Don’t panic!

You couldn’t make it up. Actually, you don’t have to – it’s there on BBC2. If Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou is to be believed, the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis have nothing to do with the early history of the human race. Instead they are actually about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 586BC. The ‘fall’ is not the fall of the human race: it is the fall of the Temple. All that poetic language about a garden? The artwork in the Temple, described in familiar Middle Eastern terms as a paradise, a perfect garden. The ‘fall’ Genesis depicts may have been a traumatic experience for the Jews – it certainly was – but it says nothing about human nature, least of all that we are inherently ‘bad’.

Perhaps the claim made by Stavrakopoulou in the recent BBC series ‘The Bible’s Buried Secrets’ sounds shocking. They certainly should offend anyone who accepts the Bible as God-breathed Scripture. But they aren’t really all that surprising. In the academic world such ideas are far from rare: indeed in some respects they are ‘old hat’. The shaking of academics’ confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament, goes back a long way. It was in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, when confidence in the unaided power of the human reason to discover truth was growing rapidly, that any claim made by any book to be the result of action by any god began to be derided. From such poisoned roots grew all kinds of theories about the origin and nature of the Bible, none of which treated it as the product of the work of the Holy Spirit on its human authors. The roots bore fruit especially in the nineteenth century in Germany. In the 1880s, for example, Julius Wellhausen argued that the first five books of the Old Testament were a collection of documents from diverse, and even contradictory, sources, stitched together by editors who apparently couldn’t see the problems and contradictions in the material they were handling.

Such ideas became the reigning orthodoxy in academic biblical studies for many years. The theories have changed, but the underlying assumptions are much the same. In recent years scholarly confidence in the reliability of the New Testament has increased, but the Old Testament is still highly suspect. To suggest that Moses actually wrote (any of) the first five books would provoke hoots of derision. Dr Stavrakopoulou in a previous programme suggested that the record of David’s reign in the Old Testament is utterly unreliable, and pretty unhelpful in moderating Jewish political claims to possession of ‘the land’.

Depression or rage may be the responses that most readily arise when we are confronted by such fantasies. Wiser counsels should prevail, however. ‘Don’t panic’ may have come to be associated with burying heads in the sand in the face of situations when panic is in order, but we really shouldn’t panic. Of course it is a problem when such sceptical views are given wide currency on the media, and there will be people who listen and believe, (she’s a ‘biblical scholar’, after all), and who feel their unbelief has been confirmed and they have ammunition to use against Christians. Nevertheless, the Word of God, Old and New Testaments, has been under attack for centuries and it is still around, a best-seller that continues to transform the lives of men and women. It is good to know that there are able, well-qualified scholars who do hold to a high view of Scripture and who can answer sceptical critical views such as those of Dr Stavrakopoulou, even at a popular level. If we are troubled by such views, we should make it our business to search out the answers. And through it all we have the confidence that ‘the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword’ (Hebrews 4:12) and it will accomplish its God-given task.

Diversity Training

An airport departure lounge has got to be one of the best places in which to view the diversity of the human race. Having time to while away offers the opportunity to marvel at the shapes, sized and colours in which humanity is available. Add in the different styles of dress favoured by different ‘ethnic’ groups and different age groups, and there is never a dull moment for the dedicated people-watcher. Over the years I have spent quite a few hours in airports, and if the book hasn’t quite gripped the attention, or if nothing on the MP3 player fits the mood, there is no shortage of interesting people to observe. Who are they? Where are they going? What are they thinking? What are their problems? Is he looking at me?

Such a diversity of people. All made in the image of God, yet no two exactly the same. Not even twins are entirely identical. What could demonstrate more clearly the infinite richness of the mind of the Creator? So much delightful variety, so much to appreciate, so many ways in which his image can be translated into human terms. Yes, the fall has marred that image in many ways, and yet it has not been erased. Still something of God’s glory remains, despite the damage. It is the same with the entire physical creation which is groaning in its ‘bondage to decay’ according to Paul in Romans 8, yet which also manifests breathtaking beauty. An hour in the departure lounge can be a recipe for boredom, or a source of praise to the Creator.

And the best is yet to come! The creation will be liberated from that bondage to decay by the power of the Creator, and that will take place when God’s redeemed children are transformed fully into the likeness of their Saviour and will share his glory (Romans 8 again). Indeed ‘we shall be like him, because we will see him as he is’ (I John 3:2).

It is a wonderful prospect to contemplate – and we will not be clones, we will not be like identical peas in a pod. All the rich diversity that we have known on earth will be taken up by the Lord, cleansed of the effects of sin and transformed into something utterly glorious. Each redeemed sinner will be everything that God has made and re-made him to be, a unique expression of the image of God, manifesting the likeness of God as it is displayed in the personality of that particular individual. The entirety of redeemed humanity will be an eternal expression of the richness of the Creator, and yet there will be so much more to learn about him that eternity will be insufficient. The children of God have so much to look forward to, knowing that in every respect they will glorify the Lord perfectly.

How sad that some would like to have a church filled with clones – usually clones of themselves. How good it would be, they seem to think, to have everyone just like me – a church where we all think alike, act alike, speak alike, even look alike (perhaps the most frightening!). A church were anyone who isn’t just like me is a bit suspect, maybe not even really converted. Conformity is the order of the day, the safe path to get through church life unscathed. Just one snag – that’s not how the Lord has made us, or how he is re-making us in his grace. His holy Word is our absolute authority, our rule of life, but within its generous borders we are to be uniquely the selves God made us to be, a multitude of expressions of the richness of an infinitely complex and wonderful God. Uniform grey is not the colour of his Kingdom.


Tunisia – the Jasmine Revolution. Egypt – the ? Revolution. The Arab world has been shaken to its core. Popular unrest has exploded and the results are dramatic. Egypt –who would have thought it? Even Israel’s famed intelligence service was taken by surprise, and that is quite an achievement. Hard line, repressive regimes have crumbled after years of domination. One night Mubarak was staying put: the next day he had left Cairo for the seaside. At the time of writing, nobody really knows what the future holds for Egypt. For the time being the situation seems to have reached a stalemate, although the army, as it has always done, wields great influence. Will there be a secular democracy to replace the oppressive government of the past? What role will the powerful Muslim Brotherhood play, and what will be their outlook if they come to share power?

It’s not only Israel that has cause for anxious thoughts. Across the Middle East other authoritarian regimes should tremble. Who could be next? Yemen, Jordan or someone else entirely? Some rulers, not known for their interest in democracy, are scrambling to make concessions in the hope that revolution, violent or more peaceful, may be averted and their hold on power may continue. Whether or not it will be a case of too little, too late, remains to be seen. Instability can spread surprisingly rapidly, not least because of the speed with which news can travel and destabilisers can communicate with each other in a digital age. The case of Eastern Europe in 1989 has demonstrated how the momentum for change can build to an unstoppable point – and then the dominoes being to tumble.

‘Democracy’, of course, is a marvellous word. Everybody agrees (well, lots of people agree) it is a ‘good thing’ – billions of US Dollars have been poured into trying to export the American version to a region that has not had much exposure to democracy, and often was quite content to work through clan and family structures. It has to be remembered, however, that the Iranian Revolution was carried out in the name of democracy, and the results in present-day Iran are rather less than democratic, by most definitions of that word. It’s a little ironic that that revolution removed the repressive regime of the Shah, who had been put in power by the US as a replacement for a democratically elected leader whose views were not to the liking of the US. Curiouser and curiouser.

For Christians looking in from the outside, it is an immensely complex situation and few of us have even a fraction of the knowledge that would enable us to give a sensible opinion. In some circles the only test that will be applied to any outcome is ‘Is it good for Israel?’ Even deciding that may be far from easy. Those who believe that the purposes of God in the Middle East are rather wider than the interests of one nation probably have many more questions than answers.

What we do have, however, is direct access to the God who governs the affairs of all nations, including Egypt, Israel and all the others in the region. We may not be able to read the mind of the Almighty as he unfolds his purposes, but we can pray for peace and justice to prevail, and above all we can pray for the cause of the gospel in these countries. We have brothers and sisters in most of them: brothers and sisters who may well be perplexed, anxious, fearful, facing an unknown future which could bring very testing times. The exodus of Christians from Iraq since the invasion designed to bring democracy shows what can happen. We must pray that our spiritual kin will be kept in safety and will have grace and wisdom to know how to speak and act in the midst of turmoil. We might well also pray that those from western governments who have a role to play (and some may well be Christian) will help and not hinder the transition to greater freedom.

The Missing Ingredient

We are being washed away on a flood-tide of information. From every direction we are bombarded with facts, opinions, claims, counter-claims and enticing offers. Via radio, television, videos, CDs, DVDs and the World Wide Web we have access to stores of information that boggle the mind. It has become commonplace to speak of the Information Revolution having succeeded the Industrial Revolution, a revolution which has transformed individuals and societies across the globe. And it’s not finished yet. If those at the cutting edge are to be believed, the next steps in the development of communications technology will make the recent past look like ancient history.

In large part the revolution has been driven by the development of technology which has given birth to the Internet and the World Wide Web. By tapping a few keys on our computers (and that will soon be out of date) we can now be put in touch with people, groups, organisations, networks, companies, governments, universities, across the world. Type a simple sentence into your search engine and you will be directed to hundreds, thousands or even millions of web sites, more than you could check in several lifetimes. The result may well be a sense of helplessness, even paralysis, rather than instruction and help. Who could ever possibly absorb even a fraction of what is available out there?

Of course there is a vast amount of helpful information to be found, if you know where to look for it. Few Christian ministries lack a web site, and some who have gifts in this area are using specifically web-based approaches to spreading the gospel. We should be thankful for such new opportunities. Statistically speaking, there is even more that is evil and dangerous, as pornographers and others make use of new technology to infiltrate their filth into the lives of young and old. Parents are not the only ones who need to be concerned about what is swimming in the information tide.

Even this, however, does not get us to the biggest issue raised by the Information Revolution. The fact is that although there is a vast amount of information available, few have any idea how to make use of it in ways that promote the welfare, especially the spiritual welfare, of individuals and communities. What is lacking is the commodity called by the Bible “wisdom”. We are information rich, indeed information surfeited, but wisdom poor.

Wisdom, in Scripture, is a very practical gift. It deals with right living – the way of life that leads to physical, mental and spiritual health. It is not abstruse or abstract. Consider the Book of Proverbs, which has so much to say about wisdom. It touches on relationships, families, politics, business, and down-to-earth, everyday, “ordinary” activities. All of life is embraced by wisdom.

Of greatest significance is the fact that wisdom is fundamentally spiritual. It is not the product of human thought or education. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). To be in a right relationship with the Lord – to “fear” him – is the start, and indeed the first principle, of wisdom. Without the fear of the Lord, which is the product of divine saving grace, men and women are “fools”. The fool, in biblical language, is not the uneducated person but the one who does not fear God and so does not know how to live in God’s world. There are many educated fools in our society. As Paul says in I Corinthians 1:21, “the world through its wisdom did not know God”.

If ever godly wisdom was needed, it is surely needed in dealing with the Information Revolution. Wisdom promotes discernment: between good and evil, useful and useless, helpful and harmful, profitable and time-wasting, true and false. There is much on the “information superhighway” that is dangerous or simply a waste of time. The wise person will know what to reject and ignore. There is also much that is good and helpful. The wise person will know how to use it profitably. Only a healthy relationship with the Lord, nurtured by the Word, prayer and worship, can produce the wisdom needed when switching on the radio or TV, picking up the newspaper or, most of all, going online.

The last enemy

If you have not been keeping up with new film releases or reading the cinema reviews, you may well have missed it. Life in a Day is a documentary that began as a YouTube spin-off designed to provide a portrait of global life on a single day (July 24, 2010), put together from videos generated by YouTube users. It in fact mushroomed into something rather grander – a panorama of modern human life around the world.

In order to provide material for the film YouTube users were asked, while filming their video diaries on that July day, to answer three questions: ‘What do you love? What do you fear? What’s in your pockets?’ It’s a measure of how such technological innovations have spread across the world that 80,000 YouTube users in 153 countries uploaded 4500 hours of video footage. For someone scribbling a blog with a free pen, these are amazing statistics. From such raw material Life in a Day was assembled.

As we might expect the answers to ‘What do you love?’ were diverse, reflecting people’s ability to love all manner of things, animate and otherwise. Rather more interesting is the fact that in answer to ‘What do you fear?’ everyone included death. Age, ethnicity, socio-economic class, geographical location: no factor made a difference to the universally acknowledged fear of death.

That will not come as a great surprise to anyone attuned to what the Bible has to say on the subject of death. More of that in a moment. More surprising, however, is the general optimism that pervades the contributions to the project. The film’s producer commented that ‘people in the film, no matter how tough their circumstances, were overwhelmingly positive about life. In fact … we were desperately trying to find something, anything, dark to help balance the narrative, but we really struggled. People were simply inherently positive’. What are we to make of all this?

Universal fear of death is something we should expect. At the simplest level, death is inescapable: nobody who thinks seriously about the subject can really contemplate cheating death indefinitely. It’s there, waiting, sooner or later. How it will come is naturally a source of anxiety, fear, even terror. How much pain? How long to endure? When?? In that context we may understand, though we would not endorse, calls for the timing of death to be put in each individual’s hands through the legalisation of euthanasia.

Death is, of course, ‘the wages of sin’, a death that embraces much more than the cessation of physical life and a return to the dust. Death in its full biblical sense involves spiritual death: separation from God, the source of all that is good, the one whose fellowship is ‘life in its fulness’. Unless divine grace intervenes, that death will become everlasting. There is plenty of cause to fear death, with the deepest reasons often operating below the level of consciousness.

But whence the positivity? Self-reporting is of course not always reliable and it may be that the less positive didn’t offer their thoughts to the film makers. That cannot explain the overwhelming optimism entirely. For some it may well have been due to religious faith. It would seem that for many, however, an underlying fear of death is not generally allowed to colour people’s thinking too much. Perhaps it is kept locked up in an obscure corner of people’s minds so that they can avoid thinking about it or facing up to its implications for living. We can all slide into the attitude that if we don’t think about something unpleasant, it won’t happen. Unsurprisingly people don’t want to think about death if they can possibly avoid it.

That must have implications for our evangelism, since we have the only true answer to death in the good news of a crucified and risen Saviour. It is a message that gives us true hope for time and eternity, not a self-generated optimism with no solid foundation, which will ultimately prove to be an illusion.

Lookin’ good!

The camera can lie. It has always been able to, and with the advent of digital technology the possibilities for manipulating images are endless. Most of us find the possibility of looking better in our photographs than we are in the flesh quite attractive, but it scarcely matters since we do not earn our living from our looks (and just as well, too). In the fashion industry, however, appearance is everything, and for those in the media appearance is also a serious issue. Not surprisingly, many pictures of models, media ‘personalities’ and even sports stars are thoroughly airbrushed before publication. They are a symptom of a deep-seated problem.

Increasingly our society is obsessed with bodily appearance. From every direction the media bombard us with the message that in order to be happy and successful we must have a certain body image – young, slim, well-dressed, tanned (as long as it comes out of a bottle, given the dangers of skin cancer). Appearance, we are told, is everything. Nothing that is more than skin deep is really significant.

The results are devastating. More and more people are becoming anxious about their appearance, apart from those who faced facts and gave up on that futile pursuit years ago. It isn’t only the more ‘mature’ who invest their hard-earned cash in the premature rigor mortis of Botox injections. Some who would be hard-put to find a wrinkle at their age are also eager customers. For those with less money or a little more sense there are numerous cheaper options. How ironic it is that these treatments, which of necessity are repeated regularly, in fact provide a regular reminder of the ageing process. Saddest of all are the young girls (and some boys) who become so desperate to avoid supposed fatness that they develop anorexia, sometimes with fatal consequences. The day of stick-thin models may have gone, but for too many people the presence of an ounce, or more, of extra fat is a cause of shame and anxiety. And as for wrinkles….! As a result Girlguiding UK recently mounted a campaign aimed at ensuring that airbrushed images in magazines and adverts are clearly labelled as such. A petition, containing 25,000 signatures, was presented to 10 Downing Street. Whether it will have the desired effect remains to be seen.

The Christian’s first reaction to such cultural trends may well be to deny that the body has any real importance and so should be ignored, other than doing the minimum to maintain health. Isn’t the body only dust and destined to return to dust? Isn’t God interested in the soul and isn’t our task to save souls? Surely the body is of peripheral concern to Christians? In the history of the Church there has been a significant weight of opinion that encouraged the despising of the body as, at least, beneath concern, or, at worst, positively evil. Extreme versions of this outlook led some to live as hermits in the desert, trying to beat their recalcitrant bodies into submission.

It is an outlook, however, that owes more to pagan thinking than to the Bible. The Scriptures clearly teach from the outset that God created human beings with bodies as well as souls. The body may derive from ‘the dust of the ground’, but it is God’s handiwork and in Genesis 1:31 is included in God’s verdict that his creation was all ‘very good’. By God’s design, man is an embodied creature. Indeed Calvin even speculated that man’s upright position, distinguishing him from the animals, was an element in the image of God which he possessed.

The human body is of concern to God, and is therefore not to be despised or neglected. Many of the regulations of the Mosaic Law – God’s Law – related to the body. There are rules governing health, hygiene, disease, clothing, sexuality. The body matters to God. It is of course also implicated in sin. It is through the body that our fallen nature often expresses itself and the body too suffers the consequences of sin, finally returning to the dust from which it was taken.

One of the most amazing aspects of the Christian faith is the fact that in order to save men and women the eternal God actually took human nature, the body included, into permanent union with himself. The early Church quickly recognised that denials of the true bodily nature assumed by the Son were heretical and to be rejected. The redemption accomplished by Christ required bodily suffering to the point of death, followed by a triumphant bodily resurrection and ascension. The Saviour who reigns in heaven still has, and always will have, that body.

Salvation, God’s gift to sinners, embraces the body. The Lord saves people – not just disembodied souls. Paul reminds us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that everything we do with them is of concern to God. ‘Therefore honour God with your body’ (I Corinthians 6:20). In the same vein the apostle urges us ‘to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God’ (Romans 12:1). Sanctification must involve the body, and our Christian hope is of eternal life in resurrected, perfected bodies.

The world’s obsession with the body needs to be met not with ascetic denial of the significance of the body, but with a biblical theology of the body – created by God, fallen into sin and redeemed in Christ.

God, the universe and Stephen Hawking

He’s done it! Amazing! Who would have thought it? Stephen Hawking has proved there is no need for a God to explain the existence of the universe. Forget your Richard Dawkins and the rest of the amateurs. Here is one of the greatest living physicists stating definitively that ‘It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going’. In his latest book The Grand Design, co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow, he considers the great questions ‘Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?’ His response is that a vast number of universes spontaneously created themselves out of nothing and, with so many universes on offer, one happened to have exactly the conditions necessary for the evolution of human beings. Simple, isn’t it? And you thought physics was hard!

The attacks on Christianity mounted by popular atheists like Richard Dawkins are generally at the level of knockabout comedy, trying to give tired old arguments a new lease of life, vulnerable to the same answers that Christians used to destroy those arguments the first, second or third time that they came around. Hawking is a different proposition. His case against a Creator comes dressed in impressive sounding scientific terminology.

Hawking’s explanation for the existence of this universe, and many others, is ‘M-theory’. Don’t ask what ‘M’ stands for – even proponents of the theory don’t know. It isn’t even a single theory – it’s a family of theories, each applicable in different circumstances. I would try to explain M-theory to you, but the spectacle of the blind leading the blind is not edifying, and ditches are a constant hazard. Suffice it to say that it has to do with strings – not the old-fashioned sort that come in balls and are cut with scissors, but strings none the less. Think of it – the universe is made of string. And they laugh at Genesis! The bottom line for Hawking is this: ‘According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead, M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law’.

Don’t be fooled, however. M-theory may sound impressive, and it’s certainly complex, but it’s actually as full of holes as a block of Swiss cheese. Stephen Hawking has no more disproved the existence of a Creator than has Richard Dawkins or any other noisy atheist. It’s worth noting that other world-class physicists have raised serious doubts about M-theory, and Frank Close, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, has stated, ‘I don’t see that M-theory adds one iota to the God-debate, either pro or con’.

To begin with, Hawking is trying to tell us that ‘philosophy is dead’. Multitudes of the greatest thinkers, past and present, believing and unbelieving, would dismiss Hawking’s assertion for the rubbish it is. If only what can be observed and measured is real, what of love, loyalty and an thousand other non-material realities? Time and again such naïve materialism has been debunked, although it’s a persistent weed.

Irony of ironies, M-theory itself is not and, it is admitted, may never be open to testing. The multitude of universes of which it speaks cannot be observed, but we ‘know’ they must be there. Haven’t Christians been lambasted for speaking of God is such terms? In fact M-theory doesn’t qualify as science, even on the definition of Hawking and others of the same outlook. A hypothesis that cannot be tested is not science. M-theorists don’t need Christians to shoot them in the foot – they do it perfectly well themselves.

‘Ah’, Hawking disciples will say, ‘Religion is a matter of faith, science is a matter of fact’. A theory that asks you to accept multitudes of undetectable universes springing into existence spontaneously sounds very like a demand for a blind leap of faith, and a bigger leap than belief in a personal Creator. And by the way, scientific laws describe what happens, they don’t make anything happen, not even the spontaneous creation of universes. (And who made the laws??).

The fact is that such theories as Hawking propounds are simply ways of avoiding what is staring every human in the face: the universe is a testimony to the existence of a Creator. As Paul says with reference to all human beings: ‘what may be known about God is plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse’ (Romans 1:19-20). Physicists, cosmologists and others are seizing on M-theory and similar proposals because otherwise the evidence for fine tuning and design in the universe could suggest the hand of a Creator. Much better to opt for the unprovable and untestable than to submit your mind to divine revelation and lay aside your rebellion. M-theory – more nonsense on stilts.

Mirror, muzzle, map

We live in a lawless society. It’s not that there is no law or law-enforcement, but our culture is thoroughly anti-authoritarian and so anything to do with legal requirements or legal restrictions is never viewed without distaste, even hostility. Laws are frequently given only grudging obedience, even when they are for one’s own good.

That attitude carries over into spiritual matters. The law of God is not a popular subject today. Few have any desire to hear about a God who tells people what they ought to do and how they ought to live. God’s law is written off as oppressive or unnecessary. It would be a serious enough matter if this outlook were found only outside the church. Tragically, many Christians have little understanding of the purpose of God’s law, scant sense of any need for it, and a suspicion of those who have something to say in support of it.

How is it then that the psalmist can say, ‘O how I love your law’ (Psalm 119:97)? Lest that be written off as ‘just the Old Testament’, listen to the apostle Paul in Romans 7:22 – ‘in my inner being I delight in God’s law’. The truth is that God’s law is a precious gift to the human race. It expresses in practical human terms what Gods’ holiness looks like, and so it spells out his requirements for every aspect of our life and conduct. It is vital for Christians to understand the proper place of God’s law in human life.

God’s law is first of all a mirror. God requires of every person perfect obedience to his law. As his creatures we are under obligation to keep his law in every detail. Note the divine comment in Leviticus 18:5 – ‘Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them’. Jesus himself echoes this truth when he says to the rich young man in Matthew 19:17 ‘If you want to enter life, obey the commandments’. The obligation resting on each of us is identical.

The problem is, however, that we cannot meet God’s standard: ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). Failure at one point is enough to constitute us lawbreakers (James 2:12), as one crack breaks an entire pane of glass.

God’s law holds up a mirror to us, showing the reality of our sin. It forces us to see that we break specific commandments. If we are willing to listen, God’s law shows us what we are really like, but it is powerless to change us. It is ‘through the law we become conscious of sin’ (Romans 3:20). Indeed, as Paul discovered, the law can even provoke sin in us (Romans 7:7-8). In ourselves we have no hope.

The mirror of the law, however, has a positive function in that it drives us to Christ. Sinners awakened by the Holy Spirit’s application of the law to their consciences realise their need of a Saviour and turn to Christ.

God’s law is also a muzzle. In relation to society as a whole, it is given to restrain the outward expression of human sinfulness. It serves to prevent some sinful actions that would otherwise have been committed. The law of God cannot change human nature, but it can restrain the manifestation of sin. That deterrent effect will operate where God’s Word is known and where the Church has some degree of influence. The law is also written on the heart of every person (Romans 2:14-15), reminding us of God’s holiness and justice. When the fear of God and respect for his Word decline, however, the muzzling effect of God’s law is reduced and sin is expressed ever more openly.

For Christians, God’s law has a third function: it is a map, a guide for life. When we are saved, we cannot forget about God’s law: the Lord has provided the wisdom and guidance we need in his law, so that we can live God-honouring lives in his world. Because the Holy Spirit indwells us, we have the desire and the power to obey. We obey not in order to be saved but because we have been saved. We are saved to do ‘good works’ (Ephesians 2:10) and God’s law shows what form they should take. If we are truly regenerate, we will, like Paul, delight in God’s law. Obedience is the fruit of love: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’, Jesus says in John 14:15. The more faithfully we obey, the more we will reflect our Saviour. In a lawless age, Christians love God’s law as they love the God who gave it.

Big Bang

So much technology. So much know-how. So much sophisticated planning. So much power. Just one blast from an Icelandic volcano – and it was all paralysed. When the Eyjafjallajökull (there’s one for the proofreaders!) volcano erupted in mid-April, the United Kingdom and Ireland were forced to close their air space to all flights, and other parts of Europe had no option but to follow suit. In a matter of hours, as the ash from the volcano drifted southwards, air travel was brought to a standstill. The powerful aircraft on which so many rely were helpless. Thousands of travellers were stranded in airports, some who had to travel spent substantial sums of money on taxis and other alternative means of transport, and for several days the result was chaos. Although little attention was paid to them, the Icelanders in the vicinity of the eruption must have had a particularly difficult time. You couldn’t make it up.

Not for the first time, the pretensions of man have been put into perspective by the forces of nature. But of course it isn’t ‘nature’ as some self-contained, impersonal force – it’s ‘nature’ as an expression of the will of a sovereign God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Scientists will no doubt be able to explain the processes by which the volcano came to erupt at that precise time, but any such explanation, whatever its value, will inevitably be incomplete. The crucial factor, which is not amenable to measurement by scientific instruments, is the providential working of the God who ‘works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11).

Eyjafjallajökull was fulfilling the will of God. Of that we can be sure. That is not to say that we can grasp precisely what his will was (and is) in the eruption. The divine purpose will have had many facets, most far beyond our understanding or imagination. We may rest assured, however, that every detail, down to the frustration of the last stranded passenger to reach home, was embraced by the mind of the Almighty. We are often eager to speak of God’s providence in relation to happy events, deliverances from danger, and so forth, but our doctrine of providence must also embrace a recognition that hard experiences too are shaped by that same sovereign working of the Lord.

One thing is surely beyond dispute – an event such as the eruption of a volcano reminds us in dramatic fashion of the power of the Lord. Forces are unleashed which leave our little minds reeling, as the limitations of human strength and ingenuity are exposed. There is, literally, nothing that human beings can do except flee for safety if possible. Awe-inspiring as that may be, however, it is even more sobering to remember that all such phenomena, and indeed the entire world, are in the palm of the Lord’s hand. The Lord who is ‘mightier than the great waters’ (Psalm 93:4) is also mightier than the greatest volcano.

For Christians such events, brought dramatically close by the news media, should serve as a call to humble acknowledgment of the sovereignty and power of God, along with joyful recognition that this God has stooped very low to deal graciously with us in the Lord Jesus Christ. Looking at the night sky, the psalmist wondered, ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?’ (Psalm 8:4). Our response to Eyjafjallajökull should be the same. We should never lose our sense of wonder that the Almighty is also our loving Father in heaven.

We recognise too that unbelievers have only to open their eyes to be confronted with abundant evidence for the existence of God. As the Apostle Paul says, ‘since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse’ (Romans 1:20). Destructive phenomena such as volcanoes may not have been part of the original creation, which was ‘very good’, yet they too testify to the fact that those who attribute the universe to chance and random forces are flying in the face of the evidence. We know, of course, that only God’s grace can open blind eyes to the truth. If people did not believe when the Son of God returned from the dead (see Luke 16:31), they will not believe when an Icelandic volcano erupts, unless the sovereign God of salvation is pleased to bring them to himself. Lots to pray about after the big bang.

Promises, promises

By the time you read this, you may know which bunch holds our national political welfare in its eager hands. Not being in receipt of the gift of prophecy, I will refrain from predicting the outcome. I will stick my neck out a bit and predict that Nick Clegg will not be our next Prime Minister, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Why anyone wants the job anyway is well beyond me.

Now it will be up to one of the parties – and let’s assume there will be one with a majority – to try to govern the nation. If we are feeling cynical, we may be inclined to say that it is time for one of the parties to put away its manifesto and get on with the business of breaking all those pledges made to the electorate which they knew in reality they would never be able to keep. And cynicism about politics is widespread. It was not for nothing that the last Parliament came to be described by some journalists as the Manure Parliament, a title that for graphic descriptiveness is hard to equal. The stories of ridiculous or downright scurrilous expenses claims simply added to the general perception that politicians are out chiefly to look after themselves at the public’s expense. That no doubt is grossly unfair to those MPs who are hardworking and honest, but the perception remains.

Indeed we have reached the point where anyone who actually expected a government to keep its promises – if such a person existed – would be considered a simpleton who should not be let out alone. On the truth scale, a ‘manifesto promise’ rates somewhere below a lie and a statistic. Generous helpings of excuses are no doubt being prepared for early distribution. A government’s word is rarely its bond.

What a relief it is to know that the highest authority is not some Prime Minister, or President, or Monarch, but the God of whom it can be said that he ‘is not man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind’ (Numbers 23:19). When the questions are asked, ‘Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfil?’ the answers are obvious. God is one who uniquely keeps all his promises. In contrast to every earthly ruler, the sovereign Creator is utterly trustworthy and not one of his promises will fail. We can place our complete confidence in everything he says.

God’s words reflect his trustworthiness and reliability: ‘the words of the Lord are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times’. Thus Jesus can state in John 17:17, as he addresses his Father, ‘your word is truth’. God’s words are true and provide the standard by which all other claims to truth are to be measured. In a world where lies and deception are so prevalent, we are not set adrift with no moorings. In God’s word we have something solid to hold on to.

What a privilege it is to have God’s words written down for us in a book. When we open the Bible and read, we are not handling merely the words of men, however holy. We are handling truly human words, but words which are at the same time the very Word of God. When Paul says that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ (II Timothy 3:16) he is telling us that if we were to hear God’s voice audibly, it would have no more truthfulness and authority than the written Word.

The promises of God are therefore promises we can trust and promises that will be kept. He can no more break a promise than he can cease to be God. He has promised salvation to all who trust in Christ crucified and risen. He has promised grace sufficient for every need of his children, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us and equip us for service. He has promised final glorification in the new creation to all his children. Christ himself is the one through whom the fulfilment of God’s promises comes and he is the guarantor that they will be brought to pass. ‘For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ’. We may despair of the promises of politicians. The promises of the Lord will never fail.