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Monday, 30 June 2014

Why you can't grow spiritually by listening to sermons online (alone)

An old peril now bigger
Choosing what we want to hear is a peril as old as the hills. Paul warned of those who would listen only to people who told them what they wanted to hear (2 Timothy 4:3). He was speaking to a young pastor and forewarning him that the day would come when someone would stop coming to hear him because he was offended by his teaching, and instead this person would gather around himself teachers that told him what he wanted to hear.

The end effect of neglecting the pastor's sound doctrine, said Paul, would be they would turn from the truth and start to believe myths!

Today this peril is made more real by the internet.

You can google your favourite subject and end up strolling down an infinite and narrowing corridor of ideas with which you agree. That's the point, "with which you agree." There you are, all on your own, following your own self, your own weaknesses, your own foibles, your own ideas. You following yourself. You disicpling yourself.

So if you are a judgemental type you could find some website that will condemn virtually all Christians (except yourself). If you are a lovey-dovey type, you'll find a website that never mentions hell. If you're a hell and brimstone type, you'll end up listening to "sock it to 'em bro" sermons.

No-one to correct
There'll be no-one to correct you, to point out that the corridor you have chosen is getting narrower and narrower. Eventually you end up believing myths. Stuf so far removed from the Gospel that Paul calls it "myths". Nothing to do with Jesus, nothing to do with God, nothing to do with the grace, nothing to do with the Gospel.

Why we can't grow on your own
There are five reasons we cannot grow as a Christian all on our own:

First you were never designed to learn (or do anything) on your own. God made us in his triune image and that has life-shattering, all-encompassing implications - including on how we learn. None of us have enough wisdom, experience or sense to learn on our own. It is never good for any man or woman "to be on their own" - for anything. 

Second, the image God gives to believers, is of a body, in which we are merely one part. No-one is more than a body part, eye, ear, whatever. It's actually impossible for any one body part to function without the others - at any level, including growth.

Third, we are fallen, so we all have profound imbalances. Someone who tries to grow on their own, will end up a monstrosity, with only certain areas growing and others completely neglected. A child given the choice to eat whatever he wants will end up ill, because there is something they need, which they won't eat. They'll end up with spiritual scurvy.

Fourth, God has given pastors to teach the whole counsel of God. The purpose of elders and pastors is to feed the flock a balance of the whole counsel of God, as Paul did in Ephesus (Acts 20:27).

Fifth, the Bible specifically says that growth is a corporate activity (Ephesians 4:16). The body grows, that's the unit of NT growth. The idea that we can grow in isolation from the body belies an OT  or monkish ecclesiology.

And example of growing through others
Every wise preacher consults commentaries. In this way they are not preaching what they think the passage says but listening to the collected wisdom of centuries and even millenia of faithful preachers- who of course, in turn, prayerfully asked God what he was saying. This is how we get wise - surround ourselves with a multitude of wise counsellors.

A wise preacher will deliberately buy a range of commentaries: some of his own theological bent and others of a different bent. He may even buy (or in this case better borrow, so that he does not waste money) liberal commentaries so that he can see how the pagan in the pew might be hearing that passage (a liberal is someone who approaches the Bible as one might approach Homer or Shakespeare, with no faith, no respect and no spiritual understanding - very helpful if you are preaching to pagans so that you can hear what they'll be thinking about the passage).

An example of stilted growth without others
I remember hearing about a meeting between a great Christian leader in the UK and a Christian who had been tortured for Christ over many years with many years on his own in prison, in solitary confinement. What was that Christian like? Well he had become weird. Who wouldn't become strange? In this case it was not his desire to be alone, but aloneness had twisted his personality and to some extent even his theology. The Great Shepherd of the sheep kept him in those dark years, but isolation was not an ideal place for developing doctrine or spiritual life. 

Me, my Bible and God
An indaquate method of spiritual growth is to sit in our rooms and read the Bible in splendid isolation from everyone else. Thinking we are hearing the Lord, but in fact being unaware that half the voices we are hearing are the loud voices of personal prejudice.

The very best way to grow is to listen to preaching addressed to our own community by a wise, loving and courageous pastor and through shared Bible Study with fellow believers where our prejudices and foibles - and frankly sinful and foolish ways of thinking - are constantly being exposed and addressed.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Why did Jesus come into the world in AD 0 (or was it 4BC)?

No, I won't use BCE and CE, unless you mean the C to refer to Christ, not 'common'. BC "Before Christ" and AD "Anno Domini: in the year of our Lord" are perfectly good universal and appropriate markers for global history, for Jesus Christ is the King of the Universe.

A great question 
I was asked this question in a discipleship class this week and it set our minds running. The only verse we could think of was Galatians 4:4....

"...when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that we
might receive the full rights of sons." 

from which we learn that (a) Christ came at just the right time, and (b) he had to be born under the law. Let's list some reasons from these  two knowns.

(i) All the pointers were in place
How do we know that Jesus is from God? Because he was preceded by multiple prophecies all pointing to him. One thing no human can do is to plant sign posts in history before they are born. All these Old Testament pointers show us, for sure, that Jesus is from God.

(ii) All that teaching about sacrifice sheds light on the perfect sacrifice
It was vital that the images came before the reality, the black and white before the colour, the type before the antitype. Those remarkable Old Testament sacrifices help us to understand the greater sacrifice of Jesus Christ. A male, a perfect male without blemish.

(iii) Millenia of sinfulness reveals mankind's need of a Saviour
If Jesus had come in Genesis 4, the absolute wickedness of mankind would not yet have been revealed to the world. But we have the OT record of wickedness - even religious wickedness - and we can see that there is no human solution to our problems.

(iv) Law shows up the need for grace
The law had to come before grace to show the absolute inability of religion to save us. All the law does is expose and increase our sin. Religion (=obey the law) is useless. A new scheme is necessary to know God and live for him. And that new scheme is the grace of God that has come to us from Jesus.

(v) Sin showed up mercy and love
The millenia of sin reveals the incredible love of God. Every passing century revealed more of the wickedness of mankind and made the patience and love of God to such wretches more and more amazing!

(vi) The right time geo-politically
I guess we can recognise that Alexander the Great had given the world a universal language and Rome universal roads.  This made the progress or advance of the Gospel easy. These empires thought they were serving their own ends but they were serving the Gospel of a sovereign God.

These seem to be some of the reasons Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, was born, not in Genesis 4, but in Matthew 2.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

What about all the violence in the Bible?

New and Western
A relatively new kid on the block of questions is this one. And a Western child too.
I cannot imagine many Africans, Indians or Iraqis asking  this question, because violence is just a normal part of their life and society. Reading about the violence in the Bible they are more likely to say, "What's so suprising about all this violence, we experience that every week of our lives." or "Wow, isn't this book real to life."

And yet though it's a new question and a Western one, it's worth a good answer in seven parts......

(1) Remember we're judging from the comfort of western peace
That's the first thing any Westerner needs to acknowledge. To a Westerner, any culture, contemporary or ancient, that does not have an ordered police force, justice in the courts and prosperity is likely to be called "violent" or "barbaric" or at least patronisingly "uncivilised". What the Westerner should be asking is "how come we happen to live in peace?" rather than "why do they live in violence?" Because violence has and always will be the norm in the world (any one who wants to deny or dispute this has to switch the TV on or review the 20th century - or any other century, past or future).

The reason we live in peace is explained eloquently by the Indian Vishal Mangalwadi in his wonderful book, The Book That Made Your World. In this book Vishal, who originated from India shows that the reason for Western Civilisation and all the amazing things we enjoy - including peace - is the vast influence of the Bible.

One of the most important books of our times. Violence is the norm, peace is unusual. Instead of condemning what we think are "violent" cultures, we should be grateful for our peace and ask from whence it came.

(2) The Bible is an honest book
The Bible does contain a lot of violence because it is an honest book. It does not whitewash evil like many other annals of antiquity which gloss over the wicked deeds of their heroes. (This was another thing that struck Vishal about the Bible- it was honest compared to the writings of India which glossed over the sins of their own heros).

(3) The civil laws of the OT are not final ethics
Some of the OT laws may seem barbaric to our eyes. But remember they are much better than the surrounding laws of the nations (such as the Babylonian Hammurabi Code, available free on Kindle) but in the end they are not meant to reflect final ethics - that is only found in Jesus. Remember too that Israel was mostly unbelievers and the laws reflect the need for harsh treatment to contain violent tendencies in the absence of regenerate Holy Spirit hearts. Their hearts were hard, said Jesus in Matthew 19, which is why they were allowed to divorce their wives so 'easily'. Divorce was never God's intention, but what do you do when hearts are hard? You have to limit the effects of wicked behaviour rather than try to control it.

(4) Israel was a theocracy under the direct rule of God
The only nation to have that status, and only for a short time. She could act as God's instrument of judgement as she did when she wiped out the wicked Canaanites. If we don't like this, remember God used other nations to judge Israel. There is no nation  (not even America) who can claim to be God's Nation, with the authority to judge others. This was the great (but simple) error of the Crusades.

(5) We're not meant to copy much of the evil behaviour
So many OT kings were wicked; they are not examples of what to do, they are examples of what not to do. The violence is there to serve as a warning, not a blueprint.

(6) Sometimes the problem is behind the violence
Sometimes the real problem people have is not with the violence at all, but what is being taught. God judges other nations using Israel: we don't like the fact that God is the Judge. Uzzah dies for touching the ark: we don't like this teaching on the seriousness of sin!

(7) The darkest moment is not in the OT at all
The darkest moment of the Bible is the Crucifixion of Jesus, not because it was the most violent act in all of history, but because this was an Innocent Man, because he was being blamed for our wrongdoing and because he was suffering ultimate death, separation from God - spiritual suffering. This violence was allowed by God because he loved us, and the only way we could be forgiven was if our sin was paid for in full.

For love's sake Jesus became poor and bore upon himself the sin of the world. The darkest moment thus turns out to be the brightest, for through it we may be forgiven for our sins.

If we can look beyond the violence of the Bible to this moment and recognise that it was our sins that put the holy Son of God on a cross,  and if we cna trust in this atoning sacrifice, we can find peace with God through faith in his Son.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The precious gift of faith

My grudge with the charismatics
I have many charismatic friends - whether they view me in the same light, I know not. One grudge against them is the downplaying of certain spiritual gifts and the uplifting of others. Our good friends will big up speaking in tongues, healing, words of knowledge and the like, but I have yet  to hear a single charismatic friend extol the glories of the precious gift of faith.

I guess we are all imbalanced somewhere, though I can't think.......

"Saved by grace... by faith... not of yourselves.. it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8,9)

What is the gift of faith?
Quite literally the ability to see things and believe things otherwise invisible. It is a believer's way of "knowing". The mind is one way of knowing. The world knows things through the approval of the mind. A man reads a book about flowers and his mind agrees with what he is reading, and he now knows this fact, that gardening technique. Experience is another way of knowing - we may learn the hard way something that the mind ignored or refused to accept.

Faith is a spiritual gift which enables us to know certain things with absolute certainty, but without the use of reason or experience.

So for example, we believe God created all things by faith (Hebrews 11:3). (So, if the world taught that the universe just came about by itself without God, we would not accept that belief, because we know, through the gift of faith, that God is the great Creator.)

For example, we believe in life after death. There is no way experience or reason could lead to that truth, unless you buy into NDEs,  Near Death Experiences. There are some faith-truths that are just not open to reason or experience, they are beyond the weak powers of reason and experience. That's why we need faith, because reason is so weak, not to mention fallible.

Faith is supported by reason and experience
This does not mean that reason and experience are irrelevant to faith or opposed by faith. Since God created the world, we should expect to find lots of reason-evidence and experience-evidence around us, and my oh my, so we do.  (Proper) Reason and (Proper) Experience will always support Faith.

Reason and Experience always rely on a kind of 'faith'
Critics of faith will always say that they don't need faith, because they rely on the tangible and 'more sure' methods of reason and experience for their truer 'knowledge'. But of course this is entirely untrue. All reason relies on faith of a kind, not supernatural faith, but trust (faith) in others. Take research in any scientific field. The researcher relies on (i) other people's research, (ii) the laws of nature, (iii) the stability of natural law, (iv) the present paradigm in which that science is operating; none of which he or she has the time nor ability to "prove."

A divine gift that comes through hearing
Faith - an incredible supernatural gift from God - comes through hearing God's word. This is a mysterious and wonderful thing. If we don't have faith, we need to read God's Word, listen to preaching, and somehow, mysteriously, wonderfully, God gives us the gift of faith.

And this gift is more precious than any of the other spiritual gifts God gives, because it opens the door of eternal life.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The tragedy of "succeeding" before God's time

A handful of faces
In my mind's eye I have a handful of faces and names from decades past. Of men who are no longer useful in the kingdom of God, but who once showed potential. Today they are neatly parked in cul-de-sacs of uselessness or else they have made shipwreck of their faith.

And the reason for this handful is the same: they ran before they could walk. In some cases it was foolish pride, in some cases they were encouraged by unwise older believers to run before they could walk, in still other cases they were not discipled in the early years of their Christian faith and so they discipled themselves, and imagined they could run before they could walk.

Wanting to run before you can walk
This is the first peril. Before we have any wisdom (we may have knowledge, but there is a universe of difference between wisdom and knowledge), we expect to be listened to, we expect to assume influential roles. The cause of this peril is pride -  the idea that somehow we are better / more knowledgeable / more whatnot than others.

Of course, pride dresses its ugly self up in the beautiful garb of zeal  - but in the end it is plain and simple pride. I mean Satan isn't going to allow pride to be called pride ("ooo", "ouch") is he?

Wanting to run before we can crawl is the first peril which leads some into "succeeding" (or at least wanting to succeed) before their time. And it can very easily lead to ruin. Not without reason does Paul say that leaders must not be new converts lest they get proud (1 Tim 3:6) and end up in the same pit as Satan.

The cure to this peril is to bear the yoke while we are young (Lam 3:27). Follow others, listen to others, think little - or better nothing - of our own opinions, hold lightly to our immature ideas. Do what others tell us to do. And one day when we have learnt to follow, we can be entrusted with the awesome task of leading others.

Being made to run before we can walk
An equally dangerous mistake is made by older Christians who push young babies into responsible roles - and in the process expose them to Satan's chest-puffing suggestions. It's all done in good faith - here is a famous sports star just converted or a young convert who seems to be on fire. Load them with responsibilities and give them the stage!

What a young believer needs is a few years in total obscurity, learning to grow, getting the ABCs into place, such as (- not knowledge, that is XYZ) a humble spirit, a servant heart, a teachable attitude, a Christ-like attitude.

Being left to disciple ourselves
I think of one more face of ruin - a young man who was not discipled in  his faith in the early years - and by the time someone loved him enough to disciple him, it was too late: he would not be discipled. Today Satan has him nicely parked in a lay-by troubling no-one, least of all his evil self.

This young man was self-discipled. This was in the early days of the Internet, and basically he taught himself. What happens? He picks and chooses what he wants to read. He's not going to listen to wise elders and loving pastors, he's going to listen to what He wants to listen to, capital H. And guess what? His input lines up with his prejudices and weaknesses and foibles. All he listens to reinforces all of his prejudices, which, naturally, grow, and grow and grow.

He has no-one around him in these early years to tell him, "that is error", "that is folly", "that is just plain daft", so those ideas grow and grow and eventually take over his mind. Before long his "theology" is a jumble of crazy ideas - which he thinks are of primary significance - but in point of fact and reality do not rank as secondary, tertiary or even quaternary (of fourth importance) issues.

This man is like a carpenter's apprentice who refuses to take advice from the master carpenter (that's how absurd the situation is!) He will make joints as he sees fit, he will carve as he sees fit, he will choose the wood he sees fit. Now, would you buy a chair from this fellow? Would you employ him? Would you take carpentry lessons from him?! No, no, no. I don't think so. Would you sit on his chair? I hope not.

Wherever this man was converted, they have failed to disciple him.

Is there a cure or is there hope? Only by a humbling, which God alone can do (we are never called to humble someone else, by the way; that is God's work, and God's work alone).

The Bible way to 'success'
The proper way to "succeed" is to humbly serve Jesus in our local churches, learn from those with infinitely more wisdom than us (in Scripture it is wisdom that counts, not knowledge, which is almost irrelevant to spiritual growth), obey when told to do something, and wait a long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long time (i.e. wait a long time). Until God raises us up, until the elders and God's people see in us servanthood and humility and Christlikeness.

Then, and only then, can Jesus entrust us with some great great task. Not before, not for the sake of the Kingdom of Jesus, not one minute before.