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Monday, 31 December 2018

Great Hope for 2019!

Hope is not Automatic
Out there in the world, and in the sad heart of mankind, fear and anxiety are more common than hope. "Hope springs eternal in the human breast" may be a distinguishing trait of human beings  - we need something on the horizon to keep us going. But worry is more characteristic of daily life in a fallen world. So much so that Jesus preached a sermon about not worrying, repeating the command again and again, "Do not worry."

To get to hope, to get up hope, requires a work of God's Holy Spirit in our hearts, and his work always comes through his Word.
A Scripture which inspires great hope for 2019 is Psalm 46.

 God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
    God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.
 Come and see what the Lord has done,
    the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
10 He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.’
11 The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

The Psalmist is filled with Hope!
That's the first thing we notice. "We will not fear", he says ultra-confidently; even if  the world falls apart! Even if the very worst happens. He says to himself as he looks to the future, that no matter what, he will not fear! This is supernatural hope!

The Psalmist's Hope comes from God's Power
But notice where his courageous hope comes from. He is not confident in himself or in any human power or achievement. He is hopeful because God is with him, God is his refuge, God is his strength, God is powerfully at work in the world around him, breaking the bow, shattering the spear and burning the shields with fire. His hope is in God alone!

The Psalmist's Hope leads to silence
Finally, because the Psalmist is filled with Hope, we notice that he can rest securely and quietly. And God commands us to do the same, "Be still and know that I am God." Anxious people are fretful people forever "on the go" unable to bear silence, lest it bursts into worry! Hopeful people, by contrast, can down their tools and rest in God's peace and security.

Whatever 2019 brings, we need not fear, we must not fear, we should not fear, for God is with us!

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Good News? How can the birth of Jesus become Good News?

The sorrow of gun-crime families
Reading the harrowing stories of parents who have lost loved ones to gun crime in TIME magazine recently, made me ask again how the Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ could possibly be heard as good news by them.

Parents who find themselves in this most unwanted "club" discover many experiences in common with each other.

First, they quickly learn that the initial outpouring of support soon dies, the world moves on, but the families can't - "it's a pain you can't outrun."

Secondly, they are often haunted by the chance involved in such crimes - if only they had kept their child home, if only this, if only that, etc., which can lead to anger and to self-judgement.

Third, many families simply fall apart after such horrific crimes, such is the ripple effect of evil and such violence on parents and family.

When I read their sorrowful stories, I asked myself, how can the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ be "good news... of great joy... for all the people"?

Of course we could add a thousand other sorrows to the one above and ask the same question - how is the Gospel good news to hurting people?

The Hope of Justice
In the first place, the birth of Jesus, is the arrival of the Judge of the Universe and therefore the Hope of Justice. One day, the child Jesus, who grew up into a man, died, rose from the dead and now rules in the heavens will return in power and glory - to judge the world in perfect justice. On that day perfect justice will be established.

The Hope of An Empathiser
Secondly, the birth of Jesus signals the birth of someone who has entered into all our sorrows and understands them from the inside. God became flesh so that he could live our life, experience our sorrows, and enter into our grief. You say, "Jesus never lost a child to a bullet", and that is true. But he lost a good friend to sickness and death, Lazarus. He lost his father sometime between the ages of 12 and 30. He knows what it is like to lose someone close to him. And besides all this he has experienced every other sort of earthly sorrow and pain, from emotional abuse at the hands of enemies, to betrayal by a friend, to physical torture and then crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.

In Christ Jesus we have a friend who understands all the sorrows of our life, and stands shoulder to shoulder with us, with a tear on his cheek.

The Hope of a New Life
Thirdly, the birth of Jesus heralds the hope of a new life. Men and women who kill can be transformed by the grace and love of  Jesus so that they turn from such evil behaviour. Parents who have suffered the loss of a child can find in their hearts forgiveness and all-surpassing peace. Evil does not need to triumph; good can triumph over evil, with God's help.

The Hope of a New World
Above all, the birth of Jesus heralds the hope of a new world to come, in which there will be no guns, no murder, no sorrow and no death. Jesus made a way for us to inherit that future world, he opened a door into it. Through his suffering, death and resurrection he dealt with the sin that stops us from entering the new heavens and the new earth. He paid for our sin, he set us free, so that when after we die we can enter the new heavens and the new earth.

The greatest hope anyone can possesses, in the face of the greatest sorrow, is the hope of an eternity in the presence of God in a new world of untainted joy. All earthly hopes - as important as they might be -  are limited and temporary and uncertain.

Jesus came into the world to give us hope.

"I bring you good news", 

     said the messengers from God,

     "that will cause great joy for all the people." (Luke 2:10)

Sunday, 2 December 2018

The Victory of Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ is Victor
The Bible ends with Satan's doom and the saints eternal rest. In other words, Satan is defeated and Christ is Victor. Hallelujah!

An Interesting Trend
But preparing for a teaching talk on the millennium from Revelation chapter 20, I could not help but noticing that at the end of the Gospel Age (the 1000 years), during which Satan has been bound, Satan is set free for a short time during which he unleashes all his last-minute last-time hatred on God's people.

(Then he is beat for good and condemned to hell forever.)

This, it seems to me, is a common characteristic of Satan's activity. He experiences defeat, he knows his days are numbered, but gives a "last minute kick" just before he is out for good.

When Jesus casts out an evil spirit, it sometimes gives a final kick:

Mark 9 - Jesus casts out a demon from a boy, "I command you, come out of him and never enter him again." We expect the demon to depart in an instant. But before he does, he "kicks" the boy one last time, "The spirit shrieked, convulsed the boy violently and came out."  Last Kick.

Matthew 8 - Jesus casts demons out of a man. What do they do? Leave the man but go off and destroy a herd of pigs. Last Kick.

Beware of Satan's Last Kick
Every believer needs to be aware of this "trick" or "device" of the devil. Satan has many "devices" or tricks and this is one of them. It may happen that when someone comes to faith in Christ, just before - or just after - they are converted - Satan gives them one final kick. It could be that when a believer is beating a bad habit, Satan gives them one last final kick.

There can be many circumstances where Satan attempts, one last time to disturb a believer, or even to disturb a church, one last time. We must be on our guard.  

Don't fear the last kick!
The news from God's Word is - don't fear Satan's last kick! Satan is a defeated enemy and we are not to fear his last kicks. Expect them, yes, but don't fear them, because Christ is the supreme ruler over all, and he will protect his people from all harm.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Forgiveness and Reconciliation are not the same

The Problem
Some have argued that if you forgive someone in your heart, you should naturally be reconciled to them in person.

But that is not necessarily the case. If the offender does not recognise their sinful behaviour or confess it or apologise for it, there can be no meaningful reconciliation  - though the offended must always forgive in their heart.

Forgiveness is an inward attitude of mind and heart that views the person who has offended them - as hard as this might be - as though they had not offended. In other words, there is no longer any anger in the heart towards that person. Forgiveness - true forgiveness - is only possible for a believer because of God's forgiveness. The logic of all Christian forgiveness is this: "If God has forgiven me the greater offences I have committed against him, I must find it in my heart to forgive the far lesser offences someone has committed against me." Meditating on Christ's forgiveness and praying the line of the Lord's prayer regularly really does enable a believer to work towards real heart forgiveness. "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us."

There can be no meaningful reconciliation, however, if the offender is totally unwilling to admit or own up to their offences. Why? Because every time the offended and offender meet, there is an elephant of offence in the room, undealt with. So you can pretend to be reconciled, but in reality you are not - and can't be.

The Joseph Example
The story of Joseph is a moving example of human forgiveness motivated and empowered by God. Joseph's brothers sin against him in a terrible way. First, they are filled with internal envy for his gifts and role (we must in part blame Joseph's father for favouritism). Second, they are callous when they threw him down a well while they were eating a meal. Third, they knowingly sold him to slave trader who "bruised his feet with shackles, his neck was put in irons." Fourthly, they lied about him to their father. 
If ever there were men who sinned against a brother - here it was. 

And if there was ever a group of men who did not own up to their sin, it was this crew.

But here is the interesting and important point. Joseph made it hard for his brothers before he reconciled with them. While I do not doubt that he forgave them in the heart, there was no reconciliation until the brothers owned up to their sinful behaviour.

What did Joseph do to get them to see their sin?
  • He put them in prison for three days
  • He made them send their youngest brother to Egypt - an act they knew their father would find nigh on impossible to accept
  • He put a royal silver cup in one of their sacks  making it look like they were thieves!
  • He spoke harshly to them (42:30) and treated them as spies
What was the purpose of this gracious-harsh behaviour? Was Joseph being vindictive? Not one bit! He was trying to get them to see their wicked behaviour - and it worked:

"They said to one another, 'Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen, that's why this distress has come upon us'." (42:21)

It was only when the brothers could see their wickedness that Joseph was - or could be -  reconciled to them.

So reconciliation and forgiveness are two very different things which must never be confused. We are always called to forgive, but reconciliation is impossible without acknowledgement of wrongdoing on the part of the offender(s). 

If someone sins against you, always forgive them in your heart. How can you not? Then run through  the process of Matthew 18 if you can - sometimes it is impossible. Reconciliation is always desirable, but not always possible.  See if you can get them to see their sin. If they can't or refuse to see their sin, then do not feel guilty if you cannot reconcile.

 As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Can a believer lose their salvation?

A Real Question
Some believers struggle with assurance. Assurance is the inner knowledge that we are, for sure, right with God; that our sins are for sure forgiven; that we are certainly on our way to heaven.

Assurance can be connected to personality as well as doctrinal teaching. People with low self-esteem and confidence can also suffer from a lack of salvation-assurance.

Believers from theologically "Arminian" backgrounds can also suffer from assurance.

(In simple terms, "Arminianism" says that salvation is in our hands. One day I can believe and the next day I can decide not to believe. In contrast, "Calvinists" believe that salvation is completely of the Lord. God decides who is saved and God keeps them by his almighty power through all the struggles of this passing life.)

For sure, Satan uses any chink in our armour, whether doctrinal, personality - and most frequently failure - to "accuse" us. The name "Satan" means accuser. He says to us "How can you be a true believer when you just thought that, said that, did that?" And all too often we believe his lies.

The answer is a radical "NO"
So can a believer lose their salvation? Absolutely, and certainly "No!" Why not?

(i) God is the one who chooses who is saved. "Salvation is of the Lord" according to Scripture (Psalm 3:8, Jonah 2:9). If salvation had anything to do with us, we would have no hope, because outside of Christ we were lost in sin (Ephesians 2:1) and under the power of Satan (1 John 5:19). If salvation depends on us choosing it, not one person would ever do so. It is God who sovereignly chooses who is saved (Ephesians 1:4)

(ii) Those whom God chooses, he for sure brings to heaven. "He who began a good work... will carry it on to completion" (Phil 1:6). "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand." (John 10:28). Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8).

If salvation was in our hands, as some Arminians teach, the expereince of assurance is completely unattainable. But if salvation is in God's hands, we can have every confidence, in spite of all the ups and downs of life, that we are safe.  

What about those who have walked out?
Someone says, "But what about those who once believed but don't any longer?" Don't they demonstrate that we can be lost?" Not at all. A "backslidder" is a true believer who leaves for a while but in the end returns. The prodigal son returned home; Peter returned to the Master after denying him. King David returned. If someone truly believed, but is now backslidden they will one day return. A backslidder is a true believer all the time.

An apostate is someone who looked like a true believer but never was and one day leaves for good and thereby demonstrates that fact. Judas was an apostate.

What about Hebrews 6?
The book of Hebrews was written to backslidden believers on the verge of walking out. How do we bring such back? With many encouraging truths and with the severest warnings, that if they walk out they may never ever return. That's what the warning of Hebrews 6 is about.

Won't assurance lead to spiritual apathy?
Again, no. Because the mark of a true believer is that they work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). They don't rest on their spiritual laurels saying to themselves, "I'm saved so I don't need to bother". That lazy attitude is almost certainly the mark of someone who is not saved.

Assured that we are loved by God and eternally saved should be the experience and blessing of all Christian.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine;
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.
This is my story, this is my song,
  Praising my Savior all the day long

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Attenborough's Anthropology

"Sir David Attenborough wants more women to lead like in the animal kingdom."

A household name, a national treasurer
For as long as I have been watching TV, I have enjoyed the wildlife programmes written and narrated by David Attenborough. He has a deep understanding of the natural world and a winsome way about him.

I encouraged my sons to watch his nature programmes as they were growing up (though always with their "baloney" filters turned on: they learned to temporarily tune out when he mentioned evolutionary theory, the present creation myth.)

But now Attenborough, at the ripe and grand old age of 92, has turned from wildlife to anthropology and boldly declared his wish that more women become leaders in the world of human beings. 

Pourquoi?  because females are often leaders in the animal kingdom.

Using the world of elephants as his example he notes how  the lead females have all the wisdom, bring up all the "kids" and deal with the problems of drought. Bull elephants by contrast don’t stick with the family, and, he says, dash around, trumpeting and copulating whenever they get the chance.

As in the animal kingdom so is (irresponsible men) and should be (wise women leaders) the human kingdom.

Dear Dave
Where has Attenborough gone wrong?

First, because he is wedded to the theory of evolution, he thinks that there is a straight line between the animal kingdom and the human world: Animals 'R' Us. Since human beings have arisen from the animal kingdom by the process of evolution we are to expect continuity between the animal kingdom and the world of human beings. And more than continuity - lessons about how we should order our human world.

Suppose however that evolution is a myth of the first order? Suppose it is just the latest in a long line of creation myths - this one generated by a scientific culture? Suppose the measure of continuity between the animal kingdom and the world of human beings is not account of common descent, but common Creator? Suppose that examined in any detail, there is actually a step discontinuity between the animal kingdom and human beings? And that this discontinuity is on account of humans being made in the image of God, rather than being made in the image of animals? Why then should we look to elephant communities as our guides?

For those with their eyes open, nothing is clearer than that humankind is radically and step-wise different from all the animal kingdom. Humans are made in the image of God, with minds and emotions and creativity totally and completely unmatched in the animal kingdom. When an animal thinks of food, it means an immediate digestion of the meal, for example. When a human being thinks of a meal, she thinks, what shall I eat today? Perhaps, I want to eat this meal with a friend. I will find out what my friend likes. Text friend. I will go to the shop and buy the ingredients. Come home and cook it. Text friend to tell them it is ready.  Lay the table with tablecloth knife and fork. Light scented candle - of the fragrance liked by friend. Buy some wine to go with the dish: one kind out of thousands of kinds, choose carefully and wisely. Welcome the friend into the house. Ask them to sit at the table. Perhaps say thanks for the food. Share it out - offering the guest the first portion. Talk between mouth fulls and so on. An infinitely more complex process than "feeding behaviour" at the zoo. What goes for food goes for every other comparison - the points of discontinuity far outweigh the tiny points of continuity.

So we should never look to the world of animals for our behaviour, because animals are not us. We rise infinitely and gloriously above them in every way imaginable.

Second, "Dave" is wrong to suggest that the parallels between the behaviour of some men and all bulls is inevitable.  Men are fallen creatures. Perhaps there is now, in our fallen world, an all-too-common superficial parallel between some men and the self-centred bull. But that is not the way God made men. God made Adam to love Eve, to protect her and cherish her and put her needs first. The likeness of some men to an elephant bull is not how things should be. To draw the parallel is to reinforce a false stereotype and to discourage men from rising any higher.

Shall we now follow the lead of all animal behaviour? Eat like pigs? Copulate and defecate in public? Why not? Why not?

Third, Mr Attenborough is wrong, because he is reasoning without Revelation. If we were left to our own poor intellects and certain examples of the animal kingdom, "women should lead" may be a conclusion we draw. But since we have God's Word on the matter, we know that women leading is not the way it should be nor the way it was meant to be.

God made Adam to lovingly lead his wife, not to be led by her. By leading we mean primarily loving Eve in a sacrificial way, so that she naturally wants his lead. This is the way all women uncontaminated by feminism or the dreadful example of bull-headed males think, it's what they would ideally want. Their psychology and biology desires the lead of a  kind and loving man. 

If men were what they ought to be, then the anthropological ramblings of Attenborough would gain no traction.

This kind of reasoning will be more and more common. Our children must be inoculated against it. There is no sign that the discredited theory of evolution will be replaced by something more sensible and truthful, and so we can expect more animalistic anthropology to enter the mainstream of received wisdom in our western culture.

Mr Attenborough, stick to wildlife.