Monday, 15 July 2019

Bread and Fish: Connections Between John 6 and 21


Two famous stories: one with a cast of thousands on a vast grassy plateau; the other a dawn breakfast on a beach with just seven guests.Two very different scenes in John 6 and 21.

Only the host is the same: Jesus of Nazareth.

And the menu: bread and fish.

The author is a master at hinting at something more with just one or two words. This gift is on full display in 21:9.

When they landed, they saw a charcoal fire there with fish on it, and some bread.

We have the charcoal fire. And Peter. The idyllic beach scene suddenly opens up to a cold hostile night where Peter is warming his hands - over a charcoal fire (18:18).

Two words, but such poignancy, such pain. And such kindness. Jesus deliberately makes a charcoal fire to resolve the issue with Peter. And that happens. For when Jesus asks all the disciples to go and get some fish, it is Peter who takes the initiative. The old energy is back.

Then we have the bread and fish, and so the signal to John 6, for this is the same menu as Jesus and the disciples gave to the five thousand.

It is the same menu because this is what both the crowds and the disciples ate: bread and fish. That is the primary meaning. However at a secondary level the menu is the same because the two chapters complete each other. Without John 21, John 6 is incomplete; without John 6, John 21 is incomplete. That is what the ‘bread and fish’ (21:13) opens up. You could almost say the two chapters are talking to each other.

In John 6 there is total silence about the fish; in John 21 there is explanation. In John 21 there is total silence about the food for the sheep; in John 6 there is a long explanation. In John 6 there is silence about how people will be fed the bread of life; in John 21 it is made clear. In John 21 there is nothing about the way of feeding; in John 6 there is detail. In John 6 there is nothing about how the food is to be cooked; in John 21 it is shown.

Let’s consider these connections, starting with the fish.

In John 6 Jesus tells us a lot about bread. But what about the fish? There is no ‘I am the fish of life’ discourse, indeed even the suggestion sounds odd. And yet it is half the menu. Surely it would be strange if the fish was to be just fish. The bread is so significant, and the fish, just fish? This is a question that hangs.

It is answered in John 21. Here it is impossible to escape fish. Peter decides to go fishing, but they catch no fish (v.3). Jesus then asks if they have caught any fish, and they say no (v. 5). The miracle happens and there are ‘so many’ fish they cannot haul in the net (v.6); then ten of them are able to drag the net, ‘full of fish’ (v. 8). When the ten arrive at the fire, there they see some fish cooking (v.9), and now (v.10) the unexpected request of Jesus for some more fish (He already has some fish) and the gracious observation, ‘that you have just caught’ (without His intervention there would be no fish in that net) Now Peter, just one man, can haul the net ashore and we are told more about the fish: they are large and there’s 153 of them (v.11). And so breakfast begins and Jesus takes both the bread and the fish and gives it to them (v. 13).

If the fish got forgotten in John 6, they are centre stage in John 21. Are they just fish? Surely not. And we know that not from our author, but from the Synoptics (Mark 1:17; Matthew 4:19; Luke 5:10) whom the author assumes his readers will have read[1].

The fish are people whom the church will catch. As often happens the author takes an idea sparsely mentioned in the Synoptics and develops it. It is quite a development. The catch must be miraculous; yet it needs disciples whose contribution is acknowledged; and it will be universal (the ancients believed there were 153 different types of fish).

But what about the fish on the menu – both in John 6 and 21?

It is interesting that while fishing in church language is easily understood as evangelism and fish are people who might be interested in the faith – the logic of a fish being caught is not carried through.

Fish are eaten.

This is outrageous. It means in John 6 we have people eating themselves, and in John 21 it is Jesus and the apostles eating future believers.

Let’s leave the fish as fish.

However the shocking nature of the image does not rule out that the fish, just like the bread, is meant to have a meaning. Eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood is just as shocking, but it makes sense in Christian doctrine.

So the question is this: does the fish being eaten also make sense in Christian doctrine?

The answer is most certainly yes; indeed the fish being eaten spells out what total faith in Jesus actually means and sinks any idea that Christianity is about mechanical easy believism.

Jesus gives the bread. It is broken. Christians ‘eat’ the love of God in Christ as shown on the cross when his body is broken.

Jesus also gives the fish to be eaten with the bread. This is the divine menu – bread and fish. The two must merge, must become one, must be absorbed. And so the sense emerges. Just as Jesus’s body is ‘eaten’, so too the true believer is ‘eaten’.

The divine meal is not just God’s offering of Jesus to mankind; it is mankind’s offering of themselves to God. That is the heavenly banquet of John 6, that is the intimate breakfast of John 21: man’s union with God.

This sense is painfully underlined in the final conversation Jesus has with Peter. He has eaten the bread – and the fish. After the commission, there is the prophecy that Peter will be executed. And after the prophecy the command: ‘Follow me’. Jesus is executed for us; Peter will be executed for Jesus. There is union, but it is costly.

This meaning of fish makes sense in Christian doctrine. It is just another image that underlines a Christian’s union with God as being something total. So in this Gospel we have the man who must be born again (3:7); the seed that must die (12:24), the branch that must abide in the vine (15:5,7).

There is exactly the same emphasis in Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptics. The cost of following him is – everything, even death. So Matthew 16:24, ‘Take up your cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24), or ‘None of you can be my disciples unless you give up everything’ (Luke 14:33). And its the same in the Epistles, perhaps best illustrated by Romans 12: 1 – 2. The believer is a ‘living sacrifice’. Sacrifices are burnt; fishes are eaten – the meaning is the same.

And it is certainly there in Revelation. Indeed the context of one of the most famous verses in the Bible (Revelation 3:20) is about Jesus consuming the would-be believer.

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15-16)

Here the meaning is simple. It is only the wholly committed who are consumed. The meaning of the fish is exactly the same. Either we become fish that are eaten with the bread and so participate in the heavenly banquet; or we, like the lukewarm water, are spat out.

John 21 completes then what is left unsaid about fish in John 6.

And John 6 completes what is left unsaid about the food for the sheep. Jesus tells Peter – twice – to feed ‘his sheep’ (21:15,17). But Jesus does not say what the food is to be. There is no need. There has been a whole discourse in chapter 6 on what the true food is. It is Jesus – as the bread of life.

There is a much-ignored radical edge to this. For Jesus as the bread of life in chapter 6 primarily means the food of his death, and by implication his resurrection[2]. ‘The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ (6:51). Jesus expands on this in 6:52 – 58.

The radical edge is this: the church’s primary responsibility is to proclaim – in word and sacrament – Christ’s death. This is what feeds the sheep. John the Baptist underlines this, hence twice he says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (1:29,36). His message about Christ does not change. The spotlight is on the sacrificial death. Jesus himself emphasizes this in the first two church services. On the first Sunday He comes – and shows his wounds (20:20). And then about a week later, another gathering, and Jesus does exactly the same as the week before: He shows his wounds. Here we have the template for a true Christian meeting. The wounds must be seen. The cross must be revealed. For this is ‘the bread of life’. Paul says the same, ‘We proclaim Christ crucified’ as does the writer to the Hebrews, except he replaces the word cross with grace: It is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them.’

John 6 proclaims Jesus as the bread of life, but there is not a word on how people will be fed, nor is there any detail on how the food will be prepared. John 21 gives the detail. The sheep are to be fed by Peter – and so the leaders of all churches who have followed him. The food is heavenly, but as in John 6, the distribution is very human. Indeed without the disciples serving, the people would remain hungry. True then, true now.

As to how the heavenly food is to be prepared, again the answer is in John 21. The bread is to be cooked on a charcoal fire (21:9). The proclamation of Jesus as the bread of life must not be given as a cold mechanical mathematical announcement. Rather it must come from a life that has known intense failure and restoration, a life – like Peter’s – that knows grace as a living experience.

Finally in John 21 there is nothing about the method of distribution Peter and those who come after him are to use; it is John 6 that fills this in for the reader. The would-be feeder of others must organize people into groups; he or she must get the people to sit down (so they can see); they must then take round the food themselves; and once that duty is finished, they must clear up, making sure no food is wasted. There is no record of they themselves eating, unless the twelve rubbish bins are meant to be what they were to eat. (6:10 – 14)

While both John 6 and John 21 stand on their own, it is surely true that they are much richer for each other, and while at one level the writer records the menu for both chapters as being bread and fish because that is what the crowd and the disciples ate, it is impossible not to conclude that he is signalling to the reader to look for more: to look for connections between the two chapters.

Once you start looking, those connections are not difficult to see.




[1] For a detailed argument as to why it is reasonable to assume that the author knew his readers were familiar with the Synoptics see ‘Gospel of Glory’ by Richard Baukham, chapter eight.
[2] It is well known that in John’s Gospel the death and resurrection are collapsed into one event, hence the lifting up image (3:14, 8:28, 12:32, is both the lifting up on the cross and from the tomb.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Gone With The Wind and The History Boys – propaganda for racists and paedophiles


When you go on holiday the easiest entertainment is to watch the DVDs left by your land-lady, especially when the internet is iffy.

Our first evening we watched Gone With The Wind (it went on forever), the second evening, The History Boys.

Both were promoting poison.

The poison of Gone With The Wind is obvious. It portrayed the black slaves as if they had an idyllic time as much-loved members of the plantation family. What was all the fuss about?

It’s propaganda, seeking to legitimize a foul and brutal system. It starts sickly and gets worse – especially when the negro carpet baggers are seen later in their smart waist coats smoking cigars.

At least the racist propaganda in Gone With The Wind comes with a great dramatic story and larger than life characters who have a flicker of morality.

There is hardly a story in The History Boys and not a flicker of morality. It’s all about propaganda for paedophiles.

The teacher we are all meant to love is the bumbling, widely read, eccentric Hector – who gropes boys and so faces the sack. The teacher we are meant to be ambivalent towards is the smooth know it all Irwin; but our respect for him sinks at the end when we find out that he has lied about being a student at Oxford, and – much more sickening – when he is ready to listen to a disgusting proposal from Daikin, one of his pupils. Then there’s the caricature of the headmaster who pinched the behind of his secretary. Daikin is her boyfriend and he blackmails the headmaster. Reinstate Hector – or your misdemeanours go public. Hector is reinstated.

What is left in the viewer’s mind is that everyone has got strange sexual urges, and so – guess what? – it’s best not to judge anyone.

That’s the propaganda for paedophiles (we are just another group, please accept us) and it is all brought to an emotional finale at the end when Hector dies in a motor-cycle accident and we are urged to join in the eulogies for him at his memorial service.

Just in case the viewer has not had enough of homosexuality one of the boys, Posner, is in love with Daikin (quite a man – the school secretary, Irwin, and Posner) and this is never reciprocated.

Propaganda has no respect for truth. Its purpose is to emotionally convince the viewer.

That’s exactly what is going on here, faithful to another grim mantra of the film: it’s worth lying.

In 2015 1.7% of the population identified themselves as being bi or homosexual. Now suddenly in ‘The History Boys’ in a group of ten, 40% are bi or homosexual. It’s unlikely. But that’s the propagandist’s game. To make something shared by a very small minority look as if it is massively wide-spread.

The propaganda has been very successful. I will never forget asking a well-respected journalist what the percentage of gays was in the UK and his confident response was 10%. As said, it’s less than 2%.

And anyone who has ever worked in schools will know that what is depicted in this film is ludicrous. If any teacher allowed a pupil to take off their trousers in a lesson pretending to be a girl (as happens in an early scene) he or she would get sacked. The same goes for the proposal Daikin makes to Irvin.

It’s got nothing to do with reality. It’s fantasy in the mind of the writer - and his determination to promote a treacherous and animalistic view of human sexuality. There is not a flicker of morality about the preciousness of sex for marriage.

At least in Gone With The Wind the selfish cynical moral compasses of Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara are countered by Ashley and Melanie Wilkes and their code of honour.

There is no code of honour in ‘The History Boys’.

Pity our generation.


Tuesday, 2 April 2019

John 18:1 and the Kidron Valley and Richard Baukham


I have been reading the Gospel of John for well over forty years; I have been teaching it for over fifteen.

There’s always more. Your eyes alight on a word and you think, yes I have read that a thousand times, but….

Take John 18:1

It is a geography verse, the author is just telling us that Jesus moves from the room where he had dined with his disciples, to ‘a garden’…and to help people who knew the area well he adds, ‘across the Kidron valley’.

John is the only Gospel writer to mention the Kidron valley. At one level it’s just a detail that sharpens the directions. We would tell friends coming from London, come down the A3 and you will cross over the M25.

However John rarely operates at one level, he is always asking you to push a little further, especially when he mentions something the other Gospel writers haven’t.

So I looked up where else Kidron was mentioned in the Bible. It opened quite a door.

When David was being driven out of Jerusalem by his own son (2 Samuel 15), he ‘crossed the brook of Kidron’. It was the boundary, it marked the place where the king became an exile. With David the moment was intensely poignant, hence many were weeping.

With Jesus it is even more so. Here is the Messiah, the Son of David, Israel’s true King being driven out by his own people. This has been happening right from the start of the Gospel (1:11) but now with the crossing of the Kidron there is a finality, as there was for David. This is the end of the road for the rejected king.

And there’s more…

When David was leaving Jerusalem, he was cursed and pelted with stones by Shimei, the son of Gera. When the throne was restored to David, Shimei begged for mercy, which was granted. However, when dying David asked Solomon to ‘bring his (Shimei’s) grey head down with blood’. Solomon though gave Shimei one more chance. Shimei could live, as long as he never left Jerusalem:

‘For the day you go out, and cross the Wadi Kidron, know for certain that you shall die…’

For three years Shimei stays in Jerusalem; but then two of his slaves ran away and he saddled a donkey and went looking for them. He crossed the brook of Kidron. Soon after he was executed. As was Jesus. As soon as he ‘crossed the Kidron’ the shadow of the Old Testament looms large – ‘Know for certain that you will die.’

And as is typical with John there are even layers of meaning in the reference back to the Old Testament. Jesus is to die because he repeatedly – like Shimei – has defied the Solomons of Jerusalem; but that is not the real reason for his death. Jesus must die because he is willing to become Shimei, the man in vicious opposition to authority: ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…’ (2 Cor. 5:21)

And there is more…

It was at the brook of Kidron that evil was comprehensively done away with.

So in I Kings 15:14 ‘…Asa cut down her image (of Asherah) and burned it at the brook of Kidron’.

There are six other verses similar to this where an idol, or a pagan altar, or just uncleanness is taken away and destroyed at the book of Kidron. See; 2 Kings 23:4; 2 Kings 23:6; 2 Kings 23:12; 2 Chronicles 15:16; 2 Chronicles 29:16; 2 Chronicles 30:14.

So Jesus as he crossed the brook of Kidron, the author reminds us that this is the place where evil is done away with for Israel. That is what would happen now for the whole world because Jesus was willing to cross the brook of Kidron.

Just one word in a geography verse and the author asks us to pause the video to see Jesus ‘crossing the brook of Kidron’.  To see the poignancy of the rejected king. To see the certainty of the coming execution. And to see the crushing of evil that is again going to happen at the brook of Kidron.

The lesson. Always expect more from John.

And there is more even in 18:1, ‘a place where there was a garden’.

Yes, there was a garden, but again, how evocative. The Bible story begins in a garden; now we are in another garden at the start of John’s passion narrative, a narrative which will end in a garden (19:41); and all will again start in that same garden.

Richard Baukham is a fantastic theologian, especially for bringing out the more in John. If you’re interested make sure you read his ‘Testimony of the Beloved Disciple’ (2007) and his more recent ‘Gospel of Glory’ (2015). In the latter he has a chapter entitled, ‘Dimensions of Meanings In The Gospel’s First Week.’ I had always wondered about the marking of the days in the first week. It was like a slightly steamed up window. Baukham comes along and wipes it pretty clean. He shows how the writer has linked the first week up with last week. So on the last day of the first week (in Cana) we have the first sign; on the last day of the last week we have the seventh sign (the resurrection), as a result of both, the disciples ‘believed’ in him. (But what a difference there must have been in the quality of their belief). On the first day of the first week, we have John in ‘Bethany beyond the Jordan’[1] dealing with the Jerusalem interrogators, the trouble begins; on the first day of the last week we have Jesus in Bethany for the dinner, where he is ‘anointed for burial’.

Baukham also shows how there is a linking between the first chapter and the last around the theme of discipleship. In 1:37 – 43 we have ‘Follow me’ four times. This is what literally happened. But the full meaning is brought out in chapter 21, where Peter is told what it will mean to follow Jesus. Moreover Baukham shows brilliantly how in John 21 when Peter turns and sees the Beloved Disciple so we have an echo of when Jesus turned and saw Andrew and that same disciple.[2]

Another connection between the two weeks is the theme of witness. In the prologue we are told in verse 7 that ‘all might believe’ though the witness of John the Baptist, and then in the first verse of the narrative (v.19), we read, ‘This is the testimony’. Baukham points out the uniqueness of the Baptist’s testimony, the only one to witness to Jesus being the ‘Lamb of God’ and the one on whom the Holy Spirit remains, and underlines how it is this witness that draws the Beloved Disciple to follow Jesus (1:37). This is the crucial link. As the Beloved Disciple was there at the beginning, hearing the cry from the Baptist that Jesus is the Lamb of God, so he is there at the end, the only disciple to witness the spear going into the crucified body. He is a witness in the last week, because John was a witness in the first week; and he witnesses in the last week the even that John proclaimed in the first week. And most importantly, he is the disciple (not apostle) ‘who is testifying to these things and has written them….’ (21:24). That is why, as 1:7 says, ‘all can believe through the witness of John the Baptist. We can all believe because the Beloved Disciple wrote the Gospel.

As Baukham says, the first week is a week of beginnings that anticipate the end, especially the cross and resurrection. So we have the Lamb of God proclamation, soon to be followed by the Nathanial narrative (1:45 – 51) where the question of Jesus’ origin is first comes up. This will continue which ends with Jacob’s ladder from Genesis 28. Baukham teaches us that the root for the word ladder in Hebrew is ‘sll’ which means to lift up. So in Jesus’ first ‘Truly, truly’ statements (there are 25 in the Gospel) he is referring to his being lifted up on the cross and in resurrection.

And so to the first sign at Cana which corresponds to the last sign in the last week. It is all about the best wine linked to Jesus’ hour. This is the best wine that God supplies in abundance, the wine that echoes back to Isaiah 25 and the abolition of death, the wine that for Christians is the blood of Christ.

When disciples see this wine, they believe and get a glimpse of the glory. So it was in the first week; so it was in the last week; so it is today.

Who knows for how much longer I will be reading the Gospel of John. I am still expecting to discover more; especially if Richard Baukham keeps on writing.


[1] Baukham doesn’t believe this is Bethany near Jerusalem; rather he argues it is in the north east of Lake Galilee, an area known as ‘Bashan’ in Aramaic, and Betenayya in Greek.
[2] Baukham rightly assumes that the anonymous disciple in John 1 is the Beloved Disciple of 13, and 21 which of course is why John Zebedee cannot be the author as he is mentioned in 21:2


Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Evan Roberts (1878 - 1951), the strange leader of the Welsh Revival

As the 19th C became the 20th an evangelist in Wales, Seth Joshua, prayed for four years that God would raise up a ‘lad from the coal mine or from the field, even as he took Elijah from the plough, to receive his work’. Joshua specifically prayed that the new Elijah would not be a man from the universities. If there was to be revival, he did not want arrogant intellectualism creeping in.
God’s answer to Joshua’s prayer was Evan Roberts.

Roberts was from a large mining family in Loughor, Southwest Wales. When he was twelve his father had an accident and he went down the mines to help support the family – he had fourteen siblings. He worked in the pits till his early twenties. He was very much a ‘lad from the coal mine.’

His parents were devout Calvinist Methodists as was Roberts. He gave his life to God as a teenager, made sure he got to every church meeting, sometimes carried his Bible to the pit, memorized Scripture at night and prayed fervently for revival. He prayed for longer than Joshua.

‘For ten or eleven years I had prayed for revival. I could be up all night and read or talk about revivals. It was the Spirit that moved me to think about revival.’

In early 1904, aged 25, Roberts experienced divine visitations.

‘One Friday night last spring (1904) when praying by my bedside before retiring, I was taken up to a great expanse – without time and space. It was communion with God. Before this a far-off God I had. I was frightened that night, but never since…after that experience I was awakened every night a little after one o’clock…From that hour I was taken up into divine fellowship for about four hours…About five o’clock I was again allowed to sleep on till about nine.’

In September 1904 Roberts began studying for the ministry in Newcastle-Emlyn. Shortly after arriving there the principal of the Bible School encouraged his students to attend a conference led by Seth Joshua in Blaenanerch. Roberts was yearning for a mighty baptism in the Holy Spirit.

 ‘I have built the altar, and laid the wood in order, and I have prepared the offering; I have only to wait for the fire.’

The fire fell.

At the first meeting of the conference on September 29th Seth Joshua prayed that God would ‘bend us’.

“That is what you need”, said the Spirit to me (Roberts). As I went out I prayed, “O, Lord, bend me”’

At the prayer meeting the next morning Roberts had a physical encounter with the Holy Spirit.

‘When others prayed I felt a living force come into my bosom. I held my breath, and my legs shivered…The living force grew and I was almost bursting…I would have burst if I had not prayed…What burst me was the verse, ‘God commending His love’. I fell on my knees with my arms over the seat in front of me and the tears and perspiration flowed freely. I thought blood was gushing forth. For about two minutes it was fearful. I cried, ‘Bend me! Bend me! After I was bent, a wave of peace came over me.’

That day he became keenly aware of two truths.

The first was that God is full of joy. He wrote to his sister:

‘God is a happy God and a joyful God. Therefore we must be happy and joyful’

The second is the reality of judgement. Remembering his experience in Blaenanerch, Roberts wrote:

‘As they sang, I thought of the bending at the Judgement Day, and I was filled with compassion for those who would be bent on that day, and I wept’

So the day after this experience he wrote: ‘Henceforth the salvation of souls became the burden of my heart. From that time I was on fire with a desire to go through all Wales, and, if it were possible, I was willing to pay God for allowing me to go’

Roberts did pay with his own money. He left his studies, took all his savings (£200) and began a full-time evangelistic ministry.

This began with prayer - and visions. On October 29th, 1904 Roberts and his good friend, Sidney Evans, both had the same vision. They saw an arm outstretched from the moon todays them. For Roberts the visions continued, sometimes the hand held a piece of paper with 100,000 written on it. For Roberts that was the size of the coming revival.

During the evening service on Sunday October 30th in Newcastle Emlyn the text for the preacher was, ‘Father, the hour has come’ (John 17: 1). This was for Roberts. The hour had come. Roberts’ body shook and he saw the people of his own town, Loughor, waiting for someone to speak to them. Roberts immediately obeyed what he saw as a direct command from the Holy Spirit and the next morning he travelled to Loughor. On the train he wrote a sermon, and practised it on the other passages.

As soon as he arrived Roberts arranged meetings for the young people of the town and by the end of the week he recorded that 65 people – from the reserved Welsh culture - had stood up publicly to confess Christ.

In terms of a revival expecting 100,000 conversions, 65 is not very significant. But for Roberts it was the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, and on November 4th he wrote these words to the editor of the Sunday Companion, a national weekly newspaper.

‘We are on the eve of a great and grand revival, the greatest Wales has ever seen. Do not think the writer is a madman.’

He was not a madman. The revival began.

The next week in Moriah Chapel in Loughor was overflowing. It seated 800 people. A newspaper report for November 9th said that people were lining the street of the chapel trying to get in. Once in, people stayed in – a long time. Usually the meetings started about 7.00 p.m. and did not finish till 4.30 the next morning.

After Loughor, Roberts and his small team went to towns all over Wales holding revival meetings. The response was the same. Thousands came, and thousands – often after a period of painful groaning as they faced their sins – publicly confessed Christ. By the end of 1904 the number of those who had responded was reckoned to be 32,000. By the autumn of 1905, when Roberts’ meetings became fewer, 84,000 had made a public confession. Some round that up to 100,000, the number Roberts believed God had given to him.

Whatever the actual figure, this was a Christian revival and Roberts was the acknowledged leader, albeit a strange one. Indeed for one eye-witness, the well-known journalist W.T Stead, he was not the leader:

‘The most extraordinary thing about the meetings I attended was the extent to which they were absolutely without any human direction or leadership.

G. Campbell Morgan, the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, underlined this, and how singing played a prominent role.

‘The meetings open with any amount of singing…then it is go as you please for two hours or more. And the amazing thing is that it does go….Three fourths of the meeting consists of singing. No one uses a hymn book. No one gives out a hymn. The last person to control the meeting in anyway is Mr Evan Roberts.’

The Billy Graham of his day, R. A. Torrey said the same thing: Roberts ‘ does not seem to try and run things in his own wisdom and strength…Oftentimes, even when Evan Roberts is speaking, some man or woman will burst out into song, and he immediately stops speaking and lets the meeting take its own course.’

It was Roberts though who shaped the character of these meetings, and for him they were all about total dependency on the Holy Spirit. A visitor to the meetings Mary Baxter wrote: '(Roberts) has a real belief in the leading of the Holy Spirit, and knows how to wait on the Lord and wait for the Lord.’

This emphasis on the total dependency on the Holy Spirit can be seen in three ways.

Firstly Roberts determined to cultivate an atmosphere where the Holy Spirit would be at ease. From the start of the revival in Loughor he laid down these rules for the congregation.

1. If there is past sin or sins hitherto unconfessed we cannot receive the Spirit
2. If there is anything doubtful in our lives it must be removed
3. An entire giving up of ourselves to the Sprit. We must speak and do all He requires of us
4. Public confession of Christ.

Secondly, Roberts was a fervent believer in the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In November 1904 he wrote this: ‘The Spirit directed me to say that three things show that God is with us. 1. Enormous congregations 2. Unity between the different denominations 3. The baptism in the Holy Spirit (emphasis mine).

Roberts brought this belief into the heart of his meetings. He wrote this to a friend:

‘Let those who have confessed Christ remain behind, and send this prayer around. All must see to it that they pray it:

Send the Spirit now, for Jesus Christ’s sake
Send the Spirit powerfully now, for Jesus Christ’s sake
Send the Spirit more powerfully now, for Jesus Christ’s sake
Send the Spirit still more powerfully now, for Jesus Christ’s sake’

Finally, especially towards the end of his ministry, Roberts would stop any meeting if he felt the Holy Spirit had told him there was an ‘obstacle’ present. For those attending this was embarrassing; for Roberts is was a matter of honouring the Holy Spirit.

A famous example of this was when Roberts went to Liverpool in the spring of 1905. On April 7th there were queues a mile long and eventually 8,000 packed into Sun Hall. In the midst of worship, Roberts ordered the crowd to be silent and with great indignation announced that an Englishman was trying to hypnotize him. He asked the man either leave the building or repent. This caused a sensation. Roberts went on, ‘God will not be mocked! We have not come here to play with the holy things of God, We have come here to worship the Lord, and they who mock Him shall be scattered as chaff before the wind.’ The meeting then resumed, but after a while there was another obstacle. Roberts declared that two clergyman had grumbled about having to raise their arms. He asked them to publicly repent for the meeting to continue. Nobody came forward; and so a shocked congregation watched Roberts leave. Later his pronouncements were proved correct. Dr Walford Bodie, who was appearing at the Lyric Theatre, admitted he had gone to the meeting to hypnotize Roberts; and two ministers sent a signed letter saying they had overheard two other clergymen grumbling about having to raise their hands[1].

At some point in 2005 Roberts suffered a physical and mental breakdown and, apart from a few appearances, he withdrew from public life for the rest of his life. He gave himself to prayer for he considered intercession the most effective work a man can do:

‘I work as hard at prayer as if I had undertaken any religious work…By preaching I would reach the limited few – by and through prayer I can reach the whole of mankind through God’

Roberts remained in the secret place of prayer, living in Cardiff till his death in 1951. The Welsh Revival though has never been obscure. Its impact went around the world, and has passed down the generations.

In 1906 revival broke out in Azusa Street, Los Angeles. This continued to 1909. This revival led directly to the Pentecostal Movement which has at least 280 million adherents. It also led to the creation of new denominations such as the Assemblies of God which has about 70 million members in over 350,000 fellowships around the world.

It is acknowledged that the catalyst for the Azusa Street revival was the visit of Joseph Smale, a pastor from Los Angeles, to Wales in 1905 where he met Evan Roberts. On his return Smale organised day and night prayer meetings urging believers to cry out to God for a Pentecost. As in Loughor, so in Los Angeles – the fire fell.

Regarding generations: as I write in early 2019 the UK is now a country where Christian morality is trampled underfoot, the vile celebrated (in law), the occult exalted. And Britain today is in crisis.

The man standing up to urge Christians to intercede for Britain is the evangelist David Hathaway. On January 26, in Wembley Arena, joined by other Christian leaders, he will lead a day of prayer.

David Hathaway’s spiritual fervour – which is impressive – leads us directly back to Evan Roberts. For Hathaway was born – and born again – into a family and fellowship rooted in the spirituality of the Welsh Revival.

David’s father, William Hathaway, from Wales, was converted in the 1904 revival. After the war William Hathaway met George Jeffreys, another Welshman converted during the Welsh Revival, and these two men started the Elim Pentecostal church in the UK. The head-quarters was in Clapham and this is where David Hathaway was born in 1933 and it was here he became a Christian when he was eight.

So in 2019 an eighty six year old man, shaped by the impact of Evan Roberts and the Welsh Revival, will be calling back the UK to repentance.

May God have mercy, again. 



[1] There are detailed accounts of all Roberts’ meetings in Liverpool here: http://www.reavivamentos.com/recent_revivals/evan_roberts_gwilyn_hughes.php

Monday, 3 September 2018

Three lessons from the world’s most listened to Christian: J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750)


Not a saint, but a Christian

J. S. Bach was not a saint. He could lose his temper, be sharp with words, niggardly with money, and frustrate his employers. For this he once, rather unfairly, spent a month in prison. His crime was ‘obstinacy’[1].

Bach was not a saint; but he was definitely a Christian.

There is no record of a Damascus Road experience; but we have his three volume German Bible with a commentary by Luther and Abraham Calovius. It has 348 markings and comments, almost certainly in Bach’s writing. [2] These comments reveal a devout Christian.

And a knowledgeable one. 

To be considered for the post of cantor at St Thomas’ School, Leipzig, Bach had to take a tough theology exam in Latin. He passed when others had failed[3]. Bach remained a student of theology. In an inventory of his library drawn up in 1750 after his death the majority of the titles relate to Christian theology[4]

Famously Bach wrote down nothing about his own life. He was too busy. His son, Carl Phillipe Emmanuel wrote:

‘With his many activities he hardly had time for the most necessary correspondence…he never wrote anything down about his life.’

However from the small glimpses available we see a Christian man. Carl Phillipe described their home in Leipzig as a ‘pigeonry’, full of family, friends, and resident students, people that his father gave time to: ‘Association with him was pleasant to everyone and often very edifying.’ 

Pleasant and edifying – that is exactly the impression a true Christian should have. One of Bach’s biographers, Peter Williams, writes that the ‘picture of Bach as hard-working, demanding, solicitous, but urbane family man who enjoyed his family, boisterous gatherings, with music, tomfoolery, and drink…was not far from the truth.’

Another testimony to Bach’s faith is his steadfastness in the face of death. The reaper was unrelenting. Both his parents died when he was ten. Of his seven siblings, three died also before they reached the age of ten. Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, died when she was just 36. She had mothered seven children. Three died in infancy. Her fourth son died of a fever in 1739, aged 24. With his second wife Anna Magdalena, Bach had thirteen children. Seven died when young.

Bach buried ten of his children. ‘Curse God’ would be the reaction of many; but he continued to praise God. And it was during those very years of grief, Bach gave us perhaps the most beautiful music the world knows, nearly always signed off with: ‘Soli Deo Gloria’ (Glory to God alone).

For even if there was no Bible, no theology books, no glimpses into his home, the music on its own points to a composer with a deep Christian faith. Music set to Biblical texts – especially the Passions and the cantatas – dominate the Bach canon. And, as his biographers note, a secular piece would later find itself re-cycled into a sacred one.

In his early years in Leipzig he was sometimes composing more that one major piece a week.  This is surely a labour of love, not just for the music, but also the message of Scripture. Writing about the Christmas Ontario Carl Phillipe said: ‘He worked devoutly, governing himself by the content of the text, without any strange misplacing of the words…’

In his Bible Bach made this note by Chronicles 5:12 -13:

 ‘In devotional music, God is always present in his grace’. He believed that in music as a bringer of God into people's lives. Further evidence of this is found on the title page of a notebook he gave to his second wife Anna Magdalena in 1722. On the title page Bach had written the names of three titles by the theologian August Pheiffer. They emphasize that music is from God; can teach Christians; and can cure melancholy. 

Millions still experience of something of the divine in Bach's music that speaks of the Christian faith that motivated the composer.

A kind friend invited my wife and I to Deventer, Holland, to hear ‘St Matthew’s Passion’ in 2015. At the end there was total silence in the packed church. Then the conductor, Klass Stok, raised his arms with his baton towards heaven, as if in worship. It was a God moment, exactly as Bach wanted it to be.

It would have been impossible to leave Deventer thinking that Bach was anything but a devout Christian.

Probably the most listened to Christian

Bach was not just a Christian.

He is known as the fifth evangelist.

Nearly 270 years after his death he is probably the most listened to Christian in the world, more so than any preacher. It would take years of research to prove this, but it is very likely. On Youtube just one of the many Bach uploads has had 37 million views. There are Bach radio stations; and on BBC classical channel, Radio 3, with two million listeners, Bach is the only composer to have a piece of his music played every morning [6] Add the millions listening to Bach CDs, and the live concerts, three thousand in 2017, and the claim is not outrageous. I cannot think of any other Christian who has such a vast audience.

As said, Bach was not a saint, he was earthy with human flaws. And yet, his life – because he was a Christian - will continue to thin the boundary between heaven and earth for millions. Given Bach continues to have such an impact, it is worth asking what lessons we can take from his life.

Here are three: work; building on the past; faith in the meaning of music

Work

It was a lot.

There was all the composing for the churches; and for Leipzig's Collegium Musicium, which held weekly concerts.  Once he composed more than sixty major pieces in one year. Bach started composing in his teens; by his death there were over a thousand compositions bearing his name. And it is certain that some of his compositions have been lost. 

After the composing there were the rehearsals. It seemed that Bach was a stickler for proper rehearsing and he instantly spotted a wrong note. He expected very high standards from his musicians. Indeed one of his first controversies with his seniors was his refusal at Arnadst to work with the student choir which he considered was incompetent.

Then the actual performances. Every week, in churches with large congregations, of well over 500. These were the days when everyone went to church. During his 27 years at Leipzg Bach’s biographer, Christoph Wolff, reckons that he put on over 1,500 performances. And for the Collegium Musicium he put on at least 500 two hour programmes.

And church organs: Bach was renowned not just for being the virtuoso organist of his day, but the leading technical expert. So he was called upon to test organs and write up reports. In fact Bach was very particular about all the practical sides of music – the fingering for the keyboard, the acoustics, the positioning of singers, the best way to tune instruments.

And teaching: at Leipzig he was a school master at St Thomas’. As well as music, he was meant to teach Latin and once a month he was the inspector. This meant making sure the whole school was up at 5.00 a.m. in the summer, 6.00 a.m. in winter, and ensuring all went smoothly till the evening.  Moreover Bach, even before Leipzig, always had residential private students. Michael Wolff reckons he tutored at least sixty.

All of this adds up to a monumental amount of work. No wonder his biographers[7] reckons he usually worked a fourteen to eighteen hour day.

Bach himself certainly believed that hard work was the main reason for his success. He once said, ‘What I have achieved by industry and patience, anyone else with a tolerable gift and ability can also achieve’. He said the same to his first biographer, Johann Forkel, ‘‘I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.’

That is a lesson we can all apply if we want our lives to have impact.

Building on family and past masters

Bach had more than a ‘tolerable gift’; he was an extremely talented genius.

But that did not guarantee his success. That was due both to hard work – and the way he built on what had been given to him.

This is especially true of his extended family, and other musicians.

Bach was born into a family of musicians. His great-grandfather Johanns was a musician, as his grand-father and great uncle, Christophe and Heinrich, were musicians and composers. His father, Ambroisus, was the director of music in Eisenach, where J.S. Bach was born. His three uncles were talented musicians, and one of his father’s cousin, Christophe, was the town organist and court harpsichordist. Three of Bach’s siblings were professional musicians. His eldest brother, Christophe, was the organist in Ohrdruf, Balthasar was a trumpeter, and Jacob was a court musician in Stockholm.

Bach thoroughly enjoyed his family. Bach’s first biographer, Nicolaus Forkel, tells us that ‘The different members of this family had a very great attachment to each other’. And he tells us about their gatherings. ‘The first thing they did when there were assembled was to sing a chorale…they proceeded to drolleries…partly comic, partly naughty.’

Bach received a lot of support from his family, especially his older brother, Christophe. When both his parents died in 1695 the ten year old Bach went to live with Christophe, who had been taught by Pachabel, and it is here his musical education flourished. His biographer Christoph Wolff writes: ‘The most decisive role in Sebastian’s musical upbringing must be assigned to his brother Christoph.’ It is here Bach began composing.

As well as building on all the music in his own family, Bach also looked to the past masters. Hence the famous ‘Moonlight’ story. This is when the young Bach went at night to copy out music by Froberger, Kerl, and Pachabel by moon-light because Christophe would not give him access to these precious manuscripts. 

We see this same determination when, as a school boy, he walked over 30 miles from Luneberg to Hamburg to hear the great organist Reinken. And again when he absented himself without leave from his post as organist at Arnstadt and walked over 230 miles to Lubeck to hear the famous organist Buxtehude.

This is a man determined to learn from the masters, whatever the cost. Forkel says that as a composer Bach was mainly self-taught. However when he realised that his early music had too much 'running and leaping to nothing' Bach turned to study Vivaldi. From this master he learned  ‘the inseparable functions of order, coherence, and proportion.’

Bach, perhaps more than any other, developed the art of composing; but he first learned the rules. Much later in his life he commented on this: ‘When the rules of composition are most strictly preserved, there without fail order must reign…there is nothing more beautiful than this harmony.’

Towards the end of his biography, Christophe Wolffe quotes a Leipzig man, Magister Pitschel, who had clearly heard Bach many times. In 1741 he made this observation that underlines how Bach built on the work of others.

'You know the famous man….does not get into condition to delight           others…until he has played something from the printed page and has thus set his powers of imagination in motion…The able man has to play something    from the page which is inferior to his own ideas. And yet his superior ideas are the consequences of those inferior ones.'

This importance of building on what has gone before us is a lesson nobody – especially Christians – can ignore. Bach calls us here to cherish our families, to appreciate what they give us; and to make sacrifices to study those who have gone before us, to make those long journeys to hear whoever is the Reinken or Buxtehude for our calling. As in music, so in the affairs of the church, there might well be new and better way to do things. But first we must master the old rules; we must build on what has gone before[8].

Music as science to reveal God

The rules that brought forth the beauty of harmony for Bach were not utilitarian; they reflected the reality of the universe.

Christoph Wolff argues that Bach considered music to be a science whose purpose was to ‘imitate nature’, and therefore ultimately God who orders nature. In essence, music for Bach was wholly theological, it was about the knowledge of God. Later Wolff says that Bach looked to the ‘Hebrew notion of the presence of the invisible prompted by the physical phenomenon of the sound of music’

And so for Bach, his music was an argument for the existence of God, his beautiful harmonies reflected something of the divine, and especially the unity, the inter-connectedness of creation.

This belief in harmony has given both the music and the composer an overall sense of seriousness. Of course there is also exhilarating joy and vibrancy in the music, but underpinning it all is a sense of depth, or seriousness.

And while we know that Bach was convivial, there is no doubt that he himself was a serious man. For, as another biographer Peter Williams writes, Bach wanted to reveal to the listener the ‘scope of God’s gift of music.’ In a sense Bach saw himself as being just as much a priest as the clergy he worked with. Indeed in the famous Hausmanne painting Bach looks more like a bishop. For this reason, Williams suggests, that Bach avoided and disliked the frivolity of the theatre music that was reaching Leipzig in his later years.

This could raise the cheap charge that he was kill joy. It is the exact opposite. Bach composed understanding that as man took up his rightful position as a creature worhsipping God, so there would be recreation and delight for his soul.

Bach wrote that ‘All music should be none else but for the glory of God and the recreation of the soul’ or, ‘the permissible delectation of the soul’.

And this has been the experience of millions. Whatever their faith they have found rest and delight for their souls listening to Bach[9].

Why then is Bach probably the most listened to Christian in the world?

Ultimately it is because he believed in this inter-connectedness in creation, this harmony, and as he in his profession sought the glory of God, so others would be blessed. That is the rule he believed in and followed and so he continues to enjoy success.

Despite the present intellectual environment that undermines even the idea of a creator and interconnectedness, the unchanged view of orthodox Christianity remains the same as it was in Bach’s day, as it was at the time of the Nicene Creed: God is the creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

There is ordered harmony at the heart of things, not chance, and so the lesson of Bach’s life – to believe and pursue that harmony – applies to us all and especially Christians. We should be serious about ourselves and our work, and we should seek God’s glory in all we do. If we follow this rule surely we will bless others, as Bach has.

Bach has a warning for people who disregard the rule of seeking God’s glory for the recreation of the soul. He says, ‘Where this (rule) is not observed there is no real music, but only a devilish blare and hubbub.’

A devilish blare and hubbub.

Nobody wants that to be their epitaph.

Bach’s life has given us heavenly music and here are three lessons from his life that we can all follow to avoid blare and hubbub and bring blessing to others: work hard, build on the past, and above all live for the glory of God.



[1] Regarding Bach’s temper and tongue: on August 4th, 1705, twenty year old organist for Arnstadt lost his temper called a student ‘oafish’ and got into a public brawl. Many years later Bach could still respond to opponents in a rough way. In 1736 Gottlieb Biedermann, the rector in Freiberg, called all music ‘wicked and depraved’; in response Bach made a crude pun and called the rector, dreckhohr, which means ‘shit ear’. Regarding money, Bach was careful. In one letter to a former secretary, Johann Elias, who had sent him a gift of a barrel of wine his tone was almost niggardly. He complains that the barrel arrived damaged, and that the cost of all the taxes made it too expensive. Regarding his employers, especially in Leipzig, the relationship was often uneasy, and at the end he was not on talking terms with the young rector of the university, Johann Ernesti. Earlier when employed by the Duke of Weimer he spent a month in prison for negotiating a new job behind the Duke’s back. His crime was ‘obstinacy and importunity’. It is worth noting that Bach’s brusqueness and obstinacy is usually seen when either he is defending his family’s security, as in this latter case, or his calling as a composer and the value of music itself.
[2] For more on Bach’s Bible see https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/arts/music/bach-religion-music.html
[3] Here are some examples of the questions which Bach might have faced:"How many verses are in the Book of Micah"? "What are the differences between the respective geneologies of Christ in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?" "What is the relationship between the Epistles to the Romans and of James to Luther's theology of justification by faith rather than works?" See http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Topics/Bach-Education-3.htm
[4] See here for the full list - https://www.jstor.org/stable/41640050?newaccount=true&read-now=1&seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents
[5].The three titles were ‘Against Calvinism’ and so teaching that music is from God; ‘Evangelical Christian School’, which demonstrated that music can teach Christians; and ‘Against Melancholy’, showing that music is a cure for depression.
[6] http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140917-can-any-composer-equal-bach This article explains why the Bach is the only composer who merits having a daily slot. There is no other.
[7] The two main biographies used for this article are: Johann Sebastian Bach, The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff, and Bach: A Musical Biography by Peter Williams
[8] It is worth noting that the churches that have stood the test of time – the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, the Anglicans and Bach’s Lutherans – use liturgy. It is sad that many evangelical/charismatic/Pentecostal churches dispense with liturgy.
[9] Radio 3’s ‘The Spirit of Bach’ is a fascinating and sometimes poignant record of how people have found comfort in Bach’s music. See https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09k5pg1


Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Tom Wright, the UK's greatest theologian: The Day The Revolution Began.


Tom Wright

Fast forward a hundred years and hardly anyone will remember the names of our present political leaders, let alone today's so called celebrities. However the whole church will still be talking about and learning from Tom Wright[1]. With the sheer volume of his output, the detail of his scholarship, and his fierce loyalty to what the Bible is saying in its historical context he is by far the greatest theologian Britain has ever had, outshining even John Wycliffe. He stands in the premier league of Christian thinkers, such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Bonhoeffer, men who have shaped the church, and so the world.

As a reader NTW has encouraged my own faith with his great work defending the historicity of Jesus Christ and his resurrection (The Resurrection of The Son of God), and his measured argument in favour of the authority of the Bible (Scripture and the Authority of God).

Moreover NTW has absolutely shifted heavy furniture in my mind over two topics: the afterlife and the impact of the cross.

In Surprised By Hope NTW shows us that there is no spiritual heaven; in the future there will be a joining of a physical earth and a physical heaven that will operate in time and space. We will live forever – much as we are now, except with incorruptible bodies, and with the massive responsibility of ruling the earth as co-regents. I found this a great relief.

In the book reviewed here, The Day The Revolution Began NTW has shifted my thinking on the cross to see that it is about much more than an individual’s salvation: it is about the inauguration of a new Exodus for humanity. The revolution has begun and this means the church can tear into the evil powers that oppress and demean people right now. There is no need to wait.

The Day The Revolution Began is a fascinating read. Below is an outline of its main argument followed by three problems it throws up.

Further down are my notes on the whole book which I trust might be helpful for those who might not have the time or inclination to read the whole book.

Main argument from ‘The Day The Revolution Began’

1. The cross in the Bible is not primarily about Jesus taking the punishment of an angry God for an individual’s sins to secure that individual a place in a spiritual heaven.

NTW calls this the Romans Road version of the cross –

‘Humans were supposed to behave themselves; they didn’t. God had to punish them, but Jesus stood in the way, so God forgave them after all (provided they believed in Jesus). Rather than going to hell, they can now go to heaven instead.’

2. This is wrong for three reasons

a. The cross in the Bible is not set in the context of a moral (works) behaviour contract with God where there is punishment if the contract is broken. The cross is set in the context of God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham to bless the world through him. Furthermore the cross deliberately happens in the immediate context of the Passover which is not primarily about punishment.

b. Though the cross is about individuals, it is much more. With its Passover context the cross is about the inauguration of a new Exodus for humanity. NTW argues that the New Testament’s short-hand for this is the ‘forgiveness of sins’ whereby the root issue of idolatry (not sins) is dealt with.

c. There is no spiritual (Platonic) heaven in the Bible, so all teaching that the cross takes us there is wrong. Rather than talk about heaven, the Bible affirms the coming of the Kingdom of God. This is what the cross is all about. It is about the end of exile, the arrival of God’s Kingdom and the role of the redeemed in the new creation in physical time and space with Him. NTW argues this brings back humanity to its original purpose, a covenant of vocation.

3. The above misinterpretation has happened because the Reformers imposed a plan of salvation on the Bible to deal with the issues they were facing with the Roman Catholic commercialisation of salvation which was set against the fierce background of a literal heaven and hell. This was then further contaminated by the enlightenment’s exalting of the individual hence the 19th C evangelical concern about individuals finding a place in heaven.

4. This meant the Reformers and their followers have down played the actual context in both the Gospels and Paul’s letters. Regarding the Gospels Jesus deliberately chose to die during the Passover. Furthermore the Gospel writers underline that Jesus died as a king expecting the Kingdom of God; hence Jesus understood his death to be inaugurating a new Exodus. Regarding Paul’s letters the Reformers cut the salvation teaching adrift from the concern for God’s faithfulness to his covenant with the Jews who are looked at primarily as an example of people who made a mistake. This is wrong. NTW insists that Jesus’s death must be understood in its Jewish context and that Paul’s concern was not going to heaven, but how God would be faithful to his covenant with Abraham.

5. Mission therefore is not primarily about persuading people to believe that Jesus has died for their sins so they as individuals can go to heaven; it is about implementing the arrival of the kingdom of God. This means Christians must get much more involved with the world as it is, rather than just trying to give people a ticket to heaven, and confront the defeated gods of sex, money and power by the means of the cross: suffering, forgiveness and love.

The vision is richer, but not without questions

The book is absolutely right to insist that the cross must be interpreted in its own Jewish context. Ordinary Christians now have a much richer canvas to gaze at when considering what it means when pondering the truth that Jesus ‘died for our sins according to the Scriptures.’

And the canvas is so much more positive.

Instead of an angry God determined to kill sinners and send them to hell unless they believe His innocent Son has paid the price He demands, Wright argues that the Bible teaches that God has always been for mankind (hence he loves and gives, John 3:16), and has planned to bring us back from exile – through his covenant with Abraham. The cross is where this revolution is launched for here sin in Jesus is dealt with. How still remains a mystery, but it is something that had to happen, like the original Passover, for the new Exodus to be inaugurated. The outcome is not a spiritual ‘heaven’, but it is a new heaven and earth in real time and space. The kingdom of God will have familiarity which is comforting for those of us uneasy about floating around on clouds. The campaign for that kingdom is already underway. Right now, as Wilberforce and countless others have understood, Christians can challenge the powers and help bring in a better way of living using the means of the cross – love and suffering.

So this is a tremendously important book giving us a much richer, and more practical, vision of the cross. However, like a sailing boat rushing through the ocean as it leans into the water, the sea easily crashes onto the deck.

Perhaps the most disturbing crash of waves onto the deck is the question of God’s wrath. It is all very well saying that God is for mankind and that He operates according to a covenant of vocation not a contract of works – but for ordinary readers of the Bible it is hard to escape the conclusion that there is a dreadful fury awaiting those who do not obey his commands. Take just Deuteronomy 28 where it is bluntly stated that a whole host of terrible curses will fall on people who do not obey God’s commands. There are fifty verses on this.

Here is a flavour of the tone from just a few of these verses.

The Lord will send disaster, panic, and frustration on everything you attempt to do…The Lord will afflict you with consumption, fever, inflammation, with fiery heat…until you perish…Your corpses shall be food for every bird of the air…The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind....The Lord will take delight in bringing you to ruin and destruction.

This is a behaviour contract. If you obey you are blessed; if you disobey you are cursed. This is in black and white and if a theologian comes along and says, ‘Well, this is not what it really means’ then why is it set out to be understood in this way? It is either what it is, or it is criminally offensive in terms of miscommunication.

For this reader the issue of God’s fury towards people who were sinners was not really addressed by NTW. Indeed at one point NTW says the Gospels do not warn about hell, saying, almost as an aside, that Jesus’ references to hell is about the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem. For the uninitiated that is quite an aside: what about the rich man separated from Lazarus, what about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, what about the man who got cast out for not wearing the correct wedding garment, the unforgiving servant? Just one of these parables is enough to convince the reader that there is going to be a judgement, a terrible division and the discerning will want to make sure they are saved from the fury of God.

The rejection of the behaviour based scheme that could engender God’s wrath then opens wide another question. In the Romans Road it is quite clear why Jesus suffered on the cross and was abandoned by God. The wrath of God that should have fallen on the individual sinner, fell on Him. However in NTW’s paradigm this is not so clear. NTW argues that God has gathered all sin together in Jesus, and punishes sin, not Jesus, in Jesus. There is also reference to Jesus taking on all the force of evil which seems to hark back to the ransom theory of salvation.  Whatever the detail, something happens on the cross that deals with the issue of sin and the powers sin has invited in, so unleashing a new Exodus. God deals with sin in Jesus to bring back man to the original calling. This feels a little vague, but has a certain logic. 

The real problem is it is not clear where the individual stands. At the end of his book NTW urges the reader to join the revolution. That is great. But still – we are only human – we want to know along with the medieval people and the later Reformers how we can escape the wrath to come. NTW does not spell this out. Perhaps he has in other writings.

All of this impacts what mission is. NTW has a wonderful emphasis on all that Christians can achieve with the new Exodus paradigm. However unless this issue of where we as individuals stand vis a vis the coming wrath of God, the Christian missionary will not have a spring in their step. History bears witness to the great impact of evangelicals such as Wesley, Wilberforce, Booth, Hudson Taylor, William Carey and a host of others on society. But it is crucial to note what they all have in common. The assurance of their sins forgiven because of the great exchange that happened at Calvary. NTW might well argue that he is not taking that away; in which case it might be good if he wrote another book explaining how a sinful human being can have assurance of salvation because it is not clear in this book.

No doubt libraries of books will be written in response to this attack by NTW on the Romans Road version of salvation. My summing up would be this. The book is tremendously strong on reminding Christians of what the cross achieves, the inauguration of the kingdom of God. This is a great encouragement. It is not so strong on how the cross achieves this – whereas the Romans Road version is very clear. The lack of clarity on the how will not just hamper mission, it might unsettle some people’s faith.

Here are the notes if you’ve got this far.

N.T. Wright

THE DAY THE REVOLUTION BEGAN

PART ONE - INTRODUCTION

Chapter One: A Vitally Important Scandal

Shows the dominance and beauty and attractiveness of the cross. No one can escape the cross…but what does it mean?

Chapter Two: Wrestling With The Cross

The point of understanding the cross is to experience God’s power that operates through the cross. We are put right to then take up our role in God’s kingdom. But still need to know what it means when we say Jesus dies for us. NTW then gives a history of interpretation of the cross. There is the Christus Victor…and the substitution…Anselm…God’s honour impugned. Also Abelard, the moral example. In the East, more emphasis on the resurrection. The issue of salvation put into sharp focus because of the vivid heaven and hell pictures of the medieval church. Reformers got rid of purgatory, but very much kept the need for God’s wrath to be satisfied. The punishment on Jesus had been meted out, so there is no need for purgatory. The price has been paid. This also got rid of the Mass…there is no need for the priest to repeat the sacrifice.

This means that the Reformers were giving biblical answers to medieval questions – not to questions in the bible which are more important (? – what could be more important than avoiding the wrath of God)

The Reformers did not challenge the heaven and hell paradigm (i.e. NTW does…because he believes in a new heaven and a new earth) It should have been because the Bible does not teach that we will leave a time and matter universe for a spiritual heaven.

The above flaw in the Reformation worsened by the collusion of the church with the 18th C enlightenment. Penal substitution put the emphasis on my sin, my heaven, my saviour. So we have Moody and Graham and others and sinners being saved. Then the problem of evil in society was separated from the cross and the overall emphasis of the church, and ‘Christian society’. God though deals with evil on the cross.

Plenty of confusion over the meaning of the cross today…the charge of cosmic child abuse combined with the cross as a symbol of violence from some, and uneasiness with poetry such as:
And on the cross when Jesus died

The wrath of God was satisfied

NT is against this…says it makes it sound as if God is hungry for another to suffer.

Outlines the plan as often given, NTW also calls this the ‘Romans Road’: man sinned and God is angry; Jesus has died and that helps because he is innocent and divine; so now we’re in the clear and if we believe this we’ll go to heaven

Some think this makes God look like a blood thirsty tyrant and question the use of violence - so there is confusion and this obscures the more important truth which is that something happened on the cross and when we get caught up in that happening, we become a part of making the world different.
For crucial truth is that the cross bring heaven to earth (not taking sinners to heaven)
NTW doesn’t like this idea that ‘someone has to die’, ‘it made my blood run cold’.

Why not just forgive; why Jesus…

Instead of God loving the world and giving, we have God hating the world and killing.

So – now God is an angry pagan despot in NTW’s mind.

Says the death of Jesus happens because of the love of God…

NTW arguing that this type of God puts people off. (It doesn’t matter what people think; it only matters who God is)

What happens though if you rule out the punishment model of atonement?

Well – there’s the idea of winning a victory over shadowy powers.

And this is the supreme example of love…but there must be a reason to die, it has to achieve something.

Then there is the thought of what is happening in the father’s heart…there too is suffering.

NTW suggests

Accept that:

the cross has varied meanings

all things will be summed up in Christ (Ephesians 1:8 -10))

salvation is about new heavens and a new earth

salvation for us = a priestly vocation.

Chapter Three: The Cross In Its First Century Setting

This chapter puts the cross into its first century context. Latin and Greek literature filled with wrath and war. Cross part of this. About asserting power and humiliating the enemy. Idea of dying for someone strong in pagan literature. Must place Jesus’ death in his Jewish context. So – lens of Passover, and of liberation from exile.

What exactly does ‘Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the Bible’ mean?

Rejects idea that animal sacrifice was a transferred death penalty.

Sketches outline of thinking

We are heading for a new heaven; the obstacle is not sin, but the idolatry which causes it; released from this we can get back to the plan, the vocation of stewardship.

God’s way of doing this is focused on Israel. So Jesus stands in for Israel. His work of atonement = the whole process of putting things right.

PART TWO – IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE BIBLE

Chapter Four: The Covenant of Vocation

Wrong destination = heaven; right destination = everything summed up in heaven and earth in the Messiah, as in Ephesians 1: 8 - 10

Sin is rooted in idolatry; way out is not to be set in the covenant of works = I behave well I will go to heaven, I can’t, but Jesus has sorted this out…hence the root problem still = a covenant of works. This is usually backed up by Romans – but this is not what Romans is about.

‘Such a view of the relationship between God and humans is a travesty’

Bible offers a covenant of vocation, to bear his image, to stand where heaven and earth meet. To take responsibility for the world…it’s about getting back to the vocation (but what happens when this doesn’t happen, is there no punishment…what is the rich man and Lazarus all about?)

And we hand over to other powers. The root of all sin is idolatry which leads inevitably to death because it opposes the source of life.

Jesus’ death deals with this and sets us back on vocation road – so we will reign in life.

Want to show this in the whole Bible story

Chapter Five: In All The Scriptures

:Covenant of vocation clearly seen in God’s calling of Israel – Exodus 19.
But OT gives the feel of being unfinished.

Whole story about exile – so there is a strong theme of hope. Must connect Jesus death to this narrative. Must not make images of court or slave market the main context. (This is an important correction to the emphasis in Stott’s book)

Israel and land set in parallel with Adam and Eve – loc 1332. Must put cross in this context. Exile a sort of living death – for Adam and Eve, for Israel. What would God do, this is about a covenant, not about a work. And it’s about bringing people back to true worship, responsibility and away from sin which allows dark forces to destroy the vocation. So there is a need to deal with Israel’s sins so the project can continue…because God has chosen Abraham.
  
 Chapter Six: The Divine Presence and the Forgiveness of Sins

Sin causes exile. Israel in wilderness had the tabernacle, a place where God would meet with his people, especially where the Ark of the Covenant was…where the lid was – kapporeth, hilasterion. The ark went to Shiloh, then into the temple. God’s glory came here – this is physically where heaven met earth. The glory departs…in Ezekiel the vision of a rebuilt temple. The temple was rebuilt, but the glory never returned and it was destroyed forever in AD70. The NT says though that Jesus is the new temple, so John’s prologue, He tabernacled among us. And the glory moment comes on the cross. This happens in context of Jews longing for restoration in this world. This is the rescue from the death of exile. The context is of God being faithful to his covenant; not God deciding to punish sins. So forgiveness of sins is the communal restoring of Israel.

‘We have domesticated the revolution’ i.e. we have made it just a personal ticket to get to heaven.
The Good News of Isaiah 52 is the news that Babylon has been overthrown, so there would be a new exodus and this exodus – unlike the first – is seen as being about the forgiveness of sins. Same message in Daniel.

So the cross in the mind of the first Jewish Christians is about the coming of God’s kingdom. This happening through suffering ties in with 1st C resistance movements.

Chapter Seven

No thought of a suffering Messiah for 1st C Jews. This came when Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 were looked at. Important to keep to the context that Isaiah 53 is about the means not just the occasion of redemption. The issue of means kept alive in the suffering faced by Jews in the 160s BC under the Syrians. The Maccabean movement longed for that second exodus which will deal with sins. NTW’s point is that the Maccabeans establish the idea re the role of suffering…there is talk of the ‘native land’ being purified ‘by their endurance.’, and of ‘atoning sacrifice’.

There will be redemption and this happens because of God’s faithful love, i.e. the covenant.
NTW very blunt about sin –

‘The suggestion that sin does not make God angry…needs to be treated with disdain.’

In paganism people have to pacify this anger; in Israel God does this.

Out of covenant love God will rescue Israel, and this will be extended to the nations.

Non-Jewish peoples are to have their own Exodus. (See for example last chapter of Amos)
So it is divine love – through Israel.

So when the NT talks of Jesus dying for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures this means – in its own context – that the new exodus has begun because the sins that caused the exile have been dealt with.

Hence the emphasis during the cross of the Passover. The cross is the start of the new Exodus.
In Isaiah 53 this happens through the death of the servant who represents the sins of Israel. This is the work of YHWH himself.

PART THREE – THE REVOLUTIONARY RESCUE

Chapter 8: New Goal, New Humanity

Jesus explained the Scriptures to the two on the road to Emmaus as a fulfilment.
NT interpretation has been pasted onto an idea that makes good people going to a platonic heaven, but that is not the NT interpretation of the cross.

In much popular modern Christian thought we have made a three layered mistake. We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting ‘souls going to heaven’ for the promised new creation) and therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting…moral performance for the biblical notion of human vocation) with the result that we have paganized our soteriology (substituting killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore)

Jesus’ death was the victory over destructive powers – because this achieved the forgiveness of sins (why?)

Zechariah talks about the forgiveness of sins in the context of national liberation, and the way in for Gentiles.

Same with Peter – asks for repentance so there can be forgiveness of sins and then the ‘restoration’ of all things.

This is both and…both forgiveness of actual sins, and the restoration.

Acts never talks of people going to heaven…it talks of the age to come.

In Acts forgiveness of sins is anchored to the coming kingdom of God.

Yes, this includes individuals being reconciled to God, but this belongs in a much larger context, that something has happened in the ‘actual world of space, time, and matter, as a result of which everything is different’

The cross is about ushering in the new age, not inventing a new religion.

Forgiveness of sins is short hand to explain this, a fact about how the world now was and this is played out in how the early church was...and how the marks of the new Kingdom were there: a. the power have been overthrown b. the Messiah is the ruler of the whole world c. God’s own presence comes to dwell with his people in the new temple which is Jesus, where there is true worship.
In Acts there is worship, witness, and the hope that Israel will be rescued from pagan rule…and that is because Jesus was the representative of Israel. And the church has become the new people of God. This has all happened through the death and resurrection.

Chapter Nine: Jesus’ Special Passover

To learn about the cross it is good to start with Jesus whose views on the atonement have been largely ignored by theologians. Need to see how the Gospels interpret the death of Jesus.
Interesting to note that Jesus has very little to say about souls getting saved and going to heaven
(what about all the parables about entering the kingdom of God or entering hell, e.g. The wedding guests; the sheep and the goats; unforgiving servant; and….)

Look at Gospels – cross for followers = end; resurrection total shock. Resurrection meant bodily resurrection, not going to heaven.

It is the resurrection that enabled them to interpret the crucifixion.

Jesus only says on the road to Emmaus that his suffering was a part of a divine plan…but he doesn’t say what that plan was.

Nor does Acts.

The resurrection convinced the disciples that Jesus was the Messiah.

Sign over cross said he was the king of the Jews…and he had always spoken of the kingdom of God.
Jesus was aware of this. And he knew his death was happening at the time of the Passover. So central fact is that Jesus chose the Passover as the time of his execution.

This means the cross from Jesus’ perspective has to be set in the context of a new Exodus.
So the temple confrontation connects to Moses and Pharaoh and the end of that story is worship in via the tabernacle; that is what Jesus saw. And so the centrality of the Passover Meal, which now looks forward rather than back.

How would the victory be won?

By dealing with people’s sins…that is what forgiveness of sins means…and here not an angry God bent on killing someone…but…a ‘covenant keeping God who takes the full force of sin onto himself’.

Hence at the meal…the exodus is about to happen.

The mention of blood does not have to be sacrificial, but to do with the covenant as in Jeremiah 31 and Exodus 24: 3 – 8. This is covenant renewal; and that is what Jesus is re-enacting. No suggestion that this is punishment to appease an angry God.

The reference to blood ties in with what we have from Hosea through to Qumran that the redemption of Israel would come via suffering. Isaiah focuses this on one person who is Israel’s representative.
Jesus is doing what God said the servant would do to bring about redemption.

So the cross is about the selfless love of a covenant keeping God.

Chapter 10: The Story of The Rescue

No going to heaven in the Gospels (What about all the parables about entering the kingdom of God – see above)

‘Almost nobody in the gospels warns about going to hell’ (Just the story of Lazarus and the rich man is enough. What about Matthew 25?)

Accuses preachers of imposing a salvation scheme on the story that isn’t justified and this story ignores the story about the kingdom (so the Gospels are not long introductions to a passion narrative).
Now wants to show how the story of the cross links the suffering to the coming of the kingdom and not to going to heaven.

‘The cross is the cross of the king of the Jews’

The Romans Road separates these two themes…the cross and the kingdom.

The Gospels are about a returning king. It’s about Israel’s God visiting his people.

And he is a loving God.

The Gospels link all that happens to Israel’s story – which includes plenty of darkness. There is no Galilean springtime for Jesus either and so in this story evil overreaches itself and is dealt with – as with Pharaoh. Jesus lives out Psalm 2.

So – the Gospels and Acts is about evil being overthrown and Jesus enthroned.
Emphasis on kingship in John’s passion narrative is well known.

Jesus wins the crown by suffering as representative substitute for the Jews. The servant dies for the nation.

An intimate and personal exchange achieves the victory (but who is the exchange for?)

In Luke this is underlined through the Barabbas story and the thieves on the cross…the good one saying…remember me when you come in your kingdom.

NTW suggesting that Jesus died because of evil, not God’s wrath

‘Jesus, by taking upon himself the weight of Israel’s sins, dies under the accumulated force of evil’

Matthew also massive emphasis on the kingdom…and the Sermon on the Mount outlines how it will come about.

The link back to Abraham shows that Jesus is the continuation of a story…and how he fulfils God’s saving plan in Israel.

Same story line in Mark…Jesus’ death accomplishes God’s Kingdom in fact Mark 10: 35 – 45 ‘contains within itself…the whole of the NT’s vision of how Jesus’ death overthrew the dark powers.’

Must let the story tell its own truth, not push abstract theology into it.

And the Gospels invite us to make this story our own.

Chapter 11: Paul and the Cross – apart from Romans

Paul believed that:

People are redeemed to share in priestly work for the new creation

The means for this is the death of Jesus

These two fixed.

Paul often talks about Christ dying for our sins according to the Scriptures. And great emphasis on the power of the cross…so again, this overthrowing of evil rulers.

According to the Scriptures for Paul meant what?

The one who died was Israel’s Messiah…so in Paul’s mind he goes back to the Torah and the Exodus… (not how ‘the punishment of sins was heaped onto the innocent victim)

The background story for Paul is immensely important. It can’t be ignored to drag penal substitution centre stage.

Galatians: the letter is not about salvation but unity. That we are a single family – because of the cross, which has thrown out the evil powers, echoing the Exodus. The only thing that matters is the new creation that has happened because of the cross. Everyone in this new creation can be welcomed as sons and daughters. Circumcision denies the new creation. Abraham was promised one family, and now he has it. This is about the covenant of vocation, that the seed of Abraham would be a blessing for the whole world. Jesus now undoes the curse from Deuteronomy that cause exile. All other identities disappear in the light of what the cross has achieved.

Corinthians: Paul never fully explains what he means by the cross here. Emphasis on the Passover, even with a Gentile background church. And in 1 Cor 15 the assumption is that Jesus is ruling the world…because sin has been dealt with.

In 2 Corinthians, responding to the super apostles, Paul emphasizes the role of suffering in the overthrow of evil, i.e. he models himself on Jesus. The cross has unleashed the power of generous self-giving in the world. (This is meaningless – was there no self-giving in the world before?) The cross is about giving us a ministry, not booking a place in heaven. We are liberated from sin to be God reflecting. And the liberation happens – 5:21 – by the substitution of one who alone is the true representative.

Philippians: The cross is the means of victory in chapter two, and this is worked out in our humility to love others. As in Corinthians, the cross unleashes a stronger power in the world. (Poem very early, shows the essence of Biblical theology – that God did this because He is God. This is his character)

Colossians: Emphasis on the defeat of the powers, being nailed to the cross. Ironic but true. When sin is dealt with, idols lose their power. That is why the cross defeats the powers.

Chapter 12: The Death of Jesus in Paul’s Letter To The Romans

Romans 1 – 4 been taken as the works contract. Humans were meant to behave themselves; they didn’t; so God punished Jesus and now all is fine.

Must always remember the large canvas of the letter; can’t pick and choose.

Ideas about justification by faith have been superimposed on the book, especially by the Reformers.
Paul’s emphasis is not about going to heaven, but about the new creation.

Paul doesn’t start off with sin, but with idolatry, the problem of the wrong worship, worshipping that which is not God. That brings havoc. Paul looks at Abraham as the one who truly worshipped, and sees God as seeking a new priesthood, hence Romans 12 begins with the reference to being a priest.
Romans 3 is about God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant with Abraham, through which all nations will be blessed. Promises to Abraham are played down; he is just used as the example of a man who had faith.

The paradigm that has the problem of sin (1 – 4) and how it is dealt with (5 – 8) is all wrong. It is a superimposition.

The emphasis is on the new creation the cross has inaugurated.

‘The Adam project for humans to share in God’s rule over creation is back on track’

The cross is the inauguration of the reign of God’s grace.

Misunderstanding about the law which some think is given to terrify people so they will run to Jesus for rescue.

This is not what it’s about.

The law came and Israel sank – this was God’s will. It was not an accident.

Romans 6 – 8 is not Paul’s description of the Christian life. This is about the redemption, which is an Exodus narrative.

So baptism is like the crossing of the Red Sea; leaving Egypt, on route for the promised land. Jesus’s death has dealt a blow to SIN, as Moses did to Pharaoh. Again this is all about the defeat of the powers…Paul develops from sins, to sin as an active power in Romans.

Paul very much tied to Israel’s history and to showing that the Gospel and Israel’s history belong together.

Christians often ignore the Old Testament. They go from Isaiah 53 and Daniel 7 straight to the NT. In this Israel just becomes an example of humans getting things wrong.

For Paul the purpose of the law was to ‘heap’ sin into one place. And then the Messiah would meet this Sin. This is what he meant by Jesus dying for our sins.

Jesus died for our sins according to the Bible = the Jewish Scriptures = the history of Israel. All this comes out in Romans 7:13. It was the divine intention all along for sin to increase under the law. Israe- repeated Adam’s sin. The two are being woven together. So the famous passage about doing what you don’t want to do this is about Israel under the Torah – for Paul was a loyal Torah loving Jew.

Through the law God is gathering sin together in one place so it can be dealt with. And this is happening in the context of Israel’s calling.

So in Romans 8 we read that the punishment has been meted out on Sin.

‘Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus’.
This is certainly penal. And it is substitutionary…because sinners who are in the Messiah are not condemned.

‘This substitution finds its true meaning not within the normal ‘works contract’ but within the God and Israel narrative, the vocational narrative…in accordance with the Bible’
This resonates with the four Gospels.

Paul has ‘resolutely located the deepest meaning of the cross within Israel’s narrative. That is where it should remain.’

Take it out of this context and we have a quasi- pagan story about Jesus placating an angry god.
There is no angry god…this is God’s plan, carried out by God’s Son, to fulfil God’s love. The result is that the human calling is restored…a ruling priestly (hence intercession in Romans 8) role. And the Holy Spirit is like the cloud in the wilderness for God’s people.

Chapter 13: The Death of Jesus in Paul’s Letter To The Romans (special focus on Romans 3: 21 – 26)
Romans 3: 21 – 26 is where people pin atonement theology. ‘Read as the vital move in the wrong story: humans sin, God punishes Jesus, humans are let off.

Need to set this in its proper context of a covenant, of the cult of idolatry and that of the ark.
Central word in the passage is hilasterion which is the lid of the ark.

Another explanation of the works contract location 4316. Paul is not saying that God justifies people who are morally bankrupt through the death of Jesus. NTW unpacks why the reading is wrong in great detail: e.g. undermines Abraham in chapter four. Blanks the Jews as a light to the world. Ignores the root of idolatry; instead focuses on sin; there is talk of God passing over former sins (passing over, not punishing)

Nothing here about going to heaven.

NTW outlines four major problems with the works contract interpretation. Adds that beyond these the main one is a misunderstanding about the meaning of the word righteousness.

God’s righteousness is NOT God’s moral standing, but God’s faithfulness to his covenant.
The whole emphasis is on covenant, not morality.

Here is the problem for Paul: How is God to be faithful to his covenant if Israel has been faithless?
NTW very wary about Western interpretations drifting away from the Jewish roots of the passage. Paul is not just interested in sin, punishment, pardon: he is interested in Israel. (Absolutely correct)
The passages which look as if they are underlining the human propensity to sin are in fact underlining the human propensity for idolatry. Hence the overall issue is worship, not behaviour. And he is making a different point about the Jews in chapter two. He condemns their behaviour to focus on how they are violating the covenant. The Jew does have a special status in Paul’s scheme – and this is blanked in Western interpretations. What Jesus has done is to restore Israel’s vocation, he is restoring the covenant. In other versions the Jews were essentially like a broken car, to be parked on the side of the road and abandoned and people are now to join the new Jesus movement. But the Jesus movement is very much a part of the Jewish movement. They can’t be separated. When they are all too often we end up having an anti-Jewish story with terrible results.

Jesus is the incarnated Son of God – who is Israel’s Messiah.

The heartbeat of NTW is that God has not put aside his covenant with Israel.

God promises to rescue the world through Israel; does that mean that because Israel has failed, God now should break his promise? Of course not. Israel remains centre stage.

Hence Abraham and chapter four. It is God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham that the problem of sin and idolatry will be solved. And this happens through the cross.

It is the God of Israel that the Gentile must have faith in.

The hilistarion is the place where people are cleansed so they can meet with God. This is the cross. This is the restoration of true worship.

In 3: 21 – 26 there is a lot of repetition of the word righteousness…= God’s faithfulness to his covenant. So the passage is about the covenant. Which is an act of grace – as all covenants with God are. Renewal of the covenant means a new Exodus.

The Israel shaped purpose to which Israel had been faithless has been fulfilled in the Messiah himself.

We join this by faith – which means faithfulness.

Israel shaped purpose seen in Isaiah 53.

Justified means a. declaration as a part of the family b. being in the right. And the verdict of the future has been declared in the present. As happened with the resurrection of Jesus. He was declared in the right. That happens to all who join Jesus in baptism. The resurrection proves the justification happened on the cross.

The use of the word redemption is not random. It relates to Egypt and the Exodus. So the cross is a new Passover, a new Exodus which sets us free – as it did the Isreaalites – to worship. The Exodus led to the tabernacle, i.e. worship. There is a place of meeting, where the blood cleanses. The lid of the ark. Nothing about punishment here; cleansing yes. It’s about a holy God being able to meet with sinful people without ‘disastrous results’. Sin offerings were a sign of penitence, not punishment. When he says we are declared to be righteous by the blood this is just the prerequisite for the rescue from the wrath to come; it’s not the actual rescue.

Another indication that this passage is not about a mechanism whereby an angry god pardons individual sins…b/c it talks about how God ‘passed over’ former sins.

That’s massive. It means that God can just overlook sin if he wants to. (What about – God will by no means clear the guilty?)

Punishment in Paul’s mind – as in all Jews’ minds – was for the future. No mention here of divine wrath being satisfied over the suffering of Jesus.

Instead the suffering of Jesus is about providing a meeting place for man and God where idolatry is overthrown. So the exile is ended. That is what forgiveness of sins means. And it happens through the one who is Israel. That links back to Isaiah 40 – 55.

Instead of thinking in terms of punishment it is better to think in terms of consequence…the consequence of sin which is exile, it is dealt with.

Just as we must not make righteousness mean moral standing; so too we must not make punishment mean some individual being hit for his or her sins; but rather the consequence of sin.

Conclusion = Redemption Accomplished, Revolution Launched


PART FOUR - THE REVOLUTION CONTINUES

This is whole section is about mission. Basic point is that because this revolution has been launched we must take our place, heralding the arrival of the kingdom of God in word and action.
Mission. Unlocking the prison doors.

Mission is not primarily about persuading people that Jesus died for your sins so you can go to heaven. There is a personal side to mission, but it must be set in the larger context of a massive revolution, the true human vocation.

Christian mission means implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross.

Handel’s Messiah is celebratory, a welcome to God’s kingdom on earth. This was then overtaken by the going to heaven sort of mission. This encouraged Christians to leave the affairs of the world. Huge mistake. Need to address this balance and get mission more involved in the world, rather than saving souls from the world.

Mission needs to both have victory over the powers and forgiveness of sins at its heart. Being a royal priesthood has many dimensions. Work for God’s kingdom on earth with heaven’s energy. Need to bring Christ into the public square.

The victory of the cross will be implemented through the means of the cross, i.e. there will be suffering. And prayer. And the sacraments.

Chapter 15

The Powers and the power of love

Forgiveness is the new reality; it’s the way creation is. A new way of being human has been launched. Forgiveness is the new reality. Free to give allegiance to God the creator. The defeat of all gods – and powers. Especially money, sex, and power.

Mission = cross shaped work that bring true worship, and signs of the kingdom in human lives and institutions.

Embrace the covenant of vocation and be embraced by its creator. In the power of that love, join the revolution.




[1] His proper title is: The Right Reverend N. T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at University of St Andrews. He is widely known as Tom Wright, and in this blog he will be called by his initials, NTW.

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