Thoughts on preaching Ruth from the Hebrew text

The book of Ruth is a perennial favourite in women’s bible studies, retreats and devotional material. Much of it unfortunately preaches a gospel of prosperity though – “go find your Boaz” and other similar summaries abound. Is Ruth really about a harvest-time romance? Or is there more going on in this ancient tale?

Our immigrant church recently had the joy of preaching through Ruth’s story over 4 weeks. What we found was a timeless immigrant story that showed God’s redeeming love through the faith of courageous individuals. Naomi follows her family to the fields of Moab but experiences tragedy and bitterness. Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law, has never been to the “Promised Land” but by faith courageously cleaves to Naomi (1:14) as they return to Bethlehem (literally “the house of bread”). Back here, Ruth chances upon the field of Boaz while gleaning for food to survive. He invites her to “stick closely” or “cleave” to his workers in the harvest field for blessing and protection (2:8, 2:21). After the harvest, Naomi actively seeks for an opportunity to provide “rest” for her daughter-in-law (3:1), Ruth daringly proposes marriage to Boaz in the night, and he swiftly becomes their willing guardian-redeemer at great cost to himself. The author concludes with the women of Bethlehem praising God for providing Naomi with a grandson and not bringing her family line to “rest” (4:14). The rest is “His story”….

While Ruth is a great book that explores themes like suffering, faithfulness, love and the immigrant experience, reading it again reminded me how God’s redemptive plan for his people ultimately comes through Christ our “guardian-redeemer” – someone willing to cling to us with loyal love through his death and resurrection for our sins.

In preparation for the series, I appreciated reading Ruth in Biblical Hebrew alongside two gifted sisters (both starting / finishing their PhDs and very sharp thinkers when it comes to the world of Old Testament and Hebrew!) On the text itself, there are lots of helpful guides out there including fellow alumnus Peter Lau’s NICOT volume on Ruth published this year. I found the most practical for preachers was Teaching Ruth and Esther: From Text to Message by Christopher Ash (from the Proclamation Trust series).

For preachers, bible study leaders and keen readers, here’s a few thoughts on preaching Ruth from the Hebrew text in no particular order:

  • Firstly, you can do it! If you’ve completed an introductory Biblical Hebrew course (e.g. Daily Dose of Hebrew’s free lessons keyed to Mark Futato’s grammar), recently or in the distant past, Ruth is a very suitable book to see first-hand the value of translating and teaching from the Hebrew text. It’s a biblical narrative with lots of first-year Hebrew vocabulary, the story gives you lots of practice with feminine parts of speech and word forms, and there are plenty of exegetical payoffs. For the less-confident and rusty (like me!), there are plenty of language-related helps out there from the likes of Aleph with Beth (free), Lingua Deo Gloria (free) and GlossaHouse (paid) to help you enjoy Ruth in the brilliant colours of Biblical Hebrew.
  • While Christians typically assume Ruth to be one of the “historical books”, this is an unfortunate result of the canonical tradition inherited from the Latin Vulgate. The earliest Hebrew manuscripts placed Ruth not between history books like Judges and 1 Samuel, but alongside Lamentations, Esther, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs (as the five Megillot or “scrolls”), and adjacent to other wisdom literature like the Psalms, Proverbs and Job. That’s good reason to preach Ruth as wisdom narrative (like Esther and Job).
  • Contrary to the stereotypical view of Ruth’s story, the only mention of “love” in the Hebrew text is in the final verses when the women praise Naomi for her daughter-in-law, “who loves you…” (4:15; the phrase “made love” in the NIV translation of 4:13 is better translated as “they came together”, e.g. NRSV). The greatest love story in the book of Ruth isn’t a romantic or sexual love between a man and a woman: it’s the loyal love between a mother and her daughter-in-law. This fact alone should reframe how we present this book to our sex and relationship-obsessed world. Ruth has much to offer to both married and unmarried, both young and old.
  • Needless to say, it’s therefore a wrong turn to present Ruth as a “how-to” on dating and romantic relationships. Despite the well-intentioned hopes of church members keen to set up “Ruths” in their church with guys like “Boaz”, unless you live in the time of the judges and live in a family clan that obligates you to ancient Near Eastern customs of levirate marriage (e.g. Genesis 38) and Israelite property redemption (e.g. Leviticus 25:25), what’s described in Ruth should not be prescribed without first considering what the text actually says. The fact is that Boaz (an older man based on how he describes everyone in his field as “young man” or “young women”) explicitly states his reason for marrying Ruth twice: “to maintain the name of the dead [Elimelek, Naomi’s former husband]… so that his name will not disappear…” (4:5, 4:10). Consider too that the climax of the story isn’t Ruth’s wedding: it’s King David’s family tree and the greater blessings that come from his royal line.
  • Rather, having spent a fair bit of time in the book of Job previously, I found it especially comforting personally and pastorally helpful to read the book as “Naomi’s story”, and to consider this book as the Bible’s feminine counterpart to the book of Job. No story of suffering is identical, yet I don’t think it’s a stretch to draw connections between Naomi and Job: both share stories of suffering and bitterness, and both end with restoration and redemption, and the main protagonist gaining a renewed vision of the LORD. The book of Ruth is far richer taught as a story of redeeming love amidst great suffering than a saccharine “boy meets girl” adventure.
  • On structuring a sermon series, the traditional chapters work well. I found it interesting how each chapter features a particular posture: there’s a lot of “walking” in chapter 1, lots of “coming” / “going” in chapter 2, lots of “lying” / “lying down” in chapter 3, and lots of “sitting” in chapter 4. The author seems to invite us to view Ruth’s story as poetry in motion, over four parts.
  • There’s a beautiful symmetry to the story that’s worth highlighting as you travel through the book. Ruth 1 and 4 bookend Naomi’s narrative arc, and emphasise her story arc from bitter and broken after a decade of loss in the “fields of Moab”, to full and satisfied after returning to the land of God’s promises. It’s also worth contrasting Ruth 2 and 3: in one chapter the scene describes immediate provision and loving-kindness out in the open field, the next scene shows the offer of permanent provision and loving-kindness in the more intimate space of the threshing floor.
  • While most of God’s activity is implicit, the author explicitly highlights the LORD’s sovereign hand twice: at the start, when He “visits his people” with food (1:6), and at the end when he brings a miraculous conception to a previously childless woman (4:13). Both are wonderful gospel themes fully expressed in the incarnation of Christ, who visits us in the flesh through a miraculous conception to the virgin Mary (Matthew 1:18-25).
  • The author repeats a number of Hebrew words that serve as key themes of this book. For example: 1) the word שׁוב (“turn”, “return”) punctuates the opening chapter 11 times as Naomi struggles with which way she and her daughters-in-law should “turn” in the opening episode; 2) the word חֵן (“favour”, “grace”) occurs 3 times and all in chapter 2 to emphasise that is exactly what Naomi and Ruth find when they return to the land of promise.
  • Other thematically significant words and ideas include דבק (“stick closely”, “cleave”; 1:14, 2:8, 2:21), חֶסֶד (“loving kindness” / “loyal love”; 2:20, 3:10), and the idea of rest (מָנ֖וֹחַ in Ruth 3:1, הִשְׁבִּ֥ית in 4:14). My favourite Hebrew language insight is that Boaz’s desire to “to raise up” descendants (לְהָקִ֥ים in Ruth 3:5 and 3:10) is the same root word Job uses to express his hope for a Redeemer who will “arise” or “stand” upon the earth (יָקֽוּם in Job 19:25). This “resurrection” hope becomes a reality when King Jesus walks the earth, goes to the cross, lies in the tomb, and finally sits at the right hand of God. The gospel, too, is poetry in motion from a Redeeming Love who was “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).
  • The variety of themes in the book of Ruth means it’s possible to preach Christ from the book of Ruth in a number of ways each time. Of course, the genealogy that closes the book can simply be extended further via Matthew 1 to show Jesus as the ultimate King that Ruth’s redemption leads to. But there is also: 1) the theme of immigrating physically (and spiritually) to God’s promised place in chapter 1, and the necessity for us to “turn” to God’s promises and cling to Him by faith; 2) the theme of finding a redeemer in God’s promised place in chapter 2, and the possibility of a greater redeemer than Boaz; 3) the intimacy of the marriage and redemptive proposal in chapter 3, and the greater union we that’s been promised to us through the new covenant that Christ proposes (and completes!) for His beloved Bride, the church (c.f. Eph. 5:31-32); 4) the costly sacrifice that Naomi and Ruth’s redemption requires (the loss of Boaz’s estate), which is a great opportunity to preach the infinitely costly sacrifice God the Son made on the cross for our sins.

Our church considered Ruth over 4 sermons. If you’re interested, you can also listen to and download them on Spotify, Apple and elsewhere.

Thoughts on preaching the book of 1 Corinthians

In some Christian circles, it’s popular to look up the advice of “experts” and “consultants” for help with church planting, worship, preaching and strategy. Yet imagine if you could overhear a conversation between a young church plant in a strategic city, and the pastor and preacher who helped found their church. How helpful would that be?

Our church had the privilege of exactly this as we recently completed a sermon series through the book of 1 Corinthians called “Christ Amid Chaos”. Over six months, we heard directly how similar the church in Corinth was to ours today: gifted, but worldly. Diverse, but divided. Yet despite their (and our!) numerous issues, Paul’s words of love and affection were so helpful in calling us to follow Jesus alone (not other preachers), and to live holy lives. After first hearing an expository sermon series from this book in 2008 as a young follower of Jesus, I found it a huge privilege 15 years on to help guide our young English-speaking congregation through the gospel-saturated wisdom from this part of God’s Word.

To prepare for this sermon series, I translated 1 Corinthians from the Greek NT text (with occasional peeks at the Chinese Union Version / 和合本 for the sake of our more Chinese brothers and sisters). On the text, among the many available commentaries on 1 Corinthians, I found Andrew Wilson’s “1 Corinthians for You” commentary the most helpful and accessible for busy pastors, with Gordon Fee’s magisterial commentary helpful on the details. Andrew Naselli’s contribution in the ESV Expository Commentary was also helpful (and supported by his diligently prepared recitation of the whole letter from memory!)

Around the area of spiritual gifts, I found Don Carson’s “Showing the Spirit” unmatched for depth and breadth on exegetical and pastoral issues (if a bit dated regarding recent trends among Pentecostal and Charismatic movements). On the perplexing and sometimes heated discussions around women in the church of Corinth, I was most grateful for the perspectives from Claire Smith (“God’s Good Design”), Kathy Keller, Michael Bird and Craig Keener (arranged here roughly along the complementarian-egalitarian spectrum). There’s definitely less scholarship out there on 1 Corinthians from non-Western perspectives, so I look forward to keep discovering and learning in future!

For preachers, bible study leaders and keen readers, here’s a few thoughts and tips in no particular order:

  • The questions in this book raise a lot of questions and difficult pastoral issues: interpersonal conflict, unrepentant sin, division, sexual immorality, singleness and marriage, eating and drinking, and worship culture. Be prepared to follow up your sermons or studies with time and willingness to chat with those who are struggling with personal or pastoral issues. The goal is not to condemn each other but to lift our collective gaze to our faithful God, who calls his holy people into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:9).
  • Paul saves his most important point to the end: it is the gospel that is of first importance (1 Cor 15:3-4), and the answer to our holiness amidst a messy church in a messy world. I made the most of this fact by preaching the gospel every time I could, and showing how the gospel is both the power and pattern for us to live as holy people in Christ. (A bonus was helping the kids in our church learn and recite this memory verse!)
  • One key insight for interpreting 1 Corinthians for me was to realise that the church in Corinth was young, cross-cultural, and multilingual — just like ours. This helped me to better connect Paul’s teachings to the actual issues and tensions faced by our immigrant church, situated in a cosmopolitan city like 1st-century Corinth.
  • 1 Corinthians is a fairly lengthy letter (after Romans, it’s the longest letter in the New Testament) – so introducing some variety into the preaching schedule and format may help your congregation make it through edified rather than exhausted. I was especially grateful that in the Lord’s providence, I could call on some fellow pastors also journeying through 1 Corinthians this year for advice on exegetical and pastoral issues, but also to guest preach some of the chapters in the series faithfully and reliably.
  • Another way to add variation to a 6-month sermon series is to employ different preaching styles and structures. As much as I treasure and prefer Jesus’s style of expositing the Scriptures (c.f. Luke 24:27) as the bread and butter of pastoral preaching, it can get wearisome without some creativity. Some ways I tried to vary my preaching style included a first-person narrative sermon (“Am I Not An Apostle?”, 1 Cor 9), a sermon structured around an extended Corinth x Barbie crossover to explain women in worship (1 Cor 14:26-40), and an 8-minute sermon preached mostly ex tempore to close off the series. Not everything worked perfectly, but perhaps that’s to help us see “foolishness” of the gospel in the world’s eyes, but the greater wisdom of Christ amidst this.
  • Concerning spiritual gifts, I found it helpful to flag to our leaders up front my own convictions on 1 Corinthians 12-14 regarding the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and why. Prior to starting a “mini-series” on these chapters (“Spectacular Church”), I prepared an internal Q&A outlining my stance on various questions, and our pastors gathered as a preaching team to discuss areas of agreement and difference (almost unheard of in a Chinese church!) Doing this helped us to preach through this very contested portion of God’s Word in a way that honoured Paul’s own approach: offering pastoral wisdom so as the church in Corinth was not uninformed (1 Cor 12:1), yet making the basis of our unity as a church the belief that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3) and in His gospel “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3-4), rather than a particular view of spiritual gifts.
  • Finally, because of the pastoral and conversational nature of this letter, we offered the church multiple opportunities to ask questions about what they were hearing, culminating in a 30-minute Q&A panel (PDF version here). In our church the questions mostly revolved around spiritual gifts, but our hope was not just that we answered people’s questions, but did so in a gracious way that edified everyone in our worship services (the heartbeat of Paul’s advice in 1 Cor 12-14).

We considered 1 Corinthians over 26 sermons (for 1 Corinthians 12-14, we looked at it over 5 sermons). If you’re interested, you can also listen to and download them on Spotify, Apple and elsewhere.

The Bible and politics for Kiwi Christian voters

This weekend, New Zealanders are going to the polls. How should Christians think about the elections?

Let me say from the outset that my aim is not to tell you who to vote for. My heart in writing this article is pastoral. I serve as one of the pastors in a church family that gathers for worship in the Pakuranga electorate of New Zealand. We are a cross-cultural whānau (family), baptised in the name of Jesus, with immigrant roots and connections to Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Germany, Canada, India, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere. Among our brothers and sisters are those who voted National, Labour and other parties. We have prayed for and served alongside local MPs from both major parties. Some members were first in line to get vaccinated against COVID-19, others were deeply scarred after being ostracised and punished for refusing the vaccine. We have rich and poor, young and old. Some have fled oppressive governments; others aspire to work for government. Some have been politically active here and overseas; others are apathetic towards politics anywhere. We are just like any other family in Christ: diverse in our unity; not perfect, but following a Perfect Saviour.

Something we’ve been trying to do intentionally at church this year is to explore the idea of cultivating a “gospel culture”. Ray Ortlund makes the case as follows: “The family of God is where people should find lots of gospel, lots of safety, and lots of time.”[1] In other words: gospel + safety + time. I pray these are reflections that help you within a context where you’ve heard “…the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), in relationships where you’re safe to speak and admit things honestly and receive sympathy and love, where we allow ourselves sufficient time to rethink deep-seated opinions and convictions that don’t quickly or easily change.

“God’s Big Picture”… politics included

The Bible contains 66 books that tell one big story. What we find in God’s Word though, is that politics runs through the whole Bible. Using Vaughan Roberts’s helpful “God’s Big Picture” paradigm to survey the Scriptures, here’s what we see.

First things first: the pattern of the kingdom. Genesis 1–2 describes creation perfectly ordered, beautifully governed, without sin, sadness – or dirty politics. The first three-party coalition did not arise from the introduction of the mixed-member proportional (MMP) form of government, but from the Triune God of Scripture: One God, three persons, relationally complete, needing nothing. God the Father, the Son (see Col. 1:16), the Spirit (Gen. 1:2), after crafting creation, speaks up: “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule…” (Gen 1:26) The first command to our first parents and God’s image-bearers was to engage in “co-governance”: stewarding the moana (sea), rangi (skies) and whenua (land) the way our Maker intended.

Sadly, then followed the perished kingdom (Genesis 3). Tempted to doubt God’s good word, sin enters the world through a slithering politician. The serpent splits the vote: the woman doubts, then disobeys the divine Cabinet and eats forbidden fruit. Man follows suit. When God confronts the power couple, it’s all blame-shifting and bluster. “The woman you put here with me – it was her fault!” “The snake You made tricked me!” The first sting of sin’s curse looks like a self-centred squabble. Whether or not there were dinosaurs in Eden, one thing’s for sure: the slogan “in it for you” was first coined after the Fall, with no hope to get the world “back on track”.

On to the promised kingdom (Gen. 12:1–3, 15:5–6). Yes, father Abraham had many sons (and daughters), despite being almost as old as Winston Peters when he was first called into action. What’s also worth remembering however is that God’s big promise to this wandering Aramean—God’s people, God’s place, under God’s rule—was enacted through god-fearing men and women who took part in politics of the Ancient Near East. Some served faithfully through severe affliction – Joseph the Egyptian Prime Minister, for example. Others were less keen – if you thought Judith Collins was a reluctant party leader, spare a thought for Moses. Or suspicious Sarah. Daring Deborah. Doubtful Gideon. Flawed people who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised…” (Heb. 11:33), believing the LORD would fulfil what He promised (Gen. 15:6). The “cloud of witnesses” cheering Christians on includes these imperfect rulers, politicians and servants.

The height of Israel’s earthly power, we see the partial kingdom (1 & 2 Samuel, 1 Kings). During this phase of history, it seems like things couldn’t be better. David the warrior King makes Israel great again. Solomon brings shalom, unprecedented peace. His wisdom, political judgement, and foreign policy wins admirers as far off as Sheba. Is this how “all peoples on earth will be blessed”? An earthly theocracy where [insert god/idol here] rules? Many churches and even political parties today would have you think so. Yet the rise and fall of biblical Israel warns us that while humans look at the outward appearance, the LORD looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Looks can deceive. Saul seemed impressive but was caught hiding behind the baggage at the wrong time. David ruled well, until he was caught abusing his power in a sex scandal (2 Samuel 11). Solomon starts well, but from the moment you realise that he’s designed his palace to be bigger than God’s temple (1 Kings 6:38–7:1), you start to realise something’s off. The result? Yet another head of state led astray by wealth, wine, and way too many women (1 Kings 11:1–6). Another political scalp. Oh, for a better King.

Despite Israel’s failure, God gives his people the hope through the prophesied kingdom. In song and story, proverb and prophecy, the authors of Scripture foretell the Messiah, God’s Chosen King, of whom Isaiah declared that “the government will be on his shoulders” (Is. 9:6), and call God’s people to repent (if you’re disappointed by a bad poll result, spare a thought for God’s verdict on Israel and Judah!). Even when God’s people are humbled, scattered and exiled, God prophesies through Daniel—a man of faith serving in secular government—of a Son of Man who will rule over all kingdoms, dominions and powers (Daniel 7:14).

Fast forward to the present kingdom (Gospels, Acts). Who would have thought that God’s Messiah would be a baby from a backwater town? But this Jesus of Nazareth is who God crowns the King of Kings. The worst of human politics and pride leads to His crucifixion and death, but he rose again to prove that He has the Maker’s mandate to rule and reign over all things. No earthly politician can “resurrect” like Jesus did!

So when we reach our phase of history, the proclaimed kingdom (Acts, Epistles), as Christians we do well to remember how it all started at Pentecost. A religious gathering, a cultural who’s who, but who’s missing? A bunch of Spirit-filled men and women who follow the Way of the Master. Unlike every other political bloc, these people called Christians have always included people from different social classes, genders and ethnicities. Jesus’s earliest followers included people of influence, involved in politics. Think of Simon the Zealot. The Ethiopian official. Lydia the purple cloth seller (a plum vocation for Europe’s first convert to Christ). Erastus the CEO of public works in Corinth (Rom. 16:23). The church at its purest should be a gospel party, that welcomes supporters of different political stripes without aligning herself to any one party, in order to proclaim God’s kingdom.

And what of the future? Will Christ return when a political party brings peace to earth? Or when our world descends into clamour and chaos again? The final visions of Scripture appear terrifying, but thankfully we know how it ends: with the perfect kingdom and the “return of the King”. When Christ returns, all politics will end. As Christians, our blessed hope is found in the Jesus Party. On that “decision night”, every political affiliation will fade into the joy of His glory as young and old, rich and poor, left-leaning and right-leaning voters feast at the table of the King of Kings. Far more important then, than which earthly party you give your two ticks to, is whether you have given the Lord Jesus two ticks. Have you accepted his death on the cross for your sins? Do you believe he was raised for your justification (Rom. 4:25)?

Voting for the King

If this is what the whole Bible says about politics, then how then shall we live? Here’s four brief suggestions from a (still!) undecided voter.

Firstly, no Christian will fit neatly into a secular political party system. Among the political parties that have a realistic chance of getting into parliament under MMP, none of them will completely reflect kingdom values. One party may deliver justice for the poor and the oppressed, yet denigrate the life of the unborn image-bearers among us. Another party might pitch traditional values that align with Christian convictions, while at the same time treat ethnic minorities with disdain. A gospel culture will mean feeling like we don’t fit in completely with one party’s values and beliefs. As Paul reminds the Philippians, our citizenship—or literally, commonwealth—is in heaven (Phil. 3:20).

Secondly, politics is often a matter of wisdom and conscience (Romans 14). As Tim Keller helpfully points out, even if Christians agree on the importance of, say, alleviating the cost of living, how to go about it may look different. Fellow believers will come to different conclusions, sometimes having to make decisions between the “lesser of two evils”. If we’re to live as people who belong to a gospel culture, when it comes to politics we should welcome one another from across the aisle. How? As Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God (Rom. 15:6).

Thirdly, when electing leaders, remember that integrity and moral character matter. Again, God looks at the heart not just the outward appearance. Granted, the New Zealand election is not an exercise in deciding on spiritual leaders. Yet Christians more than anyone else should be the first to consider a potential Prime Minister or Cabinet Member’s personal character as well as their political convictions. Are they faithful to their spouse? Do they love their children? Are they well-regarded by their neighbours? Does their speech and conduct show integrity? It concerns me when Christians turn a blind eye to serious character flaws in our public officials just to get their political agenda over the line.

Finally, regardless of who wins the election, the Scripture clearly teaches that Christians have a responsibility to pray for our rulers, particularly for the freedom to live and worship peacefully and proclaim Christ’s Kingdom to all (1 Tim. 2:1-4). So whichever “Chris” becomes Prime Minister after this Saturday’s national election, bear his name before the throne of grace. Plead to King Jesus that he would govern New Zealand with wisdom. Entrust him and every other elected representative to the Father. May He through them, as our national anthem yearns for, “make this nation good and great.”

[1] Ray Ortlund, “The Gospel” (9 Marks: Building Healthy Churches), 59.

Three wayfinders for the Christian this Matariki

It dawned on me, as the tohunga whakairo (Maori carver) led a group of excited schoolchildren and parents in a karakia (prayer), that this was not an ordinary school holiday activity. Before we got to design and make our model waka, we were asked to listen in as he gave thanks to each of the seven stars of Matariki (known as Pleiades in the West, 昴 in China, Subaru in Japan). It’s 2023, and we were witnessing state-approved worship of a different kind!

For those of us with Chinese heritage, this kind of concern isn’t new of course. After all, in many Asian families, Lunar New Year celebrations carry with it all kinds of superstitions and religious rituals. The wise Christian must strike a balance between the commands to flee from idolatry and separate from false worship, to honouring the themes and truths we share in common with our families (such as giving thanks for the past and our people, celebrating the present, expressing hope for the future), while observing how every ritual and tradition is a window into deeper desires and longings that we all share (for example, security, prosperity, and community) and using them as gospel opportunities.

In light of this, here are three resources (or “wayfinders”) I’ve found helpful this week in thinking about Matariki in a redemptive way.

1. “Matariki Resource” (Laidlaw College)

First up is this beautifully-produced video presented by Bradford Haami (Ngāti Awa, Laidlaw College). After explaining the origin and meanings of key aspects of Matariki celebrations (including the Whāngai hau ritual – essentially a food offering made to Matariki as a goddess), he gently and graciously shares a brief biblical framework for Christians to participate in this celebration in a meaningful way “without diluting our own Christianity”.

The heavenly bodies were created by God to declare his handiwork (Ps 19:1), not as deities for people to bow down before. Ultimately, we see in the New Testament how it is a star that points the wise men to the King of Kings (Matthew 2). He concludes:

“All of us can do this: we can gather together, we can share kai together, we can praise the Creator of the heavens and the stars together. Why don’t we let the stars point us to the King of Kings?”

2. “A Christian looks at Matariki” (Michael Drake)

This recently published 23-page booklet is a short, gospel-centred look at Matariki. Michael Drake (Ngai Tahu) has done a great job at explaining the history of how Matariki became our country’s newest public holiday, challenges us to think biblically and graciously about the festival and what is explicitly taught about it, and how we might use or Christian freedom to celebrate the Māori New Year in a biblical way.

Particularly helpful for me were Michael’s observations that for over 200 years, there have been Christian Māori who have acknowledged Matariki in a genuinely Christian manner, and that there is not just one Māori view on Matariki (just as there isn’t one Chinese view on Chinese New Year!). Drawing from the lessons of 1 Corinthians 8, Romans 14 and elsewhere, he summarises a balanced, biblical approach:

“…while we have freedom to celebrate any day in ways that make it truly special to the Lord, we are not free to celebrate it in any way that is not Christ honouring or faithful to the Bible.”

Michael Drake, A Christian looks at Matariki (2023), 12.

You can read an online PDF version here (, or visit Michael’s website for e-book and A5 booklet printable options. He’s generously offered his book under a Creative Commons licence. Ngā mihi Mihaere!

3. Worship songs and hymns celebrating God as Creator

Perhaps one more suggestion for celebrating Matariki this year would be to make the most of the worship songs we have that praise God as the Creator of all things, including the stars. After looking at Genesis 1-2 last year for our church’s sermon series, I gained a new appreciation for how the Bible’s creation story was originally crafted as a poetic polemic against other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts (for more on this, see Against the Gods by John Currid). For example, unlike myths that describe the creation of stars in great detail, there is intentionally very little focus on them in Genesis 1:16 besides one throwaway phrase: “and the stars”. Instead, the repetition and focus throughout Genesis 1-2:3 is on a great God who creates heaven and earth through his powerful word (and it was very good)!

We may not know the exact tunes and meters of Genesis 1-2, but there are plenty of singable options when it comes to poetic polemics today. In English, songs like Indescribable by Laura Story, How Great Thou Art and All Creatures of Our God and King are great ways to reframe the narrative of God as our Creator King in our hearts. Yet even the Māori translation of our national anthem honours the God of the Bible explicitly, and could be a suitable song to sing this Friday:

E Ihowa Atua,
(Oh YHWH God)
O ngā iwi mātou rā,
(Of nations and of us too)
Āta whakarongona;
(Listen to us)
Me aroha noa
(Cherish us)
Kia hua ko te pai;
(Let goodness flourish)
Kia tau tō atawhai;
(May your blessings flow)
Manaakitia mai

If you’re interested, here are some other resources compiled by Jade Hohaia (Wilbeforce Foundation) – Te Rongopai & Matariki. But perhaps this Matariki, the best antidote to celebrating tales of a weather god Tāwhirimātea tearing out eyes and casting them into the skies is to let the stars point us to the King of Kings, use our freedom to celebrate Matariki in Christ, and soak ourselves in the singable truths of Scripture.

“Stand up and praise the LORD your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting: Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.”

Nehemiah 9:5-6

A brief history of the Pakuranga and Panmure bridges (1865-2023)

The Auckland suburb where we live has had its fair share of bridges.

Before a bridge, the only way to cross the Tamaki River was “by a leaky and somewhat unreliable punt which frequently had a broken chain or was holed. Delays of up to an hour could occur when stock were crossing. The average number of daily passengers was 180 people, 53 horses, 23 carts, 100 livestock.”

First Panmure to Pakuranga bridge, 1865-1918

The first Panmure bridge was officially called the “Tamaki Bridge”, and was officially opened on 20 October 1865 by Robert Graham, Superintendent of the Auckland Provincial Council. The bridge was 195 metres long and 6 metres wide with kauri decking. The eastern end connected to the western tip of what is now the Pakuranga Road, while the western end connected with the remains of Mokoia Pā (a fortified settlement that was once home to the Maori Ngāti Paoa people) and what is known today as Bridge Street, Panmure.

A unique feature of this first bridge was the inclusion of a 40-foot (23.8 m) span on the eastern end was constructed with iron and designed to rotate 90 degrees to allow boats travelling along the Tamaki River to pass through (hence its nickname of the “Panmure Swing Bridge“). The swing span bridge was managed by a toll keeper who lived in a cottage on the Pakuranga side. On the Panmure side, a steep hill (the remains of Mokoia Pā) awaited and travellers sometimes needed to get off their horses and push!

With the introduction of motorised vehicles at the turn of the 20th century, plans were drawn up for a bigger, taller Tamaki River crossing. By 1918, the first Panmure bridge had been demolished. While the original Tamaki crossing is no longer around, for a time a marina shop was built over the foundation of the swing bridge mechanism (eventually demolished to make way for the Eastern busway bridge). Today, the remains of the historic swivel bridge mechanism are still visible, having been preserved by Auckland Council. As of 2023, additional conservation works and a viewing platform for pedestrians and cyclists are being built over the stone abutment and iron swing span mechanism as part of the AMETI Stage 2a Urban Design and Landscape Plan.

Second Tamaki / Panmure Bridge, 1916-63

By the 1900s, the flat river plains of Pakuranga had become known as “the granary of Auckland”, with farmers growing oats, hay and wheat. The second Tamaki bridge was completed approximately 100 yards downriver on 14 August 1916. Nicknamed the “Iron Bridge”, it was in reality a ferro-concrete structure using sea water in the concrete, sand from Buckland’s Beach and war-time (poor) quality steel. The bridge connected at Queens Road on the western end and Kerswill Place on the eastern end along the Pakuranga to Howick concrete road (portions of which are still visible today).

A much higher bridge deck allowed boats and small ships to pass through underneath. However, before long major safety concerns were raised and planning began for yet another Panmure bridge. The second bridge was eventually demolished in 1963 with the help of a barge-mounted crane. Remnants of the concrete entry gates are still visible on either side of the river.

Third Tamaki / Panmure Bridge, 1959-present

To replace the structurally-compromised second bridge, a third bridge was built close to the former course of the first bridge on the eastern bank. Lagoon Drive was built to serve this bridge. It was designed by AO Barrowclough of Andrew Murray Partners for the Manukau County Council. Construction of this Panmure bridge also included an important water main pipe underneath the road surface. The bridge was opened to the public on 19 December 1959.

Originally a two-lane bridge, the third Panmure bridge was widened to three lanes in 1972. It is still in use today and features a tidal flow system: the centre lane is used for westwards traffic flow in the morning and eastwards in the afternoon. It is scheduled to be replaced around 2040.

Bridge 4: Pakuranga-Waipuna Motorway Bridge, 1974-present

In order to connect East Auckland to the Auckland Southern Motorway, a fourth Tamaki River crossing was constructed in the 1970’s. This bridge was designed by Gavin Cormack (Beca Carter Hollings and Ferner), built by Etude et Enterprises and formally opened on 10 May 1974.

The Waipuna motorway bridge is located further south of the previous bridges. It rises from the eastern side over Millen Avenue and connects with Waipuna Road on the western bank of the Tamaki River and onwards to the motorway as the Southeastern Arterial Road. It’s still the main way (and frequently congested) way to drive from East Auckland to the city, though the addition of the long-awaited Reeves Road flyover will change things significantly.

Bridge 5: Eastern Busway Bridge, 2021-present

As part of the AMETI / Eastern Busway project, a fifth bridge for buses and active transport was designed and completed in 2021. The 205 metre-long bridge comprises two bus lanes, a cycleway and a footpath and forms a key part of connecting the city centre to Botany. Once the entire busway route is complete, Auckland Transport have promised that travel by bus and train between Botany and Britomart will take 40 minutes, even in rush hour.

As construction of the Eastern Busway Bridge occurred during the COVID pandemic, our family enjoyed frequent walks and bike rides over to watch its progress up close as part of our lockdown routine (at the time, there wasn’t much else we could visit!). Some highlights were watching specialist divers build the bridge’s pile caps from the water, seeing the huge green bridge structure gradually cantilevered into position over the river using hydraulic jacks and rollers, and trying out the different detours the construction staff put in as different parts of the bridge and approach were completed.

The bridge was finally opened to walkers and cyclists on September 2021 (a welcome relief during Auckland’s Delta lockdown) and officially opened for buses on 15 December 2021.

Each “Panmure bridge” served its purpose at a different era of our city’s history. Considering that the first swing bridge was opened in 1865, there’s over 150 years of history underneath our feet or wheels each time we cross the Tamaki river.

It’s hard to imagine what the sixth or seventh Tamaki River crossings will look like, perhaps in 50 years’ time. It’s also sparked me to think more and more about how to build bridges between different cultures, and ways followers of Jesus are called to be bridge-builders within the church and with our neighbours. After all, at the heart of the Christian faith is a Saviour who bridges the gulf between God holiness and humanity’s sin. Yet whether it’s 1865 or 2023, we’ll always need a way to get from A to B.