Lamenting Lent

(I’m terrible at keeping up this blog. To be honest,  I think the best term for how I use it is ‘anti-social media’. It seems like a better place to put my thoughts than a journal and, if anyone reads it—so much the better! But here we go.)

It’s day 14 of Lent. It’s a season about which I’ve been conflicted in the past, seeing it as the worst kind of dead tradition, perhaps even militating against the spirit of the gospel. Surely the essence of the gospel is what God has given up for us, rather than the other way round?

Well, that’s obviously true. But I’m entirely sure that the disciplines of Lent can be completely in harmony with the truth of justification by faith alone, completely in harmony with the gospel of the God who saves freely and graciously in Christ. The logic of Lent is no different from the logic of fasting, which Christ has no qualms in promoting for His people.

It’s no different from any other spiritual discipline, like regular reading of Scripture or private times of devotion to the Lord. Of course my inner legalist can twist Lent into self-justification, falling foul of all Paul condemns in Colossians 2:20-23. But then, it can do the same to my fasting, my prayer and my Bible-reading.

As an Anglican, I love the structure that the church year gives me. Although it’s a very poor master in my spiritual life, it is an excellent servant. It helps me to order my year, makes sense of the changing yet cyclical seasons of my life, and is a rhythm for my devotion which confronts me with the grace of the gospel again and again. This wonderful gift of an ordered church year, strung through with festivals and periods in which we can reflect intentionally on the grace of God, is something I’ve come to enjoy a great deal.  That it can be twisted out of shape is no reason to reject it entirely.

Lent is particularly wonderful for my soul. I’ve found that I need this season in which to reflect on my great need of the Lord’s mercy, to pray earnestly for the Holy Spirit to sink a sense of my need more deeply into my heart, and to prepare for the momentous and wonderful reality of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I’ve also wanted to make more of it than just giving up crisps/alcohol/coffee/other delicious vices. So this year, I’ve decided to spent Lent in the book of Lamentations. I want to study it, read it over and over, let it sink into my heart and hear its unique voice in the polyphony of Scripture. I’m already enjoying it a great deal, and I hope to share a little bit here some of the insights I’m receiving, as I go.

Why Lamentations? It is a book that fascinates me. Here’s where that fascination began: I love singing, and a few tenor arias in the middle of Handel’s Messiah have been among my favourites. They are the ones which describe, and give voice to, the Messiah’s agony on the Cross. I will probably write about this a lot more, but the aria ‘Behold and see’—taken from Lamentations 1:12—has moved me profoundly. I have found myself drawn to this book as I’ve reflected on Christ’s death, and wanted to dig into the relationship between the destruction of the Temple, and Christ’s own death. Mark 14:58 and John 2:19 indicate that Jesus viewed His own death as the destruction of the True Temple, and His resurrection as its wonderful vindication. That got me thinking about the book as a whole. But the parallels are wider.

In the Church of England’s lectionary for Holy Week, the whole book is read out at morning and evening prayer. In Jewish practice, this book is read out on the 9th of Av, a day commemorating the destruction of the Temple and the miseries of Jewish people since. This liturgical usage is something I want to explore for myself. It seems like a much more honest and measured way of receiving the gift of this book from God—rather than just quoting Lamentations 3:23 apart from its gut-wrenching context.

And much more about the book fascinates me. I very much need to hear what it says about the connection between sin and suffering, and how this lays the ground for real repentance. I think I often view repentance in a glib way, and my repenting is shallow and formulaic. Lamentations teaches me what gritty repentance looks like. (A side thought: how fascinating that this book about grief, which I always experience as chaotic, should be structured so poetically and precisely! Woe to those who think that being authentic in expressing emotion and being structured/lyrical/eloquent are mutually exclusive: have they not read this book?)

Speaking personally, the past 6 weeks have been full of mission weeks. In my apologetics, I’ve often cautioned against quick and blithe responses to the deep tragedies of suffering. Citing the Book of Job—which is being preached at church at the moment—I’ve wanted to point out the real possibility of innocent suffering. I’ve wanted to cut short fruitless attempts at working backwards from suffering to some sin, the dry algebra of so much theodicy. These are right things. Yet—ironically—I wonder if I fail to heed my own warning. Job must speak about suffering, and I must hear what the Spirit is saying through that book. But that’s true for Lamentations, too. And the fact is, in my own life, I absolutely know that some of my sufferings have come down to my own sin.

Finally, I wonder if it’s extremely easy to become unbalanced in our portrait of the Almighty. The God who never punishes sin, who never crushes the wicked and the evil-doer, the God whose mercy extends into license…how can I fear that God? How can I worship something so obviously ineffectual, and so obviously less than the awesome and holy God revealed in the pages of Lamentations? Lamentations reveals a God whose faithfulness delivers the judgment sin deserves; that is why it can also reveal the God whose faithfulness leads Him to show compassion that is new every morning.

Lately, two high-profile media cases have weighed on me. One was the revelation that a man closely involved in a summer camp network was a terrible abuser of young boys in the name of Christ, and that some I have always respected more or less covered it up. The other is a clergyman who—it is alleged—committed suicide after details of several affairs came to light, whose work (including a book on the doctrine of sin) I have often found encouraging. These two cases have really shaken me—if I have any doubts about the Christian faith, it is how things like this can happen, and so few godly people have spotted it. I am turning to this book to be refreshed in my understanding of my own sin, my own need for mercy, my own capacity to fall were not the Lord to keep me.

I want to finish with this thought: that we have the book of Lamentations at all. What does it say about God that His Spirit should inspire and craft these agonised utterances? Not less than this: so great is His mercy that it gives us room and space to bring the flawed, dark and broken reality of sin into the light. This is the mercy that enables His own to rise from the ashes. Such mercy knows how to turn winter into spring, how to turn Lent into Easter. Such mercy can take anguished self-knowledge and sorrow at sin, and use it to pave the way to the reckless joy and security that is ours in union with Jesus–crucified, risen and ascended.

Embodied praise: on lifting hands

Changing my mind (and body…)

It seems every time I write on my blog I end up recording how I’ve changed my mind on something: the Lord’s supper, baptism and now, another entry after months of silence, recording another change of mind. (As a tangent, I’m not sure this worries me: in wanting to follow Jesus and take God at His word, I am committed to changing wherever I find Scripture leading me to change. As long as the impetus to change comes from His Spirit, then let the changing continue!)

But I write this to record something that is not just a change of mind: it’s a change of attitude that’s led to change in outward, physical ways. Once, when I sang in church, I’d keep my arms down by my sides. When I prayed, I’d put my hands down somewhere unobtrusive, or just folded my arms.

I did this with two main motivations. Firstly, it was a tribal marker: most people at the church I went to set this pattern, and most of the people who did something different went to other churches. Secondly, I was reacting against what I saw as two potential errors, either emotional manipulation (doing something with my body in order to feel a certain way) or empty ritual, in which my body and my heart didn’t line up. I wouldn’t have said I was against other people raising their hands per se, but I certainly wasn’t for it. I’d even rush in with how potentially unhelpful it was: emotionally manipulative for Christians, weird for outsiders, not the culture of the church I was in and so an unloving thing to do if it offended others there.

But I’ve changed my mind, and more besides. Now, when I pray, I like to hold out my hands. And when I sing, I like to raise my hands from time to time to express what I’m singing about. And at the heart of this change have been a few discoveries, about Scripture, about myself and about church.

A theology of my body

I could write reams in setting down a theology of my body. But to keep it brief, it’s hard to look at Scripture and escape the conclusion that God loves His material creation. Matter matters to Him: having spoken it into being, He calls it good (a rhythm of benediction running through Genesis 1). Even fallen, His created world reflects His glory, as Psalm 19 proclaims, and His creative care extends even to the space of material reality that I occupy, my body. Although Psalm 139:13-14 may smack of proof-text, the reality David is describing is awesome:

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

Here is where a theology of my body begins: my form is not accidental, but intricately crafted by a masterful Creator. From its very beginning, He has been involved. What He cares about in me is not merely my soul, but also my body. I know this because He stepped into my world in a body like mine, and rose again in a body that mine—one day—will be like! My body has a future, and Paul spends precious and extended time in 1 Corinthians 15 meditating on that future. This was a point of much controversy in the early church: the body of Christ had to fight fiercely against forces that would downplay God’s delight in material reality, from Docetism that proclaimed an only-seemingly-incarnate saviour, to the Gnostics whose worldview entailed the evil of physical creation. In God’s economy, my body is not a prison-house for the part of me that matters, the soul, and neither is it to be seen as temporary fodder, to use and abuse as I like before I slough it off. I am to use it to God’s glory, because He enacted redemption in a body, and His redeeming work includes my body as well as my soul.

When I look at my body, a range of cultural pressures set in, which can easily lead to disappointment or shame—and for some, pride. Many body positive campaigns and messages spring up in response, and much of what they have to say is good. But apart from this theology of a body, there is no true and lasting contentment, much less any hope. And when we see bodies as God has made them, the ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ beings around us, we will marvel at His generosity. We will find pornography abhorrent, and be sickened by the abuse of bodies that even very young children are taught to see as normal.

And—back to the point—we will seek ways in which to serve God with our bodies.

Lifting hands to the Lord: what I found in the Bible

What I have craved was an approach to Scripture that took it seriously, read it wisely and prayerfully, and lived out what it was clearly teaching. But I developed a hermeneutic—a way of interpreting Scripture—that left this question in a blind spot. While using Romans 12:1-2 to crow over other Christians’ misuse of the word ‘worship’ (“See, it’s not just singing, is it? It’s all of life”, I’d say, pedantically), I’d ignore the injunction: ‘offer your bodies’. While taking 1 Timothy 2 extremely seriously, I’d find a way to miss the clear exhortation of verse 8:

Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.

I remember hearing a sermon in which the preacher frothed angrily at people who put all the emphasis on lifting of hands, saying that prayer was what Paul was enjoining on men. Subtler interpreters would point out how Paul’s call to pray with uplifted hands stands in contrast to what they might use their hands to do in ‘anger or disputing’. I agree on both counts with what these observations affirm, but why should they have any force of denial? For some reason, I allowed these considerations to let me off the hook on whether I should lift up my hands.

Instead of a biblical posture of prayer, I’d adopt a low-church evangelical slouch. I even had sympathy for way children were taught to prayer, palms together (?!) and eyes closed. (I could reserve another blog post about how strange and unbiblical I find that.)

And when I read a litany of verses in which lifting up hands was a posture of earnest prayer before the Lord (see Psalms 28:2, 44:20, 63:4, 77:2, 88:9, 134:2, 141:2, 143:6) I just thought they were different people doing a different thing. When Luke records the solemnity with which the risen Jesus blessed His own, with His hands lifted up, (Luke 24:50) I read on past the gesture as if it were empty. And whenever I had an uneasy thought about ignoring these postures, the examples set and the exhortations given, I consoled myself by saying: that’s not how my culture expresses itself.

Cultural context: what stays in the first century?

“After all,” I thought to myself, “I hardly ‘greet one another with a holy kiss’, do I? I go for a much more culturally appropriate thing to do: a good, solid handshake.” And, to be fair, that seems to me a wise way of interpreting the holy kisses of the New Testament: in some parts of the world, following that example literally would not be out of place. Here in the UK, it would be! I haven’t changed my mind on that: that stays in the cultural confines of the first century. Shouldn’t lifting up our hands, too?

Actually, I think suggesting that lifting up our hands is a culturally inexplicable gesture is nonsensical. I think that nobody in British culture would struggle to understand what that implies. But more to the point, it was a crazy thing for me to say! Anyone who knows me can attest to how frequently I use my hands to emphasise and even make my points while speaking. I’m tactile in showing affection, and quick to want to express myself physically as I communicate. (I put this down to not being ethnically Anglo-Saxon: there’s warmer blood from warmer climes in these British veins…)

But actually, let me get a little polemical. When British people go to watch a football match, they’d rarely stay in their seats. There’s chanting, clapping, jumping, hands lifted up in jubilation or clasped to faces in nail-biting tension. I’m describing football. A game, whose over-paid players draw out of all kinds of (otherwise reserved British) people all kinds of overwhelming emotion, that flows out into what these (otherwise reserved British) people do with their bodies, voices and even hands.

Could I really give Jesus any less? Could I allow a football match to draw out of me more emotional depth and bodily engagement than the life-giving gospel I build my life around? I have heard sermons in which physical expressions of praise to God are seen as a quaint, ‘sometimes’ thing. Only recently, I heard that it was ‘acceptable’ to express joy before the Lord physically, and ‘sometimes’ what we should do. (The passage in question was 2 Samuel 6, in which the restraint implied by the words ‘sometimes’, and the fringe status of the word ‘acceptable’, hardly seem in view in David’s jubilant dancing.)  It felt to me at the time rather like telling a parent that they could ‘sometimes’ express their affection for their children physically: not technically untrue or unhelpful, but a strange and limited way of putting it.

As I reflected on this, I came to this conclusion. If you are the kind of person who watches a football match (or whatever else you consider important or worthwhile) and reacts to your team scoring by nodding impassively, and your team conceding goals with a little shake of the head, and if your arms are folded throughout…then I’m not surprised that you give no more bodily engagement in your praise of God, and I wouldn’t expect more. You’re clearly a person who is extremely muted in how you express yourself physically, and God welcomes your praise in Christ no less than anyone else’s.

But if you do any more than nod impassively, shake your head marginally and keep your arms folded, and if you call yourself a Christian who has received eternal life at the high price of Jesus’ death…how can you be happy giving Him less than what you give something as anodyne as football? Seeing as we hate an unbiblical culture around worship, and rightly fear both the manipulative and the emptily-formal…why would we let our culture of praise be set by something that the Bible never countenances, and owes more to upper class, stiff-upper-lip, public schools than the affective and embodied praise Scripture describes?

What others see

As I was working through some of these thoughts—and my experience of seeing Christians from other countries expressing themselves physically without any of my weird cultural hang-ups triggered much of this reflection—I was still concerned about what others would think. I was still a little worried that the unbeliever would see someone lifting up their hands as alien and weird, and that the Christian who associated this with something less wholesome would find this troubling. I felt as if it was a loving thing to do to hold back on this count. In all honesty, this is possibly the only argument that still convinces me to exercise restraint in church.

But I’m not even sure I’m that convinced. Firstly, let’s take the unbeliever. What is an unbeliever doing in church? Looking in and seeing for themselves, or possibly just visiting. But either way, an approach to corporate worship that takes its lead from what unbelieving guests might think will end up extremely wing-clipped. The fact is, Christians do all kinds of things that those who aren’t Christians will find utterly strange. We pray to a God we cannot see, out loud, often desperately. We exhibit a cross-cultural, cross-generational unity that you find hardly anywhere else. We celebrate a meal together, with commentary provided from two-thousand years ago. We listen to long tracts of a book read out, and then hear a sermon on it, often longer and differently presented from any other lecture. If we empty our times meeting together of all that the unbelieving world would find alien or weird, we’d be left with nothing. Salt would lose its saltiness.

But when the unbeliever comes in and finds it all a bit strange, that’s a very good thing. What are we afraid that they will see, when they see me lifting my hands when I sing? Someone with a real relationship with God, one that leads him to express deep joy. Why is that a bad thing for them to see? Most people who go to a church service without being believers are expecting something strange and different, anyway!

Secondly, what about the Christian who thinks differently? Whose conscience associates this with all kinds of other doctrinal errors? Well, let me put it gently: their consciences need educating! If the behaviour of God’s people as recorded (with approval!) and commanded by Scripture, provokes them, then they are the ones with the problem. Moreover, they no less than the unbeliever could take encouragement from seeing a Christian whose joy in the truths they sing about leads to visible expression.

Avoiding the dangers

None of what I’ve said means that there are no dangers at all in this. Like everything we do in our corporate worship, from baptism to preaching to public prayer to the Lord’s Supper, it can be done badly. This has never been a reason not to do it well. And it’s true that one can let one’s emotional state be their spiritual north star, associating a sense of jubilation with a sense of being nearer to God. That, of course, is rubbish. We are no less justified in Christ when we are depressed, sorrowful and doubting than when we are joyful and overflowing with praise.

But Scripture teaches that we are to direct our emotions: rather than being led by them, we get to direct them. If it were not so, how could we be commanded to rejoice, commanded to fear, commanded to love? But we are: which means that, even when I come to church utterly broken, or anxious, or upset, there is something truly joyful in the gospel about which to sing, and I can direct my heart to rejoice in that.

A side-note: if we reflected the balance of the psalter, singing songs which expressed lament and pain as well as joy, then the danger of chasing an emotional high would be lessened. Instead, we could let our singing and praise provide space for Romans 12:15 to happen, as we rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. When I come to church feeling stable and happy, I can direct my heart to mourn over my sin or to feel compassion for the sorrows of others. Our unfaithfulness to the range of emotions expressed in the psalms means we start from behind in this discussion, and emotional manipulation and accusations of Christians who plaster perma-grins on their faces to meet God are inevitable.

(As another side-note, I belong to a constituency of Christians who often tell each other to sing as much horizontally as they do vertically, singing to one another as much as to God. For all that, we avoid eye-contact and fail to look around. Even what we state as a value, we don’t really do…)

What I’m doing when I lifting up my hands

But I find engaging physically with the truth I’m singing about has brought me untold joy. It’s meant freedom and integrity: freedom to show the outworkings of what I feel within, and integrity in the way that what I say with my lips and what I say with my body is finally the same as what I say with my heart. Instead of my praise of God being done in the shadow of people-pleasing, man-fearing instinct, or with a perpetual worry of what others might see and think, I now get to enjoy the thought of what God sees and thinks of my praise, acceptable to Him in Christ.

I am still working on how my bodily gestures express what I am singing about and praying about, but here are four ways I am finding myself encouraged, challenged and blessed.

Firstly, holding up empty hands before God is a gesture of surrender. In my praying and singing, it is a vivid and literal picture to myself of the emptiness of my hands, that there is nothing that I can do, that ‘nothing in my hands I bring’. For someone as easily distracted in prayer as me, having these empty hands outstretched is a constant and inescapable reminder. For someone as prone to pride and self-sufficiency as me, seeing these hands empty is a rebuke to all that pomp.

Secondly, holding up empty hands before God is a mark of expectation. These empty hands are lifted up so that they can be filled! Like a child holding out an empty hand for their parents to fill, I approach God with the shameless persistence of one of His own children. For someone who doubts, often, that their prayers will be heard, this act, this gesture of expectation rebukes my lack of faith.

Thirdly, the same way that Scripture tells us to lift up our eyes, or set our minds on things above, lifting up my hands cuts with the symbolic grain of where God is. He is above: not in the sense that He lives in space somewhere, but in the sense that He transcends all. He is not above in strict topographical terms, but the symbolic space He occupies is ‘high and lifted up’. To lift my hands up is to remind myself of this, a gesture that catechises my heart with the living illustration my eyes cannot miss.

Fourthly, lifting one’s hands is a sign of assent and celebration. When I sing an eternity-shaping truth like ‘For I am His and He is mine’ in In Christ Alone, I want to lift up my hands to express all the joy and love and excitement that truth brings my heart.

And, to bring it back to where we began, this is all worth doing because physical reality is not an evil that God shuns. It is part of His good design and cannot be seen as anything less. To think otherwise would be to miss so much of what He does. To give a parallel, it would be to stop taking the Lord’s supper because, really, that’s just about remembering Jesus’ sacrifice, and you don’t need to eat the meal to remember. It would be neglecting a means of grace, through which the Lord longs to teach us, win our hearts and stir our affections.

Freshers’ week and farming (or, what Jesus is teaching this poor, weary pessimist)

It’s been a wonderful privilege to welcome hundreds of students to our campuses over the past fortnight, putting on events at which we hope many hear the life-saving, life-giving truth of the gospel and meet with Jesus. The past two weeks have had plentiful challenges, opportunities and joys. But perhaps the biggest rebuke to me has been to my pessimism and my low expectations of what God can do.

So this passage from Deuteronomy has been running through my head all week, and—in a way I little expected when I first read it, bleary-eyed in the morning—has been feeding my soul:

Observe therefore all the commands I am giving you today, so that you may have the strength to go in and take over the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, and so that you may live long in the land the Lord swore to your ancestors to give to them and their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.

So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

(Deuteronomy 11:8-15)

The people of Israel are called away from the land of Egypt, over the Jordan, into the land flowing with milk and honey. They left behind Egypt’s ‘vegetable garden’, where they did the work of planting and irrigating to produce their crops. And, certainly around the Nile delta, this would have been a reliable place to farm. They would put in the work and be fairly certain of a return.

But the Lord calls them to the mountains and valleys of Canaan, which ‘drinks rain from heaven’. Instead of the Nile’s reliable flow, God’s people are called to depend on Him. And this isn’t a risky move! God is dependable. ‘It is a land the Lord your God cares for’, Moses is quick to tell them. And as the people of Israel inhabit the land, loving and serving the Lord, He will pour out rain in the autumn and the spring. He will give them grain and new wine and olive oil. He will feed their cattle, and He will fill their stomachs and hearts with satisfaction.

Why does freshers’ week remind me of farming? From year to year, we are dependent on what the Lord gives us. We might have many believing first years who want to partner with us. We may not. We may have many seeking but unbelieving students arrive. We may not. For us, who walk by faith and not by sight, freshers’ week is a week to be made more keenly aware of being in God’s hands. This has been helping me in my weariness.

Firstly, it has taught me to throw myself on God in prayer, more and more. This is no Nile Delta, where the work of my hands near-enough guarantees success. This is a life of dependence on God: these mountains and valleys drink rain from heaven, which only He sends.

Secondly, it has taught me to care less about ‘results’. All my life, achieving good ‘results’ has been an idol, which—to a greater or lesser extent—has crippled me, trapping me in self-centred, perpetually unsatisfied patterns of thought. And yet, God is the giver of all growth. These verses have been rich in painting that truth more vividly before me. The rain falls from heaven to feed the earth—from above, and not from out of me.

Thirdly, it has taught me how much more willing God is to bless than I am. ‘It is a land the Lord your God cares for’—and dare I think that He cares for this work of the gospel less than I do? Far from it! His care and concern for others being saved and for His glory outstrips mine in every way. His love for the lost exceeds any love any one of us has ever shown. And while my pessimism remains (I so wish it didn’t), it is lying low after two weeks full of God’s work, and encouraging signs. It is being challenged and rebuked by His goodness!

Fourthly, it has taught me to look forward. This picture of Canaan is just a shadow of the riches and satisfaction the New Creation will bring. And though my love and service of the Lord God could never be enough to win His favour and secure His blessing, I take my stand in the One whose love and service has always been perfect. I’ve gone to Jesus with my weariness in the past two weeks and had Him lift my head to the day of His return, and the renewal of all things, and all striving ceased.

Why I Now Believe in Infant Baptism…

A cheeky cross-post from Jamie Franklin’s thought-provoking blog…enjoy!

EDIT: The original was removed, so here’s what I had said:

As I get going, here are two introductory considerations: Firstly, while this is far from a non-issue (especially for Christian parents!), the position a believer adopts doesn’t affect their salvation. It’s my privilege to work for an organisation in which there is a real range of views on this doctrine. Secondly, this is an issue on which I’ve changed my mind: I’m constantly wanting to let Scripture shape my views on this (as with everything else, right?).

Both of these should make contributors to the infant/believer baptism dialogue courteous and humble, a fact of which I often need reminding. Instead of advancing a scholarly defence of the practice of infant baptism*,  I’d rather proffer a short explanation of why I’ve landed where I have.

I became a Christian after some time as an atheist, but had been raised in a Roman Catholic family. This meant being baptised as a baby: the decision was made quite without my permission.

When I subsequently became a Christian, I reacted fairly strongly to all Roman Catholic practice, and infant baptism rankled particularly.** It all seemed clear cut: in Acts, people heard the gospel, repented and believed in Jesus, and then got baptised. There seemed to me to be something unimpeachable about the logic of believer’s baptism.

I no longer find that logic compelling. There are many reasons for this, since the case for infant baptism is convincing in the way many doctrines are. Without being explicitly stated in one verse, the church arrives at this position by good and necessary consequence of the Bible’s teaching more widely.***

The fact is that the Bible contains no explicit commands with regard to infant baptism, neither for nor against. There are many baptisms recorded by Luke in Acts, but they are part of a narrative exploring the earliest days of the church, relating the conversions of adults.****

But the discussion around infant baptism concerns a different group of people: the children of believers. And the question we need to ask is whether Scripture speaks at all to the place of infants in the community of God’s people, and what that entails as to their baptism (or not).

Perhaps the seminal text for me in this discussion has been Romans 4:11. While holding up Abraham as a case study in how God justifies the ungodly by faith, Paul makes this comment about circumcision: “And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.”

As Genesis 17 makes very clear, this sign and seal—of the righteousness that comes by faith—is given to uncomprehending infant boys, only 8 days old. We’re not saying that circumcision and baptism are the same thing. Rather, we’re considering how God treated these Israelite infants.

Although incapable of adult faith, God wanted them to receive the sign of the righteousness that came by faith. The character of His covenant promises extended beyond our culture’s individualistic parameters to embrace the family unit. Infant boys received the physical sign of faith, a decision made quite without their permission.

This is how things were for the believer’s children before Christ’s coming; is there anything to suggest that things have changed for them since? I think the New Testament points to a remarkable continuity: while Colossians 2:11-12 doesn’t flatten the circumcision-baptism link into one-to-one correlation, to Paul’s mind the similarities are immense. Ephesians 6:1-3 explicitly addresses children of the church, but not as outsiders who need to come in. Rather, they are spoken to as those who firmly belong inside the covenant community, exhorted to keep a command and promised the blessings it will bring.

How would you define baptism? There are many definitions out there *****, but I think the unofficial definitions hold the most sway. I find that plenty of fellow believers view baptism as a ‘public declaration of faith’, something we do to make our profession that we trust Jesus. These descriptions often terminate on us: baptism is a thing we’ve done, a decision we’ve made.

I’m quite at a loss to know where this definition comes from. I’ve not found it in the New Testament. Instead, the whole Bible rings with the affirmation that salvation belongs to the Lord, and it is a work initiated and accomplished by Him. It’s far, far more about what Christ has done than what I have done. Infant baptism is a very sweet underlining of this, with God’s agency emphasised, and my part in salvation appropriately downplayed.

I was baptised without my permission, and far before my own decision to follow Christ. But in this regard, it is a picture of the eternal truth: my salvation began long before my profession of faith, even before my birth. The grace of the gospel goes before me, and God’s love for me began in eternity past. I have not sought to be baptised as an adult because of the precious reminder my un-remembered baptism as a baby has been to me as an adult disciple.

In fact, we can push a bit further. The Ethiopian eunuch, having heard the gospel and trusted Jesus, cries out to Philip, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” Philip doesn’t say, ‘No! Wait until you’re back in Ethiopia and then get baptised at the court: imagine what a witness it will be!’ Rather than treat baptism as a massive evangelistic opportunity—or as the climax of strenuous catechesis—the apostles did things differently. The moment this outsider became part of the Christian community, it was appropriate for him to receive the sign. If the infant children of believers belong to the Christian community, what stands in the way of their being baptised?

What about the baptised infant who never professes saving faith as an adult? Well, I suppose we might well ask the same thing about the baptised adult who falls away from their profession (see Acts 8:13, 22). In both cases, the answer is the same: it is possible to belong to the visible Christian community while not having true faith in Christ. In this way, Judas was at the Lord’s Supper and false teachers arise from the ranks of the ‘faithful’. Baptism, like the Lord’s Supper, functions as a warning. Like the circumcision of ungodly Israelites, the baptism of those who reject Jesus stands against them, warning them of the gravity of the gospel offer they currently reject.

In closing, I ought to mention that two years of working with infants and toddlers as a church apprentice shed new light on all this for me. I think every church ought to value their infants and children, and rather than view their role as baby-sitting, seek to disciple them. I’m convinced, not just theoretically, that we should pray with them, sing the praises of God with them, and assure them with the assurances of Christ!

I am also convinced that for those who reduce Christian truth to propositional content, no argument for infant baptism would ever really be convincing. But I consider that a serious misstep. Christian truth—although it necessarily has propositional content—is personal before it is propositional, because the eternal Son of God claimed Himself to be the truth (John 14:6). This means that believers must have a relational rather than merely cognitive grasp of truth, for truth is ultimately the person of Jesus.

This paradigm shift means that infants are held out by Jesus as an example of the most mature Christian faith, full of dependence, in Matthew 18. And in the next chapter, He goes even further, saying of little children: ‘the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these’. (Matthew 19:14) The character of the gospel, the priority of grace and the supremacy of God in taking the initiative means that those who know Jesus relate to Him on the basis of their weakness and dependency.

So I want to end by suggesting this, cautiously: it is Christian instinct to value the weak, the foolish and those who cannot contribute to their salvation. We know, from Ephesians 2:8, that even the faith we bring is a gift from God. This accords beautifully with the logic of infant baptism, and the surprising possibility of infant faith that Psalm 71 raises in verses 5-6:

For you have been my hope, Sovereign Lord,
my confidence since my youth.
From birth I have relied on you;
you brought me forth from my mother’s womb.
I will ever praise you.

It is my prayer that many believers, baptised in infancy, grow up in the nurturing discipleship of a church family and then can say these words as adults.

Footnotes:

* Of which there are many, and so I don’t really want to reduplicate already available work. I think the volume that really helped me change my mind was John Owen’s ‘Of Infant Baptism’, which people can find online. I also found Calvin’s Institutes massively helpful in this.

** Even now, I’d still object vociferously to a definition of baptism ex opere operato, in which all the benefits which baptism signifies are conferred by the mere act of baptism.

*** This kind of thinking is not particularly stretching for the orthodox believer. If I want to affirm the Chalcedonian definition of Christ as being one person with two natures, I am being profoundly biblical. But I do so not because of one Bible verse, but because of the way the whole Bible’s teaching presents Christ.

**** Like every believer in infant baptism, I also say a hearty amen to adult baptisms, and I should like to see even more of them than I do at present!

**** I really like the 39 Articles on baptism: Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or new Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.

The Lord’s Supper: How I changed my mind

One of the things on which I’ve changed my mind quite drastically is the Lord’s Supper.* I had been raised in a Roman Catholic church (altar boy, no less), and taught that the elements of bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ. This was what I was taught—I’m not sure I ever really believed it. In fact, I ended up believing this to be the nadir of religious credulity, the most hollow triumph of (not even very convincing!) pageantry over anything like reason.

When I actually became a Christian, this view did not substantially change. I now saw the Lord’s Supper as very much an optional extra—you didn’t HAVE to have it! Was the dying thief on the Cross a fully-fledged communicant?** So why should I have been?

But, actually, going along to a local church started to change my mind. Things became much clearer. Jesus told us to do it in memory of Him. How could I possibly take that lightly? His atoning death for me, and subsequent resurrection, are the only claim I have before God. His work is the summit of all love: this meal becomes a glorious reminder, every time it is shared, of what He has done. Moreover, following cues from 1 Corinthians, it’s the family meal! And I have become part of His household: to eat and drink is a wonderful privilege: this is a place at the highest table.

So far, so good. In fact, there are quite a few Protestants (apparently following Zwingli) who would go that far and not much further. I don’t want to disparage them or their thinking: I hope how I’ve put above shows how right on the money I think those views are. The biggest and most recent change, however, has come over the past couple of years. The Lord’ Supper is not less than the things I’ve described: a glorious memorial of Calvary and with it a powerful reminder of Christ’s victory in death and resurrection, a family meal eaten together as the very household of God. But I’ve come to see that it is more.

I want to tread carefully, rather than table-thump. But here’s why I have come to view the Lord’s Supper as being a participation in the body and blood of Christ, as well as a memorial of it:

14Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. 15I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf. (1 Corinthians 10:14-17)

These verses are ones which I’d often skipped over. I had considered the mention of ‘participation in the body of Christ’ as ‘being part of the church which is Christ’s body’. I now think that seriously misconstrues Paul’s argument, firstly, because that’s not the context of 1 Corinthians 10 (it becomes the context in the next chapter) and secondly, because if that’s what participation in the body means, then what could participation in Christ’s blood mean? It leaves us with Paul’s basic point: the drinking the cup and eating the bread are a participation in the blood and body of Christ. It is a participation with Christ as meaningful and wonderful as pagan sacrifice is an appalling and scandalous participation with demons, in verses 20-21. That’s why they’re diametrically opposed. (If we’re looking for a parallel, then we find one in 1 Corinthians 6:15-16: our spiritual union with Christ is as binding as bodily union with a prostitute, which is why such sexual immorality is so heinous.***)

It is a picture, a symbol, a meal—but it is not just a picture, just a symbol, just a meal. Otherwise, how can eating and drinking unworthily make us ‘guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord’, as 11:27 puts it?

To cut to the chase, the Lord’s Supper is a sign, and as such a wonderful means of grace. To use Augustine’s metaphor, a visible word that makes the promises of the gospel as apparent and rich to my eyes and taste buds as Scripture makes it apparent and rich to my ears. Now, there’s obviously an order there: but for Scripture outlining the need for this and baptism, and clarifying their significance, I’d never get to enjoy them! We don’t need to put word and Sacrament against each other, or make them equals. Nonetheless, we are cheating ourselves out of a full and rich experience of the gospel if we are not at the Lord’s table often. We’re not missing out on salvation, but we are missing out.****

By the work of the Holy Spirit, I am united to Christ. I am with Him, I am in Him, and my destiny has become gloriously and inextricably intertwined with His. Where He is, in the most real and significant senses possible, I am too. And every time I come to the Lord’s Supper, I am made more aware of how wonderful this union is. My faith is underlined by Christ’s covenantal commitment. He promises that this bread and this wine are the meal of the new covenant, tokens of the benefits sealed by His death for me. To eat the bread is to be made more sure of His commitment to save all those who have trusted in His body, broken in death on the Cross. To drink from the cup***** is to be made more sure of His commitment to save, and save to the uttermost, all those who have trusted in His blood shed, and the better word it speaks. These realities are more fully communicated to me as I eat and drink. I participate in His body and blood.

I am riffing here on the most exquisite corners of theology****** and playing with the biggest players, puny on the most titanic shoulders. Far greater than that, I am speaking about perhaps the most glorious, precious and wonderful means of grace Christ has given to His church. Even writing about this—as with any time we get to grips with the gospel of grace—reveals my inanity and insufficiency, my shallows besides inexhaustible depths. But the inane, insufficient and shallow get to feed on the sacred, all-sufficient, eternal and deep in the gospel, and that’s what the Lord’s Supper seeks to present to my senses, and to all the world.

The Lord’s Supper is mystical, wonderful and glorious. It points us back to Calvary. It points us forward to the heavenly banquet, when our new bodies eat new food in the new creation. But it happens now. And—like the spiritual reality of God speaking through the Bible now and God listening and answering to our prayers now—that has to make a difference now. Those differences are obvious. Can I feast at the table without longing for everyone I know to come and taste God’s goodness with me? I will be ever more devoted to sharing the gospel. Can I eat with God’s family while harbouring anything like a superiority complex? Or an inferiority complex? I will seek to make grace the active, defining principle of my church family relationships. And we could continue.

And I want to bring this to a close on a challenging note. Only a few days ago, a Bishop in the Episcopal Church of the US hit a cyclist while driving. Having done so, the Bishop drove off and—after what one must presume were appalling pangs of conscience—only returned after 20 minutes, to take responsibility for the collision and this now rapidly dying man. This Bishop had a prior record of driving under the influence of alcohol, and that raises a hornet’s nest of other issues: where was the church discipline? But the cyclist died of his injuries. And here’s the picture that the Daily Mail used to sum up this dire affair:

heather cook bishop hit and run

The image is of the bishop celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Lifting up the bread and cup which point beyond themselves to the bread of life and the cup of salvation. And to my spluttering, inarticulate thoughts came one word: Hypocrite.

Because how could you lead God’s people in that sacred meal, year after year, and then do what this Bishop did? To hit a cyclist (of which I am one, which is probably why my reaction has been so violent) is bad enough: to drive off immediately is unacceptable. This is a failure by any reasonable standard of humanity, and so much more for a church leader.

But the next hypocrite is myself. Yes, the bishop had done something unacceptable and failed utterly to uphold Christ’s honour as any church leader should. But. This is a meal for sinners. The scandal is that should this bishop repent, they will be no less a child of God, for Christ’s blood does not stop short of forgiving hit-and-run-drivers-with-prior-records. To have reacted as I did at first shows that I have barely begun to see how far the gospel reaches. I have barely begun to plumb the depths to which the Lord’s Supper points.

The challenge for this Bishop, and myself, and anyone who would judge her, is to embrace that gospel reality more deeply and more fully. I pray that she will and I will and you will.

And the challenge is all the more real because it is public. The Daily Mail weren’t fools to choose this image: the Lord’s Supper is a public proclamation that we have made to the world, of Christ’s victory through His death on the Cross, of His current reign as His Kingdom is established here on earth, of His future coming as the undisputed King of Kings and Lord of Lords to rule. As we eat and drink, let us do so as humble sinners seeking their saviour, but soberly too: these mysteries are too deep for us to let them sit on the surface, and not long for the gospel to change us at our very core. So deeply that the next time we hit a cyclist when driving, we stop the car and go to help. So deeply that the next time a bishop sins in public, we pray for their restoration and not feel hypocritical anger. As deeply as God will take them on that new day, as we sit at His table to feast in His presence in the new creation.

—Absurd volume of footnotes—

* I will try to resist making transubstantiation gags.

**This line of argument is one of the absolute worst, and yet it’s quite common. Never quite articulated as honestly as this, it boils down to, ‘What is the minimum I must do to be saved? How can I secure my one-way ticket to heaven?’ As for any commitment to living under Christ’s Lordship…

***Intriguingly, this shows that our ‘spiritual’ union with Christ is no less than our ‘physical’ union in sexual activity with another human being. This is because spiritual and physical are not antonyms: the spiritual is not necessarily the immaterial, as 1 Corinthians 15 will attest. If anything, the spiritual union with Christ is more real, which is why the stakes in sexual immorality are so high.

****An analogy. Someone who became a Christian as a child by understanding that Jesus is my friend, and He died because He loves me, and should be my King, is definitely saved. (A la Romans 10:9). But they would be missing out if they never opened their Bible to discover the rich realities of those truths—and more!

*****Which is why transubstantiation must be rejected, I think. It’s not a one-to-one, elemental correlation of wine to blood that is in view at all. Rather, to the Lord Jesus’ own mind, and to the early church’s, it is a correlation between the cup and the blood of the covenant. To say that the wine becomes the blood is quite foreign to the thinking of Christ and the church. #hugestatementbutletsgothere

****** I’ve LOVED reading Robert Bruce’s ‘The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper’ (1589). For example, ‘The Word leads us to Christ by the ear; the Sacraments lead us to Christ by the eye: of the two senses which God has chosen as most fitting for the purpose of instructing us and bringing us to Christ’. Or, ‘As your mouth takes the bread and the wine, so the mouth of your soul take the Body and Blood of Christ, and that by faith.’ By the way, this is why I don’t want to look at the Roman Catholic view as utterly, groundlessly stupid. It owes more to Plato than it does to Jesus. It’s seriously at odds with the New Testament. It’s heresy to suggest (as I believe the Mass more than does) that Christ’s sacrifice is in any way less than once-for-all. But. The Lord’s Supper is such a big deal that of course you would get it wrong in that direction.

A trio of Christmas sonnets

I

The true light was coming into the world
True light that makes billions of blazing stars
Seem so many momentary, guttering sparks.
True light that shone before galaxies curled

And spun. This light shines so that life can live.
No-one breathes or sees but by this light, and
Without it, darkness, which can’t understand
Or overcome what true light comes to give.

To every darkened creeping heart, He brings
A gift. The Son will make us family!
Not by our decisions or deeds: these things

Can’t buy a birth right from eternity.
Only this ageless infant King of Kings,
The blinding light our eyes can bear to see.

II

Where is the One who has been born the King?
Stars and signs brought us this far: is he crowned?
Waited on? Served? And where can he be found?
Some rich palace, that offers everything?

No. His word sent us here: to a little town
Like any other. To a dusty house.
To a crib. To the ordinary noise
Of life as it begins, and baby sounds.

Peer into the cradle. See hands and feet
So small they’d fit your palm. Touch His soft brow.
Your King has come. Maker and made things meet

In this body, made one forever now.
With earth His footstool, all heaven His seat
Before this baby the world’s knees will bow.

III

‘Do not be afraid!’ That’s what the angel said.
But we were. We never asked, never sought
To be overwhelmed like this, never thought
That night to tremble, while the flocks just slept.

We were afraid at first, but then we heard:
I bring you good news’. We did not ask, no,
We did not seek. But we did rise to go
Struck with awe by every weighty word.

‘Today, in the King’s town, the King has come
And in His coming, every promise kept
That God has made.’ And as the angels sung

Our shepherd-selves saw more than sheep and leapt
To find this baby, this unasked-for Son
And saviour, and worshipped Him where He slept.

December 2014

Islamic State, martyrs and the Lord

They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been. Revelation 6:10-11

How long? Grim report follows grim report, and Christians are scattered from towns and cities where they have lived for centuries. Another day means news of another atrocity. How long will God permit His people to be killed, to be trampled on, to be so brutally and callously treated? How long?

A little longer. And then the Lord comes back, and every knee bows. And not one evil deed will go unpunished. We have to wait a little longer.

But there are two certainties from Revelation 6: that martyrs wear white robes, and that God has set a limit. They wear white robes. The fact is that Jesus’ death and resurrection have secured His people’s destiny. The robes are a glorious part of Revelation’s picture-language for their washed-and-forgiven status, that lasts into all eternity. God has set a limit. There is a number to be filled up, telling us that things will not continue as they are, and His people will be saved completely.

This has been shaping my prayers. I’m crying out, ‘How long?’, and seeing just how little I know of real persecution. But I’m rejoicing in white robes, that no beheading or murder can sully. Though they are dispossessed, driven into the wilderness, in danger of death, Christ’s own are perfectly secure in Him. I’m rejoicing in the limit God has set, and the day of His coming to gather His own, and to judge the world.

And until then? He waits, with an unknowably deep patience, eagerly drawing sinners to Himself by the gospel, holding open His arms of love to the very worst—even to the persecutors and terrorists themselves. And He stands. See what Stephen saw:

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ Acts 7:54-56

Standing. The risen, ascended and victorious Christ is standing. Elsewhere, He sits, as a grand display of an accomplished work. But here, He stands. Why?

He stands to receive Stephen. To acknowledge Him as His own, not ashamed of Him as the crowd pour scorn. To say, ‘You are mine. What they did to me, they’ll do to you. And I stand to welcome you, because where I am is where you are sure to be.’

‘Martyr’ means ‘witness’. The Islamic State have oppressed and threatened and killed Christians in Iraq and Syria. It is a testimony to Jesus’ unending worth, and to His Spirit’s power in supplying courage to face the impossible, that so many have been unashamed to name Jesus as Lord. Surely He stands to welcome them in to the Kingdom prepared for them since the creation of the world.

And in that Kingdom, beyond what any IS zealot could understand, God will wipe His people’s tears away with His own nail-scarred hands.

Astonishing compassion: God’s goodness to the suffering

‘Blessed be the LORD forever! Amen and amen.’ – Psalm 89:52

Out of context, this verse seems about right: it’s a sentiment that crops up again and again in the Book of Psalms. But read at the end of Psalm 89, it’s a shocking verse. The psalm started so well (‘I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever!’), and carried on with exuberant joy in God’s promise to David. And then came the downward turn: where are these promises now? God shows wrath towards His anointed. It looks like the covenant has been renounced: the king has been given over to shame, his crown defiled and his foes rejoicing. And this is how Ethan the Ezrahite speaks to His God:

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire?
Remember how short my time is!
For what vanity you have created all the children of man!
What man can live and never see death?
Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?
(Psalm 89:46-48)

The past few days have been a real struggle. I have been chiming in with Ethan’s lament: how vain life seems in the face of death, and in the midst of pain. But I have found this psalm to be an example of God’s astonishing compassion—one of the richest—and I’ve been delighting in Him for it. Why? Because this psalm draws out God’s patience and His faithfulness.

Patience

Psalm 89 shows that God does not redact His people when they speak to Him. The fact that these words are in the Bible is testimony to God’s character: unspeakably patient. Far from censoring raw emotion like this, God has inspired it. These words are not the ranting of a bitter man; they are in this psalm by the work of the Holy Spirit.

He approves of words like these. He bears with His people—He even bears with their tone of reproach. And He doesn’t have to. Part of the astonishment is that He is so committed to His people, so committed to hearing them in prayer, that He even listens to words like these.

And I’m finding that so rich because it means that extreme feelings like these—of sorrow and anger and despair—do not separate us from God. They do not disqualify us from being heard by Him in prayer. They do not present a barrier to His grace.

Ethan the Ezrahite’s pain is almost palpable in the reading. There is a deep despair here, as he struggles with God’s providence, and finds it inscrutable and cruel. God heard his prayer. He made room for it in His own prayer book. And it is there, showing that His patience goes deeper than any railing we can come up with, than any outburst from a frustrated soul.

This is something to which I am clinging at the moment. There’s a false piety which finds a psalm like this too shocking, that winces at its inclusion in the psalter. And to that false piety, verse 52 will always seem hollow. I think I specialised in that false piety until I actually suffered for the first time. And when I did, I began to understand Psalm 89 and how rich it is, how full of unexpected comfort.

God is gracious to His people, and He calls them to be His very own. And He is patient with us—He remembers how we are formed. Outbursts like these do not—cannot—surprise Him. He is abundantly able to take our anger. He does not balk at our expressing sorrow and despair. No amount of fist-shaking can put Him off us.

Now, why did I think it would? Why is it surprising that God inspires the lament of Psalm 89? Why are we taken aback that Job get the Lord’s approval, and his pious comforters get rebuked? I think there are two errors here. Firstly, we ascribe a very human pettiness to God. But His mercies are new every morning. He causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. His patience is beyond imagining. Secondly, we forget the basis on which God calls us into a relationship with Him. It’s grace. It’s the love which He sets upon us, not because anything about us is love-able, but because He is loving in Himself. This being the case, obviously our actions won’t put us beyond the pale with Him.

Faithfulness

Because God is gracious, and because the initiative is His from start to finish, I think there’s something even better at the end of Psalm 89. To get there, we need to answer this question: where does this trajectory, of a patient God who bears with the reproaches of His people, lead?

Jesus wears a crown of thorns, and He hangs on the Cross, nails driving His bloodied palms into the cross-beam and crushing His feet in place. And in His ears, jeering and mockery ring and reverberate. Cruel words: the rulers scoff and curse. And from His mouth come these words: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

Not rebuke. Not reproach. Not shocked anger that sinners would dare address their Creator like this. Instead, Jesus calls for their forgiveness.

And this takes us back to Psalm 89. What is at stake in Ethan’s lament? God’s faithfulness. God had sworn an oath to David: His offspring would endure forever, with a throne as established as the courses of the sun and the moon, as fixed as day and night. And Ethan cries out because God’s promise seems jeopardised: His anointed one is covered in shame. Has God removed His steadfast love from David?

Jesus comes as David’s offspring. He is covered in shame, and looks defeated to all who watch Him. His foes rejoice at the Cross. But He is proof of God’s steadfast love. For He comes to keep the covenant, even at the price of His own life, even by taking the punishment others deserved. And because of that, He is not left in the grave, and His body does not see decay. But now He lives, and now He reigns, and His throne will outlast this world.

God’s patience never ends. He shows compassion to hurting people, and He bears with them in their anger and sorrow and despair. God’s faithfulness never fails. He comes to keep His covenant, even when we have failed Him again and again, even when the cost is supreme.

And therefore, it is not vanity for which we have been created. We know the One who can deliver souls from the power of the grave. So when God’s promises seem far off—so far off as to seem forgotten—and when sorrow and despair and anger are teeming in our souls, we know that He hears us still in His patience. We know that He will come in His faithfulness. His compassion is astonishing. And we join in with the Psalmist: Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen and amen.

The difference between abolition and fulfilment

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)

Uh oh. Christians and the Old Testament Law. Choppy waters ahead! No but seriously—I’ve found these words wonderful and challenging. Challenge: I’m slow to love God’s law, as we find it in the Old Testament. I don’t always turn to Leviticus for my devotional reading, and the minutiae of the commandments doesn’t thrill me as it should. Problematic? Yes! Psalm 119 drips with joy in God’s law (Psalm 119:47, for instance ‘I find my delight in your commandments, which I love’), and Paul wasn’t being selective when he declared that all Scripture is God-breathed. Jesus says that God’s word will not pass away, and He will not stop upholding the universe until the law is fulfilled, in every little part.

Here’s the weight of the challenge: do we live as if Jesus has come to abolish the law? Or as if He came to fulfil it? Here’s the reason why this is worth thinking through: these attitudes are poles apart, but their respective out-workings look almost identical. In both cases, there are some parts of the Old Testament law (the civil and the ceremonial, to be precise) from which Christians are set free. We no longer observe them, and obedience to God under the New Covenant is no longer visibly commensurate with ‘strict obedience to the Torah’. On the surface, they look the same: whether I think Jesus came to abolish the law or fulfil it, functionally I’ll enjoy bacon and wearing nylon and all the rest of it. But the attitudes are vastly different.

The attitude of abolition finds the Old Testament law embarrassing, and spiritually dry. It runs away from having to read it. Its assumption is, ‘None of that matters anymore, because Jesus has done away with it. It’s been abolished! The Law is dead to us now!’

The attitude of fulfilment finds the Old Testament law exciting, because it considers it as something which comes to its climax in Jesus. He has kept it perfectly! So to read it is to look into a key witness to God’s faithfulness, a rich demonstration of His commitment to His people, a reflection of His holy character, an indictment of our sinful selves. It is to be furnished with wonderful pictures of Christ’s redeeming work, to see flickers and shadows of the Cross ahead of time. The Law stops being boring when we consider it something to be fulfilled by Jesus, rather than something to be ignored by Christians.

The problem with the ‘abolition’ attitude is that it nullifies God’s faithfulness. It makes it look as if His law were utterly temporary, something He could quite easily jettison, something which didn’t really matter. I dare you to read any of the Law and come to that conclusion.

The fulfilment attitude, on the other hand, magnifies God’s faithfulness. It shows that His commitment to this law being kept is tenacious in the extreme: He won’t leave it as a standard by which His people will endlessly fail. He will see it kept perfectly, in every part. He will see it obeyed in full. He will see it delighted in. That is why Jesus Christ’s active obedience was so crucial. The law matters to our Holy God, and He will not see it abolished at a whim. Rather, He will see it fulfilled.

And I’m struck by the wonderful balance that God’s work brings. On the one hand, Jesus’ words save us from legalism—from a crushing obligation to keep the letter of the law for our own righteousness. The truth is that the law must be fulfilled, but we’re not the ones to do it. In what must be the most grandiose words ever spoken by a human being (but no ordinary human being), Jesus claims that He has come to fulfil the law. And in Him, and His perfect fulfilment of the law, and obedience to it, we find the righteousness which exceeds that of any scribe or Pharisee. And by that, we have entry into the kingdom of heaven.

But on the other hand, we’re saved from antinominianism—from lawlessness—as well! The law is fulfilled by Jesus, and we receive the benefit of that by repentance of sin and faith in Him. But when we put our faith in Him, we find ourselves following a King who calls us to live for Him. And the obedience to which He calls us is far more radical than what Moses put forward! So Christians aren’t exempt from obedience to Jesus just because we’re exempt from keeping every jot and tittle of Old Testament law.

It’s a remarkable balance: I can have assurance that God will welcome me into His Kingdom, because the law has been kept perfectly and fulfilled. Why? Nothing to do with my law-keeping—all because of Jesus! But as well as assurance, I have every incentive to obey—again, because of Jesus, who saved me and has made me His very own!

Just to finish: if I take Jesus at His word—that He has not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it—and enjoy the benefits He wins by faith in Him, what will my attitude to the law be when I read it?

1. Gratitude! Its demands are great, but Jesus has met them perfectly.
2. Excitement! That’s too weak a word. What I mean is: the delight of being where I am in history, and seeing the plan worked out in Jesus, shapes my reading of the Old Testament, teaching me the extent of God’s faithfulness and love.
3. Zeal! These are shadows of what I have in Jesus. If God expected obedience under the Old Covenant’s shadows, can I seek to obey Him less when I have the clarity and joy of the New Covenant?
4. Recognition. These words are for me. They aren’t something for me to ignore. They haven’t been abolished. But they have been fulfilled.

Think bigger!

A great perk of my job is spending so much time in the gospels. I get to read them one-to-one with people, I get to teach our youth group from them, and they crop up in our preaching every year. (Side note: the church year has a lot of weirdness to answer for (nobody needs that many saints days or silly names. ‘Quinquagesima’, anyone?…) but surely one of the delights is being in the gospels come Easter, and taking in their real focus.)

One of the most striking things (for me, at least) when reading the gospels is the unembarrassed record of the miracles—maybe better, the signs—that Jesus performed. And some of the most vivid to my imagination are the healing miracles. I can picture lame men picking up their mats, withered hands becoming whole, blind eyes being open at a touch. And there’s something wonderfully attractive to this: Jesus is the One who can restore what is damaged and broken. In a sick world of broken people, we need Him desperately.

But I often find myself thinking: what is the point of all these healing miracles, and what are we supposed to do about it? What are the gospel writers trying to teach us in recording them? There are lots of good answers to these, from the specific on each occasion to the general (a clear display of God’s power and compassion). One very easy reading goes something like this: a basic application is that God can heal—instantly, immediately—and we should expect that and pray for that now.

To me, at any rate, I think that reading is almost instinctive. All it takes is for me to be in any kind of pain or illness, and then I pray for it to stop. I don’t think that’s a wrong attitude. Lots about it is right: we come to God relying on Him, recognising that He has power where we are weak. That’s an attitude that honours Him. James 5 tells us to make prayer for healing a facet of church life, so it’s also an attitude of obedience.

But, I wonder if I need to think bigger. In the way the gospels present these miracles, there is a bigger, better comfort for suffering Christians now than instant healing. Jesus comes to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and Himself as its King. All who repent and believe in Him can enter it. And the gospels record Jesus’ words and deeds as His proclamation of the Kingdom; it has come near because He is near. Sin has ravaged our world, leaving it full of brokenness. When Jesus comes, it is as an invading King, and the consequences of sin are banished from His presence. Death, sickness, evil: all retreat at His coming.

So what is the bigger, better comfort for suffering Christians now? I think it is this: Jesus’ public ministry teaches us that where He is, suffering cannot be. It is driven away when His Kingdom comes. And through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has brought us into the Kingdom of the Son He loves. But for now, believers wait for Jesus to come again, and consummate His rule. We wait for His reign to be total. We wait—often in agony—for the New Creation, the new world He comes to bring. And in that world, there will be no suffering, no pain, no evil, no death.

Here’s the better comfort: in your suffering, think bigger than healing for the present moment. That may be something God does, or it may not. But think bigger than that! Because Jesus’ healing miracles are powerful and clear demonstrations to us of what life with Him will be. And He is preparing a new world, free of suffering and pain, for those whom He has made His own. Far better than longing for present deliverance, reading the gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ healing should instil in me a longing for that new world. There should be a godly pining in my heart to be where He is—where knowledge of Him is in full and not in part, and our sight of Him is not dim but blazingly clear.

When I am in suffering and in pain, and I look for comfort in Jesus’ power to heal, I should think bigger: His efforts are not merely engaged in patching me up here and now. That would be too light a thing. Rather, His purpose is to redeem our groaning creation, renewing it and—wonder of wonders!—placing sinners like me in it, to be with Him forever. And whatever He allows me to undergo today, He is able to use to make me fit for that world to come.