Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Foolishness of Idolatry and the Power of the Lord

Search the Scriptures
Study 6 --- 1 Samuel 5:1-7:2

5:1 When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon. 3 And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. 4 But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him. 5 This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.

6 The hand of the Lord was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory. 7 And when the men of Ashdod saw how things were, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for his hand is hard against us and against Dagon our god.” 8 So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?” They answered, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be brought around to Gath.” So they brought the ark of the God of Israel there. 9 But after they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city, causing a very great panic, and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them. 10 So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. But as soon as the ark of God came to Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought around to us the ark of the God of Israel to kill us and our people.” 11 They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.” For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there. 12 The men who did not die were struck with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.


The Bible likes to make fun of idolatry. 1 Samuel 5:1-5 is a case in point. It is humorous to picture the priests of Dagon putting their “god” back in his place or to see Dagon lying on the ground headless and handless.

The point of the humor is to illustrate the stupidity of idolatry. A headless idol pictures the stupidity of idols, just as a handless idol symbolizes the powerlessness of idols.

Similarly, watching the priests of Dagon put their idol “back in his place” points to one of the reasons we humans prefer idols to the true and living God. Idols can be manipulated, but the Lord cannot!

The true God of the Bible cannot be manipulated because he is not headless or handless. He sees all things and knows all things, including our thoughts, words, and deeds. He also is far from handless, for in verses 6-12 we see the power of his “hand” which was heavy upon the Philistines (v. 6, 11).

It is interesting to see how the attitude of the Philistines changes in chapters 4-6. Their attitude moves from defiance to surrender. In chapter 4 they fight against the Lord, saying, “Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.” But after experiencing his power and wrath they surrender and acknowledge his power. In chapter 6 these same Philistines say: “Give glory to the God of Israel. Perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land. Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts?”
What should we learn from all of this? What lesson should we learn from this passage about the Lord and ourselves?

First, shouldn’t we learn how foolish it is to live in defiance of the Lord? The fact is, he is almighty God, the creator, sustainer, and ruler of the universe. It is sheer folly to oppose his will for our lives.

He is the God who sees and the God who acts. He sees, hears, and knows of our defiance. He knew about Eli’s wicked sons just as he knew of the defiance of the Philistines. It may appear for a time as though we can get away with our defiance, but in the end we will not. The Lord is simply too strong for us. He always triumphs in the end.

Second, the deepest issue of the human heart is always worship. Who or what do we worship? Do we worship idols of our own making or do we worship the true God who sees and acts? People could save a lot of money paid to psychiatrists if they would simply come to grips with this deepest issue of life: Who or what do we worship in our heart of hearts?

We live in an era of grace. The heavenly Father is giving people time to come to his Son in repentance and faith. We would do well to “give glory to the God of Israel” and his Son, Jesus Christ while we still can. For one day, “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). Let us bow the knee to Christ as Lord voluntarily before his power compels all people on the day of his coming. Amen.

Complaining About Long Sermons and Reading Books

Dive into a book

Tony Payne / Briefing #360 / September 2008

“I enjoyed your sermon this morning, but it was just too long. In this day and age, with shorter attention spans, you just can't preach for longer than 20 minutes. For all our sakes, you just have to make it shorter. Anything longer than that is counter-productive!”

Ever heard this line as a preacher? Or said it to a preacher?

Be careful who you say it to. One preacher I know greets this kind of comment with a rejoinder like this: “You don't want long sermons? You can't stand to listen to God's word being expounded for longer than 20 minutes? Then clearly you have a spiritual problem, and the only solution is for me to pray for you. And to preach even longer sermons—since you obviously need more of the word of God!”

There is a similar sentiment abroad about books—that nobody reads any more, and that we might as well dispense with books in favour of DVDs, MP3s, websites, blog posts, short articles and (if we really stretch it) 16-page booklets.

Strangely, however, book industry sales figures show that general sales are actually up (not down) over the past decade, and that out of the top ten best-selling books of that decade, most were large and fat (such as those featuring the exploits of a boy wizard).

It is strange too that the flavoursome preachers of the moment (Mark Driscoll, for example) often preach for an hour or more. In fact, nearly every great preacher I've listened to over the past 25 years has preached for at least 45 minutes.

What's going on here? What do popular long sermons and best-selling fat books have in common? What is it that still entices the Attention Deficit Generation to immerse themselves in them?

Immersion. I think that's the key. At the end of a really excellent one-hour sermon you're hardly aware that any time has passed. The same is true of those good books we ‘lose ourselves’ in.
A good book is a baptism, a soaking, a swim. You immerse yourself in the mind of a writer, listening to his story or following his argument, and emerge out the other side dripping. A good book welcomes you aboard, and takes you on a train journey through such interesting countryside and with such good service along the way that you hardly notice the time it has taken to arrive at the destination.

The recent revolutions in communication haven't sapped the human mind of its capacity for and delight in immersion. We still enjoy sustained engagement with a story or idea or argument. My 12- and 13-year-old sons, who are supposedly even more distracted and attention-challenged than Gen Y, and who see with their fingers and hear with their noses for all I know, still seem to have no trouble maintaining intense concentration for five-hour stretches as they conduct Darkwinged Sorties of Doom into the Realm of Aztargoth (or whatever they're currently doing in the World of Warcraft). Nor can I stop them reading fat thrillers late at night when the light is supposed to be out.

People still love to be immersed. The challenge, of course, is to provide something worth being immersed in.

Enter Matthias Media, like a Darkwinged Sortie of Doom. We haven't given up publishing books, some of them even approaching thickish, because we still believe that books are incredibly useful resources for Christian growth and ministry. Books allow a sustained and immersive argument to take place. Like a powerful long sermon, they bring the Word to bear at length, and minds are changed.

When was the last time you immersed yourself in a good Christian book? Or used a good book in ministry to make progress with someone?

Here's a challenge for the month ahead. Choose one of the following three recent releases from Matthias Media, and think about who you know who could really benefit from them:

The Future of Jesus, by Peter Jensen (ideal for a thoughtful non-Christian)
Faith, by Bryson Smith (ideal for a newish Christian)
Living with the Underworld, by Peter Bolt (ideal for any Christian).

After you've made your choice, buy two copies, and pass one on to your friend as a gift. If he asks you what it's for, just say: “I thought it might be nice to go for a swim together”.
To find out more about these books, including sample chapters, go to http://matthiasmedia.com.au/.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Post from Dr. Currid on Loosening our Grip on Money

Given the worries of many Americans given the current financial situation, this post on money might be an encouraging word. --Bill

Saturday, September 20, 2008


No blogs have appeared the last week or so. I have been in London; preaching and giving a paper at a creation/science conference at the John Owen Centre of London Theological Seminary. The title of my paper, "The Exegesis of Genesis 1 and 2: A Question of Genre." As I was in London, the financial sectors of the US seemed to melt before my eyes, and I had to check myself regarding how dependent I often am on finances. I need, as a Christian, to loosen my grip on such things. It reminded me of a letter that George Muller sent to a donor who wanted to give a gift to Muller himself rather than to the orphanages that Muller ran. Muller's response is telling:

"I have no property whatever, nor has my dear wife; nor have I had one single shilling regular salary as Minister of the Gospel for the last twenty-six years, nor as the director of the Orphan-House and the other objects of the Scriptural Knowledge Institution for Home and Abroad. When I am in need of anything, I fall on my knees and ask God that He would be pleased to give me what I need; and He puts it in the heart of someone or other to help me. Thus all my wants have been amply supplied during the last twenty-six years, and I can say, to the praise of God, I have lacked nothing. My dear wife and my only child, a daughter twenty-four years old, are of the same mind. Of this blessed way of living none of us is tired, but we become day by day more convinced of its blessedness."

The potential donor responded by sending 300 pounds to Muller for support of the orphanages.

A Couple Posts from John Currid Discussing the Martyrdom of Hugh M'Kail

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hugh M'Kail, Part I

It is a pity that some of the old Christian books are not more widely available; one such work I have recently found is by Rev. William Wilson, and it is called Naphtali, or the Wrestlings of the Church of Scotland for the Kingdom of Christ (published in 1845). It describes what the Scots call the "sifting time", that is, the great persecutions of the covenanters in Scotland by the English in the 1660's. Part of the "sifting time" was the Great Ejectment when hundreds of covenanter ministers were thrown out of their pulpits in 1662. Many of these men were tortured and some martyred.

Wilson, in one instance, describes the sufferings and death of Rev. Hugh M'Kail. M'Kail preached his last sermon in September, 1662 just days before Parliament removed all the ministers of Edinburgh and its surroundings. M'Kail was later captured by English soldiers, accused of sedition, and placed in jail. He was severely tortured (the English used the "boot", a barbaric mechanism to crush a person's leg), and then sentenced to death on the scaffold. In the days leading up to his execution, the Lord was very graciously present with M'Kail. Two nights before his execution, he was eating supper with the other prisoners and he said to them joyously, "Eat to the full, and cherish your bodies, that we may all be a fat Christmas pie to the prelates!" And he continued speaking, "Many crosses have come in our way and wrought weakly upon us; but here is a cross that hath done more good than all the many that befel us before." What is it that causes a man to face death that way?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hugh M'Kail, Part II

The morning of his execution, Hugh M'Kail's father came to see him to say goodbye. They prayed together and had a spiritual discussion. The father's last words to his son were "that this suffering would do more hurt to the prelates, and be more edifying to God's people, than if he were to continue in the ministry for twenty years." M'Kail, then, asked his father to leave him so that he would not have further pain and anguish. The son said to the father at the end of their time together: "And I desire it of you, as the best and last service you can do me, to go to your chamber, and pray earnestly to the Lord to be with me on that scaffold; for how to carry there, is my care, even that I may be strengthened to endure to the end."

I believe we in the church today, when faced with hardship, spend much of our time praying and asking that God would take the pain and anguish away. M'Kail did not ask for that . . . but, rather, he asked to be strengthened to face his hardship dead on. Perhaps we should more often respond that way: O Lord, may you give me grace to "man up" as a Christian and squarely face whatever trials you may have in store for me. Indeed, may we live well and may we die well.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Importance of the Incarnation to our Salvation


1) Heidelberg Catechism:

18 Q. And who is this mediator---true God and at the same time truly human
and truly righteous?

A. Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was given us to set us completely free and to make us

right with God.

2) Scripture:

Romans 1:1-4: Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord . . .


Questions 12-18 of the Heidelberg Catechism have been teaching us that Jesus is “true God and at the same time truly human and truly righteous.” Why is this so important? Why must Jesus be fully God and fully man in one person?

The reason this is so important is that we cannot have salvation if Jesus is not true God and truly human. If Jesus is not truly human, then he can’t save humans. If Jesus is not God, then he can’t unite us with God.

In church history there was a man named Arius. Arius believed and taught that Jesus was the highest creature God ever created. Arius falsely taught that there was a time when Jesus was not.

There was another man at this time named Athanasius. Athanasius realized with the help of the Holy Spirit and Scripture, that if Arius was right, then Jesus was neither God, nor human! If Jesus was created, as Arius taught, then Jesus could not be God. And if Jesus was created as a creature before all other creatures, then Jesus was not man either! Athanasius realized that what Arius was teaching ruined our salvation.

We must believe that Jesus is who he claimed to be. Jesus claimed to be the eternal Son of God, who was a true man, a descendant of David. His resurrection was proof that he was just who he claimed to be! The first disciples were witnesses of his resurrection, and their witness has come to us! If we believe Jesus is who he claimed to be, then we can be right with God, and set free from our sins!

Discussion: What was wrong with Arius’ teaching? Why did Athanasius oppose the teaching of Arius? Who did Jesus claim to be, and what is the proof that his claim is true?

Prayer Starter: Address your prayer to the resurrected Jesus. Thank him for taking to himself
our human nature. Ask that the same power that raised him from the dead might be at work in your hearts, causing faith in him and love for him.

The Sola Panel | Is God boring?

The Sola Panel | Is God boring?

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The Sola Panel | Virtues we hate: chastity

The Sola Panel | Virtues we hate: chastity

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

An Article about God's Strategy for our Churches from Phillip Jensen and the Briefing

This article from Phillip Jensen is an urgently needed message for the evangelical and reformed churches in America. Jensen is a leading evangelical minister in Sydney, Australia.

The strategy of God

Phillip D Jensen / Briefing #358-9 / July 2008

Just what should we be doing in Christian ministry? Do our churches need a vision document, a mission statement or a strategic plan? Phillip Jensen says that strategy is important, but our job is not to work it out; God has already done that.

Many years ago, I was trained to teach and preach by expounding the Scriptures. I am very thankful to those who taught me this (Broughton Knox chief among them). So from the outset in ministry, I set about just working my way through the Scriptures, expounding each passage as it came up. After a time, I found myself in 1 Corinthians 8-10, and the more I prepared it, the more my heart sank. I thought to myself, “What am I supposed to do with this? Food offered to idols? Nobody offers food to idols in Australia, other than the idol of our own belly—to which we offer food reverently, often and in huge quantities. Just how am I supposed to preach on this?” It was a subject I would never have thought of preaching on, nor one that I thought was even remotely relevant to my congregation.

All the same, I did what I had been trained to do, and kept preaching through 1 Corinthians 8-10. As I did so, I became conscious of the fact that about a quarter of the congregation were Chinese and that most of them had come from families who offer food to idols constantly—in little shrines in the corner of the lounge room. For them, it was not an abstract or irrelevant issue, it was a pressing dilemma. Now that I am Christian, do I bow to the ancestors or not? How do I relate to my family, and how do I relate to my Christian brothers and sisters in this? 1 Corinthians 8-10 spoke powerfully to their situation.

However, it did more than that. As I kept preaching and working away at Paul's approach to these matters, the whole doctrine of Christian liberty tumbled out, which is so essential to maintaining justification by faith alone. And as that became clearer, it revolutionized my approach to personal counselling. The fashion of the time was ‘indirect counselling’, in which the counsellor never said anything to anyone about anything apart from, ’Mmm, really? Yes, I see what you mean. Mmm. Yes.” It was a very attractive method. Even I could do it because you never actually had to say to anyone, “I think you should” or “I think that's foolish” or “I think that's wise”, let alone “I think that's right” or “I think that's wrong”.

But with a thorough doctrine of Christian liberty, you are free to say to people, “Well, I think you should do X in these circumstances, but if you do the opposite, I'll support you thoroughly because it's a matter of freedom. If you want my ideas, I think this is the wisest way to go. But it's your choice, not mine, and I'll back you either way.” This is very important, because it also allows you to say, “No, that is wrong” on some occasions, without being heard to say that on every occasion when you offer advice.

This all came out of 1 Corinthians 8-10 and food offered to idols, a subject I would never have thought of preaching on in a million years. 1 Corinthians 8-10 also began to show me the difference between strategy and tactics in evangelism (and in ministry generally), and it is this topic I want to particularly address in this article. The key section is 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

I think it is this passage, more than any other in the New Testament, that places a great imperative upon us (i.e. every Christian) to evangelize. If we are to grow like Christ, and be imitators of Christ like the Apostle Paul, then we should try to please everyone in everything we do in order that they may be saved.

The Lord Jesus Christ lived (and died) to the glory of his Father, and we should do whatever we do to the glory of God—especially and including evangelism. The chief end and purpose of evangelism is the chief end and purpose of all humans: to glorify God and enjoy him forever. We don't evangelize to save souls but to glorify God. That's the primary thing; the saving of souls is secondary.

This is one of those important Arminian/Calvinist distinctions. If I forget that glorifying God is primary, and have as my primary aim the saving of souls, my temptation will be to do anything I can, and change whatever needs changing, in order to save more souls. Furthermore, if I succeed, I will puff myself up, and if I fail, I will depress myself.

But if the aim is to glorify God by preaching his gospel, I know that it will be a sweet smell of salvation for some, but a stench of death in the nostrils of others. And I don't have to take responsibility for that decision, or that effect; I place the gospel in front of people, and it is God's Spirit who brings them salvation or the hardening of their hearts. My aim is only ever this: to glorify God in my speaking of the gospel. This means that faithfulness is the test of true evangelism, not success (as Paul makes very clear earlier in 1 Corinthians 4).

But notice what glorifying God in faithful evangelism also involves here in 1 Corinthians 10: it means offering no unnecessary offence. We don't want to put anything in anyone's way except the gospel. And so Paul, who so adamantly insists in other places that he is not a man-pleaser, here is proud to be a man-pleaser —not for his own benefit or to make his life easier or to have more friends, but for their salvation. He will change his eating and drinking habits freely in order to glorify God by presenting the gospel to them.

So the Lord seems to be saying two things to us through the Apostle Paul:
  1. We must glorify God by faithfully and invariably sticking to the task God has given us: to preach the unchanging gospel of Christ.
  2. We must be prepared to be flexible and to use our Christian liberty to change our approach from moment to moment, and person to person, as the circumstances require.

In modern terms, Paul is talking about the difference between strategy and tactics. I'm sure, like me, you have endured strategic planning sessions where nearly the entire time is consumed in a debate over the differences between words like ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ and ‘purpose’ and ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’! I am using the words as the Macquarie Dictionary defines them:

  • strategy: noun. generalship; the science or art of combining and employing the means of war in planning and directing large military movements and operations.
  • tactics: plural noun. the art or science of disposing military or naval forces for battle and manoeuvring them in battle.1

Strategy is the big thinking—the overall plan and the means for getting there. Strategy is done by Prime Ministers and generals who say, “If we're going to win World War II, we'll have to land an invasion force in France, backed up by air support”. Tactics is more immediate thinking: it's manoeuvring the pieces on the chessboard to achieve the smaller milestones that go together to make up the strategy. Tactics is done by colonels and captains who say, “We'll need to land this many troops at this time and in this place, depending on the tides and the weather, in order to secure a beachhead, with this many planes running these missions in support”.

If the strategy is to win the war by invading France, then there may be a number of legitimate tactical approaches to getting that done. But these options wouldn't include sending flowers, or running up the white flag, or deciding to land an invasion force in Greenland instead. Tactics sit under strategy, and are circumscribed by strategy.

In Christian ministry, as in war and business, we must not only have a clear understanding of what our strategy is, but how it relates to the day-to-day tactics. This is particularly important for Christians, because our strategy is not something we have to come up with at a vision-planning day. Our strategy is understood by revelation. It is God's strategy—his cosmic plan—and his way of getting it done.

Let's look first at God's strategy, and how it involves us, before returning to the question of tactics.

The strategy of God

We can describe the strategy of God in trinitarian fashion by starting with the big plan of God the Father, as Paul expresses it in Ephesians 1. These are well-known words, but look at them again closely. What is the Father's goal and how does he plan to achieve it?

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

"In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory" (Eph 1:3-14).

We might summarize Paul's summary like this: God's ultimate goal is to unite all things under Christ, and he is sovereignly working to achieve this by sealing people (both Jews and Gentiles) with the Holy Spirit as they hear the word of truth, the gospel of Christ. The plan of God, right from the very beginning, was to include both Jews and Gentiles in one people, and central to this plan was the redemption that was won through Christ's blood, and the preaching of that gospel to all the nations.

Jesus says much the same thing in Luke 24 after his death and resurrection. He tells his gobsmacked disciples that everything written about him in the Law and the Prophets must be fulfilled, and then he elaborates: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:46-7). This is the strategy of God for gathering his elect people from all over the world: that the Christ should suffer and rise, and that the gospel of repentance and forgiveness should be preached to all nations.

It is not just the Father's strategy, it is the work of Christ himself: “I will build my church” says Jesus in Matthew 16:18. Christ's work is the gathering together of his own people into his own assembly—his church. He is the builder of the congregation, and you and I are only subcontractors. He may choose to use you and me in his building work, but it is his work and his activity. 1 Corinthians 3 expresses this delightfully:

"What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building" (1 Cor 3:5-9).

We have a job to do, and we must do it faithfully—whether it be planting or watering, and so on. But it is God's job to grow the congregation, not your job or my job. It is his growth, not our growth, because Christ is building his assembly. He is the builder; we are the fellow workers—a title and role of high honour which also makes it very clear who is the builder and who is not.
Christ is building his congregation according to the eternal plan of the Father by the preaching of the gospel to all the nations. Who does this preaching? 1 Peter 1 has a surprising answer for us:

"Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look" (1 Pet 1:10-12).

This passage contains a sentence of such length and complexity to rival Paul's in Ephesians 1! But look closely. Who is the evangelist?

It is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been sent from heaven to proclaim the fulfillment of those things that he had previously indicated through the prophets— that is, the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. These are realities into which angels long to look. But you have it all over the angels, says Peter, because these things have now been announced to you through those who preached the gospel by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.

It's a complicated little passage, but its logic is thoroughly in line with what we have already seen about the strategy of God: Christ is building his church, and he is doing it through us. The Holy Spirit is preaching the gospel, and he is doing it through us. And this is all according to the eternal plan of the Father to sum up all things in Christ Jesus, to the praise of his glory.

Our part in God's strategy

God has a strategy, a big plan of action that is heading towards a goal. But as we have already begun to see, his strategy involves our actions. It is his work and his strategy, but in his incredible grace, he puts it into effect through us.

What are the actions God gives us to do as part of his strategy? Here are the three absolutely essential ones:

1. Prayer

When Paul first preached the gospel to the Thessalonians, he knew that they were among Christ's chosen people because “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess 1:5). Their wholehearted, Spirit-empowered response showed them to be among those that Christ was building into his congregation.
In other words, the Holy Spirit was not only the evangelist (speaking through Paul) he was also at work in the hearers—in the Thessalonians—so that they were completely convinced about the truth of the message. Later Paul says that they embraced his gospel “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess 2:13). And when he writes to them again, Paul urges them to pray for him—that “the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you” (2 Thess 3:1).

It is precisely because the growth of the gospel is God's work by his Spirit (both in the preaching and in the response that people make) that our first and primary action is prayer. We need to keep asking God to glorify himself by preaching his message by the Holy Spirit throughout the world. We need to beg him to send the gospel out, and through its preaching, to save people and build Christ's congregation. And we pray this because we know it is his plan.

Christians are not fatalists. We know what God's will and plan is—that his kingdom would come, that his will would be done on earth, that his name would be hallowed—but we don't just sit back and say, “Well, it's going to happen anyway, so … whatever”. No, we pray (as our Lord taught us) that God would fulfill his plan for the world, and soon. We pray, “Please, Lord, bring it on!”

I love the way Paul also asks for prayer from the Ephesians. He asks them to pray for him “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph 6:19-20). Most of us who have been Christians for a long time are used to thinking of Paul as one of the valiant men of the faith—a fearless champion of the gospel, ready to speak up for Christ in all circumstances. But you don't pray for what you already have, so it must have been the case that Paul lacked boldness, like the rest of us. Other people always look bold when they're speaking about Christ (whether in public or in conversation), but it's rarely like that behind their eyeballs; they are usually just as terrified as we are.

Prayer, then, is the first and primary task God has graciously given to us as his fellow workers. He uses our prayers in his purposes, and so we must pray—really pray. Set aside time to pray. Drop something else so you can pray—like the apostles had to in Acts 6 where they said,
“It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2b-4)

2. Proclamation

This brings us to the second necessity: proclamation. I will not dwell long on the central and crucial place of proclamation—or preaching or announcing or telling or speaking or whatever similar verb you wish to use. Of the many, many New Testament passages we could look at to establish the vital place proclaiming God's word has in God's strategy, it's hard to go past the simple truth of Romans 10:17: “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ”. The strategy of God is for his Spirit to preach the Word through us, and so to elicit faith from those who hear.

We could look at Paul's solemn charge to Timothy: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2), or his marvellous little summary of his ministry in 2 Corinthians 4, which consists of the plain open statement of the truth of the gospel that Jesus Christ is Lord. I rather suspect that the central place of proclamation in the strategy of God is not something most of us need convincing about—at least theoretically. However, like Timothy, we may need a solemn and scary charge to get on with it—especially given how easy it is to give up on proclamation, to be distracted from it, to be discouraged by how plain and unexciting it seems, to be tempted to try some other method, and so on.

I well remember a highly intelligent young man who came to see me on campus years ago. He had read BF Skinner and other atheists, and had himself become a convinced, thoroughgoing atheist. As a result, he was suicidal. He was intelligent enough to see that consistent Atheism drained life of any meaning, purpose or joy. His existence was just an accident, as was everything else. He had tried all the joys that Solomon tried in Ecclesiastes, and had come to the same conclusion: it was all absurd and pointless. He wanted some way out of the prison of despair that he found himself in, but didn't know how to find it.

I proceeded to discuss the philosophy of Atheism with him over several weeks. I presented a great many clever arguments (well, at least I thought they were clever), but got absolutely nowhere. Then my good friend and colleague Col Marshall said to the young man, “Look, faith comes from hearing the word of God. So why don't you just come along to church and listen for a while?”

You can guess what happened. That young man came along to church and listened, and was converted. It had nothing to do with clever apologetics because, in the end, you can't argue someone into the kingdom. Faith comes from hearing the word of God.
That's our task in the strategy of God: to keep proclaiming the word of God so that the Holy Spirit, who preaches it through me and who also works in the hearts of the hearers, will bring people to faith.

3. People

The third task that God has given us is implicit in the first two, but needs to be stated on its own: the third part of our work is people. When Jesus looks out upon the crowds, he is filled with compassion because they are like sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36). It's the same compassion that God has for the world—a compassion which causes him to send his only Son for its salvation (John 3:16). But what is the ‘world’ that God loves? It is people opposed to God.
We saw this in our look at 1 Corinthians 8-10 earlier in this article. “I put myself out for other people”, says Paul. “I will gladly inconvenience myself, and put aside my own likes and dislikes, because I want to win people”.

The work God has given us to do is focused on and directed towards people, not institutions or organizations or programmes. All our structures and programmes must serve people. This is so obvious, it seems facile to repeat it. But judging by what we see in Christian ministry, it needs to be repeated. We get this back to front all the time, and end up with institutions and programmes and structures that seem to exist for their own sake. In fact, it often feels like the people are there to serve them (i.e. the programmes), not vice versa.

We must never lose sight of people work—of labouring and striving, as Paul did, on behalf of every individual, “warning every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ” (Col 1:28 literally; ESV has ‘everyone’). (For more on how this ‘people’ principle plays out in our churches and ministries, see Col Marshall's article ‘Ministry mind shifts’ elsewhere in this Briefing.)

The tactics of man

God's strategy—including our part in it—is a given. It's not up to us to figure out what Christian ministry is really about; the big plan and the strategy for getting there is revealed to us by God, and as with all revelation, our response must be to believe it and act upon it.

The strategy for our action is set for us: we need to be praying, we need to be proclaiming and we need to be focusing on people. These three key strategies should determine the activity of every church and Christian ministry. When we meet to think about how we are going, and to plan what we will do next, our discussion should not centre on devising a strategy, it should centre on considering how well and faithfully we are implementing God's strategy.

Remember, strategy is the higher level thinking: it's laying down the key directions and activities we are going to undertake to achieve the objective. And it is given by God. Tactics are short-term, immediate actions to do with how the strategy will play out in the next five minutes, the next five days or the next five months.

Tactical thinking is important and valuable, but secondary. Tactics sit under strategy, and support strategy. In fact, one of the big problems in any business enterprise is making sure that the day-to-day actions and activities of the business actually relate to the strategy—or are ‘aligned’, as the jargon goes. What often happens in the real world is that tactical decisions tend to take on a life of their own, and end up hiving off in a different direction to the strategy, or even undermining the strategy. Or sometimes we end up with ‘orphan’ activities that once had some connection with the company strategy, but which have long since ceased to make any contribution to it.

It hardly needs to be said that this happens in churches all the time. A particular ministry is set up—let's say a Kids' Club—as a tactic to proclaim the gospel to the kids of the suburb prayerfully. It all goes well, and makes a useful contribution to the overall prayer-proclamation-people strategy for some years. But in time, the suburb changes. Young families are squeezed out by higher real estate prices. The demographic profile changes, and the tactical usefulness of this particular way of proclaiming the gospel evaporates. But any suggestion that perhaps we should shut down the Kids' Club will usually be met with vigorous protest—not from the kids (there aren't any), but from people in the church who have been working in and supporting this ministry for years.

Tactics are provisional and change constantly. They can vary from moment to moment. I meet a Jew, and so I become a Jew to reach this Jew. The strategy hasn't changed; I will need to be praying for him, and proclaiming to him, and loving him as a person, but my particular approach and behaviour will change because he is a Jew. And likewise, when I meet a Gentile five minutes later, the immediate tactics will change. In a big multicultural city like Sydney (where I live), I can experience minute-by-minute tactical variations as I meet Chinese people, Africans, Indians, old-fashioned Anglo-Saxons, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, young people, old people, and so on.

Tactics are secondary, provisional, and almost always break down and fail even¬tually. Even a superb bit of tactical thinking about how to reach out to a particular group will almost certainly be rendered inappropriate or unsuccessful over time.

Our problem is that we think too highly of our tactics, and even confuse them with the strategy. We think that if only we come up with the right tactical moves, then success will be ours, and God's kingdom will explode everywhere. And if we do achieve some success, we are only all the more emboldened to think that we have ‘cracked it’, and so we write a book and become a church growth expert.

Most ‘church growth’ literature is really short-term, localized tactical think¬ing, but it often masquerades as some¬thing far more grand. It often oversells itself as ‘strategy’, and as the new secret to ministry success.

Understanding the difference between God's strategy and our tactics is also important in liberating us to try different things, and to let other people try different things (back to Christian liberty again). For example, some churches seek to proclaim the gospel prayerfully to the people in their community by putting on really attractive well-run church meetings, and drawing in outsiders to hear the Word. These ‘attractional’ churches often have excellent kids' programmes, good car parks, polished music, effective marketing and highly gifted preachers. Given that they are driven by God's strategy and they really do give their time to prayer, proclamation and people, these sorts of churches can do wonderful work under God's strategy and see many people saved. They are an excellent example of a group that is willing to put themselves out and do whatever they can, tactically speaking, to seek the salvation of people, as Christ did.

However, other churches take a different tactical approach. For example, some operate in small, highly committed teams, living in closer Christian community and proclaiming the gospel prayerfully through small group meetings, household gatherings, and personal community contacts and networks. (The Total Church approach we discussed in our last Briefing would be a good example.) Yet other groups might try a blend of these tactical approaches, or some other approach altogether.

Our problem comes when we absolutize our tactics, and raise them to the level of strategy—as if all ministries and churches must adopt the same tactics to be ‘successful’ or, indeed, to be faithful. We must remember: God is the one with the plan and the strategy, and he is putting his strategy into effect through us. The success and the results are not up to us, because it is only as God gives the growth through his Holy Spirit that God achieves his own purposes. We are subcontractors —agents—fellow workers. It's not up to us to figure it all out and make it work; our job is faithful adherence to the strategy of God.

(Adapted by Tony Payne from an address by Phillip Jensen at the 2007 Matthias Media USA ‘Gospel growth vs. church growth’ Conference, Washington DC.)


1 The Macquarie Dictionary Online © 2008 Macquarie Dictionary Publishers Pty Ltd.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What is the gospel? An article from D. Broughton Knox and the Briefing

What is the gospel?

D. Broughton Knox / Briefing #343 / April 2007

What is the gospel? This may seem an obvious or even a stupid question. Of course we all know what the gospel is. This essay by DB Knox may make you think again.1 Is the gospel we preach the same gospel preached by Jesus and the apostles?

The message of the New Testament preachers may be summed up as a message about Jesus. This was what God had sent them to proclaim. Thus Acts sums up Philip’s evangelistic message to the Ethiopian eunuch as, “Beginning from this scripture2 he preached unto him Jesus”.3 Jesus is the message.

The first fact about Jesus that the preachers established was that he had come from God. God had sent him on his mission. In a word, he was God’s Messiah, sent, commissioned and anointed by God for the work that he discharged. Jesus was God’s vice-regent, God’s anointed one. This was how Paul began his preaching career immediately after his conversion: “He confounded the Jews of Damascus, proving that this is the Christ”.4 From the beginning this was the message of the apostles in Jerusalem. Luke wrote that “they ceased not to teach and to preach Jesus as the Christ”.5

True to Moses and all the prophets of the Old Testament, the apostolic message about Jesus was set in the context of judgement. It was a message of escape from condemnation, a fleeing from the wrath to come.6

The message goes back to John the Baptist; he is the first preacher of the gospel of God. This is clear from the way his ministry is incorporated into the gospel narrative and is actually described by Mark as “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God”.7

John the Baptist preached Jesus, “saying to the people that they should believe on him that should come after him, that is, on Jesus”.8 But it was Jesus as judge that John proclaimed. Jesus was the coming one who would thoroughly winnow his threshing floor, separating out the chaff and destroying it with unquenchable fire while getting the good grain into his store house.9 John described this coming judgement as a baptism of fire in which the chaff would be consumed.10 It was a divine judgement, a divine baptism. It was a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. For this imagery John was indebted to Isaiah who, in describing God’s future judgement and cleansing of his people, had combined the imagery of washing with the imagery of burning.11

The imminence of the inauguration of this kingdom or rule of God was the burden of the message of John the Baptist. Kingdom (i.e. ruling) is exercised through a king. God is king in his kingdom. John proclaimed that the king is to be the coming one, the Messiah foretold in the prophets. John was certain that the Messiah was already in their midst, the one greater than himself, who would inaugurate and usher in the judgement of God, the winnowing of God’s threshing floor and the burning up with unquenchable fire of the chaff. It was in the light of the imminence of this kingdom or rule of the Messiah that John called on his hearers to prepare for it by repenting and by showing that repentance, not only by the reality of a changed lifestyle,12 but also through the symbol of baptism in order that, when that day came, the penitents might receive the forgiveness of their sins which Jeremiah had foretold would be a feature of the new covenant brought in by the Messiah.13 The proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom of God is a proclamation of the nearness of the judgement of God, the day of the Lord foretold and looked forward to in the Old Testament.

The message of Jesus was identical with the message of John. Like John, Jesus proclaimed the imminence of the kingdom of God and called his hearers to repent: “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand”.14 At this point, it should be noted that the translation of gospel as ‘good news’ is a mistake. In the Bible, the Greek word ευαγγελια means ‘news’.15 The proclamation of the coming kingdom of God was not in itself good news to every hearer. Its imminence was, however, news—startling news which called for an immediate response, the response of repentance. For the news of the kingdom was the news of the judgement of God.

The certainty and the awfulness of judgement was much in the mind of Jesus during his teaching ministry. He taught explicitly that the consequences of condemnation in the judgement were too awful to contemplate. Condemnation to the Gehenna of fire is referred to several times by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In the same sermon, he warned about the destruction which awaited those on the broad way in contrast to the life which was the destination of those who entered on the narrow way.

In the chapter following the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew records Jesus as speaking of the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth, which would be the fate of many (unbelieving) Israelites.16 The future judgement was the theme of some of our Lord’s parables, for example, the parable of the wheat and the tares where he said that the sons of the evil one would be gathered out of the kingdom of the Son of Man and would be cast into the furnace of fire, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”.17 He repeated the same phraseology in the parable of the net cast into the sea: the wicked, he said, will be cast into the furnace of fire where shall be the weeping and gnashing of teeth.18 Later in his ministry Jesus warned his disciples lest, through failure in self-discipline, they find themselves cast into “the eternal fire”19 or into “the hell [literally ‘Gehenna’] of fire”.20 On another occasion, addressing the Pharisees, he asked them, “how can you escape the judgement of Gehenna?”21 The phrases “furnace of fire”, “eternal fire” and “Gehenna of fire” are doubtless imagery, but they are images of the most awful reality. Jesus did not mince his words. The facts he believed and taught were too simple.
The Old Testament, as well as our Lord’s teaching, is full of the certainty and awfulness of judgement. The certainty of judgement is not news to a Bible-oriented person. The news of the New Testament is not that there will be a judgment, but rather that this judgement is imminent; the kingdom of heaven, the rule of God—that is, his judgement—is at hand. Action is called for from the hearer.

When, after the Day of Pentecost, the Christian preachers proclaimed the Christian message, the theme of their message was Jesus. The first sermon began with the words, “Jesus of Nazareth”22 and it was Jesus as God’s Messiah that was proclaimed. Peter concluded that first sermon with the words, “know that God has made him Christ”.23 It was, of course, notorious in Jerusalem that Jesus had been crucified—had suffered the most ignominious condemnation of the law—but the Christian preacher proclaimed that the crucified Messiah had been raised by God from the dead on the third day and exalted to the right hand of power in the universe. He was Lord of all.24

The kingdom of Jesus was the theme of the apostolic preaching, as Paul’s Jewish enemies at Thessalonica rightly reported on the matter to the city magistrates.25 An examination of the preaching of the apostles as reported in the Book of Acts confirms that they continued the emphasis of John and Jesus, and that the burden of the Christian message was the imminence of judgement. Peter, in his address to Cornelius and his friends, was explicit that judgement through Jesus, now Lord of all, was the message that “God had commanded us to preach to the people” and that Jesus was the one “ordained by God to be the judge”.26 When Paul preached to the Athenian senators at their own request, the judgement day and Jesus as the judge was the climax of his sermon.27

As Peter preached to Cornelius, so Paul preaching to the Areopagus underlined the fact that the resurrection of Jesus was the ground and proof of the fact that he was judge, for judgeship is an exercise of lordship. The supreme accolade of the king is that he is the judge of his people. Jesus, Lord of all, is the judge of all.

A very clear indication that judgement by Jesus, God’s appointed judge, was the essence of the early gospel message is contained in Luke’s summary of Paul’s address to Felix, the Roman governor of Judaea. Felix had invited Paul to address him and his court, “concerning the faith in Christ Jesus”.28 Doubtless many other notables would be present. It was, literally, the opportunity of a lifetime for Paul the missionary, an invitation to expound the true faith about God to the governor of God’s people. It is interesting to read how Luke summarizes Paul’s address: “He reasoned of righteousness, self-control and judgement to come”. Judgement was the thrust of Paul’s message to the governor’s court. He spoke so vividly and so convincingly that Felix was terrified.29

The epistles provide further testimony that judgement was the news that the apostles preached. In the opening section of Romans, Paul speaks of “the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel”.30 In 1 Thessalonians 1:10, he speaks of the coming wrath from which Jesus will rescue us. In the opening paragraphs of the second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul describes in vivid imagery the judgement day which will coincide with Jesus’ return as Lord: “in flaming fire rendering vengeance to those that know not God”.31
Judgement is the most conspicuous theme of the Book of Revelation. This theme is succinctly focused in the message of the angel flying in mid-heaven who proclaimed to all men “the everlasting gospel”: “Fear and glorify God the creator, for the hour of his judgement is come”.32
The judgement of God through Jesus Christ was the message that the apostles preached. This message prevents the gospel from being earthbound, as is so much modern preaching and evangelism. Although it deals with the present, calling for a response now, it has an eternal dimension. It is startling news. Moreover it overleaps cultural divisions and requires no cultural reinterpretation for it quickly reaches the conscience of the hearer, whatever his culture. Indeed, it is impossible to re-interpret this message to fit the age. It is “an eternal gospel”.33
Jesus as God’s appointed judge of all men, guaranteed and testified to by the resurrection, was the essential and novel feature of the message the apostles believed themselves commanded by God to proclaim. But along with which, equal in importance, was the fact that Jesus was the saviour from condemnation in the judgement. Thus Paul told the Jews in Pisidia, in his sermon in their synagogue, that God had fulfilled his promise of bringing to Israel from among David’s descendants a saviour who was Jesus, and he described the message he was bringing his hearers as “the word of this salvation”.34 Salvation was from the wrath of God. Paul summed up the work of Jesus in the phrase, “Jesus who rescues us from the wrath to come”.35 The coming of Jesus at the end of the world would usher in both wrath and salvation from wrath. Jesus would be both judge and saviour. Paul reminded the Philippians as they waited for the coming of Jesus, “we wait for a saviour from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ”.36 In Romans 5:9 Paul expressed the same sentiment that Jesus is the saviour in the future judgement: “We shall be saved from the wrath through him”. Salvation on the judgement day, “saved in the day of the Lord Jesus”,37 is the message of hope that the gospel preachers brought.

The gospel of salvation was essentially a future hope, a sure and certain hope that, through Jesus, the believer, in his lordship, would be saved when the day of doom broke. Thus Peter reminded his fellow apostles, “we believe that we shall be saved ...”.38

In the New Testament, salvation is not only a past event and a present possession but a future experience. As a past event—“By grace you have been saved through faith”39—it is unrepeatable and not to be annulled, for “God is faithful”,40 but its fruition is still to be experienced on the awful day of the wrath of the Lamb. Jesus had pacified the wrath of God. So the news is news “of peace by Jesus Christ”.41

Paul is the gospel preacher whose message we know most about. We have seen in Luke’s account in Acts that judgement was the apex of his sermons. His discourse before Felix majoring on “righteousness, self-control and judgement to come” unfolded the gospel in the same terms as John’s report of Jesus’ upper room discourse. Jesus had foretold that, when the Spirit had come to the disciples which the Father would send in Jesus’ name, he would convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement. This is the same trilogy as in Paul’s sermon to Felix. Judgement was the culmination of the message. Apprehension of the righteous judgement of God is the point through which the Spirit of God works conviction of sin and consequential fear of the wrath (“Felix was terrified”) and then, by the grace of God, the Spirit works repentance in the convicted heart.

The gospel preachers aimed to bring about a sense of guilt. This is plain in the account of Paul’s sermon before Felix. It is plain in our Lord’s prediction that the Spirit in the disciples would convict the hearers of the gospel of sin, righteousness and judgement to come. An examination of the gospel sermons in Acts confirms that this was the preacher’s object. The Sadducees recognized it when they accused the apostles of “intending to bring Jesus’ blood upon us”.42
Repentance in the present was the gateway to salvation in the future on the day of God’s wrath. John, Jesus and the apostles called for repentance—that is, a change of attitude, a real change of heart towards God, and the recognition that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah of God and the Lord. The acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord and the calling on him for his help brought salvation, in accordance with the promise of God given through the prophet Joel.43

Not the saviourhood of Jesus but the lordship of Jesus is what the enquirer is invited to believe in for salvation.44 Since judgement was real, and righteousness real, and sin real, guilt was real and the wrath real. Since too God had made known through the resurrection of Jesus that the judgement day was fixed and the judge appointed, the preachers aimed to bring about in their hearers a sense of guilt to correspond to the reality of their guilt so that an awkward and fearful conscience might realize that it was an awful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,45 and so, in repentance, they would turn back to God and cry to him for salvation from the consequences of their sin. The evoking of a sense of guilt through the gospel message is clear in the reports of the sermons in Acts. Thus in the first sermon, Peter, proclaiming for the first time the fact that God had made Jesus Lord and Christ, concluded his sermon on the Day of Pentecost with the words, “this Jesus whom you crucified”.46

The sermon was effective. A sense of guilt immediately arose in the hearts of the hearers who asked, What shall we do?”47

In Paul’s sermon to the Jews in Pisidian Antioch48 the chief content of the sermon is the narration of the facts about Jesus and how, in him, God had fulfilled the promises he had made to their forefathers. Yet the preacher assumes a sense of guilt in the consciences of his hearers, for the sermon reaches its climax in the statement, “through this man is proclaimed to you the remission of sins and by him every one that believes is justified from all those things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses”.49

In preaching to Gentile audiences, the apostle is milder in his assertion of the guilt of his hearers. It is from the ignorance and foolishness of idolatry that he asks his hearers to repent and to turn to faith in the true creator God who has fixed the judgement day.50 Before sin-hardened Felix, however, he did not mince his words as he preached of repentance, self-control and judgement to come.51

Though the preachers of the gospel proclaimed the judgement of God and referred to it in the most vivid and awful language available to them, yet the message was a gracious message because it was news of God’s gracious action of providing salvation from condemnation in the judgement through Jesus. He is the one who rescues us, said Paul, from the coming wrath. Both Peter and Paul, the preachers of the New Testament of whom we know most, designated Jesus as saviour. Peter, in his reply to the Sanhedrin, told how God had exalted Jesus to the throne to be prince and saviour.52 Paul told the Jews in Pisidian Antioch that God had fulfilled his promise in giving Israel a saviour, Jesus,53 and went on to describe the gospel message that he was bringing his hearers as “the word of this salvation”.54

Not only is the gospel the news of salvation but it is the instrument of salvation. It is the power of God for salvation, as Paul told his Roman readers.55 To the Ephesians he called it “the gospel of your salvation”.56 It is through the preaching of the gospel that God sends his salvation.57
Salvation consists in the forgiveness of sins. Those whose sins are forgiven need not fear the judgement, for they will be acquitted. Paul quoted the Psalm, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered”.58

It is a message of news of peace. “The gospel of peace,” as Peter described it to Cornelius.59 That is, peace with God,60 reconciliation with God,61 escape from under the wrath of God.62 It is news of liberty and freeness in God’s presence on the day of judgement.63

The message of forgiveness of sins against the background of the judgement was the unchanging gospel message from the beginning. The purpose of John the Baptist’s ministry was that those who responded might obtain the forgiveness of their sins. The imminence of the judgement when the judge would thoroughly winnow his threshing floor or burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire only made the need for forgiveness more urgent. The message which Jesus commissioned his disciples to proclaim throughout the world was the forgiveness of sins through Jesus.64 The apostles carried out this commission. In the first sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter, echoing John the Baptist’s language, told his anxious enquirers, “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins”.65 And he repeated the promise to Cornelius, telling him that God had commanded the apostle to preach, not only that Jesus is the judge, but also “through his name everyone who believes on him shall receive forgiveness of sins”66 and he told the Sanhedrin that through Jesus God would give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.67

Paul preached the same message. At the beginning of his ministry he told the synagogue worshippers in Pisidia, “through this man is proclaimed to you the forgiveness of sins”.68 At the end of his ministry he recalled the commission that he had received on the Damascus Road, and told King Agrippa this commission was that he should be the means of bringing the truth to the Gentiles “that they might receive the forgiveness of sins”.69 The forgiveness of sins, or justification from wrongdoing, was identical. Paul put the two together in the same sentence in his sermon at Pisidian Antioch: “through this man is proclaimed to you forgiveness of sins and by him everyone that believes is justified from all things”.70 Another example of identical meaning of justification and forgiveness is Romans 4:2, 5-7.

Faith in Jesus, expressed in repentance or acknowledgement of him as the divine Lord, king and judge, is the way of obtaining this salvation. Believing the news the preachers brought gave rise to an anxiety, as well it might. For the news was of the day of doom, its imminence underlined by the resurrection of God’s appointed judge, of which the preachers were witnesses. To the anxious enquiry, “What must we do in view of this news of God’s judgement?”,71 the preachers had the further news of God’s grace: “acknowledge the lordship of Jesus and you will be saved,” they assured their hearers.72

This belief on the name of Jesus the Lord and Saviour, when exercised in the context of the gospel message of judgement, was expressed by prayer to Jesus, calling on him for salvation on “the great and terrible day of the Lord”.73 Prayer to Jesus for salvation in the context of the cataclysm of the judgement was the natural expression of faith in him—that is, of belief that he was God, Lord and Saviour, able to hear the prayer of the penitent and able to save. And the promise of the gospel was that all who called on him were saved from judgement through their sins being blotted out, covered from the face of the judge from the moment they believed in Jesus the Lord.

To sum up, the gospel was the news that God had fixed the judgement day when he would judge the world in righteousness, and he had appointed the judge, Jesus, whom he had sealed in this office by the resurrection from the dead and by his exaltation to the throne of God as Lord. He was king and judge, and not only king and judge, but saviour from the consequences of the judgement of God on sinners. For God in his graciousness had sent his son Jesus to be the saviour of the world, so that all who call on him for salvation, all who recognize his lordship and seek his help, will receive that salvation, which consists in the forgiveness of their sins and justification in the eyes of the judge.

So the news is not only of the judgement but more significantly, of salvation in that judgement.

A reflection from Tony Payne

One of the more striking things about DB Knox’s writings is how ordinary they are. The prose is clear enough, but pedestrian. There is little sense of flow or dynamism, and few rhetorical flourishes. The passive voice dominates. The diction is formal. The argument is simply set forth, unfolding without illustration or summary, supported by copious biblical examples and quotations, in a style that almost defies the reader to read on.

Yet somehow, at least for me, the very plainness of DB Knox’s writings forms part of their power. There is never any sense that you are being carried along by the brilliance of the packaging. It’s just the ideas, and how often the ideas sparkle and shine.

This extract is no exception. When I first read this chapter some years ago, it was like putting on a set of spectacles that brought several vague and misty perceptions into sharp focus.
The relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus, for example, which had always been something of a puzzle to me, now seemed transparent. The cousins had preached the same gospel—the announcement of the coming kingdom of God in which all would be judged. John expected the judgement to come with Jesus, and to come almost immediately. He did not realize that the judgement would be delayed—or rather that it would fall first on Jesus himself on the cross.

I also found a new clarity about the relationship between Jesus as Lord and Jesus as Judge. I was used to thinking of “Jesus is Lord” as an excellent little three-word gospel summary, but how did judgement and wrath fit into that? I should have seen it from Acts 17 and all the other places; I should have seen it from Two Ways to Live! But somehow DBK brought it into stark clarity simply by saying that “judgeship is an exercise of lordship”.

And then, of course, there was this short paragraph, introduced without fanfare and almost in passing, but containing a scathing indictment of modern evangelism: The judgement of God through Jesus Christ was the message that the apostles preached. This message prevents the gospel from being earthbound, as is so much modern preaching and evangelism. Although it deals with the present, calling for a response now, it has an eternal dimension. It is startling news. Moreover it overleaps cultural divisions and requires no cultural reinterpretation for it quickly reaches the conscience of the hearer, whatever his culture. Indeed, it is impossible to reinterpret this message to fit the age. It is “an eternal gospel”.74

This points out a subtle and ongoing danger for us, it seems to me. While few of us would (presumably) be satisfied with a gospel that was simply ‘Come to Jesus and have all your problems solved’, we are often sorely tempted to preach an attractive Jesus who connects with people’s aspirations, hungers and needs. Want real and satisfying relationships? Want the freedom to live authentically? Want to find purpose and meaning in life? Want a new story to live by? Want to find resources for dealing with suffering and pain? Want to be a better dad? Come to our special dinner/course/breakfast, and we’ll show you how.

Now these sorts of things do go along with being a Christian believer (along with persecutions, being hated, and constantly battling the relentless assaults of the world, the flesh and the devil). And surely there is nothing wrong with telling people about these things, especially in response to accusations that the Christian life is the opposite (that it is a life-denying, joyless slavery, for example).

But apologetics is not the gospel, nor are the benefits of becoming a Christian the gospel. The gospel is an historical announcement about the coming kingdom of Jesus, the crucified and risen Christ, who will soon bring judgement, and who now calls on everyone to repent and flee to him for forgiveness of sins while they may. It is a message, as Knox says, that “overleaps cultural divisions and requires no cultural reinterpretation” because it directly addresses the conscience of the hearer. Judgement is coming in Jesus Christ; you are guilty; salvation is available through this same Jesus; what will you do?

This is not a difficult message to communicate or to understand. It is of course a profoundly contemptible message—one that our culture will regard as weak and foolish, and to which only a minority of people will in all likelihood respond, few of them sophisticates or high-fliers. But then I seem to remember that this was also Paul’s experience when he preached the gospel in Corinth. The Jews and Greeks begged for contextualization. In fear and trembling, Paul gave them Christ crucified instead.


1 This essay is an edited extract from ‘The Gospel of the New Testament’ in DB Knox, Selected Works Volume III, Matthias Media, Kingsford, 2006, pp. 9-60. In the course of his lectures and writings, Dr Knox characteristically quoted from either the King James Version or the Revised Version, and sometimes from a combination of both. We have retained this feature.
2 Isaiah 53:7-8
3 Acts 8:35
4 Acts 9:22
5 Acts 5:42
6 Matthew 3:7
7 Mark 1:1. Paul’s interaction with “the disciples” in Ephesus in Acts 19 provides a further indication that the movement initiated by John the Baptist was indistinguishable from the ‘Jesus movement’.
8 Acts 19:4
9 Matthew 3:12
10 Matthew 3:11-12
11 Isaiah 4:4
12 Matthew 3:8
13 Jeremiah 31:34
14 Mark 1:15; Matthew 4:23; Luke 4:43.
15 The case for ευαγγελια as ‘news’ rather than ‘good news’ is made in more detail elsewhere in an appendix, ‘Meaning of the word “gospel”’, Selected Works Vol III, pp. 59-60.
16 Matthew 8:12
17 Matthew 13:42
18 Matthew 13:47-50
19 Matthew 18:8
20 Matthew 18:9
21 Matthew 23:33
22 Acts 2:22
23 Acts 2:36
24 Acts 10:36
25 Acts 17:8
26 Acts 10:42
27 Acts 17:31
28 Acts 24:24
29 Acts 24:25
30 Romans 2:16
31 2 Thessalonians 1:8
32 Revelation 14:6-7
33 Revelation 14:6
34 Acts 13:23, 26
35 1 Thessalonians 1:10
36 Philippians 3:20
37 1 Corinthians 5:5
38 Acts 15:11; also see 1 Thessalonians 5:9; Romans 5:9-10; Hebrews 10:39.
39 Ephesians 2:8
40 1 Corinthians 10:13
41 Acts 10:36
42 Acts 5:28
43 Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13.
44 Acts 16:31
45 Hebrews 10:31
46 Acts 2:36
47 Acts 2:37
48 Acts 13:16ff
49 Acts 13:38-39
50 Acts 14:15, 17:29-31.
51 Acts 24:25
52 Acts 5:31
53 Acts 13:23
54 Acts 13:26
55 Romans 1:16
56 Ephesians 1:13
57 Acts 28:28
58 Romans 4:7; cf. Psalm 32:1-2.
59 Acts 10:36
60 Romans 5:1
61 2 Corinthians 5:20
62 John 3:36
63 1 John 4:17
64 Luke 24:47
65 Acts 2:38
66 Acts 10:43
67 Acts 5:31
68 Acts 13:38
69 Acts 26:18
70 Acts 13:38-39
71 Acts 2:37, 16:30.
72 Acts 2:38, 16:31.
73 Joel 2:31; Acts 2:20.
74 Revelation 14:6

Access to God's power

Search the Scriptures

Study 5 --- 1 Samuel 4:1b-22

Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2 The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3 And when the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

5 As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”

10 So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. 11 And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

12 A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with dirt on his head. 13 When he arrived, Eli was sitting on his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out. 14 When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?” Then the man hurried and came and told Eli. 15 Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set so that he could not see. 16 And the man said to Eli, “I am he who has come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” And he said, “How did it go, my son?” 17 He who brought the news answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great defeat among the people. Your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” 18 As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.

19 Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. 20 And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention. 21 And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”


John Woodhouse, the principal of Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, has recently completed an excellent, very readable commentary on 1 Samuel. He begins his comments on this passage from 1 Samuel 4 this way:

“It is not uncommon for human beings to long for God’s power. Even if we do not understand a great deal about religion, we know that God (by definition) must be powerful. If there is some way in which God’s power can be made to work for me, that is very attractive.

“That, for many people, is the allure of religion. The businessman, weighed down by anxieties, problems, and decisions, may --- in a desperate moment --- pray. What does he pray for? Why, that God’s power might somehow work to keep him afloat, to give him success, perhaps even to inhibit his competitors. If religion can do that, then the businessman can see its value. Gravely ill persons very often will pray. They may never have prayed before, but illness brings prayers out of many a prayer-less person! What do they pray for? Of course that God’s power might work to make them well again. If religion can do that, then the sick person can see its value. The student approaching exams is almost as likely as a sick person to think of prayer. What does the student pray for? For the power of God to work to make the questions easy and the answers good --- and the teacher generous!

“We could characterize religion as human attempts to harness God’s power. Of course, it can be more subtle that the rather crass examples I have given. In its more refined forms these days it is called spirituality. But it is fair to say that religious or spiritual activities generally seek to harness God’s power --- or spiritual power --- for us and our lives, even if it is just to find peace and tranquility.”

A key question is how to access the power of God. In terms of accessing God’s power, Woodhouse writes:

“The bewildering range of religions and spiritualities that humans have devised are very largely attempts to guess the answer to that question. The tragedy of the religions of the world is that they are no more than that --- human guesses as to how to access the power of God. The guesses are random, uncertain, confused, and contradictory. The array of activities (from crystals to fasting, from meditation to sacraments) supposed to be means of encountering spiritual power is bizarre.”

Woodhouse goes on to describe another sort of person, the person who has no interest in the power of God --- the person “‘holding the form of religion but denying the power of it’ (2 Timothy 3:5). Formal religion, or merely intellectualized religion that reduces God’s power to a concept, an idea, is as tragic as the pursuit of the power of God in ignorant ways. What could be more bizarre than a religion that in reality knows nothing of the power of God?”

Now what does all this have to do with 1 Samuel 4?!

What we see in 1 Samuel 4 is an attempt to manipulate the power of God for personal advantage. The elders of Israel are going to try to use the power of God, the ark, the symbol of the Lord’s covenant promises and presence, for the benefit of the nation. The reason the people shout in verse 5 is that they believe that the Lord will exercise his power on their behalf because of his covenant promise to them.

But there is a problem. Look who is carrying the ark! Verse 4 tells us that it is the wicked priests, Hophni and Phinehas, who did not know the Lord and had contempt for his sacrifices. Will the Lord exercise his power on behalf of people like these sons of Eli who have such contempt for him? The answer is No. God’s power cannot be manipulated by unrepentant people who have no regard for him and his ways. God’s covenant promises cannot be applied by people who disregard God’s covenant demands!

How does this lesson translate to us today? Is there a lesson for us as new covenant believers?
The way to make the transition from the people in 1 Samuel 4 to us is to understand that the ark was a type, a symbol, that pointed to Jesus Christ. The covenant promises given to Israel and symbolized by the ark of the covenant have come to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We access the power and promises of God today through faith in Jesus Christ.

But just as Israel could not have the Lord as their deliverer if she refused the Lord as her king, so it is today. People cannot expect Jesus Christ to be their Savior, if they have contempt for him as their Lord! Remember how Jesus himself gave us this warning:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Mat. 7:21-23).

The apostle Paul gives us a similar warning:

“But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.’

But, you say, does this mean we have to live perfect lives in order to receive forgiveness and salvation from the Lord? Certainly not! But it does mean that Jesus Christ must have our highest allegiance and love in life. There must be a devotion to him that leads us to live our lives for him and not ourselves.

Here is how the Heidelberg Catechism puts it in Q&A 114:

114 Q. But can those converted to God obey these commandments perfectly?

A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience.

Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not
only some, of God's commandments.

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