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EFAC Australia

Bible exposition

IvanHeadRomans 8 is a powerful affirmation of the way in which God is on our side. The Rev’d Dr Ivan Head seeks to make plain some of its depths. Rev Head was a member of the Sydney Diocesan Doctrine Commission for about ten years. He is a parishioner of St Jude’s Bowral NSW.

Romans chapter 8 from beginning to end affirms that God is for us—from our beginning to our end. I use the phrase God’s ‘for-us-ness’. William Tyndale, the Bible scholar and a primary translator of the Bible into English as it then was, coined the phrase ‘at-one-ment’ (atonement) to better translate Paul’s Greek language into an English New Testament (1526). His translations made a significant, creative change to the English language, both then and now.

In Romans 8, we discover that God is for us, and for us irrevocably. Paul exclaims that ‘It is God who justifies’ (8:33b). God puts right, and God is for us (8:3b), acting fully on our behalf, as one who would be our Father. Human salvation in Christ emerges, unshakeably, from deep within God’s time, from where God has anticipated and foreseen our core need that is now addressed and met in Christ (8:29-30). This provision consists not only of the death of Jesus as ‘God’s Son in the likeness of sinful man’ (8:3b) but most importantly by means of an unbreakable relationship established between the believer and the Spirit of Christ (by the Spirit of Christ) which Spirit indwells at the centre of the human person (8:11). Metaphors for closeness (inter-personal, spatial, and built), only take us so far at this point. For instance, if the Spirit of Christ dwells within us it may be more accurate to speak of an intrapersonal relationship.

Twice in verse 11 Paul refers to indwelling, to place double stress on this remarkable claim. Indwelling follows the raising of Jesus from the dead by the same Spirit of God, which is a pre-condition for the new relationship, and the new mind-set in the believer. It is remarkable to consider that the agent of the resurrection dwells within each human person awakened to faith.

At the beginning of this chapter (8:1-2), Paul tells us that God has provided for us in Christ. We read that God has removed us from the zone of negativity and penalty: ‘There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus set us free from the law of sin and death.’ At the end of the chapter (8:38-39), Paul exclaims: ‘I am convinced that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ This inseparability is remarkable and demonstrates the for-us-ness I refer to. Having said that the Spirit of Christ dwells in the believer,

Paul writes what may be considered one of the most profound statements in the whole of the New Testament. At 8:16 he writes: ‘The Spirit himself co-witnesses with our spirit that we are children of God’. John Wesley said that this testimony of the Spirit was immediate and direct. This aligns with the modern philosopher Alvin Plantinga where he asserts that ‘we are right to take belief in God as basic’. Belief in God can properly be the move the mind makes prior to all other moves—neither inferred nor deduced but given; and this is neither a prejudice nor a refusal to think.

Romans 8 is saturated with the word Spirit. The Spirit is both the agent of Christ’s resurrection and the agent and matrix of Christ’s unbreakable relationship with the human person. Paul uses the word Spirit more than twenty times in this chapter. A very specific renewal of the human person is outlined. The renewal exchanges one human mind-set for another (8:5- 9). One mind-set is purely human and closed in on its own resources. It may even be hostile to the very idea that there is a God. The new mind-set is informed by the Spirit of Christ which begins to co-form us. The indwelling Spirit literally informs us (8:29). The person in Christ is said to be conformed to, or co-formed to the image of God’s Son. Paul uses the word symmorphy which could pass untranslated into English, as has the word synergy.

Paul believes that men and women in Christ share a new destination that is achieved by God’s seamless intervention through Christ and the Spirit. This destination is not a goal or set of achievements in the modern sense of a better future made by human endeavour alone, a kind of utopia created by adopting self-help points, programs, or political policies. This destination involves an end to death itself. He makes this very clear in 1 Corinthians 15:26 where death is ‘the last enemy to be destroyed’. This challenges our imagination. For Paul, raising Jesus from the dead cannot stay confined to raising Jesus from the dead. This act is inherently an act of for-us-ness.

That death is said to be destroyed is profound. For us now, it is a reality at the limit. Death sits on our life-horizon. It is not something we have mastered or can master even with our best thoughts. We ponder it from this side of our own death, and daily we move closer to it. We know that the destination Paul hopes for and trusts in is not yet seen (8:25): ‘But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.’ Paul is hoping for a renewed human existence in a glorified creation where death is no more.

I offer three translations from the Greek text for Romans 8:17, where this claim is made.

King James: ‘And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified together.’
RSV: ‘and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him, in order that we also may be glorified with him.’
NIV: ‘Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’

We can also translate this verse by picking up one element of the NIV in its use of ‘co’ in co-heir. Thus: ‘And if children of God, we are also heirs, heirs of God, and co-heirs of Christ if indeed we co-suffer that we may be co-glorified.’ I am using the prefix co- in the translations to stress the closeness of the Spirit which is sent to indwell (8:11) the human person. We must be careful not to self-isolate at this point. The Spirit minutely achieves our salvation from within us. However transcendent and mysterious, the closeness of the Spirit is real and as much internal to the human person as transcendent. Closeness and internality do not blend the identities of Christ and the believer, but neither does it leave the identity of the believer alone.

Paul wrote (Galatians 2:20): ‘I have been crucified with Christ, so it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.’ The Greek verb has the same co- prefix (sunestauromai) which could be translated ‘co-crucified’ as much as crucified with. Using co- really focuses on the closeness that Paul says holds between Jesus Christ, the Spirit, and the believer. There is an inclusion that claims to be real. Paul stresses that closeness again in the challenging passage at Colossians 1:24 where he says ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, which is the church.’ Romans 8 invites a longer study of the working out of the Spirit’s indwelling.

Paul’s trajectory across Romans 8 heads to the moment when ‘the children of God will be revealed.’ Believers will be revealed in a resurrection glory already seen in Jesus. The resurrection of all the dead is as important to Paul as the one-off resurrection of Jesus. This can be difficult for the modern Christian to realise but Paul says explicitly at 1 Cor 15:16: ‘For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.’ For Paul, neither makes sense without the other, however much the resurrection of Jesus is the core of all his content. At 1 Cor 15:17 Paul says: ‘And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain (empty, futile), and you are still in your sins.’

The NIV (picking up a specific phrase from the Septuagint Greek Bible) says that God’s own Son dies in the flesh ‘as a sin offering’ (8:3). From the moment of resurrection and our receipt of the resurrecting Spirit, God establishes a new, unbreakable relational bond with us. The Spirit makes us children of God and siblings of Jesus. Paul says that as a result, each person in Christ becomes ‘more than victorious’ (8:37). At 8:32 he asks: ‘will he not give us all things with him?’ This statement is focused entirely on an unbreakable personal relationship with God that holds throughout all the circumstances of life. Paul notes these extreme highs and lows in the last two verses of chapter 8 which once again stresses the unbreakable relationship with God. ‘For I am sure that not death, not life, not angels, not principalities not things present not things to come, not powers not height not depth not anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

The inseparability in the Spirit of Christ and the believer may be the main point of Romans 8. In all these ‘nots’, those things that cannot break the bond of God’s love in Christ, we also hear God’s unequivocal ‘Yes’ as Paul said at 2 Cor 1:20: ‘All the promises of God are Yes in him’.

“All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’.)’ “ (Matthew 1:22-23)

Matthew’s quotation is, of course, from Isaiah 7:14. It is argued here that Isaiah 7:14, read in its context, has nothing directly to do with the virgin Mary or Jesus’ birth, though it will be seen to have a legitimate indirect application, once we understand the key words to fulfil. It will be argued there are at least two types of fulfillment: predictive and repetitive. Because of King Ahaz’s godless behaviour (c732-716BC), the Lord raised up two armies against him. The northern kingdom of Israel joined with the pagan people of Aram, and invaded Judah in the south. God sends Isaiah with his son to meet with King Ahaz. (7:3) Isaiah has some good news for the king, followed by some frightening news:

FIRST, THE GOOD NEWS

Isaiah tells the king God’s promise, that these combined armies will not defeat him. They will go away without victory. (7:3-9) Isaiah calls the king to trust in the true God of heaven:

If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all. (7:9)

God offers Ahaz a sign to prove that this remarkable deliverance will occur:

Therefore the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows how to reject the wrong and choose right. (Isaiah 7:14-15).

While this child is still in his infancy, this threat of invasion will be removed. This is reinforced in Isaiah 8:2, in which the age of this infant is described as being, “[b]efore the child knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother’.” (8:4).

What follows?: “Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son.” (8:3). The prophetess cannot be Isaiah’s first wife as she could hardly be described as either a young woman of marriageable age or a virgin. It seems either she may be a second wife, or perhaps his first wife has died. So, the prophecy that the virgin will conceive in this context has no direct application to Mary or Jesus. The boy is Isaiah’s own child, and the mother is Isaiah’s own second wife. NOW THE BAD NEWS

Isaiah had not finished giving him God’s message:

For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother’...the Lord will bring on you and your people...the king of Assyria! (7:16-17)

The boy child may be a sign of political salvation, but he is also a sign of coming political judgement. The Assyrians were infamous for their blood-thirsty warlike practices. This was extremely bad news indeed. The Assyrian army, armed with recently-minted, mass-produced iron weaponry, crossed the Euphrates River, probably at the Carchemish fords which they controlled, and soon the crimson tide of their unbridled violence began to spread across the Levant and beyond. Israel, Aram, Edom, and Judah itself soon found their late Bronze Age weapons to be seriously out of date. After overwhelming Judah’s second strongest city of Lachish in a violent conflict, the Assyrian forces surrounded the only opposition left, the city of Jerusalem, taunting them. It seemed that God had finally deserted the city to its well-deserved fate. But:

That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death one hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. (2 Kings 19:35-36)

God’s people were miraculously saved in a salvation event arguably ranking only second to their Exodus miracle, and they contributed nothing! They were merely witnesses to the work God accomplished on their behalf.

However we must go back a few hours. For Isaiah the prophet was sent to the new King Hezekiah with this message from the Lord:

This is what the Lord says concerning the king of Assyria: He will not enter this city, or shoot an arrow here. I will defend this city and save it, for the sake of David my servant. (2 Kings 19:32-36)

This message is genuinely predictive prophecy, fulfilled in the most amazing manner.

REPETITIVE PROPHECY

So why does Matthew quote Isaiah 7:14 as referring to Jesus? By any logic this cannot be said to be predictive prophesy, except by completely ignoring the Old Testament context. It would be better to label it something like “repetitive prophecy” or, put more simply, “here-we-go-again prophecy”. To pick up Isaiah 7:14-15 (= Matthew 1:22-23) again as an example: in the Old Testament, God gave his people a sign, which in context was a sign of both salvation and judgement: salvation from twin enemies Israel and Aram; to be followed by judgement at the hands of the feared Assyrians; then followed by unaided salvation again on the night that 185,000 enemies perished.

Now, in the first pages of the New Testament, God repeats the dose. A virgin is to conceive. This child will also be a sign of both salvation and judgement: salvation towards those who put their trust in him as their Lord and Saviour; judgement and destruction to those who wantonly choose otherwise. Alone and unaided by any human effort, this obedient child will accomplish the ultimate and climactic salvation event, such that both the Exodus and the Assyrian deliverances pale into insignificance.

This is not to deny predictive prophecy. In chapter two of Matthew we encounter a clear case of predictive prophesy. God, through Micah, foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and now the prediction has come true. (Matthew 2:6 = Micah 5:2-4). Clearly predictive! But, only a few verses later in Matthew, we come across perhaps the clearest case of repetitive prophecy. After Joseph and Mary return from Egypt to Judah with the child Jesus, Matthew adds this comment:

And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’. (Matthew 2:14-15)

Again, if we look at the Old Testament context, Hosea 11:1-2, this out of Egypt prophecy has nothing directly to do with the incident recorded in Matthew:

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images”.

God is repeating the dose. Long ago, God brought a son out of Egypt, namely, the nation of Israel, under the leadership of Moses. This son proved to be rebellious and recalcitrant, and finally this son was punished by exile in Babylon. Now God repeats the dose: he brings another son out of Egypt, a very different son. He will obey his Father, even to death upon the cross.

The Key Text on Human Sexuality

STEVEN DALY

If we should be shaping our thinking and living by the teaching of Scripture, we should give Scripture our particular and careful attention. In this extract from a longer presentation Stephen Daly attends to Genesis 2, the key text that bears on the current debates about God’s will for our sexual behaviour. Steven is Rector of Leederville in WA.

GENESIS 2

I’m assuming we know the story well. In fact, the better we know the story of Adam and Eve, perhaps the less we understand how shocking this story would have been in the ancient world. Shocking in the sense that it contains a number of shocks or surprises—points in the narrative where events take a turn that would have either been unexpected or indeed where the opposite may have been expected. One shock is that the Adam (his name means ‘Earthling’) will serve and preserve the Garden. We were expecting that the Adam would have been created to serve and preserve the gods. But no! God will look after the Adam as the Adam looks after the Creation and not the other way around.

Another shock is the method Yahweh God chooses for answering a problem, a problem that he himself has spotted, that problem being that is is—quite emphatically—not good for the Adam to be alone. Given that no suitable helper was found for the Adam amongst all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the wild animals, the surgical intervention that follows comes as a complete surprise. Why? What we’re expecting is for Yahweh God to stoop to his knees and begin again with the modelling clay, just as he did with the Adam in the first place (2:7) and also every other breathing, animate organism (2:19). The creation of the woman—who we will come to know as Eve—is an utterly unique and distinctive creation event. The causing of the Adam to fall into a deep sleep, the removal of part of his side, the closing up of his side, the making of the part into a whole, a woman, the bringing the woman to the now awake man—not something we’ve ever seen before in the biblical narrative nor will ever see again. Why? Because this methodology is commentary on things we’ve already been told. You see, firstly, we already know that the woman will be for the Adam a ‘suitable helper’. This phrase, literally, ‘like-opposite helper’ is in no way demeaning, for Yahweh God himself is the helper of Israel. But the sense of it is this: the helper will be a complementary partner, matching and suitable, not identical— indeed radically different in way that is complementary and complimentary. They’ll be radically different, maybe even opposites, but in ways that makes each other look good. The methodology displays an opposite truth: that the woman is just the same as the man, ultimately of one being, of one substance, of one kind. Someone—as the Adam will recognize perfectly in just a moment—someone just like me.

Secondly, the bizarre methodology of creation that we find in Genesis 2 makes emphatic and unmistakable something that we were told in Genesis chapter 1. God made from nothing, from uniformity, from disorder and chaos, a bipolar cosmos: light and darkness, heavens and the earth, dry ground and seas, night and day, water creatures and birds of the air—polarity everywhere. The crowning achievement of the six-day creation story is the creation of humankind. Humankind is created in order to rule, to have dominion and to subdue, continuing the work of bringing order from disorder, of creating and maintaining boundaries, of bringing diversity and complexity and beauty out of chaos. The crowning polarity in a bipolar universe is the last polarity created—humanity made male and female, and both male and female created in the image and likeness of God. In the Bible, the language of image has to do with representation. Humanity has been created to be imagebearers, created in order to represent God, like God.

Both chapters present the creation of sexuality as of supreme importance. In Genesis 1 the crowning glory of this bipolar cosmos is the creation of gendered, sexual humankind, male and female, representing God. In Genesis 2 the special glory of this relational universe is the creation of gendered, sexual humankind, man and woman, serving and preserving. Both stories have the same ending, the creation of sexuality. The making of humanity with male and female gender is extremely important to the mission of humanity, as they faithfully represent Yahweh, Lord of Hosts, Almighty God, Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, and work with him and for him in the Garden.

A third shock—out of many—and indeed it’s a scandal—are the words the Adam says in response to seeing Eve for the first time, for he does not say what we expect him to say. Genesis 2:23, ‘the Adam said, “This time it’s bone from my bone and flesh from my flesh. This one I call ‘Woman’ because from Man this one was taken”.’ What he doesn’t sing and dance about is how beautiful she is. He doesn’t celebrate her sexual attractiveness even though she is brand new and completely naked and those of us who have given it any thought— which is at least some of us—have assumed that she was the most beautiful woman ever created. And given the values of the Ancient Near East, this omission is astonishing. But nevertheless, her beauty is left to our imaginations; nothing is ever said about it directly. And there is no celebration of romantic love. Rather, what the Adam does see is twofold: this one is family; and in the making of woman you also have the making of man.

I’ll explain that second statement first: In the making of woman you also have the making of man. The original human was always referred to as being male, but the Adam represents humanity; man as opposed to the other animals. To be a Son of Adam is to be a human being. Now we get the Hebrew words eesh (man opposed to woman or husband) and eeshah (woman opposed to man or wife). And now to the first statement: this one is family. The Hebrew phrase ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’ is a common Hebrew saying, meaning, ‘of my own family.’ The equivalent English expression is ‘my own flesh and blood’ which is actually how the Hebrew euphemism is routinely translated. We belong together by the closest and most unbreakable of ties is the meaning of both figures of speech. The man is celebrating the fact that he recognises her instantly as family. They belong together intrinsically. God split the Adam in order that there might be a reconciliation and recombination, a coming back together again that is creative. The reconciliation will create family.

The scene ends with one last shock, verse 24: ‘Thus so a Man (or husband) leaves his father and mother and clings to his Woman (or wife), and they will be one flesh.’ For the ancient reader, the shock of this verse would be very considerable, for what he or she would have been expecting was: ‘Thus so a woman (or wife) leaves her father and mother and clings to her Man (or husband). And they will become one flesh.’ In most traditional cultures—and certainly in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East—when a young woman marries, is expected to join her husband’s family. Upon marriage, the young woman has joined her husband’s father’s household, and she is usually a long way down the honour ladder (lots of people get to tell her what to do). Even though this was the universal, Ancient Near Eastern pattern, the Bible asserts that it is wrong. No, the man leaves his parents and cleaves to his wife so as to create a new family. God’s design for marriage was countercultural when it was first revealed and it has been offending people ever since. All cultures and societies have had a problem with it, in one way or another, as they find that either it fails values to value what they value in marriage (such as patriarchy or fertility) of that it values things that they dislike (such as faithfulness).

We already know what the words ‘one flesh’ mean—it means one family. But in a secondary, and yet undeniable way, the phrase ‘they will become one flesh’ refers to sexual intercourse, for that is also how the Bible uses the phrase—see Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6, for example. Sexual intercourse will be a private, intimate, relational and physical picture of a public, legal and social truth—these two people are one flesh, that is, one new family. Sexual intercourse creates a new family, whether or not children are the result of that sexual activity. Sex before marriage—a familiar and meaningful phrase in our culture—becomes something of a contradiction in terms, biblically speaking. And indeed, the Bible condemns fornication (consensual or not) and adultery because both acts are theologically unreal—these acts ignore the bond and boundaries established by the act itself—and therefore are acts of faithlessness.

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Genesis 2:24 in biblical revelation. This verse is the cornerstone when trying to understand what the Bible thinks about sex and marriage. Paul refers to Genesis 2:24 directly in 1 Corinthians 6, which is the only place Paul discusses sexual sin in any detail, that is to say, explains why sexual sin is sexual sin. In that passage, Paul could have used any number of arguments to cut the ground from his opposition, who were arguing for the acceptability of having sex with temple prostitutes. He doesn’t use a moral or ethical argument. He could have; but he doesn’t. His text is not The Sermon on the Mount, or the Golden Rule, but rather Genesis 2:24. And his argument is a spiritual one and it is this: You cannot have sexual intercourse with a prostitute because you are already having spiritual intercourse with Jesus. You are one with him in Spirit. The step that’s missing is the one that is assumed: sexual intercourse includes spiritual intercourse. What God has brought together let humankind not separate.

Paul also refers to Genesis 2:24 directly in Ephesians chapter 5, telling us something already that we know: That the real and substantive importance of marriage is that it represents something important about God and marriage will find its fulfilment in the marriage of the Lamb: Marriage has a spiritual meaning, a prophetic aspect—telling the world about God’s saving work on behalf of humanity through the person Jesus of Nazareth. Thus the point of sexuality is marriage and the point of marriage is to represent God and representing God is the mission and purpose of (the point of) humanity.

JONAH BIBLE STUDY CO-AUTHORED BY BRIAN ROSNER & MARK JUERS

The Book of Jonah is about Jonah. That might be stating the obvious but it is easy to over-emphasise the other parts of such a fascinating episode of Scripture. In Jonah we have a range of human characters as well as the wind, the whale, the plant, the worm and the sun.

If we focus on the sailors, the main message might be... desperate times call for desperate praying. If we focus on the Ninevites, the main message might be... the importance of prompt and thorough repentance, cattle included. If we focus on the fish, the main message might be... well, not sure ... maybe God’s love for the animals of the world – animals as God’s servants?! Putting the emphasis anywhere else means Jonah would be a supporting character illustrating the folly of disobeying God. With this in mind what is the big message of the Book of Jonah?

In both Jewish and Christian interpretation commentators agree that there is much to like about Jonah. Without a doubt he gets off to a bad start and running away from the call of God is not to be recommended, but he is still held up as a model in three vital respects.

SOLID DOCTRINE

One thing that’s hard not to admire about Jonah is his doctrine. His knowledge of the Bible and theology seems pretty good. Look how he describes himself in 1:9, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” So he knows the covenant name of God, he knows God’s abode and he knows that God made everything. Now look at his prayer from the belly of the fish in 2:8-9

“Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”

So he hates idolatry and he sees salvation by grace as a gift! He knows the most cherished doctrine of the church.

And then look at his prayer to God in 4:2b with its allusion to Ex 34:6-7, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” He seems to have covered the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of the one true God, the doctrine of salvation by grace, and the doctrine of God’s love pretty well. What we believe matters and we don’t want to be left to people’s personal preferences or feelings when it comes to what we know about God.

SOLID PREACHING

A second thing to admire is his preaching. If you like his doctrine, check out his sermon in 3:4b. It has to be the most economical and effective evangelistic sermon in history – just 5 words in Hebrew, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Suddenly the whole city repents – from the king at the top to the beasts in the field at the bottom.

He even manages an allusion to another Old Testament reference when he uses the word “overthrown” which is the same as Deuteronomy 29:23 in describing what happened to Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim.

SOLID REPENTANCE

The third thing to admire is the repentance we see in 3:1-3,

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’ Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.”

The Reformers mostly saw Jonah as an illustration of repentance. He fled in disobedience but then he turned around after being given a second chance and listened to God’s voice. Even when we’ve run far away from God, and Jonah had, we can still return to him. Jonah encourages us when we’ve blown it big time.

So, there is much to like about Jonah... or is there? Appearances can be deceiving and on closer inspection the book of Jonah contains some surprises that lead us to draw different conclusions about Jonah. If we are to go back over Jonah’s supposed positives in greater detail we find some disappointing flaws.

SOLID DOCTRINE?

Firstly, is his doctrine sufficient?

The reality of his self description in 1:9 as a Hebrew who worships God who made the sea and the dry land is dripping with irony. How does he think he is going to run away from the creator of the stuff he stands on and then floats on? Where does he think he can hide? His own behaviour undermines his confession.

The fish swallowing Jonah and Jonah praying from its belly is a tad surprising. He prays in 2:8-9 with a certainty of salvation that sounds entirely presumptuous. He takes God’s mercy to him entirely for granted. He doesn’t pray a confession but instead he assumes he’ll be saved and pre-emptively thanks God for it. To top it off, he’s not thankful that the pagan sailors did their best to save him but rather has a jab at those who cling to worthless idols.

Now look again at his prayer to God in 4:2b with the allusion to Ex 34:6-7. He admits to knowing how gracious, compassionate and abounding in love God is and yet he can’t stand the fact that God might have mercy on Ninevah.

We rightly put a premium on Christians knowing what they believe. We can know our doctrine and quote the Bible at length but if we undermine this with our own words and actions we make a mockery of precious truths. Christian maturity is not about what you know, but using what you know.

“But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” Heb 5:15

SOLID PREACHING?

Secondly, is his preaching something to emulate?

He might be efficient and effective in his preaching but his heart is not in it. He preaches pure judgement without any instruction for repentance nor any offer that God might relent.

Even if we assume that this opportunity for repentance is implied, there is no denying that Jonah is hoping and expecting that Ninevah is to be destroyed. After completing his task he sits safely outside the city but once he is aware that God’s mercy has arrived he has no thought for the newly repentant city taking a further step of faith. There is no hint of any desire to follow through on caring for those who hear and obey the voice of God.

SOLID REPENTANCE?

Thirdly, can we really admire his repentance?

Perhaps the biggest surprise is in 4:1 when Jonah becomes irate over the deliverance of the Ninevites. The fire and brimstone that he is waiting and hoping for does not arrive. He is overcome with a righteous anger but God questions if this anger is in fact right. By the end of the book there is no sign that Jonah has allowed his mind to bend to the will of God. Jonah may have turned from his outward disobedience and eventually followed the command of God but clearly his heart is not at peace with the plans of God.

Jonah says, “I’m so angry I wish I were dead” (4:9).

When it comes to repentance, it is the Ninevites, not Jonah, that are the ones to emulate!

Therefore, The Book of Jonah is a satirical debunking of the orthodox prophet who has no mercy. We must allow God to extend his mercy to whomever he wishes even when it violates our standards of justice, since absolute justice would mean destruction for all. We need to be careful not to exclude people who are different to us, especially those on the fringe. The whole book makes it clear that if you want to be in line with God’s purposes then we need to be willing to bless those who curse us.

But the truth is that the Book of Jonah is not about Jonah but about God. We learn that God is sovereign. That he gets done what he wants to get done. He has providence over nature. He can handle a disobedient prophet. He is the king of the cosmos and his will is unstoppable when he wants something to happen.

We also learn that God has a view to care for those who have turned their backs on him. There is a message of mercy for entire nations. There is no escaping his voice of compassion for others.

The smart thing to do, of course, is to trust and obey.

Revelation 2 and 3. Seven what? Seven letters? Or something else?

BEN UNDERWOOD

The messages Jesus sends to the seven churches of Asia found in Revelation 2-3 are often thought of as letters – since the command to John is to write to the angels of those churches. But in many ways what is dictated does not have the form of a letter. The message-sender is identified, but not by name, and nor are there greetings. The opening formula, ‘these are the words of ’ are more reminiscent of a prophetic oracle than a letter. Is ‘letter’ the best way to think about what these pieces of communication are?

‘Why worry?’, you might ask. Isn’t the point to read them? Which is true. But we might have expectations of a letter that make what Jesus says in these messages strange. Why is he so stern? Why the rebukes and the threats to remove lampstands, to come like a thief upon sleepers, to spit his church out? Where is his tender love for his people and his unshakeable commitment to them? Are we allowed in the church at the start by grace, but need to stay in by our works? Is that the point of these messages?

It may help to think of these messages as more like communiques from the field commander to the troops on the battlefield, than personal letters from one individual to others. Jesus the Messiah, who stands at the head of the armies of heaven (Rev 19:11-16), whose troops are willing in the day of battle (Psalm 110), is writing as the great general to his churches, ‘personified’ here as angels, angels who might be imagined as part of the hosts of heaven. (The churches are ‘angelified’ rather than personified, really). The book of Revelation is a book full of conflict, conflict in which Christians are caught up, and must play their part. Sometimes the church is numbered (Rev 7:4-8, 14:1) like an Old Testament muster of fighting men (Numbers 1). And each message concludes with a promise to ‘the one who is victorious’, which sounds like a general exhorting his troops to fight in the hope of what victory will bring.

This may help explain why Jesus speaks so fiercely, and his expectations are so high. Jesus must lead his churches through a great conflict, and so he wants them to be fit for the fight. He must point out weaknesses in his churches and he must expect them to be dealt with, or he must deal with them himself. For this is not a drill. His people can come through, stand firm, bear witness, suffer and be victorious if they are ready, and not weakened by apathy, fear, entanglement with idolatry or impurity, inattention, lack of endurance, or a failure of insight. But if they lose their ability to love (Ephesus) or give way to fear and prove unwilling to suffer to be faithful (Smyrna) or fail to see teaching which leads them into sin (Pergamum), or allow such teachers to continue unopposed (Thyatira), or if they fall asleep (Sardis) or give up in the face of pressure (Philadelphia) or fail to see their true spiritual need, and fail to go to Jesus for it (Laodicea), then the churches will not be fit for the fight, and the hope of victory will be eclipsed by uncertainty.

This is not to say that Jesus’ troops will not be ready for the fight. I take it that Jesus is the kind of general that knows how to prepare his troops for battle, and to give them all they need to be victorious. But part of what they need is a frank communique to cause them to address their weaknesses so that when the day of testing and battle and suffering witness comes, they may stand.

Each of us tends towards optimism or pessimism, and both present dangers. It is certainly possible to lose heart in ministry due to pessimism. The difficulties and trials can seem intractable, the fruit all too scarce, and we lose heart. It is also possible to lose heart in ministry due to over optimism. When the courageous vision collapses around us it is crushing, and we lose heart.

Paul knew all too well that Christian ministry has both its tribulations and triumphs. In 2 Corinthians 4 he makes it clear that losing heart in ministry is a very real phenomenon (2 Cor 4:1, 16). However, he is equally confident that he and his co-workers will not lose heart. Our aim here is to consider the theology and philosophy of ministry that fuelled Paul’s persistence in ministry.

What Paul holds out is a realistic optimism grounded in his understanding of the gospel itself, his own commission, and a clear grasp of the season of salvation history in which we live. He knew and expected the tribulations of ministry, but he also knew and discerned the glorious triumphs of ministry.

In 2 Corinthians, his most personal letter, the apostle Paul identifies death as a metaphor for the normal experience of ministry. His ministry is an ongoing slow death, but one that brings life to others:

We are afflicted in every way… always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor 4:8-12)

When facing the temptation to lose heart as he was confronted by disdain, division and discord, Paul could say to himself, “Of course it’s like this, ministry is death.” Ministry is a long death march that simultaneously and gloriously brings life, and we must not fall for the lie that it was ever supposed to be anything else. The normal reality of Christian ministry is to feel like a useless clay pot, and yet nevertheless look around and see signs of life because of the all surpassing power of God at work (2 Cor 4:7). For Paul the link between ministry and suffering goes back

to his commissioning. God declares through Ananias that Paul “is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). He is transformed from the one actively engaged in causing suffering for those who bear the name of Christ, to the one who himself suffers for the name of Christ. His commission came with a cost, but a cost he is willing to bear.

It is Paul’s particular role as the initiator of the mission to the Gentiles and their apostle that especially connects him with suffering. Paul makes the link explicit at a crucial turning point of his first missionary journey in Acts 13. He quotes from one of Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ songs and claims that his ministry is a fulfilment of those prophecies. Paul and Barnabas’ heightened focus on Gentile mission was driven by theological and not just strategic or pragmatic considerations. In quoting from a servant song (Isa 49:6) Paul declares, “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 13:47). In Isaiah 49 the ‘you’ refers to the suffering servant, but here Paul and Barnabas take it as directly referring to them. It is what “the Lord has commanded us”—that is, Paul and his missionary coworkers. The commission to the servant has become for them a command to engage in Gentile mission. As he and Barnabas are engaged in that ministry of the servant, as they plant Gentile churches, Paul unequivocally sees them as fulfilling the ministry of the suffering servant to be a light for the nations and bring salvation to the ends of the earth. In his commission God set Paul apart to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, and as he does the work of the servant, so he will also bear the stripes of the servant. Furthermore, God includes in that commission those who partner with Paul in the work.

As Paul addresses the Corinthian church he can say “we do not lose heart”, and this despite his “light momentary affliction” (2 Cor 4:16-17). A life dedicated to sharing the truth about Jesus to the ends of the earth is hard, but in the context of eternity Paul can brush aside these tribulations. Such things as being beaten up and whipped, thrown in prison and shipwrecked, abandoned by some of his closest friends and co-workers, watching as churches he worked hard to build are torn apart by false teachers, and seeing people abandon Jesus, are but light and momentary troubles (see 2 Cor 11:23-29).

It is instructive that the culmination of his list of sufferings is the “daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches”, for in the midst of the beatings and imprisonments it was Paul’s passionate burden for the health of the church that was his most abiding trial. When they faint, he faints; when they rejoice, he rejoices; and when they wander, he is downcast. And yet as we read on with Paul in 2 Corinthians 4, we see that in the face of eternity these trials are light and momentary; they are preparing us for “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17). It is on that reality that the believer must fix their eyes. Paul grounds his ministry philosophy and self-understanding on the figure of the suffering servant, and the way that frames his own experience in the light of the experience of Christ.

The tribulations of ministry are real, but temporary. The triumphs are often unseen, but they resound for eternity. And so we do not lose heart.

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