Baptism and Children

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Read: Acts 2:22-24; 2:32-41; Genesis 17:1-17

As we see this little child baptised, we should all be asking a simple question: What is baptism about?

Answer: Promises. God’s promises. In baptism we hear God speaking to undeserving people, assuring them that he keeps his promises. As we hear these promises we are called to respond.

Peter’s words in Acts 2 can be summarised in one simple sentence: God keeps his promises. And he calls us to respond to them.

What the Bible says

In actual fact, Peter spoke to a crowd of murderers. Seven weeks before they had crucified Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, the Messiah. Ask yourself: Could there be a more undeserving crowd? Yet when they understood the gravity of their actions, they were cut to the heart, and asked ‘what should we do?’

Verse 38:

“Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”” (Acts 2:38–39, NIV)

Can you hear the words of promise? The promise of forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit. Given to everyone who repents. And Peter said these people were to express their repentance by being baptised.

But there’s something else going on, too. These people are Jews, and as we learned last week, they knew much of the Old Testament by heart. And there is a phrase Peter used which would have caught their attention immediately:

“…The promise is for you and your children …”” (Acts 2:38–39, NIV)

On face value, they may not mean too much to us. But when Peter’s hearers heard those words, they would have immediately thought of what we read in Gen 17 when God spoke his covenant promise to Abraham. Understanding these words is critical if we are to know why children of believing parents ought to be baptised.

The Lord said to Abraham,

“I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” (Genesis 17:7, NIV)

In verse 8 were read ‘you and your descendants’

In verse 9 were read ‘you and your descendants’

And in case we missed it, in verse 10 were read ‘you and your descendants’.

So, what’s happening is that the covenant of promise is sovereignly bestowed. And the Lord required that circumcision was how people would show their submission to that promise. What really interests us today is how the Genesis phrase ‘you and your descendants’ is a conceptual match with Peter’s ‘you and your children’.

In Genesis 17, The Lord makes a covenant promise to Abraham and his children. In Acts 2, Peter declares the promise the Lord makes to believers and to their children. In Genesis 17, there’s a context in which that promise is to come to expression: the household of faith.

We are told that Abraham circumcised himself (that is commitment!). But that’s not all: Not only would he eventually circumcise Isaac, yet to be born. He also was to circumcise every male in his household. Every servant. Every servant’s son. Every foreigner who was living with them – even people who weren’t born in Israel. 

Consider the power of that word ‘household’: To us, it’s mum, dad and 2.1 kids. But in this culture, Abraham’s culture as well as New Testament culture, a household was several generations of people living together. Grandma. Grandpa. Parents. Children of all ages. Servants. Slaves. Foreign refuges who were living in that family. They were all part of the household.

“For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17:12–13, NIV)

And that’s what Abraham did, as we read in Genesis 17:23-27. God’s covenant promises come to expression in households, in covenant families.

God’s covenant promises of grace come to expression in the context of the believing family

You may not know this, but this pattern is seen clearly in the New Testament. Check it out:

In Acts 16, Lydia is converted in Philippi. She’s a wealthy woman, a dealer in highly valued purple cloth. As a wealthy business woman, she would have had a number of servants. And we assume a family. Look at how believing Lydia submits to God’s promise:

“One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.” (Acts 16:14–15, NIV)

She believes. Yet her household is baptised. God’s covenant promises of grace come to expression in the context of the believing family.

Soon after, other people are converted. Among them, a demon possessed girl who makes money for her ‘owners’ by revealing people’s secrets. Paul and Silas cast her demon out – which is great for her, but it infuriates those who had kept her as a slave, exploiting her condition. The slave girls owners slap a law suit on Paul and Silas. They are thrown in prison. No big deal: they are chilled and singing kumbaya when suddenly all the prison doors open, and all the prisoners’ chains fall off. The jailer sees this and is about the kill himself, when Paul, Silas and all the other prisoners point out no one has escaped. The jailer is overcome, sees that God is at work, and asks what to do. Now, notice how Paul shows the Jailer how to respond to the promise:

…“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”” (Acts 16:31, NIV)

He believes, but it has implications for his household. See Acts 16:34

“Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” (Acts 16:34, ESV)

God’s covenant promise comes to expression in the context of family.

There are other examples. In Acts 18:8, the household of Crispus believed and was baptised. In 1 Corinthians 1 we read that Gaius’ household was baptised (v.14). 1 Corinthians 1 Paul notes he also baptised the household of Stephanus (v.16). In all, five households are baptised. And it is inconceivable that those households did not include children and infants. It actually makes sense that they did, because it corresponds clearly to Genesis 17, where the sign and seal of God’s promise, circumcision, was applied to the household.

So when we take all this information together, what we see is a compelling continuity in the covenant promises of God, and the sign of those promises given in the context of family, including children.

Call and response

Think of what was signified:

Circumcision was a sign that sin need to be cut away. Baptism is a sign that sin needs to be washed away.

Circumcision pointed to the coming Messiah, Jesus. Baptism points back to the Messiah, Jesus.

Circumcision said ‘one day the Lord will do this’. Baptism says ‘God has done this in Jesus, His son’.

Both point us squarely to the action of God in saving his people, and his promise of cleansing in his Son. And the best context for God’s promise to be received, expressed and lived is the believing household, the Christian family.

In the water we hear God speak

This is why churches should never agree to baptise children of parents who do not believe. Churches should not do that because baptism is a sign of submission to God promise. That only has meaning in the context of faith.

That’s why we’re baptising little Daniel today. It’s not because he has faith. He doesn’t. It’s not because his parent’s faith somehow covers him. It doesn’t. It does not guarantee that Daniel will become a Christian: this is why Thomas and Clara promise to surround him with Christian example and influence. We all, along with Daniel, receive this sign and seal of his promises today: God gives grace to undeserving people like us. This is his covenant promise in Christ. We submit, we receive its sign in the context of family. Baptism points us to God. To the Cross. To Jesus sacrifice, which cleanses us from sin.

Today is about promise. In the water we hear God speak: I am your God, trust me, and believe the cleansing I have provided in my Son, Jesus. God can, and does, make this promise to children, to adults, to anyone who trusts in his Son: “I will be your God and the God of your descendants. My promise is to you and your children.”

And so today we hear God speak: Daniel, I will be your God. Daniel, I have sent my Son to rescue you from sin. Daniel, I am calling you to believe in me, to trust me. Your baptism shows I love you, and it’s calling you to love me back! To have faith in the Jesus who came for you.

That’s the one thing baptism does guarantee: and it’s the truth of what Jesus has done. He did not wait for us to love him before he gave his life. He did not wait for us to receive him before he bore the nails. No, while were were enemies, while we were sinners, God haters, Jesus died for us.

God’s covenant promise, made thousands of years before, are fulfilled in Christ. That’s grace! All the richest of Christ, all expenses paid by Jesus, no cost to me. And baptism wonderfully reflects that covenant grace: a promise given to Daniel before he can understand or know or love or receive. A promise of God’s grace, made through the blood of his Son, which cleanses us from all sin.

Redemption (Foundations #4)

Read: 2 Corinthians 5:11-21

A few years ago I had a bit of a supermarket windfall. I’d walked into the meat section at Woolworths looking for some minced beef. I always look around for good specials while I’m there, so I was checking some prime bone-in rib steak.

They were about 50mm thick. They were MSA graded. Typically $39.00kg. And guess what else? They had been priced as economy grade mince. Like $7.99kg.

What do you think I did?

How happy do you think I was?

How good do you think they tasted?

Some years ago Tony Campolo got us all to imagine that one day all the supermarket price tags had been switched, where the best steaks would be a dollar or two, and the mince would be $50kg. Or the new Landcruiser would cost $900 and the rustbucket Daewoo $85,000.

The point was that in the Kingdom of God, the world’s typical values are reversed, turned on their head. The last will be first, and the first will be last. Power is made perfect in weakness, and so on.

How God rescued his world

This is, in fact, how things are. We learn this from the big picture of what God is doing.

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We have seen how he created, how humanity rebelled and plunged the universe into the fall, how God promised to restore all things and crush the head of evil.

Today we will see how God is bringing this rescue about, how he is bringing redemption.
We will see that this rescue is something like the switching the price tags metaphor because this rescue is altogether different, wonderful and – from a human standpoint – extraordinary and remarkable.

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Think of it this way. We all know who this little boy is (Prince George). At present, he’s much like other one year olds. He’s got a few teeth. He’s starting to walk. And while he’s a member of the royal family, he has no idea how to plant trees. He still poops his pants.

But all things being equal, one day this will change. This little toddler will become King. And what will change?

His clothes will change: he will wear the robes and finery of a King.

His address will change: Windsor Castle, and Buckingham Palace.

He will wear a crown, studded with priceless jewels.

He will have attendants, and crowds will cheer him on, and as he walks in parade people will oooh and aaah as he passes by. When a man becomes King, this is what happens.

But what really interests us today is: what happens when God becomes King? Any of that?

What do we see in Jesus?

An unmarried mother, rumours of cheating, and mention of divorce. We see a shed, with straw, and a manger. A naked baby. A cow. Some chickens. And the visitors are shepherds, a dodgy underclass of near homeless people with a cheeky taste for mutton.

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Rembrandt: The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1646

The moment we see this, we begin to understand that the rescue God is bringing is altogether different to what we might expect.

God’s Plan of Redemption: The Cross

The New Testament Gospels – the biographies of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death and rising again – confirm this. The people of Jesus day lived in a Roman province called Judea. Their once great nation had been conquered by a series of world powers. Assyria (722BC). Babylon (586BC). Greece (198 BC). And then Rome (37BC).

The people of Jesus’ day had heard God’s promises in the Hebrew Scriptures, and believed God would send mighty warrior King to boot out the invaders, and return Israel to her former glory.

Then, here comes Jesus. Feeding thousands, healing the sick, opening the ears of the deaf, giving sight to the blind, healing the paralysed, and raising the dead. No small wonder how Jesus’ contemporaries want to make him King.

Evens so, he consistently avoids pressure to become a military or political figure. He consistently challenges the religious leaders of the day. Jesus becomes too popular. The religious leaders get too threatened. So they conspire to put him to death on a cross.

Interestingly, when Jesus was crucified, we read that Pilate, the Roman Governor, attached a notice on Jesus’ cross which read ‘this is the King of the Jews.’

Did you realise Pilate was a prophet?

Did Pilate know that his act of antagonism in appending the notice to the cross, he expressed one of the greatest truths of all time: this is what it looks like when God becomes King.

God’s promise of redemption, God’s rescue of people, their world, their cosmos, would be fulfilled as God himself, the King, expends himself, sacrifices himself, as Jesus, True God and True Man, goes to the cross so his people might truly live and their world might truly be restored.

Here is the truth about God’s redemption: it comes through the crucified and risen Jesus. Through Jesus God is reconciling all things to himself (see Colossians 1:20)

The Context for Redemption

We saw a few weeks ago that human rebellion affected three key areas of existence. This rebellion, this sin, brought division between

People and God

People and one another

People and their environment

What we see today is that the redemption God has worked through Jesus Christ his son actually impacts each of those contexts.

First: Jesus brings redemption from the domination of sin on human disposition. This is clearly outlined by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:1-4

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1–4, NIV)

Jesus sets us free from the law, the rule, the dominion of sin and death. Jesus breaks the power of rebellion to rule human nature.

God’s redemption deals with our sin, and draws people back into relationship with God

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV)

Our sin and rebellion is laid on Jesus. His righteousness and faithfulness is given to us. This change is so powerful that it is described as an act of re-creation:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ …” (2 Corinthians 5:17–18, NIV)

Make no mistake: Jesus death on the cross and rising again deals with the rebellious disposition of people!

Second: Jesus’ redemption brings healing and restoration to human relationships:

There is hardly an uglier enmity on the pages of the Bible than the enmity and hatred between Jews and non Jews. Think: Israel and Palestine today and you’re pretty much there.

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But listen to what Paul writes to non Jewish people shortly after Jesus’ rising again:

“Therefore, remember … that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility…” (Ephesians 2:11–18, NIV)

As we see this violence and hatred played out before us in media reports of tensions between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza, we must recognise that the greatest need of all is for Jesus’ to rule the hearts and lives of men and women. More than international diplomacy, more than political deals, our world needs the reconciling peace which Jesus brings. Jesus brought unity between Jew and non-Jew in the first century. We need to pray he will do the same again.

Third: Jesus’ redemption opens the way for the restoration of all things.

Creation, groaning under the weight of the fall, cries out for the full redemption to come when Jesus returns to complete his work:

“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19–21, NIV)

The redemption God brought through Jesus’ death and resurrection impacts on it all:

People and God

People and other people

People and creation, creation itself

Here’s a question for you: Had you considered that the death of Jesus on the Cross and the power of his resurrection guarantees the resurrection of people, of society, of our world?

Did you realise that God’s plan is so mind bogglingly comprehensive?

So incredibly powerful?

You might say, ‘well, I don’t know about that. I haven’t seen too much change in people or the world. I certainly haven’t seen anything that transformational or redemptive!’ And you may be right. Perhaps you have not seen that.

You may not have seen the sheer number of societal developments spearheaded either by the church or by people who were walking with Jesus.

The development of public schools.

The development of hospitals and compassionate care.

The early days of the union movement.

The end of the slave trade under Wilberforce.

The invention of the Cochlear implant by Graeme Clark

Cancer immunology, advances in mesothelioma, through Professor Bruce Robinson, West Australian of the year in 2014

The challenge to segregation under Dr Martin Luther King.

The challenge to Nazism through Bonhoeffer.

The list is long, though quite possibly you might not be aware of how the Risen Jesus worked through such people. (A good place to see how much impact the kingdom of Jesus has had on western society is the writings of Rodney Stark)

Even if you are not aware of these people and how their lives honoured Jesus, there’s another context in which God’s redemption comes most powerfully to expression. You might not have seen that either, even though you really should have. That particular context is your own life.

If anyone is in Christ, new creation has come! They are new creation! In Jesus, you are new creation! As a follower of Jesus, you are the context in which God’s new creation will come to expression. This is the thing: God’s redemption comes powerfully to expression in the world as he brings change in people’s life, in your life, in mine.

If anyone is in Christ, new creation has come!

It always amazes me that some Christians in particular can be so critical, looking down their noses and bad mouthing others for their faults and failings, using that as reason to disengage or not be involved in what God calls them to do. They miss the point that the first context they should see the transformational power of God rescue is in their own lives!

God wants his new creation to come to expression in their behaviour and attitudes. God’s Spirit intends for you to

Break the pride.

Stop the whinging.

Cut the gossip.

Stop the cheating on your partner.

Stop driving like a hoon.

Keep you anger in check.

Lose the holier than thou attitude.

See, God has little interest in you just changing your ideas, listening to Joyce Meyer or Driscoll or Keller or whomever. You can be as eloquent as you like about the views of such speakers, or the books you read. But it all means zip unless your life starts to come under Jesus’ rule (more to say about that next time).

Let’s just say for today the work of the Spirit in you is to redeem you. To restore Christ’s character and attitudes in you. To overcome rebellion in your thoughts, words and actions. To bring new creation to expression right there in your life! God made him who had no sin, to be sin for you, so that in him you might become the righteousness of God!

God wants this change, this new creation, to move from your mind, to your heart, to your hands and your life.

if everyone who went by the name of Jesus actually started to live like Jesus, would our world be any different?

Did not Jesus say, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and … puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24, NIV)

Let me ask you, if everyone who went by the name of Jesus actually started to live like Jesus, would our world be any different?

If you started to live like Jesus, really, would your family be any different?

Your workplace?

Your local community?

It is inconceivable that any of these contexts would stay the same when people commit to living out Jesus’ new creation.

The character of Redemption

I want to push a little harder to get us thinking about the character of Jesus’ rescue and redemption, or – in the language of the Gospels – the character of the Kingdom.

Remember that Jesus was a picture of weakness when he was born. Remember how he refused to pander to the expectations of the people of his time, and how he rejected all pressure to be a political messiah? Remember how he was an object of foolishness when he died on the cross?

Now, if Jesus came in that manner, lived in that manner, died in that manner – don’t you think there are implications for how we should be living?

Don’t you think this is a powerful statement of what Christians should aspire to?

Doesn’t that impact the kind of life you lead?

The kind of future you seek?

The kind of success you aim for?

What sort of ministry we should want to develop?

Does that impact on what sort of church we should be trying to grow?

There is so much pressure on western churches to strive to be large, to focus on building the biggest and most impressive. We see many mega-churches focussing on the trinity of ‘lights, camera and action’ and using these means as their primary drawcard. In the end such emphases become harder and harder to maintain. The reason is that we’re imitating the world, and the world always does ‘the world’ better than the church.

Christ’s call on us is to be distinct, unique, an alternate and contrasting community. To display the impressive reality of the Gospel, even if the message appears to some as foolishness. The power of the risen Christ ruling a community of his people will always have more transformational impact that anything else.

This is what we should be looking for and working toward. Through history, this has tended to mean churches working in smaller, more community oriented units as compared with large mega churches. Historians and church growth experts will show us that these smaller units have greater missional effectiveness in impacting the local community. So maybe it is is true that small is the new big.

These are some of the most strident challenges to the prosperity Gospel: where all God wants to do is give you riches and wealth and success. What a joke! Jesus and the early church had none of that!

It was quite the opposite: where people had excess wealth, they sold some of their stuff and gave the money to anyone in need. There’s redemption and restoration right there friends.

These are some of the most incisive challenges to comfortable churches of convenience.
Where nice people roll up to get a religious ‘sugar fix’ hoping to walk away sated for another week.

This rescue, this redemption God has brought through his son is the most radical, transformational, anti establishment movement on the face of the earth! Through this Jesus centred redemption

God brings change in human disposition and behaviour.

God brings restoration in relationships

God brings hope to a fallen bruised and broken world.

And the primary context for his change to come to glorious expression is in your heart, my heart, in new community right here, right now.

Promise (Foundations #3)

How God answers human rebellion

Isaiah 65:17-25

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Credit: iStockphoto

So far in this series we have seen

1. How God created the universe, and it was very good.

2. How humanity rejected God, rebelling against his love and goodness through Adam and Eve’s act of defiance.

Today we will see

3. How God answers that rebellion. As we do, we may well find ourselves challenged and surprised.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Let’s start with a promise:

I was a young boy, maybe 5 years old. My mother had to take me to the family doctor to get a needle: I suppose it was some form of immunisation. There was a problem: I hate needles, and my mother was probably not too good at dealing with freaked out children.
But she had a stroke of genius the week before I was to have that fateful appointment.
She walked me into the paper shop – that’s what we used to call the newsagent in the town I was born – and pointed up on one of the shelves. It was blue ray gun that looked something like this. It was a young boy’s dream toy. The 1963 version of a light sabre.
I looked at that ray gun, and imagined the fun I could have with it. I may even have believed that with such a weapon I could keep my older sister in line. My imagination was held with my mother’s promise: ‘if you don’t make a fuss about the needle, you will get that ray gun…’

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In that moment of parental genius, my mother did something divine: she saw a person gripped with fear and foreboding, and spoke a promise which drew them toward a better reality.

The Power of God’s Promise

This is how promises work: they capture our heart and point us to something better.

It happens when a man slips a diamond on the finger of his fiancé.

It happens when two people sit down and plan the holiday of a lifetime.

It happens when a young couple puts a deposit on their first home.

A promise will meet us where we are and direct our vision toward something better.

The greatest promise of all happened in Eden. Humanity was trapped in their own rebellion from God. Overcome with fear, they hid from God instead of trusting him.

What was God’s core reaction to that rejection? By core reaction, I mean the response which best expresses the character of the Lord? Our answer is seen in how God spoke right into that rebellion, and challenged it with a promise:

“…I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”” (Genesis 3:15, NIV)

Yes, human rebellion has its consequences. Grief, tears, pain, death and separation from God. What we need to see is how in the thick of all that, this gracious God set about his work of restoring his people and his world.

If you want to understand anything about God, this is where you start: God’s most basic inclination, his most basic response to human fall and rebellion is to draw people out of chaos and into his love life and grace. His promise draws a fearful and fallen humanity toward a better reality. He would send a deliverer, a Messiah, to crush the head of evil once and for all.

God’s most basic inclination, his most basic response to human fall and rebellion is to draw people out of chaos and into his love life and grace.

The Bible is really the story of God bringing this promise to fulfilment. The ancient writings of the Old Testament tell us how God opens the eyes of humanity to their own need and how he started to bring this rescue about.

We learn how he chose a relatively weak and insignificant people and formed them into the nation of Israel. Their call was to show what life was like when people lived in relationship with this God of promise.

We hear the manifesto for this fledgling nation in Ex 19:

“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” (Exodus 19:5–6, NIV)

The distinctive character of this nation living with God would be expressed as they lived by his commands (Exodus 20).

Israel’s history however, shows how they failed in their task. Despite his doubtless grief and anger at his people’s sin, God keeps working to bring his promise to reality.
He keeps calling his people back to life. While it is true that he meets them where they are, he refuses to leave them that way. He draws them into change and transformation. Despite their continued failing, and times where they are exiled and disciplined, he never breaks his word. He remains faith to his promise to deal with their rebellion, to restore them and their world.

The question that really interests us today is ‘What sort of restoration would this be? What does this promise entail?’

The Old Testament has many different voices and a rich texture of answers to that question. The most breathtaking vision of how this promise would come to fulfilment is found in the book of Isaiah.

Writing some 700 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, Isaiah presents such a vista of hope and transformation that we can scarcely believe it. This is not because it seems untrue, but because it is so all encompassing and universal in its scope. Isaiah mentions three contexts in which God’s restoration will be seen.

First: God will act to reconcile humanity to himself. He will do this by dealing with the core problem of humanity: the rebellious disposition of the human heart.

“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18, NIV)

How will that happen?

Isaiah says this rescue will come through one identified as ‘The Servant of the Lord.’ This servant will become a sacrifice. He will take on the form of an abject, innocent man who willingly suffers for the wrongs of his people (Isaiah 53:3-6).

Second: Not only does God promise to reconcile people to himself, his act through his servant will have such magnitude that it will will impact on human relationships and reconcile people to each other. Relationships will be healed and the human heart transformed to such an extent that evil and injustice and violence will ultimately be overcome (Isaiah 61:1-3).

Third: (as if the first two contexts were not enough) Isaiah’s panorama of promise widens to something absolutely stupendous. How? Well, we know that creation groans with the weight of sin and the smell of the fall. We see this in natural disasters, in animal predation and environmental imbalance. We see it in unjust societal structures, in broken communities, abusive institutions, in warfare and genocide. Isaiah, however, points us to a new day when the servant’s actions will not only change human hearts and human relationships, his work of rescue will transform all created reality (Isaiah 65:17, 19, 25).

This is what Isaiah is saying: People will be reconciled to God. People will be reconciled to one another. People will be reconciled to their environment, society will be healed, and the brokenness of our universe will ultimately be overcome.

There’s the promise: God will act – through the servant – whom Christians understand to be Jesus – to rescue people and their world from their rebellion and all its consequences.

The scope of the promise

What are we to make of all this? If we are trying to come to terms with the core realities of Christianity, with the central truths of who Jesus is, what does Creation – Rebellion – Promise mean?

The first implication is that God – and his plan of salvation – is as concerned with physical realities as much as spiritual realities. In fact, they cannot be separated. One is not more important than another.

Some may be surprised about this. They have focussed so long on heaven and ‘spiritual things’ that there is hardly a thought to this world or the crying needs of people in it. The truth is that the kind of spirituality which elevates spiritual above physical, soul above body, heaven above earth, does not have its roots in the Bible, but in ancient Greek philosophers like Plato. But because western culture has been built on this foundation, people almost automatically understand that ‘spiritual’ things are more valuable to God than physical. Isaiah’s words challenge our assumptions as much as the work of the servant will transform our culture.

We do need to take care, however. We do not know all the detail of what the new heavens and the new earth will be like. And we should take great care with the symbolism and imagery employed by Bible writers. Will lions really eat straw like an ox? We don’t really know, but we do understand Isaiah’s intention: the sort of animal violence typified in the lion’s hunt will be a subject of a beautiful and radical transformation in the new heavens and the new earth which the servant will bring.

There are simply so many passages in the Bible which speak of a new world, a recreated and transformed reality where heaven and earth are reunited, that we cannot ignore them.

A second implication follows from the first: Christian ministry and mission is one of word and deed. Christians cannot seek to address spiritual matters while at the same time ignoring the physical needs of the world around them. Similarly, Christians cannot simply address physical needs of their world without also addressing the spiritual situation of people and society.

We observe this very clearly in Jesus’ ministry, where he not only taught the crowds who followed him, and saw them as sheep without a shepherd, he also fed them. Jesus addressed then whole person in his ministry. His church should do the same.

This is why when Jesus opens his ministry he not only talks about pardon from sin and rebellion, but of transformation of people and their world.

““The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”” (Luke 4:18–21, NIV)

This is why James the apostle says:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14–17, NIV)

And it is why Paul sees the work of Jesus on the cross as not merely impacting the human soul, or matters of faith, or religious ideas. He sees Jesus’ work as impacting the entire cosmos:

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:15–20, NIV)

The Impact of Promise: We Are a People of Hope

Perhaps the greatest implication is that God’s people are people of real hope! Christianity is a world affirming, creation redeeming faith. Christians are people who are not just thinking about the Bible, but because they are thinking about their world and the community in which they live.

Christians are people who don’t just have faith in their head and their hearts, they have faith in their hands. A Christian is not simply someone with religious ideas, or someone who has made some deep commitments. A Christian is someone who is active in living out their faith. Someone in whom the transformational work of Jesus is coming to increasing expression in their behaviour, their actions, their words.

This is why at Gateway Community Church we have three core areas of our vision and mission: we want to grow transformed disciples, we want to build a new community of people, and we want to take the positive and transformational change of the gospel into our local community. If we fail on any of those three counts, we actually fail the mission of God and we fail to be his people of promise.

Christians are not simply people who believe the bible, but because they believe the Bible they are also deeply troubled that

there are 30 million slaves in our world today

average life expectancy of indigenous people is some 10 years below that of other Australians

some of the most vulnerable people have no right to legal support or process even in our own courts

• there are people in our own community who struggle to heat their homes and put a square meal on the table

So, yes, we look at our world and it is not hard to sense the fall all around us. But God’s promise in Jesus meets us where we are and draws us toward a more glorious reality. It is a promise expressed in the Christmas Carol “O Holy Night”

A thrill of hope! The weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Did you know that? Because God is faithful to his promise, a new day is dawning!

Did you know that this is how God answers human rebellion?

Yes, there are consequences to this rebellion, and those consequences are dire. But God’s promise of a new and glorious morn is greater and more powerful than any threat of death or any penalty or curse of sin. This promise tells us One will come who will redeem us and our world from the curse of the law and from the ugly stain of our own rebellion.

There’s the promise, right there! And we are thrilled to hear that at the core of this God’s heart there is not retribution or anger or the rage of a despot, but something wonderful:

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:9–10, NIV)

Here is the miracle: through the lens of the Old Testament, we see God’s first promise in Genesis 3:15 narrow, and come to sharp focus on a nondescript stable. A young mother had just laid her baby in a manger for his bed. And sharper still, thirty years later, as this son, naked again, is laid on the rough timber of a cross, and then suffers hell for his people and their world.

Why?

Because our God keeps his promises. And when his world is broken, he must act according to his nature, and get to work putting it all back together again.