Monday, 20 August 2018

Christian Fundamentals: Confessing Which Christ?

King of Kings

People don’t believe in miracles, not because they haven’t witnessed a miracle, but because their world view will not allow for miracles. Even though someone they otherwise respect should relate an account of a miracle many will not believe it. They will, rather, reconsider the esteem in which they hold their friend.

Neither will showing them a miracle guarantee their conversion because they may make every effort to explain it away and we have seen this. So it was with the people who saw the miracles of Jesus and his disciples, who drove out demons, healed the sick and preached the kingdom message. They saw Jesus feed five thousand (John 6:1-15) and ate their fill, but this did not guarantee their accepting who Jesus was.

When the crowd later sought out Jesus in Capernaum he said, ‘You are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labour for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.’ (vv26-27)

Jesus then launched into his controversial Bread of Life sermon (John 6:28-59) The result was ‘many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.’ (v66) Many today are pleased to feed the five thousand, but are not so eager to preach the Bread of Life. But this is the test of the true disciple; are we seeking to have our fill today, or are we seeking ‘a better country?’ (Heb.11:13-16)

The message of the gospel is, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ (Mark 1:15) The beginning of our journey into that kingdom is acceptance of who Jesus is, what he came to do.

When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do the crowds say I am? They replied,

Some say John the Baptist

Others say Elijah

And still others that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life’”

A person’s response to Jesus is a sort of tipping point in either coming to a deeper knowledge of the things of God or increasingly failing to understand at all. Jesus spoke plainly and demonstrated his authority but seeing, they did not see, and hearing they failed to understand.

The Christ of God

Some of course did see and understand and when Jesus asked, “’But what about you? Who do you say I am?’

Peter answered, ‘The Christ of God’” (The predicted Deliverer. Lk.9:19-20, c.f. Lk.2:11; Jn.4:25)

At Pentecost upwards of three thousand saw and understood (Acts 2)

This is crucial because those who see, confess and order their lives accordingly will go on to grasp the mature vision of Christ portrayed by Paul, for instance, in his letter to the church in Colossae. Here Paul places Jesus at the centre of Creation, its cause, keeper and purpose (Col.1:15-20) and of the New Creation. These verses are believed to be a quotation from an early Christian hymn and so represent how those first Christians thought of Christ as the God of Creation and of the New Creation.

Christ is:

  • The image of the invisible God (Col.1:15a) and the beginning (Col.18b, c.f. Rev.3:14; Jn.1:1)

  • The firstborn of all creation (Col.1:15b) and the firstborn from the dead (Col.1:18c, c.f. Ro.8:29)

  • Preeminent because he is before all things (Col.1:17a) and the head of the body, the church (Col.1:18)

  • The one who holds all things together (Col.1:17b) and who reconciles all things to himself (Col.1:20a)

  • Everything in Creation is by him, through him and for him (Col.1:16b) and so everything in the New Creation (Col.1:20c)

This is mature teaching, requiring deep contemplation and those who accept Jesus as the Christ of God, the promised Deliverer, the image of the invisible God (Col.1:15) have much to ponder. But those who ascribe to Jesus the lesser role of prophet, teacher, great man, or exemplar fail entirely to see him. They fail to understand why Christians insist on his being God made flesh, Creator and Saviour.

The King

This Jesus is King, and the gospel is the gospel of his Kingdom (Mark 1:15). The invitation of the gospel is to enter into the Kingdom, and the way we do that is to recognise Jesus as King, repent, and turn to him as the one who brings us Kingdom life (John 6:40) As we have seen, and as church history demonstrates, he is not going to make us popular in the world. But then his Kingdom is not of this world.(John 18:36)

Such blessings as are to be had from this great hymn in Paul’s letter are not accessible to followers Jesus the ‘good guy.’ Such faith as they have is not in the Christ Paul preached or the disciples witnessed to. Jesus’ question and Peter’s answer place Christ in his rightful place and in our witnessing that is where we always seek to put him. Otherwise we rob people of that wonderful knowledge of him that awaits them as they trust him and grow in him. Any message that does not have Christ as the cause, keeper and purpose of all things is not the Christian message.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Christian Fundamentals: The Bible, Why Aren’t We Reading It?

Bible and marker

The Evangelical Alliance recently (2018) published the results of a survey of people’s attitudes to the Bible. Among Christians it was discovered:

  • 57% believe the Bible should shape their daily lives "a great deal"
  • 35% said they read the Bible everyday
  • 73% said the Bible actively challenges them to live in a way which runs counter to the present culture in Britain
  • 60% believe the Bible provides moral guidance, sets out God's rescue plan for humanity and shows God's priorities
  • 78% believe the Bible is divinely inspired and 34% believe that it is free from error
  • 68% say the Bible is regularly taught at their church

Stop and think about that second statistic; 35% said they read the Bible daily. Perhaps because 73% said the Bible actively challenges them to live in a way which runs counter to the present culture in Britain? It is true that taking the Bible seriously today can seriously make you stand out from the crowd. But it has always been God’s purpose that his people should be holy (set apart, dedicated or devoted to the service of God). Bible reading is integral to that service.

The experience of the Israelites during the captivity in Babylon shows how important God’s Word is; when they were to return to the land we find in Ezra and Nehemiah that the study of (Ezra 7:10); reading of (Nehemiah 8:1 8); and obedience to the word of God (Nehemiah 13:1-3) was vital.

The Book of Chronicles is often a seesaw story of good king, bad king, good king. Jehoshophat was one of those who sought to walk with the Lord. We find in 2 Chronicles 17:9 that one of the first things he did was to send out his officials to teach the people the Law of the Lord.

They taught throughout Judah, taking with them the Book of the Law of the Lord; they went round to all the towns of Judah and taught the people.”

In the New Testament, in 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul reminds Timothy that he has known the sacred writings since his youth and that these lead to wisdom and salvation. They are vital because they are for teaching, correction and training. When we move away from the Bible as our basis we miss God’s teaching, correction and training, and so errors must come in.

Bible falling apartDo not allow the enemy to tell us that it does not matter, learn from the story of the wise man and the foolish man in Matthew 7:24-27. Unless we hear the word of God and act upon it we are simply building on sand. The building will survive in the calm weather but the moment the storm tests it the building will be no more. We may appear to be fine when things are well with us, but there is nothing like a fierce storm to test the reality of our faith.

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

This parable in Matthew also explains why there are some people who have heard the word of God for years but who are still not growing or able to stand; our calling is not just to be hearers only but also doers of the word. We can hear God speaking but, as the parable of the sower shows, we can allow other things to take the place of God’s word. If we are to be strong in God then we need reality.

The asdvantage of reading the Bible for ourselves is we come to know for ourselves. We will not just believe what someone else has said but we will have experienced the reality of that word. From our lips will come not the third hand information about Jesus whom Paul preaches, but the reality of Jesus within our lives.

Learn from the example of the experts in the law in Luke 11:52.

‘Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.’

The problem was that the lawyers had theology but had not entered into the reality of the Word, “the key to knowledge”, and they were hindering those who wanted to enter.

Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:14-17:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.’

Are you convinced of what you have learned of Christ? Are you allowing the Holy Scriptures to make you wise? As you seek answers from God, are you turning to Scripture so that you will be thoroughly equipped and trained in righteousness, for every good work?

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Jesus Wept John 11:17-44

the-raising-of-lazarus-2069644_1920We know the story of Lazarus but I want to pose a question: Why did Jesus weep? He knew what he was about to do, that very soon Lazarus would walk out of that tomb, so why did he weep?

In the very next chapter (12) we have the extravagant anointing of Jesus by Mary, 'for the day of my burial,' said Jesus. It is in chapter 12 we read of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. These events are that close to Easter. When we think of God's love we consider the events of Easter it's clearest expression, 'For God so loved the world...' (John 3:16)

When we speak of God's love to the world that God so loved, this question arises:

How can there be a God who loves when we look at the state of the world? The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah asks, “Why are the wicked so prosperous? Why are evil people so happy?” (Jer.12:1)

The psalmist writes:

“I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind...Behold these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence...” (Ps.73:3-8)

Sound familiar?

There are three things we must know as we approcah Easter:

1. We were created for better.

Man, in his original state, was made to reflect the image of God. In Genesis we read:

“God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let him rule over the fish of the seas and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen.1:26)

The Psalmist asked:

'What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands...' (Ps.8:3-9)

This text has been used, and quite correctly, as prophetic of Jesus. But in its original context it speaks of mankind in our original creation..

Jesus, of course, is described as the image of the invisible God (Heb.1:3) The difference between Jesus and us is that Jesus is God in the flesh, the exact image, the very imprimatur of God, while we are creatures, made originally to have a history with God that increasingly reflects his image as we grow, multiply and are fruitful on the earth. We were created for better.

We were made to be stewards, co-regent, with God, of the earth. To rule, as described in Genesis, means to enjoy delegated sovereignty under God. Stewardship means being responsible for those things placed under our care. This is the creation mandate. This is who and what we were made to be. We were created for better.

We were made to represent God on the earth. That means running things as he would run them if he were directly in charge. Doing things his way. Again, Genesis reminds us we are to be creative, fruitful, productive, living and reigning according to his rule. We were made to relate to each other in a way that is honouring to God and to each other. Adam says of Eve, “This is now bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh...” so to harm her is to harm himself.

John Donne famously wrote:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Paul describes the church in a similar fashion in his letter to Christians in Corinth, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Cor.12:26-27)

The church is meant to be a reflection of this original plan, to show God's purposes to the world and tell people there is a better, a godly way that fulfils us completely. To demonstrate that to be authentically human is to reflect God's image, be God's representative on the earth, to grow in the things of God, to relate correctly to each other, to steward the earth, be fruitful and multiply – be creative like our creator, bringing order out of chaos. By contrast our society has brought chaos out of order.

When we see where we have fallen from then we can see how far we have fallen. If life disappoints us it should, and this is why; we are a fallen people, and we were made for better.

2. We have fallen far

We must realise we are not simply the playthings of the gods, as some societies would have us believe. Neither are we helpless pawns in the hands of a blind and capricious fate. Nor are we the products of a mindless evolutionary process. Mankind was made for relationship and responsibility and we – are – responsible....What of our part in this tragic drama of life?

We have fallen far. It is not simply a question of punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous-there are no righteous! “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:9) It is a case, rather, of restoring the order, fulfilling God's original purposes. In this restoration we are yet to be stewards of God's new creation, those who reflect his image and glory, represent him on the earth and bring order out of chaos like our Creator/God. But how do we get from here to there?

We have fallen so very far and the problem is more than skin deep. Jesus tells us:

"What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person." (Mk.7:21-23)

We are so blind to our own part in this, we make the problem of sin too small. We call what the other person does “sin,” but when we do it we call it something else; weaknesses, faults (who hasn't got them?, we ask, not realising our question is a confession), being human we say but, as we have seen, being truly human is something else altogether.

The idea of sin is not the product of a less sophisticated, more superstitious time. Sin is a disaster of epic proportions. It lies at the root of everything that is wrong with this world. A massive problem, all-pervasive, staining and spoiling everything. Like putting a red garment in a white wash. Every depravity, every injustice, every cruel act, every lie, theft, betrayal and defamation results from the influence of sin in our lives.

When children are abused it is sin destroying the kind of relationships we were created to have; when a driver speeds his passengers to a terrible death it is sin corrupting his judgement and bringing chaos out of order; when people in positions of power face charges of corruption it is sin taking stewardship and twisting it into exploitation and unrighteous dominion.

It is sin that brings death and death stalks our every waking moment, invades our nightmares and assures us of its eventual victory; the death rate in this world is still 100%. Paul reminds us, “The wages of sin is death” (Ro.6:23) We laugh at sin today, mock it, regard it as quaint. We make death something regrettable but natural and manageable. God sees these things quite differently and he offers us real and sure hope.

We have a sure hope

And so we come to the tomb of Lazarus. Jesus had raised the dead before; the daughter of Jairus, the widow's son at Nain. He knew beforehand what he intended to do for Lazarus, yet he wept?

Were these tears of sorrow? Perhaps so, Isaiah prophetically called Jesus, “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” (Is.53:3)

Were they tears of empathy as he saw the inconsolable grief of Mary and Martha, Lazarus' bereft sisters? Again, perhaps so, Matthew tells us in one place that, “when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.” (Mt.9:36) Jesus was, after all, fully human and capable of fellow feeling.

It is tempting to think of this in this way, as a local incident evoking fellow feeling and sympathy. Jesus, who went about doing good, doing good for his friend Lazarus. But nothing Jesus did was incidental and this was an event of eternal significance. Jesus' tears were not primarily those of sorrow, or of compassion. We read in verse 33 of our passage, “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled”

There is more here than sorrow or sympathy. These words could as easily be rendered, “He was enraged in spirit and troubled himself.” There is indignation here, a sense of outrage and the object of his wrath is death itself. The Prince of life walked the earth and death had the audacity to come this close. Jesus, moved to indignation by the unnatural and violent tyranny of death, advances to the tomb, in Calvin's words, “as a champion prepared for conflict.”

This is a clear demonstration of Jesus' conquest of death and hell. Not in cold unconcern but in flaming anger against the enemy of us all, Jesus strikes a mortal blow in Lazarus’ behalf. Jesus approaches our graves in the same spirit of outrage and divine determination. He suffered the same agitation of spirit, magnified many times over in Gethsemane as he anticipated Calvary and the cross on which he would pay the price for sin and defeat what Paul calls the last enemy to be defeated, death.

When Lazarus comes out from the tomb Jesus says, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Do you want to hear those words uttered for you? There is hope for you today if you put your trust fully in the Christ who saves and who, when he knew his time had come, said, “Now is the time for judgement on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (Jn.12:31-33)

Will you be drawn to the one who, in our passage, declared with confidence and divine determination, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (vv 25-26)

It is popular with some to believe the gospel is simply about getting us into heaven because of the blood of Jesus. It is so much more. It is the gift of forgiveness and of a new heart, a call to new life, to become authentically human through Christ’s sacrifice for you on the cross, to grow in the things of God, to reflect God's image, to be God's representative on the earth, to relate correctly to each other, to steward the earth, be fruitful and multiply – be creative like our creator, bringing order out of chaos.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

From Joseph to Jesus, a testimony

ANN:

Book of Mormon 3Before I was taught by the Mormons in my teens, I only knew what I had learned at Sunday School as a small child and in R.E. lessons in school. Like many people, I thought that a Christian was someone who tried hard to do good things, read the Bible, and prayed to God.

I learned from my Mormon friends that Jesus had paid for the fall of Adam, so that we are all born sinless and are held accountable only for the sins we ourselves commit. Because Jesus died for my sins, I could work to be acceptable to God and hope one day to be judged worthy of heaven. It certainly sounded right, and I looked no further.

I was introduced to the Mormon church via a card through the door offering a free copy of the Book of Mormon. I had been asking a lot of questions about God and the purpose of life, so I sent it off. The book was delivered by two Mormon missionaries when I was out, so my mother made an appointment for them to come back and speak to me. Through their teaching, and visits to the church, my whole family were eventually baptised in March 1968.

MICHAEL:

I was eighteen years old when I first encountered the Mormon church. I have always maintained that the first thing that got my attention was the fact that they paid attention to me and valued my opinion. I knew nothing about religion although I had felt for some time that there must be more to life than the little I was experiencing then. This feeling had been increasingly distracting for me and so by the time the Mormons came along I imagine I was ripe and ready for picking.

I took the missionary discussions, all the time feeling quite embarrassed about my ignorance of spiritual matters. I had had no religious upbringing except the usual Sunday school and certainly my family were not churchgoers. This was an adventure and the missionaries presented answers to questions I had never considered. Everything was new and everything seemed right. So I joined on 29 September 1972.

I mostly enjoyed being a Mormon. I had experienced the "burning in the bosom" promised to all true seekers and, as a shy boy with nothing outstanding to boast of in my life, I felt special for having the inside track on truth. I was ordained an elder in the church on 25 February 1973 after over a year of study and faithful application, and had more reason to feel good as I was assured that I now had more authority than any of the so called spiritual leaders in the world.

It was through the church that I met Ann and we both had many happy times as Mormons. Our family started there and we found the church most helpful and supportive as we struggled with the usual difficulties encountered by young parents. Together we had gone to the temple and had been "sealed for time and eternity" and together we continued to enjoy the "blessings" of temple worship.

There were, of course, down times. However the church was always there for us. Looking back I feel perhaps we needed them more than most but they did not let us down and we have much to thank them for. Indeed it seems natural to ask, if it was so good why did you leave?

ANN:

I didn't know that what I had found was not the real thing, but a counterfeit, a deception. It took me 18 years before I finally had the courage to admit that my faith wasn't working, and that all my efforts to please God only left me feeling inadequate.

MICHAEL:

For all the church had going for it there was one area in which it singularly failed me. I was looking for something when I joined and, with hindsight, I can see that it was the one thing the church was incapable of delivering. Peace with God. When Ann and I became dissatisfied we really did not understand why. We just knew - I knew - that something fundamental was missing from our spiritual experience. It was only as we began seeking with a determination we had never known before that we saw how radical would have to be the change in our lives if we were to go on with God. We were genuinely surprised to be faced with the choice of God or Mormonism.

Romans 8

ANN:

A Christian friend asked us to read the book of Romans in the Bible, in a modern English version, and with no Mormon commentary. There we discovered the grace of God. I realised that the one thing I had never done in my life was to submit in obedience to Christ and ask Him to be my Saviour. I had believed in Him for 18 years, but I had been taught that the way to salvation was by obedience to the Mormon Church. They had effectively put themselves between me and God.

When I set out to read the book of Romans I was looking for a solution to the problems of my faith in the Mormon Church. I wanted to get right with God so that I could be a better Mormon. I certainly got more than I bargained for! Now I was faced with a dilemma. Could I give up some things that had been very precious to me, had been my whole life for 18 years, and leave all my Mormon friends? Or could I compromise and stay when I knew their teaching was false? You know, Jesus promised us abundant life, but He never promised it would be easy.

So many people think obedience is about the ten commandments and that sort of thing. Really it is about attitude. What really is the most important thing in your life? When I thought about it like that, there was no other choice I could make. I chose Jesus and the true gospel, and left the Mormon church. And I can honestly say that I have never regretted it. My life since really coming to know Jesus bears no comparison to all those previous years when I only thought I knew Him.

MICHAEL:

We made the right choice I believe and discovered a God who truly proves his faithfulness. So many scripture promises came true for us when we sought him and discovered that 'If you seek him, he will be found by you' (1 Chron.28:9). Coming from a system that saw obedience to law as the way to God we were brought to rejoice in the fact that 'a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify' (Rom.3:21). The law that had been written in books, that condemned us at every turn, was now writtern on our hearts, and we now knew the difference between conviction and condemnation.

romans-8-1

The assurances of God's word were, and are, a blessing to us beyond anything we could hope or ask for. We know that through faith in Jesus we have eternal life as a present possession and a guaranteed inheritance (John 5:24).

I suppose the biggest surprise was that Christianity, far from being the hopelessly confused and frighteningly confusing religion painted by the Mormons, actually makes sense. In all its expressions and in every aspect it is a beautifully harmonious faith. If it is seen by the power of the Spirit, seen for what it really is, it is irresistible, and for honest seekers the Jesus we found is irresistible.

It was the friendship of a faithful Christian that opened us to the influence of the Spirit and brought us to Christ.

[Having moved from Josep to Jesus Michael is now Chairman of Reachout Trust, a UK Christian ministry founded iin 1982 by the late Doug Harris to reach out to those in the cults]

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The Cults, The Internet, and The Church

Shadow or RealityMany years ago a friend and work colleague gave me a copy of Jerald and Sandra Tanner's Mormonism, Shadow or Reality? It is a big, red hardback book which would have proved daunting for most people. But for me it became essential bedtime reading, a treasure trove I still reach for when researching.

I had no idea such a book existed. Indeed, here in the UK, I had barely heard of Jerald and Sandra Tanner. In the days before computers and the Internet, information was scarce if you lived remotely from the geographical/cultural centre of the organisation you had left. As a Mormon I had easy enough access to teaching manuals from the church but as a critic I had to send away for materials as I discovered them; and if you don't known what you're looking for how do you find it?

There was no Amazon, no browsing the Internet for the latest titles. There were no forums, or discussion groups. When you did find quality material you were in a small minority, becoming the one to whom others might look for a lead on what is 'out there' and how to obtain it. For many people, the only sight they got of good books and tapes (remember tapes?) was when attending conventions, where there might be a book table, or from reading about them in newsletters.

Today its all available, overwhelmingly, staggeringly, confusingly available. Through web sites, blogs, forums, social media, online book stores, self-publishing, paperbacks, PDF, E-publishing, the list seems endless. Where before the challenge was tracking down good material and reliable sources, today the challenge is sifting through the mountains of information, discerning the helpful from the hopeless. When you do find quality material you are still in a minority if you have gone the extra mile to find and identify it. Indeed, sifting and curating quality material is more than ever a major part of the work of information and teaching based ministry.

These developments have not changed the basic vision and purpose of ministry, but they have changed somewhat how ministry is delivered. Online newsletters are much easier and cheaper to produce, E-books have made materials more affordable. Web sites, blogs, and social media make the work more immediate. Ministries can respond almost instantly to breaking news, which news is itself readily accessible. Email makes 'conversations' more real time, as do social media and discussion forums.

Some things haven't changed. Nothing takes the place of speaking face-to-face, and nothing will ever take the place of the local church, where we find like-minded people and grow as disciples of Christ. When someone leaves a cult it is vital they find their way to a place where there is life, grace, and sound, reliable teaching from people you can come to know and trust.

The picture of Christian community painted for us in the Bible cannot be replaced but must be replicated. The writer to the Hebrews urged, 'Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching.' (Heb.10:25)

Luke, in his second letter, describes the New Testament Church:

'They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. all the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.' (Acts 2:42-47)

We must be more discerning than ever as we find and use the mountain of information available on the Internet. The best place to practice that discernment is among people with the experience and calling to teach and lead the church of Christ. By all means take advantage of the riches available to us today, but bring it to the test of Scripture, to the local church, and to prayer.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and ‘Church’

Nothing highlights more the very different needs of people coming out of the cults than the respective understandings of 'church' by Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. In an article on the LDS Church website, an overview of membership mentions the word 'church' nine times, including the article's title, and all positively. It speaks of belonging to the church, access to blessings through the church, opportunities for serving in the church. It typically capitalises 'the Church' when referring to to the Mormon Church. Mormons understand 'church' to be an institution, much as does the Roman Catholic Church.first-vision stained-glass

'Traditional' describes the Mormon approach to 'church,' even when Mormonism stands in opposition to other churches in its claim to be 'the only true Church.' This is evidenced in Mormon buildings boasting stained-glass window portrayals of Mormon history (right).

Jehovah's Witnesses, on the other hand, harbour a deep suspicion of 'church,' founded in historical antipathy towards the Roman Catholic Church. Church is apostate ‘Christendom’. Put the word 'church' into the search box on jw.org and you get Why Don't Jehovah's Witnesses Call Their Meeting Places Church? Jehovah's Witnesses at least understand that church is a body of people, although in every respect the Watchtower Society behaves as if it is an institution.

Kingdom Hall PlainA JW friend recently explained that Kingdom Halls lack any ornament because 'Jesus went to a synagogue, which was a plain meeting hall.' Of course, the degree of decoration in a synagogue, as with most religions' buildings, depends a lot on the wealth, or otherwise, of the congregation. I recently had a Sikh explain to me, apologetically, that the local temple was not as ornate as other Sikh places of worship. Kingdom Halls can certainly be very plain, (right) though a quick search online will find some pretty handsome buildings as well. Below is the Kingdom Hall on Grandview Highway, British Columbia.

Kingdom Hall Grandview Highway

To a Jehovah's Witness, the very idea of 'going to church' is anathema, and leaving the organisation finds them facing a mountain of prejudices to overcome just to step across the threshold of a church building.

For a Mormon, 'going to church' is what comes naturally, an invitation to church no great issue. Even as Mormons, my wife and I sometimes visited other churches, particularly on special occasions. We even visited a Kingdom Hall on one occasion. On Nisan 14 some years ago we were made very welcome but were asked whether our Mormon leaders knew where we were. When we answered that they did our hosts looked truly puzzled.

For each, their expectations of 'church' will be different. A Mormon will look for an institution that will operate much as the Mormon Church does. A Jehovah's Witness will, with trepidation, approach 'church' harbouring deep suspicion, expecting to trip over the devil at every turn. Of course, a faithful JW will not be seen in a 'church'.

For both, it is important we can offer a clear teaching on what 'church' is, and what it isn't. For the Mormon, starting with a high opinion of 'church,' it is a case of coming to a more biblical understanding of an idea they already accept, though misunderstand.

For the Jehovah's Witness, starting with a very low opinion of 'church,' it is coming to the knowledge that Christians already know the arguments about church being people not buildings (see Why Don't Jehovah's Witnesses call their Meeting Places Churches?) We need to help them come to understand that, even in New Testament times, there were differences between Jewish and Gentile churches (Acts 15) and Paul recognised:

'One man regards a certain day above the others, while someone else considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.' (Ro.14:5)

For both, the question of authority is a big one. Early in our Christian life, my wife asked a church leader and friend, 'What do we believe about this?' This is typical of how a cult member might ask a question, expecting there to be an official line. He answered that some people saw it one way, others another, and she should read the Scripture prayerfully and think it through for herself. As she put it, at that point the bottom fell out of her world. The cult member expects all teaching to be wrapped up in a neat package, tied with a bow, and unwaveringly believed.

Jehovah's Witnesses struggle with the idea that Christians can disagree yet remain in fellowship. It is a revelation for them to hear the words of Richard Baxter:

Richard-Baxter-Quote-Unity-in-things-Necessary-Liberty-in-things

As my wife and I learned, there are those things we hold firmly, those things we hold lightly, and those things we hold away. What makes this possible is a message of grace, and an understanding that unity is not the same as, nor defined by, rigid uniformity. It's a messy business, church, and you only have to look at Paul's letters to Christians in Corinth to see this. Yet, even as he censured them, he addressed his first letter:

'To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.'

We too often take such grace and peace for granted. If we want to recover our wonder at such great blessings sit down with a Mormon or Jehovah's Witness who has left their organisation, and enjoy the privilege of explaining it to them. You will hear it again yourself as though for the first time, and join in their wonder and joy as the dawning truth of it enters their heart.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Leaving the organisation, Joining the Body

One of the many challenges facing a person who leaves the Mormon Church, or the Watchtower Society, is the question of where to go next. Tragically, some are so disappointed and hurt by their experience of their former religious organisation they go nowhere. Many are done with the whole show and go their own way, often into a rejection of God, certainly of 'organised religion.' I understand that.

Eternity in Their Hearts

Many more still feel the pull of eternity, that God has put in their heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11) It is tempting, in these circumstances, to explore this need for eternal things in private religion, seeking the companionship of God in nothing beyond personal piety and disciplines. The danger here is of what one Christian leader has called 'will worship.' It is when what defines me as a Christian is whatever I think it should be, a matter of my individual effort. My faith and my world-view are formed by my own thoughts and conclusions, nothing from outside these to challenge and test my Christian walk.

Personal devotion is, of course, part of the Christian life but the independent Christian, the Lone Wolf Believer, is unknown in the New Testament. Indeed, the whole Bible paints a very clear picture of God's purposes being carried out in community, from the family of Abraham, through the people of Israel, to the Body of Christ, the church in the New Testament and in the world.

The danger of this message of the body's imperative, in the context of cults, is that it might provoke a bad reaction from people who have already fallen for the lie that a believer belongs to an organisation, only to find this organisation has let them down, hurt them. It is important, then, to have a clear understanding of what I mean when I refer to joining and belonging to the body of believers, what it means and what it doesn't mean.Mission Word Cloud 2

A Christian Community

Our 21st century world seems increasingly fragmented, people living 'silo lives,' dwelling in discreet worlds that rarely, if ever, touch one another. It is a dangerous phenomenon which can leave people feeling isolated and lonely. The psalmist writes:

''Sing to God, sing praise to his name...A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.' (Ps.68:4-5 NIV)

When we look at the people of God in the Old Testament, they are nation, community, family. God says through Moses:

'I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Ex.19:4-6)

God called his people out of the house of slavery to bring them into covenant relationship with himself and with each other as a holy priesthood. In this role the called out people of God are to mediate the presence and blessings of God to the world around them. This chimes with God's original purpose in creation, to make men and women in his image to have dominion, to steward the earth, mediating the person and will of God to all creation (Gen.1:26-28)

This same thought is used by Peter to describe the role of the New Testament Church, the called out people of God, Jew and Gentile (Gal.3:28):

'But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.' (1 Pet.2:9-10)

These are people who identify with each other as they never would have, except for their calling into God's family. It is a people drawn together with purpose, to proclaim God's excellencies, to testify, by word and deed, the wonderful mercies of God in salvation. What does this look like? This picture of God's people is described in Acts:

'They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had things in common...And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.' (Acts 2: 42-47)

Believing, Belonging, Becoming

Paul describes the church with a familiar and helpful analogy:

'For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, as we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.' (Ro.12:3-5)

The church is described by Peter as, like living stones...being built up as a spiritual house...' (1 Pet. 2:5) Note there is a process here, we are, 'being built up.' This process is reflected when Paul describes church leadership in his letter to Ephesus as, 'equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the fullness of Christ.' (Eph. 4:11-14)

The body is 'being built up' by the mature leadership of experienced Christians, described as elders. Peter writes:

'I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the suffering of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you, not for shameful gain, but eagerly, not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.' (1 Pet.5 1-3)

The Bible describes God's people as, 'the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.' (Ps.95:7) Jesus describes himself as the shepherd of the sheep (Jn.10: 1-18) and Peter describes Jesus as the Chief Shepherd, while elders are 'under shepherds' (1 Pet.5: 1-4) This is organic, not organisational. The distinction is critical. We must understand that those who believe belong to Christ, and those who belong are becoming like Christ.

‘Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and late rains. You also, be patient.’ (James 5:7-8a)

This is the church, the people of God, gathered around the word of God, ready to do the will of God, described in the New Testament as 'the body of Christ.' (Col.1:24) This is the family of God, the holy nation, the people called by God as his own possession to be a royal priesthood that mediates God to the world. They are described as devoted to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to breaking of bread, and prayer, to the common life. To attack the church is to attack Christ (Acts 7:9).

Paul is very clear in reminding us, 'we, though many, are one body in Christ...' (Ro.12:5) 'In Christ.'

Christ Loved the Church

The unity of the body is nothing to do with being in an organisation, it is everything to do with being 'in Christ.' Paul describes Christ as, 'the head of the body, the church' (Col.1:18) Agreement over doctrine is not about simply finding like-minded people, who read the same books, and speak the same orthodoxy, but about finding and fellowshipping with 'Christ-minded' people and working together to better understand the work of God in the world, through the church.

It can be, and often is messy. You only need to read the New Testament letters to Christians in Corinth, Galatia, and Philippi, to Timothy as he leads a church in Ephesus. There is also the pressure of heresies such as Gnosticism, and legalism, to a point where Christians are urged to 'contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.' (Jude 3) But it is well to remember, 'Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.' (Eph.5:25)

Those who are 'in Christ' belong to the body, the church, and the church is the plan of God. How does one become part of this body, the church? Paul's description of his own conversion, his journey to become part of this body of which he writes so enthusiastically helps us:

'If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I might gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God and depends on faith...' (Philip.3:4-10)

It is a process, an experience, that is described by Jesus as being 'born again' (Jn.3:3) Peter describes Christians as those who have been, 'born again, not of perishable seed but imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God...' (1 Pet.1:23). John writes, 'Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God...' (1 Jn.5:1)

It is Paul who reminds us, 'Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. 'Test yourselves, or do you not realise this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? - unless indeed you fail to meet the test!' (2 Cor.13:5)

In another letter to the same Corinthian Church Paul writes, 'Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of Christ. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgement on himself.' (1 Cor.11:27-29)

The body of Christ is a community that gathers regularly to read and understand God's word, pray, break bread and share the new life they have in Christ, to then go out and mediate the good news in the world. It is a community of people with one thing in common, they are born again, born of God, born from above, and find themselves 'in Christ,' part of the body of which he is the head.

As a body we examine our faith together to test its validity according to God's word. As individuals, we examine ourselves to see that when we take the bread and the cup of the Lord's Table we do so recognising Christ's body and living as part of that same community. Community; that’s a good word for it.