Category Archives: exposition

A message for the ages – Mark Ashton preaching Isaiah 1

I’ve spent the past couple of days reading through Isaiah chapter 1 as part of my second year of training on the Associate Scheme at St Helen’s.

It’s a brilliant chapter, made more brilliant for me by the memory I have of Mark Ashton, my vicar at university, preaching it five years ago. So I managed to dig out the recording of the sermon from the St Andrew the Great archives, and listened to it again this evening.

It really is a gem of a sermon, and I encourage everyone to listen to it. If you want to hear a modern British preacher at the top of his game, this is a great place to start. And more than that, as Mark says, this is a message for “all men, and all women, through all ages.”

I don’t know how many times over the past five years I’ve remembered Mark’s voice reading those well-known words of God – “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD”. But when I think about where I was as a Christian at that time, I’m sure that under God these 30 minutes of evangelistic, heart-felt, majestic proclamation of God’s Word have been instrumental in me still being a Christian today.

So I praise God for this message, and encourage you, with all my heart, to listen to it.

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A song for the darker paths – Psalm 124

I’m writing a talk this week on Psalm 124 – one of the Songs of Ascent. I thought I’d write this in an attempt to express my thoughts on the psalm concisely.

Here’s the Psalm (NIV)

1 If the LORD had not been on our side—
let Israel say-

2 if the LORD had not been on our side
when men attacked us,

3 when their anger flared against us,
they would have swallowed us alive;

4 the flood would have engulfed us,
the torrent would have swept over us,

5 the raging waters
would have swept us away.

6 Praise be to the LORD,
who has not let us be torn by their teeth.

7 We have escaped like a bird
out of the fowler’s snare;
the snare has been broken,
and we have escaped.

8 Our help is in the name of the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

The key verse – the chorus if you like – of this psalm is the last one. ‘Our help is in the name of the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.’ The aim of this song is to help us as God’s people to sing this tune on our dangerous journey towards the new Jerusalem.

We’ve already had this line in another song of Ascent, number 121. The song we sing there is a song about God’s character. We’re encouraged that ‘our help is in the name of the LORD’ as we sing about our God’s character, the God who ‘neither slumbers, nor sleeps.’

Here we’re singing the same chorus, but we get there a different way. It’s like a hip hop song that’s sampled a pop song. We get to the feel good chorus by reminding ourselves of the difficult times. We share our memories of the times God has delivered us, and so we end up singing together ‘our help is in the name of the LORD.’

So imagine you’re on your way up on your yearly journey to Jerusalem, to go and celebrate the Feast at the temple of the LORD. But it’s a dangerous journey. Robbers lie waiting in the woods to ambush defenceless pilgrims.

As you walk through the dark forest, and find yourself peering desperately into the black spaces between the trees, you strike up this song to encourage your little group. The song looks back to a time when the danger was even greater.

In fact, the odds were overwhelming. Disaster was a split-second away.

“if the LORD had not been on our side
when men attacked us,
when their anger flared against us,
they would have swallowed us alive;”

The poet uses a particular technique to remind us how bad the danger was. He uses a group of three lines, all saying the same thing, but increasing in intensity.

When men attacked us
When their anger flared against us
They would have swallowed us alive

In the next group of 3 lines, the enemy horde that threatens to swallow up God’s people is compared to a flood. Again, note the increase in intensity:

the flood would have engulfed us,
the torrent would have swept over us,
the raging waters would have swept us away.

We go from flood to torrent to raging waters. They threaten to engulf, to sweep over, to sweep away.

The next line comes like an oasis of calm:

“Praise be to the LORD, who has not let us be torn by their teeth”

The waters are stilled, the lions’ mouths are shut. The LORD has intervened.

V7 gives us a final image, impressing the psalm’s wonder at our miraculous escape on our minds.

There’s nothing as free as a bird. And there’s nothing as pitiful or vulnerable than a trapped bird. The bird flies blindly into the netting and is trapped. As it wriggles and flaps it only tangles itself up even more. All it can do is wait for the fowler to snap off its life. And Israel was like that. Caught in a net. No human hope.

But incredibly, Israel escapes! Did you notice how the poet uses a mirroring technique to emphasise the feeling of unexpected freedom?

We have escaped like a bird
out of the fowler’s snare;
the snare has been broken,
and we have escaped.

And the deliverance is all God’s. His people were completely trapped, but God intervened and his people escaped.

Which leads us back to our chorus, and a tune we can hum even in the darkest forests and deepest valleys:

Our help is in the name of the LORD
Our help is in the name of the LORD
Our help is in the name of the LORD
The maker of heaven and earth

1 Peter on the back of an envelope

I’ve been reading through 1 Peter with a friend for the last couple of months. It’s a been a fun, suprising, and challenging read so far. We finished chapter 3 just before Easter, so when we met up last week, we took a session to take a step back and recap the whole book.

I thought I’d share the “back of the envelope” summary I came up with during our recap:

Obviously it’s all fairly tentative so far, so comments welcome!

Admitted into a participation of this grace – Calvin on Romans 6

Let us know, that the Apostle does not simply exhort us to imitate Christ, as though he had said that the death of Christ is a pattern which all Christians are to follow; for no doubt he ascends higher, as he announces a doctrine, with which he connects, as it is evident, an exhortation; and his doctrine is this — that the death of Christ is efficacious to destroy and demolish the depravity of our flesh, and his resurrection, to effect the renovation of a better nature, and that by baptism we are admitted into a participation of this grace.

This foundation being laid, Christians may very suitably be exhorted to strive to respond to their calling. Farther, it is not to the point to say, that this power is not apparent in all the baptized; for Paul, according to his usual manner, where he speaks of the faithful, connects the reality and the effect with the outward sign; for we know that whatever the Lord offers by the visible symbol is confirmed and ratified by their faith. In short, he teaches what is the real character of baptism when rightly received. So he testifies to the Galatians, that all who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27.)

Thus indeed must we speak, as long as the institution of the Lord and the faith of the godly unite together; for we never have naked and empty symbols, except when our ingratitude and wickedness hinder the working of divine beneficence.

— John Calvin, Commentary on Romans

Romans 6 and baptism in the early church

I’m somewhat hesitant to post this, as my views are not fully formed, it’s a comment on a major source of disunity in the church, and many greater minds than myself have come to a different view on this.

But what is blogging for if not to discuss a few ideas, while practicing discernment?

With that in mind, read this passage assuming that the early church had a normative practice of infant baptism:

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

(ESV)

If you suppose all-age baptism in the early church, what is the most obvious interpretation of this? Surely that all of us who have been baptised with water have been spiritually united to Christ, adults and infants alike. You’d be looking around your Roman house church thinking there’s Andronicus and Junia – they’re baptised, so they’re united to Christ. And their two little sprogs, Andronicute and Juniette. They’re baptised too, so Paul is saying they’ve been buried with Christ in his death.

This has some interesting implications. This baptism is not presented as a breakable bond, so surely it means that all the baptised will be saved. Breakable or not, we’re in Federal Vision territory. Does it not also mean that the unbaptised will not be saved since they cannot be united to Christ through baptism? In which case, what about the old “if you confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord” line from a few chapters later? Are there two ways to be saved? I’m sure we would all say ‘certainly not!’

Additionally, why exactly would God chose the application of water upon an infant to be the thing that joins them to Christ?

To avoid these issues, you’re forced to say with Dunn that this passage refers to a spiritual baptism leading to a spiritual unity with Christ. But most agree this is unlikely. Or you say, with Calvin, that baptism unites you to Christ conditionally upon faith (and indeed mortification! Institues 4.16.16). But are we to imagine that Paul wanted his Roman readers to keep inserting “and repentant faith” in this passage every time he mentions baptism? No, Paul is really saying that baptism unites you to Christ in his death – we have been united with him.

Let’s try again, this time reading the passage presupposing an early church practice of normative believers’ baptism upon profession of faith.

If baptism stands for the public declaration of faith in the Christ who died for your trespasses and was raised for your justification (Rom 4) then the link between faith and baptism is much clearer. If baptism in the early church presupposes faith, then it is easy to see why Paul is able to use baptism as a kind of synecdoche for faith. It becomes obvious why baptism should unite you to Christ – it does it in the same way faith does. Christians can look back on their baptism as a point where they became united to Christ as they publicly identified themselves with Christ in his death. It’s essentially an intensified, objective expression of faith – a confession with the mouth and with the body that Jesus is Lord.

Obviously this is not to say that all baptisms follow true faith, nor that all who are saved must be baptised. But this passage makes most sense if it was the norm in the early church for baptism to be an expression of an individual’s faith.

Thoughts?