God’s word brings life

In a recent post we saw how the writer of Kings gives us reasons to hope when the future looks bleak for God’s people – as it did for his readers and as it does in Europe today. The first reason is that God’s word certain. But there is a second reason: God’s word brings life Not only does God rules through his word. His word brings life from death.

In 1 Kings 17 we’re first introduced to one of the great figures of the Bible story, the Prophet Elijah. In chapter 17 he arrives, tells King Ahab there’s going to be no rain, and then promptly disappears (17:1).

We discover he’s gone to Zarephath which is a wacky move because that’s in Sidon. Israel is in trouble because Jezebel has arrived from Sidon. And now here is God’s prophet finding refuge with a widow in Sidon! It’s a sign that God’s rules not just in Israel, but among Israel’s enemies.

Elijah meets a widow who thinks she is about to die: ‘I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it – and die.’ (17:12) But out of this death God provides for Elijah and the widow in Sidon through a jar of flour and a jug of oil that never run out.

Then the widow’s son dies. So Elijah places the boy on his bed and stretches himself out on top of the boy three times. He cries out to God and the boy comes back to life.

Look at how the story concludes in 17:24: ‘Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.”’ She links this resurrection to God’s word. The resurrection of her son is a sign that God’s word is true and powerful and life-giving.

Her complaint to Elijah in 17:18 is significant: ‘Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?’ Remember the nation of Israel is described as God’s firstborn son. In 18:17 Ahab calls Elijah ‘you troubler of Israel’. Has Elijah has come to remind God’s people of their sin and predict their death?

The answer is Yes. God’s word of judgment is certain. God’s people will die for their sin.

But God’s word also brings life from death.

To the readers of the book of Kings it seemed as if the nation had died and all all hope was gone. But Elijah had stretched himself out three times over a dead boy and he lived again.

To the disciples on the road to Emmaus it seemed Jesus was dead and all hope was gone. But Jesus had risen and was walking alongside them. Hope was reborn.

To any on-looker Tim Chester was dead in his sins. But Jesus has stretched himself out on the cross. For three days he was dead. But now he has risen and I have risen with him.

God’s word brings life because the word is Jesus and Jesus has risen.

The people of God die with Jesus. When Jesus breathes his last there is no-one left, no people of God. But on the third day he rose again. And we rise with him.

That is what is enacted in baptism. When you put your faith in Christ you’re united to him. So you’ve died with Christ. He’s taken the penalty of death you deserve. And you’ve risen with Christ to new life, eternal life. What happened at Zarephath when Elijah raised the widow’s son, what happened in a Jerusalem tomb when God raised Jesus, is re-enacted in baptism. God brings life from death through Jesus

And Jesus sets the pattern for his church. Time and again throughout her history the church has appeared to die only to be reborn with new life and energy. The historian David Edwards writes:

Unexpected events and movements occur in the history of Christians. The strength of Anglo-Saxon Christianity could not be predicted when Roman Britain was invaded by pagans [and it seemed Christianity would disappear]. The almost total success of the medieval Church could not be predicted when the Anglo-Saxons were conquered by the Normans. The Protestant transformation of England could not be predicted at the beginning of the sixteenth century, nor the vigour of the Victorian Churches during most of the eighteenth. It is therefore possible that, in the future, groups or individuals from whom no great things were expected in the twentieth century will be honoured as the heralds of a renewal and revival [of Christianity in Britain]. (David L. Edwards, A Concise History of English Christianity, Fount, 1998, 165.)

  • What do we do in the meantime? We proclaim God’s word and we don’t give up hope.
  • What do we do when people refuse to listen? We proclaim God’s word and we don’t give up hope.
  • What do we do on when progress in your ministry is slow? We proclaim God’s word and we don’t give up hope.
  • What do we do when friends give up their faith? We proclaim God’s word and we don’t give up hope.

Just as in the time of Elijah, Christ now rules through his word.

And, just as in the time of Elijah, Christ brings life to the dead.

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God’s word is certain

In a recent post we noted the links between the church in the UK today and the readers of 1 & 2 Kings. Both looked like they had no future. But the writer of Kings gibes us reason to hope. And the first reason is that God’s word certain.

Look at 1 Kings 13:1-6:

By the word of the LORD a man of God came from Judah to Bethel, as Jeroboam was standing by the altar to make an offering. 2 By the word of the LORD he cried out against the altar: ‘Altar, altar! This is what the Lord says: “A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who make offerings here, and human bones will be burned on you.”’ 3 That same day the man of God gave a sign: ‘This is the sign the Lord has declared: the altar will be split apart and the ashes on it will be poured out.’
     4 When King Jeroboam heard what the man of God cried out against the altar at Bethel, he stretched out his hand from the altar and said, ‘Seize him!’ But the hand he stretched out towards the man shrivelled up, so that he could not pull it back. 5 Also, the altar was split apart and its ashes poured out according to the sign given by the man of God by the word of the LORD.
     6 Then the king said to the man of God, ‘Intercede with the LORD your God and pray for me that my hand may be restored.’ So the man of God interceded with the LORD, and the king’s hand was restored and became as it was before.

This takes place in Bethel where Jeroboam has just built one of his golden calves. Here a man of God denounces what Jeroboam has done. So Jeroboam tries to stop him. If he can stop the prophet speaking then perhaps he can stop God’s word and therefore God’s rule. So he stretches out his hand with an order to seize the prophet. But as he extends his arm, his hand shrivels up and the altar kind of blows up. Boom!

Jeroboam is powerless in the face of God’s word. He can’t even pull his own arm back to his side without the prophet’s intercession.

Jeroboam may be the king of Israel. But when the king goes head-to-head with the word of God there is only one winner. The king’s rule is limited. It’s God’s word that rules in God’s world. Verse 1 says, ‘By the word of the LORD.’ Verse 2 says, ‘By the word of the LORD.’ What drives the story forward is the word of the LORD. God is ruling through his word.

Then, to reinforce the point, the story takes an even more bizarre turn.

The confrontation with Jeroboam comes to an end and so it’s time for the man of God to go home. And God has told him not to eat or drink on the return journey. No idea why. En route he meets an old prophet who tricks him into eating. Again, no idea why. The old prophet claims God has now said it’s OK to eat. So the man of God eats and dies.

What’s clear is that the man of God tragically becomes an illustration of his own message. God’s word is certain. Even though he was tricked, he still dies in fulfilment of God’s word (13:26). How much more certain is God’s word against Jeroboam. That’s the conclusion in 13:32: ‘The message he declared by the word of the LORD … will certainly come true.’ God’s word is certain.

In chapter 14 Jeroboam tries to trick Ahijah, a half-blind prophet, by sending his wife in disguise. But, as she enters, Ahijah says, ‘Come in, wife of Jeroboam. Why this pretence?’ (14:6) Ahijah may be blind, but he sees clearly because of God’s word. God’s word is the reliable, fixed, true point. And so God’s judgment falls on Jeroboam’s family ‘according to the word of the LORD given through his servant Ahijah the Shilonite’ (15:29; 14:17-18)

God’s word is certain. For those who reject God this is bad news. For it means his word of judgment is inescapable. We need to feel the weight of this.

But God’s word of promise is also certain. And this is our hope, our good news or ‘gospel’. Look at 15:3-4:

[Abijah] committed all the sins his father had done before him; his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his forefather had been. Nevertheless, for David’s sake the LORD his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem by raising up a son to succeed him and by making Jerusalem strong.

Here is Abijah, King of Judah. He’s as bad as his father Rehoboam. He’s as bad as any king in Israel. He deserves God’s judgment. ‘Nevertheless.’ Nevertheless God has promised David a dynasty. He has promised him an eternal king.

And God’s word of promise is certain. This promise shapes the history of Judah. In the northern kingdom there is coup after coup. But in Judah, despite all the chaos and defeat and apostasy, there’s always a son of David on the throne.

God’s word is certain. And that’s as true today as it was then. More true. Jesus the Son of David has risen and ascended to the throne of heaven. He reigns over God’s people and God’s world. He’s God’s eternal king. God’s word is certain.

Read these bizarre stories to increase your confidence in God’s word. It’s the same word that you hear and speak and hold in your hands. Trust God’s word to do its work in your life, in your church, among your friends. Don’t give up on it. Don’t think we need new approaches. Read God’s word. Pastor with God’s word. Proclaim God’s word. Because God’s word is certain and God’s promises are sure.

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Serving a Movement

Centre Church, Tim Keller’s guide to church ministry, has been re-issued as three separate paperbacks. The idea is that they are easier to read (and less intimidating). They also contain additional essays – including one by me. My contribution is on missional church and comes in the volume entitled Serving a Movement.

I also want to highlight Dan Strange’s contribution to the volume entitled Loving the City. Dan is a friend and one of my colleagues in the new Acts 29 Oak Hill Academy. His essay is a great introduction to his approach to contextualisation.

Serving a Movement is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Loving the City is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

The one-volume edition of Centre Church is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

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Does the church in the UK have a future?

In the last 35 years the number of people attending church in the UK each Sunday has halved – from over five million to less than three million, from 11 percent of the population to five percent. Last year, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, claimed the Church of England was on the brink of extinction.

Does the church in the UK have a future? Maybe that makes you doubt your faith. Is God real when so many people ignore him?

The readers of the book of Kings were asking questions like that. The temple was in ruins. The people were in exile. Do God’s people have a future?

In chapters 11-12 we see the failures of Solomon and Rehoboam, failures that lead to idolatry and injustice. They embrace foreign gods and enslave the people. Then Jeroboam leads a revolution against this oppression. He looks like a new Moses – coming from Egypt, liberating God’s people, ending their slavery. It looks like he is going to be the hero of the story.

But Jeroboam spots a problem. He reigns over the ten northern tribes. But the temple is down in Jerusalem, in the area still ruled by Rehoboam. Every year the people are going to travel to worship God to the temple in Judean territory where they’ll hear Judean propaganda. We see his thinking in 12:27: ‘If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.’

So Jeroboam builds two golden calves, one in the south and one in the north. And he says in 12:28, ‘Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’

Where have we seen this in the story? Jeroboam is indeed repeating the story of the exodus. But he’s repeating the very worst moment of that story – the moment when Aaron and the people built a golden calf and said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ (Exodus 32:4) They’re exactly the same words. Jeroboam is not a new Moses. He’s a new Aaron, leading the people away from the LORD. The only difference is Jeroboam builds two golden calves.

It gets worse. Jeroboam calls his sons ‘Nadab’ (15:25) and ‘Abijah’ (14:1). So what? Those are the names of Aaron’s first two sons (Abihu, Aaron’s second son, means ‘my father is he’ while Abijah means ‘my father is Yahweh’). And those two sons were killed by the fire of the LORD because they offered unauthorised sacrifices (Leviticus 10:1-4).

Jeroboam has modelled himself on Aaron. He seems hell-bent on replicating false worship.

God had promised him that, if he obeyed God’s decrees, God would give him a dynasty as enduring as David’s (11:38). But Jeroboam throws it away.

This sets the pattern for the northern kingdom of Israel. (See, for example, 15:25-30.) We get a series of bloody coups. The new king takes power through violence and wipes out the family of the old kings so no rivals remain. But violence breeds violence and coup leads to coup. Each king, we’re told, committed the sins of Jeroboam and aroused God’s anger (15:30; 16:3, 7, 13, 19, 26, 30-31). Each time the executioner of God’s judgment hears God’s word of judgment for himself. And so they are replaced – Jeroboam, Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri. And so it goes on.

Not until King Ahab do we get a proper succession. And Ahab is bad news. He builds a temple to Baal in his capital, Samaria (16:32-33). 16:30-31 says: ‘Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him. He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him.’

It’s a horrible mess. But that’s OK. We still have the southern kingdom of Judah – the home of the temple and the family of King David. Surely there things will be different. Well, look at 14:22-24:

Judah did evil in the eyes of the LORD. By the sins they committed they stirred up his jealous anger more than those who were before them had done. 23 They also set up for themselves high places, sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree. 24 There were even male shrine-prostitutes in the land; the people engaged in all the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.

One generation ago the nations had come to Jerusalem to marvel at the wisdom and glory of the nation that knew the LORD. Israel was drawing the nations to follow the ways of God. But now God’s people are following the ways of the nations. They’re engaged in the very practices that led to God driving out of the previous occupants of the land. They had seen for themselves God’s judgment against these practices. But no matter – they still plunge into the same evils. Once God’s people had been a light to the nations (10:9). Now the nations corrupt God’s people (14:24).

Once the nations had brought their glory to Jerusalem (10:10). Now the nations come to rob Jerusalem of its glory. 14:26 says the Egyptians carried off the treasures and golden shields from the temple. Rehoboam has to replace them with bronze replicas (14:27-28).

It’s a mess – a horrible mix of apostasy and defeat.

It’s not hard to make the move to our own day. Church attendance in the UK is lower now than it’s been for 200 years. The gap between the gospel and British culture is greater than ever. It’s hard to gain a hearing for truth – as you all know from your own experience. And the institutional church is riven with apostasy.

What is the future of the church? Does it have a future?

Thing are going to get worse before they get better in Israel and Judah. And they may yet get worse for the church in the UK. But the writer doesn’t want us to despair. Woven through the story are signs of hope.

We’ll see the answer the writer of Kings gives in two future posts.

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The Glory of the Story Sample: Day 109 – Stairway to heaven

Reading: Genesis 28:10-22

Here is another extracts from The Glory of the Story, my father’s devotional introduction to biblical theology in the form of 366 daily readings which show how the Old Testament story is fulfilled in Christ. The Glory of the Story is available as a Kindle book for $2.99 from amazon.com and £1.99 from amazon.co.uk. I’m posting extracts from the chaper on the story of Jacob, usually on the first Monday of the month.

Jacob leaves home, ostensibly to seek for a wife (28:1-2), in reality to flee for his life
(27:42-44). He certainly isn’t seeking God, but God has not forgotten him. In order to be shown the depths of his own need and appreciate God’s sufficiency, Jacob needs to be eased out of his emotionally claustrophobic family with its possessive mother, embittered father and murderous brother. Observe how:

1. God renews his promise (13-14)
When God speaks there is no word of reproach or demand; only a renewal of the promises to Abraham and Isaac. They meet all the needs of Jacob’s solitary, homeless and precarious condition. That the God of Abraham and Isaac should now reveal himself as the God of Jacob the con-man, from whom you wouldn’t buy a used camel, demonstrates just how scandalous grace is.

2. God assures his presence (15)
‘Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ (ESV) This additional promise, particularly suited to Jacob, is underlined in the dream of a stairway resting on earth and reaching to heaven. The fugitive has not been abandoned. Heaven has come to a particular spot on earth and Jacob, like Elisha’s servant, is privileged to see heaven’s resources (2 Kgs. 6:15-17). Just as God’s choice of Jacob caused a conflict that would follow him through the rest of his life, so God’s commitment to him would endure and bring him safely home (cf. Phil. 1:6).

3. Jacob makes a vow (16-22)
Jacob’s response is sometimes regarded as just another example of his wheeler-dealing. But this seems unfair. He expresses profound awe in God’s presence, calling the place Bethel, meaning house of God (16-17; cf. 35:14-15). Jacob is made aware, as Abraham was, of another dimension; a heavenly one. Though his vow (20-21) may seem like bargain-hunting, it is only because God has offered such wonderful bargains! Just as any prayer request is based on God’s promises (cf. Matt. 6:10-11, 31-34), Jacob is claiming precisely what God has promises.

Closing thought
Psalm 23 is the musical version of Jacob’s vow without the ‘if’. Here is a summary of God’s best promises to his children. Rest and revel in them again today.

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