40 days and 40 nights

Genesis 7:1-24

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In the “film” 40 days and 40 nights Josh Hartnett has to endure this “unbearable” trial period without sex.  It’s a time of dreadful testing and I’m sure hilarity ensures.  I wouldn’t know, I couldn’t be forced to watch it – even for research purposes.

But we seem to have a cultural memory that “40 days and 40 nights” is a trying time.

Lent of course is 40 days (actually the whole time is 46 days but not even monks fast on Sundays so you get those off).

There are seven prominent periods of 40 days in the Bible.

The first “40 days” was the time of the flood-waters that fell in judgement on the earth.  (Genesis 7:4)

Moses fasted 40 days on the mountaintop before entering God’s presence.

Israel sent 12 men to spy out the land of Canaan.  They spent 40 days doing reconnaissance of the promised land.

Goliath taunted Israel for 40 days before David stepped forward to bring victory.

Jonah came to Nineveh with a message – in 40 days the city would be destroyed.  But, because they repented, God visited not with judgement but with salvation.

For 40 days Jesus entered the desert (a place of trials and temptations) and emerged victorious.

Finally, there were 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and the time of His ascension to heaven.  It was a time when He proved Himself to His followers, showing them tokens of the resurrection life He promises to all.

40 days seems to be a time of testing and transition.  For those who pass the test there is a new world to enjoy:

A world washed clean.

Face to face with the LORD.

A land of milk and honey.

Victory over the enemy.

Salvation.

The defeat of the devil.

The new creation.

But the flood story tells us this – we can’t endure the test by ourselves.  The salvation beyond judgement is for one person only.  It is the ultimate Noah, the ultimate Moses, the ultimate David – Christ – who endures on our behalf.   Those who trust Him are hidden with Him, the way the Ark’s passengers were hidden with Noah.  But, on the other side, we benefit from His victory.

None of us can pass the ultimate test.  We cannot transition to the ultimate destination.  But Jesus Christ has.  He has crushed the devil and defeated sin and death.  He has made it to the throne of heaven and offers us new life if we simply hide ourselves in Him.  For now there is testing: “Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering” (1 Peter 4;12).  But beyond these “40 days” our Saviour will bring us to rest.

Two by two

Genesis 6:1-22

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It’s the name of countless nurseries and toddler groups.  We instantly think of a cramped menagerie and a cartoon boat – usually absent Noah and the family.  Also absent is any hint that this is a cataclysmic scene of judgement.

The context is Genesis 6.  Apparently the “sons of God” were uniting with the daughters of men (“sons of God” is most commonly a reference to angels in the Bible).  It was one more illicit alliance between earth and heaven.

From the beginning, there has been only one legitimate alliance of heaven and earth.  As Genesis 3:15 promises – the Man of Heaven will become the Man of dust.  Notice the trajectory.  The Man of Heaven will come down.  Only in covenant relationship with the God-Man will we have the union we seek.  But we’re always seeking illegitimate alliances.

In Genesis 3 Satan offered the original anti-God union of angels and men.  And this kind of coup – evident in Genesis 6 – would be repeated in Genesis 11 when earth would again seek union with heaven – under its own steam and on its own terms.

But the LORD is implacably opposed to all these attempts for they all pervert a world that was made by Christ and for Christ.

The fruit of this adultery is terrible.  In Genesis 6:5 we read the LORD’s assessment of a world corrupted through spiritual infidelity:

And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  (Genesis 6:5)

Not just the thoughts of the heart – the imagination of the thoughts of the heart.  Every one of them.  Not just occasionally evil, continually evil.  Not partially evil, only evil.

It’s a problem that begins with spiritual adultery.  It infects the heart then spreads out.  Later in the chapter the LORD looks and sees “the earth is filled with violence” (v11 and 13).  From the wicked heart to the clenched first the world becomes “corrupt” (v11,12) – that is, perverted, twisted, polluted, marred.

Spiritually-adulterous, black-hearted and violent.  We read these assessments as though of course God’s going to have it in for us.  Of course He’ll be negative.  And of course He’s over-reacting.  We think like the angsty teenager complaining about their history teacher “He hates me.”

But the LORD is not like that.  He loves His world.  He made us for Christ, for eternal friendship in bonds of covenant love.  He’s no kill-joy or pessimist.  That’s what makes this assessment so sobering.  The LORD is angry – furiously angry – with a world He loves.

In fact He’s sorry He made it:

It repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.  (Genesis 6:6-7)

God is sorry He made us!  And in His wrath He will destroy the earth.  We are a long way from the cartoon images here.  Starting with man at the head, there will be a cosmic judgement.

This sounds like He’s going back on everything He ever began.  It sounds like the whole creation project is going in the bin.  But then there’s our phrase: “two by two.”

There will be a place of saftey – the ark.  And the people who hide with Noah will survive.  This will amount to his wife and his three sons with their wives (two by two if you like).  And the animals who hide with Noah will survive.  And not just survive.  They also are coupled up.  Male and female – to start again.

Noah doesn’t just preserve specimens on the ark, he hides couples with him.  They come “two by two” (Genesis 7:9,15).  Because judgement is not the end.  It’s the beginning of new life beyond judgement.  There will be a whole new world after the end of the world.

Repeatedly the Bible points to the flood as a pattern for this world’s judgement at the end.  And here’s what we learn: the key is not to avoid judgement.  The world will be washed clean.  The key is to be hidden with the one called Rest.  And when you come to Him there will be a fruitful future beyond death and wrath.

Noah

Genesis 5:28-32

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When you think of rest, what springs to mind?  If you’re like me you’ll be thinking about an absence of stresses and suffering.

The name “Noah” means rest.  But the one called Rest does not come in the context of peace and safety.  It was in the midst of death and curse that the promised child was born.

“Lamech lived an hundred eighty and two years, and begat a son: 29 And he called his name Noah, saying, This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the LORD hath cursed.”  (Genesis 5:28-29)

Lamech was very aware that the whole creation is groaning under divine judgement.  The world is “rigged for frustration” as one writer has put it.

And it’s still rigged for frustration.  The curse is all around us in broken lives, broken relationships.  A broken world.

What do we do about that?  We might pretend that the curse is not really so bad.  We might whistle through the grave-yard to keep up our spirits.  We might despair and settle down in the rubble to await the inevitable.  We might trust to our wealth and resourcefulness to side-step the curse.

But Lamech does something different.  He doesn’t minimize the awfulness of a broken world – he acknowledges the work and toil, the death and curse.  He doesn’t pretend to master the situation out of his own resources.  And he doesn’t resign himself to the chaos.

Instead Lamech looks the darkness in the eye, but with a defiant ‘nevertheless’ he believes in rest and peace.  And so he names his boy “Rest.”

Lamech, like Adam and Eve before him, looked expectantly to his offspring in the light of that original promise of Christ (Genesis 3:15).  Christ would be the ultimate answer to the darkness, and so His people anticipated His coming eagerly.

Eve wanted her first offspring to be the One.  But she gave birth to an anti-christ figure in Cain – a perverse firstborn who kills and so furthers the curse.

Lamech’s offspring is different, but will point to the Messiah in his own way.  Noah is not the Christ but he is a christ-figure.  This one called “Rest” would save the world through judgement.  And all who would seek peace on the far side of judgement would seek refuge in him.

Here we see the way that true rest comes.  Not apart from the curse but through it, in fact through cosmic judgement.  Salvation means finding safety.  It means looking to the Peacemaker and being hidden with Him.

In this way we will find rest.  Not by making peace with this broken world.  Not by diminishing our hopes for wholeness and life.  But by looking through the toil and death around us.  In fact looking through the coming judgement which will cleanse the world.  We look to true and eternal rest on the other side of judgement because we look to Christ and hide in Him.

Methuselah

Genesis 5:18-27

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If someone calls you ‘Methuselah’ it’s probably not a compliment.  He was 969 years old when he died – the oldest man in the Bible.

In the midst of the avalanche of deaths in Genesis 5, Methuselah weathers the storm better than most.  But actually someone else in the family tree does better than Methuselah – his dad in fact.  When Methuselah was a spritely 300 years old, this happened:

Enoch was not; for God took him. (Genesis 5:24)

And the explanation?

Enoch walked with God.

Methuselah’s grandson is described similarly – Noah too “walked with God.”  And both Enoch in Genesis 5 and Noah in Genesis 6 escaped the death sentence that swept the others away.  They walked with God and found grace and salvation.  They found an answer to death.

Most people today, if they want to escape the ravages of age, do so through diet and exercise.  Some go to more drastic lengths.  Perhaps surgery and injections.  Some even want their corpses frozen to be defrosted when we’ve found death’s cure.  And transhumanism hopes to eliminate ageing and death altogether.

The Bible gives us an answer to death that is older than Methuselah.  Walk with God – the same God who walked with Adam and Eve in the garden.  The same God who walked among us as Man and defeated death on our behalf.  Walk with Christ and He will walk you through death.

The grave is too powerful for us.  It will swallow us.  But Christ is more powerful still.  He swallows up death:

Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?  The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.   (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

Begat

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Genesis 5:1-17

When people attempt to read through the Bible, Genesis 5 represents the first hurdle.  It’s a chapter of genealogy.

So and so begat so and so, then they lived this many years and they died.

And on it runs, generation after generation.  The Bible lists them in painstaking detail.

Why the detail?  It’s been a rolicking read so far.  Cosmic creation, catastrophic fall, murder and intrigue.  And now a family tree.  It seems a ridiculous detour from the central story.

Unless of course the central story is about offspring.

But ever since the promise of Genesis 3:15 that has been the concern of the faithful – the birth of the Saviour. Each new generation was a fresh opportunity for the Offspring of the woman to arise and crush our oppressor.  But each new line of the family tree ends… “and he died.”  It’s a brutal drum beat throughout the chapter – throughout the Bible.  “And he died… and he died… and he died…”  It’s the rhythm of life – everything cut off by the finality of death.  It’s relentless. And it seems like there’s no way out.

These genealogies continue through the Bible.  They begin with a wide angle lens and zero in more and more – to the Semites, the Abrahamites, the Israelites.  And then within Israel it’s the priestly and the royal tribes which are highlighted.  The kings in particular.

And then the Old Testament ends and there’s no resolution.  Just a lot of begats that end in death.

Turn the page to the New Testament and what’s the first thing we read?  A genealogy.  Matthew starts with Abraham, then runs through David and all the kings and it all culminates with Jesus Christ.  Luke does the same, though he traces Christ’s line all the way back to Adam.  What’s being communicated?

Jesus is the true Offspring and Promised King.  And with His coming we see the passing of all genealogies.  There are no more lines to be added after Jesus (no matter what Dan Brown might suppose!)

Without Jesus you get an endless cycle of begetting and dying – sex and death!  Is that all there is?

Well with Jesus Christ the cycle is broken.  Here is where the begats have been heading.  And His is the one line that doesn’t end in death.  If Christ is in the picture, it doesn’t have to be birth-sex-death.  Praise God, there’s a Way out.  His is the ultimate begetting, and though it passes through death it ends with life, and life everlasting!.

The land of Nod

Genesis 4:13-24

These days, drifting off to the land of Nod sounds like a pleasant slumber.  It was Jonathan Swift who first used the phrase in connection with sleep.  And Rudyard Kipling followed suit.  Now we associate the land of Nod and ‘nodding off’ exclusively with sleep.  I read recently that taking heroin is also colloquially referred to as ‘going to the land of Nod’.  And perhaps here’s where the “nodding off” connotations combine with its original darker meaning.

Because the land of Nod is not a pleasant place in the Bible.

Cain had just killed his younger brother Abel.  The LORD curses him from the earth and he is to be “a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth.”  (Genesis 4:14) More modern translations render that “a restless wanderer.”  And it’s this word for “wanderer” (or “vagabond”) that is the word Nod.  Therefore in verse 16 it says:

Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

Nod is not about peaceful rest at all.  Nod is about rootless wandering.

And that’s the way sin’s consequences are unpacked throughout the Bible.  Sin leads to exile, it leads to scattering, to dislocation, to violent uprooting.  Sinners (and that’s you and me) are not at home.  We are restless wanderers on the earth.

As Augustine famously prayed in his Confessions:

“Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Am I my brother’s keeper

Genesis 4:6-14

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We all know the phrase.  And we all want to be able to answer yes.

Tony Blair first introduced “New Labour” to the party conference describing it as the kind of compassionate socialism that said “I am my brother’s keeper.”

In 2008, Barack Obama’s Christmas Day message was this:

“Now, more than ever, we must rededicate ourselves to the notion that we share a common destiny as Americans — that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.”

The phrase “Am I my brother’s keeper?” turns up everywhere.

And in many permutations.


Perhaps my favourite is the joke about a monkey in a zoo reading Darwin.  The lights go on and he asks: “Am I my keeper’s brother?”

“My brother’s keeper” is very well used.  And it’s found on the lips of community-minded, peace-lovers the world over.  But actually the phrase was coined by the world’s first murderer.

Cain, the firstborn, had just killed Abel his brother.

“And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.  And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?  (Genesis 4:8-9)

There was history between the two.  Both had been offering sacrifices to the LORD, but in their own way.  Cain brought fruit and grain.  Abel brought blood sacrifices.

Abel had learnt the lesson taught to his parents so powerfully.  The LORD had put aside Adam and Eve’s ridiculous fig leaves and clothed them in skin.  He had demonstrated to them the way of atonement.  We can’t cover ourselves, we must be covered by the sacrifice of another.  Humanity cannot buy God off with our paltry morality.  No, the Promised Saviour would have to come and die as a bloody sacrifice to atone for our sins.

Abel’s offerings modelled this.  Cain’s were just more of the old fig-leaves.

The LORD looked with favour on Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s.  And Cain’s jealousy turned to murder.

There were such high hopes for Cain.  He was the firstborn of Eve.  And Eve’s words upon his birth were full of expectation – she seemed to think she had begotten the LORD-man right away (Genesis 4:1).

But the firstborn of the human race according to the flesh was not Saviour but Slayer.  What a damning indictment on the race of Adam!  Out of fellowship with our LORD and thus out of relationship with each other.  The bonds have been broken, vertically and horizontally.  What could ever restore them?

Well Cain should have answered his own question positively.  Not because of some common destiny or an abstract shared humanity. Cain was his brother’s keeper because he was the eldest.  And the firstborn son is meant to watch over the family.

So, finally, when the One promised to Eve was born into the world, He came as Firstborn over all.  Christ’s reconciling work was not simply to unite us to His Father but to restore the family bond as well – “that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” (Romans 8:29)

We will not answer Cain’s question through our own humanitarian efforts – important though they are.  The answer to Cain is the true Firstborn who shed His own blood to be our Keeper.  Praise God for a Brother who watches over us!

Knowing… in the biblical sense

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Genesis 4:1-5; John 17:1-5

“I knew her… in the biblical sense” said the fellow with a ribald wink and a nudge.

Many are aware that “knowing in the biblical sense” is shorthand for sex.  But few know what it is that’s ‘biblical’ about that ‘biblical sense.’

Well it all goes back to Genesis 4:1:

“And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain.”

To know in the biblical sense means a lot more than remembering someone’s birthday.  There is a deeply relational aspect to knowing.  So, in the context of marriage, this kind of ‘knowing’ means ‘making babies.’

This reflects the intimate nature of all “knowing” in the Bible.  It doesn’t have to be sexual.  Lots of “knowing” in the Bible isn’t sexual.  But it is relational.  The Bible’s idea of knowing is not just a cerebral exercise.

Perhaps it’s the effects of the Enlightenment, but we tend to consider knowledge as a matter of accumulating information.  Someone who “knows” is simply a person who’s had buckets of data poured into their head.

We think of knowledge quite impersonally.  Not so in the Bible.  In the Bible, knowing involves relationship and heart-commitments.

So Adam and Eve were tempted to “know” good and evil (Genesis 3:5).  This was more than the addition of information.  It was a taking of good and evil to themselves to possess those terms.

Or in Amos chapter 3, the LORD is speaking to Israel and says “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.”  Does the Almighty mean that He’s unaware of other nations?  Of course not.  But He knows Israel.  He is in deep fellowship with His special people.

So in this light let’s consider Jesus’ definition of eternal life in John 17:3

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

Eternity is not a matter of IQ or our ability to pass a theology quiz.  But it is determined by our knowledge.  Do we know God the Father and His Son Jesus?  Not simply, Do we hold orthodox ideas of them?  But personally, relationally, from the heart, do we know God in the biblical sense?  That is the phenomenal privilege held out to us by Jesus.

How the mighty are fallen

2 Samuel 1:17-27

“Have you seen the news?  Flooding, fires, earthquakes, wars.  If we don’t watch ourselves the world’s going to fall apart completely.”

“I fear we’ll soon pass the point of no return!”

“We must be very near the end!”

These are statements I hear pretty regularly about “the state of the world today.”

The trouble is they’re all far too optimistic.  And they’re tragically out of date.  According to the Bible the world has fallen apart.  We have passed the point of no return and the end was right at the beginning.

You see we live in a world made and loved by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   It’s a good world to which this God of love is deeply committed.  But it’s also a world that is catastrophically out of alignment with its Maker.

Adam was placed at the head of this world.  When Adam was at peace with his LORD all was right with the world.  When that peace was shattered all hell broke loose.

When sin entered in, first came shame then fear then hiding then blame.  The LORD curses relationships, family, work, even the physical world is cursed.  Death infects the planet and humanity is thrust out of God’s presence.

You could not imagine a more drastic “before and after” for Adam and Eve to cope with.  The psychological and spiritual trauma involved in their ejection from the garden is almost inconceivable.

How the mighty are fallen!

That was a phrase coined when Israel’s first king died in battle: “How are the mighty fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19).  Saul was the LORD’s king – he was meant to be foretaste of the true King, Christ.  He was meant to be a righteous ruler who brought peace.  He proved to be an unrighteous ruler who died in war.  How the mighty are fallen.

The phrase applies so well to Adam.  Again, Adam was meant to be a foretaste of his LORD – the One who would take flesh in the fullness of time.  He was meant to be a king ruling under God in righteousness.  But pride came before his fall and the chaos and darkness we see around has been the result.  How the mighty are fallen.

But I wonder if we truly appreciate the heights from which we’ve fallen or the depths in which we find ourselves.  Even the term “fall” could sound a bit trifling.  As though we’re roughly on a plane with the life of paradise but have taken a small detour.  Actually the Bible doesn’t really use the language of “fall”.  Far more it uses the language of “death.”  Fellowship with the LORD in the garden was “life”.  What we’ve now inherited from Adam is “death.”  There could not be a greater contrast.

Our world is not a little bit off kilter.  It’s not heading towards calamity.  Calamity has struck.  Only a Saviour from beyond could possibly remedy the situation.  Only a new Adam, a new King ruling in righteousness could restore the cosmos.

And that’s our one hope.  Not cosmetic improvements.  Not a smoother running world-system.  We are much too far gone for that.

Instead our hope is wholesale and cosmic renewal.  Jesus, the Divine Son of man, called it “the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory.”  (Matthew 19:28)  Only He can raise us from this pit.  But rest assured – He most certainly will!

Cherubim

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Genesis 3:22-24

When the person we love is dying of cancer we pray for healing.  We pray fervently.  But even if God grants a miraculous healing, what then?  Do we dare to ask for ten more years of health?  Twenty?  What about a hundred?

How long do we want this kind of life prolonged?  For how long do we want God shuffling around these cursed conditions?  Is it just a case of ‘holding back the tide’ of death and decay for a little while longer?  Or does the LORD have something better for us?

The good news is that God is not reduced to “postponing the inevitable.” He’s into resurrection.  He’s not much into death deferral.  He’s into death-destroyed.

So because of this He needs to close off our attempts at “making the best of a bad situation.”  Once humanity opens the door to death and chaos, He bars the door to eternal life.  Because this kind of life must come to an end.

And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever.” So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.  After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.  (Genesis 3:22-24)

Our future will not be a perpetual life-in-defiance-of-God.  God saves us from that by barring fallen humanity from the tree of life.  He draws a line under this kind of human life.  It will end in death.   And He makes sure of that by guarding Eden with creatures far stronger than us – cherubim.

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What do you picture when you think of cherubim?  What is it to be cherubic?  Or angel-faced?

Art rarely captures what the Bible describes.  When the Bible reports of angelic visitations they usually have to reassure the cowering humans with words like “Don’t be terrified.”  Angels are fearful and awesome creatures.  And their first mention in the Bible here does not describe them as heavenly eye-candy, but as deadly security-guards.

These armed bouncers will ensure that fallen life will not be eternal life.  Adamic life will end.  Anyone seeking to regain paradise will have to pass through the cherubim and their fiery sword.  Only through death can life be opened up.

The resurrection life for which we hope is not this kind of life prolonged.  Instead the LORD Jesus joins us East of Eden and then marches back up the hill to win us immortality.  The cross was Jesus passing through the fiery, death-dealing guard and taking the sword into Himself.   In this way the old Adam-life is killed.

But Christ, and only Christ, has the strength to pass on through to the other side – to immortal life.  And this is the life He offers us.  Not an extension of Adam-life with all its disease, decay and despair.

Our hope is not for life-this-side-of-death.  We hope for life-the-far-side-of-death – the life that only Jesus can offer.