Is Pentecost a reversal of Babel?

pentecost I am writing this on Pentecost Sunday, where the church remembers the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early church (recorded in the Bible in Acts 2:1-13). One of the significant aspects of this story is that the apostles were enabled to speak in other languages – as verse 4 says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” The commentators on this passage often refer to Genesis 11 – the Tower of Babel incident, where the languages of the people were confused and people spread out over the earth. It is often said that Pentecost is a reversal  of the curse of the Tower of Babel. At Babel the languages of the people were confused, at Pentecost people the Spirit enables people to break the language barrier. Simple.

… or is it?

I’m not sure it’s quite that simple. This interpretation would imply that languages and differences between cultures were sinful and a result of the curse – but I don’t think this is the case. Let’s take a closer look.

Putting the Tower of Babel into context

In Genesis 10, just before the Tower of Babel incident, we have the so-called ‘Table of Nations’ – an account of what happened to the descendants of Noah. The last two verses of that chapter – just before the Babel account – say this:

31 These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

32 These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.

So, prior to the Babel incident, Genesis is already talking about clans, languages, territories, and nations. This suggests to me that the dividing up of humanity into nations is not a result of the Babel incident, but something which God intended to happen as mankind filled the earth and subdued it (Gen 1:28). The idea is that God didn’t want humanity simply to sit around in one place and stick together, but to fill the whole earth – and cultural expressions were simply a part of that plan, including language. Diversity in this way is something which brings God glory.

So what was going on at Babel?

Good question. I think a close reading of the Babel text actually agrees with this interpretation.

The passage starts: “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.” It’s interesting that it starts in this way, given that we’ve just had the Table of Nations which talks about different languages! But we’ll shelve that for now. The people moved eastward and then: “they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’”

This is interesting for two reasons: (1) they wanted to make a name for themselves; (2) they wanted to avoid being scattered over the whole earth. Why do you think the people wanted to avoid being scattered? I believe this is because ‘scattering’ is what God wanted them to do, as we’ve just seen. The people’s sin was wanting to stick together rather than carry out God’s plan – to spread out and diversify across the earth.

When the Lord comes down and confuses their language, the end of the incident is described: “From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” So God scatters them, despite the intentions of the people. God’s will prevails, even though the people are against it.

This is what I think, then, is going on in this passage:

  • God designed mankind to spread over the whole earth. Cultural differences and diversity are a right and good part of God’s plan in creation.
  • In the Tower of Babel, mankind decided to unite together and make a name for itself out of pride rather than scattering as God intended. The sin of Babel was mankind coming together for the wrong reasons and the wrong ends.
  • God therefore confuses the language (something which would have happened anyway if the people had been obeying God), and the people scatter as he intended.

So – the Babel incident is God’s way of ensuring that mankind did what He originally intended, and spread across the earth. Seen this way, the curse of Babel is not that the languages were confused – rather, God confused in the languages in order to accomplish His purposes.

I think this fits best with our experience – I love seeing Christians from other cultures worshipping God in their own ways. Of course, in every culture there will be elements that deny the gospel – all cultures bear the mark of the Fall – but in many ways each one contributes something unique to displaying the wisdom, power and glory of God.

How does this affect Pentecost?

Under this reading, Pentecost is not so much a simple reversal of the curse of Babel. We’ve seen this from Genesis, but there are a few reasons within the text of Acts 2 which lead us to this conclusion:

  • The passage makes clear that it is “God-fearing Jews” who heard the apostles speaking in their own languages. The curse of Babel (if that is indeed the right phrase) was something which applied to everyone.
  • People heard the apostles speaking in their own languages. It wasn’t the case that they could all understand one language, on the contrary, the Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak in different tongues.

If we look further afield throughout the New Testament, we shouldn’t forget the wonderful vision of Revelation 7: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Instead of these ethnic / linguistic differences being obliterated, they are apparently still there at the end. They of course do not cause any division, but God’s glory is shown not in conformity but in the diversity of all the nations worshipping him in the unique ways that they can bring.

When Paul says in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”, he doesn’t mean these differences are obliterated – rather that they don’t matter any more, because unity is not in race, language or culture but in Christ Jesus.

How should we understand Pentecost?

This is, of course, the million dollar question. Something that struck me today as we were hearing the readings again is that mankind at the Tower of Babel did two things wrong: (1) they tried to create unity by earthly means; (2) they tried to use that unity to deny God. At Pentecost, however, (1) unity is created by heavenly means – unity-in-diversity; (2) that unity is used for God’s purposes. Pentecost is God’s answer to Babel, of sorts – but not a reversal of the curse.

Hymnology: Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken

Although I don’t normally pay attention to such things, last weekend Pippa Middleton married her fiancé James Matthews. (I was only taking an interest because the wedding was conducted by the former vicar of our parish here in Clacton!) Apparently they had four hymns during the service, one of which was Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.

This hymn is one of my favourites, written by John Newton – he who wrote the much more famous Amazing Grace.

The hymn itself is a little hard to understand if you’re not well-versed in the Old Testament and the wider story of the Bible (it is chock full of references), and this is why I thought it might make a good hymn to consider here. I won’t attempt to go through each reference, but try to show the bigger picture.

The most important thing to deal with first is: what is the city of Zion? Zion in the Bible is another name for Jerusalem – the city of God, the place where God dwelt with His people and where they worshipped Him. The temple was the earthly place to show that He dwelt with them there. Hence the words of the hymn: “He whose word cannot be broken [ref. John 10:35] / formed thee for His own abode.” So God formed Zion as the place where He would dwell with His people.

In the New Testament, we are told that ultimately this finds its fulfilment not in an earthly city but in the new creation (Rev 21:2) – where those who believe will dwell with God forever. All Christians are on their way to this heavenly city, a picture which John Bunyan elucidates in The Pilgrim’s Progress. This is fundamental to understanding the hymn.

The book of Hebrews really develops this theme. This is what it says in Hebrews 11:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Abraham lived “by faith” – he lived in a tent because he knew by faith that a greater dwelling was coming – as the author poetically puts it here, “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” What happened to Abraham in some way foreshadows the Christian life. Just as he lived by faith, because he was looking forward to something greater, so too the Christian lives by faith.

And this explains the third verse: “Round each habitation hovering / see the cloud and fire appear”. This is a reference to the exodus, where the people of Israel were led by cloud during the day and fire during the night. What relevance does this have to us? The Bible portrays the Christian life in some ways as a ‘new exodus’ – Christians are on a journey to the Promised Land – not on this earth, but the new creation. God protects and leads His people today just as He did in that first exodus. (The hymn ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’ also picks up on this theme).

All of this leads to the conclusion, my favourite lines of the hymn:

Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
all his boasted pomp and show;
solid joys and lasting treasure
none but Zion’s children know.

The book of Hebrews makes clear that this world – what we can currently see and touch – is far from all there is to life. In fact, Christians are members of a far greater kingdom – a kingdom which “cannot be shaken” (Heb 12:28). All the pleasures of this life are passing away – they are simply “pomp and show”. The only ones who have “solid joys and lasting treasure” – cf. Jesus’ words in Matt 6:19-21 – are “Zion’s children” – i.e. Christians, those who believe and trust in the Lord Jesus.

When I heard that this was sung at Pippa Middleton’s wedding, I have to be honest – I did feel it was a little ironic. The wedding itself was pretty lavish and cost a lot of money – the cynical part of me wonders if it might even be described as “boasted pomp and show”. However, I don’t want to comment on their faith – who knows, perhaps they knowingly chose it for exactly that reason.

Anyway, I hope that this helps to explain a little of the theology underlying such a wonderful hymn!

This is part of my hymnology blog series.

Responding to false teaching: Lessons from 2 Peter

A BibleI’ve noticed a disturbing trend amongst evangelicals recently. I encountered it most recently in this blog post by Baptist minister and theologian Steve Holmes. This is how he puts it (you’ll have to read the full blog for the whole context):

No, I know Megan and Bill, I know that they call people to believe in Jesus. They are leading people on the highway to heaven (even if I presently think that they are fairly seriously wrong on at least one aspect of the nature of that highway).’

Sola fide. I have to stand on that. Because the Blood flowed where I walk, and where we all walk. One perfect sacrifice, complete, once for all, offered for all the world, offering renewal to all who will put their faith in Him. And if that means me, in all my failures and confusions, then it also means my friends who affirm same-sex marriage, in all their failures and confusions. If my faithful and affirming friends have no hope of salvation, then nor do I.

Steve puts it well, and I believe it’s an increasingly popular perspective. The argument seems to be that although traditional marriage is the correct interpretation of the Bible, other people teaching that same-sex marriage is right is not a really serious business. It’s not a salvation issue, certainly. So although Bob may believe strongly that the Bible teaches marriage is between a man and a woman, he doesn’t think Alice – who teaches that marriage is between two people regardless of gender – is not saved.

Personally I believe this is a disturbing trend, as I said at the beginning. I’ve already outlined on this blog why I believe evangelicals cannot agree to disagree on this issue, and I stand by what I said back then. But I’d like to add to that a little. Not long ago I worked through the book of 2 Peter with Peter H. Davids’ Pillar commentary. I’d like to share a few insights from 2 Peter which might help shed some additional light on this issue.

2 Peter is written in response to false teaching and false teachers. It seems that false teachers were teaching that the final judgement was not coming – perhaps it had already happened – and therefore there was no need to live a holy and righteous life. Because there was no final judgement to look forward to, there was no need to worry about restraining our sinful desires now.

Let’s take a quick tour of the letter to analyse what Peter is saying.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (Chapter 1)

God has given those who believe “everything we need for a godly life”. What does that look like? It is to “participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires”. Participating in the divine nature is a strange phrase. I believe it means ethically – participating in the divine nature by increasing in goodness and love (Peter talks about God’s goodness in v3), in contrast with the corruption and evil desires in the world.

So the purpose of the Christian life is to add goodness, knowledge, self-control etc. (vv5-7) to faith, so that Christians will not be “ineffective and unproductive”. But, we are warned, “whoever does not have them is short-sighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.”

So – a cleansing from past sin does not give us licence to sin in the future. Here, as we see in many places in the Bible, salvation by grace does not mean freedom to indulge our sinful desires. One of my go-to passages about grace and right living is Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions…” The Hebrews 10 passage I referred to in my post about why we can’t agree to disagree also takes the same line: wilfully continuing to sin after receiving knowledge of the truth means all we have to expect from God is “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God”.

Peter continues in chapter 2:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

There were “false prophets” among the people of Israel – you can read about them in Ezekiel 13, for example. What did they do? They led the people astray – they said “peace, when there is no peace”. They prophesied out of their own imaginations. In particular, they led the people to worship false gods and did not see violations of God’s ethical commandments as being a problem. Peter says that, as there were false prophets then, there are false teachers “among you”. These were the people who denied the final judgement, who denied the need to live self-controlled and upright lives – and Peter says “their destruction has not been sleeping”. It’s possible that these false teachers even claimed that the Lord was ‘sleeping’ – that they would not receive the recompense for their wrongdoing. But Peter turns the tables and says that it is their destruction which has not been sleeping. What does he mean?

…if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. 10 This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.

To hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgement – this is what Peter is talking about. And this is “especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh” – those who indulge in their sinful desires rather than restraining them.

The chapter finishes:

17 These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. 18 For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity – for ‘people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.’ 20 If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.

For such people – false teachers – “blackest darkness is reserved for them”. Why? They “entice” people escaping from the world back into sin (echoes of Jesus’ words in Mark 9:42?). Note that he uses the phrase “lustful desires of the flesh” – quite possibly having in mind sexual sin, it was as common back then as it is now. Sin is slavery (John 8:34), but if the Son sets us free then we shall be free indeed. To turn to Christ is to turn away from sin, to repent of evil desires and be freed from them. Yes, we know that anyone who claims to be without sin deceives themselves (1 John 1) – but sin is not a cause for celebration, but rather mortification and turning to Christ. These false teachers promise freedom but deliver slavery – just as Satan does. It shows who they are really working for (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

The worst thing about this passage is, I believe, that false teachers are leading people to hell. I think this is the implication of Peter’s words here – that it is actually worse for people who have begun to turn away from sin, only to be misled by a false teacher and turn their backs on the way of righteousness.

False teaching is that serious. It simply cannot be tolerated in a church, a denomination, or any Christian organisation.

Peter closes out the letter by looking forward to the day of the Lord, which will “come like a thief” – unexpectedly. What does that mean for believers?

11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

Peter closes off his argument: because there will be a day of judgement, because there will be a day of wrath, because there is darkness reserved for the unrighteous – we ought to live “holy and godly lives”. God is not mocked. We look forward to the day when righteousness will dwell in the new heaven and earth. We look forward to the day when we will be righteous, and see the Lord face to face. We yearn for the day when sin is no more.

How can those who long for such a day continue to live in sin in the present? It’s impossible! Romans 6:1ff – we have died to sin, how is it possible to continue in it?

And, if this is the case, how can those in the church – thinking particularly about the Church of England but applicable more broadly – stand by and do nothing when the CofE is openly contemplating changes its teaching on matters of marriage?

I appreciate this post has gone on a bit (about 1600 words at this point!) but I’d just like to offer a few more brief reasons why I believe sexuality in particular isn’t something which we can disagree on.

  • I have rarely, if ever, encountered someone who is orthodox on everything except the nature of marriage. This could be because in order to affirm same-sex marriage you have to twist the Bible virtually out of all recognition (as I try to explain here). Interpreting the Bible wrongly in one area will lead to interpreting it wrongly in others – especially on a serious and core doctrine such as marriage.
  • As John Stott pointed out in The Cross of Christ, “sin is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards. Its essence is hostility towards God.” Sin is not something which God simply shrugs his shoulder about – it is something which Jesus Christ needed to die for to bear the wrath we deserve. To continue in sin wilfully is not simply being wrong or mistaken – it is an act of aggression against God. If same-sex sexual activity is a consequence of our idolatry (Romans 1), then I think this is applicable in particular. God cannot simply overlook such hostility towards him.
  • Bible teachers should be held to a higher standard – James 3:1. Someone who holds the wrong opinion on marriage ‘in the pews’ is less of a danger than false teachers, who can mislead many. This is why I believe that the apostles were so hot on false teaching, and why I believe we must be today. So someone ‘in the pews’, so to speak, might hold the wrong opinion on same-sex marriage – but at least they are not misleading many others. I believe it is appropriate to instruct them gently (2 Timothy 2:25-26). But those who are responsible under God for shepherding Christ’s flock which he bought with his own blood will be held to account. When the day of the Lord comes, I don’t want anyone’s blood on my hands (Acts 20:26-27).

Hell and the church’s mission

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where

“‘the worms that eat them do not die,
    and the fire is not quenched.’

Mark 9:43-48

In one of our curate training days last year, we spent some time thinking about the church’s mission. What should we be spending our time doing? We had three speakers from different traditions come to talk to us, and we actually had quite an interesting discussion. One of the things which came up was – is the church’s mission simply proclaiming the gospel, or is it wider? To put the question a more practical way – does the church’s mission include practical help for people (such as food banks etc.)?

Unusually for a curate’s session we had a frank exchange of views and actually opened our Bibles and had something of a theological discussion. It seems that this is a pretty divisive issue amongst Christians: what should we as a church be doing with our time?

Over the past few months I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about hell, and I wonder whether it may actually help the discussion about the church’s mission.

Hell is not something that we spend very much time discussing – in most Christian circles, and especially within the Church of England. I’ve been on quite a few CofE training things over the past few years, and I don’t think I’ve heard hell mentioned a single time (apart from occasionally in the hymns that we sing). What’s interesting, though, is reading the gospels through: Jesus talks about hell more than anybody. The passage I started with is a case in point. Jesus consistently warns people about the dangers of hell – in this passage, saying that it is better to go through life maimed but be rid of sin than to have your limbs intact but go into hell for eternity.

This has particularly struck me about the church’s mission because the church is the only institution in the world which really has eternity in mind. Many charities exist which care about people’s needs in this life. Only the church cares about their eternal future.

This is what Jesus is getting at in Luke 12:

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

Jesus is saying that our lives should ultimately be controlled by the fear of Him who holds eternity in His hands. Not in the sense of being scared of God, but an appropriate reverence for Him. Jesus is now the one who holds the keys of death and Hades (Revelation 1:18). There is nothing, no hardship, no suffering, no bad thing in this life which will compare with an eternity in hell.

And that puts the church’s mission into perspective: food banks are a good thing. Looking after the poor and needy is a good thing. Of course they are. But, ultimately, if we give someone a piece of bread but don’t tell them about Jesus the bread of life then we haven’t really done anything to help that person. Jesus loved people, but he loved people enough to warn them about their eternal destiny.

This isn’t to say that the church should immediately stop doing anything which isn’t directly related to preaching the gospel! But what a church does should ultimately be controlled not by limiting its vision to temporal needs but by eternal needs. A church must always be reaching out – churches which do not reach out will die – but a church must always be reaching out with the message of reconciliation. This is what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

The ministry which God gave to the apostles, and through them to the church today, is the message of reconciliation: being reconciled with God.

I believe that if the church keeps a Biblical understanding of the gospel – including hell – it will enable a healthy view of its ministry and outreach. If we forget that the gospel is all about salvation, we’ll focus our energies on trying to love people in the here and now. But if we keep our understanding of the gospel, that will control all that we do.

Let me finish with an example. At our church here in Clacton, we run a lunch cafe every Friday. The food is relatively cheap – it’s not run for profit, it simply runs to help the local community to get a decent meal at a good price. It is very much a community service – we do it because we love our community. At the same time – our aim with the cafe is not simply to provide people with food: it’s a good place to build relationships with people in the community, to advertise church events, and so on. In short, it is a part of the whole mission of the church – the ministry of reconciliation. We pray regularly for the cafe and ask for God to use it – and He has.

It’s similar with the soup run. Our church helps out with the soup run in Clacton, and – again – this is done both to help out the community, and also to get to know people, have conversations with them, and talk a little about Jesus. Apparently we’ve given out quite a few Bibles over the past few years.

To see the world in the light of eternity gives the church an appropriate perspective on ‘doing good’ and helps to maintain an evangelistic edge.

As a footnote, I found Melvin Tinker’s book Salt, Light and Cities on Hills very helpful when it came to thinking through mission – he talks about the passages often debated in these discussions and I appreciated his conclusions.


Sexual harassment in schools: is education the answer?

sadgirlI’ve noticed a spate of worrying articles coming out over the past year or two. It seems that sexual harassment is on the rise among young people – especially in schools. It’s becoming such a problem that earlier this year MPs launched an enquiry into it. This is something which is especially an issue for young girls, who are often the victims of it – pressured into sending sexual pictures or having sexual contact before they really want to.

The other day I read an interesting article about girls dealing with pornography-addicted boys (the Fight the New Drug website itself is excellent and well worth reading).

In the survey report, entitled Don’t send me that pic, participants reported that online sexual abuse and harassment were becoming a normal part of their everyday interactions. And while the behavior seemed so common, more than 80% said it was unacceptable for boyfriends to request naked images.

Sexual bullying and harassment are part of daily life for many girls growing up as a part of this digital generation. Young girls are speaking out more and more about how these practices have links with pornography—because it’s directly affecting them.

The numbers are, quite frankly, frightening. It seems that we have a real problem on our hands with easy access to pornography – especially for teenagers. Watching pornography, over time, rewires your brain. This is especially true for teenagers, where brains are still developing (I believe the technical term is ‘neuroplastic’). Looking back to my teenage years, I’m very glad I didn’t have access to the internet – porn wasn’t a part of my daily life in the way it is for many people now.

What’s the solution to all this?

Christine Blower, secretary of the National Union of Teachers, is quoted in the Guardian – from the article I linked to at the beginning:

“As today’s report highlights, the pressures young people face are not going away. It is therefore vital that PSHE and age-appropriate SRE [sex and relationships education] becomes mandatory in schools.”

So, the solution is: education. Hmmm. If the message of sites like Fight the New Drug etc could be broadcast to young people – it could make a difference.  If teenagers could be prevented from watching porn then it might help – but I think that particular horse has bolted. It may do some good, but I think we have a deeper issue which goes far beyond our schools and young people.

In days gone by, pre-sexual revolution, sex was seen as something which should occur within the confines of marriage. Although that ideal was not always kept, I think there was a general understanding that sex should be reserved for marriage, and that when it didn’t there was a clear breach of a conventional moral standard. Now, however, sex is virtually encouraged for just about everyone – whatever you like, just so long as it’s consensual and not harming anyone. So, sex has become simply another consumer product: you do it in  the way that you want, to make you happy. Your happiness and satisfaction is the most important thing – no need to worry about making another human being happy long-term. If a sexual partner doesn’t satisfy, move on to the next one.

I think this is reflected in the statistics about marriage and family breakdown, as collected by the Marriage Foundation: it’s becoming increasingly uncommon for people to be married before having children, for example. Couples who cohabit have a much higher rate of break-up. Why is this the case? I think it is partly due to a consumer attitude to sex and relationships: romantic partners are seen as being there to serve our own interests, to make us happy, rather than being seen as an act of mutual self-giving (something which the CofE marriage vows make clear).

The logical end of all this is can be seen in the so-called “ethical non-monogamous community”. Carl Trueman wrote an excellent piece on this a couple of weeks ago. It’s worth quoting at length:

There was once a time when sexual intercourse was thought to be full of rich social and emotional significance. Now, even our language betrays our impoverished and negative attitudes. That we speak of “having sex” and not of “making love”—that the latter phrase can even evoke sniggers—is significant. A man can have sex with a prostitute. He can only make love to a woman he knows and about whom he cares.

So is Gracie X “sex positive” in her attitude? Well, sexual intercourse used to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. That has been taken away. Sex has been reduced thereby, as indeed has adulthood—the childish obsession of Gracie with herself is surely no accident. There was also a time when sexual intercourse was only considered legitimate between a man and woman committed to a lifelong partnership. It marked their exclusive relationship to each other. That too has been taken away. Sex is no longer the consummation of an exclusive bond. Now it is just a form of recreation. A bit like golf, but usually cheaper and generally without the plaid pants.

Fortunately, Gracie is an extremist, even by today’s standards. But she is the logical end term of our culture’s simplistic, pornographic, selfish, abusive, mechanistic, and, yes, negative view of sex. Sex’s sole significance is what it does for Gracie as an individual, and damn the consequences if that hurts anyone else. It is who she is, after all.

Sexual harassment in schools is simply the logical outworking of the message our society is sending out to young people: sex is all about you. It’s all about your pleasure, your desires, your fulfilment.

How can we change this? I’m not sure that there are easy answers.  Trying to change a society’s view of sex is a bit like trying to change the direction of an oil tanker. It takes miles and miles. There are a couple of things I can think of:

  • Trying to limit access to pornography. I’m not sure how this would best be achieved, but it seems undeniable that pornography is a huge part of the issue. If its impact could be reduced we’d be a lot further forward. There are many barriers to overcome – things have been tried and failed over the years – but with the right motivation I think we might get closer to a solution.
  • Promoting sex in the context of marriage. I think many young people are unaware of the benefits of marriage (which some people are cottoning onto – for example, this Guardian article earlier this year on how sex is more enjoyable within marriage). It’s not enough to simply say “thou shalt not” when it comes to moral behaviour – we have to promote a positive image of sex and relationships, and I think that is found ideally in marriage.

Rome was not built in a day, so they say,  and the sexual attitudes of a society do not change overnight. Nonetheless, I think we need to be realistic about the challenges that face us, burying our head in the sand will not help. Nevertheless, oil tankers do change direction – societies can change. We need to think about taking positive steps now to safeguard the future of our children.

King Saul and King Jesus: Thoughts on 1 Samuel 10

Samuel anointing Saul

In the past few weeks at church we’ve been working our way through the Bible, trying to get the ‘big picture’ of the whole Bible story. This week we reached 1 Samuel 10, where God chooses Saul to be the next King of Israel and Saul is anointed by the prophet Samuel.

It’s a fascinating passage in many ways. There are details in the story which make you scratch your head, some of them are a bit puzzling. In the Old Testament, the key to understanding it is to realise that it is actually all about Jesus – and I think that is exactly the case here. I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts about how this passage is actually about Jesus, in the way that he contrasts with Saul. (The actual passage we had this morning was 1 Samuel 10:9-26. The other passage was the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem from Luke 19 – the reasons for mentioning that will become clear…)

The passage in 1 Samuel 10 follows on from a rather comical story about Saul being sent to look for some lost donkeys. His father sends him out to find them, but doesn’t find them anywhere. They nearly give up, but Saul’s servant suggests asking the “man of God” – Samuel – who could help them. Saul is presented as a bit of a helpless case really: he doesn’t find the donkeys, he doesn’t really have any initiative – his servant is portrayed in a better light than he is!

Contrast #1: Jesus, the man of God, sends his disciples out in Luke 19 to bring back a donkey. He doesn’t need to search for it: he knows exactly where it will be found. Jesus is greater than Saul.

Samuel said to Saul  that “The Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person” (1 Sam 10:6). This is exactly what happens at the beginning of our passage, as Samuel had said.

Contrast #2: The Spirit of God came upon Jesus at his baptism – but he didn’t need to be changed into a different person. His heart didn’t need to be changed. Jesus is greater than Saul.

Twice in this passage Saul tries to duck his responsibility. Firstly he didn’t tell his uncle what Samuel said about being made king, and then he hides himself among the supplies to try and stop the people making him king! Hardly what you would call king material. In fact, his main qualification to be king (apart from, of course, the fact that God chose him) was that he stood a head taller than anyone else. In other words, he looked the part – but he wasn’t on the inside.

Contrast #3: When God sends Samuel a bit later on to anoint David as King, the Lord says, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Saul had the appearance of a good king physically, but his heart was not right. Jesus, on the other hand, as Isaiah 53 puts it: “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” He didn’t look like a king – and yet, his heart was completely right and true. Jesus is greater than Saul.

The passage finishes with these words: “But some scoundrels said, ‘How can this fellow save us?’ They despised him and brought him no gifts. But Saul kept silent.” Scoundrels throw insults at Saul and question whether he can “save” them. But Saul keeps silent – which is perhaps an implied criticism of Saul, maybe he should have spoken up and said something. Another example of how Saul was not king material – at least, not in the eyes of the world.

Contrast #4: When Jesus was hanging on the cross, people threw insults at him and said “He saved others, but he can’t save himself” (Mark 15:31). And Jesus, before Pilate, was silent (Mark 15:5). In the words of Isaiah 53 once more, “as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Jesus was the one who could truly save others. Jesus is greater than Saul.

I think these contrasts are all here to point to the fact that Jesus is the great King, the King of Kings, the one whom God has chosen and anointed to rule eternally. The Israelites wanted to be like the other nations, they wanted to have a king just like everyone else – but God has very different ideas about kings.

It turns out that what they – and we – really need is not one who is physically impressive, a brilliant strategist who is able to lead an army into battle. No – what we really need is a king who has a right heart, a king who can truly save others – not from physical danger but from their sins. Saul could never be that king: the only one who could is Jesus.

Genesis 3 and Gender

symbol-male-and-female-mdThis morning I was preaching on Genesis 3 – ‘the fall of man’. It’s a fascinating passage, very carefully and cleverly constructed, and bears studying carefully. One of the things I noticed in my preparation time but didn’t really have time to elaborate on in the passage is the way gender is portrayed.

In Genesis 1-2, the creation, a sort of order of hierarchy is established within creation. God creates the world, creates the man, and places him in the garden “to work it and take care of it” (2:15). The Lord commands the man not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Mankind is also given dominion over creation – God says to “rule over” the animal kingdom (1:28).

However, and in our society this is probably the most controversial part of Genesis 1-3, there is something of an order within the relationship between the man and woman as well. Genesis 2 describes how no ‘helper’ suitable for the man could be found in the animal kingdom, so God created a woman from the rib of the man. The man names her ‘woman’ in 2:23 (and further on in 3:20 he names her Eve). Now, naming something is significant, because it does signify a kind of authority – for example, God brings the animals to Adam for him to name them (2:19-20). Naming is what God does in chapter 1, e.g. in 1:5 God calls the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’. So the act of naming itself indicated that Adam had a kind of authority over Eve – although that isn’t exactly spelled out in detail here.

Just as an aside while I’m here – the more I think about this the more I think how fundamental gender difference is to marriage. God takes one – the man – and creates two – the man and woman. One becomes two – but in marriage (if I may say this without invoking memories of the Spice Girls) – two becomes one. Husband and wife become ‘one flesh’ (2:24). Something which two men or two women cannot do. Anyway, this is a digression, but an important one given today’s society.

So, according to Genesis 1-2, the ‘order’ of creation before the fall is: God – Man – Woman – Animals. So, what’s interesting about Genesis 3 is that that order is completely reversed.

The story of the fall begins with the snake, “more crafty than any of the wild animals…” The snake, a representative of the animal kingdom, then talks to the woman. The woman eats the fruit, then gives some to her husband. Only then does God get involved. The order of Genesis 3 is Animals – Woman – Man – God. It’s a reversal of creation – it is, in a sense, ‘de-creation’.  Creation is undone.

Why is all this important, and how is it relevant to us? It’s relevant because I think we’re seeing a huge amount of gender confusion at the moment. What seems to be happening is that people think being a man or a woman is basically unimportant – sure, there are some biological differences, but it doesn’t really matter if you’re a man or a woman: people are pretty much interchangeable. I think we see this play out in the transgender movement, same-sex marriage, and so on.

We seem to believe as a society (or at least, movers and shakers in our society are imposing the idea) that being male or female is of no real consequence. Women and men are simply people, and aside from a few biological differences, there’s nothing to distinguish them. Same-sex marriage is a just a logical consequence, because there’s virtually no difference between two people of the same sex getting married as there is with two people of the opposite sex: it’s just the same love, right? Whether or not you have certain body parts is immaterial.

The problem here is that, according to Genesis 1-3, being a man or a woman is an important thing. Being a man or a woman is, in fact, a gift of God. We are not amorphous beings, people who simply happen to have a different physical body. Men and women are created both in the image of God and reflect his glory, but they reflect it in different ways. Men and women literally need each other, and we need each other as men and as women. This seems to be to be common sense to me: in my own experience, I do relate differently to men than to women. It’s just the way the world is. Men and women are not simply interchangeable, there is some kind of fundamental difference.

The other day I was reading an article by Alastair Roberts: Why we should jettison the “Strong Female Character” (it’s a long read but good). One of the things that struck me while reading that was that to blur the lines between male and female actually is harmful to women. If women are supposed to be strong in the sense of being able to do better than men in what are traditionally seen as masculine things, what value does that place on things which are traditionally feminine?

What happens when the boundary lines between male and female gets blurred is that things which are uniquely masculine and femine get lost. If being a woman isn’t really significant, who is going to champion being a wife and mother? Should a woman feel like she has to be ‘strong’ in that she needs to be more masculine than a man?

The real irony of steamrolling over differences between the sexes is that I think it is detrimental to both men and women – but especially women. Generic people, men and women, have jobs, play sports, spend time with friends etc – but there are things which only a woman can do, e.g. be a wife and mother. During the last election, my wife felt quite undervalued: David Cameron kept on talking about people being in work as if the most important thing that anyone could do was to be an employed worker. Not once was there a mention of mums (or dads, for that matter) who choose to stay at home to look after their children. Mums and Dads parent in different ways – I’ve noticed this with my daughter. I’m not a generic parent – I’m a Dad. I bring something different to the table than a Mum.

I apologise that this blog post has gone on a bit. This is because my thoughts are still in the process of forming. However, I do feel like our society’s view of gender at the moment is following the pattern of Genesis 3. We need to get back to God’s pattern for our lives and in particular Gender – to rediscover what it means for men to be men and women to be women. To cherish the unique gifts that each can bring, rather than simply erasing all differences.