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A danger was pointed out to me recently that simply being gospel-centred is not enough – for an individual, church or ministry.

Let me try to illustrate with a few diagrams.

  1. Gospel-centred but gospel-assumed rather than gospel-explicit

Gospel assumed

With gospel-assumed there is a lot of talk about gospel but we never quite get around to defining and spelling out exactly what we mean by the gospel. So very quickly not only are we not actually preaching the gospel to others (so no-one is being converted or built up), we start to forget it ourselves.

The solution: We go back to the Bible every day to remind ourselves of the good news from all over Scripture. We need to fill in the word with Bible detail.

For example in my Bible reading this morning I saw in 1 Chronicles 11 a little vignette of the gospel – one man standing against a whole army of Philistines ‘and the LORD saved’ (v14). And I see a tiny picture of the One Man who stood instead of us and triumphed over all our enemies – Satan, death, hell. And I’m reminded that the LORD saves – the most succinct summary of the gospel – salvation belongs to the LORD. His is the victory we will praise for all eternity (Rev. 7:10). I did not save myself. I was not one of David’s mighty men, I was more like a faithless Israelite or a hostile Philistine. I didn’t do a thing to move towards God. But he saved me. The Father chose me, the Son took my place on the cross, the Spirit grabbed me and united me to Christ. Sovereign grace grabbed me.

  1. Gospel-centred but gospel-small rather than gospel-big

Gospel small

With gospel-small there may be explicit regular mention of the gospel but it is a bit formulaic and anemic. I make sure I get into every sermon ‘Jesus died on the cross for us’ but that’s about it. So before long it loses its impact on our hearers or even on our own hearts. It starts to seem like a small thing and (if we’re honest) a rather boring message. So it doesn’t change lives.

The solution: we go back again and again to the Bible – all different parts of the Bible – Psalms, prophecy, letters, stories – to see the richness and depth and vastness and complexity and multi-faceted, multi-coloured beauty of the gospel from the detail of specific Bible texts.

For example in my morning devotion in 1 Chronicles 11 I see David finally acknowledged as king by his people. I see that he is of the same bone and flesh as his people (v1), that he is the shepherd of his people (v2), that he binds himself in covenant to his people (v3). I am reminded by the mention of Uriah the Hittite (v41) that this was not the perfect King. And my eyes are drawn to the Son of God who took bone and flesh that he could be the Second Adam united to his bride and the Second David, Goliath-slaying king over his people, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11, 15) and makes incredible promises binding himself to his people (John 10:27-28; 11:25-26; 12:26; 14:3, 23; 15:7-8).

If I had longer I could try to explore the significance of the King winning Jerusalem for his people (1 Chron. 11:4-9), the pattern of taking advantage of something won for you at great cost (1 Chron. 11:15-10 cf. John 6:53), the need for a hero (1 Chron. 11:20-25. And this is all from one chapter. If we keep doing this from text after text we start to build up a rich, beautiful, big heart-capturing gospel picture.

It’s the difference between a little stick man picture and a 6” by 6” Klimt portrait.

Gospel small - pictures

  1. Gospel-centred but floating rather than rooted

Gospel floating

Gospel-floating is where we do a decent job of explaining the heart of the gospel but it is not rooted into the rest of the Bible text and systematic theology. The gospel is floating unmoored, unanchored, untethered. This is a subtle danger. We can appear to be ‘just wanting to preach the gospel’ and ‘just wanting to preach Bible’ but by failing to tie the gospel into broader biblical themes and doctrinal structures we can drift off into something less than orthodox and biblical. In times of increasing biblical illiteracy this is going to be a serious issue – we can’t take for granted the doctrine of God, doctrine of creation, doctrine of man.

Solution: We go back to the Bible and seek to do exposition which avoids both the danger of eisegesis (where we pour our systematic framework into every verse – a rather boring and dangerous form of exposition) but also the danger of preaching things from one Scripture that assume or are even deny the truths of other Scriptures. We need to go to the Scriptures with a view that it is one story with a consistent theology that we need to seek to learn as well as we’re able (though humbly accepting that no one of us will never see it perfectly).

For example, 1 Corinthians 15:1-10 – that great gospel summary – is actually leaning on a whole lot of stuff. That’s why it says ‘according to the Scriptures’ twice. The idea of ‘dying for our sins’ only makes sense if you know a) what sin is and b) how it is possible for one to die for sins. To really understand this gospel summary I’m going to need to dig into the Old Testament for a complex biblical understanding of sin, including particularly the fact that it is first and foremost against God and calls down the wrath of God. Then I’m going to need to unpack the sacrificial system and the whole idea of a substitute being burnt up in the wrath of God instead of me. And the same is true of ‘rising on the third day according to the Scriptures.’ I’m going to need to look at what resurrection really means – the end time, the judgment day, the need for this creation to be swallowed up in an imperishable holy new creation. Without a lot of biblical undergirding the language of ‘Christ died for you and rose again’ is almost completely meaningless.

Another example: When I look at 1 Chronicles 11:1 and think through the way in which Christ shared our human nature (bone and flesh) I need to connect it all the way back to Genesis 3:16 and the promise of one born of woman who would crush the serpent. I would also need to look forward to what the New Testament says about the human nature of Christ. I would want to be guided in that by the ancient creeds and historic confessions where the church has thought long and hard and come up with very carefully considered words to express the completeness of Christ’s humanity and the wonder of two natures in one person without confusion or separation. I might also want to think of Athanasius and Irenaeus and the huge importance of the incarnation, God becoming man that we might share in his divine nature. Then I might want to think about the ascension and the importance of Christ retaining his human nature there, right now calling me his brother.

One more example: When we read in the prophets of the LORD’s yearning for his beloved people, his heart being moved, his inmost parts (KJV: bowels) being disturbed (e.g. Jeremiah 31:20) then surely we are seeing the very spring of the gospel – the passionate love of God. I’m definitely going to want to preach that to myself and others. But at the same time I’m going to have to be careful I don’t deny the orthodox definition of God. I’ll want to give full force to the biblical language of affections but also keep respectfully in mind the ancient understanding that God is immutable, ‘without parts or passions’ and the biblical material that says that God is wholly other and ‘not like a man.’ Not to say that all this has to come into a pulpit. Most of it will stay in the study, but if I ignore this theology I run the risk of teaching fluff or heresy.

  1. Gospel-centred but DIY implications rather than Bible implications

DIY implications

Here we have a good, rich, well-rooted biblical understanding of the gospel, but when it comes to working out the implications of the gospel (for my own life or for church life) then I sort of ‘wing it’ – DIY – Do It Yourself. I assume a) that God is not particularly prescriptive about exactly how I should lead my life or how the church should be ordered and b) I assume that I am able work out for myself, from the internal logic of the gospel, how if should be applied in different areas of life.

For example I see that the gospel springs from the consistent other-person-centred love of God and so I think the implication of the gospel is ‘any stable, loving, other-person-centred relationship’. Or I see that the gospel is the salvation not only of our souls but also of our bodies and indeed the renewing of the whole creation and so I think an implication is that the church’s mission is, with equal emphasis, to a) care for souls and b) to care for people’s bodies, transform society and fight for the natural environment.

I was reading a good Christian book the other day by a fine author who knows and explains the gospel extremely well. Much of the book was excellent. But, as I read one chapter where he described the implications of the gospel for church life, I started to feel something was a little bit off. And then I realised that he hadn’t quoted Scripture for several pages. We were moving into deductions from deductions from deductions – DIY implications.

The solution: We go back to the Bible and find the implications of the gospel from the Bible itself. This is particularly clear in the Apostle Paul’s letters. Most of them (roughly speaking) start with a couple of chapters of gospel doctrine then move to a concluding couple of chapters spelling out the implications of the gospel in some detail.

Ephesians, for example, lays out the great gospel of sovereign grace – the Trinitarian God grabbing a people for himself – by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in the Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone (Eph. 1-3) – then Paul starts talking about the implications of that for how we live as this new community of God’s people (Eph. 4:1-5:21). Loads of detailed instructions about the role of church leaders, every member ministry, speech, sex, work, reconciliation. But even this is not specific enough. People could take ‘submit to one another’ (5:21) to mean that there is no longer such a thing as differentiation of roles or authority or respect. So then there is a section laying out how exactly different relationships should work – wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters (Eph. 5:22-6:9). In each of these relationships we can see that it is the gospel which is shaping the structure and manner of that relationship (in a beautiful way) but the point here is that God doesn’t leave us to guess how the gospel shapes these relationships he tells us.

The same could be said for the ordering of the local church (1 Timothy). Not that everything is spelled out – of course not. In loads of things we are free – it doesn’t matter what colour the curtains are. And yes there will still be lots of things where we will have to make gospel-hearted decisions about what is wisest for the advance of the gospel – how long will the sermon be? But in a lot of things – in fact all the important things – we’re actually given a lot of guidance by the Holy Spirit.

Why the detail? Because I cannot be trusted to work out all the implications of the gospel for myself. I will naturally use the right doctrine in the wrong way. Like people in Paul’s day I will take the grace of God and make it a license for sin (Rom. 6:1) rather than a spring of good works (Rom. 6:2-23). I need to be taught the right out-working of the gospel and the specific good deeds I need to do. I need both the gospel at the centre of everything that teaches me to say know to ungodliness (Titus 2:11-14) and I need someone (God) to draw the lines out from that centre to show me what true godliness looks like in detail (Titus 2:2-10).

 

Maybe this is all just another way of saying, let’s be expository. Let’s be gospel-centred and Bible-rich – getting our gospel from the Bible – a beautiful, big, detailed, rooted, worked-out gospel of Christ Jesus who came into the world to save sinners of who I am the worst.

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There are very few resources out there on 2 Chronicles so I thought I’d try to draw together the stuff that came out of our series at the First Priority prayer meeting and encourage preaching through the book – no really – it is great!

And…

 

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And so in the matter of the envoys of the princes of Babylon, who had been sent to him to enquire about the sign that had been done in the land, God left him to himself, in order to test him and to know all that was in his heart. (2 Chron. 32:31)

And what is in my heart left to itself?

O God, it is amazing that men can talk so much about man’s creaturely power and goodness, when, if thou didst not hold us back every moment, we should be devils incarnate. This, by bitter experience, thou hast taught me concerning myself. (from A Bennett ed., Valley of Vision, p.4)

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In 2 Chronicles 26 at the last First Priority prayer meeting we saw King Uzziah’s reign go through a very clear trajectory:

Slide1

It had been exactly the same with his father Amaziah (2 Chron. 25) and his father Joash (2 Chron. 22-24). A wonderful rise and then a terrible fall. Throughout history it’s been the shape of world empires and nations, of companies and organisations, sadly of churches and revivals, and of countless politicians and personalities. Why?

Surely the deep answer is that it’s the shape of Adam. The first word of the book(s) of Chronicles signals that search for a second Adam –  the one who will reverse the fall, bring blessing, crush evil, restore all things. And in Uzziah it looks like we may have found him: restorer (v2), crusher of evil (v6, 11-15), a great ‘name’ and spreading dominion (v8, 15 cf. Gen. 12:2; 15:18), the builder of Jerusalem (v9), a gardener (v10). But then, like Adam he breaks faith (v16), enters into a living death (v19 cf. Num. 12:12), and is separated from God’s presence (v21).

This is the pattern of Adam and it happens again and again at every level of society because we are all born in Adam. My real problem is not that I have an ‘Uzziah’ in my life (e.g. pride) that I need to kill. The problem is that I am Uzziah – I’m born in the man of death and decay and I deserve to die eternally.

What I need is the true King whom Isaiah saw the year Uzziah died (Isa. 6); the second Adam who would bring in a new Eden (Isa. 11). What was the shape of his life? Look at Isaiah 52:13-53:12:

Slide2

Instead of a meteoric rise and a terrible fall, this King starts in exalted glory, descends to take human flesh, descends to a humiliating execution and then is exalted to the throne above all thrones (Phil. 2; John 13).

That is the shape of our salvation. That is what absorbs and reverses the shape of our Adamic curse. And it is also the shape of those who are in Christ Jesus. It is the shape of servant leadership. A few of the OT greats were clearly conformed to this U-shape – e.g. Joseph, Job, Daniel. And it is for us to whom Paul says: “have this mind” (Phil. 2:5).

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MTC2 group work

At the last Ministry Training Course we were looking at the Gospel according to Matthew with the apprentices and I’m due to preach on Matthew a few times in the next month so back into the first Gospel for the next few posts…

Matthew is very often called the Gospel of Fulfillment – for very good reason (e.g. Matt. 1:22; 2:15,17,23; 5:17; 13:52). But what really caught my attention recently was Peter Mead’s observation of links between Matthew and Chronicles. A major theme of Chronicles is idolatry leading the hearts of Israel away from true devotion to Yahweh. By the time of Jesus, Judaism has turned away from physical idols but replaced them with slightly more subtle idols with the same function (Matt. 6:24). Building on this, here are a few more links and similarities:

  • Genealogies – Both Matthew and Chronicles start with genealogy.
  • David and Solomon – They take up almost half of the Chronicles saga and are very important to Matthew (e.g. 1:1,20; 12:23,42).
  • Kingdom – Just as Chronicles is very obviously the story of kings and their kingdoms, so Matthew is very obviously dominated by the theme of the King and his Kingdom.
  • Adam – Chronicles is concerned to find the second Adam (1 Chron. 1:1) but never finds him. Matthew has found the Son of Man who raises up children of the Kingdom in cursed, thorny ground (Matt. 13:6-7,37-38).
  • Now-and-not-yet – For people going home from Exile and experiencing the tension that they are home and yet it is not yet the New Eden that the prophets promised, Chronicles is full of encouragements about the extraordinary glory days of old. In the same way, Matthew encourages us in our similar now-and-not-yet tension with amazing stories demonstrating what the glorious Kingdom of the King will be like (e.g.Matt. 8-9; 11:4-5; 27:52-53).
  • Temple – Chronicles was obsessed with the Temple and turning towards the Temple for forgiveness and restoration. In Matthew it is the degradation and destruction of the Temple which are the backdrop throughout chapters 21-27. Instead of turning back to the physical Temple, Jesus calls people to himself for rest (Matt. 11:28).

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The theme of 2 Chronicles is ‘Christmas hangs by a thread’. The promise of a great forever king from David’s line (1 Chron. 17:11-14) is under serious threat. Ahaziah is on the throne and all his brothers have already been killed (v1). We’re down to one man. More bad news: He’s a evil king like his father (ch. 21) and an unwise king like his grandfather (v5 cf. ch. 18). God is sovereign over his hospital visit to Joram (v6-7) so that he intersects with Jehu (a.k.a. the Terminator) as he blazes through Israel destroying everyone in his way (v8-9). Jehu terminates Ahaziah and then the evil queen mother Athaliah – a forerunner for Herod the Great – seeks to terminate ‘all the royal family of the house of Judah’ (v10). From house to house and from room to room her hitmen go. Blood. Screams. Massacre. If she finishes the job there will be no Christmas. No chance of a king from David’s line. No Joseph, no manger, shepherds or wise men. And she gets very close. One baby away. ‘But…’ (v11). Jehosheba becomes (as Ralph Davis calls her) ‘the lady who saved Christmas’ as she smuggles one of the royal sons away and hides him in a broom cupboard.

We could spend time learning from Jehosheba (God has his servants in the right place at the right time; God uses women at strategic points in salvation history; she is a woman of faith and courage; she married well). But what about the Christmas that is saved? Let’s just look at the Christ child at the end of the chapter. Can you see three things as you look at him?

  • Humanness – ‘Joash the son of Ahaziah’ (v11) He’s of the Davidic line and he’s also of the Adamic line. He goes back to 1 Chronicles 1:1: ‘Adam’. Ever since Genesis 3:15 we’ve been looking for one born of woman to crush the serpent – not a superhero from the planet Krypton but a man like us. At Christmas we are given a fully human Christ, born of woman, the second Adam. In the early Church the most common heresy was not denying Christ’s deity but his humanity. Very easily people slipped into thinking of Jesus as superhero who floated two inches above the ground, who never really fully became flesh like us but just seemed to. Today, too, in our context we can easily slip into thinking of Jesus as a mighty spirit, just another name for God (e.g. praying ‘Father Lord Jesus’), and forget his humanness, forget that he was (and still is right now) just as flesh-and-blood as the person sitting next to you. Baby Joash (and baby Jesus) got thirsty, tired, hungry, had to have their nappies changed, got coughs and colds and fevers. Do we believe that? For some religions it would be blasphemy to talk about God like that but we glory in a God who really did fully take on our flesh, who fully and irrevocably connected himself to us.
  • Helplessness – ‘Jehosheba… stole him away… and she put him and his nurse in a bedroom… so that Athaliah did not put him to death’ (v11). The Christ child is completely defenceless. He can’t fight, he can’t even run. He has to be picked up carried out of harm’s way. It he hadn’t been he would have died like all his brothers. There is huge vulnerability here. And he’s put with his nurse – why? – presumably because he is still breast-feeding, still needing nappies changed, still completely dependent. Unable to do anything, even feed and dress himself. I think our tendency (certainly mine in the past) has been to tell people – “But remember, Jesus isn’t a baby anymore – he’s the risen conquering king, mighty God, sitting on the throne of heaven.” We fear that non-Christians will see the baby in the manger at Christmas and go away thinking that Christianity is sweet and sentimental and irrelevant after 26 December – what is needed is a strong God who controls the universe and demands obedience. But now I’m changing my mind. Don’t most people already have a view of God as big and strong and mighty, in control and demanding obedience? Don’t they need to see the radical God of the manger? The God who would willingly be small and weak and helpless? That’s where you find the gospel – that’s where you find the distinctively Christian God isn’t it – the God who be naked, weak and helpless (on a Cross) for us.

  • Hidden-ness – ‘Jehosheba… hid him from Athaliah… And he remained… for six years, hidden… while Athaliah reigned over the land’ (v11-12). The Christ lives. The David line has not been cut off. There is still a Christmas. But only a handful of people know it. Most of Israel assumes that it’s all over – no more Davidic kings, no hope, just keep your head down and get used to living in a dictatorship. The Christ is hidden. A few hundred years later another Christ is hidden away in Egypt from a latter day Athaliah. Then he spends most of his life hidden from history in the carpenter’s shop. Even when he launches his public ministry he is keen to keep his identity as Christ secret and is frequently hiding himself away from public view. He even rejoices that he is hidden from the wise and revealed only by the Father to children. Finally his glory is fully revealed on the Cross, though no-one recognises it as such at the time. Then he ascends and is hidden away in heaven till the day when – like Joash (2 Chron. 23) – he will suddenly appear in the temple (Malachi 3:1). Beware of showy, flashy, visible, tangible Christs/Christianities. We are still in the days of the hidden Christ who is seen only as we look into the craddle of the Scriptures and see Him lying there.

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At the last First Priority prayer meeting Harrison preached from 2 Chronicles 20. A few things that came across very clearly…

  • The story makes the point – As Harrison said, just reading the story, from impending disaster to amazing deliverance (with the final twist of another disaster) it preaches itself. The tension builds unbearably to the great turning point – the Word of God proclaiming, “You do not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf” (2 Chron. 20:17 cf. Exodus 14:13-14). What a great Bible theme – “Salvation belongs to the Lord”, “He saved us”, “Not by works”. And here it is beaten into our heads by a wonderful story.
  • The engagement of the whole person in prayer and worship – Earlier in the prayer meeting, Harrison exhorted us to engage our mind, body and emotions in prayer for the persecuted church and mission in Egypt and Algeria. We are to engage our mind – being well informed on what’s going on in our world (see 2 Chron. 20:2) and praying specific requests (2 Chron. 20:10). We are to engage our bodies – speaking aloud (2 Chron. 20:6), maybe standing or bowing down (2 Chron. 20:5,18). And we are to engage – our emotions, praying for persecuted brothers in N. Africa not in some cold disconnected way but as if we are there with them in prison, as suffering members of our body (Hebrews 13:3). It’s this engagement of emotions that most challenged me. Wary of whipped up emotions, wary of the frantic shouting of the Baal worshippers, and wary of the idea that volume equals power, I can tend to the other extreme of avoiding emotion. But in 2 Chronicles 20, the reason the story is so powerful is largely that it is full of raw emotion. Fear drives Jehoshaphat to prayer (v3 – and Harrison gave us a personal testimony of that experience). Jehoshaphat’s prayer is full of passion (why else the ‘redundant’ ‘O’ at v6 and v12?). The overjoyed praise of the Levites is with ‘a very loud voice’ (v19). Returning from the plunder there is a God-given joy (v27). So the question is not so much, “To shout or not to shout?” The question is, are we engaging our minds, bodies and emotions in genuine prayer and praise?
  • The contradictions of a true believer – Jehoshaphat is a true believer. In 2 Chronicles 17 he leads a greater revival than his father. In chapter 19 he again goes out among the people to ‘bring them back to the LORD (v4) and he rolls out the wonderful blessing of a God-honouring justice system. In chapter 20 he turns to the Temple and prays a model prayer of humble dependence on the Lord (fulfilling 2 Chron. 7:14). So Jehoshaphat is the real thing. Even a prototype of the great Jeho-Shaphat (Jehovah-Judges). And then you get 2 Chronicles 20:35-37 and he’s in league with a wicked king of Israel again (as in ch. 18). What do we say? “He obviously wasn’t a real believer after all” or “He’s fallen from grace”?  Do we tell him to “Get born again (again!)” I don’t think so. Aren’t all Christians contradictory? Don’t we all have contradictions in our lives? We believe one thing and we also believe something else that is completely contradictory. Or we say we believe one thing but our behaviour says something else completely. Talking personally, I am a mass of contradictions. Yes we should seek consistency – a consistent mind and consistent behaviour – our life’s work must be conforming ourselves to the Word of God – but at the same time the Word itself tells me that until I die I will always be fighting the sinful nature which desires what is contrary to the Spirit. Which is why 2 Chronicles 20:17 is such good news. It’s not about me – it’s God’s salvation of sinners all the way home.

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