival Martin started to take notice of this striking girl in his class and it was not long before he started dating her. Elsa’s older sister. The relationship did not last long but led to Martin noticing Elsa. One day after school he asked her if she would like to take a walk with him. Their walk led them to a dam in a public open space in town and they sat down on a bench under a willow tree on the grassy bank. There Martin gathered his courage and asked Elsa if she would go steady with him. Her response was to start laughing which, naturally, totally threw him. And so, she told him about the photograph in the newspaper. They were high school sweethearts, got engaged during their student years and are now a happily married retired couple.
Predestination is something like that. When we become aware of the wonders of God’s grace, of his person, and discover our deep attraction to all things that have to do with him, we want in. It might be at a certain time, it might be a subconscious shift into the discovery of our need for God, but we arrive at a place where we stand before him an, in some fashion, ask him if he would accept us as his children. And then God laughs and tells us something like the truth Paul expresses in Ephesians 1:3-5. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will…” In a word, God tells us that long before we could imagine being his beloved children and turned towards him, he had already pointed us out as his beloved. This stress on God’s prevenient grace has been a mark of Reformed faith from its inception. We have a beloved hymn in the Dutch Reformed Church that translates as, “Before I could choose, could ask, you had already carried the burden of my guilt.” The faith that you are a beloved child of God is not an accomplishment, but the result of a gracious gift.
We should end right there, but unfortunately some Christians have tried to extend the logic in a very mechanical fashion: If God had chosen some of us before the foundation of the world, then he must haver rejected some of us before the foundation of the world. And, equally mechanically: If our faith is caused by God’s election of some, then a lack of faith is caused by God’s rejection of others. From this logic one could argue that we are the objects of blind destiny. Nothing we can do can alter our destiny. If we are fortunate enough to be among the elect, no amount of protest will prevent us from coming to faith. If we are unfortunate enough to be among the rejected, no amount of effort will produce faith.
All of this might look like sound logic but would be completely at odds with so much of the Bible that it is obviously unacceptable. Yet these last conclusions lent themselves to strident criticism of the Reformed faith. The logic breaks down when we take full account of God’s universal love for all of his creatures. In John 3:16 we read, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God’s love is directed at all of us, not only to some of us. In John 12:32 Jesus speaks of his intention in allowing himself to be crucified: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
If God’s love, then, extends to every one of us, why are there some who reject this and others who do not. The answer is simple: We do not know. It is a mystery. God offers his grace to all and rejects none out of hand. Yet many refuse God’s grace.
This does not mean that we should refrain from defining ourselves by our election. The point of being told of this is to elicit the same response that it did in Martin when Elsa told him what she had done. While we might sometimes be doubtful if we are deserving of God’s love, God always assures us that his love for us predated our love for him. This also leads us to great humility concerning our faith; it is not something we can pride ourselves on as an achievement, but a stunned response to God’s love. This is the reason why it predestination was so important for our Reformed forbears and why we should not dissociate ourselves from it.
Wednesday 6th May 2020
Study 4: Revelation 6:1-16. Christian living in an inhospitable world
Revelation 6 presents us with seven distressing scenes initiated by the opening of the seven seals on the scroll mentioned in the previous chapter. The opening of the seventh seal is only described in chapter 8 after a scene of God’s grace to soften the harshness descriptions of the world’s suffering.
Notes on the passage
The first four seals let loose the four horsemen of the apocalypse, representing threats and calamities that contrasted with the arrogant claims of the Roman empire to have brought about universal peace and prosperity.
Verse 2: The rider on the white horse calls forth the image of the feared Parthian cavalry from the east who rode on white horses and spread terror with their bows.
The Greek word that is translated with “given” in this verse and verse 8 and with “permitted” in verse 4 prevents us from understanding God as the author of the calamities that are described in this chapter. God allows it to be part of the journey towards the full unfolding of his plan for the world, but we can find no support for believing that he causes it.
Verse 4: The rider on the red horse is a cypher for war breaking out – something that always seemed possible despite Roman claims of stability.
Verse 5: The rider on the black horse symbolises an outbreak of famine during which luxuries are abundant but staple foods are eight to sixteen times their normal price. In these conditions the poor suffer while the rich carry on as before.
Verse 8: The pale green horse (a deathly pallor) signifies all manner of things that lead to death: violence, sickness, famine, wild animals.
Verse 9-11: The depiction of the followers of Christ lying in the blood gully at the foot of the sacrificial altar is a reference to bloody persecution that had just started but extends to any shape of persecution or marginalisation undergone for their faith. By situating them beneath the altar, their deaths are portrayed as sacrificial, like that of Christ and not meaningless loss of life.
The cry “how long!” takes up one of the most frequent phrases of lament in the Psalms. It is a fascinating lament, since it is anchored in the belief that the present troubles are temporary, and that God knows the answer. It is therefore simultaneously strikingly honest about their suffering, yet unflinchingly hopeful. Compare this with the desperate and hopeless call of the unbelievers in verses 16 to 17!
Verse 6-17: The disasters described by John in these verses reminded his audience of natural disasters of that time. A good example was the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 that darkened the sun and gave the moon a red pallor. John describes a worldwide series of disasters in terms that are familiar to them and gives the impression of all of creation shuddering in anticipation of the coming judgment.
Points to ponder and discussion questions
- The calamities described with the opening of the first 4 seals seems like God’s judgment but are in fact familiar troubles of the time. They seem to be mentioned to unmask the insufficiency and fragility of the vaunted advantages of the pax Romana – peace, prosperity, healthy living conditions, etc. How could one look at our times with a similar frame of reference?
- Christians are not spared the pain and sorrow of a broken world. In fact, their faith can even be the source additional troubles for them. Yet there is a tremendous difference between the way they respond to the calamities and the way people with no faith respond to them. What would be different if we prayed “how long” (verse 10) instead of “who is able to stand?” (verse 17)?
- How could the troubles we encounter in the world speak to people without faith to open them up to the possibility of faith?
- How is God present in a world where so much suffering is possible? Does suffering not make belief in God irrational?
Meditation: Study 4 – Revelation 6
For the first Christians to whom Revelation was read during worship chapter 6 must have come as a surprise – as indeed it does for us modern-day Christians. After the glory of the throne room of God and the wonderful news that God’s plan for the world can be set into motion, we see the Lamb opening the scroll by breaking the seven seals. I would have expected immediately to see the new Jerusalem descending on earth; tears dried up, sickness disappearing, conflict ended, and the kingdom of God appearing in full splendour. What we get instead is misery and woe. This is not restricted to this chapter. We find so much of it all the way to chapter 19 that it makes for some hard reading.
And yet, there is a wonderful assurance buried in these passages. (I know I need to hear it, and more so in the time of crisis we are in at present!) We are assured here that God has not lost control of the situation. Most of all, we are assured that all will end well, no matter how badly it seems to be going at present.
We do not need to decipher all the calamities presented in the chapter, as the first Christians did. If John had written to us in the first instance, I can imagine he would have described the threat of the Covid 19 virus and all its devastating aspects and he would have done this with fearsome images that would have been easily within our reach to decipher. The message of the chapter is found in the different responses to the crises that we find from the Christians martyrs (verse 11)and the unbelievers (verses 16 and 17).
The unbelievers’ cries are without hope. They assume that all is lost and that no-one can save them. All that they had previously placed their trust upon has failed and the best they can think of is to hide away. The Christian martyrs, on the other hand, do not merely put a happy face on things. They are suffering – even more than the unbelievers are. So, they turn to God, which is already more than the unbelievers can do. And when they turn to God, they are open and truthful about their suffering; they lament their miserable condition. Yet, their lament is hopeful. Praying, “How long will it be…” assumes that there will be an end to their suffering and, more than that, that God will determine when this will be. Yes, it does not claim to understand why God allows their suffering and why God does not transport them immediately to the blissful outcome anticipated in Revelation 21. There are times when we simply make no sense of the mess the world is in. Yet, we can pray, “How long will it be…?” in the full confidence that this cannot, will not last for ever.
I have just finished reading the autobiography of Tomas Halik, a Czech priest and professor in sociology and philosophy at Charles University in Prague. One of his chapters is devoted to musing on a near death experience he had. In this chapter he applies a very striking metaphor to his experience: Jesus, asleep in the stern of the boat during the storm on the Lake of Galilee. Jesus not waking up with a fright at the waves thundering and washing over the boat and the wind furiously howling through the ripped sails. Indeed, he asks them, “Why are you afraid?” before stilling the wind and the waves by a simple command. But Halik makes the striking observation: “Jesus preaches by means of his sleep. It even occurs to me that his sleep in the scene is a profounder revelation of his mission than the subsequent miracle, which he was forced to perform because of the disciples lack of faith.”
His point is very simple: Jesus is present in the midst of the storm. He is present when we threaten to lose all hope. And Jesus is not worried, because the outcome is assured. God’s great plan for us all is heading for completion and nothing can prevent this from happening. In that assurance we can also calm down and find strength in the image of the Lamb unrolling the scroll. Yes, there are times when we also cry out, “How long, Lord?” But is always hopeful lament. We need never lose sight of the glorious end towards which our joint history is heading.
Wednesday 29th April 2020
Study 3: Revelation 5:1-14. God’s initiative unveiled
Revelation 4 describes the place from which God’s decisive action in the world emanates. In Revelation 5 the crucial initiative itself is described: Jesus, the Lamb that was slain, sets God’s plan for the world in action. It is not a blueprint by which God micromanages the leadup to the final consummation. It is a plan by which God is present in the unfolding of world history in a way that makes it possible for us already to focus on the new Jerusalem that is descending to earth (Revelation 21) with the joyous certainty that we will one day experience it in all its glory.
Notes on the passage
Verse 1: The scroll, as will become evident, is God’s plan for the world, sealed with seven seals. Seven was a symbolic number signifying completeness. The scroll cannot be opened lightly, but only by one judged worthy. Seals were also indicative of the author of a document – in this case God self. This is not merely some human strategy, but expresses God’s preferred plan for the world, about to be set in motion.
Verse 5: “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” is Messianic language taken from the Old Testament’s descriptions of the Messiah as a descendant of David.
Verse 6: The image of the “Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” when a Lion had been announced presents us with a powerful redefinition of winning. The victory had not been won by using force, but by Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross. (verse 9) Yet it is the greatest victory in history and makes him worthy to break the seals to set God’s plan in motion!
The seven horns and seven eyes symbolise immense strength (the horns) and fullness of insight (the eyes). The seven spirits are the agents of God’s initiatives in the world, mentioned in Revelation 4.
Verse 8: The golden bowls filled with incense is an image from the temple’s incense offering, said to release a smell pleasing to God. Depicting the prayers of believers in troubled times as incense offerings draws our prayers into the action of the coming of God’s kingdom without in any way diminishing the decisive role of the risen Lord.
Verse 10: We should note that the designation of the harassed and marginalised Christians as kings and priests that reign on earth would have been quite a shock for the persons to whom John’s great composition was read. Their numbers were very small and their existence very tenuous at the time. To hear themselves included in the imposing hymn sung in the throne room would have had a tremendous impact.
Points to ponder and discussion questions
- How could we relate John weeping in verse 4 when he hears that God’s plan cannot be put in action with the response of so many people to our present situation during the coronavirus pandemic? What difference does the knowledge that Jesus has been found worthy to open the seals and set God’s plan for deliverance in action make for you?
- The announcement of Jesus as the Lion is not erased by his appearance as a Lamb that was slaughtered. Nor does Jesus revert to be a heavenly being with no signs of weakness. Jesus is both a powerful being and one who freely relinquishes power. What we have here is a dramatic redefinition of real power. How does that influence the way we commit to be his agents in our broken world?
- When we read verse 10 as a description of ourselves as a faith community in the Canongate, without losing sight of the depiction of Jesus as the Lion/slaughtered Lamb, what does it say for our role in Edinburgh and Scotland? What does it imply for your personal role in your family and in society?
- The great hymn sung by the massive heavenly choir in verses 11 to 13 leaves us in no doubt to the great goal of history: It is concerned with the honour and glory of God. Yet popular depictions of heaven have a very different focus, being mostly concerned with human beings finding personal fulfilment. How should one resolve this tension, if at all?
Meditation: Study 3 – Revelation 5
We are in the throne room of God – the centre from which the universe is governed. From this place, irresistibly, the future is given shape.
Three shifts in the scene caught my attention anew. The first is the shift from tears to joy. In verse 4 John relates how he wept bitterly at the news that no-one could be found who is worthy to set in motion God’s plan of action, sealed in the scroll by seven seals in his right hand. Let’s use our imaginations for the impact of this scene to become clear. Imagine you dream that you are transported to the throne-room of God and you hear him say, “I have a wonderful destination for all of creation and a plan that will take us there. Find me a person worthy to put this into action.” Next you see the angels gathering a glittering cast of wonderful spiritual, scientific, political, economical and other leaders: Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, Peter, John, and many able and trustworthy leaders from the modern era. But none of them are counted worthy. God’s wonderful plan cannot be put into action. What emotions will that evoke.
But John’s vision does not end there. Then comes the announcement by one of the elders that the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered and is about to open the seven seals. From that point onwards, the scene describes the mounting joy at the prospect of God’s plan for the world being implemented. This begs the question: Are we part of the joyful expectancy in the throne room, or is our outlook on the future dark and gloomy? To what extent does our knowledge of the risen Lord’s active presence in the world, of the cross as a victory determine your outlook on the future?
The second shift in the narrative is in the description of the Risen Lord. John hears the announcement of the Lion of the tribe of Judah, but he sees a slaughtered lamb. He was imagining a fearsome warrior wielding power, but instead he finds a lamb, with the marks of the slaughterer’s knife on its throat. He was imagining the victory as a victory won by force. Instead he discovers that the victory that determines the future is a victory won by sacrifice. Imagine what this meant for John’s congregations of persecuted Christians. Their martyrdom is a way of joining Christ in changing the world decisively and finally. Their view of the means by which to steer the world towards God’s preferred future totally transformed. Their greatest contribution to the future would not be by gaining power over others, but by love and sacrificial service.
The third shift in the narrative is the escalation of praise. The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures start the new song in praise of the Lamb (verse 8). In verse 11 they are joined by “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” of angels, singing with full voice. The announcement of the Lamb that was slaughtered taking the scroll from God’s right hand to open it and set God’s plan in motion was the greatest event in the existence of the universe and nothing less than this full-blooded anthem would serve to mark the occasion. With this as the overpowering reality concerning the future of our world, why should we be afraid of anything?!
Legend has it that one of the old Irish saints, Saint Brendan, always had a piece of string around his neck, with two balls of wax fixed to the ends. Whenever he heard music, he would insert the balls of wax in his ears and only remove them once the musicmaking had stopped. The reason for this, he explained, was that he had heard the angel choirs sing at his conversion and wanted to keep the memory alive as vividly as possible. None of us, to my knowledge, has had a similar experience, but John provides us with the next best thing. He sparks our imaginations to life and provides a verbal picture that has the potential of drowning out any pessimism about the future, even when earthly events stretch our faith to its limits. So, when circumstances threaten to overcome you, recall this scene to your mind’s eye.
Wednesday 22 April 2020
Study 2: Revelation 4:1 – 11. The centre of the universe
Revelation 4 draws back the veil from the entrance to the throne room of God, the centre of the universe where everything in creation is determined. – the real centre of power in contrast to the throne room of Ceasar. The throne is not vacant. The universe is not chaotic, nor is it ruled by blind chance.
The scene only concludes at the end of chapter 5, when the Lamb that was slain sets God’s plan of redemption in motion. Revelation 4 and 5 is the epicentre of the whole book from which all that follows flows. Mark that this scene does not depict a dualism – a complete separation of heaven and earth – but is filled with representatives of all living beings on earth and is also intimately concerned with all that transpires on earth.
It is interesting to note that other apocalyptic writings of the time gave detailed descriptions of the journey to the throne of God. Revelation, though, is not sensationalism, but reserves all attention for the description of the throne room.
Notes on the passage
Verse 1: The open door takes up the image in chapter 3 verse 20. In chapter 3 Christ is knocking at the door of the church in Laodicea, the church that has become lukewarm. The door might be closed out of fear for persecution or it might be closed because they have lost the ability to hear Christ reaching out to them. In the process they lose the presence of Christ when they gather for worship. In chapter 4 verse 1 a door opens and reveals the scene of heavenly worship that the Laodicean church was invited to join.
Verse 3: Jasper and cornelian are gemstones associated with the presence of God.
The rainbow is an allusion to the rainbow that is a sign of God’s promise to himself after the flood in the Noah-narrative to never cause such devastation again. Note that the rainbow is around the throne of God. This means that all that God does is done with the rainbow, the magnificent sign of God’s grace-filled intent, in plain sight.
Verse 4: The 24 elders are symbolic of the 12 tribal heads (representatives of the faithful in Old Testament times) and the 12 apostles (representatives of the faithful in the new dispensation). They reign with God on thrones, with crowns on their heads. Notice that they take their crowns off when the great worship scene commences in verse 10.
Verse 5: The seven flaming torches/spirits are well-known images in Jewish lore, that depicts God as ruling by having seven spirits do his bidding on earth. God is not a passive ruler biding his time while things go badly wrong in his kingdom, but a king who has his seven regents always at the ready to do his will.
Verse 6: The sea of glass/like crystal is a sign of the peace that descends when God is present. The sea was viewed as the place where the powers of chaos have been driven in Near Eastern mythology.
Verse 7: The four living creatures represent all living things on earth. The creature like a lion represents all wild animals, the creature like an ox represents all tame creatures, the creature with a human face represents all human beings, and the creature like an eagle represents all birds.
Verses 8-11: The mighty scene of worship described here continues “day and night without ceasing”. This destroys the notion that worship, and ordinary living can ever be separated. The scene described here is an unveiled description of the essence of all that exists. Our reason for being here and the whole point of our existence is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
Points to ponder and discussion questions
- Which of the metaphors in this passage struck you most?
- What insight into living our daily lives are presented by fact that we are doubly represented in the passage – as believers and as human beings?
- What can we infer from the fact that all living creatures are gathered up to worship God and not only human beings?
- How does this image impact the way we think about the present world-wide crisis?
Meditation: Study 2 – Revelation 4
In old Jewish mythology there are nine orders of angels. The cherubs, who have perfect knowledge of God, are the second highest in rank. The seraphs are the highest in rank, since they have perfect love of God. It is the seraphs that sing out “Holy, holy, holy!” before the throne in Isiah’s vision. According to the Jewish myth they are born from under God’s throne and, as they rise and see God, they sing the firsts “Holy!” and their love for God wells up so intensely that they burst into flames and are consumed totally. They are then born from under the throne for a second time, sing the second “Holy!”, and are again consumed by flames. Only by being born for a third time can they rise to sing the third “Holy!”.
The myth does not aim to describe technically what happens in the throneroom of God, but to strike us with wonder and awe. Much the same is what John’s description aims at. We need not understand all the details that fill this chapter from Revelation. The whole should bring us to our knees in awe. This, John knows, is lifechanging. This will enable us to be hopeful as Christians in a hostile and dangerous world. We have little trouble in claiming that God is in control. In times of tranquillity we would glibly answer this claim with, “Of course that is true.” But when things get out of hand doubt tends to creep in. Yes, we could suppress our fears for some time, but it is there, lurking in the background. It is only when we can conceive of the majestic God on his throne as John depicts the scene that we are able to dispel our doubts. Then we join the 24 elders in casting off our crowns before the throne of God and joining the heavenly choir in praising the glory of God.
John has a very practical concern here. He is not merely attempting to satisfy our curiosity about what it looks like in the throne room of God. No, he knows that the active involvement of God in our world sometimes loses its sense of being real for us. Other powers, earthly powers seem more real. When this happens, we may profess our trust in God, but it becomes very difficult to allow this to impact our lives in any real way. Ah, but after being in awe of the majesty and splendour of our God, all other powers fade in the impression they make on is – as they should! Then we can live in accordance with the standards of the new Jerusalem that is already descending on earth. Then the temptation to allow the powers of this world more than their due can be resisted.
There are many wonderful symbols in John’s vision, but you don’t need to understand all of them. If the scene he describes brings you to worship, that is enough. Yet, focusing on some of the details enriches your experience of the vision. My personal favourite is the rainbow around the throne. It is an allusion to the rainbow God hangs in the sky after the flood, when He promises himself to never allow his wrath to push him this far again. It is a sign of God’s immense grace. And to know that he looks at me, always through this rainbow! And to know that he tends to the world, always through this rainbow! This part of the picture helps me deal with our current fragility in a very practical way.
Another detail in the vision strikes me in this time: the four creatures before the throne that act as representative of all living creatures on earth. All of his creatures matter to God and are represented in the throne room. Creation matters to God. I am struck every time when I see another videoclip or photograph that shows creation reviving itself while human beings are largely in lockdown: blue skies in Bombay where there was air pollution, clear water running in Venice’s canals and little fish, dolphins and manatees venturing into places they previously avoided… I could go on and on. God loves this world an all that is in it. We can find peace in this knowledge.
Revelation 5 (next week’s study) takes this one step further: God has a plan for our world, and we will witness this plan being set into motion.
Wednesday April 15th 2020
Revelation – An Introduction
What Revelation is not
Revelation is not (in the words of GK Chesterton) a guide to “the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.” Neither is it a depiction of the final short span of time before the final trumpet blows. In addition, it is not a description of historical epochs that lead up to the consummation, described to help us predict the end of history. There have been many attempts in the past to cast Revelation in one of these moulds. A proper study of the book, though, shows up all these possible interpretations as fanciful – sometimes pushed to the point of the bizarre and dangerous. To quote Chesterton again: “And though St. John saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”
What Revelation is
Revelation is a pastoral letter to churches in Asia in the first century when the persecution and social marginalization of Christians started to make itself felt. This was also a time fraught with crisis in the Roman empire: wars, famines, earthquakes, the eruption of Vesuvius in 79. All these phenomena cast a dark pall over Christians and set them to wondering what it meant to claim God as sovereign and Jesus as his anointed king.
Revelation is an interpretation of history – the history of the world of his time – but done in such a way that we can learn from it to interpret the history of our own time. The present, in John’s narrative, is not merely influenced by the past, but is shaped by the future. History is heading somewhere hopeful, and we already experience some of it amid our earthly travails. Knowing where we are heading affects how we act in the present.
Revelation is aimed at the imagination and the ear. Revelation is a pictorial narrative. It is filled with ‘special effects’ that intend to penetrate the hopelessness and fear of its audience. This does not make it anti-intellectual, but it should first be read in accordance with its primary mode of communication before our analytical faculties kick in.
Revelation is apocalyptic literature – a well-known genre of the time. God is in the driving seat of the curve of history and will bring everything to a conclusion, a final goal. Therefore, our existence is not meaningless. No distressing state of affairs is ever final. God acts in history, though not in a deterministic fashion that eliminates human causality or that can ascribe the evils of this world to God. Apocalyptic literature surfaces in times when evil and suffering in this world is experienced as so pervasive that only God’s intervention can turn the tide. No human effort seems able to effectively eradicate the present evil. Apocalyptic literature operates from the presupposition that God’s intervention is certain and that the present crisis will not endure. Yet Apocalyptic literature is not an attempt to make predictions and to set time scales. It is not concerned with the question, “When will the end come?” but with the question, “What is the meaning of our suffering?”
Revelation is hard to understand for modern Christians but was immediately accessible for its first audience. Apocalyptic literature uses symbolic, mythologic language that is alien to us. In addition, we are not as steeped in Old Testament terminology and passages as the first Christians were. (There are approximately 500 allusions to texts from the Old Testament (in a book with only 404 verses!), though there are no fully quoted passages.)
Revelation is worth the effort. It contains a powerful message for Christians in all ages, and especially for Christians in times as troubled as our own.
The structure and message of the book of Revelation
The book can be briefly summarized as follows: The risen Christ appears to John on the Island of Patmos and he is given messages to send to seven churches in Asia (the current Turkey). He is then caught up in the heavenly throne-room where he sees Christ open a sealed scroll. Each seal, as it is opened, offers us a graphic scene of a world in travail, with God at work backstage. The seventh seal, rather than being the end, opens into seven trumpets being blown to open seven scenes, after which we witness seven bowls with the wrath of God being poured out. The bowls climax with the destruction of Babylon (a thinly veiled allusion to Rome) and lead into a description of the final triumph of God as Christ returns to establish himself in the new Jerusalem as the capital of a redeemed creation.
One would do Revelation a great disservice to view either the sevenfold scenes opened by the breaking of the seals, the sounding of the trumpets or the tipping of the bowls of wrath as historic sequences that lay out stages of history that will play out in the order that they are presented. They are more akin to three boxes of photographs, each with an enlargement (the seventh in the three sequences) that receives more attention. They overlap and have no pretence of laying out some grand planned scheme. Yet, they are all open to the final, triumphant dawn of the new heaven and new earth. There are also a few breaks in the pattern where John already lets us in on a vision of the future victory over evil that is still veiled in the present troubled time.
Early Christians were guilty of two inadequate views of the consummation of history that have persisted to our day. Both have immense practical implications for Christian living. Some were so focused on the second coming of Christ that the present lost its value for them. This caused them to become otherworldly and reckless in naïve ways. They regarded the world as irredeemable and salvation as only possible via a final purge that would only be survived by Christians. Others paid almost exclusive attention to present concerns to such an extent that they became worldly and caught up in the belief that the future could only be an extension of the trajectory of the present. Revelation presents us with a corrective that combines concern for the present with a focus on the future in a way that honours the importance of our present life by aiming it in the direction God is already heading with creation.
The familiar pattern of apocalyptic literature is followed by starting with present troubles, portraying them as intensifying just before the end, and resolving into the ultimate victory of God and the end itself. According to this pattern things will first go worst before getting better.
The flow of the book presents these first Christian (and, by inference, us) with the great question: Will you orient your lives to the ‘Great city of Babylon’ (in all its earthly forms) that will be judged by God, or to the ‘Holy City’ that will be redeemed by God?
The six studies
Wednesday 15 April Study 1: Revelation 1:9-20. A vision of the risen Christ
Wednesday 22 April Study 2: Revelation 4:1 – 11. The centre of the universe
Wednesday 29 April Study 3: Revelation 5:1-14. God’s initiative unveiled
Wednesday 6 May Study 4: Revelation 6:1-16. Christian living in an inhospitable world
Wednesday 13 May Study 5: . Revelation 18.The fall of great Babylon
Wednesday 20 May Study 6: . Revelation 21:2, 9-22:5. The new Jerusalem descending
Study 1: Revelation 1:9-20. A vision of the risen Christ
Notes on the passage
John is writing to Christians that need encouragement. To do this he starts with a description of the risen Christ in a way that sets the tone for the rest of the book. The following aspects of the description is particularly noteworthy:
Verse 10: The risen Lord displays his concern for his church in travail by speaking to them through John. He takes initiative when John turns to him in prayer.
Verse 12-13: The risen Lord is to be found among the seven lampstands, symbols of the seven churches. He is not aloof or somewhere, far away in heaven.
Verse 13: The long robe is the attire of a priest, while the golden sash is that worn by a king.
Verse 14-16: Seven attributes of the risen Lord is noted – a sure allusion to the shape of a Jewish menorah, where the middle lamp is the most important of the seven. These attributes are paired like the lamps that make up a menorah: One with seven, two with six, three with 5 and, in the most important place, the fourth attribute. All these attributes resonate with depictions of God or of the Son of Man in the book of Daniel.
Attributes one and seven: Hair as white as snow, as white wool (1) and a face like the sun shining with full force (7) is God-language for Christ. We find the first as a description of God in Daniel 7:9 and the second as a description of God’s presence (see Daniel 10 and Ezekiel 43). Jewish lore spoke of the shekinah – a bright radiance that accompanied God’s presence.
Attributes two and six: The flaming eyes (2) and the double-edged sword (6) depicts the risen Lord as the one for whom nothing is hidden: He sees all and uncovers all. No wrong can be hidden from him.
Attributes three and five: The risen Lord’s power over all the earth is depicted by the image of feet like burnished bronze and his right hand holding the seven starts. The feet of bronze is and image taken from Daniel 2 where a statue with feet of clay depicts the kingdoms of this world. Unlike worldly powers, the risen Lord has feet of bronze that are not brittle like clay, but that also does not weaken with rust. The image of seven stars in Christ’s right hand (the hand with which he acts) is taken from the world of astrology, that was prevalent at the time. People believed that the seven stars (the ones they could see before the advent of telescopes) controlled our destiny. Here the risen Lord is seen as controlling the stars themselves!
The fourth attribute: A voice like the voice of many waters is a powerful image that combines the love and the power of the risen Lord. The sound of a thundering waterfall and the raging sea is the only sound in creation that can simultaneously sound like a gentle whisper and thunder.
Verse 10: The risen Lord displays his concern for his church in travail by speaking to them through John. He takes initiative when John turns to him in prayer.
Verse 17: The phrase “Do not be afraid…” was the usual greeting of the risen Christ when he appeared to the disciples before his ascension.
Verse 20: The seven stars are given a second meaning. They are the “angels” of the seven churches. This could either mean something like guardian angels that are especially concerned with the congregations. In apocalyptic literature we often find this way of depicting earthly phenomena as having extensions or representative forms in the heavenly realm. It could also refer to the seven human leaders of the congregations that God had provided. Either way, it points to the fact that God has not forgotten them and takes special care by having an emissary specially dedicated to take care of them.
Points to ponder and discussion questions
- The description of the risen Christ in verses 14-16 is not intended to merely describe what Jesus is like but conveys who Jesus is for the Christians in crisis. It is an intensely personal description, meant to elicit a response. When you consider your current state of mind, what response does this description of our Lord elicit from you?
- What impression does the description of the risen Lord among the lamps leave you with?
- Do you think there could be some significance in the depiction of the seven churches as lamps, considering the troubled times in the Roman empire? Does this say something about the significance of our own congregation for Edinburgh and Scotland?
- If you imagine the risen Lord as described here, how do you resonate with John’s response as described in verse 17? What would it have done to you to Hear Jesus’ words in response to John as we find them in verses 17 and 18?
- How does this passage speak to our current situation with the world-wide devastation wreaked by the coronavirus and the fears of economic depression in its wake?