Search This Blog

Thursday, 12 January 2023

Reading the Bible in 2023 - Seven Tips

 

 

Drawing by DALLE - "Line drawing of man reading the Bible"

 Read the Bible - but why?

Taking one of my sons around to university open days some years ago, I was surprised by the number of times professors and students encouraged the would-be-students to read the Bible before studying English at their hallowed institution.

The Bible has shaped English Literature, and so much else about western life, that to ignore it would be folly, was the general jist.

But that isn't the reason I am suggesting we read the Bible in 2023. The logic - and everyone who reads the Bible regularly will assent - is that the Bible transforms life. Because it is God's inspired and powerful Word to mankind.

If you are not yet a believer, reading it will open your eyes spiritually - or should I say, God will use his Word to open your eyes - if you are prepared to read with humility.

If you are a believer, no daily activity will revolutionize your life for the good, more than reading the Bible. The light, wisdom, guidance, grace, hope, forgiveness and love of God are all communicated to us, in the first place, through his Word. 

But the Bible is a big book, 66 books in one, two testaments together. How does one start? Where does one start? Here are seven tips, I hope you will find helpful. They are only tips, you may find a different or better way.

#1 Have a system

Just as an archer hits nothing without aiming at something, so you are unlikely to make much progress without some plan in mind. You may not hit bullseye, you may miss the target altogether on some days, but a target is better than no target. Will you read through one book, chapter by chapter, or story by story? Will you use one of the many read-in-a-year schemes? (See below.)

#2 Choose a time during the Day

 Are you a morning lark or an evening owl? Will you find some time in your lunch break? All of life's activities are habit-forming, we get into good habits and we get out of them by repetition. Same with Bible reading. Commit to a certain time each day - if you can. 

#3 Determine a Duration

I know this is sounding programmatic, but it can be helpful to plan to read for a certain amount of time each day. It does not have to be long, start off with 10-15 minutes? It's your shout.

#4 Begin with prayer

If you're serious about hearing from God, why don't you begin with a prayer, something like Psalm 119:18 “Open my eyes that I might see wonderful things in your law.” After you've read, meditate on the words, pray about them, ask God to show you what he wants you to learn that very day.

#5  Don't get into guilt trips

Scripture reading is meant to be a blessing, not a curse. The problem with all good habits is that we may feel guilty if we miss a day or two. Recognize this guilt as false. If your plan says "read the Bible in 365 days", it does not matter if it takes twice or ten times that long!

#6  If you struggle on your own, read with a friend

Not everyone finds sole reading easy, if that's you, if you need collegiate encouragement, read with a friend and discuss what you discover.

#7  If this is your first read, start in the New Testament

If you're new to Bible reading, start in the New Testament, perhaps Mark's Gospel. Read one short story at a time - you will be amazed at how much light shines out of such few words. 

Finally, a few words about reading plans.

Read the Bible through a year plans. This is an ambitious idea but if you want to get a good bird's eye view of Scripture it's one way to go. Download the 52-week plan HERE, print it out and put a tick in the boxes once read. Or use the famous Robert Murray M'Cheyne plan. Download it HERE.  

There are online helps such as Project 3:45, but beware of online schemes that are nothing but bait for buying other stuff. Indeed if they're not giving out their plan for free, no strings attached, I suggest that you get out before the net closes in.

Read through the Bible, Bibles. You can buy a Book which has divided the Bible into 365 parts, which makes it easy to work your way through. The advantage of this system is that if you miss a day or two, the bookmark tells you where you left off. Big deal if it takes you two or even three years.

Daily Light. This is a famous little book where someone has put Bible verses together  around a common theme, one set for the morning and another set for the evening. It shouldn't be used as a long term solution, but can be very helpful for a "ring the changes" season.

Daily Devotional helps. A little like "Daily Light" but more useful are the devotional aids written by authors such as Charles Spurgeon ("Morning and Evening") by Timothy Keller ("My Rock and Refuge") or by John Stott ("Through the Bible, through the Year")

For families. There is no better children's Bible than "The Child's Bible" by Catherine Vos, buy it HERE. What a joy to read the Bible through with our children while they are young. Ours is very worn from reading to our four children.

 



Thursday, 22 December 2022

The Other Argentinian



Born 300 km Apart

Born some 300 kilometres south of Messi's home town of Rosario and fifty-three years earlier was a spiritual giant by the name of Luis Palau.

(The image of the two Argentinians above was 'drawn' by artificial intelligence website DALL.E with the instruction: "a realistic oil painting of Lionel Messi and Luis Palau watching a football match, facing away from the camera.")

Born in 1934 in Buenos Aires Luis became a Christian at the age of 12. But his life's work as a global evangelist, eventually preaching to millions of people (by one estimate around 1 billion in his lifetime), began when his mother urged her son to take the Gospel to nearby towns that had no churches. 

Slow off the mark, Luis answered his mother with "Mom, I'm waiting for the call." 

A mother's wise reply set Luis on his life's work as an evangelist. "The call? The call went out two thousand years ago, Luis! The Lord's waiting for your answer! You're not waiting for his call!"

Helped by Billy Graham, Luis Palau became an evangelist, preaching the Gospel to vast congregations across the world. 

His only connection to the other Argentinian, apart from national origin, was football stadiums: Messi played in them while Palau preached in them.

"If I've ever impressed anybody" he told journalist Lee Strobel, I hope it's because they realized I'm not very special. I hope they say, "If God can use an ordinary person like Luis, why can't he use me?"

 DALL.E "draw Luis Palau preaching in a football stadium 
in the style of impressionism"

The Greatest Test

The greatest test of any man rarely comes in life, and most often arrives at death. 

At the age of 84 and in good health, Luis Palau discovered one day that he had stage 4 lung cancer which was to take his life a few year later.

Here came the greatest test of all. Palau had preached heaven and hell to millions, but how would he handle the valley of the shadow of death personally? Journalist Lee Strobel spoke to him not long before his death.

The initial diagnosis disturbed him, or rather Satan used it to disturb him, "Palau, you have preached to multitudes but what if you are one of those to whom the Lord said, 'I never knew you?'" 

These attacks were overcome "through prayer and studying the Bible, especially chapter 7-10 of Hebrews, which affirm that Jesus appeared once for all to do away with sin." 

The Change a terminal diagnosis made

When Palau shared the fact of his diagnosis with unbelievers they often changed the subject, "Hey, some weather we're having."

But in his heart he found good things were happening. For one, he began to read the Bible with open eyes underlying every mention of heaven. He started thinking much more about heaven, attempting to visualize what it would be like. 

He began imagining conversations with his dad who died when he was ten, wanting to tell him what a legacy he had left for his son. 

"Who do you especially want to see in heaven?" 

"Of course, the very face of Jesus, my Saviour." 

"And I want to spend time with my mother and with all the great heroes of the faith, Augustine, Wesley, Whitfield, Moody." 

"Think of this: we'll never sin again. We'll never have to say 'O God forgive me.'"  

And if Luis could send a message to fellow Christians across the world, what would it be? "Take a risk - tell others about the good news of Christ."

And to those who do not yet believe? 

"Don't be stupid! Don't pass up what God is offering out of his love and grace. Why embrace evil when goodness beckons? Why turn your back on heaven and chose hell? Don't miss the party that God has waiting for you in heaven!"

Excerpts taken from The Case for Heaven, Lee Strobel

Thursday, 15 December 2022

The Real Meaning of Christmas

We all Know

We all know that "the true meaning of Christmas" is not to be found in tinselled trees, mince pies or sleigh bells. 

Of course not. 

Some further enlightened saints know that there is no such thing as "Christmas" at all, if we are seeking Scriptural light on the matter. 

Christmas, Easter and every other so-called Christian festival find no hint in Holy Writ. 

(Which means if a believer wishes to jump out of "Christmas" altogether no-one may judge them, nor, bearing in mind what X-mas means in the secular sphere, blame them.)

What all are agreed upon is that Christmas is somehow related to the birth of Jesus Christ, the incarnation, of which our carols so wondrously speak.

Everything turned on its head 

The real meaning of the incarnation (our language is getting more accurate now) is in large measure this: that God turns upside down the priorities and values of this present passing age.

That's not quite right.

The world had turned God's values upside down, so the incarnation turns them right-side up.

What the world prizes turns out to be nigh-on irrelevant to God. 

And contrawise, what the world has no interest in, turns out to be of paramount importance to heaven.

Whom God chooses, for example, is radically other than who the world would choose.

The world favours celebrities, the rich, the famous, the educated the gifted. 

But who does God choose to bring His Divine Son into the world? A nobody Mary from the "can anything good come from?" town of Nazareth.  

What kind of family does God bring his holy Son into? Surprisingly not a traditional marriage of husband, wife and two kids.  A couple not yet married, around whom, therefore, would swirl the suspicion of illegitimacy. 

Suspicion not only for Mary and Joseph but for Jesus in whose direction was slung the thinly-veiled slur, "we are not illegitimate" (John 8:41). 

What kind of people were chosen witnesses to Jesus' birth and infancy? The aristocracy of Jerusalem? Those who held the reins of earthly power? The powerful, the educated?

Hardly.

Surprised commoners, shepherds on the tiresome night watch, are God's appointed witnesses!

And rank gentile outsiders, astrologically infected Magi, were led to the place where the infant boy Jesus lived.

And how was the news of Jesus' birth made known? Broadcast to the world by Roman heralds rushing hither and thither across the empire? 

No. Hardly anyone knew the King of kings had arrived, except a few shepherds (who alone heard the heavenly hosts), an old believer by the name of Simeon plus an ageing prophetess by the name of Anna.

And of what wealth was the Divine Infant's family? Carpenter Joseph was a man of ordinary means. And if I am not mistaken, the gifts given by the Magi were to fund the escape to Egypt; meaning the family were not flushed with spare cash?

And was this baby desired by the world? Not if Herod - or the Jews - reveal the attitude of the welcome party. "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not recognize him." (John 1:10)

And were the circumstances of birth comfortable for the Prince of Peace? Private room in the Maternity ward at the Jerusalem Royal Hospital?  That sort of thing.

No. 

For one thing, the expectant mother had just endured a long journey from Nazareth in response to a command of the Emperor. Add to that exigency, the misunderstanding of fiancé Joseph must have cast a shadow across the nativity. And then, just a short little while later, a fearful flight to yonder Egypt with a youngster in tow.

And what would Mary have made of the chilling prophecy of Simeon, "a sword will pierce your soul as well?" Not the kind of words any mother wants to hear.

Suffering, poverty, hardship, misunderstanding and ignominy marked the coming of the Son of Man into this world.

That's the true message of the incarnation.

The Reason?

Why no trumpets, fanfare or red carpets?

For three reasons. 

First, God thinks and works in a (very) different way to the world. What matters to him is not outward show, numbers, wealth, health, fame, education or standing, but far more significant invisible qualities, such as character, faith, humility, love and hope. 

Secondly, because the vast population of our world is ordinary. It is God's will that none should perish, that all shall hear. But how can the poor hear if the message or the messenger is obscured by a cloak of otherness? By coming into this world in such a humble way, the proud are stumbled and the poor gladly hear.

And thirdly, the divine order is this: suffering first, glory next. To be more precise, suffering in this world and glory in the next. For the joy set before him (i.e. beyond the grave) -  see how this pattern spans the duration of his life? - Jesus endured the cross.

The incarnation, therefore, establishes a paradigm, not only for the Man of Sorrows, but for all his followers and for every true Christian church. 

Suffering in this world, glory in the world to come.

Contentment

This true meaning of the incarnation ought be the source of great joy and contentment.

God understands us and is with us in our earth-centric sufferings and sorrows.

God looks at the heart, not the illusionary outward indications of success, whether that be wealth, education, numbers or whatever else. So we don’t need to care about, nor chase, those illusory symbols of success.

God clearly does not think that anonymity or invisibility are hindrances to usefulness in his service.

And we can gladly forgo the approval of men and wait for a better world's "Well done good and faithful servant."

An incarnational paradigm shift in personal thinking proves to be the source of deep contentment to the humble poor.

Repentance

But added to contentment, the incarnation should lead to repentance.

The evangelical world is virtually identical to the secular world in its value systems - and at serious odds with the incarnation.

We have our celebrity Christians.

We worship the god of numbers, whether hits, subscribers or congregation size.

We bow at the idol of education, wealth and status. Can you think of one single Christian leader or author who is an electrician, plumber, or fisherman? And we wonder why so few ordinary people respond to the Gospel in the West? Is it because they look at the church and think if not say, "If I have to become like them, I'm out of it."

We so easily prize high-falutin unintelligible theory-doctrine books (the latest conference "must buy").

And so the list of shameless paradoxes goes on. 

A true understanding of the incarnation would revolutionise our churches and church structures, giving due place to the truly rich.

Hope

But returning to a positive note, the incarnation gives hope. 

It tells us that no-one is excluded from the possibility of God's grace and great usefulness in the service of his Kingdom.

Outsiders are welcome.

There is hope for nobodies.

Old men and old women are valuable in God's kingdom.

We may be as poor as a church mouse, have no drop of noble blood coursing through our veins, be convinced that oxbridge is the name of a bridge over the river Ox (it's not?), may hail from an unknown village - and still be chosen by God. 

Indeed!

Indeed our chances of being chosen by God are directly in proportion to our lowness! Wonderful hope for the rich-poor!

So away, this Christmas, with the thinking of the world, and in with a incarnationally renewed mind. 

Deep contentment!

Radical repentance!

Hope for the world!

 Image by Greyson Joralemon, Unsplash

Thursday, 10 November 2022

How to Oppose Error and How Not To - The Book of Concord

  

The Ever-Present danger of Heresy

In our truth-lethargic age, the very idea that heresy exists is unpopular, and the task of unmasking it is viewed as a wholly negative enterprise.

We want to be known as tolerants, and exposing error, I'm afraid, ain't that.

Far better to preach "Jesus loves you!" than to defend the Resurrection or the Incarnation or the Trinity. Heresy-talk is oh so negative.

And of course, on the opposite side, we can don the mantle "prophet of doom." It's quite possible to be so consumed with error that preaching Gospel truth takes a back seat and we become clanging gongs. 

But defending truth is one task of the church, who collectively are called "the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Timothy 3:15).

To neglect the task of defending truth because the act as become unfashionable is to step away from the practise of the New Testament writers, who are constantly contending for the faith once delivered.

The question is how do we defend truth, how do we refute error?

The New Testament answer is twofold: (a) positively, by the continual preaching of truth (which scatters darkness) and (b) negatively, by the rebuttal of error. 

One might add that there are two additional New Testament aspects to both of these facets: the truth proclaimed or defended should be done personally - by a living person, and locally, addressing the error of that moment or situation.

The defence of the truth then becomes immediate in time to the situation at hand and personal to the people who are actually exposed to the particular error.

Paul, for example, encourages Titus, positively to teach the truth "These, then, are the things you should teach." (Titus 2:15) and negatively, to personally rebuke and refute the false teachers on the island of Crete, "They must be silenced." 

All teaching, whether positive or negative is done personally and addressed to the immediate situation to hand. 

The Lutheran Book of Concord as well-meaning as it was, provides an excellent example of how not to refute error.

The Book of Concord?

In the aftermath of the Reformation a group of churches and their regions in Germany became Lutheran, not then by name, but by following Martin Luther. 

Opposition from heretics of all sorts, not least the Roman Catholic Church, led to bitter and protracted truth battles from 1517ish onwards.

The Augsburg Confession of Faith (1530) was the "Lutherans" chosen way of consolidating the truths that had been recovered by their reformation. This is quite a short document of some 28 "Articles" (XXXVIII Articles if you wish to adopt the academic practice of obfuscation).  

The creation of a new Creed - for that is what it was - is a very subtle departure from the apostolic means of defending truth: a new, but now man-made impersonal and global document, begins to be regarded as the final deposit of truth. 

This subtle shift from Scripture to Confession, though understandable, is  dangerous.

Before long, from 1530 onwards, many opponents along and tear old Augsburg to pieces! So a second tome becomes necessary - Apology of the Augsburg Confession, by Luther's successor Philip Melancthon. Three times the size of the original, this defence, attempts to defend everything that was defended in the hallowed first confession. 

Of course, error doesn't go away and before long this apology is attacked and more documents are necessary.

Some of these opponents argue that the version of The Augsburg Confession the Lutherans are using isn't the original. So now a defence, only previously needed of Scripture, is required of the new holy document - authentication. (The proof of authenticity presented is that the version they use is identical to Latin and German copies that reside in archives). 

None of the controversy is silenced - of course - and so eventually the big shots get together and come up with one big fat book, "The Book of Concord" (this book intended to bring final unity and concord to the Lutheran movement). This enormous Tome is made up of:

  1. Preface to the Book of Concord (1580) - why they had to put it together
  2. The Three Chief Symbols (The Apostles', Nicean and Athanasian Creeds)
  3. The Augsburg Confession
  4. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession
  5.  The Smalcald Articles
  6. Treatise of the Power and Primacy of the Pope
  7. The Small catechism
  8. The Large Catechism
  9. Formula of Concord

In my version, some 600 pages! It remains the official doctrinal standard of the Luther Church today, some 500 years down the line.

This Tome now becomes the final authority for this group of churches, the new bible, the new word. The Preface makes it very clear that this book is final doctrine in the lands, territories, churches and schools of the signatories. The Preface is signed - and here is a big part of the problem - not only by a few pastors but by numerous politicians - dukes, electors, counts, palsgraves, mayors, barons (Daniel 3:2&3?) and the like.

The Dangers of all Man-made Documents

What's wrong with The Book of Concord?

The good part of the Tome is that those who wrote it were eager for truth to be preserved and error to be refuted. All power to them.  

But as well as that plus there are a number of negatives...

1. Control under the disguise of conformity. In the first place, Concord reveals the dark underbelly of the Lutheran Reformation, which like all versions of 1500s Reformations (except for the Anabaptists) was about control. Since none of the Reformers except the Anabaptists (see my booklet here) separated from the state, all of them used the power of politicians to push through - and then defend - their version of the reformation. If you are a politician, you desire peace and to achieve that, you think, everyone in your geographical region must believe exactly the same things. (At least in those days).

The Book of Concord was an attempt by the politicians who signed the book to force unity on their regions.

Since the Gospel has no geographical regions, since there are no Christian cities, towns, villages or nations, only individual Christian churches dotted here and there, the idea of a book which every citizen must obey is flawed from the very start.

But the two even greater flaws, when compared to all of the New Testament defences of truth are: 

2. The Concord is Impersonal. A big man-written book is no way to defend truth. Truth should be addressed and imparted to individuals by living letters. Paul always regarded the written as secondary to the personal (though boy are we glad he had to write letters!)

3. The Concord attempts to produce truth that is global and "eternal". The only place where fully trustworthy eternal and global truth resides is in the Scriptures. No man made document should ever - even unintentionally or unwittingly - take the place of Scripture. Errors come and errors go. The errors of one age are different from the errors of another. The fact that The Concord is still regarded as the formal compendium of the Lutheran churches is to be much regretted for many of the battles of the 1500s have long since gone, and new ones - unknown to Luther - have taken their place.

The New Testament way of defending truth against error is to preach the truth, for light scatters darkness, and to refute error line by line.

This must be done in person and addressed to the particular time-bound situation at hand. 

The moment we develop timeless impersonal tomes, whether The Concord, The Institutes, Systematic Theology, or whatever we risk the possibility that they take the place of Scripture, that they substitute living word for dead letter and transient defence for global truth.

Books of theology are helpful as long as they remain humble time-bound fallible servants, rather than Doctrinal Masters.

Photo: Unsplash, Kostiantyn Li

Monday, 3 October 2022

Glimpses of Heaven? A Review of the fascinating book "After"

 

A Sceptical Doctor

This is a fascinating book written by a sceptical western medical doctor, Bruce Greyson. In the course of his work as a practitioner Greyson came across hundreds of accounts of people who had Near Death Experiences (NDEs) - though many of them were reluctant to speak about them because no-one would believe what they recalled.

In extreme physical conditions, when the brain was all but dead, these people reported the most remarkable "out of body" experiences, where their mind (soul/spirit) separated from their bodies and gained new abilities. 

Being a doctor trained in Western science, Greyson refuses to rubbish such accounts - it is only when science investigates and consider the unusual that it actually grows. It is no part of science to ignore what it cannot understand. "Pretending something didn't happen just because we can't explain it is the exact opposite of science." (page 19)

With a sceptical mind Greyson does everything he can to rule out the possibility that these experiences were generated by drugs, dreams, mental disorders and so on. 

He is convinced that NDEs are real experiences.

Those who reported their experiences spoke of seeing and hearing things and while detached to their bodies that they simply could not have seen or heard through their ordinary bodily physical senses. For example, overhearing a conversation in a room that was far away from their hospital bed. 

A "doctrine" of Near Death Experiences

Before exploring the remarkable nature of these experiences, how might we view the separation of body from soul (Greyson calls it mind) biblically?

Greyson cannot be documenting death, because death is the permanent separation of body and soul. But is it possible, in extremis, that for a few moments in this life a soul - the real "us" -  might be separated from our bodies? 

And if so, could this experience give us an insight into what freedom from this present body might give us? We know that due to the fall of mankind, our present bodies are fallen and as a result we are all restricted and now "groan" along with all of creation (Romans 8:22-23). We eagerly wait for our "adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." 

Paul is saying that a key aspect of future glory is a new body, for this present one is such a drag upon us. 

Is there any Scripture which would preclude the possibility of a temporary separation of body and soul?

Some Unusual Scriptures

There are some unusual Scriptures which may help us here. The apostle Paul tells the Corinthian Christians "even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit." (1 Corinthians 5:3). He says something very similar in Colossians 2:5, "For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit." (Colossians 2:5)

It's possible to spiritualize these verses away, but perhaps there are rare circumstances in which body and soul can separate. 

We can't build a whole doctrine on these verses, but the possibility is there.

Added to these Scriptures, there is little in the reports of those who have had NDEs that runs contrary to what we would expect of a life freed from our present fallen bodies. Our new bodies will be imperishable, powerful, glorious and spiritual (1 Corinthians 15), which makes these, by contrast, perishable (hearing loss, disease, etc.), weak, inglorious and natural.

Glimpses of Heaven?

In any case, here are some of the experiences that we read about in After:

Time seems to run in a very different way. "What I felt in five to ten seconds could not be described in ten times that length of time." "I knew what it was like to experience eternity where there is no time... "there’s nothing progressing from one point to another..." " they felt outside the flow of time..." An extremely rapid review of the whole of life is another common experience.

We would probably expect a shift in the perspective of time from this world to the next.

Extreme clarity of thought. Freed from the restrictions of a fallen body, thought life became clearer, "all my thoughts and ideas were coherent and very clear." "Many of them report that their thoughts became much faster, clearer and more logical than usual." We might expect that freed from the restrictive brain of a fallen body thought would fly.

The ability to see and hear more. Many reported seeing and hearing things more wonderful than they had ever seen or heard before. "Light like no light we've ever seen... flowers that had colours that I'd never seen before... utter glory in colour... light infinitely more beautiful than any light we know..." "I felt as if I had been limited by my physical senses for all these years. Sights that were very far away from me were as clear as sight very close..." One experiencer described the experience as switching on the light in a dark room.

These present bodies, for sure, restrict us in many ways. On the one hand that is a necessary corollary of finitude: a finite body simply cannot process the full spectrum of sounds or the full spectrum of light. However, the restrictions of this fallen body are far greater than our new bodies will possess. Take hearing. The clearest hearing of a child ranges from roughly 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. But by the age of 60, the higher frequencies (especially) have been severely curtailed.

The experience of bliss. Many described the experience of being free from the body as a positive one, "The absence of physical boundary was one of glorious bliss." "No words have been invented to tell this story with adequate beauty... try to draw an odour using crayons..."

A Changed Perspective

Many of those who experience NDEs have been so deeply impacted by them that life is never the same again. Some come to believe in God, most believe that since the mind can work independently of the body they now believe in life beyond the grave. Most appreciate life more and many become less materialistic. For some coming back into a restrictive body was a profound disappointment. Whatever the change, Greyson ruefully comments, "As a psychiatrist I knew well how hard it can be to help people make modest changes in their lives, often requiring weeks, months or years of intensive work. And yet experiencers claimed their NDEs overhauled their lives in a matter of seconds."

 Reflections

Our minds (we would say soul/spirit) are more than our brains. Greyson says that the vast amount of research now available on NDEs has severely challenged the traditional scientific view that the mind is caused by the brain. "The association between mind (we would say soul or spirit) is a fact. But the interpretation that the brain creates the mind is not scientific fact." "If the mind were in fact produced by electrical and chemical changes in the brain then near death experiences that happen when the brain is not functioning should be impossible."

Our fallen brains restrict our minds (souls/spirits). "The brain filters out everything that does not help our thinking but hinders it, slows it down, focusses it." We would expect this. 

A challenge to the materialistic world view. A book like this is helpful apologetic material to aid our discussions with unbelievers who have absorbed the narrow materialistic vision of the west.

A glimpse of heaven? I could not help thinking that this book gives us, if not a glimpse of heaven, an insight into the restrictions of our present fallen bodies, and therefore an idea of what our new resurrection bodies will allow our renewed selves to experience.

According to 1 Corinthians 15, those bodies will be incorruptible, powerful, glorious and spiritual, just like the resurrected body of the Lord Jesus.

Should we not expect those new bodies to experience time in a different way, and enjoy colours we have never seen, as just two examples?

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Reflections on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II

 

A Quiet Day

Monday the 19th of September, 2022, was a silent day. Nature was still, at least in Worcester; the air was calm. The nation ceased from her labours and there was a hush across the whole land. Streets were empty, reminiscent of the strange days of lock-down.

Depending on who you read, some 29 million people in the UK and half the world's population watched the state funeral of the Queen. 

And wow, no-one in the world does pageantry quite like the Brits.

As we reflect on that Monday and the long symbolic reign of the monarch we may learn, in no particular order, but starting with the mundane...

Practice makes Perfect

In the deep dark of night soldiers were practising the route they would follow the next day. The rehearsal, we read, took place before sunrise on Thursday morning, and saw the State Gun Carriage, towed by almost 100 naval personnel and bearing a black coffin, travel from Westminster Hall, on to Westminster Abbey, and then through central London. The procession looked perfect, but behind the scenes much work had been done. 

A time to weep... a time to mourn 

According to the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, there is a time to weep as well as a time to laugh, a time to mourn as well as a time to dance. A balanced personal life - and a balanced national life too - makes room for both. To collectively pause and mourn is not only cathartic, it helps us to remember that this life is temporary, fleeting, and that death is the certain lot of every son and daughter of Adam.

What must have struck every attentive listener was the way Scripture permeated all the formal ceremonies. (If there was a disappointment, it was that those inspired words were sometimes obscured by an ancient translation, rather than using a modern version in language a ploughboy could grasp). 

And then there was the sermon of Justin Welby. Many had prayed that the only human sermon ever preached to 4 billion people would not be wasted.

The Sermon

"The pattern for many leaders is to be exalted in life and forgotten after death. The pattern for all who serve God – famous or obscure, respected or ignored – is that death is the door to glory," said the Archbishop. 

And then he explained the fount of the Queen's lifestyle: "Jesus," he said, "who does not tell his disciples how to follow, but who to follow – said: 'I am the way, the truth and the life'. Her Late Majesty’s example was not set through her position or her ambition, but through whom she followed.'"

Most heart-warming of all, Welby shared the Gospel with the world, "Christ rose from the dead and offers life to all, abundant life now and life with God in eternity. As the Christmas carol says “where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” 

Prayers were answered in that shortest of sermons.

 Copy My Example (as I copy Jesus Christ)

The archbishop reminded his audience that the Queen's  "service to so many people in this nation, the Commonwealth and the world, had its foundation in her following Christ – God himself."  

The Queen's life is worth copying only in so much as she copied Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul set up this discipleship paradigm when he urged his readers to follow his example, as he followed the example of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1) "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ."

A Life of Service

It has been said many times in recent days, that though the Queen enjoyed hobbies (horses and dogs) and holidays, she was a tireless worker. The Son of Man, said Jesus, "Came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many..." (Matthew 20:28). A life of service to others is a trademark of every genuine follower of Jesus Christ.

"Don't explain, don't complain" 

Unlike some Royals and others in authority, the Queen did not return fire for fire or seek to justify herself. When misunderstood or criticised she remained silent. This is not only wisdom, for responding simply sets one on a spiral of infinite tit for tat, it is also Christlike for "When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered he made no threats. Instead he entrusted himself to him who judges justly." (1 Peter 2:23)

 Service to the End

The Queen is a rebuke to our "take it easy in retirement" culture, serving well into her 90s, and just days before her death appointing the latest Prime Minister, Liz Truss. "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race" were among Paul's last words, and our Saviour gave his best to the end. 

Retirement as an opportunity to turn selfishly inwards is unknown in Scripture and stands against the example of Christ.

Faith in Jesus Christ 

Above all else, the Queen's faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and as her Saviour is the supreme facet of her life. To die without fear of death and to die with hope is only possible when we know our sins have been forgiven, and we have peace with God. Only, in other words, when we have faith in Jesus Christ.

"God (please) Save the King"

On the first Sunday after the Queen's death, the Christian brother who led morning worship at our church encouraged us to make the new proclamation "God save the King" into a prayer. For while we are quite sure the late Queen was a believer, we have no present assurance that King Charles is.

May the Lord answer our prayers.

Tuesday, 9 August 2022

What do numbers really tell us? A Doctrine of Hits, Likes and Followers

 

 Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

 I was there!

I was there when The Pastor from Mars told a room full of Earthling pastors that Numbers-R-Everything. To prove the point that Big is Beautiful he told us that God had even named one book of his Bible after the god of Quantity. 

Who's to argue with God?

Some church folks over lockdown, I am told, started listening to false teachers on YouTube. When the heterodoxy of the preachers was questioned, the astonished viewers kicked back "but 100,000 subscribers can't be wrong!" 

Someone came running up to me the other day (yes, running)! They had found a faithful preacher on YouTube who only had a few hits and what is more, this sort of lamentable stat had been going on for ages.  My runner was deeply concerned - "What should they do about it? Who could they report it to? How could they help the poor soul?" The idea that a pastor/preacher should languish with just a few hits was cause for great alarm!

The numbers virus has now entered the bloodstream of the church.

Numbers-R-Everything!

In a world which pursues - and trusts - high numbers, whether they refer to hits, followers, sales, likes or bank accounts, how are we to think of numbers?

(Oh by the way, the Pastor from Mars, became so drunk on numbers that he bought a great number of his own books so that it would climb high in the charts. But like all sins, this numerology transgression was found out.)

When it comes to describing the glory of God, Numbers are Important

Everything about God is stupendous and indescribable. Big Numbers count when we're describing the Lord.

"Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array."

God has designed and created some ten million different species of living creatures alive today, to reveal a little of his infinite glory. (And some think this 10 million is a mere fraction of the Designed total number because of extinctions.)

God's promises are out of this world; he promised to Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. He keeps his covenant for a thousand generations. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills and when he sets out for battle, enemies beware, for his chariots are thousands and thousands and thousands. 

When it comes to his forgiveness, God has put an infinity of distance between our sins and himself: to be precise, as far as the east is from the west. And so far as his children are concerned, God Almighty is able to do much much more than they can ask or even think. 

God is glorified through numbers which reveal his power, creativity, promises and mercy....

Small Numbers characterize Human Beings

...but when it comes to describing human beings, small and few is the name of the game. 

How tiny we all are in the vast cosmos, "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" 

In an amusing reflection on the tower of Babel, we read that "the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building." The gathered nations thought they were building some ginormous edifice! But it's so diddy to God that he has to go-a-hunting for mankind's little project. 

How incy wincy our minds. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts." Job is rebuked for trying to understand the ways of God and confesses that he spoke of things he did not understand, things too wonderful for him to know.

But Jesus Christ, the Son of God, can speak to a gathered crowd of many thousands, He can feed thousands and cast out enough demons from a man that they enter and drown thousands of pigs. His majestic divinity is revealed in the numeric fact that if every one of his mighty acts were written down, the whole world, supposes the Apostle John, would not have room for the books that would be written.

Big Numbers are Everything when we are talking about God and his divine Son, but little numbers are the humble germane when we're talking about humanity.

Numbers and the Church Age

It is striking that almost nothing is known about church sizes in the New Testament. About the only numbers we have, apart from The Twelve, are the 120 followers who gathered to pray before the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:15), the 3000 converted on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41), which increased in number to 5000 soon afterwards (Acts 4:4) and the claim that many thousands of Jews had believed (Acts 21:20).

Apart from those Acts-ian figures, the New Testament is silent on numbers. Significantly, big numbers only in occur in Acts which records the supernatural founding of the church. Big Numbers therefore confirm the supernatural origin of the church - that's their function and purpose in Acts.

We do not know the size of any church in the New Testament! Wehave no clue or a hint! No church is condemned for being small and none are praised for being large. The pastor from Mars could not have been more wrong. Numbers are utterly irrelevant when describing the churches of the New Testament...

 ...except as we reach the end-times Revelation when the whole Church in glory to come is described and John "hears the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand." And now Church numbers do matter, for John sees the whole redeemed community, "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands."

Eight Reasons why Church Numbers are Irrelevant

So why do we know nothing about the sizes of the individual churches in the New Testament, why are numbers of all kinds so irrelevant? 

Here are eight reasons:

(1) Because numbers are the way the world does its business. Worldly people, seeking earthly recognition, want large numbers to know about them and to follow them. Worldly people wanting the security of money, want large amounts of money in their banks. Rulers, wanting power over more people, seek large armies and armouries. Political parties pursuing earthly influence want more voters. Everything in this world revolves around big numbers. 

That is a good reason - all by itself - to be suspicious of numbers.

(2) Because God is jealous for his glory. Time and again in the Old Testament, God was determined to use small numbers of humans to accomplish his purposes - so that instead of men getting the glory they don't deserve he gets the glory that he does deserve. For example, the Lord deliberately whittles the army of Gideon down from some 20,000 to 300 in order that "Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her." 

(3) Because God is pleased to use weakness. This is the flip side of point (2). Twelve men (11+1) turn the world upside down - and the Twelve are themselves weak ordinary unschooled chappies. Jesus commends the church in Philadelphia who have little strength. When we are pathetically weak, only then are we really strong.

(4) Because any human being can get up numbers. Quite literally anyone can build a large church. All you need to do is to lower the standard of holiness, raise the entertainment level, increase the volume of the band, tell folks that God is just about to do something amazing, preach that Jesus is coming back next Thursday lunch time (12:32, not wanting to be too precise) or spend thousands on social media, and quite literally anyone can build a following. 

Churches don't need God to do big. 

(5) Because Jesus only had a small church. What an insult to pastors of small churches to say to them - or to imply of them -  that they are somehow deficient or lacking because they only have twelve people in their congregations?  On the day of Judgement, when our deeds are assessed by the King of all kings, do we really think that pastors who have cared for flocks of a dozen or so, will be condemned by the One who faithfully pastored his little flock of 12 11? 

(6) Because numbers are in the hands of the one who elects. If a church faithfully preaches the Gospel, the number of resultant converts is not in their gift. It is the Lord who elects who is saved and who is not. No amount of tear-jerking or brow-beating will add a single soul to the kingdom of God's sovereign choice. 

(7) Because faith and love are more important than numbers. When the apostle Paul writes to churches he commends them for spiritual graces and he prays for spiritual graces, such as love and faith. Not once does he ask that the church would grow numerically. 

There are more important issues to consider than congregational size.

(8) Because what really really matters is discipleship. This is perhaps the greatest reason numbers do not matter in the Kingdom of Christ. Jesus set the pattern of spending vast amounts of time with a very few people in order to produce depth, not breadth. And that is all that matters. Paul wrote letter after letter to produce, under God, spiritual maturity in the folks who were saved under his preaching. He was not interested in big numbers, he was interested in forming Christ in his converts. 

If numbers do not matter, why, even in the evangelical world, are numbers so highly prized? Have we been totally seduced by worldly thinking? Or is there some small value to numbers?

We could, of course rationalize away all the Bible's teaching on numbers, above, and argue like this: aren't the books, writings and sermons of some preachers better than others - perhaps they have been given 5 talents rather than 2 or a meagre 1? And this explains why their numbers are greater? 

That may be the case, but the proper assessment of talents will only be known on the day of judgement. It is dangerous for us to conclude, "this man has 10 million subscribers, therefore he is worth listening to." 

As we continually witness, the big shots in the evangelical world turn out to be scammers in the background. You and I have no idea whether a present day big shot preacher is a big shot in the eyes of the Lord. Only the end will reveal who the Lord thinks are great - and it is very likely that heaven's OBEs will go to folk no-one heard of in this world.

Again, someone might argue, "But we want to see the Lord do mighty things in our day - we want and long to see thousands saved - are you not limiting God's power and assuming a day of small things?" 

To which we must respond, "Are thousands of converts what the Lord desires or is it just fewer true disciples who then turn the world upside down?" The blunt fact of the matter is that it is quite impossible for any one Christian man or woman to make more than just a few disciples in his or her whole life time, because discipleship, according to the Bible (see HERE) is an arduous time-consuming process and practice.

Or, someone might argue, "You are only saying this because you are the pastor of a small church - it's sour grapes." Only the Lord knows our hearts of course, but the motive for writing this blog is out of concern for sheep tempted to follow preachers only by virtue of subscriber numbers or views, and who could easily be led astray. Saints who in their early spiritual childhood are learning to paint the canvas of their Christian lives by numbers, rather than...

What does matter, then, if not numbers?

If numbers do not matter, what does?

(1) The local church matters. Central to God's plan to make disciples of all nations is the local church. We are to be rooted in and come under the leadership and spiritual guidance and care of one local church. We trust these leaders only because their lives are an open book and they bear the qualities Jesus requires of elders.

We must not rely on YouTube preachers whom we do not know and who do not know us. 

How do you know, dear reader, whether the big shot YouTube preacher is genuine or a fraudster? There are lots of fakes out there.

(2) Truth matters. In the second place, what counts is truth. Faithfulness to apostolic doctrine, not numbers (or worthless academic qualifications either), is what counts. Is the preaching in line with Scripture?

(3) The Life of the teacher matters. Life and teaching are connected - by their fruit you shall know them. And that is the whole point about the local church.

Ravi Zacharius - a highly popular evangelical apologist, for example - was living a wicked secret life. You may have followed him online but because he was 5000 miles away you had no idea what kind of life he was leading.

If we are going to listen to, or pay attention to, the writings of any teacher, make sure that they are personally accountable in the life of their local church, not freelancers or lone wolves. That assessment is much more difficult to do with someone who doesn't live in your city... which is why the LOCAL church and local pastors is God's plan. 

Only follow men whose lives you can observe, close up and personal. 

They will not be perfect, but they had better be holy.

Summing it up

So, do hits, likes and followers mean anything at all? No. On their own they are utterly and totally meaningless. In point of fact they could well be the surest sign of worldly success.

Quality, not quantity is what matters most to the Lord. Anyone can create a congregation of thousands and a following of millions. The world is full of both.

Focus on the local church. 

Focus on local preachers and local leaders whose lives are an open book - that is one of the purposes and outcomes of  the hospitality required of all elders.

Focus on the believers the Lord has given you, disciple and build them up in their holy faith.

Don't listen to or read anyone purely because of numbers. Listen only if they are faithful to the Word and only if their lives are accountably known to be holy.

Never seek to enhance your hits or followers or likes by any scheme, fair or foul, allow the Lord to add numerical blessing - if he so chooses.

Be satisfied the few the Lord has entrusted to you - be faithful in small things and then one day in heaven the Lord may entrust you with greater (not necessarily numerically greater) things.