Torch Times – issue 4, 2016

A Christian magazine for the thoughtful reader

Produced and published by
Torch Trust
Torch House,
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Editorial note

We may not necessarily agree with the particular views of an article, because on certain controversial subjects there are several acceptable evangelical viewpoints. It is our aim to give a fair representation of these in this magazine.

Unless otherwise stated, articles in this magazine are transcriptions of material received and as such are unedited.

Contents

Editorial

What do you say to someone who has lost a darling little girl after a prolonged battle against brain tumours? How do you contribute anything to rebuilding someone’s world now in pieces following that child’s passing? Why not just agree with that suffering person that, if God was the great God he claims to be, healing should have resulted; and since it hasn’t, he clearly doesn’t care and quite possibly doesn’t exist. Worse still, evil men have used the myth of his existence for their own greedy, controlling and selfish ends.

Only last week, I had an email putting forward all these points and more. The searing pain of a grieving parent pulsed through that email. I replied in just a few words, assuring him that I could sense his pain through his email and that my thoughts were with him. Clever words would not have done here. It’s in this light that I commend to you our article, 3 Reasons Why God Allows Suffering. Sometimes, or perhaps often, we need to know our ground in Scripture when we come across situations like the one I’ve just described, even when it’s not our job to say them to the suffering individual. From a place of understanding of Scripture, we can offer friendship and prayer support, feel the pain, but not collapse into such sorrow that we’re not able to help.

Another kind of adverse circumstance from which we can grow strong as Christ’s followers but of which many of us in the UK at any rate have had virtually no experience is that of persecution for being Christians. In Real Life, Shahla shares her most challenging story. Follow the Lord Jesus or her family – what an agonising choice!

It’s no surprise, then, that Ed Mackenzie is keen to promote Christian family worship in his article. I haven’t been blessed with children myself, but what a privilege it is to share the good news about Jesus with the up and coming generation.

You may have read or heard about lots of ways people are led to put their trust in Christ, but a pair of shoes has got to be a pretty unlikely one. Yet you can read how it all came about in Randy Newman’s article.

I’ve noticed that this issue of Torch Times has a general family theme about it. It’s clear that families bring us both sorrow and joy. I thank God that we are secure in his family, as the article Bought By Jesus so clearly explains.

May you be blessed and encouraged as you read this issue of Torch Times.

Sheila Armstrong and the editors

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3 reasons why God allows suffering

by Justin Brierley

(Taken from Premier Christianity – July 2016)

[Why would a loving God allow suffering? Justin Brierley presents three ways to respond to the hardest question of them all.]

The arrival of our third child Jeremy did not go as smoothly as our first two. Shortly after birth he was diagnosed with an infection which would require a course of antibiotics. The memory of accompanying the doctor to the intensive care unit and watching him attempt to insert a cannula needle into the tiny wrist of our baby boy is forever imprinted on my memory.

I was tasked with feeding Jeremy with drops of sugary water as the doctor manipulated his wrist, attempting several times to find a suitable vein that would allow passage for the antibiotics to enter his system and flush out the infection. But no amount of sucrose solution from my plastic syringe could undo the fact that it was a painful business.

How I wished I could explain to my bawling new-born, not yet 24 hours old, that the doctor wasn’t being horrid, he was being helpful. That the pain of the needle was necessary. That this wouldn’t last forever. That I loved him.

Since that day (and with Jeremy now a healthy, boisterous 5-year-old) I have often thought about the way that experience could be compared to the way we are often unable to recognise the purposes that may accompany suffering in our own lives.

We are not able to see the big picture in the way that God sees it. We see only the present pain, the sting of the needle. God is the parent who is with us in our suffering, yet also sees the end from the beginning in ways that we cannot fathom.

Yet, before we present any apologetic on pain, it’s important to remember that people who are actually going through suffering need our love, not our logic. They need someone to sit and weep with them, not to present a three-point sermon on why God allows evil.

So, in presenting three reasons why God may allow suffering to touch our lives, please consider these responses a later step in the pastoral conversation, when the questions often turn to ‘Why would God allow suffering?’

1. Because God won’t rob us of free will

The problem of suffering is usually posed as a question: ‘If God is all-powerful and all good, why does he allow evil to exist in the world?’

Perhaps the most common response is known as the ‘free will defence’. After all, where does most of the evil in this world come from? Much of it is a direct consequence of our wrong choices as human beings. Yet one of the greatest things that God has given us is free will – the ability to choose between right and wrong. The problem is that many people choose to do evil rather than good.

Imagine if God intervened at every moment anyone was going to make a wrong choice. Free will would no longer exist. If God waved his magic wand every time we made a bad choice, we would merely be puppets controlled by a puppeteer who overruled our thoughts and actions. Would we want to live in such a world, even if it meant we were insulated from suffering? Could we even speak of concepts such as ‘love’ without it being something freely given, and freely rejected?

The great gift of freedom and love that God has given us comes at the cost of the evil that people freely choose to carry out in the world.

The critic of Christianity will be quick to reply, ‘That may be. But there is also much suffering that exists in the world which isn’t a result of our own actions.’ Think of natural disasters, disease and illness. Often these are termed ‘natural evil’ and presented as a serious challenge to the concept of a loving God.

However, even in these cases we shouldn’t be too hasty to discount the consequences of the misuse of our human freedom.

The Haiti earthquake which caused so much death and suffering in 2010 was no more violent than the ones which often strike places such as Los Angeles with little or no loss of life. The difference is that compared to Haiti, the US is a rich and prosperous country with the necessary resources for earthquake-proofed buildings, emergency services and infrastructure.

The fact is that collective human choices have resulted in a world of haves and have-nots – where the impact of natural disasters and disease will very much depend on where you are born in the world. Our free will still makes a huge difference to the toll of natural evil. We can’t always lay the blame at God’s door.

2. Because we live in a broken world

But why has God allowed death, disease and natural disaster to exist at all? This question can only be answered by a Christian from within their own worldview, and means we must expand our perspective to a cosmic scale.

The apostle Paul states, ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time’ (Romans 8:22). We believe, then, that the whole created order is in some sense ‘out of kilter’ at a cosmic level. Some theologians trace this to human rebellion – an outworking of ‘the fall’ which acts both forwards and backwards in time. Others point to the existence of an earlier rebellion in the angelic realm that sparked a ‘cosmic fall’ (hinted at in Revelation 12:9).

Whatever the origin, the result is a world that is not as it should be. Yet Paul includes the promise that one day ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21).

So we live in the tension of a broken world that is awaiting renewal. The natural laws that operate are both a blessing and a curse. Tectonic plate activity renews the surface of the earth with minerals, yet wreaks havoc when humans build cities on the fault lines. Cell replication allows our bodies to grow and develop, yet can result in cancer when natural processes misfire. Death is a necessary part of the cycle of life, yet still remains our ‘last enemy’ (1 Corinthians 15:26).

As Christians we are called to live faithfully for the kingdom that has already come in Jesus, while awaiting the kingdom yet to be, in which ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ (Revelation 21:4).

3. Because suffering can draw people to God

Underlying many people’s questions about suffering is an assumption about God’s purpose in creating us. We must ask the question, ‘What does a loving God want for the human beings he created?’

Here are two possible answers: It’s God’s job to keep human beings happy, comfortable and pain-free. That’s what a lot of people assume is meant by God being ‘loving’.

But there is another possible answer: God’s purpose for human beings is to bring them to know and love him.

Those are two very different responses. Coming to know and love God may be quite different from him keeping us comfortable and happy.

The reality is that comfort tends to make us forget about God. It’s evidenced by a prosperous Western world where belief in God is increasingly absent. Yet Christianity often thrives in places which are experiencing the fires of persecution or hardship.

For some, suffering leads to an abandonment of belief in God, but for many the opposite is true – it causes them to seek God in a world that seems absurd without him. Many people have counted pain and suffering as a crucial part of their journey towards Christianity. CS Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, ‘God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’

By the same token, it can be argued that meaningful moral and spiritual growth as human beings requires a world where some suffering exists. I cannot be generous unless there is someone who has less than me. I cannot show compassion unless there is someone who needs caring for.

While I don’t believe that God directly causes pain and suffering, I do believe that God is masterful enough to weave all the experiences and tribulations of our life into a tapestry that is ultimately beautiful and, if we allow him, draws us towards being the people he wants us to be.

Do these brief reasons answer all the questions posed by suffering? Of course not. There is much more that could be said, a great deal of mystery, and many more questions that could be asked. For instance, could God have created a possible world in which pain and suffering do not exist and still fulfils our human needs?

Perhaps. But what if we are already living in the best of all possible worlds this side of heaven? That may seem an absurd suggestion when we look at all the suffering and evil on our earth. Yet I would argue that a world in which Jesus stepped into his broken creation and freely gave his life on the cross to demonstrate the supreme love of God, is in fact the best possible kind of world we could hope for.

‘Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching … I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.’ Charles Dickens.

‘You can never learn that Christ is all you need, until Christ is all you have.’ Corrie Ten Boom.

‘Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:39) St Paul.

[The author Justin Brierley is senior editor of Premier Christianity magazine, group commissioning editor at Premier and presents the Saturday radio show and podcast ‘Unbelievable?’.]

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Real life

(Taken from Premier Christianity – June 2016)

[Shahla was imprisoned in Iran for sharing her faith. She tells Sam Hailes her testimony.]

‘Jesus came to my prison cell and told me to not be afraid.’

Like 99% of Iranians, Shahla grew up in a Muslim household. In her teenage years, this headstrong and intelligent young woman from Tehran embraced atheism and even managed to convince some of her friends to leave Islam behind. But on the last day of a two-week holiday in London, Shahla was given the Gospel of John by a family friend. The course of her life would be changed forever.

Speaking of the Gospel she was handed, Shahla admits, ‘I didn’t want to read it. I would have rather gone shopping.’

But from the first words of ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ Shahla was strangely hooked. ‘I couldn’t put it down,’ she says. Later that day, the family friend drove her to Heathrow for her flight home.

They were running late, and Shahla was concerned that she would miss her flight. Her friend offered to pray for her. ‘I said, “Ok, very, very quickly.”‘ The way this person referred to God as their father was shocking for Shahla. She’d never heard a prayer like it.

‘I was crying. I heard another voice that said, “I am God, I am Lord. Come to me and give your heart to me.” When he said “Amen” and opened his eyes he said, “Why are you crying?” I said, “I want to give my heart to Jesus.” I didn’t care about missing my flight. I gave my heart to Jesus in Heathrow car park.’

Crackdown on Christians

Upon returning home to Tehran, her family noticed a difference in Shahla. ‘My mother said, “You’ve become a good girl. What happened to you on this vacation?” I said, “It’s because I’ve become a Christian.” She was so upset and angry with me. She said, “You are not my girl, do not talk to me anymore. I don’t want to talk to you.”‘

But after a week, Shahla’s mother accepted her daughter’s decision. Shahla was now free to attend church, read the Bible and even to share her faith with her friends. ‘I told them I am a Christian and I’m never going back to being a Muslim. They accepted me as a Christian.’

But in the following years, the persecution of Christians in Iran worsened. Shahla explains, ‘The government was scared of people coming to Jesus. One person told me they’d prefer their young people to be involved in drugs than be Christians.’

One evening, Shahla’s openness in her evangelism landed her in trouble with the authorities. They demanded to know who else had been spreading the Christian message, but Shahla refused to turn in her fellow believers. ‘They interrogated me. They wanted me to tell them names of other people evangelising. I didn’t want to talk to them, so they put me in prison.’

Solitary confinement

Shahla was thrown into a tiny, dirty and smelly cell in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison.

Solitary confinement implies she was completely alone. But that’s not how Shahla would describe the experience.

‘I was so afraid and crying, sitting on the floor of the cell, saying, “Why am I here? Why have you brought me here? I was working for you.” A few hours after I came to prison, Jesus came to my cell. I saw his face. He said, “Shahla, don’t be afraid. I am with you.” His voice was so peaceful.’

Shahla breaks down as she recalls the overwhelming experience. ‘His face was full of love and peace. I couldn’t believe my eyes and I said, “Oh Lord, however many years you want me to stay here, I’m ready.” I stopped crying and I was so happy. I was so sure that … he was with me. And he was with me all the time, he never left me alone. This message wasn’t just for me. It’s for each one of us: when we are in need, we can hear his voice saying, “I am with you.”‘

After four months of solitary confinement, Shahla was moved to be with 40 other prisoners. She shared the gospel with everyone she came into contact with. Today she can report that ten people came to Christ, and one person was even baptised in the shower.

‘Jesus told me to follow him. And I followed him. He went to Evin and I followed him there. Many people were going to Evin. Some have to be in there for their whole life sentence. So maybe there would not be an opportunity to hear this message unless I was there. Some have heard the message and not accepted but I’m still praying for them. I believe one day they will give their heart to Jesus.’

Escaping

Shahla describes the process by which she came out of Evin as ‘miraculous’. It began when she became ill and was taken to hospital. Close to going into a coma, she weighed just 36 kg.

‘Many people were praying for me all over the world to be released. And the sickness was the answer to prayer,’ she explains.

Having been let out of the prison to recover, Shahla grabbed the opportunity to leave for good. In March 2013, she fled to Europe. Today, Shahla works with Elam Ministries – a Christian charity which aims to ‘strengthen and expand’ the Church in Iran. She edits their magazine which is written in Persian and distributed throughout Iran. It’s a country that is still home for her; she longs to return.

‘I’d really like to go back to Iran because my family, friends, memories, everything is there. I’m praying something happens so I’m free to go back to Iran and continue my evangelism [there]. I know many people are thirsty to hear this message. If I’m going back to Iran I want to go city by city, find people and tell them about Jesus and about his joyful message. This is my dream and I pray for it to come.’

[For more information about the growing but persecuted church in Iran, visit elam.com]

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A pair of shoes led me to Christ!

by Randy Newman

(Taken from Evangelicals Now – October 2016)

[A quarter of a million Jewish people live in the UK – and this month, most of them will be celebrating Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. But for Randy Newman, author of Questioning Evangelism, it was this Jewish Festival that started his journey to faith in Christ. Everything changed when he looked down at his shoes.]

I was born into a Jewish family in the suburbs of New York City.

At the time ‘maintaining Jewish identity’ was a high priority. My father fought in World War 2, and my parents were of that generation that first learned of the horrors of the Holocaust, that demonic explosion that slaughtered one third of the world’s Jewish population (6 million out of 18 million).

So although my parents were not particularly observant in their practice or even believing in all that Judaism taught, they joined a Conservative synagogue that leaned toward the Orthodox variety, and made sure their three sons would have a Bar Mitzvah and not get assimilated into the predominantly ‘Christian’ culture in which we lived.

‘Christ-killer’

Very soon I learned that we were not like Christians, and that to be Jewish meant to be hated. I vividly recall being called ‘kike’ and ‘Christ-killer’ by ‘Christians’ at my school. I remember my father receiving a request from our synagogue president to guard our congregation’s property on a Halloween night. One year before, someone had chosen to carve a swastika into our synagogue lawn with a lawnmower.

I may not have been able to expound on all the major doctrines of Judaism but I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jews do not believe in Jesus. For some reason, I took Judaism’s spiritual aspects more seriously than the rest of my family. I continued to meet with our rabbi even after my Bar Mitzvah, which was far from typical.

The Day of Atonement

When I was 15 years old, I chose to diligently obey all the many commandments associated with the celebration of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. The traditions of the rabbis mandated that you fast on that day, not ride in a car, abstain from any work, and confess sins for the purpose of ‘afflicting one’s soul.’ And so I walked to synagogue (about two miles from where we lived) and confessed every sin the liturgy listed. I had begun the holiday with the hopes that, if I obeyed all the commandments for that holiest of days, God would no longer seem distant and alien as he had up until that point.

Soft soles

But it didn’t work. I walked home, watching the sun as it set, and felt no closer to God than I had 24 hours before. And then I looked down at my shoes. I was dressed in a suit and wore leather dress shoes to match the formal attire. At that moment, I remembered something I was taught back in Hebrew School years before – you don’t wear leather shoes on Yom Kippur. If you were to visit a synagogue on Yom Kippur, you would see men dressed in fine suits and athletic shoes that don’t match. It’s a day for soft-soled footwear, not leather, which is equated with fine luxury – out of place on a day of repentance.

I wrestled with the notion that my shoes were the reason for my lack of connection with God. If only I had worn the right shoes, God wouldn’t seem so alien to me, I reasoned. And then I thought: ‘That’s the stupidest thing in the world! Is that really what knowing God is all about? Wearing the right shoes? Obeying every obscure, demanding, rule the rabbis could concoct?’ If that was what a relationship with God was all about, I was not interested.

There must be a better way

But still, I sensed there must be a better way and expressed some kind of prayer asking God to show me what it was. That began a process of searching that lasted more than five years. It included meeting a group of Christians who were different. They were different from me because they talked about having ‘a personal relationship with God’. They were different from other ‘Christians’ I knew because they challenged my thinking. They said that just because someone is Gentile doesn’t mean they are Christian.

And they were different from almost everyone I knew in that they talked about God and to God in a way I found tremendously attractive. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I was jealous that these goyim (a not-so-positive term for Gentiles) knew my Jewish God better than I did.

I began to read the Bible – both the so-called Old Testament and the New Testament – and found I had misunderstood both Judaism and Christianity. The God revealed in the Tenach (a Jewish term for the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings) was different from the rules-obsessed, law-enforcing deity I had heard about in Hebrew School. And the New Testament was not at all anti-Semitic as I had expected and been warned about. In fact, the New Testament sounded remarkably Jewish, quoting from David, Solomon, Hosea, Micah and Malachi.

The claims of Jesus

Most of all, I found that Jesus was not who I expected him to be – merely a good teacher. He made claims about himself that, if true, meant he was the Messiah and, if false, meant he was a megalomaniac. Best of all, I found this Jesus to be a delight to both my mind and my soul. He taught lessons that challenged and comforted, made sense and made for shalom – peace. He fulfilled what the prophets foretold and what my heart yearned for. And his death, I learned from Matthew, a Jewish man writing for a Jewish audience, atoned for sin in a way that no animal sacrifice in the temple or personal sacrifice after the temple’s destruction could ever manage. He was the one Isaiah expected, the one Simeon hoped for, and the one I desperately wanted.

Source of my every joy

That same Jesus continues to amaze and delight me to this day. I regularly find ways in which he unifies the Old and New Testaments. He still challenges me with his teachings, cleanses me with his cross-work, and empowers me with his Spirit. He is the source of my every joy and the balm for my every tsuris (a Yiddish word that means ‘troubles’).

And as soon as you put the word ‘Jewish’ and the name ‘Jesus’ together in a sentence, you’re asking for tsuris. If there’s one thing the vast majority of Jewish people believe, it’s that ‘Jews don’t believe in Jesus.’ In fact, they go further. If you ‘used to be Jewish’ and you believe in Jesus, you’re no longer Jewish, they insist. You betrayed and abandoned your people.

But despite that, God is as powerfully at work in the lives of Jewish people today as he was when he parted the Red Sea. Their resistance or the evils done to them are not obstacles that can thwart the omnipotence of our God. In fact, friends of mine in Jewish missions tell me that Jewish people are more open to the gospel than ever. Jewish people are reading the New Testament, talking about Jesus, visiting evangelistic websites, attending Christian Bible studies, sneaking in the back doors of churches and messianic congregations, and finding the One who has fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah, Micah, Hosea and all the other prophets. Not only that – many of these Jewish people are embracing the One who satisfies their deepest longings, atones for all their sins, and grants them joy that will last for all eternity.

There is no limit to what God can do in and through the lives of the Jewish people he brings across your path.

[Randy Newman’s brand new book, Engaging with Jewish People (The Good Book Company), is written to help Christians share the gospel with Jewish friends and neighbours. Available now from Christian bookshops and www.thegoodbook.co.uk]

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Bought by Jesus

by David Instone-Brewer

(Taken from Premier Christianity – July 2016)

[David Instone-Brewer looks at what the Bible says about redemption.]

Kidnap and ransom is big business for the pirates and terrorists who use it as a profitable source of income. And it’s also a flourishing enterprise for insurance companies. When war reporter James Foley was kidnapped in Syria four years ago, it was unlikely that his release would be safely secured because he didn’t have insurance. Today, whether or not a hostage taken by overseas militants is released depends on whether their employer has ‘kidnap and ransom’ insurance.

But while kidnap for ransom is a booming business in the 21st century, it is by no means a new activity. When Jesus attended a wedding, he would have heard a vow that no modern groom makes: ‘If you are kidnapped, I will ransom you.’ It was a relatively new part of the marriage ceremony, necessitated by the real threat of kidnapping by vicious bandits. If a woman was held for more than a few minutes by these kidnappers, it was assumed she had been violated. That’s why the vow was necessary: a Jewish man might be tempted not to ransom his wife if he hadn’t pledged to do so.

Buying and selling people was a normal occurrence in Jesus´ time – as well as slaves, you could buy a child to adopt. In addition, the law required every firstborn male animal either to be sacrificed or bought back (‘redeemed’). This law applied to people as well as animals, but since people could not be sacrificed, they were redeemed at five shekels each.

The law originated from the time when Israel escaped Egypt, and God protected the firstborn males from the final terrible plague. But instead of paying money for their eldest sons´ redemption, the men of the tribe of Levi were given to God for religious service. The number of Levite males was almost the same as the number of firstborn males who had been saved, and the difference was paid in shekels (see Numbers 3).

Jesus referred to this redemption by the Levites when he contrasted how all of humanity would be redeemed by just one person: himself (Mark 10:44–45). He said that, like the Levites, he would give his life (including his death) in service to God and humanity.

A ransom

The idea that someone could be ransomed by a person rather than money wasn’t entirely new for Jews at the time. The Septuagint (the Jews´ Greek translation of the Old Testament) called the Levites ‘a ransom’ for Israel (Numbers 3:12), using the same word that they used for ‘money payments’ in the original Hebrew. Jesus made the point that his life was so valuable that the exchange rate wasn’t one for one (as it was with the Levites); his single life could redeem everyone.

Paul also used the image of payment to explain the cross. He likened salvation to the redemption loophole that enabled a slave to get himself released. The slave could save up money and pay it to a temple, so the temple’s god could buy him. He would then owe allegiance to that god. Paul said the same rule applies to Christians; they were bought from slavery to sin, so they should now regard themselves as belonging to God (1 Corinthians 6:19–20; 7:22–23).

Practised by the Romans, adoption was another way of buying someone, and Paul said that we were adopted into God’s family (Galatians 4:4–7). Although a childless couple could buy an unwanted baby, it was more common to adopt a teenager and compensate his family because a high proportion of babies died. You could also be sure of the adoptee’s character, unlike a baby who might grow up to be a careless heir. Most importantly, young adults could give personal assurances that they were willing to carry on the traditions and responsibilities of the family.

But Jews did not practise that kind of adoption, so Jesus used a different image – that of being born anew (John 3:3–7). Neither Jesus´ illustration of being born again, nor Paul’s illustration of adoption would have made people think about infants.

Both the person being adopted and the person being born again had to decide that they wanted the arrangement.

Who’s paying?

Some early theologians disliked the image of Jesus paying a ransom, taking it too literally, and asking who the money was paid to. They argued that if the payment was to Satan, then God was giving in to his demand. To counteract this, in the 11th century St Anselm referred to the payment of a ‘fine’– ie a penalty or punishment for our sins. However, this image, like ‘ransom’, can also be taken too literally – for example, by asking who demanded the fine. Some Christians conclude that God has to obey ‘justice’ – rather like a modern ruler has to obey the law. But this implies something that scripture does not: that God forgives because a payment has been made instead of forgiving freely and mercifully.

When thinking about how salvation works, it’s important to remind ourselves that the descriptions the Bible gives us of how salvation works are merely images – none of them are a complete explanation, and we should not try to explore these images further than we are invited to by scripture. For example, while the Bible portrays Satan as the opponent of Jesus, it does not say that Satan received any payment from Jesus. Satan can, perhaps, be regarded as our former slave master and even our former parent (see John 8:34, 44), but the Bible does not say that Jesus bought us back from him.

One glorious way that Paul describes the cross is as the battleground where Jesus defeated Satan, and released many ‘captives’ (Colossians 2:14–15; Ephesians 4:8–9). This complements the victory illustrated by redemption. Jesus freed us from ‘kidnapping’, from slavery, and from Satan, our abusive parent, and he adopted us into a new, loving family. While images of paying fines or substitutionary punishment tell us about God’s justice, the images of ransom demonstrate God’s love. He is both a severe judge satisfied by Jesus´ self-sacrifice and also a loving God who sent his best warrior to defeat his enemy.

Scripture describes our salvation using many different images, but the work of the cross is simply too big to be understood through one image alone. ‘Ransomed’, ‘redeemed’, ‘adopted’, ‘born again’ – these are all aspects of God’s wonderful rescue plan and through which we can catch a glimpse of the breadth and depth of his love for us.

[The author David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge.]

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Does God hate sinners?

by David Instone-Brewer

(Taken from Premier Christianity – September 2016)

[David Instone-Brewer explains why it’s good to be reminded of God’s wrath.]

Is it just me or do older people often seem to become exaggerated and sometimes inflexible versions of their former selves? Some become so mellow they see the good in everyone and are unwilling to find fault with anything. Others have fixed ideas about everything that’s wrong with the world and how miscreants should be punished.

These are extreme generalisations, of course. But it’s made me wonder whether, because we regard God as being very old indeed, we can subconsciously shoehorn him into an extreme version of one of these. We may see him either as entirely loving and forgiving or eternally wrathful against the tiniest infraction unless he is appeased by his Son.

Defining ‘hate’

The wrathful image appears to be confirmed when the Psalms speak of God’s hatred for sinners: ‘You hate all who do wrong’ (5:5); ‘the wicked … he hates with a passion’ (11:5). Given that we are all sinners, it sounds like God doesn’t love anyone! Perhaps it’s no wonder then that some people reject these Old Testament verses in favour of the new revelation of God’s love in Jesus. But individual verses about God’s wrath are also found in the New Testament, for example, ‘whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them’ (John 3:36).

Actually, there are very few verses about God’s hatred of sinners in the Bible, and the two quoted above are the only ones in the Old Testament. It’s important to note that hatred is not necessarily nasty, it is sometimes the right response to something; especially in the way the Hebrews often used the word. In English, hate means the opposite of love, but in Hebrew and Greek it usually means ‘to love no longer’ or ‘to love less’.

When Jacob ‘hated’ Leah (ESV, KJV), he merely loved her less than bright-eyed Rachel (Genesis 29:3133). Paul referred to God’s hatred towards Esau (Romans 9:13), but he didn’t earn this hatred until his nation had plundered Israel (Malachi 1:1–3). In Genesis there was no hint of this hatred, only a prophecy that ‘the elder will serve the younger’ (Genesis 25:23). In the Gospels, the word ‘hatred’ can mean ‘less love’ (see Matthew 6:24; Luke 14:26).

All the verses in the Bible (apart from the above examples) that speak of God’s condemnation of evil reject the sin rather than the sinner. Augustine summed up the Bible’s message in the fourth century: ‘With love for mankind and hatred of sins’ (Letter 211, c424). Most preachers quote Gandhi’s paraphrase of this: ‘God loves the sinner but hates the sin.’

We are keenly aware of this distinction today. Teachers condemn bullying but are careful not to label someone ‘a bully’ (though that doesn’t stop the kids applying labels). We want to emphasise that everyone has the chance to change their ways. Of course, this is precisely the emphasis of the Bible. This is a rare instance in which society has incorporated some good Christian theology.

Burning coals

Being reminded about God’s wrath isn’t an entirely bad thing. It is too easy to fall into the opposite fallacy of regarding God as the ultimate pushover: someone who talks tough about sin but never actually condemns anyone for it or turns them away. But these – psalms 5 and 11 which we looked at earlier – remind us that there will be a time when God makes a decision and there’s no time left for reform. The two verses that talk about God’s hatred of sinners are speaking about judgement day: the sinners are ‘in your presence’ where ‘you destroy’; God is ‘on his heavenly throne’ where he ‘examines’ and prepares ‘fiery coals’ (Psalm 5:4–6 and 11:4–6). In other words, both psalms envisage God’s attitude on the day when things are finally fixed and the unrepentant are punished. At that point, the sinner becomes fused with his sin and both become the object of God’s hatred.

Paul tells us that the best way to treat those who are doing hateful things is to show them love. He turns round the verse about hated sinners being punished with ‘fiery coals’ by saying: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head’ (Romans 12:20). In other words, show wrongdoers goodness and, if they don’t change, this is more evidence against them. This isn’t just a New Testament concept; Paul is quoting Proverbs 25:21–22. The whole Bible balances love and wrath, and always aims to bring sinners to repentance.

No contradiction

There is no contradiction between the God of love and the God of wrath portrayed throughout the Bible. God isn’t an old man who is fixed in his ways, but is more like a parent who is flexible in his response. His children sometimes need encouragement and pleading, though sometimes they will only respond to discipline and severe warnings. And, unfortunately, humans wander off the path more than they follow it. The prophets sometimes come across as nagging because they have to keep repeating the same warnings. God is consistently portrayed as the one ‘who wants all people to be saved’ (1 Timothy 2:4), and he doesn’t have hatred towards anyone until his offer of forgiveness is finally rejected.

The saddest thing about the meaning of the word used for ‘hate’ in the Bible is that it usually implies a former love. In ancient synagogues, a man would occasionally stand up and announce to everyone: ‘I hate my wife.’ At this point, his wife would stand up and state: ‘I hate my husband.’ It sounds like the beginning of a public shouting match, but it was actually the formal way to start divorce proceedings. (Some official records of this have survived from Egyptian synagogues from the fifth century BC). Similarly, when God said ‘I have come to hate’ Israel for her adultery with other gods, he had recently called her ‘the one I love’ (Jeremiah 12:7–8). God’s hatred is always like that: it is love that has been rejected.

God loves both the good and bad – everyone – but the Bible is clear that unrepentant hatred for him will eventually be reciprocated. When the final sentence is decided on judgement day against unrepentant evil, it will be correct to speak of God’s hatred for that sinner. But it will be hatred with a tear in the eye, not the dry-eyed hatred of revenge.

[The author Dr David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and the New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge.]

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Why the church needs to recover family worship

by Ed Mackenzie

(Taken from Premier Christianity – July 2016)

[Are parents in danger of outsourcing the spiritual formation of their children to Sunday schools and youth groups? Ed Mackenzie explains how families can bring worship into the home.]

The great preacher John Wesley is best known for helping to establish Methodism. He travelled throughout Britain sharing the gospel and witnessing the Spirit’s work as the Church grew rapidly. But Wesley also argued that the revival would not continue unless families worshipped together, spending time in prayer and reading scripture. For Wesley, family worship was the ordinary way in which God brings children to faith. Without it, the Church was bound to decline.

Today, we know that many children who grow up in Christian homes later reject the faith. While 95% of those born to ‘non-religious’ parents remain ‘non-religious’ as adults, 40% of children raised in Christian homes no longer identify as Christians in later life. In the Church of England, half of the children of churchgoing parents stop attending church when they reach adulthood. The main reason for the Church’s decline is not its failure to evangelise but its failure to pass on the faith to the next generation.

Wesley was right to highlight the importance of family worship. Unless families regularly spend time engaging with the Bible and praying together, children are less likely to trust and follow Jesus. As sociologists show, modelling faith in the home – including through family worship – gives parents the best chance of helping their children come to faith. And yet many Christian parents have never heard about family worship, and those who practise it often feel alone.

In 2015, a friend and I interviewed a number of Christian parents about why and how they lead family worship. A number felt that what they were doing was countercultural, including within the Church. One couple mentioned that their friends felt that it was a little extreme to read Bible stories at the kitchen table. Another expressed their disappointment that so few Christian families seemed interested.

While Christian parents help their children in a range of activities – such as homework, sports clubs, and music lessons – many don’t set aside time to help them to know and worship God. Many parents, it seems, have outsourced the spiritual formation of their children to the youth or children’s groups at church. It’s not simply, however, the fault of parents. With some notable exceptions, church leaders rarely speak about faith in the home. If Christian parents aren’t encouraged and equipped to lead family worship, it’s not surprising that many don’t see it as a priority.

And yet the Bible and history – as well as sociology – point to our need to recover family worship.

Not a new idea

In the Old Testament, God’s covenant embraced children as well as adults (Genesis 17), and parents were given a key responsibility in helping their children to love God and know the law (Deuteronomy 6). Children also took part in the key festivals of Israel (Exodus 12:21–28), and learned to pray and worship among their elders.

The New Testament also assumes that parents – as well as the wider Church – have a role in helping children come to faith. In a world where children were often undervalued, Jesus welcomed and blessed them, seeing them as recipients of the kingdom (Matthew 19:13–15). Paul instructed fathers to bring up children in the ‘training and instruction of the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:4), and hints from his other letters point to the key role that parents had in raising their children to follow Jesus (1 Corinthians 7:14; 2 Timothy 1:5; Titus 1:6).

As the early Church grew, key figures continued to stress the importance of family worship. One of the most significant treatments is found in a sermon delivered by John Chrysostom, the fourth and fifth-century Bishop of Constantinople. Chrysostom encouraged parents to see themselves as entrusted by God with the spiritual welfare of their children, and offered a range of advice for parents in helping their children to follow Jesus. Chrysostom suggested, for example, that parents should share Bible stories with their kids and help them draw connections between the stories and their lives.

Family worship was also an emphasis of the 16th century Reformation. Martin Luther explained that helping kids to worship and serve God was the ‘greatest good’ of married life. For Luther, parents are ‘apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel’. To help parents teach their children the faith, Luther and the other Reformers produced ‘catechisms’ – series of questions and answers about key Christian beliefs. In the 18th century, it was not only Wesley who promoted family worship. George Whitefield, another famous preacher of the evangelical revival, similarly called for parents to lead worship within the home.

In a sermon entitled ‘The Great Duty of Family Religion’, Whitefield encouraged parents to emulate the example of Joshua, who committed his family to follow God (Joshua 24:15). For Whitefield, family worship is a duty within Christian households, something that God commands. As Whitefield asks, if Christians have been blessed so much by God, why would they not help their children know God as well?

What we find throughout history is a repeated call by Christian leaders to take family worship seriously. Theologians and preachers pointed to the responsibility of parents, under God, to bring up their children to know God. This was first of all a matter of faithfulness, but also helped to ‘Start children off on the way they should go’ (Proverbs 22:6). While a child’s faith was ultimately due to the work of the spirit, parents were called to guide their children in the way of faith – and pray for God to do the rest.

Family worship today

It’s one thing to show that family worship was central in the past, but it’s another to explore how families might worship God together today. Interviews with parents who lead family worship showed that while engaging the Bible and prayer remain core, the ‘how’ of family worship can vary enormously.

Some families find that worshipping together at breakfast suits them best. Phil and Ruth have three young children (7, 5 and 1), and they start the day together with God over cereal and orange juice. Family worship involves reading through a children’s book about God, with links to key Bible verses, and spending time praying for others. They’ve also put together a ‘family prayer’ photo book, with images of people to prompt prayer. Since their children aren’t yet all reading, this means everyone can participate and also helps them to pray for the needs of others.

Other families find that worshipping together in the evening works best. Irfan and Raheela gather with their children after dinner, and worship by singing songs, praying together and reading the Bible. With four children in their teens and 20s, family worship is a time for digging deeper into God’s word, with each member of the family taking turns to read and explain a chapter of the Bible.

For Irfan and Raheela, worshipping with the children binds the family together and is a ‘spiritual investment’ for the future. Marina and Grant, and their three sons (aged 9, 11 and 14), come together for prayer and Bible reading over a weekly ‘Shabbat’ meal. The meal draws on Marina’s Jewish roots, and provides time to talk and pray over the sharing of bread and wine (or juice!). The family pray traditional Hebrew prayers, read scripture, and light a candle to acknowledge Jesus as the light of the world. The meal provides a great opportunity for all in the family to explore questions of faith as well as share concerns for prayer.

While our interviewees varied in their practice, they were all honest about the challenges of family worship. One of the biggest hurdles is simply making the time, and interviewees agreed that family worship is likely to slip unless it’s made a priority. Another challenge is finding a style of family worship that suits different ages and stages, and parents spoke of the need to change as children grow older.

Each of our interviewees agreed, however, that family worship is worth it. It’s a practice that brings families closer together and centres them on God. It models faith within the home and lays foundations for our children’s future, and so too for the future of the Church.

If we have tasted the ‘riches of God’s grace’ (Ephesians 1:7), then we’ll want the next generation to know that grace for themselves. Knowing Jesus, after all, is more valuable than anything else in life (Philippians 3:8), and there is surely no greater blessing than seeing our children come to know him too. If family worship helps with that – and it does – then it’s something that the Church desperately needs to recover.

Four tips on how to worship as a family

1. Pray and begin. Rather than waiting for the perfect time, just make a start. Pray for God’s help as you do, and perhaps tell your church leader or a Christian friend so that they can pray too.

2. Keep it simple. While there are many good resources to help you in family worship, don’t make it too complicated. An easy way to begin is by reading a short Bible passage and praying about it with your children.

3. Find what works. Try to find a way of worshipping together that suits your family. A family that loves music, for example, might naturally incorporate worship songs, though others may not.

4. Keep going. One of the biggest challenges of family worship is sticking with it. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you miss a day, or even a few days. Just make a fresh start. Aim to make family worship a habit and part of your family culture.

[The author, Ed Mackenzie, is a discipleship development officer for the Methodist Church and an associate lecturer at Cliff College. He lives in Derbyshire with his wife and their two sons (aged 5 and 7), and has written – with Gareth Crispin – Together with God: An Introduction to Family Worship (Morse-Brown).]

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