Monday, 31 March 2008

Off to do some cleaning

I'm on holiday this week. One of the things I love doing whilst on holiday is ... feeling useful and doing some tidying and cleaning.

I love my job - but the nature of full-time paid Christian ministry is that there's rarely anything that you can start and finish on the same day, and see some effect of the hard work you've put in. It's rare that you get to a point where there's nothing else that you can do for a particular person or project. Additionally, the times where you can finish something as a job well done are few and far between - and, of course, it's only eternity where the fruits of our labours will be seen.

For these reasons, and for a change, I find it quite therapeutic to be able to do something practical, where a difference can be seen. It's nice to have that feeling of satisfaction, whilst at the same time being reminded that giving oneself fully to the work of the Lord will never lead labour in the Lord in vain.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

The story of the kingdom

Recently I've been devotionally using Terry Johnson's helpful book, The Parables of Jesus.

One of the things that I've been taught as I've studied these parables is to be careful to look at the context into which they are spoken. They were never spoken into a vacuum. Sometimes the immediate context is given; other times, one needs to work it out.

This has made me think about the context into which Jesus speaks the parables of Matthew 13 (and their equivalents in Mark 4 and Luke 8). I'd never really thought about the context of these parables. But now I think they are addressing false ideas of the Messiah and the kingdom that were about in the 1st Century.

The disciples expected the kingdom to come through a military victory; Jesus says that the kingdom comes through responding rightly to the word of God. The disciples expected the kingdom to inaugurate a radical new era; Jesus says that the kingdom really has come but will coexist with evil until judgement comes. The disciples expected the kingdom to be irrepressible; Jesus says that the kingdom will be opposed but will grow anyway. The disciples expected the kingdom to arrive with fanfare and victory; Jesus says that the kingdom has tiny beginnings and is established, miraclously but normally through gradual growth. The disciples expected to experience immediate victory in the kingdom; Jesus says that it will require sacrifice - but that it is worth infinitely more than the cost of discipleship. Indeed, entering the kingdom is worth it - whatever the cost.

These lessons of the kingdom were instructive not only for the disciples, but also for us. I've been particularly encouraged by the way in which Jesus says that the kingdom grows. It's true that the kingdom sometimes grows spectacularly - but more often it grows slowly and gradually as individuals accept Jesus' Lordship over their lives.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

A reflection on the past term

Today is my last day at work for just over a week, and last day at work in Lancaster for more than a fortnight as I'm away from 7-11 April at New Word Alive.

Today has provided a good opportunity to reflect on the past term. It's been a good one.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Three incredible weeks of gospel outreach on the campuses of Lancaster University, the University of Cumbria and the University of Central Lancashire. I was so humbled by the real desire of so many students to see their friends hearing and engaging with the gospel; and the prayerfulness behind it all.
  • God working through the plans (and sometimes through the disorganisation!) of the CU missions: a real case of God doing infinitely more than all we can ask or imagine according to his power at work within us.
  • Partnering with a whole number of others in these missions: with CU Guests from the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, from several local churches in Lancaster and Preston, with Relay Workers past and present, with other friends - and with the speakers: Steve Casey, Amy Orr-Ewing, Michael Ots and Daf Meirion-Jones.
  • The way in which God provided the gospel to be shared in Lancaster through an evangelistic event at the University of Cumbria.
  • New life coming through the Bitesize courses, and with a guy I'd been studying the Bible with for months!
  • The provision of money to appoint a new staff worker for Cumbria from this summer.
  • Real clarity about the CU vision forming in the leaders at the New Leaders' Weekend - and Tim's excellent talks on 2 Peter. Three students from London who spent all day getting to the weekend.
  • David Gibb's incredible talk on 1 John 4 at Lancaster University.
  • A brilliant Grill-a-Christian panel one lunchtime at Lancaster University.
  • Olly and Ally at Myerscough College.
  • Princess Nicci Baby - in all serious, my wonderful two Relay Workers.
  • A great chat with Ed at the University of Chester's mission.
  • John's ongoing growth in godliness.

Please join me in praising God for all that he's done in and through the students in the North West!

Monday, 24 March 2008

Faith in the Olympic flame

Apparently the passage of the Olympic flame through Greece was disrupted this morning by pro-Tibet protestors.

The torch is set to travel through twenty countries (including the UK); it will scale the heights of Mount Everest before travelling to Beijing for the Games themselves. I'd already been struck by how closely the passage of the flame this year seems to be tied to humanism and the ideas of human progression (in the name of citius, altius, fortius). But it's journey to Beijing seems doomed, as surely there will be many who want to protest for freer media in China and for the rights of Tibet.

Apparently Jacques Rogge, the President of the International Olympic Committee, responded with these words: "The [Olympic] torch is the link between all athletes and citizens of this world; between all of us who believe in Olympism and the virtue of sport. It has the force to unite humanity and to stand for harmony."

Nice sentiment, surely - but a flame changing the world? I don't think so. I'm a massive fan of the Olympics: I love the sport, I love the colour and, actually, I love the idea and spirit of the Olympics in its purest form. But to think that a flame can somehow reconcile, say, Tibetans and Han Chinese, is misguided. There's no way that a flame can unite humanity and stand for harmony as Mr Rogge hopes - even if it was to arrive in Beijing unhindered.

Far better to look to the cross. Paul wrote these words to the Ephesians, speaking about the hostility between Jews and Gentiles:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. [Ephesians 2:14-18]

I'm looking forward to the day when Tibetans and Han Chinese live in unity with each other. (I'm sure there are already congregations in the world where this is the case.) That reconciliation will made possible, not through the passage of a torch to the summit of Mount Everest, but through a man crucified on a Roman cross. As people are reconciled to God in Christ, we live his way. His way is humility, which says: you first, me second - and so we are reconciled to each other too. I can't wait for all of those who have been rescued to live in peace with each other; not just to watch some sport, but to live for eternity in harmony with each other.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Daniel 1-7: God's incredible sovereignty

Here's the script of a talk I gave at the University of Cumbria CU in Lancaster this week, overviewing Daniel 1-7. I was helped by Mark Dever's overview. Comments, as ever, are very welcome.

And so we come to the end of our series in the book of Daniel 1-7 – perhaps a book that some here won’t really have looked at since Sunday School. Over the past weeks, we’ve looked at some of the famous passages – the fourth man in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the lions’ den – and some more obscure passages too. I wonder what the big lesson that you’ll take away is.

Often the way that we read Bible books like Daniel is that we make heroes of the main characters. It’s often the way that things are taught in Sunday School. When we come to a book like Daniel, we look at the main character and see the main message as being something like this: be like the main character. In the case of Daniel, that means stand up to peer pressure, just like Daniel did. Standing for truth under pressure is something we see Daniel doing time and again in the book. In Chapter 1, Daniel stands up for his diet; for uncomfortable truth in Chapter 2; in Chapter 6, he’s standing up for his faith; his friends take a stand against the king in Chapter 3. In other words, Daniel and his friends stay faithful to God when it seems that just about everyone else has given up on him. There’s no doubt that Daniel is a real hero of faith. But such an approach to the book of Daniel falls into the trap of making a common mistake when coming to the Bible. The stories are misunderstood. Because, of course, the book isn’t just a story about Daniel, it’s about God. God is the great hero of the book of Daniel, just as he is throughout the whole Bible. Behind the scenes, God is the great hero orchestrating everything.

Let’s see an example of this in Chapter 1. It opens in 605 BC with Judah having been carted off into exile in Babylon. On the face of it, it was a humiliating defeat for the people of Judah. Not only that, it’s inevitable that in Babylonian society this would have been interpreted in religious terms. Babylon thrashed Judah. And the Babylonians would certainly have seen this as their gods having triumphed over the God of Israel. Meanwhile, in Babylon, Daniel – who’s probably student-aged at the time – is brought into an educational system designed to indoctrinate the cream of Israelite society with Babylonian ways. How will he survive? Well, you’ll probably remember that Daniel refuses to eat the meat given to him – perhaps to avoid being made ceremonially unclean – and so persuades the official to give him vegetables. Yet, against the odds, Daniel knuckles down, becomes the high flier on his course and out-performs all the others, eventually ending up in an influential position. You can see that, from his human perspective, this might lead us to thinking that Daniel is basically a biblical tract on ‘how to say ‘no’ to bullies under peer pressure.’

But look again at Chapter 1, and we see that it’s written not only from a human perspective, but also from God’s perspective. Why did Judah end up in Babylon? Have a look at verse 2: ‘And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand.’ How did Daniel end up being allowed to refuse the Babylonian food? See verse 9: ‘Now God caused the official to show favour and sympathy to Daniel.’ How were the young men from Judah so successful in their education? Verse 17: ‘To these young men, God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.’ Do you see what is going on? God is the chief actor behind all events. In other words, Babylon has taken Judah over, but it’s clear that the Lord has allowed Babylon to take over. God made an official show Daniel favour and, ultimately, through giving him the gift of interpretation of dreams and visions, God gave Daniel an influential position as one of the top politicians and advisors in Babylon. 1:21 tells us Daniel held this position for 70 years! It would be like one of the advisors to Winston Churchill still being an advisor to Gordon Brown today – quite extraordinary!

Chapter 1 shows us that, far from the way he would have been spoken about by the Babylonians, he was alive, active and completely in control of everything.

We get the same idea repeated in Chapter 2. Nebuchadnezzar has been dreaming about a giant statue which is a mixture of great glory and crazy instability. The statue is full of contradiction – it’s made partly of costly and valuable and strong materials, but it’s feet are made partly of brittle pottery. And then in the dream – verse 34 – a rock appears, which has not been cut out of a quarry by men, only to smash the feet of clay of the statue, and causing the whole thing to crash down. And then everything is reduced to dust and blown away by the wind. But not the rock, this takes on a life of its own – it keeps expanding and expanding until it fills the whole horizon.

There’s a lot that could be said here. But the main point is this: God shows – again – that he is alive and active and completely in control of everything by helping Daniel to interpret the dream, even though Nebuchadnezzar refuses to tell anyone the details of the dream. And what’s the content of the dream? The lesson is this: the very same point. History isn’t the result of a series of random events. It’s not even primarily the out-workings of the plans of political leaders and the movers and shakers of this world, although their decisions are real and personal; it’s the arena in which the God of heaven works out his plans for the good of his people and for the glory of his name. Behind the scenes of human history is God’s invisible hand.

Empires come and go at God’s bidding. "You are not in control," says God. "I am." God is the King behind all of the other kings. God uses the real decisions that political leaders make to achieve his purposes. So after the Babylonian Empire came the Medo-Persian Empire, then the Greek Empire and then the Roman Empire, which is the iron and clay legs. Since then there have been other Empires – the British Empire, the German Reich, the Soviet Empire, and I suppose today the American Empire. All come and flourish for a while, and then they go. They all come and go, as ordained by God. Sometimes it may seem like things have spun out of control – as they do today in Zimbabwe and North Korea and elsewhere – but the situations in these places have not caught God by surprise. God is alive and active and completely in control. (And I know that that is a massive comfort to many of the Christians in Zimbabwe). God has the whole world in his hands.

Well, let’s begin to think about the implications of God’s sovereignty. What does it mean for each of us today that God is in control?

Firstly, I think we have to realise that as those who live in God’s Universe, he is in complete control of our lives. The book of Daniel shows that God cares about and is in control of the big things – like nations and politics – but also that he cares about individuals, like Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and Nebuchadnezzar.

Recently, I was reading Psalm 121 – and unfortunately the thrust of the passage is lost by the English language. In English, we only have one word for the word ‘you’. So if I said, ‘I’m really mad with you!’, it wouldn’t be obvious whether I was just mad with one person or with everyone.

In Psalm 121, both of those ‘you’s are employed. In verses 3-4, the psalmist says, ‘He will not let your foot slip’ – this is the plural ‘you’. The Message puts it like this: ‘He won’t let you stumble. Not on your life! Israel’s Guardian will never doze or sleep.’ In other words, the verses are saying that God is in complete control of his people as a whole.

And yet, in the verses that come, we see that God is also sovereign over individuals. He’s not just bothered about the nation as a whole, but the individuals that make up that nation. Often we can think that God is in control of the Universe – yes – but it seems like in our own lives things are still spinning out of control. And so it’s particularly precious that the psalm continues, with the singular ‘you’: ‘The LORD watches over you (individually) – the LORD is the shade at your right hand’. Each of God’s people is cared for individually, and God is sovereign over all of our individual circumstances. If God is the Good Shepherd then, so to speak, he shepherds his flock in ones.

This is a word to those that are suffering. Sometimes it can feel like we might have somehow squirmed out of God’s hand and away from his care. The book of Daniel reminds us God is big enough. He has you in his hands. More than that, God uses all of our circumstances – even awful things – to work out his plans. We see that at the cross: the most heinous crime of all time is used by God to bring about ultimate good. And he promises to use all circumstances of a Christian to make us more like Jesus, relying all the more on God and being freed from the power of sin in our lives. As Romans 8:28 puts it, ‘God works all things out for the good of those who love him.’ Perhaps you’re hurting today and you’re working whether God’s really there. Well you need to know that we’re not always able to unravel why certain things happen. But the Christian faith is a relationship with a God known to be wholly trustworthy – he is in control and he is kind and he uses even our sufferings to bring us to experience our relationship with him more deeply.

God’s sovereignty over our lives also says something to the rest of us, too, and it’s this: God’s way is always best. If we think that God isn’t in control, then sometimes we’ll find ourselves in circumstances and think that God’s way may not be best. However, if we’re convinced not only that God made us and knows us inside out, but also that he is in complete control, then we can know that his word for our lives is completely trustworthy. If I think God isn’t in control, sometimes I’ll compromise on what he asks me to do when it’s hard and costly and sacrificial. But if I’m convinced he’s good and in control, I’ll surrender my life to him. Let’s each be convinced of God’s sovereignty in our lives.

Another implication of the fact that God is alive and active and in control of human history bring us to our second and final point: that history is heading to a particular point. Without God, life is hopeless. If God didn’t exist, then we would find ourselves as meaningless people as part of a meaningless human race living in a meaningless universe that will just keep expanding forever. If God doesn’t exist, then our lives don’t matter and nor do our actions. Nothing has any ultimate value.

That’s the way that King Belshazzar lived, without reference to God. Remember the scene? As Chapter 5 opens, Belshazzar and his cronies are toasting each other using the LORD’s goblets, the world seemingly at their feet. But then everything changes as the writing comes on the wall. Belshazzar had been living without God. And, then, just six hours later, there he is, lying dead on the palace floor. It’s such a tragic ending to the chapter: Belshazzar lying dead amidst the temple goblets from Jerusalem, the dregs of the wine still in his stomach and spilled upon the floor. What was his life with its drinking, feasting and all its pleasures - what was that worth when it was weighed by God? Found wanting. Empty, noisy, and quickly over.

I wonder if that idea makes you feel slightly uneasy; the idea that God will judge and that he will have the last say in his Universe. Unfortunately, I think the biblical teaching about God’s judgement is unhelpfully caricatured. But one of the things that the book of Daniel reminds us again and again is that God alone has the right to rule over each of us and judge us. To those that struggle with this idea, I want to ask this question: how wide do you think that God’s reign is? The God revealed in the book of Daniel is the Lord of history, the God of every individual and he is passionately good – which means that he will not let evil have the last say in his Universe.
And so that means this: history won’t just keep rumbling on forever. The fact that God’s kingdom is coming is repeated throughout the book of Daniel, but particularly in Chapters 2 and 7. It’s heading to a fixed point: a point where God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, where God will end all the suffering, where he will cleanse everything, when all wrongs will be righted and everything will be put right. The fullness of the kingdom of God when God’s perfect rule is perfectly made known to all is the reality to which human history is heading. God’s word is as sure as his character – which means that we are closer to Jesus’ return and the end of history as we know it than we were at the beginning of this talk.

And so that brings us, very topically, to the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As we remember Good Friday tomorrow, we’ll remember of the just judgement of God that we rightfully face. But we’ll also remember God’s mercy and grace and love for us, through which God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus lived the perfect life. God in human form died on the cross for the punishment of our sins; the punishment that was rightly ours fell upon Jesus, our voluntary substitute.

On Sunday, we’ll remember Jesus resurrection. We’re reminded that Jesus is alive, that death could not hold him – the ultimate proof that God is alive and active and in perfect control of his world. The resurrection shows us that Jesus really is the King and Judge of the Universe, just as we see in Daniel 7 – not even death is outside of his control. And the resurrection shows that God’s wrath really has been exhausted by Christ on the cross – which means that those trusting in him have no fear of condemnation when he returns to Judge. Those who are trusting Jesus are forgiven because Christ was forsaken on the cross.

I think a couple of things have particularly struck me this year as I’ve been preparing for Easter. One is the fact that God has been able to find a way for sinners like me to be part of his perfect new creation, where I won’t mess it up having been given a completely fresh start and having been made new. We receive Jesus’ perfect record and have been transformed.

And the other thing that has struck me is that every other religion tells you to live better so that God will accept you. We can never live good enough lives for God. But, amazingly, God has seen us in our need and come and lived a good life for us, then through the cross credited it to us. And that is why Jesus’ life and death is our only hope. God, in Jesus Christ, can accomplish what we in our own faithlessness cannot – again, something that the book of Daniel has underlined for us.
So let’s draw to a close. Let’s look back on our studies in Daniel and not see them as just a guide of what to do when times of peer pressure come. But let’s open our eyes to the amazing God that is revealed: completely sovereign and in control and not dead but alive. As we finish, let’s listen to how Cyrus described God in Chapter 6:

"He is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed,
his dominion will never end.
He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth.

He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions."

Our God is the living God, he is the Lord of history. He is the rescuing God who, not only rescued Daniel, but has rescued us too from our sin and our judgement. This Easter, let’s live again in the light of what God has revealed about himself.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Good Friday: the darkest day leads to morning light

I been reading David's final words before his death, as recorded in 2 Samuel 23.

I was particularly struck by his prophecy of the Messiah in verses 3-5:

'When One rules over men in righteousness,
when he rules in the fear of God,
he is like the light of morning and sunrise on a cloudless morning;
like the brightness after rain that brings the grass from the earth.
Is not my house right with God?
Has not he made with me an everlasting covenant,
arranged and secured in every part?
Will he not bring to fruition my salvation
and grant me every desire?'

Two things are striking. Firstly - that a dying man can still look forward to the coming of the Messiah (from his own line) and all that he brings. David's own view of the Messiah was evidently greater than just a military victory for Israel. Secondly - that the Messiah's victory is for his people like a sunrise on a summer's morning (what a beautiful description!); and all the more poignant juxtaposed against the 'darkest day' of the cross that we are remembering today. The horror of the cross leads to peace and joy for God's people - what a God it is that we worship!

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Are short term missions worth it?

Recently I heard someone criticising short term mission opportunities that are available to Christians and are not run by local churches. The argument runs that such missions are often 'hit and run' and that time can be better spent involving yourself in the less 'glamorous' ministry at home over the summer through local churches.

This isn't to say that valuable ministry is not done through churches in the UK in the summer - of course it is. We celebrate the gospel whenever it is preached. This is also not to say that God's primary way of working in the world is through the local church. I'm instead responding to (for me, the quite incredible idea) that short term missions not directly linked to the ministry of a local church are of less value, a waste of money and a glorified holiday with no long-lasting benefit.

I guess perhaps if everyone went away on a summer team, there would be some point to this argument. However, in reality this doesn't ever happen as the opportunities to be involved in short term missions realistically falls to students and those few of us who can wangle it to work with our jobs.

I'd also object to short term mission being more 'glamorous'! Many short term missions require a really sacrificial mindset as physically, emotionally and spiritually one is pushed to the very extreme! Certainly for the short term mission team I've co-lead (and this summer will again be co-leading) to Moldova, this has been the case (and perhaps now the reason for this blog entry is obvious!). We partner the IFES movement in Moldova to run an evangelistic 'English and Bible Camp'. I'm convinced short term missions like these have massive value.

When I was at church as a student in Bristol, one of the families in the church that particularly befriended me were ex-missionaries who were now recruiting folks to go and serve in Asia. I remember one particular conversation I had over dinner about short term missions. He was convinced of the value of short term missions. A few of the reasons he gave are listed here:

  • Most of those Christians that receive short-term mission teams are very happy (and even promote) these teams. I have friends that are missionaries across the world and they would love teams of students to come and help them. The Moldovans that we are going to support are very keen for us to come.
  • There's a huge amount of encouragement to those in full time ministry (and to the Christians they work with) by having others come to serve alongside them. Even in Lancaster, I'm encouraged when friends come up to visit and come along with me to CU meetings. It shows that they are on our side and value our hard work. In Moldova, I'm certain that believers from an otherwise-forgotten country are encouraged by our presence.
  • Those who go on short term missions become really aware of the needs of where they visit and what ongoing ministry is happening. I'd never prayed at all for Moldova before first visiting - now it's high on my list of priorities. The link has also meant that CUs in the North West have contributed financially, been in contact via email - and some are even thinking about serving there long-term. I know for a fact that most longer term missionaries have first gone on a short term team.
  • The opportunities afforded by short term mission teams can provide a focus and a catalyst to outreach and ministry for the rest of the year. The 'English and Bible Camp' that we help out on certainly serves such a purpose in Moldova.
  • The approach seemed to work for Peter and John in Samaria, and Paul across the Mediterranean!
  • Short term mission teams often don't spend all of the money they pay to go on themselves. In Moldova, a fair amount of money that the British members pay to go on subsidises the camp that your average Moldovan would not otherwise be able to afford to attend.
  • Those who receive the gospel through short term mission are encouraged to join local churches where they can learn and grow as Christians.
  • Here's the key one for the context (I think): local churches which have members that go on short term teams are surely benefited and enriched. World mission is no longer relegated to being a theological concept or just an illustration from a sermon. Rather, it is lived out in reality and experienced in the lives of those church members that go. World mission becomes a work in which members have actually been involved. My friend in Bristol said that local churches that actively promote short term world mission opportunities become all the more effective at home. Certainly, the CUs that I work with that have had members go on short term missions have vastly benefited.
These reasons me that, to me, it is very short sighted to dissuade church members from short term missions. Effective short term missions (and I admit that some are more effective than others) don't detract from other forms of church-based Christian ministry, but actually can promote and enhance them in the long term.

Long live the short term mission!

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The logic of generosity

Away from the resurrection debate, a bit of Scripture that pulled me up short today....

'Command [the rich] to do, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up for themselves treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for th coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.' [1 Timothy 5:18-19]

These verses shocked me because they differ so much from how Christians often think about giving. Because they are saying that being generous and doing good with our material resources is the very way we guard our hearts from the idols of materialism and greediness.

Often we think that the main reason for giving is because the church needs money, that we are fulfilling a need. This is true - and in 2 Corinthians 8-9, Paul appeals for Christians to be generous upon that logic: there's no better thing in which to invest the money that God has given you to steward than things that will last.

But here Paul takes a different line. The most important reason for a rich person to give (and, let's face it, most of us are relatively rich by world standards) is because we need to be givers. Giving generously is God's way of guarding a person against greed and trust in the uncertain riches of materialism. In other words, God may well provide for a need if a person doesn't give by some other means - but what will happen to that person's heart? If a person does not give generously, how will they store up a good foundation for the time to come? How will they remember that our true citizenship is in heaven if they are living for the hear and now?

I guess that's why in 2 Corinthians Paul calls generosity a 'grace'. Opportunities to be generous are a reminder of the truth of the gospel each time I write a cheque. A chilling reminder and an encouragement to be generous-hearted with my money: Lord, don't let become really far more comfortable here on earth with its material rewards. Keep my eyes on heaven.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Gary Habermas in Manchester

Yesterday three of us headed down to hear the very well known Christian apologist, philosopher and theologian, Gary Habermas, speak in Manchester as part of the Evangelical Alliance's Think Resurrection tour. Professor Habermas' Wikipedia entry can be found here.

It was quite a shock that so few people were there. I don't think the events was very well publicised. It was a shame. Those of us who made it were given a real treat. Prof. Habermas is a great speaker and communicator, and evidently knows what he is talking about.

Below, I've sought to reproduce what I can from the notes I made from Prof. Habermas' sessions.

Session 1: Paul on the resurrection of Jesus

In his first lecture, Prof. Habermas spoke of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus that is provided from Paul’s letters; evidence which has been commonly underplayed by evangelicals who have relied on the later Gospel accounts. He mainly used 1 Corinthians and Galatians to establish the evidence from Paul’s writings, as they are amongst the letters considered ‘indisputably’ written by Paul.

In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul speaks of ‘what I received I passed on to you of first importance … that [Christ] was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.’ Virtually all scholars agree that Paul is presenting an ancient creed concerning Jesus' death and resurrection which is actually much earlier than the composition of 1 Corinthians. In these verses himself, Paul says that he had preached the same message whilst in Corinth (dated at 51-52 AD through the pro-consulship of Gallio, mentioned in Acts 18:12, 14 and 17).

According to Prof. Habermas, that this material is earlier than Paul is evident from many facts, such as the usage of the technical terms ‘delivered’ and ‘received’ (which indicate the giving of oral tradition); the proper names of Peter and James, and the probability of an original creed in Aramaic. Even critical scholars generally agree that the creed has a very early origin.

Many scholars date Paul's receiving of this creed from two to eight years after the crucifixion itself, or from about 32-38 AD. Most of those who comment on the issue hold that Paul most likely received this material during his visit in Jerusalem with Peter and James (see Galatians 1:18-19), who are included in the list of appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5-7). It’s reckoned that this first meeting with Peter and James, recorded in Galatians, happened within six years of Jesus’ crucifixion.

There are several indications that the content (and perhaps words) of this ‘gospel creed’ are apostolic:

  • Paul mentions very early resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples (1 Corinthians 15:4-7). He probably received the list from a couple of them.
  • Paul himself is the eyewitness and source behind the appearance of 1 Corinthians 15:8.
  • Paul asserts that the apostles as a whole were themselves currently teaching the very same message about Jesus’ resurrection appearances (1 Corinthians 15:11, 14-15; see also Galatians 2:6, 9-10).
  • On at least two occasions, Paul specifically checked the nature of the gospel he was preaching (which includes Jesus’ resurrection – 1 Corinthians 15:1-4) with the other apostles and found that the content of his teaching was accurate (see Galatians 1:11-2:10). The ‘we’ of 1 Corinthians 15:11 refers to the preaching of all the apostles: Paul and the other apostles were evidently agreed on the message of the resurrection.

Fascinatingly, apparently these facts have been accepted by liberal scholars, including those of the Jesus Seminar. Even Gert Ludemann, an atheist New Testament scholar, agrees that the oral tradition of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 must have been formed within 2-3 years of the crucifixion! Thus even if a person doubts the conclusion concerning the actual date and specific location of the creedal material given to Paul, there is still an excellent foundation for it being early and apostolic in nature. This very early report of Jesus' resurrection appearances clearly link the eyewitness content of the gospel with its later proclamation. All of the evidence shows that the participants actually did see the risen Jesus, both individually and in groups.

Thus Prof. Habermas was keen to show that there is another path through Paul’s writings to the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection, which backs up the Gospel accounts. He recommended Paul Barnett's 'Jesus and the Logic of History' as further reading.

Session 2: The Uniqueness of Christ

In the second of his lectures, Prof. Habermas focused on the uniqueness of Christ. In particular, he made the point that both Jesus’ resurrection and deity were preached right from the very earliest parts of Christian history.

It has long been the received wisdom among New Testament scholars that John’s Gospel presents a portrait of Jesus as divine, coming down from heaven, whereas the Synoptic Gospels do not consider him in such exalted terms, and specifically contain no hints of Jesus being pre-existent. In other words, a common claim is that Jesus’ deity was increasingly established across the 1st Century as Christian thought developed. However, Prof. Habermas claimed that Jesus is clearly portrayed as God even in the Synoptic Gospels. In Mark 14:61, for example, in responding to the questioning of the high priest at his trial, Jesus ties together the titles ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of the Blessed One’ (‘Son of God’). Jesus portrays himself as a figure worthy of worship (drawing upon the language of Daniel 7:13-14 and possibly also 1 Enoch 46:1-4 and 48:2-10). Other references which clearly portray Jesus as God include Matthew 11:27 (and the parallel in Luke 10:22), Mark 13:32 and Mark 14:36. In short, even in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus makes incredible claims about himself. Indeed, if Jesus is not speaking the truth of himself, then he has committed the blasphemy laws of Deuteronomy 13 and 18. He recommended reading ‘The Pre-Existent Son’ by Simon Gathercole as essential further reading on this matter.

Prof. Habermas then listed six things that make Jesus unique amongst other religious teachers and philosophers:

1. No other founder of a world religion claimed to be divine.
2. No other founder of a world religion is believed to have been raised from the dead.
3. No other founder of a world religion has miracles performed by them recorded within a generation.
4. No other founder of a world religion claims himself to be the way to salvation (i.e. Jesus effectively says, “How you respond to me determines whether or not your receive salvation”).
5. No other founder of a world religion says that their death is important – even indispensable – to their mission.
6. No other founder of a world religion claimed that suffering is central to the belief system they inaugurate (contrasting especially with Buddhism, which says that suffering is illusory and not real).

All in all, the sessions were excellent. I believe the recordings will be made available by the EA and are well worth getting your hands on!

Friday, 14 March 2008

"In this way, love is made complete among us..."

I was very struck this week by a talk on 1 John 4:7-21 at Lancaster University CU this week by verses 16-17.

The verses say this: 'God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgement, because in this world we are like him.'

Of course this passage is in the context of the very famous verses about God's love: that God himself is the definition of love, demonstrated through sending the Son as our propitiatory sacrifice. Verses 16-17, however, remind us that God gave his Son not only to save us but so that we might be brought into loving community with him and with others. This is, of course, what God is doing in the world: gathering a people to be his very own for ever, in fellowship with him and treating others in accordance with his character. So often we speak about what we have been saved from; so rarely (it seems) we speak of what we have been saved to: a community of love.

I was also struck by what this means. When we find ourselves loving as God loves, then we can have confidence on the day of judgement. The community love that is made possible through Jesus' atonement and the Holy Spirit's work in our lives gives us deep assurance that we really do belong to God and are his.

I've written before about how evangelicals so often seem to fall short. We soak ourselves in Scripture but so often fail to live in loving community. I found the reminder that this is what we have been saved for as a new spur, with the Spirit's help, to love the unloveable.

Acts 18:24-28: the God that uses ordinary people

Here's the notes that I used for a talk on Acts 18:24-28 at Manchester University CU this week. I was really struck by the beauty of these verses as I prepared the talk.

Pick up a dictionary and you’ll read the following definition to the word ‘ordinary’: ‘commonly encountered, usual; of no exceptional ability, degree or quality; average.’ And I think it’s fair to say that ordinariness isn’t something that’s exactly celebrated in our culture. The writer Johann Goethe put it like this: ‘A man can stand anything except a succession of ordinary days and being ordinary.’ Being ordinary is not worth celebrating.

And yet, I guess, most of the people here in this room would describe themselves as being pretty ordinary. As the dictionary definition put it: we’ve go no exceptional ability or degree or quality. We’re pretty average, really.

And that can paralyse us as we read through Acts of the Apostles. Sure, we know that the people mentioned were just men and women, but they seem so … extraordinary. And we look at ourselves and we seem so different from them. Not only that, but because even in Christian culture we celebrate extraordinariness in individuals, we look at Christian leaders and then consider ourselves useless. We’re nothing like them. We’re ordinary. Can we really make a difference? Can God really use me?

Well, if what I’ve described resonates at all with you, then these few verses in Acts 18 are for you. It’s noticeable that Luke didn’t have to include these verses. He could have left them out and the narrative would have still made sense. But in these beautiful verses, Luke shows us how God can use the ordinariness of many of us for his glory. I’m going to just draw out two points.

Firstly, these verses teach that God uses ordinary individuals to draw out the gifts in others.

This is the first time in the New Testament that we come across Apollos – and here we see his understanding of the gospel develop from simple to superlative. And that happens with the aid of two of his brothers and sisters in Christ, a couple named Priscilla and Aquila. Under these two, Apollos’ spiritual gifts matured until he reached maximum effectiveness.

When we’re introduced to Apollos in verses 24-25, we learn several things. First, we notice that he’s a native of Alexandria. Alexandria was one of the educational centres of the world at the time, perhaps like the Harvard or the Oxford or the Cambridge of his day. In other words, his credentials are impressive. Not only this, we’re also told that Apollos was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, and that he had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And he was dynamic: Apollos taught with great fervour and had been taught about Jesus accurately. It was clear that Apollos had been gifted by God for a ministry of public teaching.

But Apollos did have a shortcoming. He knew only the baptism of John the Baptist.

God was very good in sending his people John the Baptist. John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament style prophets, designed to prepare people for Jesus. The fact that God sent John the Baptist when he did shows that he really wanted people to understood who Jesus was when he came. Of course, John is best known for his baptism. It was designed to bring people to a point of confession of sin and repentance – in order words, to show people that they had rebelled against God and wanted to turn back to a God-centred life. But John’s baptism couldn’t bring new life or inward cleaning, it could just make people wet. It could just point people to Jesus, as a kind of arrow, just as John himself did as he pointed Jesus out as ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ John made people aware of their sin in order to point them towards the one that would make turning back to God possible.

Now we’re told that Apollos knew only John’s baptism. In other words, it appears that Apollos probably majored on the importance of repentance from sin – but he had limited knowledge of what it meant to have placed faith in Christ and no knowledge of the coming of the Holy Spirit into his life. We’re told that Apollos taught about Jesus accurately – so presumably he must have known about his death on the cross and his resurrection. But perhaps he’d never heard about what it meant to put sin to death with the help of the Holy Spirit or sanctification by grace. He wouldn’t have known the Holy Spirit’s presence in evangelism or in ministry. In other words, Apollos knew Jesus as a figure in history, but not as a living presence in his life. And so Apollos was, at this point, a real diamond in the rough.

Now put yourselves into the shoes of this ordinary couple, Priscilla and Aquila. We’re told elsewhere that they made tents for a living. In other words, they’re not clergy and I guess they wouldn’t have been considered particularly special. Anyway, they turn up as normal to the synagogue and they’re impressed by this new young preacher. As they head home for Sunday lunch, you can perhaps imagine them discussing Apollos’ ability and giftedness, excited by the way in which, with some discipleship, Apollos could be used as a powerful servant of Jesus Christ. And what particularly strikes me is that they don’t lay into Apollos and tear him down; rather they see that he’s not yet the finished article and, with the eyes of faith, see what God can do in and through Apollos. And so they get busy.

Now I want you to notice four pretty ordinary things that Priscilla and Aquila then get about doing.

Firstly, they invited him into their home. Hospitality is a key theme in the Bible, and I think that’s because when you invite someone into your home, you're opening your life to them. When you invite someone into your home, you’re saying that, in effect, you care enough about that person to want to develop a relationship with them. And so when the Bible calls us to be hospitable, I think that’s in part due to the fact that hospitality goes a long way to developing the types of relationship that allow significant ministry to happen. It shows that you’re on a person’s side. I guess Apollos would have needed to have known this in order to stay teachable.

The opposite environment for Christian ministry is when everything stays professional. The older Christian meets up with the younger Christian but everything stays quite clinical and clearly-defined. Do you see what’s lost there? Not only the care, but also the context. The younger believer never sees what theology looks like to be lived. And, as they invite Apollos into their home, you can imagine Priscilla and Aquila explaining to him how the gospel affects their marriage, their relationships with their neighbours, their church relationships, how they vote and so on. They shared their lives with Apollos. And it’s something that Priscilla and Aquila kept doing for their whole lives. Years later, back in Rome, they hosted one of the house churches that developed. They went on sharing their lives and the gospel, and saw how they went hand in hand.

Secondly, they explained to him the way of God more accurately. In other words, they exposed him to a more accurate theology. Over coffee and over a course of weeks, they filled in the blanks of Apollos’ theology and experience, and led him to know the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in his life. They would have explained to Apollos that we are God’s workmanship – that by his Spirit, God is sculpting us to be more and more like Jesus; that the Spirit provides the power to cut away sin. They would have done a seminar with him on God’s part and ours in evangelism. They would have explained what it means to live the Christian life: to love the things that God loves, to hate the things that God hates and to treat others in accordance with God’s own character.

Isn’t that beautiful?! Priscilla and Aquila take Apollos under their wing and teach him. Now, let me say, isn’t this a couple making the most of their spiritual education? They’d been on house-parties, they’d listened to sermons, they’d read Christian books, they’d studied their Bibles carefully, and so they were now able to share with Apollos what he needed to know. And just note that, instead of confronting him harshly, Priscilla and Aquila lovingly disciple Apollos. Sometimes CUs can become places where different people feel that they need to prove their soundness to others and so conversations can get aggressive. Those that are younger in the faith feel paralysed and stupid for asking questions. I hope that’s not the case here. I hope that, like in the case recorded here, there’s a real attitude of humility and love in learning more about and experiencing the truth.

Thirdly, they then enlisted the help of other Christians to encourage Apollos. Priscilla and Aquila looked out for opportunities where Apollos could serve, so that soon other believers too were urging him forward, encouraging Apollos to use his gifts. And just note the humility that this involved – soon Priscilla and Aquila were ministered to by the one they had themselves been ministering. And they weren’t too proud for this to be the case.

During my time on CU committee, a guy called Gareth became a Christian during Freshers’ Week. He soon was placed into one-to-one discipleship with Alex, who at the time was the CU President. They continued to meet up for the best part of two years. Alex is now gifted in Christian ministry in his own right – in fact he’s now a missionary in Africa – but before he left, he was telling me how much he’s learned over the years from Gareth; not just during their time meeting together in Bristol, but also since as Gareth as himself gone into full-time Christian ministry. I think it’s fair to say that Gareth has now got a deeper understanding of theology than Alex. And what’s wonderful is that Alex isn’t too proud to learn from Gareth. Alex is humble enough to realise that Gareth’s gifting from God means that he can learn from the one he previously taught.

The fourth and final thing that Priscilla and Aquila do for Apollos is they endorse him, writing letters of commendation to the disciples in Achaia as Apollos headed there to do Relay in a different city. They were his supporters long after he left.

Now let’s take a step back and realise what’s going on here in Ephesus. Don’t we see exactly the group of Christians that we’d like to be amongst? In fact, doesn’t it sound like the Christian community that each of us desires? And let’s make it personal. Can you recall a pastor, teacher, a friend (or maybe even a Staff Worker!) who challenged you to go further than you would have on your own? Isn’t it wonderful that God used them for his glory to develop gifts in you. Perhaps there’s someone in your life in whom you have noticed a gift that needs developing or acknowledging or encouraging. Could you be the one to help develop them? Could God use you and your gifts to help that person become all God wants him or her to become?

Church history tells us that Apollos became a key figure in the early church. In a moment we’ll read of his immediate impact. But Apollos’ impact went beyond what we’ll read of here in Acts 18. Apollos became one of the best communicators of the gospel in his day. He’d became the sort of person you’d have rejoiced to have heard preach, such was his gifting. He became the evangelical rockstar of his day. There’s some good evidence that Apollos may well have gone on to become the unnamed writer that wrote Hebrews, one of the most incredible syntheses of the gospel ever written. More than fifteen years after Apollos first appeared in Ephesus, in his letter to Titus, Paul goes out of his way to ensure that Apollos lacks nothing in his work of proclaiming the gospel. And all this was because a couple in the church in Ephesus accepted the challenge to make disciples, empower others and maximise others’ gifts for God’s glory. It’s not that Apollos’ giftings were better than those of Priscilla and Aquila. They were just different. That’s what Priscilla and Aquila realised in wanting to develop Apollos’ giftings for God’s glory. And that’s something that each of us can do.

In one of his books, Chuck Swindoll asks the following:

  • Who taught Martin Luther his theology and inspired his translation of the New Testament?
  • Who visited Dwight L. Moody at a shoe shop and first spoke to him about Christ?
  • Who was the elderly woman who prayed faithfully for Billy Graham for over twenty years?
  • Who financed William Carey’s ministry to India?
  • Who helped Charles Wesley get underway as a composer of hymns?
  • Who taught John Stott how to preach?

You probably don’t know who played these crucial roles in encouraging these famous Christians in their ministry. I have to admit, I have no idea. And so Swindoll writes, "Had it not been for those unknown people – those ‘nobodies’ – a large chunk of church history would be missing. And a lot of lives would have been untouched." And the point is this: all of these people were people just like you and me, and God used them in their ordinariness to encourage and empower others, and as a result church history was dramatically changed.

These verses in Acts 18 are just the sort of verses that encourage people that consider themselves ordinary. I guess that’s most of the people here. So often we look at ourselves and, because we’re not Billy Graham or Don Carson or any of those so-called ‘heroes of faith’, we consider ourselves useless. And yet these verses remind us that God has gifted us each differently and made us diverse for a reason. We’ve deliberately not all been made to be Billy Grahams or Don Carsons or Mike Pilavachis. With due respect to these men, it would be awful if we were! Instead, as we use our gifts together we build each other up for amazing works of service. I build you up to use your gifts, and you build me up to use mine. And that includes each of us here. God has given you your gifts for a reason, and he’s placed you in Manchester for a reason: so that you have opportunities to use your gifts to build up others. Using our gifts may seem ordinary and unspectacular, but God, in his grace and sovereignty, can use them. To Priscilla and Aquila, it probably didn’t seem like a big deal having Apollos round for tea and Bible study; to God, it was building up a future church leader. There was a ripple effect. Similarly, to us, it’s just having a younger Christian around for dinner; to God it’s an opportunity by which he can show what Christian community and hospitality look like. To us, it’s just chatting to an old lady at church; to God, it’s an opportunity to encourage a weary senior saint to keep fixing her eyes on Jesus. To us, it’s using our long summer holiday to visit some missionaries; to God, it’s an opportunity to remind some of his people that they’re not forgotten. To us, it’s just checking on a Christian friend; to God, it’s an opportunity to remind a lazy Christian not to drift. And the point is this: we don’t have to be superstars. We just need to be ourselves and look out for opportunities to serve God and his people. God uses ordinary individuals to impact others.

That’s a massive encouragement. But there’s more encouragement still for ordinary Christians in this passage. And that’s this: that God is extraordinarily sovereign and uses many different individuals in his mission.

It’s when we come to verses 27-28 that we see why Luke included these verses at all in his history of the early church. Read through the whole of the book of Acts and you’ll see that Luke is concerned to keep reminding us that the spread of the gospel is God’s own mission. Jesus promised in 1:8 that the gospel would spread from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth. Read through Acts and you’ll be wide-eyed as the gospel spreads from Jerusalem (chapter 2) to Judea and Samaria (in chapter 8) and finishes in chapter 28 in Rome, symbolic of the ends of the earth. In other words, God is the great missionary throughout the book of Acts, equipping his church and powerfully moving through ordinary people so that many are saved. And God’s sovereignty is the theme of verses 27-28, as we read the circumstances that led Apollos to end up in Achaia.

Earlier in chapter 18, you can read of the miserable time that Paul experienced in Corinth, the capital of the province of Achaia. Verses 9-10 speak of how close Paul was to giving up during his time there. And worse was to come – despite God’s promise that he had many people of his own in Corinth, the small church was heavily persecuted. Paul must have left Corinth and the province of Achaia with mixed feelings – he’d established a fledgling congregation there and seen some come to Christ, but overwhelmingly he’d have remembered his time there as being characterised by hardship, and probably fearing for the future of the church there.

And it’s in that context that we see the kindness of God in sending Apollos to Achaia, almost certainly to the city of Corinth. There Apollos is able to build on the work that Paul had started there. Years later, when Paul was to write his first letter to the Corinthians, he’d reflect on it like this: ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow’ (1 Corinthians 3:4). Paul was able to know God’s sovereignty and the amazing way in which he used two very different individuals to establish the church in Corinth.

When I was a Relay Worker in Bristol, I had the privilege of seeing a guy (who’d become a close friend) come to Christ. His name was Matt. I clearly remember the day that he started professing as a Christian, because it was the day that Portugal knocked England out of the 2002 European Championships! Suffice to say, it was close to the end of summer term. I was leaving Bristol to move to Lancaster. Matt was still a baby Christian. I’d only had a short time to help kick-start Matt’s discipleship and had quite quickly tried to get him settled into a local church there. He’d only been a handful of times. And then I had to leave. And I can remember fearing for Matt’s future as a Christian as I left – would he be OK? It’s now, on reflection, that I praise God for his sovereignty and kindness in providing a guy called Chris, who was able to get alongside Matt and establish him as a Christian. Matt’s still going strong as a Christian and a major part of that, under God, is down to Chris. Chris was a kind of Apollos to Matt, responsible for his growth when I’d gone.

Or I think about a guy I know at the University of Central Lancashire called Jonny. I’ve not really seen him lately – certainly we’ve not had any chances to speak about the gospel. And yet only the other day I heard from another girl on his course called Miriam who’s had plenty of opportunities.

The point is this: God is sovereign and uses many individuals in his mission. God is God. And that means sometimes we need to realise that God may choose to do things his way, and not the way that we would prefer. Sometimes that means that you will witness and witness to a friend and be praying like mad for them, but they show no obvious sign of interest. Then, perhaps, they move away and someone else comes along and sparks that interest. We tend to think that evangelism and Christian ministry is individualistic, but I hope that you can see that none of us is working along. Not only do we have God the Holy Spirit with us, but just as we’re sharing the gospel with different people, many of whom have heard something of the gospel before meeting us, we can pray that they go on to meet other Christians who’ll keep gospelling them afterwards. Final year students: perhaps this is a particular challenge for you: are you praying for an Apollos to get alongside your friends? Are you praying that those friends who you’ll see much less of will find themselves in an office or a neighbourhood where another Christian gets alongside them? Let’s be those that pray for Apolloses for our friends!

Let’s draw to a conclusion. I’m really glad that Luke wrote down these sentences in Acts 18. I’m glad because it reminds us that God plus one is a majority. We look around at ourselves and what we see, on the whole is people that are pretty ordinary. Most of us feel pretty ordinary most of the time. Yet in his goodness and grace, God uses ordinary Christians to impact his world. Ordinary Christians empower other ordinary individuals to use their extraordinary, God-given gifts. And God’s sovereignty means that, in our ordinariness, he will continue to build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

On the clarity of Scripture

Tomorrow we have a team day on the clarity of Scripture, and in recent days I've been getting through the pre-reading, A Clear and Present Word by Mark Thompson.

It's been a helpful read; the main theme of the book being that God is an effective communicator - and therefore the testimony of Scripture achieves exactly the purpose that God wills of it. I've also been provoked to further thought by the idea that God spoke in language intelligable to humans before humans spoke, showing that God is well able to communicate even in human language.

Of course, this all brings the question of what we do with passages of Scripture that are really difficult to understand. Thompson quotes Augustine and Gregory on this - two really beautiful quotes that both affirm and humble:

'The Holy Spirit, therefore, has generously and advantageously planned Holy Scripture in such a way that in the easier passages He relieves our hunger; in the more obscure He drives away our pride. Practically nothing is dug out from those obscure texts which is not discovered to be said very plainly in another place.' (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine)

'For indeed, just as the divine discourse exercises the wise by means of mysteries, so it unusually revives the simple by means of what lies on the surface. It holds in the open that by which little ones may be nourished and keeps hidden that which those of lofty intellect might stand in wonder. It is, so to speak, a kind of river, if I may so liken it, which is both shallow and deep, in which both the lamb may find a footing and the elephant swim' (Gregory the Great, Commentary on Job).

Alec Motyer on suffering

I have been devotionally using Alec Motyer's guide to the autobiographical Psalms of David in his book, The Treasures of the King - well worth a read.

I was struck by this quote from Motyer on Psalm 56:

'When people say - as they unfortunately often do - that some deep sadness has made it impossible for them to believe in God, they confuse faith with cleverness, an ability to unravel life's mysteries. It is not so. Faith is a relationship with a Person known to be wholly trustworthy - even when he is, at the same time, baffling.'

I have just noticed that my dad recommends this book on the back cover; suffice to say I was enjoying it even before noting his endorsement!

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

LT Jeyachandran on the Trinity and holiness

One of the great things in UCCF recently has been a whole load of great teaching (predominantly from Mike Reeves) on the Trinity. It's really opened my eyes more to what God is really like and has some very practical outworkings.

I've just read an article here by LT Jeyachandran (of Ravi Zacharias Ministries) which develops this thought in thinking more about the Trinity and what that means for holiness and our worship.

True truth

Just read this wonderful quote from CS Lewis in his book The Weight of Glory. I think I've heard it before but been struck but its sheer depth.

The line is this: “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Lewis is making the point that we become convinced that something is true not just when a few pieces of evidence seem to support it - but when absolutely everything proves it.

In university missions over the past few weeks, I've been quite staggered by the number of individuals who have come from religious backgrounds but who are under the impression that thinking is the enemy of Christianity. Some have even been told by Christians (maybe sometimes with good intention?) not to question, but just to have faith. What freedom Lewis's observation is: that questions are good and that thinking is good. As we do so, and as we seek to make sense of the world, we'll find that all of the evidence points back to Jesus and the truth claims of the gospel. You certainly don't have to throw your brain in the bin or divorce yourself from experience to be a Christian (far from it!).

It's been great to be able to encourage students to think, knowing that if the gospel really is true truth, that it will be able to stand up to their honest questions.

The Gospel for Outsiders (Acts 8)

Below is the text of a talk I'm giving tomorrow at UCLan CU. As usual, I'd love to hear your feedback or comments!

I want to start by telling you about a friend of mine. He is a member of one of the other CUs I work with. He loves playing football. He has a skinhead. He’s probably considered quite hard by most people. He’s not the kind of person that you’d probably want to get in a fight with. And yet my friend has a secret: he loves chick flicks. Actually, it’s probably not that much of a secret. He might admit it if you asked him. But I remember the first time that I walked into his room and saw his DVD collection. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Princess Diaries. I could hardly believe my eyes! It seemed so incredible that such a person like my skin-headed friend could have such a passion!

I think that the original readership of the book of Acts might well have had a similar reaction reading this passage as the moment when I first glanced over at my friend’s DVD collection. Because what we see in this chapter is perhaps two of the most unlikely groups of people becoming Christians in two of the most unlikely ways.

The first unlikely group that receive the gospel are the Samaritans. If I said ‘Samaritan’ to most of you, you’re probably likely to think of the phone line which you call when you’re feeling unhappy. If you’d said the word ‘Samaritan’ a Jew in the 1st Century, you’re likely to have received a very different reaction.

It’s hard for us to quite imagine the background here. When we think of national hostility, it’s normally in quite a light way, mainly consisting of jokes involving Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotsmen. But the hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans had lasted more than a thousand years. The Jews despised the Samaritans on religious grounds – though originally part of the people of Israel, the Samaritans had inter-married with pagan nations. They were considered religiously impure by the Jews: they rejected all of the Old Testament apart from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible – and they had even changed some parts of the Torah, including the 10 Commandments. Most shockingly, they had built a rival temple to the one in Jerusalem. For this reason, Samaritans were excluded from worship in the true temple in Jerusalem. In sum, in Jewish culture, calling someone a ‘Samaritan’ was about the worst insult you could come up with. Perhaps a paedophile or a terrorist would have a similar reception today – hated by most. But even this doesn’t catch the long-term nature of the hostility.

Back to the story. The chapter opens with persecution. Stephen is martyred and the Christians are dispersed and scattered from Jerusalem. And yet God is completely in control of his mission. Up until now in Acts all the ministry has taken place in Jerusalem. No one had moved out to Judea and Samaria. But Jesus had said in Acts 1:8 that the coming of the Holy Spirit was to empower missions in Jerusalem and beyond: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” Now Acts 8:1 mentions those two areas in that order: “… they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria.” Whether the church might eventually have woken up to its calling without persecution or not, the fact is that God used persecution to hasten his people into the mission he had given them.

Anyway, Philip ends up explaining the gospel to the Samaritans and miraculous signs accompany the account of the gospel. And on hearing Philip’s message and on seeing his signs – we’re told that first in verse 6 the Samaritan crowds pay close attention to him, and then in verse 12 that they believe. God’s gospel message, brought to life by God’s Holy Spirit, changes people’s hearts. It’s what we’ve already seen several times in Acts. The shock here, however, is that it’s the Samaritans who are responding to the message. Well, word reaches some of the apostles who have been left in Jerusalem at Church HQ. You can almost imagine the apostles choking on their cornflakes as over breakfast someone mentions that the Samaritans are responding to the gospel message. Perhaps James and John are the most surprised of all. In Luke 9, Jesus is not made welcome in a Samaritan village and James and John ask Jesus whether he’s going to call down fire on them. Again: feel the deep enmity there. ‘Jesus, are you going to nuke them? Are you?!’ And now they hear the news that the Samaritans – the Samaritans – are responding to the gospel!

Well the apostles get together in Jerusalem for a conflab. They are amazed that the gospel is changing the Samaritans. They can hardly believe their ears! And so Peter and John are sent as a delegation to see what’s going on. Let’s pick up the story in verses 14-17:

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Now these verses are amongst the most controversial in the entire book of Acts, because they raise a question: is there a definite and separate experience of the Holy Spirit to be sought and enjoyed after conversion, shown by speaking in tongues, different from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which starts when we first believe?

Those who believe that there is a distinct second experience use this passage to support their position. The Samaritans seem to be already converted – that's the first experience – and yet there is an experience of the Holy Spirit that they don't have – the second experience. Verse 15 says that Peter and John came down from Jerusalem and “prayed for [the Samaritans] that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” It’s obvious they’re missing something. The Spirit has not ‘come upon any of them’. Yet in spite of this lack, they seem to be genuine believers. Not all Christians agree with this. Some now think that the Samaritans weren’t true believers before Peter and John came to pray for them. There are good arguments on both sides: some suggesting that the Samaritans weren’t yet true believers, some suggesting that they were. Well I don’t really want to get sucked into these arguments. I’m happy to chat through them later with anyone who’d like to. For what it’s worth, here’s my position. It seems to me to be the pattern throughout the New Testament that all true believers have the Spirit in every way we need for ministry and for godliness. Romans 8:9 puts it like this: ‘If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.’ Or Ephesians 1:13: ‘You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.'

So I think that we understand this episode best when we think about its context. As we said on the first night, Acts is primarily descriptive, describing the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. And, as we’ve seen, the gospel’s movement into Samaria was a significant advance. The question is: what would happen next? The gospel had been welcomed by the Samaritans, but would the Samaritans be welcomed by the Jews? You can imagine what might have happened – the church might have grown up with separate factions; a kind of church gathering for ‘normal’ people and a separate one for the lowlife Samaritans.

So what I think happens here is that God directly intervenes. In order to prevent such a disaster of a church divided on ethnic grounds, God deliberately and temporarily withholds the Spirit from the new Samaritan believers. Why? So that the apostles, Peter and John, could come to investigate, pray for the converts, lay hands on them as a sign of fellowship, and then experience on behalf of the rest of the church that they really are genuine Christians. They could be welcomed into the church on precisely the same terms as Jews. One commentator puts it like this: ‘At this turning-point something else was required in addition to the ordinary baptism of the converts. It had to be demonstrated both to the apostles and to the Samaritans beyond a shadow of doubt that they really had become members of the church. An unprecedented situation demanded quite exceptional methods.’

And so, I think, the reason this doesn’t happen throughout the New Testament is that the situation is unique. And the reason it doesn’t happen today is that there’s no Samaritans and no-one with quite the same authority to establish the church as Peter and John. And we’d have to say that God’s unique action seems to have had the desired effect because, as verse 25 tells us, Peter and John don’t return immediately to Jerusalem, but spend time preaching the gospel in Samaria.

Now in interpreting this passage this way, I’m absolutely not excluding the possibility that the Spirit may, at certain times, choose to bless some Christians in special ways. But don’t miss the big picture. Let’s take a step back and see what these events reveal about God’s heart here: a heart for Christian unity in massive diversity and a heart for bringing into his people a group that would have – until that time – been considered outsiders.

We can learn from Peter and John here. A group of people that they’ve considered enemies (and quite frankly weird) are welcomed into God’s people. They extend the hand of fellowship to them and consider them co-heirs in the gospel, completely equal. And I think we need to remember this. There are other Christians that we consider, well, frankly quite weird. They’re not the sort of people we’d normally choose to hang around with. Perhaps there’s people here this weekend that you consider to fit into that category. Perhaps there’s people like that will become Christians through your witness this year. And the challenge is this: given that Jesus has accepted them, will you accept them too? I guess it must have been quite humbling for Peter and John to welcome in the Samaritans – and it’s not always easy for us – but we need to remember that if God has reconciled himself to them, then we must too. It’s very humbling when you see Christians modelling this: people who are completely different from each other, accepting each other and showing each other grace in the light of the acceptance and grace we’ve been shown by God.

So we’ve seen the gospel going to the Samaritans – a group of people with wacky religious ideas – and changing them. Then in verses 26-40, we see the gospel going in another surprising direction: this time to an Ethiopian eunuch. Now there’s some important Old Testament context here. Lads, you might want to brace yourselves now! Deuteronomy 23:1 says this: ‘No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD’. In other words, under the old covenant, someone like the Ethiopian man couldn’t be a full convert to Judaism – like the Samaritan he wouldn’t have ever been able to enter the temple. And so these verses tell of how another ‘outsider’ becomes part of God’s people.

What I particularly love about this account is the way in which, again, God is the key actor. Track the number of times in which God opens up this opportunity for evangelism. First, in verse 26, an angel of the LORD tells Philip to go south onto the desert road. Then (verse 28) God has fixed it so that the man just happens to be reading the Bible as he drives past. He is reading Isaiah 53, which is perhaps the clearest passage speaking about Jesus’ death and resurrection in the whole of the Old Testament. And then (verse 29) the God speaks by his Spirit to Philip, telling him to follow the chariot. God is involved at every stage.

And it’s quite clear that God has been preparing the man for this encounter with Philip for some time. Look at his questions in verses 31 and 34. In evangelism, God still gives us a job to do – Philip still has to teach the man the gospel – but God is involved at every step in order to bring him to Christ. And – again – we see a very wonderful thing here as we take a step back and think about what this reveals about God’s heart. God consciously directs the paths of the early church in order to show them that his gospel is for everyone, including those, like the Ethiopian, who would have been thought least likely to have been part of his people. Such inclusivity was always God’s plan. Isaiah 56:3-7 prophesies of how, through the actions of God’s Servant, all kinds of people will be brought into God’s people – including foreigners and eunuchs. Now, 600 years after Isaiah prophesied, that’s exactly what is happening. And God himself is involved to make sure that it happens.

Well let’s pause for a moment here. We’ve seen that God is assembling together a diverse group to be his very own. There’s no restrictions placed on his people – there’s no ethnic groups or types of people excluded. Even people that traditionally were disliked by God’s people are now being invited on in. We saw it hinted at in chapter 2, and it’s a major theme throughout the book of Acts. All sorts of people are now invited to be part of God’s own people. Yet, in our minds, we so often place restrictions on who we think will become Christians. I wonder if you’ve ever thought this like I have: ‘Well, there’s an evangelistic event coming soon. A great opportunity for people to hear about Jesus.’ But then you look around at your friends and think: ‘Well, I just can’t imagine them as Christians. In fact, they’ll probably not be interested.’ And so you don’t invite them. And your idea about them never becoming Christians becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because they never get the chance to investigate Jesus for themselves.

When I was in Bristol, I got to know a guy known by everyone as ‘Pagan Ed’. Pagan Ed was quite a character. He worshipped Norse gods, because he said that they best represented the kind of gods he’d like to worship. He was going out with a Muslim. He was properly hard. He was well known for partying hard. He was a loud-mouthed Vet Science student, known throughout his department. I guess if you’d asked some of those Vet Science students the person they knew that they thought least likely to become a Christian, they might well have said Pagan Ed. Anyway, as part of the mission, a Grill-a-Christian panel had been arranged in the Vet Science department, and me and a guy from a local church in Bristol were to be on the panel. And in the run-up to this Grill-a-Christian, a couple of Vet Science students came and worriedly told me that Pagan Ed was loudly putting together a whole list of questions that he was sure would bamboozle and embarrass us Christians.

The night of the Grill-a-Christian panel came and, sure enough, Pagan Ed was there, one of the first to arrive. And he waved around a piece of A4 paper on which he had written dozens of questions. Anyway, some other people arrived, and before we started to take questions, the other guy on the panel with me – confusingly also called Ed – just shared something of the gospel. He spoke of how Jesus reveals God to us, but that Jesus didn’t just come to reveal God, but through his death to reconciles us to God. Then the person hosting asked for questions. Everyone turned to Pagan Ed. But to our astonishment, he didn’t ask a single question. He didn’t ask any questions all night, but politely listened. I remember chatting to him afterwards and asking, ‘Ed – what about your questions?’ His reply? ‘I realised that they were all peripheral. I realised that Christianity is all about Jesus – and I hadn’t given him a single thought.’ Over the next few of months, Pagan Ed continued to investigate Jesus, and eventually became a Christian. I recently met a friend of his. Ed is going on well with the Lord. It’s hard learning not to call him ‘Pagan Ed’ any more!

The point is this: we might often have stereotypes about the sort of person that we think might become a Christian, but God has no such stereotypes. God’s gospel is for all – and his Spirit is powerful to work in the hearts of all. What does this mean for us? Well, let’s be brave in our evangelism. Just take a moment to think: of your friends, of the people you know, who seems furthest away from the gospel? Well, let’s be bold in sharing the gospel with them – because the gospel that we have, sharpened with God’s powerful Spirit, is well able to break the chains of even the hardest heart. Let me beg you: don’t rule out certain groups of people in your evangelism. Keep on sharing the gospel with Muslims, with hardcore clubbers, with aggressive atheists. Continue to seek to reach them. God has no stereotypes about the sort of person he wants as part of his people and his gospel is powerful to change all. He’s saved Samaritans, eunuchs – even people like Pagan Ed. He’s well able to save others too.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

JI Packer on freedom

I picked up JI Packer's little book Freedom, Authority and Scripture in a second hand bookshop for 50p (the whole text of the book is online here). Although now somewhat dated in language (originally written in 1981), I've found what Dr Packer has to say very helpful.

Ahead of UCCF's FREE project, I thought that this gem on freedom might be worth reproducing in full. Enjoy!

Freedom has become a word to conjure with. It is modern man's way to treat freedom as the supreme value in life. Everyone wants more freedom than he has, and the quick way to get a following is to lay claim to a formula whereby freedom may be increased. It makes Westerners feel good to see themselves as the ‘free world’, just as it must have made the late Bertrand Russell feel good to announce his anti-Christianity in an essay entitled ‘A Free Man’s Worship.’ Politicians, lawyers, educationalists and social planners, if asked in public what they are after, will certainly reply in terms of maximising personal freedom. Many hail today’s permissiveness as a social virtue because it gives freedom for deviant behaviour which ‘less tolerant’ ages would not have countenanced. ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’ was the war-cry of the French Revolution, and the testimony of liberation-movements, literature, pop songs and political rhetoric all over the world is that liberty is no less vehemently sought today than it was in eighteenth century France.

But what is liberty? Under what circumstances are we genuinely free? Ask this question, and the solid-looking front of freedom seekers breaks up at once. There is no agreement on the answer.

Basically there are two ways of conceiving freedom. The first is to view freedom as secular, external and worldly. It is essentially a matter of breaking bonds and abolishing restrictions and hardships. It seeks freedom from or freedom not to. Those who think thus of freedom have different ways of pursuing it. Some hit out. These are the revolutionaries, social, political and aesthetic, who constantly strive to overthrow ‘the system’. Others drop out. These are the hippies, the counter-culturalists, those who hole up in rural communities and farms, who do their own thing and never mind what the rest of the world is doing. Still other throw out. In the name of humanism these jettison Christianity with its supposedly dehumanising restraints on conduct. Such also are those who seek women’s liberation by decrying the leadership roles of men. The idea common to all these endeavours is that you gain freedom by negating something else.

The results are unimpressive. Revolutions turn out to be an exchange of one tyranny for another. Hippy-ness is found to be no passport to happiness. The self-styled ‘freethinker’ spends his strength denying what his parents or some other authority-figure once tried to teach him, and he never gets beyond it. Women denouncing male leadership end up mannish and loud. Is any of this recognizable as the freedom for which we all inwardly long? The idea that freedom is what you have when you have thrown off all that represses or constrains you is a false trail which leads nowhere save to puzzlement and disillusioned bitterness.

The second approach to freedom is distinctively Christian. It is evangelical, personal and positive. It defines freedom persuasively, that is, in terms which (so it urges) all should recognize as expressing what they are really after. These terms relate not to externals, which vary from age to age and person to person, but to the unchanging realities of the inner life. This definition starts with freedom from and freedom not to — in this case, freedom from the guilt and power of sin, and freedom not to be dominated by tyrannical self-will — but it centres on freedom for: freedom for God and godliness, freedom to love and serve one’s Maker and fellow-creatures, freedom for the joy, hope and contentment which God gives to sinners who believe in Christ. The essence of freedom (so the claim runs) lies in these inward qualities of heart, of which modern secular man knows nothing.

This approach sees freedom as the inner state of all who are fulfilling the potential of their own created nature by worshipping and serving their Saviour-God from the heart. Their freedom is freedom not to do wrong, but to do right; not to break the moral law, but to keep it; not to forget God, but to cleave to him every moment, in every endeavour and relationship; not to abuse and exploit others, but to lay down one’s life for them (cf. John 15:12 f.; 1 John 3:16). Freedom for such free service and self-giving is beyond the capacity, even the comprehension, of fallen human nature. At first sight few can recognize it as freedom at all. Though it is really the way of life for which we were made, it so negates the self-absorbed lifestyle which we all instinctively choose that it seems to us anti-human and frightens us off. In fact, the only way anyone comes to know it at all is as the gift of the risen Christ, who affirms his penitent disciples in their self-denial and imparts his life to us as we give away our own.

One aspect of this freedom is integrity, that simplicity and purity of heart which, as Kierkegaard analysed it, consists in willing one thing, namely the will and glory of God, so that one’s motives are freed from the taint of self-regard. A second aspect is spontaneity. Unlike the rule-ridden Pharisees, whom Jesus pictured living (as it were) by numbers, the free person in Christ invests creative enterprise and resourcefulness in the task of pleasing and praising God and doing good to one’s fellows. Where the Pharisee’s concern is to avoid doing wrong, the free person seeks to make the most and best of every situation, so that he is lively and sometimes breath-taking company. A final aspect is contentment, the fruit of God’s gift of a joy within that increases all life’s pleasures, stays with him whatever is present or lacking in his outward circumstances, and enables him to accept without bitterness the most acute forms of suffering and pain. In short, this person is free for holiness, humanness and happiness — a freedom which surely merits its name.

Where does this freedom come from? Jesus Christ, the one perfectly free man that history has seen, is its source as well as its model. He himself said, "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36; for biblical development of the thought see Romans 6:1-7:6 and Galatians 4:21-6: 10). The exchange from which this promise comes is worth noting. Jesus has said: "If you hold to my teaching ... the truth will set you free." His Jewish hearers, bridling, had protested (with pathetic unrealism, in view of the Roman occupation), "We … have never been slaves of any one." Their protest showed them to be thinking of freedom in the purely external terms whose inadequacy we noted. But Jesus replied that he was talking of real freedom, freedom by comparison with which mere external non-servitude is not freedom at all. The real freedom is freedom from sin, which brings with it sonship to God and eternal security. Jesus tells them that only those whom he himself has freed, as they have entrusted themselves to him, are free in this full sense.

Jesus did not say, nor do I, that freedom from external pressures is not worth seeking or should not actually be sought by those for whom true freedom has become a reality. That is a different issue. My point, rather, is that while enjoyment of external freedom does not guarantee a free heart, the freedom that Christ gives can be enjoyed — praise God! — whatever external pressures there may be.

It must be plain that the second view of freedom is the profounder of the two, and since this freedom is bound up with personal salvation, social usefulness and the praise of God together, we should want to see everyone’s feet set on the road to it. But that road takes the form of accepting authority — the authority of God the Creator, who designed and sustains our human nature and alone can tell us what best to do with it; the authority of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the risen, reigning Son of God to whom all authority is given, who frees and keeps free those who continue in his word; the authority of Holy Scripture, which, as we shall see, is not just a witness to Christ’s universal reign but is actually the instrument of it so far as men are concerned; and the authority of the Holy Spirit, who so opens and applies Scripture to our hearts that we discern Christ’s will and are enabled to do it.