Welcome to the new Romans 15:8 blog for June. I am writing this on the day after we hear the news that the end of Covid restrictions will not now take place on 21st June (incidentally my 60th birthday!) but are delayed until 19th July. The change of dates complicates matters for a lot of people, not least for us at CMJ and our Conference due to take place on 16th – 18th of July. I would value your ongoing prayers for us as a team as we try and navigate the best way forward for the Conference and other related ministry issues at this time. The good news is that the Conference has been given the green light; we will follow the Covid mitigation protocols and reduce our numbers in order to run our Conference.
In terms of this blog, I thank you for those who shared thoughts, insights, and questions from my Teaching Reflection of the Month segment. The teaching on eschatology generated much interest and a range of helpful comments.
I hope and pray you will let others know of this blog and find something within these blogs which will inspire, encourage, and challenge in equal measure.
I will be on holiday for some of July and August so there will not be a blog for July, and my next blog will be in August.
I hope all Romans 15:8 members will have a joyful summer and I look forward to meeting many of you at the CMJ Conference (16th to 18th July).
Ministry News Update
I am delighted to share the news that Jonathan, our community-based evangelist, and his wife welcomed their second child last week. A beautiful baby boy!
I am pleased that a number of live deputations took place recently. Janey and Paul Hames had good opportunities to speak at a range of Churches and I preached at Stoke Ash Baptist Church on 13th June. Additionally, the street outreach at Stamford Hill continues to go ahead and a full outreach programme has been set for the summer/autumn.
Sadly, book sales have remained slow but there has been encouraging sales of my most recent devotional book Thinking Aloud! – please have a look at online shop www.cmj.org.uk/shop and perhaps order a book or two - what could be better than reading a CMJ book while sitting on a sunny beach or a shaded garden this summer!
This month I would like to draw your attention to a book I read many years ago when training for ordination but re-read for the first-time last month. It is a biography of Martin Luther called Here I stand by Roland Bainton (Lion, 1978). This biography is, rightly in my view, acclaimed by many as the most readable and accessible modern biography on Luther. In this book we are given a careful analysis of Luther’s emotions, faith and personal faith journey. All of this is placed in a clear historical and theological framework. The book is divided into 22 concise chapters, each one helping the reader discover key parts of Luther’s life. One interesting quotation jumped out to me:
“If one would discover parallels to Luther as the wrestler with the Lord, then one must turn to Paul the Jew, Augustine the Latin, Pascal the Frenchman, Kierkegaard the Dane, Unamuno the Spaniard, Dostoevsky the Russian, Bunyan the Englishman and Edwards the American.”
Now that is an interesting reading list or study module!
For us within CMJ the final chapter has a brief yet insightful section on Luther’s attitude to the Jews. This section prompted me to turn again to a book I have recommended many times in a CMJ context namely Luther and the Jews by Richard Harvey (Cascade, 2017).
I hope you enjoy reading both of these important books.
Monthly Memory Verse
Listen to Me, you who pursue justice, you who seek ADONAI. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. (Isaiah 51:1 - Messianic Jewish Family Bible - Tree of Life Version)
Teaching Reflection of the Month
How Does God Make Himself and His Plans Known?
This question is huge, one that would have testimonies, texts and teaching in abundance should it be discussed among the Romans 15:8 network. How does God make Himself and his plans known is a question I have been thinking about recently, for two main reasons. Firstly, I was preparing to preach on Acts 2 at my home Church on Pentecost Sunday. Secondly, I have been to a training course on reaching out to the Hasidic Jews and have re-read some of the writings of Maimonides.
Maimonides (1138-1204) taught that God has no multiplicity. According to Maimonides, God is lacking anything corporeal or humanly intelligible or even attributes. God cannot be described positively within this view. For Maimonides, God can only be spoken of in terms of what He is not, or better yet, it is good to simply offer silence. Maimonides holds the view that the Incarnation of the Son of God is irrational, contradictory, illogical and impossible. The God of Israel cannot become incarnate just like he cannot make himself stop existing. This accusation of impossibility is rooted in much modern Jewish thought and rests upon Maimonidean rationalist philosophy and theology. Maimonides’s views are only as strong as his presuppositions, these presuppositions are dependent upon his metaphysical and cosmological systems of belief. Similarly, Jewish Kabbalistic mysticism rejects the incarnation, not as impossible but as irrelevant or redundant. The Incarnation has no significance because all of us are united with the divine. Nor does the incarnation of Ein Sof (God - the infinite one, prior to any self-manifestation or revelation) have any redemptive purposes because we need freedom from multiplicity, not atonement (forgiveness) for sin.
As a Christian, I also have presuppositions shaped by reason, tradition and experience. I believe God reveals himself and his actions through Scripture. Many people may think it is impossible for God to make a 90-year-old woman give birth, or bring down fire from heaven, or make a donkey speak. Many may also think it is impossible for God to take up life as a human being. Such things are not to be judged based upon a priori philosophical reasoning, but by whether there is good evidence that God has, in fact, done such things in history. A priori reasoning, be it based in Greek philosophy, Hasidic mysticism, liberal negative theology or any other framework, must take a backseat to a posteriori reasoning. As Athanasius taught ‘God demonstrates as possible what men mistake, thinking impossible’.
What does the Scriptures say about how God makes Himself and His plans known? I think Biblical Judaism and Christianity would teach that God makes Himself known in or through three main events in the Old Testament:
Creation - God makes Himself known through the created order. The pinnacle of creation is the creation of human beings made uniquely in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). There are many aspects of being made in the “image of God” but one key aspect is that we are made for relationships. We can love and be loved. We can know and be known. We can discover, learn, forgive, and grow. Each life has a God-given dignity and from conception to the grave each life has key rights and is worthy of care and respect. We understand that the “image” is marred and is distorted to some degree by the reality of the Fall (human sin) yet the “image” is never destroyed, it is never lost. The revelation of God through the created order is declared throughout Scripture (see for example the following Psalms - Psalm 8, 19, 24, 93, 95, 121, 136, 148) and this truth provides an important starting point in presenting the Gospel in many different contexts (see Romans 1:20 and Acts 14:17).
Covenants - God makes relationship with the patriarchs, beginning with Abraham (see Genesis 12-25 and Romans 4). It is through the outworking of these covenantal relationships that we begin to know more about God and how we are called to respond through faith, trust, and obedience.
The Exodus and the gift of Torah - The Exodus event declares God’s justice, power, and purposes. It is through the Torah that Israel learns to live in covenant with God. This is more than external obedience, but God speaks to Moses “face to face” as one speaks to a friend and promises His “presence” and his “rest” (Exodus 33:11-14). Here we have a picture of intimacy, of knowing and being known. This reality is spoken about throughout Scripture, one verse which leaps out to me which shows and celebrates this intimacy of knowing, this fellowship of love is Zephaniah 3:17, while Hosea 11 speaks powerfully of God’s longing for His people to know Him more fully and has echoes of the encounter in Genesis 3:8.
The creation, the covenants and the reality of the Exodus are the key building blocks of God’s revelation. These building blocks are equally shared and honoured by Biblical Judaism and Christianity. However, the revelation purposes of God continue to unfold and to deepen. The Scriptures teach that God continues to present in physical space and time. We can use Biblical insights to speak of a Holy Land and a Holy Temple. God’s presence is linked to a place. This begins within the Exodus event with the Tabernacle. This is the place of meeting (see Exodus 36-40) and God gives specific instructions for the setting up and maintaining this place (tent) of meeting.
Later, the mobile Tabernacle becomes the permanent Temple. God reaffirms His presence (name) as the Temple is dedicated (1 Kings 9). God’s presence will not be fleeting or temporary but is to be present for ever. The Temple becomes the very centre of life for Israel. Therefore, there are regular festival ‘pilgrimages’ to the Temple for all faithful Jewish people, God-fearers from other nations are also drawn to the Temple.
When the people are exiled and therefore cut off from the Temple there is a profound sense of loss, dislocation, and separation. It is as if God is beyond reach for those exiled; singing of praise almost is an impossibility (Psalm 137:4). Therefore, when the people return from exile the rebuilding of the Temple becomes more than an act of ‘nation building’ or physical restoration it marks renewal and spiritual restoration (see Ezra, Nehemiah, and Haggai).
As we enter the New Testament, we see that Jesus had a deep connection with the Temple. The Temple provides the context for some of the birth stories (Luke 1:11, 2:22, 2:36) and Luke tells a unique account of Jesus at the Temple as a child (2:41-50), it is at this time Jesus seems to know of His unique relationship with His Father and the Temple. Luke also concludes his Gospel account with the early believers praising God within the Temple courts (Like 24:53) and this practice appears to have continued into the life of the early Church (Acts 2:46). In His wider teaching ministry Jesus often teaches within the context of the Temple courts and the pilgrim festivals – see John 7 – Jesus is teaching at the festival of Tabernacles.
There has been a lot written, and debated, regarding the exact connections Jesus had with the Temple, but what is clear is that Jesus redefines the significance and meaning of the Temple. This is seen primarily in the encounter which takes place in the Temple at Passover (John 2:2:19-21). Here, Jesus speaks of the Temple not as the grand building in Jerusalem but as His own body. The true significance of this only occurs fully to His disciples after the resurrection. I think a strong case can be made in stating that it was this new way of understanding the Temple which Jesus proclaims, more than any other statement or action, which led some two years later to His arrest, trial and crucifixion.
The New Testament makes clear that Jesus becomes the ‘place of meeting’. The Incarnation is the fulfilling of Israel’s revelation of God and of their experiences rooted as the people of the covenants. In the past it is as if God gave animal skins to cover the consequence of sin (Genesis 3:21) and later dwelled in a tent covered in animal (goat) skin and hair (Exodus 36:14) to make Himself known to His people. Now He enters humanity; he takes upon Himself human life and is covered in human skin and hair in order to bring about His redemptive purposes. John 1:14 proclaims that the eternal Word became flesh and made His dwelling (he tabernacled amongst us) with us. John 1;18 states: No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God, and is in the closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” John 14:6-7 states: “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Other key New Testament texts which help illustrate and explore this truth would include Hebrews 1:1-4, Colossians 1:15-20 and Philippians 2:6-11. I have reflected on these key texts in my book - Walking an Ancient Path (Glory to Glory Publications, 2016). This book is available via the CMJ UK online shop (www.cmj.org.uk/shop) and will hopefully prove a helpful resource for those exploring issues around the person and work of Jesus.
However, there is a further New Testament redefining of the Temple. The Temple is not simply the body of Jesus, but all believers in Jesus are now the Temple of the living God (2 Corinthians 6:16.) In Acts 2 Jesus had ascended into heaven. His physical body is no longer present. Yet in the shadow of the Temple, 3000 people encounter the baptism in (of) the Holy Spirit. They mark this by baptism in the Temple mikvah pools. A new reality is taking shape. God is now present through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the lives of each person who have put their trust in Jesus, His life atoning death and life-giving resurrection. The Holy Spirit indwelling the believer and working within the wider ‘Church’ community is the central message of the events of Pentecost as told in Acts 2 and beyond.
The Holy Spirit is not given as a sort of consolation prize to make up for the absence of the ascended Jesus, but rather the Holy Spirit confirms His risen presence and power in individuals and within the Church community. The Holy Spirit is not a gift from God but is the gift of God. In the New Testament the emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit is inseparable from the message of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit is active in transforming lives, in giving inspired speech and praise, in establishing patterns of holy living, and in enabling effective and empowered witness to the glory of Jesus.
How God makes Himself and His ways known remains a big question, yet our answer must always point clearly to the Incarnation of Jesus and the subsequent indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is not the final word from Scripture, we have a glimpse of what is still to be. Revelation 21:22-27 gives a picture of a time and a place when the old order of things has passed away. In this reality we will know and be known in even greater ways as God dwells amongst us and all His creation is renewed and restored in ways we cannot ever fully begin to imagine.