“When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon. 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. 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” (1 Samuel 5:1-4)
Breaking Bad charts the meteoric rise of Walter White from a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher with cancer to a callous and ruthless crystal meth cook, boasting an unparalleled drug empire. One of the most noteworthy scenes of the entire story takes place in Walter’s bedroom, as his wife, Skylar, pleads with him to go to the police. She’s terrified and begs Walter to end his involvement before he gets killed. This exasperates Walter until he finally explodes:
“Who are you talking to right now?”
Walter is aggrieved that his wife still pictures him as this weak, frail man, afraid of danger at every turn. And he cannot stand for her to continue another second visualising him in that way. Walter furiously portrays who he truly is:
“A guy opens his door and gets shot. You think that of me? No, I AM the one who knocks”
In 1 Samuel we see a similar declaration by God, though the action is unparalleled in magnitude. The Philistines have defeated Israel and have stolen the ark of the Lord. This contains the pieces of the stone tablets given to Moses by God at Mt Sinai, a symbol of the presence and power and glory of the Almighty. They then decide to place the ark in the house of Dagon, the god whom the Philistines worshipped. They place the ark right beside Dagon. They didn’t have the same view of deity as the Israelities, they didn’t say “The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!”. They were polytheists, as far as they were concerned, the more the merrier. In fact, to place the ark beside Dagon may have been their way of trying to show respect to the God of Israel, esteeming him as on par with their god.
But Yahweh will not let the Philistines make him play second fiddle.
In the morning, the Philistines find Dagon lying face down before the ark. There is vicious sarcasm in this divine act, is there not? Its laughable! And the Philistines are clueless, they just set him right back up there! And so, the next morning, they find Dagon lying prostrate before the ark again. With no hands. Or a head.
This is God’s ‘Heisenberg’ moment. God ruthlessly crushes any notion that Dagon is like him. “Holy, holy, holy the Lord God Almighty”. There is none like him. He’s separate. He’s distinct. The most beautiful, awe-inspiring, praise-worthy offering of this universe is a mere shadow to what He is truly like. He crushes all pretenders to His throne to show their weakness and inadequacy. His response is the same, no matter what the idol looks like. Anything that we look to for our safety, security or happiness other than God is met with exactly the same disdain. Relationships, financial security, sex, career fulfilment – if these are what you lean on as your support in life, they will buckle under that weight. They are ineffective in bringing peace and joy.
Dagon is dismembered. His ‘deity’ is laughed at by Yahweh. He is crushed. This is God’s universal response to the cosmic treason that is idolatry. When good things that God has made are worshipped as gods, there must be swift, holy justice. God will not be mocked. Yet we do not feel it. We are somehow not incinerated in the blazing fury of His perfection.
Because Jesus was beaten, whipped and stabbed. His kingship was mocked by a crudely painted sign and the cruel barbs of a wholly offensive crown. He is crushed, physically and emotionally and spiritually. Jesus’ destruction is a resounding proclamation that God is holy and just. The echo is that God is love, for He does all this to welcome the guilty offenders into His loving embrace.
Its all about Jesus. This steadfast love of God, constant through our inconsistency has the power to change us, to wrestle from us the idols our hearts cling to and bring us close into the presence of God, where there is fullness of joy. Pray that God would be gracious enough to illuminate the idols that lurk menacingly in our souls.
Soli Deo Gloria
“He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” Psalm 103:10
Grace is powerful. It can do what brute force, fear and intimidation attempt, but never achieve: it can change people. It goes beyond the superficial, beyond mere behavioural modification. The remodelling and shaping of hearts is a skill wielded only by grace.
Mark 10 speaks volumes on the grace and humility of the god-man Jesus Christ, in verses 17-31. A rich young ruler approaches Jesus with a fervent enthusiasm, asking Him what he must do to inherit eternal life. He senses that this teacher has insight and hopes in his heart that Jesus can fill the hole in his life. However, Jesus’ answer is not revolutionary. Far from it, He simply points to the Ten Commandments. And the rich young ruler boldly declares ““Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth”
This is humanity in microcosm – complete spiritual blindness. The ruler, in essence, boasts in his perfection. “Jesus, I’m faithful! Look at how good I am, look at all I’ve done.” In the next chapter, Jesus will foretell His death, His selfless act of love that will blaze throughout history. Promised by God, foretold by the prophets, awaited by God’s children, rejoiced in by saints throughout the ages. And the rich young ruler has the audacity to look Jesus square in the eyes and sneer “Oh, its grand. I’ve got this. Don’t worry about it. The sinners, yeah they might need that but I’ve actually done the legwork”. But what’s even more staggering is the King’s response
“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him”
God incarnate, the creator of all things, whose image is weaved into every melody, every stanza, every golden leaf, every beautiful smile, whose creative prowess filters through in both the colossal expanses of galaxies unknown and the first sip of freshly brewed coffee at the break of day, this Jesus has been offended by a man who breathes only by His expressed permission. And he looks at him and loves him. When Jesus exposes the man’s love of money, He does not relish the revelation of his idol, his true god. The holy righteous Judge of the earth is grieved that this man has traded the all-satisfying beauty of eternal joy for the cheap prostitute of watered-down, short-lived happiness. Jesus is gracious. Jesus is Lord. Our God is a fountain of mercy and undeserved love.
Only the power of the gospel can reveal to me that I am just as ignorant as this man. Just as quick to forget the Giver when He has lavished so many gifts upon me. Just as hard hearted, and more arrogant. Only God can embrace me as an adopted son and change that heart to make me more like His true Son. Only by grace.
Grace is powerful because while it is free to receive, it costs dearly. My restoration comes at the price of Jesus’ destruction. My acceptance comes at the price of Jesus’ rejection. For me to become holy and blameless in His sight, Jesus must become ugly and sinful.
Meditating on that changes me because it takes away the fear of condemnation. I am free to confess that though my life is to be lived as a pleasing offering to my God, I am constantly climbing off the altar. I’m free to be honest that I am self-centred, consumed by my own daydreams and manipulate God and those around me. Because when I do that, I am reminded that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus”. God has invested too much in my salvation to give up on me. He’s love. I’m forgetful, but He is faithful in reminding me.
Soli Deo Gloria
“And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit”” Mark 1:7-8
“Did you exchange a walk on part in the war, for a lead role in a cage” Pink Floyd ‘Wish You Were Here’
The trajectory of the Christian life is that God takes weak, frail, destitute sinners and changes them, so that they have the family resemblance of Jesus. We get from point A to point B by the chiselling, moulding and polishing of the Holy Spirit. And one of the amazing ways we see Him at work is that the things we read in the Bible that we once passed over now enthral us. Recently, I have had this experience reading about John the Baptist, and how he makes the good news of the kingdom of Jesus Christ that bit more beautiful. Because John lives his life in such a way as to boast in the glory of his Creator.
John’s ministry was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. His base of operations is the wilderness, his diet is locusts and honey and his attire is camel’s hair and a leather belt. None of this screams luxury. In addition, his lack of comfort is not shrewdly balanced by the security of safety. His call to turn from sin is universal, and encompasses the entire socio-economic spectrum , “All of the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him”. Indeed, he even calls out those in authority, “For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife”” This leads to him being imprisoned and eventually executed.
Like any hero, we crave the knowledge of their intentions and motivations. Authenticity is a quality highly prized. Did John stoically look danger in the eyes and laugh as an act of bravado? We are told in the gospels that John had followers, and therefore, we could conclude that maybe he views his legacy as something worth sacrificing his life for. Did the thought of his name echoing through history and folklore steel his resolution and determination?
Well, no. John makes clear he is not the main attraction,“”After me comes he who is mightier than I”. In fact, in the book of John, he says words that I’ve had to wrestle earnestly with, “He must increase, but I must decrease”. His ministry, his whole life hinges on pointing to Jesus, and pointing to Jesus alone. He puts his life on the altar of sacrifice, and as his sweat and blood drips daily from it, he knows he is fading into the background. But still he does it. Why? Because he knows it is WORTH it! John realises that it is infinitely greater to give all to fight for the glorious cause of God than to live for himself.
We are short-sighted. We cling to our comfort, believing the original lie that fullness of joy is found by looking inwardly. The river that flows from the blood of centuries of martyrs testifies that Jesus matches and exceeds every other treasure. To live, or die, for a cause outside ourselves, to magnify the triune God of glory with every waking breath is what we were made for. And in His sovereign grace, He has made it that we find our deepest joy when our hearts surrender all to Him.
Paul records in 2 Corinthians 11 all he has endured in his work for the advancement of the gospel:
“Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?”
When he then says in Philippians “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”, we can be sure that relinquishing our comfort for the sake of God’s glory is not a decision we will regret. We can be glad in the most dire circumstances, because we have the big picture in mind. Let’s pray that this sinks down deep. Without grasping this, we will never risk for His sake. Jesus gleams when people see that we cling to Him more tightly than anything else.
Jesus is worth it all.
Soli Deo Gloria
I grew up in what is commonly referred to as a Christian home.
Both my mum and my dad were Christians. We went to church every week, without fail. I was involved with a lot of organisations around the church, and so I was not a stranger to Hill St Presbyterian. In Sunday school, I quickly grasped the main biblical concepts. I could speak fluently and that got me a few gigs reading Bible passages at Carol Services and decent roles in the Children’s Day performance. At some stage before I started secondary school, I became a Christian. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t count myself as a Christian, but I have no recollection of saying ‘The Sinner’s Prayer’ or any sort of a conversion experience. I could have been 4, I could have been 10, who knows? But I knew I was a Christian.
Surprisingly, this didn’t result in the inevitable teenage rebellion: my first taste of alcohol was a Coors Light the week after my 18th birthday, I didn’t have a bong stashed away in the wardrobe and my Internet history was genuinely as clean as a whistle. There was no dramatic backslide, just a gradual maturing in the faith. Herein lies the story of my Christian life.
Well, yes and no.
We’re always told that there’s no such thing as a boring testimony, and yet my account is akin to watching paint dry. Beige paint. Whilst listening to BBC Radio 4 in the background. Being brutally honest, there is nothing there that inspires any sort of emotive response.
I do believe that no individual’s story of how God moved to bring them into the kingdom can leave us feeling underwhelmed. I do believe that the same is true of my testimony. I am constantly amazed at how God has worked in my life. However, that wonder is not at a single, life-changing moment in time, but at the trajectory of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying power.
God has taken a nice, passive, apathetic boy and in His grace has ignited his cold heart with a passion for His glory. God saw it good to wrestle me from the grip of internal self-pity and Pharisaical pride in order to create a man who longs for daily relationship Him. I avoided risks and was chronically fearful of people’s opinions, and over the years He persevered in whispering ‘on Christ the solid rock you stand, all other ground is sinking sand’. Through the encouragements of godly men, He has given an emotionally deficient and inert creature a vibrant walk that brings sweetness and sustenance, joy and satisfaction. With the same power that tames the ravenous desires of the heroin addict, God stirred the affections of a ‘good’ moralist and opened my eyes to a religion of the affections. That is miraculous.
The most exciting part of all this is expounded upon in Philippians 1:6 “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” The fact that I am not the finished article is both incredibly humbling and comforting. The blood, tears and sweat drops of the cross are too costly for Jesus to simply save us and leave us. He’s making us more like Him.
The gospel has impacted me, and continues to impact me, in the most dramatic of ways. Everyday I see the sins of my youth creep into my life and I repeatedly fall back into my old habits. And yet, I’m comforted that in the Parable of the Lost Sons, the Father offers grace to both brothers! God forgives legalists and is committed to redeeming them for His glorious purposes. He imparts strength and fierceness to the mild-mannered. He turns selfish boys, who exist solely for their own entertainment, into men who sacrificially lead others to the true God-man, Jesus Christ. With that vision, I can rest in Christ’s finished work and know that God does not treat us as our sins deserve, but embraces us as a Father. In the magnificent words of Rock Of Ages, ‘Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling”. I know that I have been loved first and as a consequence I obey wilfully.
Testimonies describe how God fulfils His plans in spite of us. I can honestly say, hand on heart, that it amazes me that I am where I am today. God took the initiative and saved me from the depths of my sin. It just so happened that my sins looked respectable. That doesn’t make my story any less incredible.
Soli Deo Gloria
“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned-every one-to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” Isaiah 53:5-6
These words are probably not new to you. These words are famous. They come from one of the many prophecies that Jesus fulfilled in order to vanquish any uncertainty that he was the true Son of God. And this particular one is often rolled out because it is very transparent to see how Jesus has lived up to this prophesy: “he was pierced for our transgressions” is a blatant allusion to his crucifixion. However, this passage is a piece of scripture that should weigh heavily upon us, that should painfully contort our soul as we meditate upon it. For I promise you, to allow Isaiah’s Spirit-penned words to resonate within your inner being is to dive further into the depths of God’s love, which finds its fullness and validation on two wooden crossbeams at Golgotha.
In ‘The Dark Night Rises’, Christopher Nolan’s epic conclusion to the Dark Knight trilogy, Batman is engaged in a ferocious battle with the film’s antagonist, Bane. It quickly becomes apparent that Batman, having just come out of retirement, is no match for the strength, pace and skilfulness of Bane. And after toying with him for some time, Bane finally grabs Batman and breaks his back with a horrifying crack over his knee. Batman is imprisoned and, as he lies nearly paralysed, asks Bane with a deep sense of confusion,
“Why didn’t you just…kill me?”
In a chilling response, Bane outlines how he plans to destroy Gotham, drain every last dredge of hope from Batman, and then he will finally kill him. A horrified Bruce Wayne is left to marinate in Bane’s final words to him before leaving,
“Your punishment must be more severe”
Herein lies the true, sadistic torture of Batman, of Bruce Wayne. It is not merely the agonising physical affliction, but the internal terror. And we do not grasp the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice if we focus solely on the inflicted wounds of the whips and the nails. For in comparison to the multitude of Christian martyrs, Jesus is not impressive or noble or regal. Ignatius, an early church father, was reported to have said, as he heard the ravenous lions roaring before they were set upon him, “I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread”. Conversely, Jesus in despair and destitution cries to the Father in Matthew 27, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. Is Christ found to be faltering at the last hurdle, after performing admirably throughout his previous 33 years?
No. Christ faces the chastisement, the punishment, that God’s redeemed people should have been subjected to. If Hell is the logical trajectory of separation from God, then the Son is torn away from the Father and Spirit. The Trinity, a community of mutual love and worship, active from eternity past, is fractured, and Jesus endures eternal damnation a million times over in mere hours. A man who’s entire ministry and rejection of temptation was predicated on his dependence on the Holy Spirit is reduced to a bloody, pulped shell wherein lies pain without comfort or reprieve. A man of sorrows.
And yet, if spoken aloud, this passage will yield a profound juxtaposition. After the intense howl of anguish comes the whispering that, with courage, dares to proclaim that this punishment has, “brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed”. To say that the gospel is primarily about God forgiving our sins is a great injustice to the character of God. For the same hollowed hands pinned to the cross are the ones that tightly embrace us as we are adopted into the family of God. For we are not just forgiven, but accepted. We are nurtured and cared for and transformed by the Righteous Judge who now instead adopts the role of our Heavenly Father. This grace operates on two levels, none of which are logical or rational, but motivated by an unrelenting, costly love that causes the glory of God to radiate throughout the entire universe.
The harrowing account of Jesus’ death is not to make us feel guilty. Rather, we are to be convicted of the terrible price our rebellion incurs, and incandescently overjoyed that Christ looked at us while we were still ugly and broken, and even then thought that it was all worth it.
This love changes us, a concept beautifully landscaped by John Newton
“Our pleasure and our duty
Though opposite before
Since we have seen his beauty
Are joined to part no more”
Soli Deo Gloria
“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord” Genesis 6:5-8
I have recently started reading through the book of Genesis, with the aim of reminding myself that the Bible is one epic storyline about God and how He reveals His glory through His promises with broken, ill-deserving people. And in Genesis 6, the lead-in to the story of Noah’s arc, soon to be a Hollywood blockbuster starring Maximus Decimus Meridius, Hermione and that geezer from every British gangster-flick, we see a small part of that beautiful landscape.
To set the scene; the fissures of the Fall have menacingly raced from the Tree in the garden throughout all the earth. Humanity is not on a trajectory for recovery, much less transformation. No, man is becoming increasingly weaved into sin’s snare, so much so that “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”. God’s creation has been twisted upside down, charted so eloquently in the refrain of “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” from Genesis 1:31 being subverted to tragic lament in Genesis 6:12 “And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt”. Accordingly, the response of the Lord of creation is a burning anger against such cruel and depraved offenders that seek to put themselves above God.
Yet we see nestled in the text a moment of reprieve from the damning indictment on humanity. “But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord”. This verse is something that as beloved children of God we can cling to for assurance when our world is falling down around us. Because, although v9 says “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation” this account is not intended to tell us how Noah was saved because of his righteousness. Noah was saved because “he found favour in eyes of the Lord”. The grace of God does not belong exclusively to the New Testament! In Romans 3:10, Paul makes the emphatic statement that “None is righteous, no, not one”. This is not a lesson on how good Noah was, how God saw that and saved him, and so we should try our hardest to be like Noah. This account depicts a God who is sovereign and just and mighty to uphold His glory, and yet who also delights to pour grace out over His chosen children. If you read on, you’ll find Noah is not perfect, nowhere near close! That’s why reading about Noah as if he’s the hero of the story will crush you under the weight of trying to prove to God that you are worthy of His affection.
Because the hero of this story is Jesus. The blood of Jesus at Golgotha paints in vivid shades the intermingling of God’s flawless character and His vast love. Wrath and grace do not oppose one another, but rather they are humble vessels for visibly displaying the glory of God to all tribes and tongues and nations. God did not love Noah because Noah loved God. Rather, God loved him first, when every desire of his heart was evil continually. God shaped in him a heart that wanted to walk blamelessly before God. Our hope is not found within ourselves. It rests entirely on Jesus living the life we couldn’t and dying the death we should have.
My prayer is that this will fill our hearts to live our lives in light of this transforming truth. As Paul contends in Romans 9, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy”. Instead of relying on our own imperfect endeavours to earn God’s favour, let’s receive it as a gift and rest in Christ’s finished work!
Soli Deo Gloria
Recently at relate, we sang Come Thou Fount, a song that has for many years continually drawn me back to one of the core messages of the Bible: that the grace of God is the only thing that can overcome the gravity of my self-inflicted sin. However, as I was preparing for it on Saturday, I realised that for the rest of the guys to enjoy the richness of the words, I would have to walk them through the archaic words and phrases that are no longer used today in 2013. It’s my hope and prayer that if we understand the things about which we’re singing about, we’ll be able to relish in the love that God shows in his redemptive purposes and not just enjoy a beautiful melody.
Come, thou Fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
mount of God’s redeeming love.
‘Come Thou Fount’ starts by setting before us a gospel-centred model for worship, both in corporately praising God and for giving Him glory in our day-to-day lives. We are to look to what God has done for us and respond accordingly, with ‘songs of loudest praise’. The line ‘Teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above’ is reminiscent of the cry of longing in the Lord’s Prayer “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”. We want to model the angels’ praise as we gather together as Christians! Towards the end of the verse, there is a glorious assurance that we are ‘fixed upon’ the mountain of God’s redeeming love. We are held fast to this vast love that seeks to shower affection on us, despite our performance.
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
hither by thy help I’ve come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.
This is a potentially confusing verse. Without examining what an ‘Ebenezer’ is, we will have no idea what this verse means and so will never experience the joy found in this reference to God’s unwavering promises! This is a biblical idea, so let’s look at 1 Samuel 7:12
“Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.””
Ebenezer, composed of the Hebrew words ‘eben’ and ‘ezer’, literally means ‘stone of help’. Samuel is instructed to make a monument that will remind the Israelites that it is God who has carried them through all their troubles to where they are now. God wants to continually point His chosen people to His faithfulness. Likewise, we need to continually look to the cross to remind ourselves of the Father’s commitment to saving His people, through the forsaking of the Son, who ‘interposed his precious blood’ – literally putting himself between us and the Father’s righteous wrath against sin.
O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.
This last verse is something that I identify with deeply. ‘O to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be’ is saying that every day we find ourselves desperately in need of God’s grace. ‘Fetter’ is an old word for a chain, stressing that it is God who keeps us wandering from the blessings He lavishes upon us in Jesus. It is God who seals us for His courts above, promising that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). We are His, He will not lose us despite our attempts to run from Him and He will make us more like Jesus. I am relieved and refreshed when I remind myself that God is patient towards His adopted sons and daughters, and does not expect them to flourish in their own strength, but by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
Beautiful words about a majestic Saviour.
Soli Deo Gloria