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Monday, 16 October 2017

How to Get the Best out of Preaching

The Practise of Listening to Preaching
Listening to preaching does not come naturally for at least three reasons:

First, we live in an age of infinite distractions. I am thinking here the Internet. The bored human mind can flit anywhere it chooses, and quickly moves to a more engaging site. This lazy habit of mind applied to the things of God is counterproductive, because listening to God's word needs both concentration and mental effort: it's called loving God with all our minds (Luke 10:27).

Secondly, Satan hates God's Word. He must know that the Word is the "sword of the Spirit", so he will do anything he possibly can to keep us from it. And boy has he had a field day in the modern church. Sermons are kept as short as possible and passages not politically correct (kind of like most of the Bible these days?) are avoided like the plague. Satan will keep us from hearing God's Word.

Thirdly, our old rebel natures hate the Word. Although we have been renewed in our inner man, we carry around with us our old fallen husk until the day we die. And this part of us does not want to submit to God's Holy Law.

For these reasons - and no doubt more - listening to preaching does not come naturally.

How then should I prepare?
First and foremost, pray. "Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law." (Psalm 119:18). Before we listen to preaching, we ought to pray for God to do what we can never do, to open our eyes to the glories of his Word, by the power of his Holy Spirit.

Second, humble ourselves before God. It is impossible to eat without opening our mouths, without being receptive, and it is impossible to hear God's Word without humbling ourselves before God's mighty Word, "Open your mouth wide and I will fill it." (Psalm 81:10). Many people do not hear because they are too proud to hear: they know better than God. 

Love the preacher. The pharisees learnt absolutely nothing at all from Jesus Christ, the Son of God, because they hated him. No-one will hear a word from God if they hate the man God has appointed. Pastors are to be loved and honoured as servants of  Christ, "Hold them in the highest regard because of their work." (1 Thess 5:13).  Love your pastor, and part of loving your pastor is to pray for him in his great task of feeding the sheep - and then you will profit from God's Word through him. 

Fourthly, concentrate - take notes if possible. No preacher should be boring; a boring preacher may simply be one who does not have the gift of preaching. But when we hear God's Word, it is not novelty we seek, but truth. So we need to concentrate. Some people find it easier to concentrate by taking notes.

Finally, obey the Word. This is the ultimate way of hearing the Word aright. "Blessed are those who keep his statutes" (Ps. 119:2). If we go every week listening but not obeying the Word, soon we will no longer hear the voice of God and our hearts will grow hard and cold.

What an awesome privilege we have listening to God's Word. Still, in the West, our sermons are not monitored by the state. We can listen in freedom and respond in joyful obedience. May we not take such an awesome privilege for granted: it is likely one day to be gone.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Was the apostle Paul a Misogynist?

Sheffield University
What did Paul look like?
I had the enlightened misfortune of studying Biblical Studies at Sheffield university. Enlightened because I became aware of how unbelievers interpret the Bible. Although we are not called to judge the heart, most of my teachers were probably not believers because they had little or no respect for the authority of the Bible. I choose my words carefully. They had respect for the Bible as a literary composition (and indeed they should: Hebrew narrative, for example, is remarkable for its skillful composition, as men like Robert Alter have explained) but they had no respect for the divine authority behind Scripture. The Bible for many of them had no more authority than Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Paul-loathers
What was very interesting during my years there was the particular loathing many lecturers had for the apostle Paul. John was cuddly, Peter OK, James a bit dodgy, but Paul - he was beyond the pale.

Apostle to the Gentile world
Understanding why he was loathed begins with a recognition of  Paul's specific role as "apostle to the Gentiles"(Romans 11:13). While cuddly John and Peter worked largely among Jewish circles, Paul's very specific task was to explain the Gospel of God's remarkable Grace to the Gentile (pagan) world.

There can be no greater message of love than the Gospel, which offers free pardon to undeserving sinners, so whence the loathing?

John and Peter did not have to say much about gender or sexuality, because in a Jewish culture that was assumed: there is a divine order between the male and female and any sexual behaviour beyond heterosexual marriage was sin.

Paul preached in a radically different environment, one where the ethics were unshaped by the Bible and where "anything goes" was the order of the day.

So it fell on Paul's shoulders to outline God's universal creation ethics to a pagan world ignorant of how God made men and women.

So when Paul says things like, homosexual practise is shameful, indecent and unnatural (Romans 1:26-27), or, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man" (1 Timothy 2:12) or, "Wives submit to your husbands" (Ephesians 5:22), he is simply bringing the newly converted Gentile Christians into line with the ethics of God's unending created order.

Because these ethical standards and codes are so different from those of the world, Paul is hated above all the apostles!

But we must hold onto the authority of the apostle Paul, for, as an apostle of Christ, when Paul writes we hear Christ speak.

What is astounding is that no New Testament writer so exalts or cares for women like Paul:
  • Men and women are equal in salvation - "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal 3:28)
  • Men and women both may serve Christ in the church - Paul's list of Gospel helpers in Romans 16 is filled with the names of sisters in Christ
  • Paul extols the caring role of a mother, "we were gentle among you, like  a mother caring for  her little children" (1 Thess 2:7)
  • Paul orders special provision to be made for widows (1 Timothy 5)
  • Most dramatically of all, Paul's insistence that Christian husbands love their wives in a sacrificial way (Ephesians 5)
The charge of misogyny against Paul is radically unjust, and you wonder therefore why it sticks.

Here's the reason: Satan hates the order God has wired into the created world and so he hates anyone who upholds that order.  He hates the Gospel and so he hates those who preach that Gospel and it's life-fruits. Above all Satan hates Christ and so he hates the apostles of Christ.

Anyone who preaches the Gospel faithfully today will also be called a misogynist
Any preacher who decides to be faithful to the Gospel message and its ethical outworkings  in the home and church  will alos be called a misogynist - and that is very costly. It explains why so many preachers are running away from Paul - in the end they don't want the reproach of Christ.

But Christ will honour those who are faithful to Him, even though they are despised in this passing world.

Friday, 6 October 2017

The Incarnation of the Son of God - and Social Media

Someone needs to write a short play
Talking to a friend of mine who is studying theatre the other day, we realised the potential for a (short?) play to illustrate the limits of all social media - and the relevance of the incarnation of the Son of God to this modern problem.

During the very same conversation we met a friend who has teenage children: he bemoaned the distraction of his children by social media; social media's boast to connect peopled together was in fact causing anxiety and distress.

The blessings of social media
No-one can doubt that social media has brought benefits. We are able to "keep in touch" with friends and family near and far in the same way that letters, telegrams and the telephone did in a bygone age. The problems with social media are when it is used as a substitute for human contact, and here is why.

Three Big Problems 
(1) Social Media can easily be misunderstood. Electronic means of communication, and most especially short sections of text can be easily read wrong. There is simply not enough information for the reader to get a full picture. This is the central fault with every form of social media, all the way up to and including Skype/Facetime.

(2) Social Media is too intrusive. We can find ourselves at the mercy of anyone who wants to contact us, rather than having control over when we have the resources, the time and the energy to talk.

(3) Social Media is open to deception and manipulation. Since the information content is so limited, anyone can deceive. A family in chaos could give the impression to the world that everything was at peace through selective posts - and consequently give the impression to those that read the post that their own family life was poor by comparison.

The Incarnation of the Son of God
A Christian once wrote, "God has yet more light to bring forth from His Word", by which they meant that God's Word contains untold gems for the whole history of mankind, which would be unearthed at the appropriate time. A sentence here or a truth there, which we can simply not see the value of today, suddenly shines in a new world setting. This is one reason God's Word is timeless and eternally relevant.

It contained all the seeds for the destruction of slavery for example so that in the fullness of time, Wilberforce and others could see clearly the abhorrence of the new world slavery of their day.

Here is another example: on first reading, Paul seems pedantic - "But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." (1 Cor 7:2). Why the "each man" and "each woman." Why didn't Paul say, "But since there is so much immorality each one should have a partner" and assume people would read husband/wife from the rest of the chapter and Bible? Because Paul was writing for all time, and for our time when homosexual behaviour is not seen for the wickedness that it is. He is being as pedantically specific as it is possible to be - no misunderstanding of that text whatsoever: a man for a woman and a woman for a man, not ever a woman for a woman or a man for a man! He wrote for our times.

The Word of God is eternal. "Your word, LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens." (Psalm 119:89)

The doctrine we need to restore for Social Media is the Incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh, and here is why:

(1) Speaking through words is good
God has spoken through the Scriptures, and words are good. 

(2) Speaking through other people (ambassadors/ prophets) is better
God used his prophets - real people -  to communicate his message. Rather than a purely written word, God sent real men who by their lives, words and often their actions added to the "bald" word. Ezekiel, for example, symbolised the siege of Jerusalem in a little play (chapter 4) involving a clay tablet and an iron pan.

(3) Speaking through yourself is best
As good as words and messengers are, the very best way to communicate is by yourself, your own, visible, bodily presence. A letter or an ambassador are secondrate to the presence of a king. God sent his Son in human flesh to communicate most effectively to us:

"In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us through his Son." (Hebrews 1:1-2)

In the incarnation of the Son of God lies the greatest theological and philosophical resource mankind has to advocate face to face communication. Jesus spent three years with his disciples. He didn't write letters to them or ask them to attend talks, he lived with them day by day. This is what discipleship entails and requires - deep meaningful communication with others. 

Back to Social Media
No form of social media - including Skype - can contain the amount of information required for effective communication. God has given us faces and body language which communicate emotions to add to  pure words which can only communicate  propositional statements of fact or information. 

Texts can be misunderstood and used to manipulate because I can say in a text "I am feeling rotten" whereas in fact if you were in the room with me you could see I was fine from my face, my body language and my circumstances.

Physical body to physical body is the only way to communicate effectively: that is what the incarnation of the Son of God teaches us.

We all know that the only proper way to talk is face to face, but Christian doctrine provides the reason: God used face to face when he spoke to us. And heaven is wonderful, not merely because there will be no mourning or death, but primarily for this reason:

"Now the dwelling of God will be with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God." (Rev 21:3)

 That short play must be written, and when it is, it will be a Gospel play.



Thursday, 5 October 2017

Fishermans Press - why we need a new Christian Publisher

Many good Publishers
There are many good Christian publishers out there, catering for different needs, but there is a niche in the market, and we prayerfully hope that Fishermans Press will meet that need.

Here are the gaps:

(1) Very cheap. We plan all publications from Fishermans Press to be at the lowest possible prices - what many people do not realise is that printing books is very cheap these days.

(2) Very Simple. Some Christian books are too complicated for the ordinary Christian. All books we publish will be aimed at "the man in the street" - in other words the biblical church category of "not many noble, not many wise."

(3) Easy to translate. We mean, not only in language style, but permission wise. Since we ain't interested in making money, we won't tie up poor Christians in poor countries with "legalese" which will prevent them translating our materials. We hope these materials will be translated and go all around the world, should it please the Lord. 

(4) Written by real church people.  In our day, too many Christian books are being written by self-styled experts, rather than by ordinary Christians with a writing gift. All books published by Fishermans Press must be written by people with the following real Bible titles or credentials, "saint", "pastor", "deacon", "evangelist"  "slave", or "servant."

If an author wants to boast about their earthly achievements we will happily use biblical categories such as "suffered at the hands of", "despised and rejected, "shipwrecked" or "beaten three times."

But all worldly personal titles or achievements such as "Dr", "Professor", "Director", "Founder of" and anyone wanting to be known by these worthless passing titles will be banned from Fishermans Press.

(Of course if someone happens to have such titles, is godly, and possesses a writing gift, we would be glad to include them as an author - providing they leave the worldly titles behind.)

Sounds radical? Only if we are wired to our secular culture rather than the world of the Bible.

We pray that God will use this new humble press in the years to come, to encourage the church all over the world.

fishermanspress.com

If you want to write for Fishermans Press please let me know.... 

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Can Satan influence a Christian?

The answer is: Yes and No

No

When someone is "born again" they move from Satan's "dominion of darkness" into the "Kingdom of God's Son." Before they were converted they were under Satan's authority, since the "whole world is under the control of the evil one" but now they have been gloriously set free by Christ Jesus who defeated him on the cross. Praise God!

Yes

But can Satan influence a believer after he or she has come to Christ? The answer according to the New Testament is a resounding tragic yes. A believer cannot be possessed by the devil but they sure can be oppressed by the devil - and they can give Satan the "green light."

Here's a half dozen ways.....

(1) Sometimes God allows a Christian to be tested by the devil for a season
This happened to Job - a season of intense testing. The purpose is to glorify God and to refine the saint. The Lord Jesus himself was led into the wilderness to be tempted by the evil one, not to refine him for he was perfect but to gain the victory Adam lost.

(2) Sometime God allows a believer to experience a long-term thorn "messenger of Satan" to lead them to rest in God's power
The apostle Paul was given a "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor 12) so that he would not become proud about the incredible insights he had been given but rather trust in God's almighty power. He called this thorn a "messenger of Satan" and as far as we can tell, it clung to him like a shadow.

(3) Anger gives Satan a green light
When a believer is angry, they give to Satan a foothold in their lives, according to Ephesians 4:26-27. We all know what this means: angry at one person can easily spill over to cross at everyone / unhappy with everything. 

(4) Disorder gives Satan a green light 
Satan hates the order God has wired into creation, and where ever there is disorder he finds a crack. If a man refuses to lead his wife, for example, or if a woman takes the lead in a marriage, Satan has found the perfect avenue of influence. Genesis 3 records the first of these opportunities. Eve took the lead, Adam backed out and Satan found his opportunity to pounce - and pounce he did. A disordered marriage is a green light for Satan.

(5) Opposition to church leaders makes a believer "captive to Satan's will"
A lesser-known way a believer can be influenced by Satan is if he or she opposes the leaders the Holy Spirit has appointed to lead the church. Paul says that all such must be gently instructed "in the hope that they will come to their senses and escape the trap of the devil who has taken them captive to do his will." (2 Tim 2:25-26). That is pretty serious! A Christian can become not a captive to Satan, but a captive to his will.

(6) When we rebel against God's will - especially God's will for suffering
Good disciple Peter told Jesus that he would not suffer the agonies of the cross. Jesus replied to him, "Get behind me Satan." At that moment, when Peter resisted God's will for Jesus' life - and especially his will for suffering  - he became a spokesperson for Satan.

In our western evangelicalism whose rationalism can easily filter out all talk of the supernatural, whether of God or Satan, we can easily disregard the influence of Satan upon us. But these six avenues of influence reveal how pernicious the evil one is and remind us of our need every day to pray "Deliver us from the Evil one."

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Our Biggest Errors (& the Water We Swim In)

Reformation Errors
You and I look back at the European Reformation and can see - with the clarity of distance - what enormous mistakes the great reformers made. Along with the amazing triumphs they were childrne of their time and could not see what we now can see as big mistakes, according to the Scriptures.

 In Switzerland, Zurich was the heart of the Reformation and Zwingli the main reformer. Zwingli was unable to see that it was wrong for the church and the state to be intimately connected. For a man who loved the NT this seems absolutely incredible to us. There is no hint in the NT that church and state should work hand in hand. In the NT the only relationship between church and state is, if anything, a hostile one - the state persecuted the church. From the church's point of view obedience, from the state's point of view persecution. Light vs darkness.

Zwingli's great error was manifest perhaps most unpleasantly in his ruthless persecution of the Anabaptists who he was pleased were hounded to death because they wanted to start a New Testament church separated from the state. 

Zwingli was heir to that monstrosity, "Christendom". For over 1000 years the church and state had become one confused single entity. Such a union did the state good, but did the church much harm. 

This was the "water" Zwingli swam in. Now if you ask a gold fish what water is, they will say "Water, what water?" Fish are completely blind to the water they swim in, and so it was with Zwingli.

Zwingli could see the errors of the mass, he could see the error with putting up idolatrous images in church buildings but he could not see the error of infant baptism because this error was intrinsically connected with "the water": when a human being was born they naturally entered society, when they were baptised, they entered the church, and these two events, only separated by a few days welded the church-state monstrosity called Christendom together.

We learn two things from the good man Zwingli. First our biggest errors are ones we cannot see, and secondly, those errors are structural but sinful ways in which our culture of the day works.

Our biggest errors?
What are your and my biggest errors? Most likely things we simply cannot see in ourselves - and hence the need for pastors to help us and brothers and sisters to admonish us, and most of all the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word to convict us.

What about the biggest errors of our evangelical churches today? If we think that we are beyond the reformers we are gravely mistaken. In a 1000 years, should the Lord tarry, Christians will say of us "they surely did not believe or do that did they?"

What, I wonder, are those big errors?

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Two Big Books from the Reformation

Books from the Reformation
Many important books emerged from the Reformation of the 1500s. Some are well known, some now forgotten. Two of the most important were....

(1) John Calvin's Institutes - 1541
One of the most famous of them all was John Calvin's Institutes. Calvin was, perhaps more than any other of the reformers, a great "systematiser" of truth. He wanted to put together a comprehensive book full of Christian teaching. His desire was to share the Gospel with his french countryfolk. Whether a 1000 page book was quite what common folk were looking for is up for debate! The book is worth reading even today and remains in print. Get the new translation by Robert White.

(2) Van Bright's Martyrs Mirror - 1659
Many of my readers will have heard of Calvin's Institutes, but my guess is that none of them have heard of "Martyrs Mirror." And that is a tragedy of history. Martyr's Mirror (or to give it its unsellable title "The Bloody Theatre or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenceless Christians") is a massive book - over 1000 A4 sized pages. Unlike Calvin's doctrinal book, this is a book full of the stories of Christians who have been persecuted from the days of the apostles to around 1660. In other words it's an expansion of the book of Acts (but not inspired, of course).

What drove Van Bright to put it together was in particular the savage persecution levelled against the Anabaptists of the 1500s. He shows that true Christians of all ages are persecuted. In point of fact "everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (2 Tim 3:12).

Persecution is a mark of a true Christian and a true church.

In our day, and in particular in the evangelical churches of the west, many attempts are being made to avoid persecution and the reproach of Christ.

Here are some of them:

(i) Run with the culture on gay issues. Tony Compalo and Eugene Peterson are two of the latest "leaders" who have sided with same-sex marriage to avoid the reproach of Christ. For men like this, it is much more important to be respected and accepted by the world, than to be faithfully persecuted by the world. In a smaller way, churches are embarrassed to preach about the sin of homosexual practice (which like the sin of theft or adultery can be forgiven and left behind).

(ii) Run with the culture on gender issues. This is far more subtle. The central gender issue in the church today is the divine created order between men and women, not the transgender confusion. Do the commands of the NT that men alone lead and preach in the church stand or can they be ignored? It starts in the home. Do men lead their families and their wives?  Or has Adam and Eve's gender-disordering disobedience become the norm?  Many churches are too afraid to preach these things and too afraid to follow them up in practise.

(iii) Run with the culture's addiction to man-made titles.  In the NT servants of the church were defined by spiritual characteristics such as  "slaves", "servants", "filled with the Holy Spirit." When Paul boasts he boasts about his sufferings and beatings and rejection by the world. But read today the blurb on the back of any Christian book and it will be full of earthly and useless titles, "President of", "Professor of", "Founder of", "Doctor of" and so on. Why? Because the church is deeply affected by the spirit of the world and desperately wants the approval of the world.

Can you imagine the following blurbs todsay:

    John Smith, pastor of a small church in Nothing-hampton
    Simon Nobody, slave of the church in Backwater
    Henry Jack, imprisoned at the pleasure of  HM Government and despised by many

The Evangelical church would laugh at such titles!  But if the truth be told, they are far far closer to the cross-carrying spirit of the NT than any of the clap-trap Dr / Professor types.

If the church stood up against the sin of homosexuality, stood up for God's creation order in the family and the church, and stood against the foolish addiction to passing fads and titles she would be persecuted.

And to be sure, churches and pastors who stand for the truth will be lied about and persecuted.

But persecution is a cause for rejoicing!

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the Prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:11-12)

Institutes vs Martyrs Mirror?
So which tome tunes in with NT Christianity best? We need both. We need the good doctrine of the NT, and we need the true living of persecuted Christians.

But if I was marooned on a desert island with only one to choose from, after the Scriptures, Martyr's Mirror would be the more useful.