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The Greatest Surprise of Your Life


“Possibly one of the most devastating things that can happen to us as Christians is that we cease to expect anything to happen. I am not sure but that this is not one of our greatest troubles today. We come to our services and they are orderly, they are nice ‒ we come, we go ‒ and sometimes they are timed almost to the minute, and there it is. But that is not Christianity, my friend. Where is the Lord of glory? Where is the one sitting by the well? Are we expecting him? Do we anticipate this? Are we open to it? Are we aware that we are ever facing this glorious possibility of having the greatest surprise of our life?

“Or let me put it like this. You may feel and say ‒ as many do ‒ ‘I was converted and became a Christian. I’ve grown ‒ yes, I’ve grown in knowledge, I’ve been reading books, I’ve been listening to sermons, but I’ve arrived now at a sort of peak and all I do is maintain that. For the rest of my life I will just go on like this.’

“Now, my friend, you must get rid of that attitude; you must get rid of it once and for ever. That is ‘religion’, it is not Christianity. This is Christianity: the Lord appears! Suddenly, in the midst of the drudgery and the routine and the sameness and the dullness and the drabness, unexpectedly, surprisingly, he meets with you and he says something to you that changes the whole of your life and your outlook and lifts you to a level that you had never conceived could be possible for you.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Living Water: Studies in John 4, pp. 13-14.

H/T Ray Ortlund. Photo credit: Doreeno via flickr.

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Five Thoughts for Christians on the EU Referendum


1. Gospel issues shouldn’t necessarily be the deciding factor

That might seem a strange thing to say. The gospel is the world’s only hope, so surely the pros and cons for the spread of the gospel are ultimately all we need to be concerned about when we vote on Brexit? Not so fast. To take that view would be pietistic.

Pietism is defined by Tim Keller like this: “Pietism focuses on the inner individual experience and does not expect or ask how the experience of salvation will change the way we use our money, do our work, create our art, pursue our education etc.” Keller goes on to say that in pietistic Christianity, “personal salvation is offered without much thought as to how Christianity substantially changes a people’s attitude toward power and powerlessness, art and commerce, cultural ritual and symbolism.” (Center Church, p. 103)

There is a narrowness to pietism that does not reflect the Bible’s far-reaching mandate for the human race to “subdue the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Nor does it reflect Christians at their best in the pages of church history: think of William Wilberforce’s work on slavery, or Lord Shaftesbury’s efforts to help the Victorian poor. At the time of the American Revolution, committed Christians such as John Jay didn’t just focus on gospel issues to the exclusion of other, wider concerns. Jay wrote five of the highly influential Federalist Papers, which dealt with America’s entire system of government.

2. Gospel issues are a factor, but it’s not clear which side they favour in this case


Freedom of movement among the EU member states certainly makes life easier for British missionaries. But this isn’t a question of entry versus non-entry. No one envisages all the French being thrown out of Britain and vice versa. I was able to move to America to do Christian work despite the lack of freedom of movement between the US and Britain. British missionaries to Europe would face a greater administrative burden, but the importance of that has possibly been overstated by some Christians in recent days. Jim Sayers, who works for a mission agency supporting missionaries in Europe, has responded to the freedom of movement argument here.


The European Employment Directive, implemented in the UK in 2003, has been described by the Christian Institute as “a completely unjustified encroachment on religious liberties.” This legislation was the forerunner of the legal changes that have led to Christians being penalized or fired because of their faith. In the Christian Institute’s words, “For the first time it opens the door to litigation against churches and Christian organizations for employing Christian staff.” The EU was the source of this legislation and could easily produce similar laws that would further restrict religious liberty in the UK.

3. Experts telling us of the adverse economic effects of Leave have been profoundly wrong in the past

This quote from the time when Britain was considering joining the Eurozone should be compulsory reading whenever we’re told to submit to expert opinion:

“On the pro-euro side, a grand coalition of business, the unions and the substantial, sane, front rank political figures. On the other side, a menagerie of has-beens, never-have-beens and loony tunes.”

Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer, 31st January, 1999.

Who now thinks it was a mistake to stay out of the euro and hold on to the pound?

In a similar way, just one British media publication (The Spectator) argued against Britain joining the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), which was the precursor to the euro. The decision to join, in October 1990, is now considered a serious economic mistake. It led to the humiliation of Black Wednesday in September 1992, when Britain was forced to leave the ERM because of currency speculation. So the experts have been wrong before, on a highly comparable question.

In any case, the economic predictions turn out to be much less worrying once you remove the sound-bites and spin-doctoring:

“Talk of anyone being made ‘worse off’ by Brexit is deeply misleading. Of the many economists who have made projections for 2030, none have suggested that we’d be poorer. The question is whether we’d be, say, 36 per cent better off or 41 per cent better off by then. Not that anyone knows, given the monstrously large margin of error in 15-year predictions. So these studies offer no real reasons to be fearful.”

The Spectator, 18th June, 2016 

4. Nations are more relatable than empires

On the Canongate Wall of the Scottish Parliament, the following quote is carved in marble:

“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”

Alasdair Gray

It’s a powerful quote, because we can all imagine the hope and energy that a people would share as they set about building a new nation. Try substituting “empire” for “nation” in the quote. It doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it? That’s because empires are so hard to relate to. They’re not built on a human scale. When different nations are clustered into one empire, the people in that empire become utterly insignificant and disposable. Their voice no longer has any sway. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the world is divided between three superstates: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. Great Britain has become a portion of Oceania known as Airstrip One. The sheer scale of these superstates is one of the reasons why the people in the novel are crushed and powerless.

None of the empires in the ancient world get a good press in the Bible. Nations, on the other hand, are portrayed as God’s invention and a means of grace:

“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.”

Acts 17:26-27

While some might dispute the idea that the EU is an empire, the fact is that its legislation takes precedence over UK law, and its leaders, the EU Commissioners, cannot be held to account by British people. Given the EU’s trajectory, from a trading partnership to an economic community to a political union, we have to assume that the EU’s power will only grow, at the expense of national sovereignty. The referendum offers the people of Britain a chance to take responsibility for their own affairs. It’s a choice between on the one hand empowering local MPs, whose names are known by their constituents, and who can be visited at their constituency surgeries; and on the other hand empowering unelected leaders whose names and faces are unknown and who cannot be visited or engaged with. To choose the latter would suggest a chronic lack of confidence in Britain: its institutions, its historical achievements before it joined the EU, and its ability to forge new partnerships with other nations around the world. I do not personally share that lack of confidence.

5. The EU is not a force for good. It is a force for harm, particularly for Africa.

There is a widespread assumption that the EU is a force for good in the world. People have the impression that it promotes international cooperation and harmony. Whether or not that is true within the EU itself, it is certainly not the case beyond the EU’s borders. From Africa’s perspective, the EU is a collection of wealthy nations that have clubbed together to protect their own interests from African competition. The result is that European farmers can prosper while needy African farmers face the unfair barriers of EU tariffs and subsidies. If you’ve ever heard it said that poorer people and countries should be given fishing rods rather than fish, bear in mind that the EU has for decades, as it were, been breaking African fishing rods in two. This is one of the background factors that lead so many Africans to risk their lives desperately trying to get into the EU. They realize that everything is currently loaded in Europe’s favour. Brexit would allow Britain to form new trading partnerships with African nations without the barriers that currently get in Africa’s way. This is just one example of the new freedom that Britain would have to operate for good in the world, making the most of its considerable power as the world’s fifth-biggest economy. The slogan is right on target: “Out – and into the world.”


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A Short Messianic Haggadah

seder plate

** We highly recommend using the free, easy-to-print PDF version via this link:

A Short Messianic Haggadah **


This free Haggadah is designed for use at Messianic/Christian Seders. Traditional Haggadahs are so long that the leader typically reads the Hebrew at a very high speed, which perhaps shows that a slimmed-down version can be more meaningful.

We hope this Haggadah will help you and your family celebrate Pesach with great joy. The Bible readings can be read by the leader, or by guests.

Bernard N. Howard, Good Shepherd Anglican Church, New York City                                     


Afikoman/Afikomen — a word of Greek origin. Its meaning is disputed, but it most likely means “that which comes after,” i.e. after the main meal. It refers to the piece of matzah hidden and then brought back at the end of the meal.

Charoset — a thick paste made with apple, nuts, honey, and other ingredients. It symbolizes the mortar used by the Israelite slaves for their bricklaying in Egypt.

Haggadah — written order of proceedings for the Passover meal

Matzah — unleavened bread

Pesach — Hebrew term for Passover

Seder — ceremonial Passover meal

Yeshua — Hebrew name for Jesus

Essential Ingredients

  • A bowl and pitcher for handwashing
  • A box of matzah
  • The afikomen bag (a cloth or silk bag containing three compartments, each holding a piece of matzah; if you can’t obtain a bag, four cloth napkins can be used as an alternative)
  • A lamb shank bone
  • A hard-boiled or roasted egg
  • Parsley
  • Dish of salt water
  • Creamed horseradish sauce
  • A piece of horseradish
  • Charoset (recipes for this are easily found online)
  • Candles and matches
  • Red wine
  • Reward for the child who finds the afikomen (such as a cash prize)

The Seder Begins: Washing One Another’s Hands

 Leader: Welcome to our Passover meal. This will be a Messianic Seder, which means it will honor Jesus the Messiah, Yeshua haMashiach, as the true Passover lamb. We’ll begin with the traditional washing of hands. 

[One way to do this is to pass around a deep bowl, and a pitcher of water. The bowl is placed in front of one person while the person on the right pours water from the pitcher over the first person’s hands, which are held over the bowl. Then the bowl moves to the left and so on until everyone’s hands are washed.]

Leader: It was at this point in the meal that Yeshua washed the feet of his disciples. Our first Bible reading is from John chapter 13, verses 3 to 17:

13:3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

                  6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

                  7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

                  8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

                  9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

                  10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

                  12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”


Lighting of the Candles

This is done by the woman of the house, who says:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.


The Question of the Youngest Child

The following question is asked by the youngest person present (see Exodus 12:26 and 13:14):

Why is this night different from all other nights?

Leader: It is because of what the Lord our God did for us when we came out of Egypt. With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh, king of Egypt, stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. But he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes. That is why it is called the Passover. The Lord commanded us to commemorate the Passover for the generations to come as a festival to the Lord. At Passover we eat unleavened bread, because the Israelites did not have time to add yeast to their dough on the night when they were driven out of Egypt (Exodus 13:8,14,15; 12:27,14,20,39).

The First Cup of Wine—Kiddush

The leader says a blessing, just as Yeshua himself did at this stage in the Last Supper:

Leader: Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created the fruit of the vine

Leader: Our next Bible reading is from Luke chapter 22, verses 14–18:

                  14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

                  17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”


The Second Cup of Wine—the Cup of Plagues

Leader: The Bible commands us not to gloat over the misfortune of our enemies (Proverbs 24:17), and so by way of solemn remembrance while the ten plagues are recited, each person uses a finger to spill ten drops of wine on his or her plate, one per plague.

The leader reads the following passages or arranges for guests to read them:

The First Plague — Blood

The Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is unyielding; he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning as he goes out to the river. Confront him on the bank of the Nile, and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: By this you will know that I am the Lord: With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood. The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink; the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water.’” (Exodus 7:14–18)

The Second Plague — Frogs

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.  If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs on your whole country.  The Nile will teem with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs. The frogs will come up on you and your people and all your officials.’” (Exodus 8:1–4)

The Third Plague — Gnats

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the ground,’ and throughout the land of Egypt the dust will become gnats.” They did this, and when Aaron stretched out his hand with the staff and struck the dust of the ground, gnats came on people and animals. (Exodus 8:16–17)

The Fourth Plague — Flies

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning and confront Pharaoh as he goes to the river and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you do not let my people go, I will send swarms of flies on you and your officials, on your people and into your houses. The houses of the Egyptians will be full of flies; even the ground will be covered with them.” (Exodus 8:20–21)

The Fifth Plague — Livestock

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” If you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them back, the hand of the Lord will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field—on your horses, donkeys and camels and on your cattle, sheep and goats.’” And the next day the Lord did it: All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one animal belonging to the Israelites died. Pharaoh investigated and found that not even one of the animals of the Israelites had died. Yet his heart was unyielding and he would not let the people go. (Exodus 9:1-7)

The Sixth Plague — Boils

Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on people and animals throughout the land.” (Exodus 9:8–9)

The Seventh Plague — Hail

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning, confront Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me,  or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. You still set yourself against my people and will not let them go. Therefore, at this time tomorrow I will send the worst hailstorm that has ever fallen on Egypt, from the day it was founded till now. Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every person and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die.’” Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. But those who ignored the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the field. (Exodus 9:13–21)

The Eighth Plague — Locusts

Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, “This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will bring locusts into your country tomorrow. They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields.’” (Exodus 10:3–5)

The Ninth Plague — Darkness

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or move about for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived. (Exodus 10:21–23)

The Tenth Plague — The Firstborn Sons

Now the Lord had said to Moses, “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt. After that, he will let you go from here, and when he does, he will drive you out completely.  So Moses said, “This is what the Lord says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. But among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any person or animal.’ The Lord had said to Moses, “Pharaoh will refuse to listen to you—so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt.”

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “Tell the whole community of Israel that each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover. On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.”

(Exodus 11:1–10; 12:1–13)

The Hiding of the Afikomen

At this point the piece of matzah in the middle of the three compartments of the afikomen bag is removed, placed in a cloth napkin and hidden by the leader. When the meal is over, the children will search for it and bring it back, for a reward (usually a cash prize). Meanwhile matzah (not from the afikomen bag) is given to everyone at the table to eat with the items on the Seder plate.


The Seder Plate

This traditionally holds six items: parsley, a boiled or roasted egg, a lamb shank bone, bitter herbs (usually creamed horseradish), a piece of horseradish, and charoset. The leader introduces each one.

Leader: First, the parsley. The leader dips this in a bowl of salt water and then shakes it in view of everyone at the table.

The drops from the parsley symbolize the tears of the Israelites during their enslavement in Egypt.

Leader: Second, the egg.

The egg is a symbol of mourning that reminds us of the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. The temple’s destruction is the reason why Jewish people never sacrifice a lamb at Passover, despite the Bible’s directions.

Leader: Third, the shank bone.

This dry bone takes the place of a sacrificed lamb, because without the temple no sacrifices can lawfully be made. As followers of Yeshua, we believe that he is the true Passover lamb. He was slain in our place. Anyone who trusts in his atoning blood receives forgiveness of sins. It is as if his blood is on the doorframe of our lives, and the Lord will pass over us when he punishes the wicked on his day of justice.

Leader: Fourth and fifth, the bitter herbs. There is a ceremonial piece of horseradish on the Seder plate, but the creamed horseradish is passed around and eaten by guests with matzah.

We eat these bitter herbs to remind us of the harshness of slavery in Egypt.

Leader: Sixth, charoset. This too is passed around and eaten by each guest.

The charoset resembles the mortar that the Israelite slaves used as they labored on building projects in Egypt.


 The Meal

The main meal is now served. Many suggested recipes can be found online. Yeast, pork, and shellfish should be avoided. Feel free to enjoy one another’s company and conversation while you eat.

The Search for the Afikomen

After the meal, the children search for the hidden afikomen. Once it has been found and returned for a reward, the leader breaks it into small pieces and gives one to everyone at the table to eat.

Leader: Our next Bible reading is Luke chapter 22, verse 19:

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”


The Third Cup of Wine—the Cup of Blessing

(also known as the Cup of Redemption)

Leader: The third cup of wine is the cup of blessing, also known as the cup of redemption. This is the cup spoken of by the Apostle Paul:

In the same way, after the supper Jesus took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:25–26)


The Fourth Cup of Wine—Hallel

Leader: This is the cup of Hallel, which means “praise.” It’s time to sing “Go Down Moses,” an African-American spiritual that is often sung at Passovers. [Louis Armstrong’s version can be found on YouTube if the tune is unfamiliar]

When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
(Let my people go)
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
(Let my people go.) 

Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt land.
Tell old Pharaoh:
Let my people go

“Thus spoke the Lord”, bold Moses said,
(Let my people go)
“If not I’ll strike your firstborn dead,”
(Let my people go) 


“No more shall they in bondage toil,”
(Let my people go)
“Let them come out with Egypt’s spoil,”
(Let my people go.) 



Elijah’s Cup

Leader: Traditionally, an extra glass is filled with wine and placed on the table. At the end of the meal a child is asked to go to the front door to see if Elijah is there, so that he can drink from his cup. This tradition springs from the expectation that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah. Yeshua told his disciples that Elijah had indeed come in the person of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:14). It is fitting for Messianic Jews to keep this tradition to remind us that so many of our fellow Jews do not know their Messiah has come. This should spur us on to reach Jewish people with the good news about Yeshua.


Next Year in Jerusalem

Leader: First we will all say together: “Next year in Jerusalem!” This toast is an expression of the natural Jewish desire to visit or live in the land of our people. On the count of three, as loudly as you can, one, two, three:

“Next year in Jerusalem!”

And because we desire Yeshua’s return to renew the world, we can also say, “Next year in the New Jerusalem!” On the count of three, as loudly as you can, one, two, three:

“Next year in the New Jerusalem!”

** We highly recommend using the free, easy-to-print PDF version via this link:

A Short Messianic Haggadah **


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Envying the Psalmists’ Love for God

Marc Chagall The Psalm of David, ca. 1956 Drawing for the

Do these words about the psalmists make you feel a little uncomfortable? “They were people who knew far less about God than we do, yet loved him a great deal more” (Alec Motyer). If so, a healthy spiritual envy should drive us to this question: what can we learn from the psalmists about loving God?


“Whom have I in heaven but you? / And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” Psalm 73:25

Asaph isn’t saying that he finds everything on earth undesirable. The psalms often declare the goodness of earthly things such as “wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart” (Psalm 104:15). No, what Asaph means is that there is nothing in the world that competes with God in his affections, nothing that runs a close second to God. God has won his heart, and he has no rivals.

But it wasn’t always that way. At the start of Psalm 73 Asaph admits that his feet “almost slipped” when he “saw the prosperity of the wicked.” The turning point in the psalm is verse 17: “I entered the sanctuary of God.” Something about the sanctuary – God’s temple in Jerusalem – restores God to his rightful place in Asaph’s heart.

In the temple he would have seen the blood of animal sacrifices, reminding him that God lovingly offers forgiveness. The temple was also the venue for festivals celebrating God’s loving acts: Passover, commemorating God’s liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt; the Feast of Weeks, marking God’s kind provision of abundant crops; and the Feast of Tabernacles, reminding the Israelites that God led them from their trailer park in the desert into the promised land with its “houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:11). So the temple reminded Asaph of God’s love for his people, a love that the wicked reject to their own destruction (vs 17, 19 & 27). God’s love for Asaph stirred up Asaph’s love for God.

We can learn from this. Let’s spend time reflecting on the love of God shown at the cross and seen in his sustaining care as we journey towards a better Promised Land. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Meditating on God’s love for us can be the turning point that restores his place in our affections. Let’s be honest, meditation – consciously thinking about something for an extended period of time – takes a bit of effort, which might be why we do it so little! As Thomas Watson says, “The reason we come away so cold from reading the Word is because we do not warm ourselves at the fire of meditation.” Anyone who truly envies Asaph’s love for God will be driven to that fire.


“O God, you are my God … your love is better than life.” Psalm 63:1,3

In his book More than Conquerors, Simon Guillebaud tells a story from Burundi that chimes with David’s experience in Psalm 63: “A fellow missionary out here saw an old man in grubby clothes at one of the many displacement camps. She wondered what his story was, and so approached him to find out … He had seen his wife and children hacked to death and his house burnt down. He had walked many days to get to the camp, and had lost just about everything he ever owned, except the rags on his back. Yet at the end of his story of horrific personal loss, he was able to declare, ‘I never realized Jesus was all I needed until Jesus was all I had.’” In Psalm 63, David is in a similar position of utter deprivation. It’s one of the times when his enemies are seeking his life (verse 9), and he’s fled to “a dry and weary land where there is no water” (verse 1). And yet, like that refugee in Burundi, he’s able to find satisfaction in God: “Because your love is better than life, / my lips will glorify you.” What’s his secret?

To begin with, he seeks God “earnestly” (verse 1). He’s not messing about! And if we have real spiritual envy of David and the other psalmists, we’ll also demonstrate great earnestness in seeking God. We can’t expect our love for him to match the psalmists’ love if we seek trifling things in this world more earnestly than we seek God.

The second point to note is that, like Asaph, David focuses on God more than focusing on his feelings about God. He’s aware of his feelings about God (vs 1 & 8) but his eyes are turned upward much more than inward: “I have seen you in the sanctuary / and beheld your power and your glory” (verse 2); “On my bed I remember you; / I think of you through the watches of the night” (verse 6). What C. S. Lewis says about joy applies equally to love: “Its very existence presupposes that you desire not it but something other and outer.” That’s why we can’t increase our love for God by straining to produce loving feelings for him in our hearts. You could put it like this: more love for God comes from having more of God.

The final thing David does that helps him love God greatly is sing his praises (vs 5 & 7). David is the Poet King. Psalm 63 is a song. Singing is meditation with a melody. It’s a way of focusing on God so that we love him more. Pick a song of praise and sing it!

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“O Israel, I will not forget you”

IMG_0175It is very striking to read in the Book of Isaiah of God’s love for the people of Israel. From chapter 40 onwards, the prophet Isaiah looks far ahead to the time when he knows the Israelites will be exiled to Babylon. He addresses those future exiled Israelites. His aim is to persuade them to keep trusting in their God despite the catastrophic events they have experienced. The three main points he makes are that God is powerful to save them (40:25-31), he has plans to save them (44:23-28; 53:1-12), and he is passionate about saving them (44:21; 49:15-16). This last point is expressed in the most emotional language possible:

O Israel, I will not forget you. … Can a mother forget the baby at her breast, or have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.

In that quotation God is speaking to rebellious Jewish exiles. It’s impossible to read it without asking whether God still feels the same about unsaved Jewish people today. We need to be careful before jumping to that conclusion. For a start, we’re not in the same period of salvation history. Added to that, the Bible does not always use the term “Israel” in the same way. But having taken those caveats into account, I see no reason why the quotation above shouldn’t apply to unsaved Jewish people now. As the Apostle Paul says, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! … They are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:1; 28-29).”

This means that as God sees Jewish people eating challah bread on a Friday evening, and filling synagogues the following day, his heart cries out, “I will not forget you! I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

Someone might think that it’s unfair for God to have a particularly passionate concern for one race of people. But it’s rather like a Christian mother who desperately longs for her unbelieving son at college to hear the gospel. She would still be eager for all the other non-Christian students to hear the gospel, but without the same level of relational passion.

God’s special longing for the Jews to be reached with the gospel can be seen in Paul’s statement that the gospel is “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). I once heard a preacher interpret that verse as nothing more than a historical observation. He said that Paul was simply noting that the gospel came to the Jews first historically via Jesus. But that interpretation can’t be right. In Acts 13:46 we see Paul putting Romans 1:16 into practice as a missionary principle with ongoing application. He tells a group of hostile Jews, “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it … we now turn to the Gentiles.”

Most of the people reading this post will be Gentile believers. Praise God for extending his grace to all nations! How should you respond to God’s passionate love for the Jewish people? I have three suggestions. Share it. Christians should desire to be like God in every way. We should ask God to give us his heart towards Jewish people. Support the work. Hudson Taylor found the time, despite his focus on evangelizing China, to send an annual check to the Mildmay Mission to the Jews. He sent a note with the check saying, “To the Jew first.” I can warmly recommend Jews for Jesus, Chosen People Ministries, and Christian Witness to Israel, among other organizations. They are faithfully seeking to reach Jewish people with the gospel. Why not google them today? You could call one of them up and find out how you might support it. Step out boldly in faith and make contact with Jewish people. There may be some living in your area. You could find out by checking on the web to see where the nearest synagogue is. Perhaps you could arrange a debate about Jesus the Jew between your pastor and a local rabbi. There are great riches to be found in this endeavor—see Romans 11:12, 15, and 24.


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What Will You Say to Ezekiel?

Collantes,_Francisco_-_The_Vision_of_Ezekiel_-_1630 (3)

It’s surely not over-imaginative to say that in the course of eternity we’ll have plenty of conversations with the prophet Ezekiel. Of course there won’t be such a thing as embarrassment in God’s perfect place, but you’ve got to wonder what the reaction will be when Ezekiel asks people, “So what did you make of my book?” Perhaps the conversation will go like this:

“So you’re really Ezekiel, the prophet, the one who wrote that book in the Old Testament?”

“Yes, by the grace of God, that’s me.”

“Wow. Cool.”

“Did you enjoy my book? What was your favorite part?”

“Oh. Good question.”

“I’d be very interested to know.”

“Well, it’s hard to say.”

“You must have had a favorite bit though.”

“Well … it was all the word of God wasn’t it, so the whole of your book was equally great!”


“If you’re pushing me though, I’d say the part about the dead bones coming back to life. Chapter thirty-something wasn’t it. That was terrific.”

“I’m so glad you liked it. It was one of my favorite parts too. It was such a privilege to see that astonishing vision and then with God’s help record it as Scripture. But what did you think of the passage earlier on about the glory departing from the temple?”

“To be honest, I’m not sure I ever read that chapter.”

“Oh. [Long pause.] It was rather significant. How about the parable of the two eagles and the vine?”

“I don’t think I read that either.”

“The lament for Israel’s princes?”

“I guess it never came up in my Bible reading notes.”

“What did you make of the prophecy about the sword of the king of Babylon?”


“Oh. How about – “

“Sorry Ezekiel, I should probably be on my way but it’s been great to meet you, and I look forward to the next time our paths cross.”

If that thought experiment made you feel a little uncomfortable, take heart. There is still time to dig deeply into every corner of Scripture and get ready for those upcoming conversations with Ezekiel, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and others. Try giving each Bible book the kind of attention you would hope it would receive, if you yourself had written it by the inspiration of God.

[This post is an excerpt from The Book of the Covenant]

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God Is Working His Purpose Out


“All the days ordained for me (details included) were written in his book before one of them came to be. I believe that a fruit tree, a flood, barren women making babies, food from the sky, a sidewalk through a sea, jealous brothers, soaking-wet firewood, rotten kings, a worn slingshot, a prostitute, a divided kingdom, a loud trumpet, a presence-less temple, an already engaged teenage girl, four obedient fishermen, a young boy’s lunch, not enough wine, a deceased friend, a betrayal, and a [cock’s] crow are evidence that God’s divine, sovereign will is never thwarted.”

Well said, Jill Barlow.

Read her whole article here:

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The Three Ws of Assurance


There are three main grounds of assurance of salvation, each beginning with W.

The Word of the Father

The Work of Christ

The Witness of the Spirit

The first two Ws are quite straightforward:

The Word of the Father promises salvation to those who believe in the Son. We can rest on these biblical promises because God does not lie (Titus 1:2). His word is dependable. John 3:16 is one example of a promise that ought to give believers great assurance of salvation.

The Work of Christ on the cross provides salvation. Isaiah 53:5-6 teaches believers that through the cross, “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him.” There is nothing left to pay. It is rather insulting to the cross when downhearted believers wonder whether they are too guilty to be saved.

The third W needs more explanation:

The Witness of the Spirit is our experience of the reality of the indwelling Spirit, who preserves salvation. The logic flows like this: If you experience the Spirit’s power in your life, helping you to resist sin and live for God, you can be confident that you have the Spirit (Romans 8:6-9). Knowing that you have the Spirit reassures you that you will be saved because he is given to preserve our faith until the end: “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession — to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Another way to think about the witness of the Spirit is to examine your opinion of Jesus. If you see in Jesus the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:4-6), and if the sight of that glory has stirred up some measure of Christlikeness in your life (2 Corinthians 3:18), then the Spirit testifies that you have eternal life, because it’s only by the Spirit that people truly believe in Jesus as God’s Son (see 1 John 5:6-11). This is what J.I. Packer has in mind when he says that the internal witness of the Spirit is:

a work of enlightenment whereby, through the medium of verbal testimony … blind eyes … are opened, and divine realities come to be recognized and embraced for what they are. This recognition … is as immediate and unanalysable as the perceiving of a colour, or a taste, by physical sense – an event about which no more can be said than that when appropriate stimuli were present it happened, and when it happened we knew it had happened.

(Emphasis added. From “Calvin the Theologian” via

Meditating on the three Ws is a lifetime’s task but the more we engage in that task the more assurance of salvation we will enjoy.

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Improving Our Bible Studies


What is a Bible study?

The term “Bible study” could refer to lots of different activities. But it’s commonly used to describe a fairly small group of people (a dozen or fewer) getting together to study a particular passage of the Bible, under the oversight of a study leader using a question-and-answer method. That’s what “Bible study” means throughout this post.

Why do a Bible study instead of listening to someone give a talk?

Although preaching should be the church’s primary means of delivering Bible teaching (see 2 Tim. 4:1–2), a Bible study is a good additional method. Its special value is that it gives people the experience of discovering truths from the Bible themselves, rather than being told those truths by someone else. You could say that a sermon gives everyone a pot of honey to eat from, while a Bible study encourages people to go to the beehive and gather honey for themselves. Or to use another picture, a sermon shines a flashlight into people’s minds, while in a Bible study the aim is for a lightbulb to turn on in those minds by itself.

I’ve been invited to lead a Bible study. How should I prepare?

As said above, Bible study leaders use a question-and-answer method. For this to be done well, the study leader needs both a deep understanding of the passage (steps 1–4 below) and carefully-composed questions that are “simple yet succulent”—simple enough to be understood right away, and yet succulent enough to attract an answer, because no one enjoys answering dry, overly-basic questions (see step 5).

Step 1: Pray

The first thing to do is to pray for God’s help, because without it we cannot expect to understand the Bible’s meaning: “Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45).

Step 2: Look Closely

Next we’ll need to spend a significant amount of time looking closely at the passage, thinking carefully about it, and consulting resources such as the ESV Study Bible and a commentary (try this site for recommended commentaries on Bible books). Paul says to Timothy: “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this” (2 Timothy 2:7). We can’t expect the latter unless we do the former.

Begin by seeking the original meaning, which is the author’s intended meaning at the time of writing. In order to apply the passage correctly to our own time and place, we must first gain a clear understanding of the originally-intended meaning—we need to “go back to Corinth.” Five key words to aid this process are Context, Repetition, Aim, Mood, and Structure (the first letters form the memory-aid CRAMS, which is fitting because God crams Bible passages full of meaning).

Ask yourself: what is the Context, i.e. the background meaning supplied by the text surrounding the passage? For example, Isaiah 53:3 refers back to 49:6-7, which refers back to 9:1-2. Those background connections are highly significant. Ultimately, the context of any single passage is the whole of the rest of the Bible. Hebrews 11:17-19, for example, helps us understand Genesis 22:10. Isaiah 8:14, Psalm 118:21-26, and Daniel 2:34-35 help us understand Matthew 21:44. So Bible study leaders should strive to grow in their understanding of all the Scriptures. The better we understand the Bible as a whole, the better we’ll understand individual passages within it.

Ask yourself: is there any Repetition in the passage? People generally repeat themselves when they’re trying to emphasize something important (“Just don’t forget what I said earlier about feeding the cat”). Ephesians 2:1-10 and Matthew 5:17-18 are examples of passages with significant repetition.

Ask yourself: does the author of the passage state what the Aim is, either the purpose of the passage itself or the purpose of the book in which the passage is found? If so, that will be very relevant! John 20:30-31 is a famous example, which helps us understand the whole of John’s gospel. Psalm 73:1 sets out the teaching point that the rest of the psalm explores. In 1 Peter 5:12, Peter explains why he’s written the letter; Jude does the same in Jude 3; John does the same in 1 John 5:13. Exodus 9:15-16 reveals God’s purpose in the chapters dealing with Pharaoh and the plagues. Genesis 50:20 gives us the right perspective on all the Joseph narratives. We won’t always be able to find a verse that reveals the aim of a passage, but when a purpose statement is present, it’s important to give it due weight.

Ask yourself: what is the Mood of this passage? If a passage has a cheerful mood you should expect a joyful, encouraging meaning. A passage with a sad, melancholy mood will probably have a meaning that draws attention to our sinfulness or reveals something of the world’s fallenness. An example of the latter is Luke 17:11-19, which describes a miraculous healing and yet closes on a melancholy note—which would need to be acknowledged in the study. In contrast, Matthew 13:44-45 is a joyful passage, and so it wouldn’t be right to highlight the negative side of “selling all you have.”

Ask yourself: does the Structure of the passage help to reveal its meaning? Just as we split up knives, forks and spoons in a kitchen drawer to avoid confusion, so authors often split up the different points they’re trying to make. Noticing the structure helps us understand these different points. In Psalm 19, for example, the author makes one point in the first six verses, another point in verses 7-11, and a third point in verses 12-14. Another structure that’s used by Bible writers is “sandwiching” or “bookending.” This is when the same point is stated at the beginning and end of a passage, thereby indicating that all the material within the bookends should be considered in light of those bookends (see, for instance, Matthew 5:3-10, where the same phrase, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” is found at the beginning and end of the passage).

Step 3: Bridge the Gap

Once we’ve understood—with God’s help—the original meaning, we’re in a position to work out the meaning for today, but watch out! There’s a gap between the first readers and ourselves, which must be bridged with great care. To bridge the gap properly we need to have a good grasp of the successive periods of salvation history, and the differences between them. God’s requirements for his people change from one period to the next: under the new covenant, for example, we’re permitted to eat bacon, whereas doing so in earlier periods of salvation history would have disqualified someone from membership of God’s people. When we’re studying an Old Testament passage, our objective will be to find truths and principles that are still meaningful and valid in our own new covenant period of salvation history (see diagram).

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Step 4: Apply in a Gospel-Friendly Way

A Bible study must consider the potential impact of the passage on our lives. God wants our lives to be transformed (Romans 12:2). But there’s a danger here. People can often slide into a “works righteousness” approach to their relationship with God. We easily find ourselves thinking that doing good works is the way to gain God’s favor. While it is true that our good works please God, and our sins grieve him, these victories and defeats do not alter the fact that we’re saved by grace, through the righteousness God gives us when we trust in the atoning blood shed by Jesus (Romans 3:21-4:8). So we must apply the Bible to our lives in a gospel-friendly way that doesn’t undermine the good news of God’s free gift of righteousness. We seek to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:20) because we love him and want to bring him glory, not to store up salvation merit points. A final thing to keep in mind is that the Bible transforms us not only when it specifically addresses our human situation (through commands to obey, promises to claim, etc.), but also when it reveals truths about God and his character. These truths will fill us with fresh praise and adoration, and they will shape our relationship with God.

Step 5: Compose “Simple Yet Succulent” Questions

There are two types of Bible study question: observation questions and significance questions. Observation questions have answers that are gettable-from-the-text. They could be described as “eyes down” questions. For example, an observation question in a study on Mark 9:1-14 (the transfiguration) would be: “What three extraordinary things happen in this passage?” That kind of question forces people’s eyes down towards the page. Significance questions, on the other hand, deal with issues raised by the text, and could be termed “eyes up” questions. One useful exercise when preparing Bible study questions is to put (O) for observation or (S) for significance after each question.

A good rule of thumb is that there should be more (O) questions than (S) questions overall, because there’s always a lot of information to take in from the passage. Remember, the objective is for people to gather honey from the hive themselves, rather than receiving a pot of honey from the study leader. That process depends on (O) questions. We want people to experience the joy of gaining understanding through their own God-facilitated reflection on the text. So, to use a different image, our questions should be like sheepdogs herding sheep into a pen. Sheepdogs prevent sheep from wandering off-track. Yet they don’t pick the sheep up and throw them into the pen, they try to get the sheep themselves to do the work of getting into the pen. In a similar way, our questions should guide people towards the main points of the text, and yet the questions shouldn’t give away the answers, because that would stop people thinking for themselves about what God is saying in his word.  

When I ask a question, tumbleweed drifts across the room. What’s gone wrong?

This may be because your questions aren’t simple enough, or they’re simple but not succulent. Put yourself in the shoes of the people in your study. Imagine what it feels like to be asked the questions you’ve prepared—maybe even say those questions out loud to yourself in a kind of role play exercise. A long and complicated question will leave people bamboozled and unable to answer, e.g.: “In verse 3 how does Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees contrast with what we saw earlier when Jesus was on the other side of the Sea of Galilee after he healed the man with leprosy?” And yet a too-easy question such as “What does Jesus say in verse 3?” will also lead to nothing but crickets in the background. No one has an appetite for answering a question like that.

One way to ask an observation question which has some succulence is to say, “How would you put what Jesus says in verse 3 into your own words?” or, “How would you summarize Paul’s request in verses 3 and 4?” That kind of question will bring about the desired observation while making the question more attractive to answer. People often respond well to an invitation to be creative, such as, “If you were present at this scene with a smartphone, what Instagram pictures would you take to capture what happens?” Or, “If you had to come up with an eye-catching headline for this passage, what would it be?” Or, “If this passage were a movie, what would its title be?” Or (to aid observation of the mood of a passage), “What kind of background music would you choose for the events in verses 1-5?” Sometimes combining observation with significance can make a question more succulent: “What’s the most important thing that happens in this passage?” The Bible contains many surprises, and a question such as, “What’s the surprise in verses 13-14?” will often work well. It’s also worth keeping in mind that sometimes things will move along better if you give information to the group yourself. We shouldn’t feel that everything needs to be communicated via questions and answers. One final way to get rid of tumbleweed moments is to prepare “supplementaries” in advance, that is, an alternative question in case the initial question doesn’t get a response. If you have supplementary questions up your sleeve, the awkward silences won’t last for long.

Is it OK to tell someone they’re mistaken?

A post on the Gospel Coalition website answers that question wisely:

I remember sitting in one Bible study where the leader compassionately announced, “Not only are there no stupid questions here, there are no wrong answers.” Her goal, of course, was to put women at ease and promote uninhibited discussion. She rightly wanted the women who didn’t know much about the Scriptures to feel comfortable expressing their opinions. However, in the process she jettisoned the objective truth of the Bible. In fact, there are right and wrong interpretations. Group Bible study is a place where we search together for the right interpretations—the truth of the passage.

— Keri Folmar, 7 Mistakes We Make in Women’s Bible Study

If everything that everyone says in your Bible study group is greeted with a thoughtful nod and implied approval, your study times are dangerous. In that kind of group, false teachers such as those described in 2 Peter 3:16 would have an open door for introducing their errors. All Bible interpretations are not equally valid and acceptable, and it’s the task of the study leader to make that clear to the group. Sometimes a friendly yet firm correction—together with a clear explanation—is necessary.

We get sidetracked a lot, and we rarely have time for application. Any suggestions?

The Bible is meant to be transformative. In our studies we must reach the point of applying the Bible passage to our lives, while keeping everything to a reasonable time. We simply don’t have the luxury of going off down every intriguing byway, and so we’ll need to steer people politely back to the main road of the study. A Bible study is badly inadequate if it doesn’t include an application question such as, “What difference should this make to our lives in New York this week?”

I’m a study leader who’s always busy. I don’t have time for much preparation. Can’t I just show up on the day and trust God to make good things happen?

It’s fair to say that small group Bible studies are often poorly led, even when the leader is thoroughly sound theologically and gifted as a Bible teacher. This is probably because it’s easy to avoid a shockingly bad experience, since everyone usually comes to a Bible study with a positive attitude, and they’ll chip in with helpful contributions. We feel confident that we won’t have an embarrassing failure, and so we don’t safeguard the time necessary for proper preparation. But with Bible studies, as with so much else in life, if we fail to prepare we prepare to fail. A study might not feel like a disaster and yet nonetheless fall far short of the burning-heart-producing, eye-opening, joy-kindling experience that it could otherwise have been. Bible studies like that will generally only happen when the leader is “prayed up and prepped up.”

Jesus says, “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word” (Matthew 12:36). How much more will we give account for those potentially life-changing times when we led a group of his beloved people in a Bible study? A good target to aim for is at least two clear hours of prayerful preparation for each study. Spend one hour reflecting on the passage, consulting a commentary and scribbling down some rough questions. Come back later (maybe on a different day) and spend a second hour polishing those questions. Time spent prayerfully studying God’s word and preparing questions is time very well spent.

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Who Am I?


“There is, therefore, a great need for discernment in our self-understanding. Who am I? What is my ‘self’? The answer is that I am a Jekyll and Hyde … having both dignity, because I was created and have been re-created in the image of God, and depravity, because I still have a fallen and rebellious nature. I am both noble and ignoble, beautiful and ugly, good and bad, upright and twisted, image and child of God, and yet sometimes yielding obsequious homage to the devil from whose clutches Christ has rescued me. My true self is what I am by creation, which Christ came to redeem, and by calling. My false self is what I am by the Fall, which Christ came to destroy.

“Only when we have discerned which is which within us, shall we know what attitude to adopt towards each. We must be true to our true self and false to our false self. We must be fearless in affirming all that we are by creation, redemption and calling, and ruthless in disowning all that we are by the Fall …

“Standing before the cross we see simultaneously our worth and our unworthiness, since we perceive both the greatness of his love in dying, and the greatness of our sin in causing him to die.”

John Stott, The Cross Of Christ (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1989), p. 285.

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