One way in which the gospel transforms us

As a young teen, my go-to choice of humour was sarcasm. Following advice from one of my brothers (who follows this blog, hi!) I tried to kick the habit, but picked it up again when I started attending a high school where we actively cultivated it  (we impressionable students were under the influence of a couple of teachers in the English department who had sarcasm and irony down pat). Sarcasm and I parted ways in recent years, and I always thought that it was because my brand of humour didn’t translate well into another language and culture. I may have missed the real driving-force behind the change:

One of the ways you can tell a person doesn’t get the gospel—they’re very religious, really know their Bible, big into doctrine—they don’t have a good sense of humour. Well, some years ago somebody said, “The way I can tell a Pharisee is this: they go around looking at people saying, ‘That’s not funny.’”

There’s another kind of humour, I would call it the relativist humour, which is very cynical, very sceptical, very bitter but also sometimes very cutting towards people they don’t like, which shows that in the end everybody’s self-righteous, even the so-called open-minded people. They say, “Oh, I’m open-mined. I hate bigots, I hate self-righteous people. I can’t stand them. I feel much superior to them. I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one.”

And so the gospel takes that all away because the gospel makes you able to laugh at yourself, and it’s the only kind of humour that’s funny. It’s the only kind of humour that’s healing. And you can laugh at yourself without cutting. There are people who make fun of themselves and you can tell that they’re bitter, they’re upset, and they’re kind of into self-loathing. That’s not the gospel, of course.

As you know the gospel makes you not think too much of yourself or too little of yourself, it just makes you think of yourself less. Often because you’re full. You’re not worried, you’re not having to steal self-acceptance from what everybody else says, and as a result, what? Well, it means you poke fun at yourself but not in a way that you’re really trying to bring your own self down and you’re funny. You’re finally funny. Tweet that. I dare you.

Tim Keller, in a talk titled The Gospel-Shaped Life. (The above is an edited transcript of a sub-point of one his four points.)

A somewhat related post: Did Jesus laugh?

Don’t be shy to share your thoughts in the comments!

Genesis: Goats, garments and God’s grace

It’s been a while since I shed the naive notion that the patriarchs were perfect people, so a reminder wasn’t unwelcome. As I listened to the series of talks I’ll describe below, I pictured a bewildered angel trying to make sense of God’s choice of such a dysfunctional family (1 Peter1:10-13 is one of my favourite passages of scripture). If you think about it long enough, you may also wonder why God didn’t choose more shining exemplars to effect His salvation…

In his five talks on Genesis 25-50, Simon Flinders drummed into my head the complete unworthiness of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s sons to be recipients of the grand promises of God:

  • In Genesis 25, we see Esau’s foolishness and Jacob’s conniving;
  • In Genesis 26 we see Isaac repeating the sins of his father. Genesis 27 tells us how Isaac was like his sons: like Esau he was ruled by his appetite; Jacob resorted to deception like his father had done in the previous chapter;
  • Chapter 37 introduces us to Joseph (who was either insensitive or clueless) and his brothers (who were malicious and callous);
  • Chapter 38 recounts the sorry story of the ancestors of Christ;
  • In chapter 50, we finally have a ray of light in Joseph

Flinders wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. He also stressed how:

  • God determined to use this family in spite of their obvious and many sins
  • God saves and restores broken people to achieve His purposes
  • God’s invisibility doesn’t mean He is absent
  • God acts in mercy towards sinners
  • God works out His purposes despite the limits of human wisdom
  • God is sovereign over evil and uses it to fulfil His purposes.

Have a listen to the audio (five teaching sessions + Q&A, all less than 45 minutes each), and hopefully you’ll come away with a renewed appreciation for God’s goodness to ill-deserving sinners!

P.S. If you’re wondering what the goats and garments in the title of this post are, you’ll just have to listen to Mr Flinders 😉

Why is it neither safe nor right to go against conscience?

I recently received a lovely pair of earrings that may or may not depict the deities of an ancient civilisation (I’m not familiar enough with the culture to know). As a believer in Jesus Christ, is it wrong for me to wear the jewellery?

The closest biblical injunction that comes to mind is the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-6). With immense gratitude to the Holy Spirit, I can say that of my countless sinful tendencies, worshipping graven images isn’t one of them. But that doesn’t do anything about the uneasiness I feel about wearing the earrings. Which leads me to the New Testament’s teaching on conscience.

I was greatly helped by a talk given by Kevin DeYoung titled “Holiness” at this year’s Next conference. Here’s an excerpt of what he had to say about a weak conscience in reference to 1 Corinthians 8:7-13:

A weak conscience is one that accuses you of things that aren’t inherently blameworthy. So in this case, Paul says, “Look, idols are nothing. They are no gods whatsoever. So eat the food. The food is not really offered to any sort of deity because they don’t exist.” And then he says, “Some will not have knowledge and some will eat this food and their conscience will tell them ‘this is wrong.’” Now it is not strictly inherently wrong but Paul says very clearly throughout his letters that if it is wrong to you then you should not do it. The conscience is weak.

Here’s how a stumbling block works: the person with the weak conscience—let’s just use the category that seems to fit most clearly in our context, the category of alcohol. Drinking alcohol in moderation when you are of legal age is not a sin. But perhaps, some of us grew up with this understanding or because we hear about the dangers—rightly so—of drunkenness, that alcohol feels very wicked to us. God would say, “If it feels wicked to you, you should not do it.”

But here’s what happens with a stumbling block, you have this Christian over here—they’re 25, they drink in moderation, they do it once in a while and they are pressing in on this brother with a weak conscience saying, “Come on. Are you a fundamentalist? Are you a legalist? Come on, just have a drink, it’s not a big deal. You have freedom in Christ!” and what are you training this person with the weak conscience to do? You are training him to ignore his conscience. That is the stumbling block. So then you are training this person that, though I feel in my heart this is wrong, I should suppress that feeling and do it anyway. That’s why Paul says you will lead the brother to destruction. You and I do not want to do anything that will ever encourage our brothers and sisters to violate their conscience. […] It is a dangerous thing to push people to act against their conscience.

Right. Now that I have the problem figured out, what’s the solution? DeYoung again:

  1. Turn from sin when your conscience tells you that what you’re about to do or what you’re in the middle of doing is wrong.
  2. Turn to Christ when your conscience tells you what you’ve already done is wrong.

The regular state of a Christian should be that of a clean conscience. If that is not the case, then your conscience is not working as it should, or you’re not dealing with sin as you ought (1 Corinthians 4:4).

So, I’ll keep the earrings. It may turn out that the figures aren’t idols after all. Or the Holy Spirit may work on my heart that it doesn’t bother me. Or I may choose not to exercise my freedom for the sake of a brother or sister in Christ. Or something else entirely, I don’t know. What I won’t do is ignore my God-given conscience.

Humans first, and then pagans

This post is based on Alistair Begg’s sermon This is What the Lord Says, part 1.

Amos 1:3-2:3 contains oracles against six nations located around Israel. That they were outside God’s covenant did not stop Him from addressing them. They were without special revelation, but not without moral responsibility. The spotlight falls not on what they may or may not have done in relation to God, but on what they’d done to man. God takes issue with them not for their faulty religious practices, but for their cruelty, treachery and disregard for human life.

The following are the principles we can glean from what Yahweh said to the nations through Amos:

  • People made in the image of God must never be treated as things (1:3-5)
  • Turning profit must never take precedence over human welfare (1:6-8)
  • Fidelity to a pledged word matters to God (1:9-10)
  • Unmitigated hatred is inadmissible with God (1:11-12)
  • Nothing moves God to punish so much as wanton cruelty to the helpless (1:13-15)
  • Cruel vengeance has no justifiable place in human behaviour (2:1-3)

God didn’t judge them because they were pagan, but because they were human.

The apostle Paul said much the same thing in Romans 2:14-15:

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them

So what?

Humankind cannot escape the obligation of being human, created with a conscience. God is concerned about human injustice and will bring about judgment, either in time or in eternity.

Psalms: King, enthroned

If you consider that the current arrangement of the book of Psalms is more or less deliberate (rather than casual or random), some illuminating trajectories emerge. One is the general movement from lament to praise: Psalms 3-7 are anguished laments while Psalms 145-150 are unfettered praise. Another trajectory is the identity of the king.

The psalms are arranged in five books. Books I&II (Psalms 1-41 and 42-72 respectively), the king most often referred to is David (or his descendants). This section of the psalms speaks of the Davidic dynasty in positive terms with idealism and great hopes. Psalm 89, at the end of Book III, begins by recounting God’s promises to David in lofty terms. But after the selah of verse 37, things go south. The psalmist bewails the Lord’s rejection and wrath; David’s kingdom is nothing like what God had promised.

Book IV begins with a psalm of Moses, taking us all the way back to Israel’s beginnings—before David and before the monarchy. Book IV also rings with the cry, “The LORD reigns!” (Psalms 93:1, 96:10, 97:1, 99:1). David and his kingdom may be gone, but there was a throne behind his throne, and that throne will last forever. Finally, in Book V, the last king we hear about is Yahweh (Psalm 149:2).

So what?

Close to six hundred years after the destruction of the royal house of David, an angel appeared to a Galilean woman and announced to her that to her son would be given the throne of his father David (Luke 1:32). A little over three decades later, she watched as he died with this notice above his head: The king of the Jews (Mark 15:26 and parallels). In Jesus of Nazareth the kingship of David and the kingship of Yahweh converge. But wait, there’s more!

Those who believe in Christ await His return to rule uncontested (Revelation 19:15-16). Everyone will acknowledge His kingship (Philippians 2:9-11), some willingly and others not. Which group shall you be in?

This post is based on sermons by John Woodhouse and Christopher Wright.

What is Jesus doing right now?

Happy Ascension Day!

Ubisi Monastery. Ascension of Jesus detail
Ubisi Monastery. Ascension of Jesus detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Acts 1 tells us that for a period of about forty days after His resurrection Christ appeared to His disciples, teaching them and occasionally eating with them. On one such day, He led them out to the Mount of Olives and ascended into heaven as they gawked looked on.

So what is He doing as He sits at the Father’s right hand (Hebrews 10:12)?

  • Hebrews 1:3 – presiding over the universe
  • Colossians 1:18 – ruling over His church
  • Hebrews 4:15 – entering into our struggles and empathising with our weaknesses
  • Romans 8:34, Hebrews 9:24 – interceding for us

Excerpted from a sermon by Alistair Begg.

What was the proof that Joseph forgave his brothers?

This post is built on one of the points in Christopher Wright’s sermon, Joseph: The hopeful believer.

The first thirty years of Joseph’s life were quite dramatic. He spent seventeen of them as a pampered son (and detested brother) and the remainder as first a slave then as a prisoner. Humanly speaking, the cause of his misery could be traced back to his brothers. When he first revealed himself to them years after they’d sold him into slavery, he wept over them, kissing and embracing them (Genesis 45:14-15).  Yet seventeen years after that first reconciliation, at their father’s death, we see the brothers wracked with guilt and still fearing retaliation  (Genesis 50:15-18).  Joseph’s response is summarised 50:19-21.

How could the brothers know they were really reconciled? Was it Joseph telling them not to be afraid (v. 19)? No, those could just be words. Was it Joseph pointing to God (v. 20)? Well, he could just be spouting theology. What was it then? It was when Joseph said he would care for them and their children (v. 21).

Some months ago we were studying the topic of forgiveness at Bible study. The leader asked how we could know that we’d forgiven someone. I answered something to the effect of, “When you stop wishing they’d slip on the stairs and fall, or similar thoughts.” Today my answer would be different. Not retaliating—in thought or in deed—is a necessary step, but it isn’t sufficient. True biblical forgiveness also involves doing good to the people who wrong us (as far as is possible).

Joseph promising to care for his brothers and their families was a practical, undeniable demonstration of love in action. He was obeying Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6:27-28 centuries in advance. Joseph was also pointing forward to Jesus himself, who called them ‘ brothers’ those who had deserted him less than 72 hours before (John 20:17 and Mark 14:50 respectively). He was pointing forward to the One who died for His enemies (Romans 5:6-10).

In Romans 5:5 Paul tells us that God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. And it is only through that divine love working in us that we can not only refrain from harming those who have hurt us, but also actively seek to do them good. (I’m glad I serve a God who enables me to obey His commands!)


Puzzling over Hagar and Ishmael

Any brilliant thoughts in this post aren’t mine but from Christopher Wright, in particular his sermon titled Abraham, father of the wrong family (length 35:56). Do have a listen to it!

A couple of weeks ago I was reading from the section of Genesis that contains the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael, and some of it left me somewhat perplexed. We’re introduced to Hagar in chapter 16 when Sarai suggests that Abram may do well to sleep with her. Hagar becomes pregnant and looks down on barren Sarai; Sarai retaliates and Hagar flees to the desert.

Then came the first of my furrowed-brow experiences. The first appearance of the angel of the Lord was to Hagar (Genesis 16:7-12). To an Egyptian slave. Not only that, but He gives her a promise on par with the one Yahweh had previously given Abram: of descendants too numerous to count. Wait, what???! Equally surprising is that Hagar obeyed the command to return to the ill-treatment under Sarai. She delivers her son and gives him the name the angel of Yahweh instructed her to.

The next time we run into Hagar is in chapter 21 when Sarah tells her husband to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham’s reluctant to do so but Yahweh tells Abraham it’s okay saying, “I will make the son of the maid-servant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” (Genesis 21:13). Okay, fair enough.

So Hagar and Ishmael are sent off, but they run out of water in the desert. Yahweh finds Hagar again and repeats His promise. And then He provides an entire well of water! Genesis 21:20 says that God was with Ishmael as he grew up. Later in chapter 25, we read that God kept his promise to make him a great nation by giving him 12 sons. In fact, as Wright points out in his sermon, Isaac and Ishmael are blessed in identical ways except one.

What’s the point?

So why should we care what happened to the progenitor of the Arabs four millennia ago anyway? Answer: This account teaches us something of God’s unchanging character.

  1. God shows compassion to Hagar and Ishmael, because He delights to show compassion to the disenfranchised (Deuteronomy 10:18)
  2. Hagar named the place of her first encounter with God “the well of the one who sees me” and was instructed to name her son “God hears”.  This picture of a  God who sees and hears is an anticipation of the next book in the Bible (Exodus 3:7).
  3. God is determined to keep His promise moving, in spite of human error. His promise was to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham’s seed (Genesis 12:3). All nations, including Ishmael’s descendants. Including you and me!

A helicopter tour of the book of Isaiah

Last year in my reflections on Isaiah I wrote that I didn’t know what to expect as I set out to read it. Thankfully, in the intervening time, I’ve become less clueless on the large chunk of Isaiah that we don’t read at Easter and Christmas.

In that vein, I’d like to recommend this series of talks given by John Bell, who is the (white) pastor of a (mostly black) church in Harare. In 5 talks he covers a number of themes in Isaiah including judgment and the messianic kingdom. Here are some teasers for each session to whet your appetite:

Isaiah 6:1-13

  • What was the significance that Isaiah saw the Lord in the year of King Uzziah’s death?
  • What lessons did Isaiah learn about God, about himself and about God and himself as a result of the vision?

Isaiah 11:1-12:6

  • Why do these two chapters go together?
  • Why does God include chapter 11 as a part of scripture?
  • How does Isaiah respond to the pictures drawn in chapter 11?

Isaiah 40:1-31

  • What is special about this point in the book?
  • What do these verses teach us about God?

Isaiah 63:1-6

  • What is the ultimate fulfilment of these verses?
  • What is the right response to these and similar passages of scripture?

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

  • Who are the singers in this ‘servant song’?
  • What are the themes explored in the song?

In the Q&A he gives a brief history of Zimbabwe and tells what the members of his church are doing in their particular situation. (IMO he cares a lot about his country and its people.) He also answers questions from the floor on what he had preached.

If you have the time and the bandwidth, have a listen to John Bell and to pretty much anyone else who has spoken @The Castle!

Rahab told a lie… and then she told the truth

This post is based on a sermon titled “A Shady Lady With a Bright Testimony” (length 52:26) by Dale Ralph Davis.

The New Testament in Hebrews 11  commends Rahab for her faith. We often overlook that as we focus on her lie (and her line of work, and her scarlet cord).

Why on earth did Rahab hide the Israelite spies? Because God had already been at work in her life long before the spies’ arrival.

Joshua 2:9-13

Rahab told the truth about God. She heard a testimony (verses 9-10). She formed a conviction about who Yahweh is (verse 11). She sought a refuge from Him (verses 12-13). This is a pattern for saving faith: you hear, form a conviction and seek refuge from God. You have not only the right beliefs, but also act on them.

As a result, in Jericho there was a safety zone in the midst of judgment. Previous examples of such safety zones are found in Noah’s ark and in Goshen during the plagues. These were pointers to Christ’s cross, our place of refuge in the midst of the judgment to come.


If you were to cut out chapter 2 and 6:22-25 out of the book of Joshua, you’d never miss them. The story flows along quite well without those portions. The narrator didn’t have to tell us the story of Rahab; he interrupted his normal programming to tell it to us.

Yes, Rahab the prostitute told a lie and tied a scarlet cord to her window. But she also trusted in a great and merciful God, who is still in the business of saving those who seek refuge in Him.

Addendum: Read A Remarkable Woman for someone else’s opinion 🙂