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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

"If it's in the book of Acts it should happen today?"

A good start
A Christan who makes the Scriptures his or her guide in all things, ought to say, especially of the New Testament, "if it happened here, surely it ought to happen in today's church" for we like those first believers, belong to the Gospel age of the New Covenant, the age in which the Spirit of God has been poured out upon his people.

So as a first take and as an instinctive response to New Testament Scripture, this approach is to be applauded.

Second thoughts
But as we begin to read through Acts - and the letters of that apostolic age, the New Testament - we begin to sense that there might be something unique about the age of the first Apostles, and hence about the period of time recorded in the book of Acts. 

For one thing, this age was foundational. Jesus founded no church directly, but left his Apostles to undertake the work of writing the founding documents of the church, inspired by the Spirit and preserved in the New Testament. An age that is foundational, might be slightly different from the house built upon it.

If we were to ask what made the first decades of the Christian church foundational, it was the existence of the Apostles, capital "A". These men were responsible for the writings of the New Testament - every one of the 27 books of the NT were written either by an Apostle (roughly the Twelve plus Paul) or by someone very close to an Apostle: that was one of the 'criteria of inclusion'.

So the Apostolic Age was unique because the Apostles were alive, the Apostles who wrote the New Testament Scriptures. 

How did an "apostle" demonstrate that he was an Apostle, capital "A", with divine authority to write or oversee a letter or book of the New Testament? He performed unique miracles, says Paul:

"The things that mark an apostle - signs, wonders and miracles - were done among you with great perseverance." (2 Corinthians 12:12)

What kinds of unique miracles?

"....people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on them as he passed by..... all of them were healed." (Acts 5:12-16)

"God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs that had touched him were taken to the sick and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them." (Acts 19:11-12)

So some of the miracles we find in the book of Acts, are "extraordinary" miracles which marked out the Apostle performing them as a Spirit-inspired man with the divine authority to write Scripture. A shadow or hankerchief could heal, for example.

I have been a "student of miracles" for many years, earnestly desiring to find true and real examples of present day healings (and there are some wonderful true examples), but I have yet to come across any miracle worker today or in post-apostolic history who performed anything remotely like the miracles of the Apostles.

Let's be realistic: if such a person truly existed today, the world would be flocking to them, and there would be extensive documentation of their miracles. If any miracle worker today had 1000 bonafide miracles to their name (I know it would be to the name of Jesus, not their name) they would be more famous than David Beckham, and they would be in demand across the globe. Such miracle workers simply do not exist: that is a humble challenge as well as a honest assessment. 

The character of the Apostolic miracles was radical: we're not talking about backaches going away and the like, we're talking about verifiable big miracles including raising the dead to life. And those miracles were performed to authenticate the Apostle.

Time for a second look
So now we go back the the book of Acts and we ask, with new eyes, enlightened by the Spirit of God, what  is unique and what is repeatable? We do not expect to see everything we read repeated in the church today, because that age was foundational.

Two extremes
Perhaps the greatest tragedy that can befall us is to find ourselves at either end of a spectrum. There are some Christians who truly "throw out the baby with the bath water." They believe that virtually nothing supernatural in Acts happens today.  They want nothing to do with the supernatural: indeed they are suspicious - and even frightened - of all miracles, all prophecies, and any event that cannot be rationalised away.

At the other end of the spectrum are believers who believe that absolutely everything recorded in Acts can happen today. Since it actually doesn't happen in real life they often live in a land of fantasy and delusion, reading into every apparently minor supernatural event or word something of immense supernatural  significance.

No-one gets this balance right, but that is no reason not to labour at balance. We live in the age of the Gospel and the Spirit, but we don't live in the age of the Apostles. We need wisdom from God to work this  out from Scripture in our lives and in our churches.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The Plague of Pornography (2) The Beauty and Purpose of Sex

We've got to talk straight, folks

There is a right decorum which the Scriptures throw across the subject of sex. Paul says that it is shameful even to mention what the wicked do in private (Ephesians 5:12). And yet in the previous verse he tells us to expose the fruitless deeds of darkness. So on the one hand we have to talk straight, but on the other hand, not too explicitly; the poetic form of the Song of Songs leads the way.

Two purposes
God designed sexual union for two purposes; first to unite a man and a woman in marriage. Sex would both cement and symbolise their oneness; in their union they would - in some mysterious and wonderful way - "become one flesh." (Genesis 2:24) So powerful is sexual union between a man and a woman that even when it is a wrong union, e.g. between a married man and a prostitute, it still has the effect of binding them together - at least bodily, "Did you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body?" (1 Corinthians 6:16).

The other purpose of sex is procreation. Adam and Eve and every future Adam and Eve were commanded to be fruitful (Genesis 1:28).

God could have designed two separate biological experiences, one that produces children and another that unites a man and a woman; but he has united both of these "functions" in one, showing the powerful family context of sex: it generates not only union between the husband and the wife but children for them to care for (that is, a family).

The power of sex: God's glue
Sex is therefore extremely powerful: it has the ability to unite two human beings: there is no other force in all of human relationships so powerful; when used aright it is wonderful for the husband and wife, and glorifying to God. Paul shows the power of sex negatively when he says that "all other sins a man commits are outside of his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body." (1 Corinthians 6:18).

The sheer power of sex seems to lie primarily in the intensity of its mysterious pleasure; if it did not feel so good, no-one would be much interested in it!

The spiritual imagery of sex
Although some might struggle with this, sex is ultimately a picture of a much higher and more wonderful relationship, the relationships between Christ and his Church, the relationship between the believer and his Lord. This is brought out not only in Ephesians 5:31-32 "This is a profound mystery - but I am talking about Christ and the church", but in 1 Corinthians 6: 17 where Paul draws a parallel between human sex and our relationship with God "But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit." The bodily union of sex points to a greater spirit-union between each believer and the Lord.

So often in the Old Testament, when Israel's heart was turning away from the Lord to idols, God used the marriage image: his people - spiritually married to him - were running after prostitutes, rather than him (Exodus 34:15).

Sex then, is God's design to unite a man and woman in marriage. So important is this purpose that Paul expects every married couple to give themselves to one another and even calls sex a "marital duty" (1 Corinthians 7:3). When couples get married they should be instructed beforehand, "you are expected to give yourselves to each other in sex. If you don't want sex, if you are not prepared to give yourself to each other, regularly then don't get married, fullstop."

Solo sex: Eros defiled
Since sex is God's glue, solo sex is an abuse of sex, a wrong use of sex. It really is as simple as that. Any sex that does not involve a husband and a wife runs outside of God's design spec, and we must say lovingly, but clearly, is an abuse of God's wonderful gift.

This is where pornography comes in. The fundamental distortion of pornography is that it takes this beautiful gift and takes it out of its original God-given setting. Instead of  being used to unite a couple in holy matrimony, pornography turns sex into a selfish activity.

Sex now becomes, not a means (pleasure) to an end (union), but an end in itself: pure pleasure.

Pornography is the means by which that single end (pleasure) is reached. Sex is isolated from marriage, sex becomes distorted and twisted, Eros is defiled.

Sex can even now become an idol: something that those enslaved to it turn to for comfort, help and solace.

Under the influence of pornography, sex becomes sinful, ugly, perverted, wicked - and unrepented of, damnable.

Hope and Warning
There is hope in the Gospel for those enslaved  in this sin; we'll turn to that hope in a future blog. For now we pass on a warning for anyone who thinks that porn is a harmless passtime. The warning comes from a woman who was caught up in this sin. I have edited out a few of the "I wishes...." but you can read them all in the link below.....

Including it here, doesn't mean I agree with every sentence, but we ought to hear her sorrowful lament.

I wish......

"I wish that 10 years ago someone had educated me on pornography. What it is, what it does and what it reaches in and destroys in the hearts, minds and bodies of men and women.

I wish that someone would have told me that researchers have suggested it sabotages your sex life.

I wish someone would have explained how dopamine the chemical that is released every time you experience pleasure, drives you to return to what provided that feeling before.

I wish someone would have told me that the kind of pornography you're most turned on by is usually linked to a corresponding hurtful event in your life, further injuring your brokenness.

I wish someone would have told me I would begin to objectify men, build up images in my mind and think of sex day in and day out, to the point where I couldn't remain focused on anything else.

I wish someone would have pointed out pornography can establish your sexuality completelty apart from real-life relationships, causing huge problems in your intimacy with real significant others.

I wish someone would have told me that the dopamine and oxytocin being released from my watching certain types of pornography would cause me to question my sexual orientation, which in turn cost me relationships with friends.

I wish someone would have told me it would subtly create a "victim" mentality in my mind, causing me to be even more sensitive than I already was to catcalls, whistles, and even sincere compliments.

I wish someone had talked about how women watch it too, so I wouldn't have had to spend years living under the shame that comes with being "the only one" and thinking there was something wrong with me.

My "I wish" list is nowhere near complete, either. In the end, I simply wish someone would have told me why it was so harmful, instead of simply putting it on a list of things we don't talk about. We all know our rights and wrongs, but seldom do we know what makes them so. Had I known how much it would have harmed me, I would have left it alone."

See: What I wish I'd known......

Monday, 2 February 2015

We are born believers!

Don't judge THIS book by its cover
A few years ago, Justin Barrett came out with a book in which he claimed, through a serious of scientific studies, that....

"....children naturally develop minds that encourage them to embrace belief in the god or gods of their culture. People may practically be born believers." (p.3)

I don't particularly like the cover but I'm not surprised by the findings.

Romans 1:19-20 teaches that all humans everywhere know there is a God by the evidence of the natural world around them, so that on the last day, there will be no excuse for them to say to God, "This is the first time I ever knew of your existence." God will point to stars, flowers, the complexities of our bodies and minds - and 1000 other proofs which demonstrate that there is a God.

This is how it works: God has not only provided much external evidence of a Designer, he has put within us the internal reasoning processes that run perhaps something like this:

objects have an origin -> I can tell which ones are human artefacts and which are not -> the ones that are not must have been created -> people can't make flowers or mountains or physical laws or universes -> therefore a God must have made them

The internal brain-processes which lead to the inescapable conclusion are as much a part of God's final judgement on men as the external beautiful world he has made. 

What this book shows is that babies are born with all the mental equipment and processes necessary to lead to the most natural conclusion that there must be a God.  

The pre-wired software of an infant
Infants know how the world works (they have an inbuilt 'naive physics'),  they know the difference between agents (something which can purposefully act) and objects (which can't act), they know that agents create order and nonagents can only create disorder. They have built in reasoning systems which automatically detect the presence of intelligence. They even know the difference between agents and superagents. When you put all of this together they are pre-wired to naturally accept the existence of God, and even something about his superlative attributes.

The ridiculousness of evolution
What they find difficult to believe is evolution. Since they know that animals bring forth animals after their own kind, since they know that order is the product of intelligent agents, not impersonal forces, since they know that stuff has to be been made by agents, they find it ludicrous to believe that one kind of animal gave rise to a totally different kind of animal, that intricate design is the result of nonagents, and all the other foolish contortionist thinking evolution requires of the natural human mind.

This book raises the real question as to whether a false belief like evolutionary thinking may actually damage the natural reasoning processes of a child - research on this would be interesting: do children indoctrinated with evolution early in their life turn out a lot thicker than kids who learn about a Creator, a belief which simply builds on all they know already about the world around them? 

The ones who ought to be charged with indoctrination, mental-process damaging and brain-washing, in that case would be parents who twist up their kids minds with irrational evolutionary junk-science. 

Where does atheism come from?
The real puzzle, for Dr Barett, is where does atheism come from? Since children most readily believe in God, and since most people in most of history have been believers in a God or gods, where does atheism come from? Where do the few atheists in the world come from? Barrett makes some interesting suggestions, including the prevalence of male-brainedness both in the academy and now increasingly in the wider population, the non-relational tendency of science-types whihc makes them thus unable to imagine other mind(s), and so on. 

The deep source of atheism is, going back to Romans 1, personal sin. In a recent outburst on Irish TV, the atheist Stephen Fry revealed the heart of an atheist in his irrational tirade against "God". The real source of all atheism is personal sin, which suppresses the truth about God. If there is no God we can indulge in whatever sin we please without any painful tinge of conscience. If there is a God, we secretly fear his judgement which makes sin a lot more uncomfortable.

So to cope with their knowing rebellion and sin,  men and women suppress the truth in unrighteousness in order to continue their life of sin without remorse.