The Symbol of Leaven

Within the world of the bible, the symbol of leaven is used for a variety of purposes. It’s sometimes significant by its presence, and other times significant by its absence. It’s prohibited from use during the Passover festival, but permitted in offerings for thanksgiving. It’s used by both Jesus and Paul in the new testament as a symbol of growth and continuity.

Leaven and Passover

When God instituted the Passover festival in Exodus, the use of leaven was prohibited (Exodus 12:14-15). What exactly was leaven, and why was it prohibited? In ancient times, when bread was being made, they didn’t have the powdery yeast that we use today. Instead, a small piece of dough would be set aside and used as a starter for the next batch of bread to be baked. This small piece of dough was known as ‘leaven’. Sometimes, however, you could bake bread without the leaven and this was known as ‘unleavened bread’.

Why was leaven prohibited during the celebration of the Passover festival? It’s commonly suggested that perhaps leaven represents evil or corruption and for this reason should not be used during a holy festival. The problem with this line of argument is that leavened bread was permitted for use in thanksgiving offerings (Leviticus 7:13), especially during the festival of Firstfruits (Leviticus 23:17). If leaven symbolised evil, then leavened bread wouldn’t be permitted for use in any sacrificial offerings at all.

A better approach is to look at the context of the Passover regulations. God is intending to call his people out of Egypt in a sudden, dramatic way (Exodus 12:11).[1] A piece of leaven takes time to work its way through the dough, and the Israelites need to be ready to leave at any moment. Leaven is associated with gradual growth and continuity with the past; each piece of leaven connecting each batch of bread with the one which came before. The exodus event represents a radical break with the past and so the Israelites are instructed to empty their houses of leaven to symbolise this urgency (Exodus 12:15, 19).[2]

Growth and Continuity

There are other places in the Bible in which leaven is used to represent growth and continuity. One detail which needs accounting for is why leavened bread was permitted for thanksgiving offerings (Leviticus 2:11) but prohibited for grain offerings (Leviticus 7:13). The answer has to do with the place where the offering is made. Grain offerings were presented upon the altar and so were considered holy to God in a unique way, whereas thanksgiving offerings were simply ‘waved’ before the Lord. Even though God had given the land and its produce to the people of Israel as a good blessing, God and his altar still remained holy and set apart from everything that went on in the land.

In the gospels, Jesus uses the symbol of leaven in several passages. In the parable of the leaven, Jesus uses the symbol of leaven spreading through dough to talk about the kingdom of God spreading and filling the earth (Matthew 13:33). However, elsewhere he warns about “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6), in reference to the way that their false teachings grow and spread like leaven through dough. The key idea is about leaven as something which grows and spreads – this can have either positive or negative connotations depending upon the context.

In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul uses the symbol of leaven to talk about habitual sins from the past which believers need to shed in order to embrace a new way of living in Christ (1 Corinthians 5:6-8). Within this passage, Paul brings together two symbolic aspects of leaven; the idea of growth and also the idea of continuity. Leaven is something which grows and spreads, hence why he warns them that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (v6). However, leaven is also something which establishes continuity with the past, which is why Paul calls the believers to “cleanse out the old leaven” and become “a new lump” (v7).

At the centre of Paul’s teaching is an analogy he draws between Christ and the Passover lamb. Since Christ has been sacrificed for us as our Passover lamb, just as the Israelites removed leaven from their houses, we should remove everything from our lives which dishonours God. This doesn’t mean that leaven in the original Passover narrative straightforwardly represented evil; it’s simply an analogy.[3] But it nonetheless serves as a powerful reminder of what Christ has done and what that means for our lives today.

“For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Corinthians 5:7b-8)


[1] Within this verse, God instructs the Israelites to eat the Passover “with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover.” The people need to be ready to leave at any moment.

[2] At this moment in time, God also creates a new calendar for the people of Israel, establishing the Passover festival during the first month of their new year (Exodus 12:2-3). This break from the past will even involve a re-setting of the clocks!

[3] Of course, Israel cutting herself off from the past meant cutting herself off from Egypt and by implication the sins of Egypt. This remains a significant theme in the book of Exodus and could suggest an indirect association between leaven and corruption/evil in the Passover festival. But it’s not a straightforward connection.

How should we Worship Together?

In a previous article, I considered the question of why we gather together to worship as a church and concluded that worship is a form of covenant renewal. In this article, I’ll be building on this theme and considering the related question of how gathered worship should work, given this foundation. How should we worship together?

Drawing Analogies

If gathered worship is about covenant renewal, then we need to go back to the old testament if we are to understand what worship should look like. The reason for this is simple – most of the key biblical examples of covenant renewal are found there, and not in the new testament. Of course, many things have changed since the coming of Christ. We no longer have a special priesthood. We no longer make animal sacrifices. We no longer have a physical temple. However, we can still draw analogies between our situation and that under the old covenant.

In the book “From Silence to Song”, Peter Leithart demonstrates the use of analogy using the example of musical instruments. Some have argued that since musical instruments are not mentioned alongside singing in the new testament, they should not be used in gathered worship. However, Leithart argues in the opposite direction: since sung worship was usually accompanied by musical instruments in the old testament, references to sung worship in the new testament can also be assumed to include musical instruments. In this way, old testament passages about worship can inform new covenant practice.

Covenant Sequences

Let’s consider several important passages in the old testament and see what they might have to teach us in terms of the order and structure of covenant worship. The first passage we will consider is Exodus 19-24. In this passage, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai and God makes his covenant with them. Here’s how the passage is ordered:

  1. The people draw near (Exodus 19:1-9)
  2. The people consecrate themselves (Exodus 19:10-25)
  3. The people ‘ascend’ to hear God’s word spoken to them[1] (Exodus 20:1 – 23:33)
  4. The people present gifts and offerings to God (Exodus 24:1-8)
  5. The people celebrate a meal with God[2] (Exodus 24:9-18)

We see then that there is a kind of sequence, a progression of sorts in terms of how the people approach and make covenant with God. Now let’s consider another example, namely the different kinds of sacrifices in the book of Leviticus. Not all of the different types were always performed each time, but in key covenant-making ceremonies, a consistent order was always followed. We can see an example of this in the rite of ordination for the priests (Leviticus 8-9). Here’s the sequence:

  1. Purification offering
  2. Ascension offering
  3. Tribute (gift) offering
  4. Communion offering

The naming conventions for the different offerings above are taken from Jeff Meyers’ excellent work, “The Lord’s Service”.[3] Note how the sequence of offerings matches up very closely with the order of events in the previous passage we considered. The only exception is the lack of a ‘drawing near’ at the beginning, but of course in order to make sacrifices, the people had to draw near to the sanctuary. Interestingly, each individual animal sacrifice followed a similar pattern:

  1. The animal is brought near to the altar
  2. The animal is killed, its blood applied to the altar for purification
  3. The animal’s head and fat are placed upon the altar and ‘ascend’ to God as smoke
  4. The animal’s legs and entrails are washed and presented as a ‘gift’ of sorts[4]
  5. Portions of the meat are eaten in the presence of the altar[5]

Finally, let’s consider an example from the new testament. In Matthew’s gospel, during the final week of Jesus’ life, he draws near to Jerusalem to establish a new covenant in his death (Matthew 21-26). Here’s how those events play out:

  1. Jesus comes into the city on a donkey (Matthew 21:1-11)
  2. Jesus clears out the temple and heals many (Matthew 21:12-17)
  3. Jesus teaches people the will of God (Matthew 21:18 – 25:46)
  4. Jesus is anointed with a gift of perfume (Matthew 26:6-13)
  5. Jesus celebrates the last supper with his disciples (Matthew 26:17-22)

New Covenant Application

Given all of this, what might covenant renewal worship look like in a new covenant context? I would suggest something like the following:

  1. Call to worship (people draw near to God)
  2. Confession of sin (people purify themselves)
  3. Preaching of the word (people ascend to hear God’s word)
  4. Tithes and offerings (people present gifts to God)
  5. Holy communion (people celebrate a meal with God)

There’s much more that could be said about this topic, particularly around topics such as creedal statements, corporate prayers and the public reading of scripture. For further reading, I recommend both of the books mentioned in this article:

“The Lord’s Service”, Jeffery J Meyers

“From Silence to Song”, Peter Leithart

Also, see “What is ‘Biblical’ worship?”, a journal article by Michael Farley which references both of the above works (link: https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/51/51-3/JETS%2051-3%20591-613%20Farley.pdf)


[1]In this instance, the people are afraid and Moses alone draws near on their behalf.

[2]Only Moses, the priests and the elders were actually permitted to celebrate the feast. This kind of division is a standard feature of the old covenant, part of the ‘dividing wall’ which Christ abolished in his death.

[3]The names are translations of the Hebrew terms for the sacrifices, instead of the conventional names found in most English bible translations.

[4]This ‘gift’ portion worked differently for each offering. For ascension offerings it was placed upon the altar. For purification offerings it was burnt outside the camp to represent the worshipper’s separation from God. For communion offerings, the gift portion was eaten by the worshipper.

[5]Ascension offerings were an exception to this, since the entire animal had to ascend to God as smoke.

Why do we Worship Together?

In a time of global pandemic, it might seem strange to be thinking about why we worship together as Christians. Yet throughout history, despite times of war, pandemic and natural disaster, gathered in-person worship has continued to be the norm. Why is this the case, and what is the meaning of gathered worship for Christians?

Popular Reasons

Why do Christians come together to worship God? Ask ten different Christians and you might hear ten different answers. In a book called “The Lord’s Service” by Jeff Meyers, he considers four common reasons which Christians might give for meeting together.

The first reason which he considers is church as evangelism. The emphasis here is on church as a place where we can invite those who aren’t believers, with the hope that they might become Christians. Churches which emphasise this reason tend to want to make services as comfortable and accessible as possible, to ensure that people feel welcome.

The second reason which he considers is church as education. The emphasis here is on church as a place where we can learn from the bible more about the things of God. Churches which emphasise this reason tend to have longer, more detailed sermons and to orient the rest of the service around them.

The third reason which he considers is church as experience. The emphasis here is on church as a place where we come to have a deep encounter with God. Churches which emphasise this reason tend to have lots of emotional music and to avoid more complex themes in their services.

The fourth reason which he considers is church as exaltation (or praise). The emphasis here is on church as a place where we focus on what glorifies God and not what pleases us. Churches which emphasise this reason tend to be very strict about how worship should be done and are often very resistant to adapting worship to prevailing cultural trends.

Evaluation

All of these reasons represent good and important things in the life of the church. Yet none of them quite hit the mark, since all of them are things that you could do without actually meeting together in person. People can evangelise their friends, colleagues and family members in a number of contexts. They can read and study the Bible in a variety of ways through books, articles and online sermons. They can have profound experiences of God out on walks, in nature. They can praise God in a variety of ways in their private lives.

So none of the reasons given so far can really explain why it is that we come together to worship. Of course, we know it’s something that we should do. After all, we’re commanded to do it (Hebrews 10:24-25). But that doesn’t tell us why we do it.

To understand the answer to this question, we need to think a bit harder about what worship is and where it came from. If we go back to the old testament, we’ll see that time and again, God comes to relate to human beings by means of various covenants, or agreements between God and human beings. These covenants are the means by which God comes to draw near to human beings, to restore fellowship, to renew his presence among them and to form them together as his people. In short, the purpose of gathered worship is covenant renewal.

Covenant People

A lot of this was obvious to Christians in earlier ages. But today we are not used to thinking in terms of covenants. We tend to think of human beings as individuals accountable only to themselves. The concept of a covenant people, of a people whose divinely given identity is more important than their individual, self-chosen identities is not easy for us to comprehend.

Yet in the bible, the people of God are always defined by covenant. God calls Abraham out of Ur and establishes his covenant with him (Genesis 12, 15, 17). He calls Israel out of Egypt and establishes his covenant with them (Exodus 12, 19-24). He calls David from his father’s house and establishes his covenant with him (1 Samuel 16, 2 Samuel 7). Finally, he calls all nations, through Christ, to become members of a new and greater covenant established by his sacrificial death (Hebrews 8, 10).

What this means for us as Christians is that whenever we gather together as the church, we do so in order to renew covenant with God. And this requires us to actually be present with each other, as we call out to God, hear from his word, sing his praises and break bread together. In all of these acts, we are renewing our covenant identity as his people.

In a follow-up to this article, I’ll build on this by considering the implications for how we should worship together as a church.

For the Sins of the World

Within the new testament, Jesus is said to take away the sins of the entire world. What does this mean, and how should it influence our thinking about the mission of the church in history? In this article, I’ll be interacting with the most common understanding of such language and proposing an alternative reading, one which is more salvation-historical in scope.

Individual or Corporate?

There are a number of passages in the new testament which teach that Jesus came to save the whole world. Jesus is said, many times, to be the one who takes away the sins of the “world” (John 1:29, 2 Corinthians 5:19, 1 John 2:2, 4:14). He is said to make atonement for the sins of “all” mankind (Titus 2:11, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4-6, 4:10, Romans 5:18). What does this language mean in its context?

The most common interpretation of such language is to understand it in an individual and subjective sense. In other words, each individual person in the world is offered salvation through the death of Christ, but they can only receive the benefits of his death by personally responding in faith and repentance to the message of the gospel. This is how many commentators have typically understood such language.

A better reading though, which is more consistent with the flow of the relevant passages, is to take such language in a corporate and objective sense. In other words, the whole world (as a corporate entity) will actually be saved through the gospel. This doesn’t mean the salvation of each individual person, but it does mean the salvation of the vast majority of people at some future point in history. This happens in a gradual sense, as the gospel fills the world like a mustard seed growing into a full tree or like yeast spreading through dough (Matthew 13:31-33).

Saviour of the World

Let’s take, for instance, one of the most well-known verses in the Bible. In John 3:16, we are told that God “loved the world” and sent Jesus so that those who believe in him may have eternal life. The reference to “whoever believes in him” is often taken to qualify the first half of the verse, so that God’s love for the world is taken as indicating a mere wishful intent to save all mankind, an intent which is only realized for the small group of individuals who actually believe. However, this reading doesn’t fit with the following verse, which reads “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The idea conveyed here is not merely of individuals from the world being saved, but of the world itself being saved.

We see a similar pattern elsewhere. In Romans 5:12-21, Paul builds up a careful argument that since the time of Adam, death has reigned over the human race, but that now through Jesus Christ, there is “justification and life for all men” (v18). Elsewhere in the passage, Paul uses the term “many” in reference to those saved through the gospel, but this shouldn’t be taken as implying a small remnant of humanity. Earlier in the passage, Paul draws a contrast between the “many” who died since the fall of Adam with the “many” who are transformed by the coming of Christ (v15), implying that the second group are greater than the first.

In fact, several of these ‘cosmic salvation’ passages in the new testament clearly teach not simply that Jesus died for the world but that he actually saved (or rather, will save) the world. 1 Timothy 4:11 teaches that God “is the saviour of all people, especially of those who believe”. This implies that God doesn’t merely save the small community who believe in the present time, but will save the whole world in the long run. Other passages which teach similarly would include Colossians 1:20, which indicates God’s intent to “reconcile to himself all things” through Christ and Ephesians 1:10, which teaches that God intends to “unite all things” in Christ.

All of this finds its origin in the promise to Abraham. God had promised to him that “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). God confirms this promise later on in Genesis when he assures Abraham that “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (22:18). This promise, that the tribes and nations of the earth will be blessed through Abraham, is fulfilled through the death and resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of his Spirit in history (Galatians 3:8, 14).

Glory filling the Earth

In conclusion, the new testament teaches not only that God offers salvation to the world, but that God will actually save the world. This doesn’t mean that every person who ever lived will be saved, but it does mean that the world, the nations of the earth, will come to acknowledge Christ as Lord over all. This will happen through the preaching of the gospel in every nation, until the kings of the earth bow the knee to Christ and the glory of the Lord fills the whole world.

“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14)

Which Gospel are you? [personality quiz]

For each of the five questions, choose the answer that fits best. 

I. If your life was a story, what kind of story would it be?

  1. An action/adventure story in which the hero defeats the bad guy 
  1. A detective drama in which an investigator uncovers a mystery 
  1. A romantic story involving conflict and eventual reconciliation 
  1. A deep psychological story which is open to interpretation 

II. If a conflict arose within your friendship group, how would you respond? 

  1. Try to ascertain who was in the wrong and ensure that they make amends 
  1. Quiz everyone for details so you can try to piece together exactly what happened 
  1. Try to make sure no-one gets hurt and everyone gets along 
  1. Listen carefully to each person’s side of the story without taking sides  

III. What do you see as the main purpose of learning?  

  1. Figuring out how to repair everything wrong with the world 
  1. Gaining insight into the deeper truths about reality 
  1. Understanding other people better so as to bridge differences 
  1. Learning should be an end in itself, learning for the joy of learning 

IV. If you could ask God one question, what would it be?  

  1. How can a good God allow injustice to exist? 
  1. Why don’t you reveal yourself more clearly? 
  1. Why do some people inflict so much hurt on others? 
  1. What is the meaning of life? 

V. It’s important for children to be taught… 

  1. The difference between right and wrong 
  1. How to think for themselves and evaluate evidence 
  1. To look out for people who are different from them 
  1. To discover themselves and to live in the moment 

Scroll down for the answers… 

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If you answered: 

  • Mostly 1: Matthew
  • Mostly 2: Mark
  • Mostly 3: Luke
  • Mostly 4: John

Matthew (the lion) 

You’re someone who is passionate about justice. For you one of the biggest problems in society is the suffering and injustice all around. Perhaps you struggle with the question of how a good God could exist alongside such evil. 

Matthew’s Gospel portrays a violent and deeply unjust world. We learn of king Herod who, in his attempt to kill the young infant Jesus, slaughtered all of the infants in the town of Bethlehem. We learn of the Pharisees who plotted to murder Jesus and of the chief priests and elders who succeeded in doing so. We also wrestle with the hard message of Jesus that evil isn’t just ‘out there’ in the world, that it dwells inside each one of us. And above all, we hear the words of Jesus himself, justice personified, crying out as he felt abandoned by his closest friends and forsaken by God. 

Mark (the bull) 

You’re someone who is passionate about truth. One of your greatest concerns is understanding why things are the way they are. Most of all, you want to know the answers to the big questions – about God and the universe. Perhaps you wonder why God doesn’t reveal himself more clearly. 

From the opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel, we are immediately thrust into the story and left to work out the meaning for ourselves. The Gospel raises a number of provocative questions about the identity of Jesus. When Jesus forgives a man’s sins, people ask “Who can forgive sins except God alone?” When Jesus calms a storm, his disciples ask “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him.” And when praised for his goodness, Jesus himself responds “Why do you call me ‘good’? No-one is good except God alone.” Along with his disciples, we might be tempted to ask just “who is this man”? 

Luke (the human) 

You’re someone who is passionate about harmony. For you one of the biggest problems in society is the exclusiveness and inequality all around. Perhaps you don’t understand why some people can seem so intolerant of others who are different from them. 

Luke’s Gospel resonates with some of these concerns. At a time in history when women were often considered inferior, Luke begins by paying special attention to the songs and hopes of women such as Mary and Elizabeth. He highlights the fact that Jesus came to rescue the poor and to ransom slaves from captivity, to teach people to love their enemies, and to reach out to those considered unclean. Luke shows us a Jesus who modelled the full depth of God’s grace in reaching out to the most unworthy and wicked people, forgiving a murderer even in his greatest moment of suffering and betrayal. Near the end of the Gospel we hear of two men who had lost all hope, whose hearts were warmed once again by the presence of Jesus among them. 

John (the eagle) 

You’re someone who is passionate about experience. For you one of the biggest problems today is the constant distraction which prevents people from experiencing the fullness of what life is about. Perhaps you spend a lot of time considering the question of how to fully experience the divine. 

John’s Gospel addresses these sorts of questions. It’s full of rich and contrasting imagery, including themes such as darkness and light, water and wine, flesh and spirit. As we move through the Gospel, we begin to discover that these themes are ultimately centred around Jesus. He is the light that shines in the darkness, the true vine which bears fruit, the one who gives the divine Spirit and overcomes the flesh. Above all, we encounter his glory, the glory which he had with his Father before the world began, which he shares with those who become his disciples. 

Election in Romans 9

What is the meaning of Romans 9 in the context of the letter as a whole? Within this article, I will be walking through the passage, highlighting the major arguments which Paul is making and building up a portrait of how Paul’s doctrine of election works. In summary terms, I believe the central point of contention in Romans 9 is not so much about the salvation of individual Israelites as it is about the vocation of Israel as a mediator of God’s blessing to the nations.

Israel as Mediator

Paul’s initial statement of “sorrow and unceasing anguish” in Romans 9:2 is quite a surprising introduction to this section of his letter. Immediately before this point, Paul has been rejoicing that nothing is able to separate him (or other believers) from the love of Christ and the assurance that those in Christ are “more than conquerors” through the Gospel (Romans 8:31-39). The transition from this confident statement to one of pain and sorrow is quite jarring, and probably intentionally so.

Paul is quite clearly concerned with the salvation of his fellow Israelites. He wishes that he could be “accursed” and “cut off from Christ” (Romans 9:3) for the sake of unbelieving Jews, since most of Israel had not embraced the hope held out in the Gospel in his day. This lament, however, is not on the basis of mere racial identity between Paul and his fellow Israelites. On the contrary, Paul’s lament is grounded in the fact that Israel is the recipient of divine promise, a chosen people intended to be the means by which the nations are blessed (v4-5).

Earlier in the letter, Paul had spoken of Israel as being “entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1-2). The language of God’s word being “entrusted” suggests that it is given to them for the sake of blessing others. The language used in Romans 9:4-5 has similar resonances, with Israel being heirs of the promise not for their own sake but for the blessing of the nations. This is a significant theme in old testament prophecy, in which Israel is depicted as a holy mountain to which the nations stream for blessing (Isaiah 2:1-5, Micah 4:1-5). Paul is lamenting that the very people chosen to bless the nations have not embraced the blessing themselves.

Children of Promise

Paul’s argument continues with this wider theme of blessing in mind. When Paul says, for instance, that “not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring”, he has in mind not merely salvation, but the mediation of blessing to the nations. When Paul, quoting Genesis, says “through Isaac shall your offspring be named”, this doesn’t mean that Ishmael doesn’t receive any promises. God did make a covenant with Ishmael and promised to multiply his offspring (Genesis 16:10, 21:18). The important distinction rather is that Isaac is the son who carries the specific promise to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Isaac is the mediator of blessing to the nations, not Ishmael.

The same is true in the case of Jacob and Esau. “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13) does not mean that God literally hated Esau. Genesis itself speaks of Leah being “hated” by Jacob (Genesis 29:31), but this simply means that Jacob loved Rachel more than her. The same is true here. In fact, in the story of Jacob and Esau, they end up reconciling (Genesis 33), which suggests that Esau repented of his violent plots against his brother; it may even be an indication of Esau’s salvation. The issue then is not so much about who gets saved, but about who gets to be the heir of the promise, the mediator of blessing to the nations.[1]

Divine Purpose

Following on from this, Paul moves forward in history to the time of the Exodus. Paul’s opening question about God’s justice is concerned with this notion of the agent of blessing. Is God just in only granting this status to a small remnant of Israel? He quotes a passage in which God says to Moses “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). The language of “mercy” and “compassion” could easily be taken to suggest that the focus is on salvation as opposed to divine blessing.

However, the context in Exodus suggests otherwise. The passage Paul is quoting is in Exodus 33, immediately after the golden calf incident. This is not insignificant. Israel has just committed a serious act of idolatry, which resulted in the covenant being broken (Exodus 32:19). God had even suggested that the people should simply be destroyed and the nation rebuilt from Moses alone (Exodus 32:10). All of this is in the background when God tells Moses that “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exodus 33:19). By his mercy and compassion, God had made Israel into a great nation and rescued them out of Egypt by his mighty power, yet God could just as easily have destroyed them and started again with Moses if he wished. God is free in choosing whom he pleases as his covenant people, his agent of blessing to the nations.

The counterexample of Pharaoh is instructive on this point (Romans 9:17). God had “raised up” Pharaoh in order to destroy him, thereby demonstrating his power and inspiring worship among the nations. God could easily have done the same with Israel, destroying them in order to display the greatness of his justice to a watching world. If Israel is not faithful, God is free to use them as an example of divine cursing, just as he did with Egypt.

Vessels of Wrath

The argument continues to intensify as Paul turns to another analogy – that of the potter and clay in verses 19-24. This analogy is taken from Jeremiah 18, in which the prophet is warning Israel that if they refuse to repent of their idolatry they will be broken like a potter’s vessel (Jeremiah 18:6). The question that Paul raises in verse 19 is not merely about individual destiny, but about the destiny of a nation, a people under God’s hand. The objection is essentially that since God himself was the one who formed the nation of Israel, it is unjust for God to find fault with his own heritage. However, Paul asserts to the contrary, that God is free to do as he pleases with his own people.

In verse 22, Paul warns of an impending judgement against unbelieving Israel. He speaks of unbelieving Israelites as “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”. Paul is not thinking here of the final judgement but of a local judgement against Israel, one fulfilled in 70 AD when the city of Jerusalem was stormed by the armies of Titus Vespasian and violence spilled out across the land. The allusion to Jeremiah is strongly suggestive of this, since Jeremiah was warning of a similar destruction and exile under Nebuchadnezzar. This is also confirmed in the two quotations from the book of Isaiah which follow in verses 27-29, both of which also concern the old testament exile (Isaiah 10:22-23, 1:9).

Israel in History

In summary, we see that in Romans 9, Paul’s doctrine of election is not first and foremost concerned with individual salvation, but rather with who functions as the covenant people, the agent of blessing to the nations. The entire story of the old testament had indicated that Israel was the people of Abraham, the means by which the blessing would be mediated. This seemed in conflict with what had actually happened, since only a small number of Jews had embraced the Gospel. However, as Paul demonstrates through examples in old testament history, God is free to reshape his people as he pleases. And God has chosen, in Christ, to begin with a faithful remnant of Jews and then to call faithful Gentiles as well, forming the Church as a new people, “even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles” (Romans 9:24).

Of course, this isn’t all that Paul has to say concerning the fate of Israel, and in the following two chapters Paul lays out the bigger picture. In the first century, God was free to use a believing remnant of Jews to renew his covenant (Romans 11:5). But in the grand scheme of history, God’s “hardening” of Israel is only temporary (Romans 11:25). One day, when the fullness of the nations has entered into the covenant blessing, Israel too will enter in (“all Israel will be saved” – 11:26). Although the majority of Israelites in Paul’s day were “enemies of God”, according to God’s purpose in election, the people as a whole are “beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (11:28). God is not yet finished with Israel.

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob;
and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”

(Romans 11:26b-27)


[1] This theme of blessing is highlighted in the nations which would descend from these key figures in salvation history. The “Jacob I loved” quotation is taken from Malachi 1, which is speaking of the nation of Edom which descended from Esau. This confirms that Paul’s focus is not on individual salvation, but on individuals as a means of blessing to the nations, often through their offspring. The fate of the nation of Edom proves that they are not the heirs of the promise in the way that Israel was (Malachi 1:2-5).

Was John the Baptist Born Again?

Within this article I will be exploring the theme of the new birth and its relationship to the old covenant. My position is that old covenant believers, including John the Baptist, did not experience the new birth during their lives, but came to share in the same inheritance as new covenant believers after the death and resurrection of Christ.

The New Birth and the Kingdom

Within evangelical thinking, the new birth is typically understood as synonymous with conversion, with attaining a true knowledge of God. It’s an experience which is said to be common to all believers throughout history, old or new covenant. However, the biblical depiction of the new birth is quite different from this. As Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew:

“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11)

This is a remarkable statement, since it seems to suggest that John the Baptist was not a member of “the kingdom of heaven”. What’s more, it contrasts being a member of the kingdom with being “born of women”. This suggests that to enter the kingdom of God means to be born in a new way, to enter into a new kind of identity. The connection between the kingdom of God and this ‘new birth’ is made clearer in John’s gospel, which directly associates being born again with entering into the kingdom (John 3:3, 5).

This “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” was undoubtedly a new reality, since John the Baptist could not be a member of it. Now, there is no question that the Gospels regard John as a righteous man who knew God. He was, after all, a faithful prophet sent by God (Matthew 3:7-10). But he was not, according to Jesus, born again as a member of the kingdom of God.

The New Birth in History

The other references to the new birth in the new testament bear this out. John 1:9-13 speaks of those who received Jesus when he came into the world being given the power of the new birth. This suggests that the new birth comes into history after the coming of Christ into the world. Later on, Jesus speaks of those who are “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), an expression which hearkens back to Jesus’s watery baptism, in which the Spirit came upon him (Matthew 3:16-17). This places the new birth after the baptism and ministry of Jesus.

We see a similar pattern in the new testament letters. 1 Peter speaks of being born again “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” and “through the living and abiding word” of the gospel of the risen Christ (1 Peter 1:3, 23-25). 1 John ties the reality of the new birth to the appearance of Christ in the flesh and to faith in the name of Jesus (1 John 3:8-9, 5:1). These are all new covenant realities, unavailable to old covenant believers.

Does this mean that faithful believers up to the time of John could never enter into the kingdom or experience its blessings? Not at all. Hebrews 11 lists many faithful old testament believers who trusted in the future promise of God’s kingdom; believers such as Abel, Abraham and Moses (Hebrews 11:4, 8, 23). These faithful believers “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).

Yet, in the very next chapter we are told that in the kingdom of God, we encounter “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). So even though they were never able to enter into the kingdom during their lives, they have now entered into those blessings through the coming of Jesus, and the “better covenant” that he brings (Hebrews 12:24).

Sons of God

In conclusion, none of the old covenant believers up to the time of John the Baptist were “born again”. It’s not that they didn’t know God, it’s that the new birth didn’t exist at that point in history. The new birth began with Jesus. In his resurrection from the dead, God pronounced him as his only begotten son (Psalm 2:7). And since we are united by faith with the risen Lord Jesus, we too have been born anew as sons and daughters of the living God.

“for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” (Galatians 3:26)

The Origin of Liberal Values

Within western society, popular morality has converged increasingly upon a kind of cultural liberalism. Within this article, I will be considering the nature and origin of liberal values. I will begin by demonstrating that liberal values are unusual, that they stand out as an anomaly when compared with other moral systems. I will then try to account for their recent popularity within western culture and make some tentative suggestions about what the future might hold.

Inner Workings

What exactly is distinctive about liberal values which set them apart as a value system? The first aspect worth considering is individualism. Namely, liberal values tend to prioritise the individual over the group. Take for instance the issue of divorce. Many moral systems will seek to place restrictions on divorce, in order to uphold social ideals about the value of marriage for society. Those advocating liberal values, by contrast, will always prefer a situation in which the individual is free to go against society if they wish, and thus will tend to favour easy divorce in most situations.

Another aspect worth considering is self-expressivism. What I mean by this is the notion that a person should be free to express themselves however they please and that others should respect this self-expression. An obvious contemporary example of this is the casual attitude towards swearing and profanity in modern society. More traditional moral systems tend to discourage such expressions, outside of certain exceptional arenas (such as comedy).

Together, these two aspects represent what we have in mind when we speak about liberal values. And for better or worse, western society has increasingly embraced such values, at the expense of more traditional cross-cultural values such as loyalty or respect for authority.

Moral Foundations

Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has identified five moral foundations which together form the pillars of most traditional moral systems.[1] These are:

  • Care
  • Fairness
  • Loyalty
  • Authority
  • Sanctity

One of Haidt’s most insightful observations is that unlike more traditional moral frameworks which tend to reason in terms of all five pillars, social liberals tend to only use the first two in their moral reasoning. Haidt found through extensive interviews that social liberals were often unable to understand conservative arguments, whereas social conservatives were able to understand liberal arguments. This is explained by appeal to the five pillars above. If social liberals are only using two of the above pillars in their moral reasoning, it makes sense that they wouldn’t be able to construct an argument which uses all five.

What’s notable about the first two values (Care, Fairness) is that they tend to be oriented around the individual, whereas the last three values (Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity) tend to be oriented around the group. This fits with our earlier observation about liberal values being more individualistic in character.

Technology and Society

So we’ve noted that liberal values are unusual when compared with most other moral frameworks. But none of this explains how it is that western society has increasingly drifted in a liberal direction. Some have suggested ideological influences as the reason for the shift, with appeals to neo-Marxism or Postmodernism being prominent. The problem with such an approach is that it’s based on a view of history which prioritises ideas over environmental influences.

A far better approach would be to consider the ways in which modern technology has shaped society. Two main technologies which have undeniably been a factor in driving society in a more individualistic direction are modern transport (especially the car) and screens (especially the television and the personal computer).[2]

The reason why modern transport had such a significant influence on our culture is the fact that it caused sprawl. In the past when it was hard to get to different places, people needed to have everything around them. So you had houses, shops, workplaces and so on all grouped together into small towns or villages. In the new world created by cars and buses, people could now travel much further for work, shopping or leisure and so large complexes were created in different locations, such as residential complexes, shopping malls or industrial units. This is sprawl – the re-organisation of space into differentiated units.

There were several effects caused by this fragmentation of place. The first was the lack of a sense of belonging. Once these various spheres of life are separated out, people have less of a sense of identity in a particular place and less of a personal investment in it. The second is the increased time spent commuting to work, to college and so on. This saps away time from people’s lives which they might have previously spent invested in their local communities.

The second key technology which I have alluded to is screens. With the introduction of televisions into most people’s homes, people have spent less and less time involved in their local communities. With the advent of video games and personal computers, these trends have continued to develop. And with the growth of the internet and social media enabled by tablets and smartphones, people have become even more disconnected from their communities than ever before.

This also plays into the second aspect of liberal culture mentioned at the start, namely self-expressivism. Without the sense of a place or a community to which a person belongs, they need some other form of identity which can transcend their various social contexts. Instead of being able to rely upon an identity which is given from outside, identity has to become something which is constructed and expressed from within. This is particularly the case on social media, in which a person’s profile is a carefully crafted and highly customised form of identity. This is a very different understanding of personal identity than that of more traditional societies.

The Future

What implications do the current Covid-19 restrictions have for the future of cultural liberalism? Considering the first technological factor, transport, there has already been an enormous shift, and one which will have a significant impact in the years ahead. With many working from home and being more restricted in their travel, people are already experiencing freedom from the commute, with the success of a remote working culture made possible through newer technology. Given this, I expect that there will be a slight drift away from the prior fragmentation of place brought about by the creation of modern forms of transport.

However, much of the extra available time has been soaked up by other, screen-based technological innovations, such as television streaming services, video games and social media. The screen probably has more dominance in western culture today than it has ever enjoyed before. So in the short to medium term, a radical shift away from the current cultural consensus appears unlikely.

How should the church respond to all of this? One way would be to conform, to rebrand Christianity as just another kind of self-expressive identity designed to appeal to the individual consumer. Another way is to retreat, to become like the Amish in resisting all forms of modern technology and to live a separatist lifestyle. Clearly the only realistic approach is some kind of middle way, a way which embraces the benefits of modern technology, but is not unaware of the affects that it can have upon not only the wider culture but also the lives of believers.


[1] See the following TED talk by Jonathan Haidt, in which he discusses the moral foundations and their relevance for modern political discussions: https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_the_moral_roots_of_liberals_and_conservatives?language=en

[2] See this excellent four-part series, drawing on the work of political scientist Robert Putnam, which considers the various ways in which technology has transformed society, from the perspective of church decline: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2018/05/09/death-of-the-church-4-todd-dildine/

A House in the Wilderness

The book of Exodus is often a stumbling block for people trying to read through the bible for the first time. The first half of the book is a dramatic story, beginning with the raising up of Moses, continuing with the various plagues against Egypt and culminating in God’s rescue of the Israelites at the red sea and various miracles in the wilderness. The second half of the book then appears to change tack, with various case laws, laws about furniture and construction for the tabernacle, laws about priestly garments and so on. In this article, I’ll be making the case that Exodus isn’t actually changing theme and that there is a consistent thread running through the whole book. 

A New Home 

The key transition point at the centre of the book is the Israelites arriving at mount Sinai. This is where they meet with God and receive the ten commandments. At the beginning of the ten commandments we read the following statement, which summarises the first half of the book: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2) 

A key point to note here is that Egypt is depicted as a house. God has brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt and will bring them into a new land, a new home, the land of Canaan. 

But in the meantime, the people are to build a house for God in the wilderness. This is precisely what the tabernacle was, a home for God to reside in. The climax of the book has the Glory of God filling the tabernacle, God moving into his new home among the Israelites (Exodus 40:34-38). 

Community of Builders 

The theme of construction pervades the earlier part of the book. Straight from the very first chapter, the oppressive Pharaoh has the Israelites engaging in construction work, fashioning storage cities for him and working with brick and mortar (Exodus 1:11-14). When Moses first commands Pharaoh to let the Israelites go and worship God, Pharaoh punishes the people by forcing them to work harder in their construction efforts (Exodus 5:6-19). Even in their suffering, God is preparing his people to build, so that they might be ready to build a house for his name to dwell in. Ultimately, their children will have to continue these construction efforts as they establish themselves in the land of promise. 

The final curse on Egypt before the exodus event is particularly significant in regard to the house theme. Firstly, note that the curse is specifically upon the house (Exodus 12:27). The blood of a lamb, the mark of protection, was to be applied not to individual firstborn sons but to the doorposts of the Israelite houses. Also, as part of the food regulations which God established that night, the people were to ensure that their houses were free of leaven. God was protecting the Israelites from danger house by house. 

Secondly, when the people leave Egypt, God tells them to plunder silver, gold and fine clothing from the Egyptians (Exodus 12:33-36). What could be significant about these particular materials? They are precisely the kinds of materials used to build the tabernacle, the house of God. The Israelites were to plunder the house of Egypt in order to build another house for God in the wilderness. 

A House for God 

Moving into the second half of the book, the theme of the house also shows up in the various case laws in Exodus 21-23. Many of the laws in question concern disputes between different households. The very first law given concerns a servant who wishes to stay with his master after six years of service. This servant would be pierced in the ear by the doorpost of the house, a covenant-making ritual which established the servant as a permanent member of the household. This ritual is reminiscent of Passover, in which the Israelites were marked out as God’s servants by a symbol applied to the doorposts of their houses. 

Understanding the tabernacle as a house for God to dwell in clarifies the meaning of some of the more obscure symbols in the book. The lampstands were there to light the tabernacle and the incense altar was there to perfume it. The gold-plated ark of the covenant in the holiest part of the tent was the throne of God, in which his Glory dwelt between the two carved cherubim. The altar was a kind of fireplace, a hearth where the ordinary Israelite could draw near and make offerings. On the Sabbath, ordinary house fires were not allowed (Exodus 35:3), which meant that the only fire burning on that day was the fire of God’s altar, his own house fire. 

The role of the priests was significant in all of this (Exodus 28-29). They were essentially God’s palace servants, those who were allowed inside his house to guard it and to take care of it. They administered the sacrifices, maintained the lampstands and the table of showbread and burnt incense to fragrance the house. Like the tabernacle itself, they were dressed in blue fabric and decorated with precious stones (Exodus 28:6-14). They were made to resemble the house in which they served.  

A Holy People 

Unfortunately, the people of Israel were unfaithful. They rebelled against God and made sacrifices to a golden calf, breaking the covenant which God had made with them. As a consequence, they had to wander the desert for forty years, until it was time for the next generation to inherit the land. Yet throughout all of this, God was with them. He had made his home among them, and he would never leave them nor forsake them. 

The new testament says something even greater than this about the people of God in the new covenant. It says that we have now become God’s dwelling place, the means by which he is present on earth. The very same Spirit who filled the tabernacle and led the people through the wilderness now dwells inside each one of us. 

“…you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” 
(1 Peter 2:5) 

Towards a Christian Politics

What is the proper relationship between Christianity and politics? Within this piece I examine and critique two popular models for relating the bible to modern political questions. Afterwards I will propose an approach which attempts to synthesize the strengths of both.

Apolitical?

Before we begin, I need to address a popular view which I believe to be greatly mistaken, namely that the Bible isn’t interested in political questions at all and that God is only interested in the church and in the lives of Christians. Such a pietistic approach comes up against the story of the entire old testament, one in which Israel is called as a political body of people to be a priesthood to the nations (Exodus 19:5-6). One in which ultimately, the kingdom of God is said to smash to pieces the kingdoms of the nations (Daniel 2:44-45). And one in which the kings of the earth are called to submit to the Messiah who reigns at God’s right hand (Psalm 2:10-12).

So then, a Christian approach towards politics must take seriously this political thread which runs through the whole bible. It mustn’t attempt to create a holy huddle, separated entirely from the world and its political systems and structures of leadership. And with that, we shall consider two popular approaches which have been taken.

‘Values’ Approach

The first approach that we should consider is one built around the notion of “values”. Such an approach starts with the premise that what really matters is certain biblical values, such as ‘justice’ or ‘equality’. It derives these values from a number of different passages which mention such themes. Having derived these values from the scriptures, it then seeks to apply them in a political manner, usually via a pragmatic approach.

Usually proponents of this sort of approach tend towards more left-wing political beliefs. They tend to support things like the redistribution of wealth through taxation and a more equal distribution of power across the different members of society (or at least among differing groups of people). Since the values which undergird their politics are derived from various biblical passages and themes, they would argue that their political approach is derived from scripture.

‘Sphere’ Approach

Another approach, which is found more commonly in conservative circles in the United States, is built around the notion of “spheres”. It begins with the premise that God has structured society in a certain way, for his own glory. This involves the creation of different “spheres” in society, such as the state, the church and the family. Proponents of this view would argue that the bible gives different roles and responsibilities to each sphere, and that it’s wrong for one sphere to interfere with the role of another.

Proponents of this sort of view tend to have more right-wing political beliefs. They tend to support policies such as low taxation and minimal state interference in the existing power structures in society, to ensure that the state doesn’t encroach too heavily on the other spheres. They wouldn’t reject the kinds of values defended by proponents of the first view, but they would argue that such values are best realized through the structures and institutions that God has appointed for each purpose.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Clearly there are strengths to both of these views. Both of them seek to uphold important biblical principles, such as the importance of divinely ordained institutions with particular ends and purposes, or the importance of upholding biblical values such as justice and equality. However, both of them fall short insofar as they fail to pay proper attention to the context of the passages which they cite in defence of their respective positions.

A theme such as “justice”, for instance, has a very concrete connection to the covenant and to particular institutions in the old testament. Justice is not an open-ended theme which can be allowed to roam free of context in the bible. It takes on very concrete forms, such as the year of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25:8-55. This included many elements which seem quite consistent with the value of equality at first appearance, such as the freeing of slaves (v54) and the restoration of land (v28). However, on closer inspection, it becomes clear that the freeing of slaves only applied to Jewish slaves – it did not apply to foreign slaves (v39-46). Also, the restoration of land was to the twelve tribes, meaning that non-Jewish citizens of Israel could never secure a long-term investment in the land. The year of Jubilee certainly embodied a kind of justice, but it also represented a kind of feudalism, ensuring that ethnic Israelites would always dominate in the land.

Different kinds of weaknesses can be seen in the second approach. Since the birth of the industrial revolution, words like “household” and “work” have drastically changed meaning. Prior to the industrial revolution, a household was sometimes more akin to a modern business than to a nuclear family. Sometimes it could even resemble a village. The household of Abraham had over 300 men trained as soldiers ready for battle, for instance (Genesis 14:14)! Modern distinctions between “business” and “family” and “government” simply did not exist in the same way in biblical times and so trying to superimpose those structures back onto the bible in rigid ways simply won’t work. A second (but related) issue is that proponents of this approach tend to take a “minimalist” view of institutions, only permitting them to do things which the bible specifically allows. This can sometimes lead to an overly prescriptive approach which fails to reckon with political realities in a sufficiently pragmatic fashion.

A Better Approach

What, then, is a better approach? Clearly we need the strengths of both of these approaches. We need to uphold the kinds of values which the bible upholds, but we also need to see those values embodied through the kinds of close-knit institutional structures which God honours. And in doing this, we need to be wary of all of the kinds of forces, both governmental and non-governmental, which could seek to disrupt such a process.

Take for instance the issue of schools. The debate over different approaches to schooling tend to fall into two broad approaches. Those on the “values” end of the spectrum tend to favour a more centralised system, with state-run schools and a more clearly defined curriculum applicable to everyone. Those on the “spheres” end of the spectrum tend to want a setup in which diversity is encouraged and independent schools outside of the curriculum are encouraged. The problem with both of these approaches is that in both cases they detach schools from the people who are closest to them, the former subsuming them under the government and the latter subsuming them under market forces. A better approach is to view schools as subject to particular local communities. This would probably involve local government oversight and funding, but it would also enable a more diverse range of educational approaches suited to each particular community.

Whatever route one takes in solving such problems, it’s important to uphold a balance of both pragmatism and idealism; of both favouring ideals and also the kinds of institutions which give those ideals their purpose and highest expression. This requires a great deal of wisdom and compromise.