Equipping Christians & churches for whole-life discipleship in the world.

Shaped by the Story (9): Forgiveness and Freedom in Jesus

April 2, 2012
02 Apr 2012

Brothers and sisters from the children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent…
We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus…
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin…

Acts 13:26, 32-33, 38-39

Acts 13 records Paul’s first main speech – given in a synagogue to Jews and God-fearers, Gentiles attached to Judaism. The address is arguably programmatic for the next part of Acts, in the same way that Peter’s Pentecost speech in chapter 2 was programmatic for the first part of the book. We’re also probably meant to understand that Luke provides here a glimpse of Paul’s synagogue preaching, a regular feature of his ministry as he takes the gospel ‘to the Jew first’.

So, what does he say?

In line with Old Testament precedents, Paul recounts the story of Israel, beginning with Abraham, taking in the exodus and wilderness wanderings, the Judges era and Samuel, before moving to David – from whose descendants, he says, ‘God has brought to Israel the Saviour Jesus, as he promised’ (13:23). Paul’s claims about Jesus are grounded in God’s prior actions for Israel. The God who worked in the past is the same God who has brought salvation in the present, through the death and resurrection of Christ, in line with scriptural promises related to Abraham and David.

This good news is for Israel, but – in keeping with the whole tenor of the story – is extended to Gentiles too. Jesus is risen, and – as several Psalms promised – is the one to whom is given the blessings of David, including the forgiveness of sins for ‘everyone who believes’.

As we reflect on how God works in our own lives day by day, our personal ‘stories’ are an essential dimension of how we understand ourselves. Even so, our own ‘narrative’ makes best sense not when it becomes an end in itself, but when it is connected to the overarching story of God’s redemption in Christ. We understand our life ‘plot’ in the greater light of what the loving, covenant-keeping God has worked on our behalf – individually and together.

For us, as for Paul’s original hearers, far from us offering a God an occasional walk-on part in the story of our lives, we are called to see our lives in the infinitely larger narrative of what he has done and will yet do in the world – through Christ, our Saviour and Lord.

 

Antony Billington

 

Subscribers to LICC’s ‘Word for the Week’ will be interested to know that Whole Life, Whole Bible (published by BRF) is now available. Written by Antony Billington, Margaret Killingray, and Helen Parry, the book is designed to walk through the unfolding story of the Bible in 50 readings and reflections, with the conviction that Scripture sets the agenda for the whole of life – on Monday to Saturday as well as Sunday, in public and in private, in work as much as in worship. Available in Christian bookstores and online, including via the LICC bookshop.

Shaped by the Story (8): A Manageable God?

March 26, 2012
26 Mar 2012

Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?” To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you…’
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Acts 7:1-3, 54-56

Originally selected to distribute food to needy widows, Stephen ends up being the first Christian to die for proclaiming Jesus. Falsely accused of speaking against the law and the temple, he replies by rehearsing the Old Testament story – providing, in the process, the longest speech in the book of Acts. But how does it work as a response?

In part is a recurring theme of rejection, made explicit at the end when he accuses his audience of continuing the pattern of their ancestors, of rejecting Moses and the law, persecuting the prophets, and now killing Jesus (7:51-53).

More significantly, however, Stephen shows that God’s presence and blessing were never limited to the land or the temple. The ‘God of glory’ (where ‘glory’ is regularly associated with the temple) appeared to Abraham not in Israel but in Mesopotamia. The ‘holy ground’ on which Moses met the Lord was miles away from the promised land, and there wasn’t an altar there, let alone a temple! Noting that God does not live in houses ‘made by hands’ (7:48), Stephen even suggests that the temple has become an idol.

Even so, it is his vision and claims in 7:55-56 that tip his accusers over the edge, where it becomes clear that the ‘glory of God’ which appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia is now associated with Jesus.

Stephen’s criticism, of course, is not with the temple itself; but, properly understood, the biblical story has a global reach where God’s blessing is not limited to one nation, land, or building. The story of the Bible points beyond Abraham and Moses and the law and the temple to one who would come from the Father, full of grace and truth. That story has come to its climax in the ascended Lord who now occupies the place of universal authority, the location of God’s presence.

For us too, perhaps, Stephen’s speech is a reminder that God is not manageable. He cannot be isolated by a particular building or institution, a cherished tradition or ritual, a deeply held viewpoint or favoured version of the Bible. For us too, then, comes the challenge that he will not be captured by anything that might usurp the place that rightly belongs to him alone.

 

Antony Billington

 

Subscribers to LICC’s ‘Word for the Week’ will be interested to know that Whole Life, Whole Bible (published by BRF) is now available. Written by Antony Billington, Margaret Killingray, and Helen Parry, the book is designed to walk through the unfolding story of the Bible in 50 readings and reflections, with the conviction that Scripture sets the agenda for the whole of life – on Monday to Saturday as well as Sunday, in public and in private, in work as much as in worship. Available in Christian bookstores and online, including via the LICC bookshop.

Shaped by the Story (7): The Family Tree

March 19, 2012
19 Mar 2012

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham… Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.
Matthew 1:1, 17

The growth industry in genealogy magazines and books designed to help people trace their family tree, along with the popularity of TV programmes like Who Do You Think You Are?, demonstrate our fascination with roots. In some cases it’s little more than a curiosity about family background, but in many cultures it reflects a desire, even necessity, to show connectedness and belonging. This was certainly the case for Matthew, as he lays out Jesus’ ancestry at the start of his gospel.

Crucially, he begins and ends the genealogy with David and Abraham. Jesus is not only the fulfilment of the hopes of a new king on David’s throne, but also the one who will extend God’s blessings to Gentiles in fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham. But more than this, Matthew’s very first words – about the ‘genesis’ of Jesus Christ – are reminiscent of Genesis 2:4 and 5:1. He is setting the account he is about to tell in the larger story of God’s dealings not just with Israel, but with creation, marking a new beginning in that story – a new beginning in Jesus.

Why Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba are included in the genealogy remains something of a puzzle. Perhaps Matthew wanted us to note they were all ‘foreigners’ to Israel, brought within the orbit of the people of God. More significantly, perhaps, is that their unions and childrearing could be seen as outside the ‘norm’, some even carrying the stigma of sexual scandal. Matthew reminds us – as Joseph will learn in the passage that follows – that God doesn’t always work out his purpose within expected boundaries.

On the first page of the New Testament, then, the significance of Jesus is seen in the shape of the history of Israel, with all its ups and downs, which goes back through David to Abraham, and has its origins in God’s purposes for the whole of creation.

And this history becomes our history too, as we are adopted into the family of faith whose roots go back to the very beginning, carefully worked out by God, culminating in Jesus. Here is great encouragement, as the gospel story reminds me of my incredible significance in God’s grand design – that I find my identity and purpose, with others, in the one who stands at the heart of God’s plan for the universe.

 

Antony Billington

 

Subscribers to LICC’s ‘Word for the Week’ will be interested to know that Whole Life, Whole Bible (published by BRF) is now available. Written by Antony Billington, Margaret Killingray, and Helen Parry, the book is designed to walk through the unfolding story of the Bible in 50 readings and reflections, with the conviction that Scripture sets the agenda for the whole of life – on Monday to Saturday as well as Sunday, in public and in private, in work as much as in worship. Available in Christian bookstores and online, including via the LICC bookshop.

Shaped by the Story (6): Renewing God’s People

March 12, 2012
12 Mar 2012

Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them…
You are the LORD God, who chose Abram…
You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt…
You came down on Mount Sinai…
You gave them kingdoms and nations…
By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets…
Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love…
Nehemiah 9:5, 7, 9, 13, 22, 30, 32

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the building projects – the temple and the walls of Jerusalem – that take place after God’s people come home from exile. No less real, and no less hard graft, is the rebuilding of the people themselves – in relationship with God and in community with each other. And at the heart of it, the means by which restoration comes, is the word of God. As Nehemiah 8-10 shows, God works through Scripture – and the story it tells – to breathe new life into his people.

In this case, reading the book of the law leads to confession, with Nehemiah 9 recording the longest prayer in the Bible outside the Psalms. Beginning with praise, the people then trace the biblical story from creation right through to their present day. In doing so, they confess their faithlessness and God’s faithfulness in his dealings with them, admitting their guilt and acknowledging God’s grace.

Mediated through the lens of a scriptural memory of God’s past actions on their behalf, that shared history cements the identity of the people of God, forming a community which will trust and serve him in the future. And so, confession turns to commitment as they make an agreement among themselves and before the Lord to make their own history different in the land God has given them anew. The renewal of the covenant that follows in chapter 10 flows from the awakening by the word of God in chapter 8 and the confession of sin in chapter 9.

Of course, we need ongoing renewal at the personal level. But what’s going on in Nehemiah, crucially, is corporate renewal, renewal of the people of God. A restored relationship with God leads to a restored relationship with each other, to a concern for the welfare of the whole community. The vision at the heart of these chapters, shaped by the biblical story, remains as powerful now as it did then – renewal through the word of God, renewal in relationship with God, and renewal as the people of God.

 

Antony Billington

 

Subscribers to LICC’s ‘Word for the Week’ will be interested to know that Whole Life, Whole Bible (published by BRF) is now available. Written by Antony Billington, Margaret Killingray, and Helen Parry, the book is designed to walk through the unfolding story of the Bible in 50 readings and reflections, with the conviction that Scripture sets the agenda for the whole of life – on Monday to Saturday as well as Sunday, in public and in private, in work as much as in worship. Available in Christian bookstores and online, including via the LICC bookshop.

Shaped by the Story (5): The Main Role

March 5, 2012
05 Mar 2012

Give praise to the LORD, call on his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing of him, sing his praises;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.
Look to the LORD and his strength;
seek his face always.
Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,
you his servants, the descendants of Abraham,
his chosen ones, the children of Jacob.
Psalm 105:1-6

Like other passages which tell the biblical story, Psalm 105 reiterates God’s own place in the drama. Clearly, his role is not merely that of the playwright, much less that of a spectator in the audience. As it happens, not only is he the main actor, the central character on stage, but he also has the most significant speaking part. In taking us from Abraham to Canaan, the psalmist does not simply recite the events, but attributes them to the initiative and promise of the Lord. And we, ‘his chosen ones’, are called to remember both ‘the wonders he has done’ and ‘the judgments he pronounced’, words as well as works.

Moreover, God’s saving work is effective for subsequent generations, and the summons to remember connects us to the events no less than the original audience. So, we too are not spectators in the audience, but called to be involved in the action, to take our place in the ongoing drama of salvation.

Just one of the ways we do that, exemplified by the psalm itself, is through praise. Interestingly, the first part of the psalm is drawn from 1 Chronicles 16, where it is sung in celebration of the arrival of the ark of the covenant in Jerusalem. Beyond its use on that special occasion, it continues to be sung by God’s people, showing that more than a mental act of recitation of the biblical story is taking place. In poetic praise of God’s covenant faithfulness, God’s ‘chosen ones’ of every time and place are invited to recount and remember, then respond in celebration and praise.

Crucially, however, we do so to ‘make known among the nations what he has done’ (105:1) – another reminder of the global dimensions of the biblical drama of which we are a part. Confident that God will bring to complete fruition his promise to bless all nations, we praise the Lord and proclaim his name not to benefit ourselves, but to make known his works and words to all people everywhere.

 

Antony Billington

 

Subscribers to LICC’s ‘Word for the Week’ will be interested to know that Whole Life, Whole Bible (published by BRF) is now available. Written by Antony Billington, Margaret Killingray, and Helen Parry, the book is designed to walk through the unfolding story of the Bible in 50 readings and reflections, with the conviction that Scripture sets the agenda for the whole of life – on Monday to Saturday as well as Sunday, in public and in private, in work as much as in worship. Available in Christian bookstores and online, including via the LICC bookshop.

Shaped by the Story (4): Remembrance of Things Past

February 27, 2012
27 Feb 2012

My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will teach you lessons from the past –
things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
Psalm 78:1-4

The story of Israel is told not only in different periods of time – by Moses, then Joshua, then Samuel – but through a variety of literary genres. Psalm 78, for instance, the second longest in the psalter, poetically recounts God’s acts on behalf of his people, from the exodus through to David.

Interestingly, this psalm addresses the congregation rather than the Lord. The speaker begins by inviting the people to listen to his ‘teaching’. In particular, the teaching is given in the mode of ‘a parable’ – the type of instruction one associates with a teacher of wisdom, a teller of stories which require an attentiveness that goes beyond the surface level of what’s said. And, like other wise teachers, his move between ‘I’ and ‘we’ shows this is for him too; he is not distancing himself from the necessity of learning ‘lessons from the past’.

In this case, then, it’s about the significance of remembering and passing on what has been heard and known from one generation to another. What, exactly, are they to tell? The Lord’s ‘praiseworthy deeds… and the wonders he has done’. Indeed, the presence of the psalm in Israel’s hymnbook, used regularly in gathered worship, indicates that the story – and its lessons – are to be told again and again.

But, far from the psalm being a flat recitation of the works of the Lord, still less a condemnation of the people for their constant rebellion against him, it is designed to recall the past for the benefit of the people in the present with the encouragement to tell it to others. As it happens, the psalmist does not exhort his audience directly, in the style of Moses or Joshua. He sets up himself as a model of remembering what God has done, engaging his audience’s memory by exercising his own.

For us too, it’s a valuable reminder of the assurance that comes from knowing God has been involved with us from the beginning, of our responsibility to pass that on to others, and the significant role of communities, churches, and families in doing so. The covenant was founded when God ‘remembered’ his covenant with our ancestors in the faith (Exodus 2:24), and the covenant will endure as long as we continue to tell subsequent generations of God’s acts for us, to remember and not forget.

 

Antony Billington

 

Subscribers to LICC’s ‘Word for the Week’ will be interested to know that Whole Life, Whole Bible (published by BRF) is now available. Written by Antony Billington, Margaret Killingray, and Helen Parry, the book is designed to walk through the unfolding story of the Bible in 50 readings and reflections, with the conviction that Scripture sets the agenda for the whole of life – on Monday to Saturday as well as Sunday, in public and in private, in work as much as in worship. Available in Christian bookstores and online, including via the LICC bookshop.

Shaped by the Story (3): Under New Management?

February 20, 2012
20 Feb 2012

Then Samuel said to the people… ‘Now then, stand here, because I am going to confront you with evidence before the LORD as to all the righteous acts performed by the LORD for you and your ancestors…
If you fear the LORD and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the LORD your God – good! But if you do not obey the LORD, and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you, as it was against your ancestors.’
1 Samuel 12:6-7 & 14-15

Like Moses and Joshua before him, Samuel calls the people to covenant faithfulness at the dawn of a new era in their history – the transition to Saul’s kingship. Again, like Moses and Joshua, his instruction is informed by the biblical story to this point. How will the monarchy relate to what has gone before?

Samuel begins by ensuring his own integrity is not under dispute, and the people happily agree that he had neither cheated or oppressed them. But he goes on to show that the Lord, likewise, has been faithful to them in his ‘righteous acts’.

His historical sketch begins with God’s liberation of the people from Egypt, through Moses and Aaron. It takes in the period of the judges, as Samuel makes it clear that the Lord repeatedly raised up leaders to deliver them when they rebelled against God and fell into enemy hands. In the context of the people wanting a king ‘such as all the other nations have’ (1 Samuel 8:5), the clear upshot of Samuel’s telling of their story is that God himself, as the supreme overlord, has consistently provided leaders to rescue his people in times of need. The ongoing problem, it appears, is not the system of leadership per se so much as their constant turning away from God.

Even now, notwithstanding their request for a ruler, God remains committed to Israel. But the king will not guarantee their future success. That will be down to their ongoing trust in, and obedience to, God whose covenant still stands – for the king as well as the people. Kingship will be allowed, but both leader and people are to serve the one who is Lord of all.

As it turns out, later generations would come to know that kings do not and cannot save. And the biblical story anticipates the need for a ruler who would reign forever, who would bring about a salvation that Israel’s king could never achieve. Now, as then, as 1 Samuel 12:22 makes clear, the basis for our confidence and delight in serving God is his saving grace towards us: ‘For the sake of his great name the LORD will not reject his people, because the LORD was pleased to make you his own.’

 

Antony Billington

 

Subscribers to LICC’s ‘Word for the Week’ will be interested to know that Whole Life, Whole Bible (published by BRF) is now available. Written by Antony Billington, Margaret Killingray, and Helen Parry, the book is designed to walk through the unfolding story of the Bible in 50 readings and reflections, with the conviction that Scripture sets the agenda for the whole of life – on Monday to Saturday as well as Sunday, in public and in private, in work as much as in worship. Available in Christian bookstores and online, including via the LICC bookshop.

Shaped by the Story (2): The Promises of a Settled People

February 13, 2012
13 Feb 2012

Joshua said to all the people, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: “Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants…”
Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness… As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.’
Joshua 24:2-3 & 14-15

Towards the end of his life, Joshua gathers the people and recites the story of all that God has done for them. His account intersects with Moses’ earlier summary in Deuteronomy 1-4, but is also influenced by the situation at hand. Having now entered the land of promise, they have stopped journeying and must decide how they will live as a settled people.

Joshua reminds them of God calling Abraham, defeating the Egyptians, bringing them through the wilderness, and dispossessing the Canaanites (24:2-13). The Lord is repeatedly the main actor in Joshua’s account – the one who ‘took’ and ‘led’ and ‘gave’ and ‘sent’ and ‘brought’ – emphasising that it is only by his grace that the people now stand where they do. Moreover, like Moses before him, Joshua shuffles between ‘they’ and ‘you’ in his telling in a way that interweaves his audience with their ancestors, such that the foundational story of the covenant people becomes their story too.

Not to be missed, however, is that Joshua tells the story of Israel’s past as a journey from a ‘foreign’ land to the promised land by the descendants of people who ‘worshiped other gods’. Just as Abraham made the journey from polytheism to faith in the one true God, so Israel’s future depends on the acceptance of this journey as their own.

So it is that Joshua tells the story in a way designed to bring Israel to a decision. On the basis of God’s great acts for them, he appeals to the people to dedicate themselves to the Lord, announcing his own commitment to do so. Now that they have stopped journeying, they can live as Terah did ‘beyond the Euphrates’, or they can serve the one who delivered them from idolatry and slavery. One way or the other, the story of God’s people will continue to unfold.

For us too, the call of Jesus to ‘follow me’ flows out of what he has already done on our behalf. And we do so with the confidence that he has brought us this far and will be with us always, to the very end of the age.

 

Antony Billington

 

Subscribers to LICC’s ‘Word for the Week’ will be interested to know that Whole Life, Whole Bible (published by BRF) is now available. Written by Antony Billington, Margaret Killingray, and Helen Parry, the book is designed to walk through the unfolding story of the Bible in 50 readings and reflections, with the conviction that Scripture sets the agenda for the whole of life – on Monday to Saturday as well as Sunday, in public and in private, in work as much as in worship. Available in Christian bookstores and online, including via the LICC bookshop.

Shaped by the Story (1): Looking Back, Looking Ahead

February 6, 2012
06 Feb 2012

These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the wilderness east of the Jordan…
Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb…
Deuteronomy 1:1 and 4:9-10

It is surely significant that at the heart of Scripture is not a list of rules to be obeyed or a set of promises to be claimed, but a grand, sweeping story that is told. It’s an account of God reaching out in love to sinful men and women, drawing them into relationship with himself, who then become the main ingredients in a plan – centered in Christ – which involves the restoration of creation itself.

Nor should it come as a surprise that several summaries of this story are found throughout Scripture. The story is narrated up to the point of telling, of course, but each of the tellers is concerned to place themselves and their listeners or readers into that larger story, in such a way that it becomes their story too.

So it is, as Deuteronomy begins, that God’s people find themselves on the verge of entering the promised land. From 1:1 to 4:43, Moses reviews their history since leaving Sinai; but he does so in a way that folds the audience into what has happened. Most of the original hearers were no more present at Sinai than twenty-first-century readers were, and yet – in a way that also speaks directly to the contemporary Christian – Moses makes it clear that these foundational events become part of our history too.

God’s words and deeds are recalled with a view to what lies ahead as the people will live in the land. Israel’s story will continue into the future, in continuity with what has taken place in the past, and it is on the basis of the story so far that Moses calls his listeners to covenant faithfulness.

For us too, the story of God’s dealings with his people is to be remembered and passed on, treasured and taught to succeeding generations who will themselves be written into the ongoing story. And those of us who have experienced the grace of God and his call on our lives will likewise benefit from the reminder of how he has already acted on our behalf, and be strengthened by the confidence that he himself will go ahead of us, today and always.

 

Antony Billington

 

Subscribers to LICC’s ‘Word for the Week’ will be interested to know that Whole Life, Whole Bible (published by BRF) is now available. Written by Antony Billington, Margaret Killingray, and Helen Parry, the book is designed to walk through the unfolding story of the Bible in 50 readings and reflections, with the conviction that Scripture sets the agenda for the whole of life – on Monday to Saturday as well as Sunday, in public and in private, in work as much as in worship. Available in Christian bookstores and online, including via the LICC bookshop.