Monday, July 28, 2014


Sermon - Matthew 13:31-33

An audio of this sermon is available here.

Discussing Jesus' use of parables, theologian Robert H. Stein notes that: 'Jesus repeatedly used illustrations from daily life. These often contain a distinctly Palestinian or even Galilean flavour. This was originally intended to make the parables more understandable to Jesus' audience, but today it serves also to authenticate them. It is clear, for example, that the Sower [Matthew 14:4 ff.] reveals a Palestinian method of farming in which sowing preceded plowing.' (Bruce M. Mezger & Michael D. Coogan ed.'s, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 567-568.) Hence 'most scholars agree that in the parables one stands on the bedrock of authentic Jesus tradition.' (Ibid, p. 568.)

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he said:

…you should pray like this:
‘Our Father in heaven,
Your name be honoured as holy.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.’ (Matthew 6: 9-10, HCSB)

First, note that this teaching gives us a definition of 'kingdom'. Your 'kingdom' is where 'your will is done'. God's kingdom is where his perfect will (not just his permissive will) is done.

Second, notice that to a certain pre-Christian may of thinking, this might appear to be a very strange teaching. What sort of a god proclaims that he has a kingdom that isn’t really here yet? What sort of a god tells those who believe in Him to ask that His will be done on earth as in heaven, rather than simply imposing his will with some smiting (preferably with brim stone)? As it turns out, the sort of god who gives these strange teachings is the sort of God that Jesus claims to reveal and to be. As Psalm 103:3 says: 'The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.' (KJV) He is the sort of God who becomes incarnate of a virgin teenage mother and is born in backwater Bethlehem. He is the sort of God who prefers to elicit our loving obedience by suffering for us than to have us suffer the ultimate consequence of our sin. As Joel 2:13 puts it: 'Let your remorse tear at your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful. He is not easily angered; he is full of kindness and anxious not to punish you.' (TLB)

Jesus' use of parables - in what we might call a Socratic teaching style - is wholly in keeping with his suffering-servant-king approach to the task of revelation. parables are designed not to force a message upon the casual listener. whilst yet revealing their meaning to those with sufficiently humble ears to hear. jesus would much rather entice the humble than browbeat the lofty. The Pharisees demand a miracle of Jesus for their personal satisfaction. He calls them a 'wicked and adulterous generation' who will be given no sign 'except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.' (Matthew 12:39-40, NIV.)

Jesus tells the parables of growth in Matthew 13:31-33 in the midst of rejection. He wants to encourage his disciples not to judge the kingdom of God by present appearances, for the kingdom is a growing reality. As theologian R.T. France explains:

the… parables of growth focus on the paradox of insignificant or hidden beginnings and a triumphant climax. In Jesus’ ministry this was a real issue: for those outside the disciple group it affected the credibility of an announcement of God’s reign which had apparently little to show for it; for the disciples there was the natural impatience to see God’s kingdom in all its glory, and the total eradication of all that opposed it. (Matthew, IVP Academic, 1985, p. 231.)

These parables deal with the inaugurated but not yet fully flourishing nature of God’s kingdom on earth. And despite the intervening centuries, this is a reality that Christians face as inhabitants of God’s kingdom today:

31 Jesus told them another story:
The kingdom of heaven is like what happens when a farmer plants a mustard seed in a field. 32 Although it is the smallest of all seeds, it grows larger than any garden plant and becomes a tree. Birds even come and nest on its branches.
33 Jesus also said:
The kingdom of heaven is like what happens when a woman mixes a little yeast into three big batches of flour. Finally, all the dough rises. (CEV)

At the present moment, the kingdom appears small, but it's greatness will be seen. At the present moment, the gospel is opposed by many for failing to agree with their worldly agendas; but the gospel is God's blessing for the whole world and will lead to the transformation of the whole world in the new heavens and earth. At the present moment, even today, the kingdom can look insignificant, like yeast compared to flour by volume when baking bread. Three measures of meal was about 40 liters, which would make enough bread for 100 people. So, just like yeast, the kingdom of God has a powerful effect over time.

We experience this in our own lives and communities of discipleship as we put on the glory of Christ over time: 'we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.' (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV.) As Jessee Jackson once said: I am not a perfect servant. I am a public servant doing my best against the odds. As I develop and serve, be patient with me. God is not finished with me yet.' ( _Done_With_Me_Yet/.)

The mustard seed was proverbially minute, though not literally the smallest seed; and Jesus literally says it grows ‘greater than the vegetables’, contrasting the full-grown shrub of about 3 meters with other garden produce. Indeed, Jesus’ imagery calls to mind Daniel 4:10-12 (HCSB):

10 In the visions of my mind as I was lying in bed, I saw this:
There was a tree in the middle of the earth,
and its height was great.
11 The tree grew large and strong;
its top reached to the sky,
and it was visible to the ends of the earth.
12 Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit was abundant,
and on it was food for all.
Wild animals found shelter under it,
the birds of the air lived in its branches,
and every creature was fed from it.

In other words, the kingdom of God will provide refuge not just for Jews but for Gentiles as well. Its fruit, the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of eternal life, is meant for all. At the present time that fruit may seem insignificant, but it is ripening, and the great harvest is coming. Thanks be to God for his word!


Tuesday, July 08, 2014


Sermon - John 3:1-15

An audio podcast of this sermon is available here.

Today’s gospel reading is John 3:1-15, but I think the best way to unpack this passage is to incorporate it into my comments:

There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Him [Jesus] at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs You do unless God were with him.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

Extra-biblical literature tells us of two first century Jewish Nicodemus’s, both belonging to the Gurion family. The portrait of Nicodemus in John corresponds well with what is know of this family. John’s Nicodeumus might well have been uncle to one Naqdimon ben Gurion mentioned in the Talmud.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. This has often been interpreted as a secret assignation, but may simply refer to the natural time for Torah study. Either way, Nicodemus had seen the miraculous signs and he wants a better understanding of the message to which those signs point.

Many find themselves in Nicodemus’s sandals; intrigued but baffled by Jesus, needing time to get to grips with his message, but willing to spend that time because they see enough about Jesus to think that time spent trying to understand him will be time well spent.

What follows won’t make much sense unless you know that in Greek the words for ‘again’, ‘anew’ and ‘from above’ are the same word: ‘anothen’. With that crucial bit of information in mind, here’s the rest of the passage:

Jesus replied, “I assure you: Unless someone is born anothen, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
“But how can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked Him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?”
Jesus answered, “I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can these things be?” asked Nicodemus.
“Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things?” Jesus replied. “I assure you: We speak what We know and We testify to what We have seen, but you do not accept Our testimony. If I have told you about things that happen on earth and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about things of heaven? No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven - the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.

So you see what happened: Jesus was saying that in order to see ‘the kingdom of God’ Nicodemus had to be ‘born anew’ or ‘from above’ by allowing God’s grace to forgive him and raise his human nature (his ‘flesh’) up into the spiritual life of God in a transformative relationship.

Jesus’ reference to water doesn’t refer to the first birth, or to baptism, but recalls the imagery of spiritual cleansing and re-birth in Ezekiel 36:25-27:

‘I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and carefully observe My ordinances.’

So, according to Jesus, salvation isn’t a matter of being born into the right tribe or ethnic group, nor of slavishly practicing a set of predictable legal rules in order to pass a heavenly graduation test. Rather, salvation is a matter of allowing oneself to being caught up into the wind-like spiritual freedom of God’s spirit. Here it helps to know that the Greek word for ‘wind’ and for ‘spirit’ is one and the same word (pneuma).

Nicodemus objects that he can’t be literally ‘born again’. Some readers suppose Nicodemus is simply being rather thick and cloth-eared at this point; but I wonder if he isn’t being deliberately evasive. As John 1:11 says: ‘his own did not receive him.’ In either case, Nicodemus’ misunderstanding ironically led to the modern phrase about being ‘a born again Christian’, a phrase that metaphorically means just what Jesus meant by being ‘born anew’. Jesus uses a different metaphor in John 15:4-5:

Remain in Me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me.’

Likewise, seeing ‘the kingdom of God’ is yet another way of talking about relationship with God in and through Jesus. The ‘kingdom of God’ is where-ever God’s perfect will is being followed, and ‘seeing the kingdom’ is equivalent to the more familiar expression in John of having ‘eternal life’. Jesus defines what he means by ‘eternal life’ in John 17:3: ‘This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and the One You have sent—Jesus Christ.’ Note that this isn’t a matter of merely knowing about God and Jesus as His Christ, but of actually knowing God and knowing Jesus as His Christ or Messiah.

With the phrase ‘eternal life’, the concept of unending duration is present, but it isn’t the main idea. The main idea is a certain quality of life seen in Jesus: ‘Christ is Himself both the personification and guarantee of this life.’ (Zondervan Bible Commentary). Theologian Alister McGrath comments that:

‘The “eternal life” in question must not be thought of as if it were some kind of infinite extension of everyday existence. Rather, it refers to a new quality of life, begun here and now through faith, which is consummated and fulfilled through resurrection. This eternal life is only made possible through the love of God, which is shown in the astonishing fact that he loves his world so much that his only Son should die for it.’ (NIV Bible Handbook, p. 369.)

It’s interesting to observe that Rabbinic tradition speaks of one of Jesus’ disciples being called ‘Nakkai’ or ‘Buni’, which is a Hebrew equivalent to the Greek name ‘Nicodemus’.  Moreover, Christian tradition says that Nicodemus was martyred sometime in the 1st century. This certainly chimes with the fact that, although Nicodemus didn’t receive the message of Jesus in John 3, John later tells us how Nicodemus stood up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-52) and how he helped Joseph of Arimathea entomb Jesus, buying the myrrh and aloes for the burial. As John 1:12-13 says:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God - children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.’



Sermon - James 1:13-21

An audio podcast of this sermon is available here.

James the Apostle by Peter Paul Rubens.

Today’s gospel reading is James 1:17-21, but to give it some context, I’m going to start at James 1:13:

No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by God.” For God is not tempted by evil and He Himself doesn’t tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived [or ‘led astray’], my dearly loved brothers. Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning. By His own choice, He gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the first fruits of His creatures. My dearly loved brothers, understand this: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you.

The major concern of James’ letter of wisdom is encouraging Christians to persevere with integrity as they ‘experience various trials’ (James 1:2). Current events remind us that even today being Christian can mean facing literal trial and persecution. Remember Dr Meriam Ibrahim, condemned to hang by a court in Sudan this week after she refused to renounce her faith in Jesus. Remember the school girls abducted by ‘Boko Haram’ in Nigeria. A video from their captors shows about a hundred girls dressed in hijabs, chanting verses from the Koran. The terrorist leader says: ‘These girls have become Muslims.’

Such events naturally raise questions in our minds about God and evil, and it’s good to wrestle with such questions. However, James isn’t a book of philosophy. It’s a pastoral letter to Christians under pressure. James isn’t addressing the question: ‘How can God allow hardship?’ He is addressing the question: ‘What attitude should Christians adopt towards the hardship in their lives?’

Although the word for ‘trials’ and ‘temptations’ is the same word in the Greek, it seems clear that verse 13 signals a shift in James’ topic, from the outward trials of persecution to the inner trials of temptation, from our holy trials to our unholy trials as it were. Douglas Moo comments:

‘God, James has said, promises a blessing to those who endure trials. Every trial, every external difficulty, carries with it a temptation, an inner enticement to sin. God may bring, or allow, trials; he is not, James insists, the author of temptation.’

God doesn’t entice us to do wrong. But doesn’t Genesis 22:1 say ‘God tempted Abraham’? Well, no, not in the majority of translations it doesn’t. Genesis 22:1 says God ‘tested’ Abraham. When God tests someone, He is providing them with an opportunity to rise to the occasion and He isn’t willing or desiring them to fail the test. Whether or not our trials are intended by God as part of his perfect will, or merely allowed by God as part of his permissive will, God isn’t deliberately trying to trip us up.

In verses 14 and 15 James lays out our problem with temptation and sin: ‘each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.’ In verse 17 James begins to lay out the solution: ‘Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning.’ There are two main points here. The first point isn’t that God and only God is the source of all and only good things. The word translated here as ‘every’ has a range of means, including ‘all manner of’. The point is simply that God is a generous giver of all sorts of good gifts, including the physical cosmos. The second point is that, by contrast with the unreliable, varying light given to us by the sun and moon, God’s gift-giving is characterised by a reliable consistency. The word translated here as variation is used in Greek for the setting of the teeth in a saw or for the alternation of seasons. James is saying that God’s desire for our salvation doesn’t wax and wane like the seasons or the phases of the moon. God doesn’t act against his own purposes as if he were double-minded.

Several commentators note that the phrase ‘the Father of lights’ echoes the Jewish morning prayer, which moves from acknowledging God as creator to God as redeemer, so it comes as no surprise when verse 18 re-introduces God’s gift of salvation for those who ‘look into the perfect law of freedom and continue in it’ (James 1:25). The gospel is part of God’s perfect will – The NRSV translates the start of verse 18 ‘He, in fulfillment of his purpose’ - and God won’t give with one hand whilst taking away with the other.

God’s clear intention is that we be the figurative ‘first fruits’ of the earthly creation. In 1 Corinthians 15:20 the Old Testament image of the ‘first fruits’ of the harvest, which were dedicated to God in remembrance of his faithfulness, is applied to Christ. Here in James the image is applied to those who are ‘in’ Christ. Again, the emphasis is upon God’s faithful provision for his people.

In the light of God’s character and provision, it makes no sense for us to say ‘I am being tempted by God’. Of course, we can say ‘God is allowing me to be tempted’; but we can’t absolve ourselves of moral responsibility by noting that God has permitted us moral responsibility! Nor should we dissolve the foundation of our best hope and motivation in the face of temptation by falsely portraying God as actively opposing his own gospel intent.

When we face temptation it is of course true to say ‘you win some, you lose some’. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul celebrates how ‘We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.’ On the other hand, Paul laments in Romans 7:21: ‘I want to do good, but in practice I do evil.’ (J.B. Phillips)

Sometimes we endure temptation by not giving in to it. At other times we don’t endure, and our evil desires give birth to sin. The important thing to grasp is this: if you feel guilty because you failed to endure temptation, then your sin isn’t yet ‘fully grown’. Rather, your guilt, that pained sense of failure, is itself a new trial, a new temptation trying to draw you away from the forgiveness and transforming power of God. The new temptation is to give up the good fight, to stop enduring and persevering in the process of humbly receiving the implanted word. It’s the temptation to say ‘Surely God won’t forgive me again’. It’s the temptation to feel, ‘God can’t fix me, so why bother trying? It’s the temptation to say ‘I am being tempted by God.’ So let us not be led astray, my brothers and sisters, but let us ‘humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save’ us. Amen.



Mores & Ethics

Mores (from Latin mōrēs or ‘habits’) is a term coined by William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), an early U.S. sociologist, to refer to social norms that are a) originally informal in nature even if they have been formalised, b) are more widely observed and have greater moral significance than other social norms, and c) are attached to greater social penalties. For example, mores include societal taboos against incest and pederasty.

Sociologists contrast mores with ‘folkways’ (also a term coined by Sumner), which are social norms for routine or casual interaction, including ideas about appropriate greetings and proper dress in different situations. For example:

In many rural regions, people crossing paths in the street nod and say ‘hello’ or ‘how are you?’ Drivers meeting one another on remote country roads give each other a quick wave. But in most urban regions, neither walkers nor drivers acknowledge one another unless provoked. Urban residents who travel to remote places may notice the difference and find the folkways unusual. The local residents may find the urban newcomers strange or a little cold if they do not offer greetings, but they will probably not sanction them formally or informally. Likewise, in the city, residents may think newcomers from the country a bit odd if they give unsolicited greetings, but those greetings will probably not draw sanctions.[1]

Hence mores ‘distinguish the difference between right and wrong, while folkways draw a line between right and rude. While folkways may raise an eyebrow if violated, mores dictate morality and come with heavy consequences.[2]

One might say that folkways describe behaviours that a society considers right or wrong only relative to that society, in that its possible to recognize that other societies have different ‘club rules’ and that there is no objectively correct set of such rules per se. By contrast, moral mores relate to beliefs about moral values that are considered to be trans-cultural and even objective in nature. Thus eating soup with the ‘wrong’ spoon at a dinner party would be an example of transgressing a ‘folkway’. The other guests would consider one uncouth, uncultured or unfashionable, but wouldn’t think one was morally evil, for using the ‘wrong’ spoon. On the other hand, using one’s dinner knife to murder the other dinner guests wouldn’t merely be frowned upon as rude, but would earn you a jail sentence for doing something considered morally wrong.

The distinction between mores and folkways can be drawn irrespective of how one answers the further meta-ethical question of whether or not anything is objectively right or wrong in the first place, since it only requires that people believe some mores or values to be objectively correct. Nevertheless, moral values are either Objective (independent of the subject) or Subjective (not independent of, and therefore relative to, the subject – hence this view is also called ‘moral relativism’). Moral Objectivism claims that there are moral truths that don’t depend upon our belief in them. For instance, one culture may believe that cannibalism is right, and another may think cannibalism is wrong. In order to argue that at least one of these cultures is wrong, one must be a moral objectivist (the objectivist needn’t claim to know which culture is wrong to coherently claim that one of them is wrong).

Suppose one group of people think the sun goes around the earth, and another thinks the opposite. Scientists wouldn’t say ‘These are equally true claims’, but that ‘At least one of these contradictory claims is wrong’. In this case, we know the earth goes around the sun; those who think otherwise, however sincerely, are simply mistaken. Moreover, our coming to know that the earth goes around the sun was a matter of discovering the truth, not inventing it. Likewise, moral objectivists see ethics as a matter of discovering objective moral facts about right and wrong, facts that hold even if we sincerely disagree with them. Hence, according to the moral objectivist, if there’s a moral disagreement, the fact that some people think one way and others think another way simply means that some people’s beliefs are mistaken. William Lane Craig defines moral objectivism as the view that:

moral values . . . are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not. Thus, to say, for example, that the Holocaust was objectively wrong is to say that it was wrong even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was right and that it would still have been wrong even if the Nazis has won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brain-washing everyone who disagreed with them.[3]

As Thomas L. Carson and Paul K. Moser explain, meta-ethical relativism or subjectivism: ‘states that moral judgements are not objectively true or false and thus that different individuals or societies can hold conflicting moral judgements without any of them being mistaken.’[4]

According to subjectivism, the belief that slavery is okay and the belief that it is not are equally valid, there being no objective fact of the matter. However, it seems obvious that great moral reforms have come about when one person, or a group of people, have stood out against the false ethical mores of their generation and by so doing have not merely changed things, but changed them for the better. The abolition of the slave trade was brought about because William Wilberforce and his friends believed that it was objectively wrong even though it was both socially acceptable and legal, and the abolitionists worked to convince other people of this fact. But if subjectivism is accepted, then the change from a society that traded people to one that didn’t was not progress, because for the subjectivist there can be no moral progress, only change. On the subjectivist’s theory there is no objective value-added between slave-trading Britain and non-slave-trading Britain, because there is no objective value to add.

Here’s the same ethical dilemma in general terms: Does one maintain that subjectivism is true, and therefore accept that one cannot progress morally, or does one reject subjectivism in favour of objectivism and so comply with the intuition that a state without the slave trade is better than one with the slave trade? One can’t have it both ways. Either subjectivism or our intuition that some things are objectively wrong must go out the window. Which horn of the dilemma is most plausible? According to the objectivist, the proposition that some things are wrong (e.g. slavery) is more plausible than the claim that subjectivism is true. As atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen argues: ‘moral truisms... are as available to me or to any atheist as they are to the believer [in God]. You can be... confident of the correctness or, if you will, the [objective] truth of these moral utterances... They are more justified than any sceptical philosophical theory that would lead you to question them.’[5]

Recommended Resources

Francis J. Beckwith & Gregory Koukl. Relativism; Feet firmly planted in mid-air (Baker, 1998)
Robert K Garcia & Nathan L King (ed.’s). Is Goodness Without God Good Enough?: A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics (AltaMira Press, 2009)
Francis J. Beckwith, ‘Why I Am Not A Moral Relativist’
Peter Kreeft, ‘A Refutation of Moral Relativism’

[2] John J. Macionis & Linda M. Gerber, Sociology 7th ed. (Pearson Canada 2010), p. 65.
[3] William Lane Craig, God? A debate between a Christian and an Atheist (Oxford, 2004), p. 17.
[4] Thomas L. Carson & Paul K. Moser, introduction, Moral Relativism; a reader (Oxford, 2001), p. 2.

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