National Pride – Someone always loses

It could be because I’m only “half Australian”* (or for other reasons described below), but I found myself half-heartedly observing our national day yesterday, rather than enthusiastically celebrating. I only took part of the day off and the extent of my observance amounted to listening to a few songs from my “Australia Day” playlist on Spotify and enjoying a late afternoon walk in the bush with my wife.

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It’s not that there’s a lack of things to be thankful for when it comes to being born in this country and enjoying the quality of life that God has graciously granted our society. As Chris Berg pointed out on ABC’s the Drum, Australia has an awful lot going for it. We can at times be a nation of whingers, who find thanksgiving and gratitude difficult – but the reality is we have an abundance of things we ought to be extremely grateful for.

But a national day like 26th January reminds me that when it comes to national pride there are always people who lose out. And contests around issues of national identity must almost necessarily have winners and losers.

While there is much to be celebrated when it comes to the progress this country has made since the landing of the First Fleet at Port Jackson in 1788, there is also much to be mourned when it comes to how much suffering white settlement has caused to Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants. To change the date of Australia Day, as has been proposed and echoed frequently over the years, would infuriate many “Aussie patriots” and risk denying the significance of what could be regarded as the genesis of Australia’s modern history.
Yet to continue celebrating the 26th January the way we currently do will mean an annual rubbing of salt into the wounds of a large portion of the Aboriginal community.
Seems as though someone must lose for others to win.

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This extends to how we construct our national identity more broadly too. While Australia Day offers opportunities to celebrate diversity and welcome new citizens into our society, it also runs the risk of promoting superficial stereotypes of “Aussie culture” that can easily marginalise those who don’t easily fit the ethnic and cultural mold. For some it may be an opportunity to flex the muscles of Anglo-Saxon cultural dominance and dress up a bit of white supremacy in the Australian or Eureka flags.

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On the flipside, to embrace a multi-cultural vision of Australia that celebrates the ancestral cultures of every kind of migrant as special, except for those who have white skin and are of English descent, is just as deficient. As a school student I couldn’t help but feel that my lack of a secret, non-Anglo branch in my ancestry gave me less to celebrate in an environment where great efforts were made to emphasise multicultural beauty. Because of what is, in my opinion, Australia’s cultural immaturity in how it relates to its origins as a British colony, white Australians are taught to think of themselves simply as “Australians.”

But if we emphasise multicultural diversity this potentially creates a mindset where an Italian-Australian or an African-Australian are conceptualised as full participants in all that it means to be Australian, with a rich Italian or African cultural heritage they should be encouraged to celebrate and share with others. That leaves ordinary, boring Anglo-Australians (who I acknowledge were the privileged class for many years, and still are in some cases) with a common national and cultural identity they’re to share with everyone else in the classroom, workplace and community, but with no special cultural heritage they’re encouraged to celebrate and share with others (except maybe with overseas visitors!).

While I recognise that Australians of different ethnic backgrounds will often have negative stories of racism and how they wished it was easier to fit in without being discriminated against, I struggled with the boringness of not having something different to celebrate.

This is probably one reason I lack enthusiasm for Australia Day and Aussie nationalism.
When pressured to choose between intensifying my identification as a “true Australian” and delegitimising the Australianness of others (as I see many in today’s society attempting to do) and embracing the version of multiculturalism that elevates bi-cultural Aussies to a position above the mono-cultural, been-here-too-long-to-still-think-we’re-British types, I’d prefer to steer clear of both and get on with life.

Of course mending the relationship between Indigenous and white Australians is crucial to our future as a nation, yet focusing too much on this particular element may have the side-effect of seeing our society as an ongoing dialogue between black and white citizens – in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and Australians of British heritage are the main stakeholders in our nation. In this scenario, “new Australians” of the post-war era that have little to do with this old rift would be left on the margins of the national discussion.

I seriously doubt we can celebrate Aussie pride and engineer a national identity in a way that makes everyone a winner. This suspicion is further confirmed by the other old battles that some attempted to reignite around the holiday. The tired old push for a republic, which for some time now has been wheezing in its struggle for the oxygen of relevance, has apparently been given a bill of good health. Now it can once again divide the nation between those who are loyal to the Crown (or at least happy with our present constitutional arrangements) and those who want a “mate for head of state” (despite still lacking a concrete model for a republic 17 years after that very weakness robbed them of any chance of winning the 1999 referendum).

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The ABC was also running stories on possible replacements for the Australian flag, which do away with the Union Jack and supposedly provide us with a more mature, distinctive national standard. Again, someone must lose out – whether it’s those who love the current flag and see it as the banner our ANZACs died under, or those who see the present standard as a colonial relic that needs to better reflect our national identity in the 21st century.

I’m thankful to God for His kindness to the people of this land; for the freedom to worship and spread the gospel in relative peace; for sparing us from invasion, civil war, major terror attacks, epidemics and crippling national disasters; and for stable, relatively corruption-free government, under a good constitution and an admirable Queen. But I’ll hold my identity as an Australian lightly and loosely. Partly because I’ve been pushed by my civic education to look elsewhere for something that makes me special (that all important Gen Y quality!) and partly because the gospel of Jesus Christ has given me a richer identity to celebrate.

Today, and all year round I’ll be celebrating my citizenship in heaven, my belonging in the Kingdom of God and my allegiance to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Anyone of any background can opt in and no one need lose out – unless they choose to. We can all glorify God with our cultural diversity, and yet the common identity we have by grace in Christ is the primary thing we celebrate. While the Church, like Australia, may falter in her attempts to bring men, women and children from all nationalities and cultures together into one integrated people – she is destined to succeed where multicultural societies will ultimately fail. I look forward to the day I can rejoice before the throne of God with people from every nation, tribe and tongue – not as a culturally dominant person, nor as a marginalised person – but as an equal, fellow-citizen with an international body of saints in the greatest society there could ever be.

[1] Andrew Muller, “Australia Day, Sandy Point 2007” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
[2] Bentley-Smith “200507 Tent Embassy” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
[3] Selina “IMG_0175” (CC BY-NC 2.0) flickr
[4] Public Stock “Australian Flag” (CC BY 2.0) flickr

*Shhh, my father is a New Zealander! Maybe that’s been my problem all along

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Christ’s Resurrection and the Old Testament? (Pt. 3)

After looking at which OT passages the early church cited in relation to the resurrection and exploring how it might more broadly fulfil the Old Testament Scriptures as they point to God’s Messiah, I want to explore with you the very question that led me to want to write this three part series. Are there hints in the Old Testament that the Messiah might rise from the dead, which can be understood as such in light of the historical reality of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead?

Here I’m not talking about allegory or stretching texts or themes too much to make them speak about something they weren’t intended to. But I do want to explore whether reading the OT through NT eyes allows us to detect some hints or clues that God may have placed in the Hebrew Scriptures for us to find in hindsight and glorify Him for seeing how He fulfils the OT in Christ’s resurrection.

Let me share just a couple of passages I’ve been excited by in thinking about this question. You may not find them as convincing as I do, but they’re certainly worth consideration.

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you. For behold, days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the LORD, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall take possession of it.” These are the words that the LORD spoke concerning Israel and Judah: “Thus says the LORD: We have heard a cry of panic, of terror, and no peace. Ask now, and see, can a man bear a child? Why then do I see every man with his hands on his stomach like a woman in labor? Why has every face turned pale? Alas! That day is so great there is none like it; it is a time of distress for Jacob; yet he shall be saved out of it. “And it shall come to pass in that day, declares the LORD of hosts, that I will break his yoke from off your neck, and I will burst your bonds, and foreigners shall no more make a servant of him. But they shall serve the LORD their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them. (Jeremiah 30:1-9)

God promises here in the future, when fulfilling part of His promises to His people that they will serve Yahweh their God and David their king. While in this passage the two characters are separate, it is interesting to note that Jesus was Yahweh the God of Israel coming to dwell among His people in human flesh and was also the Davidic King God had promised to set over His people.  But what is really interesting is the idea of “raising up.”

Of course “raising up” should typically be understood in the sense of picking someone from amongst the people and elevating them to a status of leadership over their people. But some in reading this passage have wondered whether the “raising up” of David is suggestive of a resurrected David reigning over God’s people (i.e. God will raise up David specifically to reprise His role as King of Israel to fulfill the covenant promises made to him). I don’t see the need for a literal David in this passage – in fact I think it detracts from what is a clear Messianic prophecy. It is right and proper to call Jesus (as Messiah) “David” in the same sense that Jesus called John the Baptist “Elijah.” John was a new Elijah, Jesus was a new David.

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King David [1]

But I do latch on the idea of “raising up” possibly being about the resurrection. My suspicion is strengthened by the Greek translation of the Old Testament (which was read and cited by the New Testament authors).
The word for “raise up” is ἀναστήσω, the exact word Jesus uses several times in John 6 to describe His raising to life of those who believe in Him and related to the verbs and nouns used for the resurrection in numerous NT passages. So while I don’t think Jeremiah or anyone reading his book prior to the resurrection would have understood this passage as speaking of the Messiah’s resurrection, I think it seems legitimate to see it from a NT perspective as a hint that God intended to raise His Messiah to life to rule over His people.

Another passage is from Deuteronomy 18. Moses says:

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers–it is to him you shall listen– just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. (Deuteronomy 18:15-19)

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It is clear from the NT that Jesus was the prophet like Moses promised here and that He is the one everyone must listen to in order to obey God’s will and have life. But again, the idea of raising up is presented in this passage and again the verb is ἀναστήσω, used later in the NT to speak of resurrection. And so again I find myself musing about the possibility that the OT speaks of the Messiah, both as Ultimate Prophet and Promised King, being “raised up”, because we were meant to look back and discover more hints that this was part of God’s great plan of redemption all along.

[1] Fab5669 “Statue of King David in Saverne museum, wooden statue of the 18th-century from Niederbronn (Bas-Rhin, France)” CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia commons.

[2] Jaimeluisgg “Moises statue at the entrance of Agricultural Resort Waters of Moses, located in Rio Azul sector, Pantoño rural settlement, Ribero municipality, Sucre state, Venezuela” CC0 wikimedia commons.

Christ’s Resurrection and the Old Testament? (Pt. 2)

Last time we looked at how the early church understood the resurrection of Christ as a fulfillment of particular OT Scriptures, especially David’s “prophecy” in Psalm 16. But one or two references to the something as big as the resurrection of the Messiah might leave us scratching our heads as to why such an event wasn’t predicted to the same degree as other important details about the Christ. This brings us to our second question: “Can the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection “fulfill Scripture” in a broader, big picture kind of way – independent of explicit predictions?”

One of the mistakes many Christians and sceptics alike make when it comes to Jesus’s “fulfillment of prophecy/Scriptures/promises” is to look for the wrong kind of background (eg; “predictions”) and the wrong kind of fulfillment (i.e. literal, undeniable characteristics or deeds that respond precisely to specific predictions). I mentioned in one of my pre-Christmas posts that atheists often get excited by the fact that Matthew says Jesus fulfilled the Scripture “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).” Some contend that Matthew and Christians who believe him are moronic, because Mary’s son was named Jesus – a name they likely think has no prophecy in the Old Testament connected with it (something I’d actually contest – but that one’s for another day!). Using this approach, Jesus can only fulfil Scripture if He was literally called Immanuel by His parents, in the synagogue and the marketplace etc; This misses Matthew’s point entirely, which is that Jesus should be considered Immanuel, because He is in fact God dwelling with us.

What has all of that got to do with the resurrection? Well a lot. If we limit ourselves to explicit predictions of the Messiah’s resurrection in the OT, we’ll come up short. God deliberately kept this truth relatively concealed until it happened and only the resurrected Jesus Himself and the Holy Spirit could help the disciples understand its connection to the Scriptures, even after the fact. But the resurrection can be in accordance with the Scriptures if it occurred to fulfill or embody some of the grand themes or passages of the Old Testament.

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King David

I mentioned in closing the last post, that one such fulfillment which Paul seemed to recognise was that God could not leave the Messiah dead if He were to fulfill the promises made to Christ’s ancestor David. Jesus had been crucified and buried and so if the resurrection had not occurred, one or more realities would be true. There was the unthinkable possibility that God neglected to fulfill His promises. There was the almost as unlikely possibility that the Davidic promises recorded in Scripture didn’t mean what they plainly seemed to mean (though this is not to say people could not be confused on what some of them would look like in reality). Or the final possibility is that Jesus died without receiving the fullness of the promises because He was not the Messiah. The disciples had every reason to believe that Jesus had really risen from the dead and therefore none of these things were seriously in doubt at the point they witnessed the risen Christ and heard Him explain the connection between Himself and the Scriptures. The resurrection therefore fulfils Scripture by being a mechanism by which God fulfils His promises to David (and therefore to Israel and even to Abraham by extension). This is no less substantial than if the resurrection seemed to occur in narrower, precise fulfilment of a range of resurrection-specific prophecies.

Another way the resurrection of Christ can fulfil Scriptures is through typology and embodiment. To borrow from the Christmas story again, when Joseph brings Jesus back from their sojourn in Egypt, Matthew says it fulfilled Hosea’s prophecy “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt 2:15, Hosea 11:1). The original prophecy in context was about Israel, without any explicit Messianic overtones. But when Jesus came, He embodied what Israel (as the people of God) were supposed to be in covenant with God. He therefore fulfils Hosea 11 not because the prophet intentionally spoke of the Messiah, but because Jesus was the true Son of God and in a sense the true Israel.

Exodus   The Exodus [1]

Sticking with Hosea, I mentioned in the last post that Jesus’ resurrection “on the third day” might have been related somehow to Hosea 6:2 “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” If this is correct, it isn’t because Hosea was deliberately and specifically predicting the resurrection of the Messiah. Rather it would be because Jesus stands in relation to God on behalf of His covenant people and God fulfilled this prophecy about giving His people life on the third day by raising our representative up on the third day after His death.

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Jonah sculpture [2]

When it comes to a connection between the resurrection and something like Jonah’s three days and three nights in the belly of the giant fish, it’s slightly different. Jesus didn’t mean Jonah’s original readers should have deduced that the Messiah would die and lie in the ground for a number of days, before escaping death like Jonah did. Here it’s better to understand that certain people and events in the Old Testament had experiences and characteristics that in hindsight can be seen as “types” of the Messiah and His life. In citing Jonah’s stay in the fish’s belly, Jesus was effectively using a well known OT figure to illustrate what would happen to Him, and hint at the fact He’d live again after His “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Thus Jesus’ death and resurrection would be like the “sign of Jonah” – a sign which people would either recognise and respond in repentance or fail to recognise and be condemned by.

So hopefully this helps us see how Jesus could fulfil the Scriptures through His resurrection in a broader, even grander sense than what is often conceived as the fulfilment of prophecy. But in the final post I’ll look at the question of whether there could be a few passages that hint at the resurrection of Christ, which we might be prone to miss.

[1] Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing “Biblical illustration of Book of Exodus Chapter 13″ CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia commons.
[2] Sargis Babayan “Jonah the Prophet” CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia commons.

Christ’s Resurrection and the Old Testament? (Pt. 1)

Next week I’ll have the opportunity to attend the Ignite Training Conference and help train a small group of Christian brothers and sisters in the area of Systematic Theology. The topic we typically use for a “practice run” of how to approach Systematic Theology is the resurrection of Jesus. This topic is familiar enough and important enough to help people get a taste for how significant an effective approach to Systematic Theology can be.

But as I did my preparation for the week, it got me thinking about a question that has sometimes troubled or puzzled me. If the resurrection is so important and occurred “in accordance with the Scriptures” – where are the references to the resurrection in the Old Testament? Christians are often a little unsure of how to address the lack of explicit predictions of the Messiah rising from the dead and Christianity’s critics sometimes point this out as a problem with biblical authenticity.

This puzzle can be solved by considering a few things. 1) How do the NT writers and apostles see the resurrection as a fulfilment of OT Scriptures? 2) Can the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection “fulfil Scripture” in a broader, big picture kind of way – independent of explicit predictions? 3) Are there hints in the Old Testament that the Messiah might rise from the dead that can be understood as such in light of the historical reality of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead?

NT perspective on Resurrection and the OT

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I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalms 16:7-11, ESV)

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know– this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him, “‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:22-36, ESV)

Two of the central truths that the church has proclaimed about Jesus since its earliest days at Pentecost in 33 A.D. are His Messiahship (He was the King God promised to establish as David’s true and permanent successor) and the fact that after being crucified and entombed for three days, He rose again to life and appeared to many of His followers. In Acts 2, Peter demonstrates how the leaders of the early church (illuminated by the Holy Spirit by this stage) used Jesus’s messiahship as an interpretative key for discerning where the Old Testament might have spoken of His resurrection.

Everything promised to David was (or will be) fulfilled by Jesus and much of what David said, did and experienced during his life in fact pointed forward to his much greater successor. Peter concludes that Psalm 16:7-11 was in fact a prophetic utterance that pointed more to Jesus than David himself, since David evidently died, was buried, saw physical corruption and awaits his own resurrection.

Acts 2:33-36 shows that Peter and the apostles took this further, seeing a proper fulfillment of Psalm 110 as requiring God to enthrone the Messiah in heaven – something that He did not do for David personally and something that would require the resurrection life anticipated by many Jews to come early for the Messiah.

Saul/Paul demonstrates for us that Psalm 16 was probably the primary text considered to refer to the Messiah’s resurrection by the early church, when he echoes Peter in Acts 13 (with a slight remix): “Therefore he says also in another psalm, “‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’ For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but He whom God raised up [i.e. Jesus] did not see corruption.” (Acts 13:35-37, ESV). Saul also cites Isaiah 55:3 and seems to argue that the Messiah needed to be alive to receive the things God had promised to David (a theme we’ll explore in part 2).

There are few other explicit claims by NT writers or apostles about certain Old Testament passages that might point to the resurrection. Paul is happy to say Jesus’ resurrection on the “third day” was in accordance with the Scriptures, but we cannot be certain he had a particular passage in mind. Typologically, he may have been thinking of a text like Hosea 6:2 or Jesus’s own references to Jonah’s three days and three nights in the belly of the fish (which He linked to His own death and resurrection, see Matt 12:40), but this fits more with what we’ll look at next time:  “Can the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection “fulfil Scripture” in a broader, big picture kind of way – independent of explicit predictions?”

[1] Picture: Donut_Diva “Easter Empty Tomb” CC BY-NC 2.0 flickr.com

In God they Trust? (A Critical review)

This review was originally published on my Facebook page in August 2013. 

The next Prime Minister of Australia, come September, will be a “believer” – even a “Christian” – depending on how you use either term. But how can we really know what political leaders believe and what difference does it make to Australia anyway? These are exactly the issues the reader confronts in Roy Williams’ recent offering In God they Trust? The Religious Beliefs of Australia’s Prime Ministers 1901-2013. I’m reviewing this book because it is a noteworthy offering to Australian non-fiction, political history and – to some degree – public theology.

In God they Trust

However, while it provides excellent insights and information, I feel that Williams’ work should also be held up to criticism from inside the Christian community on several points. It appears that Williams is setting out to demonstrate that Christianity has had a profound impact on Australia’s political leaders and that in fact almost every prime minister has been to some degree affected by Christian teaching. In my mind, he demonstrates this clearly through credible research and documentation – situating each leader well in their socio-historical context and showing the reader how each leader interacted with the church and Christian language and ideas in their personal and political lives. This is useful for Christians as an answer to any ignorantly secularistic assertions that Christianity hasn’t significantly impacted this nation and/or her leaders.

My concern is with the seeming determination to “prove faith” in the case of every leader, apart from those who it would be laughable to suggest any kind of belief. At the beginning of the book, Williams constructs different categories to group our PMs such as “Ardent Seekers” (for dedicated believers of some description) and “Fellow Travellers” (sympathetic to Christian teaching, but questionable as to their personal relationship to faith), which appear to be efforts to tie most of the leaders to Christianity somehow. But by the final chapter, Williams gives a breakdown of 16:7 “believers” to “unbelievers” (20:7 if one includes the shortest serving leaders not covered in the book). I can appreciate this final conclusion more, yet think there are certain points to be critiqued.

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George Reid            Stanley Bruce            John Curtin           John Gorton

Firstly, there are still the four men Williams is not-so-conclusive about, as to their belief (Reid, Bruce, Curtin & Gorton). The fact that Williams’ evidence for “belief” in the lives of these four is inconclusive means, in my opinion, that they ought not to be used to bolster the ranks of the “believers” over and against the “unbelievers.” This make for a different ratio. We could even go so far as to put it: 12 PMs who Williams finds evidence for Christian “faith” or some kind of “belief” in Deity, vs 11 for whom he is unable to produce sufficient evidence to seriously make a case for belief. It seems more realistic that we’re left with a half-half equation when it comes to our national leaders’ belief in the Divine.

But unfortunately, I’m unwilling to leave it there.

Another reason I feel the need to review this book, is because I know for some Christians it will be potentially interpreted and misused as “evidence” for their dearly held position that Australia is a “Christian nation” and that our “all but two God-believing Prime Ministers” (not an actual Williams’ quote – but I fear one that’s potentially coming soon to a Christian gathering near you) are a sign that this is God’s country and that He is ensuring that people who fear Him lead the Australian people. Roy Williams is not advocating such a view in his book, but unfortunately the thrust of the work leaves the door somewhat open for those who hold the above views to hijack it in order to bolster their argument.

The idea that Australia is a “Christian nation” is unhelpful, unbiblical and not actually supported by the findings of this book. Williams destroys any claims that Australia has Christian “Founding Fathers” (something some patriotic Australian Christians have pinched from the Americans) – Edmund Barton was an agnostic; Alfred Deakin had some truly bizarre and eclectic spiritual beliefs that in no way represent biblical Christianity & Chris Watson is one of Williams’ “unbelievers.” That’s our first three prime ministers.

Edmund_BartonAlfredDeakinChrisWatsonSepia_crop
 Edmund Barton                Alfred Deakin                         Chris Watson

As for the other Prime Ministers who would be considered “believers” by Williams and would number in the 12 mentioned above, evangelical Christians would be prudent to be somewhat more precise or “narrow” in this inquiry and attempt to discern whether we’ve ever had an evangelical Christian as Prime Minister? Williams’ survey is unapologetically broad and so his “believers” naturally include everything from confused spiritualists like Deakin to Roman Catholics, to those of Protestant stock. For some of us, there is a need to move beyond these categories and see whether there were Prime Ministers that actually believe(d) the Christian gospel and subscribe to and confess biblical Christianity. I’d like to consider some of Williams’ findings below…

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 Andrew Fisher                                        Kevin Rudd

On the Labor side of politics, I think the evidence for the faith of the first Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher and the current Labor PM Kevin Rudd, is the strongest. Williams presents a historical picture of Fisher that powerfully suggests he was a devout Presbyterian in faith, church attendance and personal conduct. It may irk some right-wing leaning Australian Christians to know that our first great Christian Prime Minister and our first great ALP PM were one in the same. With respect to Rudd, I think the evidence for our current prime minister’s personal faith is conclusive. The PM professes belief in things such as the Resurrection of Christ and is well acquainted with the Scriptures and theology. However, I’m not confident he is necessarily an “evangelical.” While some Christians would attack his character – perhaps unfairly – my concerns lie with his recent “change of mind” regarding marriage (which is clearly out of step with biblical thinking) and his legislative support for the RU486 abortion pill (pp. 246-7). I’m still also puzzled by his reference to God as “him or her” upon being ousted in 2010 and would also have concerns if it were the case that Dietrich Bonhoffer was his “theological hero” rather than just his hero by virtue of living out his convictions.

Portrait_of_the_Right_Hon._J._H._ScullinPaul_Keating_-_2007-crop[2]
  James Scullin                                                     Paul Keating

I hesitate to arrive at Williams’ glowing conclusions regarding the Christianity of Jim Scullin and Paul Keating. This is because for evangelicals, adherence to Roman Catholicism is a severe impediment to biblically genuine faith and “born-again” believers within the Catholic church are generally the exception. Williams, as a somewhat progressive (Anglican?) Christian ecumenicist who clearly hates sectarianism, naturally gives both of them positive ratings. Scullin would probably be his top Christian PM if not for his political failures (p. 266). When it comes to Keating, Williams performed something of a miracle in In God they Trust?by actually managing to significantly improve my regard for a PM I have never particularly liked. His moral conservatism on certain issues – particularly abortion – deserves recognition for what it is. I feel however that Williams overplays the evidence for Keating’s faith a bit too much and I find it hard to see him as one of the top contenders for the mantle of greatest Christian Prime Ministers. The Catholic reservations for evangelicals would also apply to the iconic Labor PM Ben Chifley.

These three men could each be held up as political leaders whose Catholic faith and values seem to have impacted their personal and political lives. But we need to be wary of lauding them as great Christian leaders, seeing as how we have no information to suggest their dissent from the more fatal aspects of Roman dogma.

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Joseph Cook

On the non-Labor side, the best hope for evangelical faith appears to lie with Joseph Cook. Williams notes Cook’s lifelong connection with Methodism and while he criticises him in several areas, he does seem to suggest that Cook did not go along with his church’s slide into the “social gospel” around the turn of the century (p. 68). Joseph Lyons – Williams’ other candidate for best Christian PM – must face the aforementioned reservations evangelicals must have when it comes to adherents to Roman Catholicism. I am certain that Billy Hughes’ personal conduct and character – especially his reputation for frequent blasphemy – establishes him as a theist but one lacking the fruits of a true Christian (though we may allow for a possible mellowing out and/or conversion in later life).

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Robert Menzies                 Billy McMahon                          John Howard 

The remaining three Liberal Prime Ministers listed by Williams as believers are: Robert Menzies, Billy McMahon and John Howard. Each of these men are without doubt people who professed faith in the Christian God in some way. McMahon could speak of a personal faith journey, which is promising. However Williams offers no real mention of church attendance and the theological influences on McMahon he cites only leave us wondering exactly where he would have stood on key matters. There is next to no substantial evidence for us to see him as an evangelical Christian. With respect to Menzies and Howard – the two conservative political giants of the post-war period, I’m inclined to see them both as respectable churchmen and adherents to the Christian faith, but I’d be uncertain from what I’ve seen whether we should regard them as “evangelicals.” Both strike me as champions of their particular economic and social positions, rather than men who would strongly advocate their faith to others. Though it seems promising that Howard attended an Anglican church of the more evangelical persuasion (p. 212), his once monthly church attendance and reluctance to talk about his faith make it difficult to see Christianity as a priority or predominant guiding force in his life.

I don’t say any of this as a pronouncement on who will be in heaven or hell come judgement day. Rather, in considering the findings of In God they Trust? I wish to encourage a measured response by evangelicals when it comes to who they hold up as examples of great Christian men who’ve occupied the Lodge. A Catholic or nominal Protestant can make an excellent Prime Minister and promote a biblical stance on certain key issues of the day in an admirable manner. We should just be more careful how we use “Christian” when it comes to politicians. When the evidence is there, as it is with perhaps 3 or 4 of the PMs, we can rejoice that at least a few times in our history, men with deep Christian convictions have made into the top political office. In other cases we should, with Williams, observe the impact Christian teaching, thought, values and even at times theology, has influenced or impacted the governance of the nation – without over-zealously drawing conclusions about individual prime ministers or indeed the identity of Australia itself.

[1] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade derivative work: 99of9 This file was derived from  Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd with Foreign Minister Utoni Nujoma of Namibia.jpgCC BY 3.0 au

[2] Idpercy “Paul Keating in 2007” CC BY 2.0

The Glory of God in the birth of Christ (Pt. 2)

(For part 1, please click here).

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
(Matthew 1:18-25, ESV emphasis added).

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We saw in the previous post how the child born to Mary in Bethlehem was given the name “Jesus” because of who He was: Yahweh, the Creator, God of Israel, coming in human flesh to save His people. This shows how Jesus fulfilled and carried on one of the great themes of the Bible: God’s desire to be known and glorified as Saviour.

But what of this other name Matthew introduces? Why Immanuel?
I can’t go much further without acknowledging that vv. 22-23 earn scorn from many unbelieving skeptics and have confused more than a few Christians. How can the apostle be serious about the birth of this child fulfilling the prophecy “they shall call his name Immanuel” when He’s explicitly given a completely different name by His parents?

It’s a valid question and by answering it we’ll not only get an insight into what Matthew intended by quoting Isaiah here, but we’ll also see how Jesus relates to one of the other great themes of the Bible – the greatest promise God gives to His people.

Jesus our Immanuel

In perhaps the most theologically rich portion of any Christmas carol, the second verse of Charles Wesley’s classic Hark the Herald Angels Sing! gives us this pure lyrical gold:

Christ by highest Heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time, behold Him come
Offspring of the virgin’s womb

Veil’d in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the Incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus our Immanuel

Wesley expresses beautifully in this hymn to Christ what Matthew was getting at when he said: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

Jesus’s fulfillment of this prophecy was not a literal bearing of the name Immanuel – i.e. it wasn’t His middle name or something like that (just like “Christ” isn’t His surname!). But names are all about identity, and Jesus certainly did embody the meaning of the name in all its fullness. As the carol puts it, Jesus was the everlasting Lord, adored by all of heaven, who came “late in time” to our world, via the womb of a virgin named Mary.

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When this child was born he was not simply some distant offshoot of the ruling Jewish tribe. He was the fullness of God veiled in an authentic human nature – flesh, blood, skin and bones. He was a baby boy, 100% human and 100% divine, worthy to be worshipped – as the Magi would conclude in the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Or as another famous carol describes Him: “Jesus, Lord at thy birth.” Jesus may never have been called Immanuel by anyone during His earthly life. But millions throughout history have recognised Him as Immanuel – the God who was pleased to dwell as a man amongst the mortal, human creatures of this world.

The Greatest Promise in the Bible

What would you say is the greatest promise God gives His children in the Scriptures? That our sins will be forgiven? That there will be no more pain, suffering or sorrow in the new creation? That we will have eternal life?

All of these are wonderful things and indeed they are each connected to what I’ve become convinced is the greatest promise of all.

Probably the earliest sign of the promise is given by Yahweh to Abraham in Genesis 17:
And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your        
       offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting
       covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will
       give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your
       sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and
       I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:7-8, ESV).

It’s even more clear though when He makes a similar promise to the people of Israel in Exodus.
I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall
      know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from
      under the burdens of the Egyptians. (Exodus 6:7, ESV).

The promise is carried through the Old Testament by the prophets (e.g. ) and the picture of the New Jerusalem, which the New Testament ends with, is more or less defined by it.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling
      place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his
      people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
(Revelation 21:3, ESV)

Could there be anything better than owning God as our God and having Him own us as His people? That’s the promise given to those He calls and redeems in the Old Testament. God can give nothing greater than Himself and He does just that in becoming their God.

But Revelation suggests there is something even better than having God as our covenant God and belonging to Him as a people. Well sort of…
In the new creation, God will dwell in and amongst His people in a way we’ve never experienced before. He will be with us as our God and we will experience the fullness of this amazing relationship like never before.

Having God as our God will be even more amazing when there is no sin, no idols, no distractions to detract from our ability to enjoy the greatest gift we could possibly receive.

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I’ve seen Christian friends circulating this picture on Facebook this month and the sentiment it expresses is well rehearsed. We’re repeatedly reminded not to only focus on the cute baby in the manger, but the suffering Saviour on the Cross. The refrain could be “At Christmas, always remember Easter.”

But this mentality misses something very important. Christmas is glorious in and of itself. Because the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God is the very real beginning of what we will enjoy for all of eternity. Immanuel – the God who dwelt among men as a man Himself – is the one we will enjoy an incredible relationship with throughout eternity.

In fact, if I might be so bold as to say it, there is a sense in which Easter points to Christmas – a “second Christmas”, the new advent, the greater “feast of Christ”, where instead of a few Jewish shepherds and Eastern astrologers coming to see the newborn King, people from every nation, tribe and tongue will come to feast around the table of the King’s glorious banquet. A big reason “Yahweh saves” us as Jesus, is so we can enjoy Him forever as Immanuel, with our sin completely gone and our mortal bodies changed to experience the fullness of life.

So this Christmas, I encourage you all to ponder and rejoice in the fact that God has promised to be with us as our God and that Jesus coming as Immanuel is the absolute guarantee that this promise will be delivered.
The eternal presence of God will far outshine all the presents of men. If we have this to look forward to because of Jesus, we have something worth celebrating  next week.

[1] Alkelda, “Mini Nativity with Angel and Donkey Nov09” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
[2] Alkelda, “Wool Felt Nativity 2011″CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
[3] Source unknown, included for purposes of critique

The Glory of God in the birth of Christ (Pt. 1)

Matthew’s Gospel 1:18-25 would make a very short and simple Nativity play. No shepherds, no animals, no “wise men” until the next chapter, no glorious angelic host. Just one angel, Mary, Joseph and a baby boy.

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Compared to the depictions of the Christmas story we often see, or even the account of Christ’s birth in Luke 2, this might seem like the “low-key” or “stripped back” version of Christmas. But at the beginning of his Gospel, in these 8 verses, the apostle Matthew recounts for us one of the most momentous events in human history – with only one or two other events ever being comparable to it.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.  (Matt 1:18-25, ESV).

While the virgin birth is an astonishing event of great importance to our faith and of great controversy in the modern world, it appears to me to be just one component in what is an amazing culmination of the themes of the Bible in the opening of Matthew’s gospel.

The two names associated with the child-born-of-the-virgin are mini-sermons in themselves, announcing the good news to humanity and revealing where all of human history and the biblical story have been leading up to that point. They also point forward and show us where everything in God’s plan is heading. Understanding these names is crucial for knowing who this child was, is and will be and for understanding what God is up to in our world.

An angel of the Lord charges Joseph with the incredible responsibility of naming the Saviour of the world in v. 21. “She [Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Jesus.

It’s one of the most famous names in world history and the Bible says it will only grow more renowned in the future. But why this name?
The answer is given in the verse. Because he will save His people from their sins. “Jesus” (from the Hebrew Yeshua) means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is my/our salvation.”

This is the name that, as far as I can see, joins the Old and New Testaments perfectly and displays one of the grand themes of Christianity. “Jesus” tells us that Yahweh, Creator of the universe and the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is coming in human flesh to save His people from their sins.

The Old Testament teaches that Yahweh alone is Saviour (Isaiah 43:11). Jesus doesn’t come along and replace Yahweh as Rescuer of Israel and humanity. Jesus is Saviour precisely because He is Yahweh in human flesh. And so even though the Greek and English versions of the New Testament do not use the divine name but translate it as LORD (probably to reflect Jewish custom), every time Christians call upon, praise or pray in the name of Jesus – they are proclaiming the eternal truth that Yahweh alone is our salvation. Thus, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved,”(Acts 4:12) because the eternal God was born into the world as a baby that first Christmas.

Grand theme: God glorified as a merciful, powerful & righteous Saviour

Have you ever wondered why God created the world? Or about why He allowed evil to occur, or spirits, men and women to rebel against Him? These are deep theological and philosophical questions and the most brilliant human or perhaps even angelic minds would fail to grasp the fullness of God’s reasons for His ancient plans, designs and decrees.

But there is something I’ve come to believe in relation to the story and emphasis of Scripture that goes part ways to explaining these questions (though I stress, only part!). It seems to me that although God reveals Himself as many things in Scripture, human history, divine miracles and His Son Jesus (eg; Creator, King, Judge), He seems to have a particular desire to be known by certain people in a special way: as Saviour, Deliverer and Redeemer.

While I think this is seen throughout the Scriptures (especially in the Exodus/Passover narrative, but repeatedly in varying degrees from Genesis through to the prophetic and post-exile literature in the later Old Testament), it is perhaps most clearly displayed in the New Testament’s picture of the return of Jesus. We are told that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11), but only some will rejoice in His coming as they witness the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13).

In a similar vein, while God’s justice and wrath against sin is repeatedly emphasised throughout Scripture and is inescapable despite the current disdain for such a truth, He seems to be intent on being glorified specially for His mercy (without compromising His justness). While passages like Romans 9-11 generate significant debate on issues like predestination and the fate of ethnic Jews in God’s plan, there appears to be a clear thrust in verses like Romans 9:22-24 and 11:30-32 towards the idea that God is ordering human history mysteriously in a way that will best display His mercy to undeserving sinners (which I think goes part ways to explain why the humans He created were permitted to rebel against Him). Romans 15:9 seems to confirm this: the purpose of global mission is so that people from all nations in this fallen world come to glorify God for His mercy.

And so when we retell the story of the child born in Bethlehem, given the wondrous name of Jesus, we are proclaiming something God wants proclaimed from now into eternity. Yahweh, the glorious Saviour, is saving His people from their sins in/through/as Jesus Christ. And when we share the good news of Christmas with our neighbours, we are inviting the peoples of the world to join in glorifying God for His mercy.

Next time – Immanuel.

[1] Alkelda “Mini – Nativity Nov12” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
[2] Alkelda “Nativity Angel1Sept10” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.