Tag Archives: Worship

A true love story

Reading Genesis 24 recently I was struck by the ending. Not the way Hollywood, or the BBC, would have portrayed it. We see Isaac take Rebekah, but not quite in the sense the movies use the phrase. This is quite a different taking. It’s the same taking, if not done in quite the same way today, as is done by every man and woman who desire marriage — “Do you take . . . to be your wife/husband?”

Isaac took Rebekah into the tent, but the camera stays outside. We do not need to enter the tent. Indeed, we ought not to enter the tent. What happens there is neither for us to share, or imagine. What is important is not the entering of the tent, or what happens there, but that Rebekah became his wife, and that Isaac loved her. Here is marriage as God intended, with all that those two phrases entail.

As divinely told, the story is as tender as when God introduced Adam to his wife. Yet, these are no Hollywood fantasies, endearingly romantic, but utterly unreal. The whole story is one of God’s careful and marvellous providence, not just the ending. How else could it end: “he loved her”? How could he not? Did we not love her the moment she stepped up to the well?

But more than that, we bowed our heads with Abraham’s servant and worshipped with him, did we not? For, as tender as the love Isaac had for Rebekah, more tender was the love that planned it all. That wise old servant saw it clearly when he said, “Blessed by the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master.” (Gen. 24:27)

This is the whole point of the story, is it not? With what relish and excitement must he have related everything to Isaac on his return, before Isaac took Rebekah. How could this not have been the highlight of his story? And what a perfect beginning to their marriage, to see and to know the hand of God so clearly in all the detail.

And as perfect as the story we read is, much more perfect is the providential love God still has for his people. Ought we not to stand by the well ourselves from time to time, and bow our heads and worship that selfsame God. Edith McNeill put it well in her paraphrase of Lam. 3:22-23:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning, new every morning:
great is Your faithfulness, O Lord,
great is Your faithfulness.

Reflections on Revelation – 3

Just before going to morning worship I was reading the first chapter of the Book of Revelation in preparation, since our pastor is preaching through the book. It struck me that while it is a book in two parts, there are also two major strands running through the book. The book deals with events (“to show to his servants the things that must soon take place”, 1:1) and behaviour (“who keep what is written in it”, 1:3). Thus, the purpose of the book is to show coming events, while the purpose of showing the events is to encourage readers to live in coming with those coming events.

The events are not unimportant, but are not an end in themselves. Of far greater importance is the kind of life lived in the knowledge of those events, what David Gooding would call “the moral and spiritual implications of prophecy”. Peter’s question is relevant to any study of Revelation — “since all these things are to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness … ?” (2 Peter 3:11).

But while the main purpose of the book is to encourage a Christian lifestyle consistent with the teachings of Revelation, and by extension the Bible as a whole, the means God has employed to encourage us to live this kind of life is to reveal future events. So we must not neglect understanding what it is God has revealed to us. While it can be an attractive option to skim lightly over the events in Revelation, and be happy to agree to disagree with others on the detail, that is unlikely to yield sufficient benefit from any reading of the book.

If the keeping of the teaching is related to the knowing of the events, it must surely be more difficult, if not impossible, to understand the teaching without understanding the events. And a further implication for any interpretation of the book is that as it was God’s intention to reveal the events, rather than conceal them, interpretation must not only be possible, but is unlikely to be exceptionally difficult. That is not to say that a superficial reading of Revelation will yield any or all of the meaning and teaching of the book, no more than it will for any other part of Scripture.

It may, of course, rank alongside those difficult parts of Paul’s letters to which Peter alludes (2 Peter 3:15-16). But the problem is not, he tells us, the difficulty in understanding, but ignorance. If we do not know what Revelation is about, and that would include the events, then there is a very real danger that our ignorance, combined with instability, will lead to our destruction. If we don’t know the events, and don’t discover the doctrine, that will impact our behaviour.

Peter is not specific about the instability he mentions, but given the context of understanding Scripture, it is reasonable to conclude that he is on a similar tack to James, where wisdom and unwavering faith are the antidote to instability (James 1:5-8). Paul himself indicates that mature understanding of doctrine is an essential antidote to instability (Eph 4:11-16). There he stresses the importance of knowing Christ as an effective remedy against instability.

If we are to understand Revelation properly, we must get to know Christ, as he is portrayed throughout the book. Chapter 1 brings us with John to the feet of Christ. If we are to understand the seven letters that follow, we must understand what chapter 1 teaches about Christ, for the letters are closely related. And Christ appears similarly throughout the book — in chapter 5 as the Lamb in the midst of the Throne; in chapter 10 as a mighty angel, astride land and sea; in chapter 14 as the Lamb amidst the 144,000; and in chapter 19 as the rider on the white horse. Are these other pictures of Christ similarly related to the passages that follow them?

It would appear, then, that the key to understanding Revelation is to understand the events, and the key to understanding the events is to understand Christ as he reveals himself in the book. But then that is no different from the rest of Scripture, as our Lord himself taught us, as he showed the disciples in the Seven-Mile Sermon, where he began “with Moses and all the prophets” and “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

So without understanding Christ we will fail to understand Revelation. But perhaps John’s reaction to the vision of Christ in chapter 1 is also instructive for our understanding of the book — he fell at Christ’s feet (1:17). It is most likely because of the overwhelming nature of the encounter, rather than worship, though often his falling is taken to be worship. We, too, can be overwhelmed by the vision. But we need to take Christ’s reassurance not to fear to heart. We need to heed the guides John has throughout the book, who patiently explain the meaning of the various things he saw. Interpreting Revelation may not necessarily be straightforward, but it will be needlessly more difficult if we fail to see Christ in its pages, and heed the guides embedded within the text.

But worship will be important in gaining a proper understanding of the book. John may not have worshipped in chapter 1, but Christ’s appearance in chapter 5 elicits worship from the heavenly multitude. It is expected of God’s people that they will worship in response to what they see and hear in this book. In chapter 13 , by contrast, the earth dwellers and beast followers worship the dragon and the beast (13:5, 15), and one senses disapproval at that point.

When John finally falls down himself in worship (19:10; 22:8,9) he is rebuked for attempting to worship anyone less than God himself. And throughout the book we have regular refrains of worship that must lead us to conclude that the only adequate response to this book will be worship. If our supposed grasp of it does not lead us to worship then it might be a reasonable conclusion that we have failed to obtain a truly sound grasp of it, however much we might claim to understand the events described in it.

To understand Revelation aright we will need to get to grips with the events, and from them deduce the doctrine. The test of our understanding will be in our behaviour in the light of the events, and our evident worship stemming from our grasp of the teaching, and the Christ of the book.

Letter to an atheist heretic

Magnus Linklater wrote a refreshingly honest piece in The Times last month. I found it heartening to see that not every self-proclaimed atheist agrees uncritically with Richard Dawkins and his fellow militant atheists (Hitchins, Dennett, Harris, Toynbee, et al.).

In one sense it is easy to see what Linklater is uneasy about. According to Dawkins (if that doesn’t sound too much like The Gospel According to Dawkins), he is a vacuous atheist. Who wants to be called vacuous? Inconsistent, yes. A heretic, even — his words not mine. He sounds more like a reluctant convert who is having second and third thoughts. And it’s not too hard to see why. Rather than thanking God he is an atheist, he ought to thank God he is having second thoughts. And well he might.

Proclaiming oneself an atheist is a big step to take. It is, however, a step in the wrong direction. The only right step to take from agnosticism is the one Adam took from his fig-leaf-bedecked rebellion (not agnosticism or atheism) — towards God, not away from him.

But then, as a Christian, I would think that. Look, however, at what Linklater himself says. He is reassured by Dawkins on his mental independence. He feels the healthy effects of his bold step. But he’s worried about Dawkins’s qualification “nearly always” — Richard Dawkins could be wrong! Yes, he is wrong. He could not be any more wrong. To rely on his pronouncements is justifiably to be worried.

Adam got to wear his fig leaves precisely because he exercised independence of mind. Far from a healthy step, it was the most unhealthy step he could have taken — terminally so. He followed the shallow, flawed logic of a persuasive anti-god exponent. His deceiver was no mere atheist. No, he was a convinced theist, as well he might be (cf. James 2:19). But he was an anti-theist — he was utterly opposed to God. Like his latter day disciple, he sought to convince our first parents that independence of mind was a healthy and desirable thing. But such a mode of thinking will condemn its proponents to the very hell Magnus Linklater thinks a fantasy. Sadly, it is the mode of thinking that is the fantasy, not the eternal abode.

Why does Linklater find comfort in religion, and specifically Christian religion? Given his espousal of atheism, it is certainly inconsistent. But I venture to suggest, it is a good sign. He has not succumbed totally to the Lie, for lie is what it is — God does exist, and to say and believe otherwise is to speak and believe the greatest lie in the universe.

May that inconsistent comfort in the things of God grow in his mind. Well might he feel he is on the “shifting sands of uncertainty.” He is. But unlike the foolish builder in Jesus’ parable (Mat. 7:24-27) he has begun to realise the precarious position he is in. His position is at variance with the very nature of the universe, and the manifest reality of the living God. As the late Francis A. Schaeffer often insisted, this universe is personal, not impersonal. To seek to live in a universe stamped with the very personality of its Creator as if he did not exist is bound to lead to uncertainty. Suppressing the truth (Rom 1:18ff) is a very dangerous thing. If one persists in it to the end of earthy life, it will result in the full effects of the wrath of God being meted out against oneself — what Linklater supposes to be a fantasy (Hell) will be known as an eternal reality.

But God has designed this universe in such a way that what can be known about him is plain. It is no accident. God has shown it to us. “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” (Rom 1:20) Such manifest revelation of God as this world in which we live provides, leaves us without an excuse not to believe in God. Our claim to be wise — the “healthy independence of mind” that Dawkins so deludedly proposes — is in fact evidence of our folly. We have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” (Rom 1:23) Not for Dawkins the worship of mere animals. But worship nonetheless he engages in — worship of man. If he will not have the living God, god he must have. Since there is nothing with higher intelligence than himself and his species, that has become his god. But to do such a thing is to exchange “the truth about God for a lie” and to worship and serve “the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” (Rom 1:25)

Well might Linklater feel uncertain and uneasy. He is living a lie, however sincerely he may believe it, and I have no doubt he is sincere. Rather than thank God for his atheism, he would do well to take the next step in his atheistic heresy. I welcome him to the ranks of heresy, a heresy to which I am myself committed. I do not believe in atheism, and must therefore be an atheist heretic.

But simply to doubt or disbelieve atheism is not enough. If The Lie is to be abandoned with any profit, it must be forsaken for The Truth. That Truth will lead to worship of the Creator. It will entail embracing the one who proclaimed himself The Truth (John 14:6). It will also entail the admission of that wrong-headed independent thinking — what the Bible calls confession of sin.

Far from entering a closed-minded universe of intellectual darkness, such a confession will lead one into a gloriously illuminated Technicolor universe, the like of which no Hollywood cinematic extravaganza could capture. It is to leave our tiny, cramped, two-dimensional hovel we pathetically call a universe for the expansive reality of all that God has created. We move from darkness into light (Col 1:13-14). From the blindness of unbelieving minds to hearts in which shines “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Co 4:6).

Who could be content with the sterility of antitheism, thinking and acting in an imaginary universe devised by impotent minds? Who could be content with the comfortlessness of mere amorphous theism? The enjoyment of reality is to be found in worshipping the Creator — the one we have known for 2000 years as Jesus of Nazareth. He is The Truth. Facing the truth means bowing our minds and hearts and wills to his benevolent Lordship.

To all atheist heretics, I say to you, “we implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2Co 5:20).