Friday, 24 January 2014

Well's Cathedral, blasphemy, heresy, and Canon Law

A few days ago I discovered this article from Christian Concern:

It raises awareness of the fact that the Chapter of Well's Cathedral have decided to allow, as part of the Bath 2014 Film Festival, a showing of Martin Scorsese's 1988 film "The Last Temptation of Christ" - a film which when released led to protests, legal battles, and even a theatre being burnt down by an indignant crowd of fundamentalist Christians!    

But why has this film been denounced as 'blasphemous' 'heretical' 'dangerous' and 'subversive'?  What, if anything, is wrong with showing such a film in a Cathedral?   The answer has to be simply everything.

Blasphemous and Heretical? Really?

Firstly, let us look at the accusations that the film is blasphemous and heretical.  

At the start of the film there is a message from Martin Scorsese, a man who describes himself as a 'lapsed Catholic' but whose 4 divorces would at the least put a question mark over his commitment to being anything vaguely Catholic, let alone a Biblical Christian.  In this message he states that what follows is not based on the Christian Gospels but on the book of the same name by Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis.  It is worth pointing out that the book is based on Nikos' readings of the Gospel's yet falls short of claiming to be history.  Nowhere does this film claim, as Dan Brown did his Da Vinci Code, to be fact. Yet the overlap of themes between the two - Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene, not dying on the cross etc. - leads to the film being even more misunderstood today.  Those who read and lapped up the fiction and historical errors of the Da Vinci Code as based on 'fact' are likely to transfer this position to the Last Temptation - or at least see in it some form of vindication.  I was at 6th form college when the Da Vinci Code was released and it amazed me how many people, my age and older, simply read the story as largely factual in regards to its claims about Jesus and Christian history.

The biggest issue in the movie is that it portrays Jesus as a sinner.  In one scene Jesus claims that He will pay for His sins by dying.  In another He asks Mary Magdalene to forgive Him because he has done "too many bad things."  Whilst at the monastery He even lists His sins.  He also picks up two stones to represent His own sins in the film's adaptation of the stoning of the adulterous woman (John 8.1-11).  

"The biggest issue in the movie is that it portrays Jesus as a sinner."

Furthermore, we actually see Jesus sinning during the most offensive scene of the movie.  In this scene Jesus is seen consummating His marriage with Mary Magdalene.  It takes place during what is often called the 'dream sequence' or 'vision sequence' - the vivid temptation Jesus on the cross lives out where He, instead of dying as our propitiation, leaves the Cross and lives a 'normal life.'  To most Christians viewing images of our Lord and Saviour, the very Pure Lamb of God having sex is beyond the pale, but in the context of the movie it actually makes Jesus a sinner.  How?  It all comes down to what Jesus reveals in His Sermon on the Mount.   Matthew 5.27-29  reads:

“You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell."

This passage shows just how totally depraved we are compared to God's perfect standard of holiness.  To picture and imagine in one's mind having sex with a person who is not actually your wife (even if you are imagining they are!) is adultery, is sin, and is a serious breach of God's Holy standard. The penalty for this crime is death and damnation in hell, it is worth remembering the reality of this - as Pastor Mark Driscoll would say "Hell is hot, forever is a long time."  (Praise the Lord that if we truly repent and whole heartedly believe the Gospel we will be saved from this most just sentence!)

In this dream sequence Jesus commits adultery, He commits sin.  This is a cataclysmic problem for all of humanity.  Scripture reveals to us that the only reason we can be saved is because Jesus did not commit sin.  Jesus had to be sinless to be the acceptable sacrifice.   Scripture repeatable affirms these truths:

"Who among you can convict me of sin?" John 8.46a (hint: they couldn't)

"You know that He was revealed so that He might take away sins, and there is no sin in Him."  1 John 3.5

"For you know that you were redeemed from your empty ways of life inherited from the fathers, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish"  1 Peter 1.18-19

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin."  Hebrews 4.15

The doctrine of the sinlessness of Christ is enshrined in the 39 Articles of the Church of England - the churches official doctrine (see canon A5)

"Christ in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things, sin only except, from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh and in his spirit.  He became the lamb without spot who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint John saith, was not in him..."  
- Article 15

The Bible teaches than when we put our faith in Jesus as Lord, God, and Saviour, He takes all of our sin, shame, filth, and darkness onto Himself and gives to us His perfect record, His dazzling white robe of Righteous, and a relationship with the Father only such sinlessness can bring.   This is seen in 2 Corinthians 5.21

"He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."

If Jesus sinned, He could not give us these things as He didn't have them.  As Article 11 states:

"We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith."

To say or show that Jesus was a sinner is blasphemy and heresy.  It is contrary to Scripture and the Historical Formularies of the Church of England.

"In this dream sequence Jesus 

commits adultery, He commits sin. 

 This is a cataclysmic problem for all

 of humanity."

The film also contains many other issues, included but not limited to the concept that Jesus could stop being the Son of God as if this were a position or role and not an integral part of His eternal being, Paul being portrayed as the person who 'invented' Christianity, and the innumerable simple historical errors! 

All of this places the film most certainly in the 'heresy' and 'blasphemy' category.  Whether portraying such things was Scorsese's intention is irrelevant.  

The film defended?

Many people try to defend the film claiming that it portrays the very real humanity of Christ and helps us relate to Him as Brother and not just Lord.  It is also argued that the temptation scene is merely showing what can be gleaned from Hebrews 4.15 and the passages describing His temptations in the desert.  Jesus was tempted, of that there can be no doubt. 

It is a good claim, it seems a strong defence, but does this excuse the film or does it just skirt the issue entirely leaving the charge of Heresy still valid? 

"Jesus was tempted, of that there 

can be no doubt."

Firstly, as already pointed out, the film doesn't only show temptation but actual sin. 

Secondly, it can be questioned if Jesus being tempted in this way at the portrayed time happened - we know He wrestled with His destiny so violently in the Garden of Gethsemane that He became so stressed that He sweated blood.  But it was in the Garden that He finally said "Your will be done."  On the cross He was lucid, He asked God to forgive the people their sin, He forgave the thief, cared for His mother, and quoted a Psalm that tells us that He was abandoned, due to the sin He took on, by the Father - yet quoting this Psalm is important as everyone there would have known that it continues to glorify and praise God for delivering Him! 

Thirdly, we often equate temptation only with lustful and base things.  But temptation is much wider than this, it includes the temptation to take your power and gifts and use them for evil - much as He was tempted to do in the desert.  It is also worth noting that the temptation portrayed in the film is a giving in to the temptation to think of such things - ask any mature Christian who is living victoriously and they will tell you that when temptation begins to stir, before you allow yourself to even begin to follow its thoughts and whispers, you can dismiss it through prayer.  Was Christ ever tempted to think lustful thoughts or imagine sinful things? I would say yes - but He never allowed it to even get so far as His imagination. 

The temptation portrayed in the film is an unbiblical temptation that contradicts the very pure word of God.  

So why is the film being shown?

"Not hiding from controversy 


 mean openly screening blasphemy

 on our home turf"

In the prepared response given when one (quite rightly) writes to the Dean of Well's Cathedral the Very Revd John Clarke (see the Christian Concern article linked above for details on how - I would also advise you to write to the Archbishops) he gives the justification for showing this blasphemy in the Cathedral:

" Much has changed in public perceptions of faith over the last 25 years. In this more sceptical age the church should not hide from controversy and part of the task of the cathedral is to promote an intelligent faith that is capable of attracting men and women to follow in the way of Jesus in the twenty first century.
With this in mind we are organising a discussion before the screening which will look at the theology behind the book and film and which will also consider what is not said by the film. On the evening, in my welcome and introduction, I will also suggest that the film offers, inevitably, a partial view of who Jesus was. It is not designed to be a biography. My hope therefore is that an audience who do not normally think about Jesus will spend time thinking about his significance for us today.
Equally, on the day after the screening I will be giving a talk on ‘Jesus’ as part of a series in the cathedral called ‘What can we believe today?’. This will provide another chance to invite people to deepen their questioning about faith, both for those who wish to think about faith and theology afresh, and for those who are in the process of exploring their approach to God."

What are we to make of this?  A few thoughts:

-      "Not hiding from controversy" doesn't mean openly screening blasphemy on our home turf

-      What is "intelligent" about a faith that contradicts its foundations in Scripture?

-      Is screening heresy really, ever,  an effective way to "attract men and women to follow in the way of Jesus."  How is this really any different from having a public or dramatised reading from the Qu'ran about Isa (the false Jesus in that book) as a way to attract people to the real Christ?

-      Will many people even turn up to the discussion, and even if they do, given the above, is it still a useful way to evangelise?

-      What is "not said" by the film is not really the problem - the problem is what "is said" by the film!

-      "Suggesting that the film offers, inevitably, a partial view of who Jesus was."  To me this sounds like wet liberalism and compromising the essentials of the faith - the Last Temptation does not offer a 'partial view of who Jesus was' it offers lies, heresy, and blasphemy in the place of God's divinely revealed truth.  A minister should not "suggest" it is partial he should boldy denounce it as simply wrong.

-      Are many really going to go to the following evening session? And even if they do, is the very pure, uncompromising, exclusive doctrine of Scripture going to be put forward here?  Given all of the above I have my concerns it won't be (to put it mildly).

"The Last temptation does not offer

 a 'partial view of who Jesus was' it 

offers lies, heresy, and blasphemy

 in the place of God's divinely 

revealed truth."

Is the showing legal?

I hope that from the above you can see clearly that the film is heresy and blasphemy, full of lies and half-truths (more like quarter-truths - if I am generous).  I also hope you can see the issues with the Cathedral's position and their clear compromise with modern liberalism.  The question is, are the Cathedral clergy allowed to show the film?  There are two things to consider - their oaths of ordination and Canon Law.

During their ordinations to the priesthood the clergy of the Cathedral were asked this clear and simple question by the bishop:

"Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's Word; and to use both publick and private monitions and exhortations, as well to the sick as to the whole, within your cures, as need shall require, and occasion shall be given?"

The clergy answered "I will, the Lord being my helper."
How is publicly screening blasphemy and heresy banishing and driving away all erroneous and strange doctrine?  How does showing material that blatantly contradicts Gods word possibly fulfil this oath?  Were one to hold a Bible Study within the church, which was attended by the faithful, and in it read some of the works of the heretics like Pelagius or Arius - with the sole and only intention being to strongly denounce and refute it - this could be understood.  To use church property simply to publicly screen such dangerous heresy with little to no knowledge of if any will respond to attempts to refute it, cannot be seen as sensible.  Showing this film in such a way to the public is a clear breach of the ordination oath.

More importantly, and less personally, there is Canon F 16.1 of the Church of England.  This reads as follows:

"When any church or chapel is to be used for a play, concert, or exhibition of films or pictures, the minister shall take care that the words, music, images, and pictures are such as befit the House of God, are consonant with sound doctrine, and make for the edifying of the people."
(It is ridiculous to claim that this canon would not apply to Cathedrals, Minsters, Abbey's etc. - they are all "Houses of God.")

Let me put this bluntly:

-      the blasphemy and heresies of The Last Temptation with its scenes of Jesus Christ having sex do not "befit the House of God" in any way or measure.

-      The film is in direct and clear opposition to "sound doctrine" as understood by the Church of England, namely the clear teaching of Scripture and the Historic Formularies.

-      The heresies of this film can in no way be understood to truly "edify" the people.

The screening of this blatantly blasphemous and heretical offensive film in Wells Cathedral is clearly illegal under Canon Law and should probably be seen as a breach of the ordination oaths of the clergy of that place who assented to it being shown.

 "How is publicly screening 

blasphemy and heresy 'banishing 

and driving away all erroneous and 

strange doctrine?'"

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Bible Sunday sermon: Luke 18.14 and 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5

The Bible is an amazing book.  It is written in three different languages - Hebrew, Aramaic, and a Greek - and across three different continents - Europe, Africa, and Asia.  It was written over a period at least 1500 years by over 40 different people.  It has 66 books, 29 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. 

The chapters system we now know and rely on to navigate this library of books were first added in 1205, in total there are 1189 chapters in the Bible.  The verse numbers were only added in 1556 - all 31,173 of them!  The shortest of these verses in England is John 11.35 which simply and powerfully reads "Jesus wept."  Psalm 119 is by far the longest chapter.  There are five books that only have a single chapter: Obadiah, Philemon, 2 John, 3 John and Jude.  Of these 3 John is the shortest. 

"Every Christian ought to study this book because it is the whole truth" - John Wycliffe

All that information aside, of which exact knowledge means little to salvation, it is to my mind good to begin this sermon with two fantastic quotations from Bishop J.C. Ryle to set the scene.

"Inspiration, in short is the very keel and foundation of Christianity.  If Christians have no divine book to turn to to warrant their doctrine and practice, they have no solid ground for present peace or hope, and no right to claim the attention of mankind.  They are building on a quicksand, and their faith is in vain.  We ought to be able to say boldly: 'We are what we are, we do what we do because we have here a book which we believe to be the Word of God.'"

"If the Bible is not the Word of God and inspired, the whole of Christendom for 1800 years has been under immense delusion, half of the human race has been cheated and deceived, and churches are monuments of folly.  If the Bible IS the Word of God and Inspired, all who refuse to believe it are in fearful danger, they are living on the brink of misery. No man, in his sober senses, can fail to see that the whole subject demands serious attention."

What powerful sentences, cutting clear through the darkness and showing plainly the truth and importance of our sermon today.

Scripturally the best place to begin when considering the Scriptures is our gospel reading: Luke 18.10-14
" 10 Two men went up to the temple complex to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11  collector The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this: 'God, I thank You that I'm not like other people - greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12 I fast twice a week:  I give a tenth of everything I get.' 
13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, turn Your wrath from me—a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

Imagine a bishop all pomped out in his robes and colours, his ecclesiastical bling and silly pointed hat, and hanging around with all the eucharistic toys he can find at the Lord's Table.  He is there in a great and powerful cathedral, and as he lifts up some monstrosity of a monstrance he looks at his massive Bishops Ring with its immense gem stone.  He has made it in life, he has reached the top, he is the man.  And he lifts up his hands from beneath his chasuble and thanks God saying 'How awesome I am to have got here God, thank you for making me so wonderful and clever and intelligent and bishop like! I deserved all this and you gave it to me'

At the back of church there is a young man, his hair is dyed black as a tar pit, it hasn't been washed in a few days at least. He is wearing a black t-shirt that just says "Death Metal is LIFE" and has black leather combat boots on (with red shoelaces of course!)  On his arms are spiked bracelets and around his waist are no less than six belts all arrayed with spikes and studs and chains.  On his arms are tattoos of naked women and skulls with snakes in their eyes.  His eyes have black eyeliner and his beard has food kept in it for later.  He dare not even go to the pews let alone the front, he hides behind a big pillar and just falls on the skin of his knees because his jeans have rips in.  He looks at the floor, not thinking himself worthy to even look upward to heaven and begs God, whoever that may be, to forgive him.
Here we see the two fundamental attitudes of the human heart, the two attitudes that human nature can take. One is arrogance and the other humility.  One is certain in his own strength, trusting his own righteousness, he stands tall before the Holy God, looks on others as lesser beings.  The other is on his knees, full of repentance, seeking mercy he knows he doesn't deserve, accepting of all God will command, seeing himself as nothing, as but dust and ashes before a Holy God.

" How dare you, how dare you even entertain the thought that you know better than God!"

Which are you when you approach God's Holy Scriptures?  Are you humble? Are you filled with awesome wonder that God would give such a gift to the likes of you?  Do you get on your knees and recognise its authority over all of your life and say "not I but your will be done"?

Or do you stand tall and stiff-necked, full of arrogance and pride before God's gift and Word? Believe me when I say that God is not a liar, He tells us time and again that all his words are true, trustworthy, sure, certain, and pure, yet you believe you know better than God? You have the sheet audacity to disagree with the creator of the whole universe!?  You point to this and that and say "no" or "not today in modern Britain" or "I don't believe that is true."  How prideful and arrogant! How dare you, how dare you even entertain the thought that you know better than God!  You dare to look down on those 'poor misguided people' who insist that Scripture is Holy, inspired, perfect - who live their lives on its foundation?

Those are the only two attitudes to God and Scripture.  Humble obedience, acceptance and faith, or arrogance, pride, and faith not in God but in human intellect and folly.

" If the Bible IS the Word of God and Inspired, 

all who refuse to believe it are in fearful danger"

 J.C. Ryle

Bear all of this in mind as we look at 2 Timothy 3 beginning with verse 14.

" But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you"

Paul says "continue in" - oh how we have deviated from the faith of the apostles today!  In the middle ages it was men like John Wycliffe and Martin Luther, John Calvin and Thomas Cranmer who rescued the church from idolatry and heresy.  Who will stand up today?  Will the real Christians please stand up?  those great men of the past used on sure and certain foundation to shake the world to its sense and the dark ash of deceit from the tree of life: Scripture and Scripture alone.  We thank them for returning us to the Gospel, but do we thank them for how they did it?  Or do we look down on them presuming we know better?  Do we think their faith that the Scriptures could be understood as truthful on face value in all times and places na├»ve?

Let us continue on through this passage to verse 15:

" and you know that from childhood you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for the salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" 

Hear what Paul says, "from childhood" - do we raise our children in the Scriptures?  Do we use all the resources available to us for family and private Bible Study?  Personally I cannot state enough how important I think it is for every family to have a good and solid Study Bible - I would recommend the HCSB Study Version or the ESV Study Bible, both are mighty fine works though the former is more accessible for families to my mind. I have a super large Bible, bigger than a rugby players chest, that was designed as a family Bible, it has illustrations and the text of Scripture and beneath each page short notes by Matthew Henry, the greatest of Biblical commentators, on each chapter - we would do well to emulate history and continue such family devotional times each and every day.

"The Holy Scriptures" - here we are clearly and plainly told that the Scriptures are holy, they are sacred.  the Scriptures are above reproach, they are something set apart by God, they are above and beyond all other writings.  Do we treat the Bible as Holy?  Do we recognise the immensity of what we hold in our hands?  Do we cherish it as something it is our duty and our joy to read and learn?

Verse 16, the crucial verse,

" All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness"

The phrase "inspired by God" or more literally "breathed out by God" teaches that the Scriptures are the very words of God, from his own lips, expelled from, as it were, the breath in His chest.  It is channelled by His Holy Spirit through the bodies and lives of His servants and whilst bearing their mark preserves its impeccable and impeachable holiness and inspired inerrant nature.  Do you accept and believe the Bible is no merely human book?  Do you believe the very words of the Bible are chosen and destined by our Heavenly Father, by the God of all truth and love?   Many I am sure would say "Yes, I do" but wait, what is this?   I missed out the first, inspired, God breathed, word of this verse of Scripture - "ALL"

ALL - ALL of Scripture is divinely inspired by a God who does not know lies or error, for whom the word 'wrong' can never, ever, apply.  Do you believe that ALL, ALL of the Bible is God's Holy Word?  Do you believe that not one joy or tittle, line or sentence shall be changed but stands eternal as truth itself?  Is ALL of the Bible inspired, without error, filled with eternal truth?  I am sure many who said "I do" before would now look down at their shoes and mumble under their breath "I don't."

"Do you accept and believe the Bible is no merely human book?  Do you believe the very words of the Bible are chosen and destined by our Heavenly Father, by the God of all truth and love?"

Yet here it is written clear as day - all of Scripture is inspired.  And so we return to our Gospel reading.  We all want to say that we are the tax-collector, who humbly accepts the word and authority of God.  But look closer and we see that we are all Pharisees, standing in judgement over the Bible in pride rather than it standing over us in judgement with us bring humble slaves of Jesus Christ.

I am not claiming that it is easy to accept ALL of the Scripture, there are difficulties, but these should not keep us from accepting the truth.  Many years ago astronomers were faced with a similar difficulty.  They observed that the planet Uranus seemed to defy the very laws of gravity in how it moved, it made no sense.  Some scientists felt this difficulty meant the Laws of Newton, the foundation of all physics, chemistry, and science, must be wrong.  In response a French scientist declared that it was wrong to give up a principle that has so much merit for the sake of one difficulty, he said that whilst they might not at present be able to explain Uranus's orbit of the Sun, the Laws of Gravity should be assumed correct and in the future something will be revealed to vindicate this.  Four years later Neptune was discovered by astronomers and it explained everything.

I have no doubt in my mind that when we come face to face with God, He will easily answer all the questions and difficulties with the Bible and its alleged contradictions and errors.   We will see that every single word of the Bible, when it was first written, was 100% true and sure as the Laws of Gravity or that the Earth orbits around the Sun or Jesus Christ is Lord.

"I have no doubt in my mind that when we come face to face with God, He will easily answer all our questions about the alleged contradictions and errors in the Bible"

So where does this leave us?  ALL of Scripture is perfect and inspired by God, it is our bounden duty and joy to accept every word as true and an authority on every aspect of our lives.  Not only is all of the Bible inspired, it is also united in being a witness to Jesus Christ and His death on the cross for our sins.  Jesus is the centre of history, the universe, and Scripture - all of which exist to point to Him as the only way to salvation and eternal life in heaven.

If this is true - and it is - then we were given Scripture not just to know how to live, but, more importantly, who it is we live for.   If you want to deepen your relationship with God, to know Him better, to have greater intimacy with Him, you will find it all in the prayerful reading of the Bible.

As John Wycliffe said:  "To ignore the Scriptures is to ignore Christ."  Wycliffe translated the Bible into English because in his own words "every Christian ought to study this book because it is the whole truth."

Are you a Christian?  Then daily pick up your Bible and read, study it, soak yourself in its pages that you might know more of God and who He is and what He has, will, and does do. As Archbishop Cranmer wrote in his famous Collect Prayer for the second Sunday in advent:

"Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which though hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ" 

The best way to understand the Scriptures is merely humble faith - our Timothy reading told us that knowledge of the Bible becomes wisdom through faith in Jesus Christ.  John Wycliffe said it best "The learner of Scripture does not acquire the wealth of wisdom unless with contrition he becomes humble."

"The learner of Scripture does not acquire the 

wealth of wisdom

 unless with contrition he becomes humble" 

- John Wycliffe

My prayer for you all is twofold:

-           Firstly that you would each day pick up your Bible and read it prayerfully.

-           Secondly, that you would not be like the Pharisee, arrogant and prideful, but be like the tax-collector, humble and accepting.

I pray that you would have the faith and courage to accept all you read as God's Holy Word, if you read something you dislike, or think should no longer apply even though the Bible says it does, if you read something modern society disagrees with or finds vile, do not ignore it or deny it but get on your knees and repent of your desire to insult God's goodness and honesty, pray for help from the Holy Spirit that He would change your heart from one of stone, closed to God's truth like an unloving servant, to one of flesh that beats in time with the heart of Jesus, that He would take your mind with all its human pride, arrogance, and boasting, and He  would show you why and how what He wrote in Scripture is true,

Perhaps the greatest threat to Christianity today, as it always was, is the denial of Scripture, on which we base all of our life and through which we can trust we know both Jesus and the heart of God.

Never compromise the faith, or the truth of Scripture, because of pressure from an allegedly 'progressive' society.

"To ignore the Scriptures is to ignore Christ" 

 - John Wycliffe

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Genesis 6.5-10 - grace in the Old Testament

The more I have got into ministry and the more I have studied theology, the more I have realised two things

-           Firstly, I have realised that what was said of old is generally of much greater worth than what is said today.  As Charles Spurgeon once proclaimed
“Should we not hear learned essays upon advanced theology? No sir; when the devil inspires the church we have ‘modern theology’; but when the Spirit is among us that rubbish is shot out with loathing.”
-           Secondly, I have learned that the very heart of God is found in one word – GRACE.  As much as humans have tried to cover this truth up, the Spirit of God has led people to rediscover it.

"the very heart of God is found in one word – GRACE"

When the early Christian heretics like those we call ‘Gnostics’ tried to hide the heart of the Lord behind claims of hidden knowledge and secret things, the Spirit raised up a man named Irenaeus.

When that most destructive of heretics, Pelagius, tried to distract God’s children from His freely given love, the Holy Spirit came and turned a sinner like Augustine to Christ.

When the Pope smothered the truth of God so well it all but disappeared, the Holy Spirit gave strength to John Wycliffe to be that bright Morning Star of the Reformation – a time when He raised up the likes of Luther and Calvin, Cranmer and Zwingli.

When modern theology tried to undermine the Gospel the Spirit inspired Spurgeon and the likes of Roy Hession.

Today, the Holy Spirit calls on each and every one of us to live lives that speak above all else of the grace of God.  To live lives that speak of a love, freely given but totally undeserved.  A love that cost the Father the life of His only begotten Son, that we who betrayed Him might be adopted as His children.

So thinking of grace and old truths I thought it best to look to the Old Testament and the grace we find there.

Many people seem to think that there are two gods – the god of the Old Testament who is bitter, judgemental, and cruel, and the god of the New Testament who is loving and gentle and kind. One is all hellfire and brimstone, holding a lightning bolt in His hand ready to smite any who put even a toe out of line.  And one who is like a model from a shampoo advert, stroking lambs and singing to birds like a Disney Princess.

The problem is that both of those images are utter nonsense – they are even blasphemous. As God Himself tells us in Leviticus:

“God is not a man who lies, or a son of man who changes His mind”
God is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

Grace is, and always has been, at the centre of God’s heart.  So let’s look at the Old Testament and see the grace of God that we might adore Him more and know with greater certainty the truth that we are not saved or made right with God by the 'good' things we do but by His sovereign grace.

The word ‘grace’ first appears in the Bible in Genesis 6.8.  Now most of your Bibles will read something like this “But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.”  But once again the old is better and the more truthful than the new.  John Wycliffe and John Purvey first translated the Bible into English in the 14th century and they translated Genesis 6.8 like this:

“Forsooth, Noah found GRACE before the Lord.”

How much better does that sound! FORSOOTH! I feel a deep sense of loss that ‘forsooth’ has been dropped from the English language, it pains me in my soul to think that such an epic word might be found only in the chains of dictionaries and ancient literature.

But more important than ‘forsooth’ is that far mightier word, which we understand even less, - Noah found GRACE before the Lord.

When William Tyndale translated the Bible once again into English in the sixteenth century – again because Wycliffe and his Bible were deemed dangerous and heretical for giving people free access to God’s truth – he translated it like this “But yet Noah found grace in the sight of the Lord.”  Finally, the King James Version – or Authorised Version – would write “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.”

All this ‘grace’ stuff ended with the Revised Standard Version – RSV – and since then it has been translated ‘favour.’  The New English Bible (better called the Novel English Bible given how it changed so many Scriptures!) went so far as to speak of Noah “winning favour before the Lord.”

But the old is right and the new is wrong.  The word ‘grace’ in Greek, the same word James used to translate the Hebrew for ‘grace’ as is found in our verse, is the same word Paul used to speak of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

"Noah found GRACE in the eyes of the Lord."

Now the text of Genesis regarding Noah is very important.  Chapter six begins by describing how evil the world had become. “Every scheme his mind thought was nothing but evil all the time.”  Every thought of mankind was nothing but evil at all times – always evil.  It is like Paul would later write concerning all humanity, ourselves included:

as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one.
There is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away;
all alike have become useless.
There is no one who does what is good,
not even one.
Their throat is an open grave;
they deceive with their tongues.
Vipers’ venom is under their lips.
Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and wretchedness are in their paths,
and the path of peace they have not known.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Romans 3.10-18

Isaiah goes so far as to tell us that even our good and righteous deeds or actions are like filthy, used tampons or menstrual rags before God – it is all tainted by sin.  Paul later in Philippians describes his previous good deeds and supposed holiness before he knew Jesus as being like a pile of steaming poo – though the word he used to describe it has more the nuance and offensiveness of words like ‘crap’ or ‘shit.’

At the time of Noah all humanity was depraved and evil. But Noah found grace in God’s eyes.  That is how the section ends, it does not say why, it does not tell us of Noah, only that grace found him.

Then the text continues with the family records of Noah and we are told that Noah was righteous, he was blameless before all the other people around him.  Noah walked with God as Enoch had before him and Abraham would after him.

Many come to the conclusion that because Noah was righteous and blameless he found favour in God’s eyes.  Noah was just such a good bloke and all round do-gooder, unlike everyone else on the entire planet, that he alone was good enough to be God’s favourite and be saved.  Hence, the Novel English Bible spoke of Noah winning God’s favour.

There are two things to say to this. Firstly, it is unbiblical, and secondly it is heresy.

As Saint Paul tells us in Romans 9 in black and white, plain, bold, language:

“Our salvation does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy.”

As Paul rightly makes clear by quoting Exodus, God says:

“I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”

And do you know what is remarkable? The word there for ‘mercy’ – “I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy” That word is in fact the same Hebrew word for GRACE!  The original says

“I will show grace to whom I will show grace, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”

The text about Noah goes from cause to effect – as it naturally reads – not from effect to cause. Finding grace in the Lord’s eyes caused Noah to be a righteous man, a blameless man, a man who could walk with God.  His righteousness and perfection did not cause Noah to receive grace, it is because of grace that he received his perfection and righteousness.

You see Noah was a sinner just like everybody else.  Only Jesus is truly righteous. Only Jesus is truly blameless. Only Jesus is truly perfect.  Once Noah is off the Ark he becomes a drunk who leaves his kids with some serious daddy issues!

Just like us, Noah was a sinner who deserved nothing less than to die in the flood of God’s righteous anger at sin.  Noah had no standing with God, he had nothing in his life he could use to plea for mercy.  Noah was hopelessly helpless, lost in darkness, and like everyone else he was as good as dead – a dead man walking.

"Noah's righteousness and perfection did not cause him to receive grace, it is because of grace that he received his perfection and righteousness."

But – FORSOOTH! – Noah still received grace and life changing love from God. Noah still received Jesus Christ’s robe of righteousness, Jesus’ perfect and blameless record, Jesus’ personal standing with the Father of Lights that he might walk with Him.  And Jesus took on all of Noah’s sin and darkness, and ultimately Noah’s death sentence.  Noah deserved none of the this – but he got it, and that is the definition of grace.

The Hebrew word for ‘grace’ (first used here in Genesis 6) has in it the image of the stronger stooping down to the weaker, the greater bowing low to give help to the lesser, the one who has in abundance bending down to provide for the one in need.

Just like Jesus did before coming to earth – He bent over and cast off His heavenly crown, he stooped down and entered the world He created, and He bowed down low beneath the weight of the old rugged blood stained cross.

And once you see this same grace we see in the New Testament in the Old you see it everywhere!

God promised Adam and Eve they would be killed if they took and ate from the Tree – but when they did He showed grace and mercy in not killing them immediately but instead cursed Satan and promised us Jesus to make it right. He then took an animal, killed it and made them clothes to represent the imputed righteousness of Jesus – a righteousness that is not our own but put on us from outside.

When Cain killed Abel it was not long before God confronted him, God did not kill Cain in the name of justice but showed grace and mercy, God gave Cain a mark so that no-one else would kill him.

Obviously God showed grace and mercy to Noah, but also to the whole world by promising not to destroy it in such a way ever again – grace and mercy seen in action when He scattered humanity at Babel instead of smiting them.

He showed grace and mercy when He called the pagan, idol worshipping Gentile name Abram to be His patriarch – to be Abraham.

You see His grace and mercy in how He spared Lot and his daughters, a depraved and disturbingly sinful group to say the least!

God saves and provides for Hagar and Ishmael even though they have no part in the promised people.

He has grace and mercy on Jacob despite him being a cheat and a sly liar.  He shows grace upon Joseph despite how awfully he was abused and his compromises in Egypt under Pharaoh.

He has grace on Moses despite Moses being a murderer with a stutter and more fears than sands on the seashore.

Samson was a womaniser who treated women badly, but God gave him strength at the last to work out His judgement.

Rahab was a hooker, a whore, yet look at the saving and amazing grace she received at His hands!

David was an adulterous murderer, yet sat on the throne and was loved by God beyond words.

Elijah the great prophet was scared, depressed, and even suicidal, yet he found grace in the eyes of the Lord. 

Isaiah was a man of unclean lips who for years had been a prophet of God in name but not in truth – and he received such mercy as to see the Lord Jesus high and lifted up, enthroned in glory, and yet live.  He was given the grace to become the most remarkable spokesman of God.

Jonah spent so much time and effort running away from God.  Yet God loved him and graciously brought him home despite him still needing an attitude change to say the least!

Naomi was poverty stricken, a widow seriously misled by her dead husband.  And yet such grace came on her that was fully restored and would have a place in the genealogy of Jesus the Christ.

Job lost everything, his wealth, his health, his family. Yet God’s love for him never changed and Job was restored threefold despite his accusing and questioning God.

Looking at the Old Testament, a small sample given above, we see God’s grace at work so powerfully.  We see time and time again that people cannot earn a place in God’s kingdom, that instead God has mercy and shows grace to sinners before using them – not the self-righteous – to proclaim His love.

In my own life I had rejected God, I had committed sexual immorality.  I was a liar and a deceiver who manipulated people for my own entertainment.  I was a hater, I was an addict to self-harm, I drank more than I should, mixing alcohol and strong pain killers.  I was all kinds of sinner.  I had sinner stamped over every atom of my existence.  But somehow, for some reason, I found grace in the eyes of the Lord.

“Forsooth, I found grace before the Lord!”

And He changed my life forever.  He took all my filth and shame and at Calvary, in His blood, He washed it away.  He took out the darkness and breathed in His Holy Spirit. I still sin, oh yes I still sin, but I repent joyfully knowing that when I do I am a righteous man, blameless, walking with God just like Noah.

I don’t know your hearts.  But looking at the Old Testament I can confidently say that whatever it is that you think you have done or whatever you think it is that stops God from loving you and using you, it is not true, it is a lie from the father of lies, Satan himself.  It is not from Jesus.  It is not from the Holy Spirit.  It is not from the Father of Lights.

It doesn’t matter if you have committed adultery, if you suffer from depression, if you are poor or physically sick, if you struggle day in and day out with temptation.  If there is one message for you in the Old Testament it is that God’s grace is far, far, mightier than your sin.  God’s love is far, far, deeper than your shame.  If you come to Christ on your knees and tell Him you are wrong, you can’t go on, you want to change, you truly do, then He will heal you, He will strengthen you, and He will use you.

 "He took all my filth and shame and at Calvary, in His blood, He washed it away."

And it is my prayer that each and every one of you would leave here tonight, confidently proclaiming “Forsooth, I found grace before the Lord.” It is my prayer that every morning when you wake up and you brush your teeth and you look at the ugly mug in the mirror before you, you will take your toothbrush out of your mouth, hold it like sword, like a holy standard, and look yourself in the eye, take a breath, then remind yourself at the beginning of each and every day that God’s grace is greater than yourself.  That you would proudly declare, loud enough so your neighbours hear you:


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