Sunday, 29 March 2020

When This is Over...

How are things with you these days? I imagine there have been significant changes to your normal routine. Confinement has seen me running out of excuses and actually tacking the mess I laughingly call my study. (Starting to tackle)
My local shop is allowing just two customers in at any one time. He has considerately marked out the floor into metre squares in black and yellow tape. Shopping is now a dance class, but we are all grateful. I like chunky rolled oats for my porridge and it is not easy to come by these days. But my local shopkeeper, who doesn’t usually carry them, found a box for me and made a friend for life.
I needed to visit the chemist in the city centre and the roads and pavements were quieter than a wet Sunday morning in November. I knew the police were stopping drivers to ask if they have a legitimate reason to be out. I did, but I still felt somehow guilty, waiting for that tap on the shoulder. We had to go to the hospital and that journey has never been so quick and trouble free.
When I walk my dog the streets are eerily quiet. I am reminded of the 1959 film On The Beach, an end of the world following nuclear war story by Nevil Shute. Streets become increasingly bare and empty, ordinary life breaks down as the radiation poison spreads. The only person left in the world in the end is the cameraman. Funny that.
Of course, this isn’t the end of the world. We will get through this, though at unimaginable cost in lives, livelihoods, mental, emotional, and economic damage. As we become accustomed to this new reality, people will surely find themselves making ‘when this is over’ promises to themselves. When this is over I’m going to stop making excuses and...
chase that job...
Take that trip…
End that relationship…
Mend that relationship…
Finally propose…
Start my business…
Hold my family that much closer...
Fill in your own ‘when this is over’ promise…
However, when this is over some of us won’t be here, and not just because of Covid-19. Notwithstanding the virus the mortality rate is still 100% - that’s life. We are all staring into eternity. For some it is more immediate than for others, but it is a reality for all. One thing I have learned is you can’t negotiate with eternity.
Perhaps mercy will come back into fashion. People tend to think of mercy as a quaint idea folk used to value ‘in the olden days.’ We don’t value it in these days of central heating, online shopping, trendy diets, and streaming entertainment. Perhaps we should take another look in these times of uncertainty. Perhaps fear will drive us to our knees. Nothing else seems to.
Can I suggest, also, instead of making ‘when this is over’ resolutions, those who can might take ‘by the time this is over’ actions. Many are already complaining about how restrictive and boring this enforced isolation is. It looks like life isn’t going to get back to normal (whatever your normal is) for some time to come.
I am currently inundated with offers of free to download books about all sorts of subjects, short courses that are normally paid for, for a limited time, are being offered in exchange for simply signing up to a list. Perhaps, like me, you have some sorting out to do. Why not use the time wisely and with purpose. By the time this is over I will have…
Learned a language…
Called an old friend…
Sorted my shed…
Planted a border…
Started a blog…
Started a website…
Learned the piano…
Talked to someone about God...
Talked to God about someone… (how is your prayer life?)
Picked up my Bible and read it in great chunks, making a meal of my reading, instead of pecking at it like a bird...
How many of us have looked longingly at a picture of the Christian life as we know it might be lived; with wholehearted devotion, disciplined prayer, living out what God has put in us, reflecting the words of Paul:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do; forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.’ (Philip.3:12-14)
Let’s not romanticise this any longer, but let’s realise in our lives the need to grow, the pressing on, forgetting what lies behind, not allowing our past to hinder us, straining forward, answering the upward call of God, no matter what others may do or think declaring by our very lives, ‘I am Christ’s and he is mine.’
That would be a good ‘by the time this is over’ resolution.
Of course, when this is over I will hold my family closer and I am sure you will yours. When this is over I will want to make changes, moved perhaps by these times, resolved maybe by the reassessment that is common to many of us in these days, to make a greater difference in my little part of the world. But...
What will you have done by the time this is over?

Friday, 27 March 2020

A Catholic Claim to Authority

SteveRay is a convert to Catholicism and, like most converts, is admirably zealous for what he considers the truth. On his page explaining why he is a Catholic he quotes divines, from Irenaus to Cardinal Newman but only one Bible text. This is a lesson in rightly handling the word of truth' (2 Tim.2:15)

His text is 1 Tim.3:15

'If I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, pillar and buttress of the truth.' (ESV)
He is claiming that the church holds priority as the authority by which we are governed. But is this what this single text conveys? What does it tell us is the role of the church as a pillar and buttress? It is 'the pillar and buttress of the truth.' The church isn't the truth, nor is it an infallible repository of the truth. Elsewhere Paul is clear when he writes again to Timothy:
'But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and ow from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ. 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 competent, equipped for every good work.' (2 Tim.3:14-17, ESV)
What happens when 'the church' however you define it, no longer, as a pillar and buttress, supports the truth? What has prior authority then? The Bible, 'breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.'

Martin Luther

One of the people he quotes is Martin Luther:
I never approved of a schism, nor will I approve of it for all eternity. . . .That the Roman Church is more honored by God than all others is not to be doubted. St, Peter and St. Paul, forty-six Popes, some hundreds of thousands of martyrs, have laid down their lives in its communion, having overcome Hell and the world; so that the eyes of God rest on the Roman church with special favor. Though nowadays everything is in a wretched state, it is no ground for separating from the Church. On the contrary, the worse things are going, the more should we hold close to her, for it is not by separating from the Church that we can make her better. We must not separate from God on account of any work of the devil, nor cease to have fellowship with the children of God who are still abiding in the pale of Rome on account of the multitude of the ungodly. There is no sin, no amount of evil, which should be permitted to dissolve the bond of charity or break the bond of unity of the body. For love can do all things, and nothing is difficult to those who are united.”

Martin Luther to Pope Leo X, January 6, 1519
more than a year after the
Ninety-Five Theses
quoted in
The Facts about Luther, 356
But this quote, in context, militates against his argument. You see, this was said in January 1519, when Luther still held out for a hope in reformation within the church. It was not to be and it was at the Diet of Worms, in 1521, that Luther finally took his stand, declaring:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.’ (Emphasis mine)
What was it brought him, albeit reluctantly, to this decision? His clear reading of Scripture, specifically Romans 1:17,'the just shall live by faith.'
The whole context of those words tells of a sovereign God, whose power alone saves, through faith in Christ, not a church that ushers us into heaven by means of  ceremony, ritual, and purgatory.
The very text he quotes in 1 Timothy passes judgement on the institution that is meant to be a pillar and buttress of truth and that church is found wanting. For this very reason the man he [selectively] quotes, thinking even Luther makes his point for him, stands on the authority of the Bible, not that of popes and prelates.
Keep reading the Bible and you will find yourself competent, equipped for every good work, including apologetics.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Mormons and the ‘restored church.’

Mormons claim that, following the time of the apostles, the Christian Church fell into total apostasy. They claim:

Apostasy was prophesied...2 Timothy 3:1-3

A 'Restoration' was anticipated...Acts 3:19-21

But, while apostasy was foretold, the Bible disallows total apostasy:

‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ (Matthew 16:18)

‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:19/20)

‘And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.’ (Ephesians 4:11-16)

The church was always going to prevail, even against the gates of hell. Jesus promised to be with the church until the end of the age, not abandoning it for nearly two millennia. The sains are to be continually built up into Christ, attaining finally a unity of faith, but we live now in the time of ‘until,’ until we attain unity of the faith.’ We don’t need a restoration, we need continuation
Apostasy was always going to be a partial:

‘Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some  will depart from the faith by devorting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons…’ (1 Timothy 4:1)

John even assures us, ‘He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world’ (1 John 4:6) and John knew all about apostasy. It is tempting to see partial apostasy, which is surely upon us today, and think all is lost. But God keeps his promises and Jesus said, ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ I think we are safe in his hands.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Am I a Disciple?

The Proof of Obedience

When it comes to discipleship Jesus made it clear that words are not enough. Many find the message of Jesus attractive, and are prepared to look further into it. Like the rich young man, they are curious, ask questions, but come with the baggage of assumptions we all can carry. It’s a lazy kind of curiosity that assumes the answer is going to be just the one I already decided is right. In Jesus’s day it was assumed riches were a sign of God’s blessing, a sure sign someone was heading for eternal life.

Jesus put his finger on what was always going to hold back this young man and issued the challenge. ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.’ Read the whole account in Mark’s gospel to see how prevalent this thinking about riches was (Mark 10:17-27)

Discipleship costs, more than riches, more than reputation, more than comfort, which is why the first test of discipleship is not performance but obedience. Jesus said it best:

‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

Note carefully that those who ranked high in performance, nevertheless, were considered ‘lawless,’ and ranked low in obedience. Significantly, this sobre teaching follows immediately after Jesus’ warning of, ‘false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognise them by their fruits.’ (Matthew 7:15/16)

False prophets are a massive problem in the church today, and Christians face a dilemma because of it. On one hand they don’t want to be found outside the will of God in questioning what might be a true servant of God. On the other hand they are well aware of this warning and other warnings like it from Scripture. They are alert to the confusing and conflicting messages besetting the church today. How do we discern the genuine from the counterfeit?

Jesus calls us, not to the colourful and spectacular, not to the fantastic and phenomenal, but to obedience:

‘If you love me you will keep my commandments…’ (John 14:15)

‘Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me…’ (v.21)

‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’ (v.23)

Obedience is an every day business, rooted in faithfulness, tested over time, grown in the soil of humility. A person can get a handle on obedience. It is possible to discover what God requires by the simple expediency of turning to the Bible, the single most popular, and at the same time most neglected book in the world today. The overwhelming evidence is that he requires our faithful obedience.

Like the rich young ruler, we can hang on to our assumptions of what marks out a true disciple, whether it’s riches, performance, or spectacle. Or, like good king Josiah in the Old Testament (2 Kings 22&23; Chronicles 34 &35), we can turn to God’s word and enter into a life of simple obedience. This, surely, is the route to true reformation, genuine revival of God’s people and, who knows, but that we may yet see signs following…if we are obedient.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Divine Name

The Jehovah’s Witnesses believe God’s name, his one true name, the name by which he is identified is Jehovah. But, biblically, God has and is identified by many names, names Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t seem disposed to talk about.
  • In Genesis 1:1 he is ‘God,’ the Hebrew elohim.
  • In Genesis 17:1 he is ‘God Almight,’ the Hebrew El Shadday.
  • In Psalm 8:1 he is ‘Lord,’ the Aramaic Adonay.
  • In 1 Samuel 1:3 he is ‘Lord of hosts,’ the Hebrew yhwh tseba’ot.
  • In the New Testament Jesus teaches his disciples to call God ‘Father,’ the Greek Pater Matthew 6:9
  • The disciples, following Jesus’ teaching, called God ‘Father’ 1 Corinthinas 1:3
  • Indeed, in the whole New Testament God is called Father.
  • He is the Father to whom we pray Matthew 6:9
  • He is our Father and Jesus’ Father John 20:17
  • By the power of the Spirit of adoption we call him Abba, Father Romans 8:15
  • Our fellowship is with the Father 1 John 1:3
Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses only became Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931, based on a misreading of Isaiah 43:10 in which God called his people to be witnesses to his exclusive reality in a world of many gods. In that one chapter God asserts his unique nature as the one true God,before whom no god was formed, nor any after him (v10) ‘I am the LORD, and besides me there is no saviour’ he declares in v 11. God asserts his identiy as the only God throughout the chapter:
  • ‘I am the LORD your God, the Holy One if Israel, your saviour’ v3
  • ‘I am the LORD, and besides me there is no saviour’ v11
  • ‘‘I declared and saved and proclaimed when there was no strange god among you; You are my witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I am God’’ v12
  • ‘I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of israel, your King’ v15

Witnesses of Jehovah are witnesses of his unique and unchallenged identity as Creator and Sustainer of all things. Until they became Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931 they were autonomous congregations of Bible Students, more formally known as the International Bible Students Association. Perhaps if they had remained Bible students…who knows.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Am I Saved?

Correctly Handling the Word of Truth

Departing from Iniquity

Pursuing Righteousness

Repenting of Error

Last time we looked at The Complete Rule of Faith, summed up in four points:

The Knowledge of God in Christ,
Escape from Corruption by Grace,
Adding Virtue to Faith,
Trusting the Word.

Peter’s message has an urgency we might easily relate to today as the New Testament warnings of error from within the body seem so apposite. Listing the qualities that keep us from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of Christ, he warns:

‘For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.’ (2 Peter 1:8/9)

This blindness, this lack of fruitfulness, may well be the result of a lack of true conversion. It is possible to appear to have all the trappings of a ‘reformed’ life but for that reformation to be merely external, cleaning up one’s act without having a truly changed heart. It is also possible for the true convert to fall into serious error, to err in the knowledge of Christ, to practice virtues in a worldly sense, placing trust in something or someone other than God’s word.

Calling and Election

This time we look at four more crucial indicators as we ask, Am I Saved? When someone expresses concern that this should not be them it is a sign they are thinking the right way, and thinking is key in the matter of faithfulness. Concern that true faithfulness should mark your life is a good place to be. Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, assures us, ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ (2 Tim.2:19) but to the worried believer both Paul and Peter offer a way to be more certain in ourselves that our calling and election is sure  (2 Peter 1:10).

Peter begins his picture of the faithful believer, as we saw last time, with the importance of ‘the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ.’ Paul brings us the practical examples of Hymenaeus and Philetus, two apostates, ‘who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened…They are upsetting the faith of some.’ (2 Tim.2:17/18) These two apostates seem to be teaching that believers had already entered the post resurrection world, nothing to strive for, nothing to do. Paul and Peter,with all the New Testament writers, looked forward to that time with hope, but also with determination, perseverance, sacrifice, and faithfulness.

One approved of God is described as ‘a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.’ The apostate is quarrelsome, irreverent, a babbler, ungodly, spreading error like a gangrene. (2 Tim.2:14-17)

The Word of Truth

To the concerned Christian believer the starting point of faithfulness is , ‘rightly handling the word of truth,’ just as departing from the truth begins the slide into error and apostasy. It’s instructive to realise that every error and apostasy seems to begin with  a departure from the Bible. If you are worried read your Bible! What we think determines how we conduct our lives, which is why mature, faithful preachers and teachers strive to teach correctly and influence our thinking. It is of first importance, therefore, that what we think is influenced, shaped, coloured, and clarified by God’s established truth in his word.

A Firm Foundation

Paul writes of God’s firm foundation, that it stands and bears a seal. The wickedness of this world, the evil of false teaching cannot shake that foundation, its seal bearing the inscription:
‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.’ (2 Tim.2:19)

We have assurance when we stand on God’s foundation of truth in Christ and in his word, trusting in his divine sovereignty. We can also know assurance as we answer the call to correctly handle the word of truth. Out of this we begin to see in our lives a flight from iniquity, the fruit of perseverance and faithfulness, facing up to our responsibilities as new creatures in Christ. It is from this place of modest confidence we can begin to be witnesses of the truth, by both precept and example, confident that we know the truth and living as evidence to the truth.

Facing Error

Finally, Paul’s counsel to those Christians facing the challenge of error is:

‘The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.’ (2 Tim. 2:24/25)

Only those who stand firmly on the foundation of truth can afford to be so generous and patient in their witnessing to the truth.

Monday, 6 January 2020

The Complete Rule of Faith

The Knowledge of God in Christ
Escape from Corruption by Grace
Adding Virtue to Faith
Trusting the Word

People can struggle, especially in the current church climate, with the question of what does being a Christian look like. So many claims and counterclaims are made on our lives it can be daunting trying to simply walk in faithfulness. Two areas in particular are problematic for people, Bible reading and prayer. I will have something practical to say about that, but first I want to build on the question I addressed in my last post; where do you stand in the daily battle of faith? (Eph.6:13)

Of especial concern throughout the New Testament is the threat of error from within the church. Paul, in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders, warns of false prophets who will arise ‘from your own number,’ (Acts 20:30); He warns the church in Corinth not to be taken in by ‘false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ,’ (2 Cor.11:13)

In his first letter to Timothy, Paul writes of some who will ‘abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons’ (1 Tim.4:1) Jude solemnly warns of ‘certain men…who have secretly slipped in among you…godless men…’ (Jude 4) Jesus himself warns, ‘Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.’ (Mt.7:15)

Peter’s second letter warns of false teachers and evildoers within the body of Christ: ‘But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies…’ (2 Pet.2:1) Perhaps you agree with the many who say the greatest threat the church faces today, as then, comes from among our own number. We need hope, a solid foundation on which to stand.

The Knowledge of God

Peter prays in his opening greetings, ‘May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.’ (2 Pet.1:2) He goes on to write:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence…’ All we need to stand is granted to us in the knowledge of Christ, who has come so ‘whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ (Jn.3:16) Peter gives us three things necessary to life and godliness, three things to hold on to.

Escaping Corruption

It is in God’s power that we are saved from this world’s corruption (vv3/4) Paul makes it clear in his Ephesian letter that sin kills us, ‘you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you once walked,’ but grace saves us, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’ (Eph.2:1, 8/9) This is the only way to gain the true knowledge of Christ and the power of God.

As Paul writes to the Galatian Church, ‘But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed’ (Gal.1:8) This applies to our pulpits, small groups, and teaching programmes every bit as much as it does to the cults. We need to apply there, as anywhere, Jude’s counsel, ‘to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3)

Gaining Godly Qualities

Having established the foundation of saving grace, ‘having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desires’ (1 Pet.1:4) Peter goes on to describe how we build the Godly life:

'make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective, or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (1:5-8)

What is striking in Peter’s letter here is his determination to keep teaching these same things, knowing repetition builds us up, while continual novelty, surely, confuses and misleads us:

‘Therefore, I intend always to remind you of these qualities though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in the body, to stir you up by way of reminder…’ (12/13)

Trusting the Word

Finally, Peter goes to lengths to ensure we understand that the truth about Christ, our knowledge of him, is anchored in the sure word, the prophetic word of Scripture. He assures us his testimony is not based on myths and fables but on eyewitness reports:

‘For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made know to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty’ (16)

Nevertheless, he goes on, ’we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which we would do well to pay attention as to a lamp in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts…’ (19)

Most significant to our present concerns is Peter’s ranking Scripture over experience, even his own on the Mount of Transfiguration. It is Scripture that Christ fulfils, Scripture that brings us God’s ‘precious and very great promises,’ and Scripture ‘to which you would do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place…’

Bible Reading and Prayer

Have you broken any New Year's resolutions yet? I don't make them myself, I don't like them. They tend to be resolutions of the 'from now on' kind and, making them, we set ourselves up for failure and its attendant guilt. If they are not that for you then bless you, but I don't make them.

My wife and I, however, have been concerned for some time about these issues we are discussing. We decided on a course of action that sees us paying attention to the Scripture 'as to a lamp shining in a dark place.' You must find your own way, of course, but I encourage you to do it. Every day we read together a chapter of the Bible; we started with Acts.

Once a week we spend an hour or so of an evening looking at something from our own reading that has struck one of us as encouraging, or challenging. Several things happened as a consequence of this simple exercise:
  • We spent more time together because we spent more time together in the Word.
  • We found we were rediscovering truths we hadn't thought about for awhile, rather like meeting old friends we hadn't seen for some time.
  • We discovered new insights we hadn't considered before, rather like making new friends that made us richer in their company.
  • We found ourselves better equipped to discern truth from error, to identify and avoid false teachers.
  • We decided initially to pray only thank you prayers. This focussed our minds on what we had just read, reinforcing it in our hearts.
  • We had something to pray about beyond the usual shopping list prayers so common among Evangelical believers.
  • Our daily walk became less about me and my needs, more about Him and his calling on my life.
I pray you find sufficiency in Spirit-led Bible reading, for the Bible is alive, it reads our hearts, lightens our way, and leads our feet in the way of Godliness. It gives us all we need for a complete rule of faith. I pray you find much to be prayerfully thankful for in the time ahead, as your attention to the Word 'as to a lamp in a dark place' brings to you anew the grace, power, and precious and very great promises of God in Christ.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Called, Beloved, and Kept

Beloved in God the Father
Kept for Jesus Christ

I have found myself coming back time and again to Jude. It is a short letter, just 25 verses, yet it is packed with both faith strengthening encouragement and serious and timely warnings. Contending for the faith, an unpopular idea today, is practically defined by Jude 3, echoing Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim.4:7.

There are parallels with Peter’s warnings of false prophets, false teachers, and destructive heresies (2 Pet.2) and we are reminded of Jesus’ own instruction to his disciples, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter but will not be able.’ (Lk.13:24)

A pity it is, to be sure, that we live in an age when the church seeks conciliation, co-operation, and common cause with the world rather than being prepared to ‘contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.’ (Jude 3) I do wonder what some have for a foundation.

Paul, in his famous passage about the armour of God, writes:

‘Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the full armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.’ (Eph.6:10-13)

Jesus tells the parable of the man who built his house on a rock, ‘and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.’ (Mt.7:24-27)

As Jude warns so he seeks to reassure his readers who prove to be faithful and genuine followers of Jesus, who have built on a rock, who know to stand firm. These are people who, having done all, are called on to stand, and Jude wants to remind them of the trust they can have in Jesus. So he addresses himself,

‘To Those Who are Called…’

No one simply wanders into being a Christian. It is a cardinal error to think of Christianity as a lifestyle choice, a mere custom defined by where you were born, a social behaviour. Christians are ‘called’ by God to be Christians. Paul writes to, ‘those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.’ (Ro.1:6) To Corinth he writes of, ‘those who are called, both Jew and Greek…’ and charges them, ‘consider your calling, brothers.’ (1 Cor.1:24-26) In Hebrews we read of, ‘holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling…’ (Heb.3:1)

This has been the pattern with God’s people. God, through Isaiah declares, ‘I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you,’ and goes on to explain the purpose of the calling, ‘I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light to the nations.’ (Is.42:6)

Christians stand in a noble line of succession with all who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, to actively serve his purposes. Fom Abraham, through Moses and the Old Testament people of God, on through the apostles and the church to the end, when the promised inheritance of glory in Christ becomes ours, Christians are a called out people.

‘Beloved in God the Father’

We often hear of God’s love. Scripture tells us, ‘God is love,’ and John gives a wonderful treatment of God’s love in 1 John 4:7-21. God, we know, loves us but Jude here goes further in writing, ‘beloved in God the Father.’ I am reminded of Ephesians 1, that wonderful passage describing how we are blessed by God, ‘who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…’ (Eph.1:3)

I encourage people to read that chapter and carefully count how many times the thought ‘in Christ’ or some expression of it appears. It is an astonishing passage, full of encouragement, Finally, the full purposes of God, the mystery of his will, is revealed as being, ‘to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.’ (Eph.1:10)

'Kept for Jesus Christ'

In the first of Peter’s letters that we have Peter writes of God’s great mercy that has, ‘caused us to be born again to a living hope…an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.’ (1 Pet.1:3-5) But Peter, like Jude, is a pragmatist and recognises the various trials through which the saints must go before that inheritance is fuily theirs (vv 6-7)

So Jude shasres an urgent concern for the saints as we walk through trials that test our faith. Jude, like Peter, recognises the immanent threat to the church from false teachers, the theme of his letter. In the Bible Speaks Today commentary on Jude, the situation is described like this:

‘In particular, Jude wants us to know that when we see churches flooded with wrong teaching about God, and leaders making money out of peddling quack religion, Christ will keeep a firm hold on his people.’ (BST, Jude, p.169)
Thomas Manton famously put it like this:

‘Jesus Christ is the cabinet in which God’s jewels are kept; so that if we would stand, we must get out of ourselves and get into him, in whom alone there is safety.’  (Quoted in BST on Jude, p.169)

‘Called, Beloved in God the Father and Kept for Jesus Christ’

As we approach the work of faithful witnessing we must be sure of our own security. Before we challenge those false prophets, false teachers, and destructive heresies Peter writes about, Jude goes on to warn about, we must be sure we are able to stand in the battle in the full armour of God.

Whatever the storm that rages around us, we must know ourselves called, beloved in God the Father, kept for Jesus Christ. As though to emphasise further his confidence in God’s promises, Jude goes on to puncuate the end of his letter with the familiar doxology:

‘Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.’

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Anatamoy of a Cult

Jesus' attitude to the lost is summed up perfectly in John 3:17, a verse perhaps not as familiar as the one preceding it: “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” (NASB)
In any and every aspect of the Christian life it has become commonplace to ask, “What would Jesus do?” But how does this text work out and what would Jesus do in relation to the cults? Did Jesus meet and interact with any cults?

People usually think of the Pharisees here but, while they certainly did display classic cultic characteristics – such as a strong legalism, judgementalism, controlling leadership, adding to the Law – it is well to remember that the Pharisees were part of the orthodox religion of the day.
We see the same in today's church, where a particular group may be a little legalistic, judgemental and disapproving, may make past tradition into a creed for today and so forth. But this does not disqualify such a group from the wider body of Christ.

Anatomy of a Cult

Jesus met a cult when he met the Samaritans. As we look at the history of the Samaritans we build up a profile of the typical cult, identify the characteristics to look for, and the pitfalls as well as the opportunities in witnessing.

2 Kings 17:21-23 - Here we find the roots of the Samaritan culture and people. These verses are an overview of what happened to Israel after the reign of Solomon. From the death of Solomon Israel was ruled by kings who compromised. The situation is described more fully in 1 Kings 12. Here the kingdom is divided under the rule of Solomon's son, Rehoboam. The northern kingdom is ruled by Jeroboam who, fearing that Israelites travelling to Jerusalem for the temple and Jewish festivals might turn back to Rehoboam, built altars and established worship in his own kingdom:

So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, "You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt."
And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.

Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one.
He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites.

And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made.

He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of- Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings. (1 Kings 12:28-33)

Power and Control

Cults, and cultic churches, are not about truth but about power. Like Jeroboam, their concern is controlling and holding onto their constituency. There is usually a power centre, just like Shechem or Bethel in the story of Jeroboam, and a figure who sets up alternative worship, feasts and special days “devised from [their] own hearts.”

  • They create their own centres of worship
  • The identify another focus of worship
  • They establish their own methods of worship.

Some things develop, evolve with time in a church. Mode of dress, language and idiom, types of activities, organisation but there is always a sense of continuity with the past, of tradition. But the cult makes a clean break with the past. What has gone before is invariably swept aside to make way for the new. It is revealing to compare this attitude with that of Jesus who said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Mt.5:17) Going on to give the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reinforces what has gone before.

Ad Hoc Development

2 Kings 17:7-20 - Eventually Israel was taken into captivity by Assyria, a permanent exile.

2 Kings 17:24-41 - We go on to read that Samaria was resettled with foreigners (24), a strategy of the Assyrian king who would exile conquered people's in foreign lands. These were punished by God for not fearing him (25-26) but the king of Assyria had a solution (27-28) and brought back one of the priests exiled from Israel. This, however, was no solution because “Every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived. (29) and they ended up with a corrupt mixture of Israelite and foreign gods and abominable practices that were a sin before God.

When exiles returned to rebuild Jerusalem, as recorded in Ezra (4:1-3), these were the people who came down to Jerusalem and offered to help. But they were rejected and so set out to discourage those who had returned (Ezra 4:4).

As with the Samaritans the ideas and practices of a cult are often developed in an ad hoc fashion. Improvised solutions to local problems build up to a confusing collection of contradictory teachings and ideas. Future generations face the challenge of making sense of doctrines and practices that cannot be reconciled because they were never developed with any plan in mind. Like the Samaritans members can end up with their own version of the cult built around some basic central ideas.

The Ezra Strategy

As with the Samaritans at the time of Ezra, cults sometimes attempt to be accepted as part of the orthodox religion. When we reject these overtures we are simply doing what Ezra and the people did in keeping our orthodoxy free of confusing and deceptive ideas that would ultimately hinder the work of God.

By the time of Jesus the Samaritans were a mix of races with a questionable history and questionable and unorthodox practices. They rejected much of the revelation of God, their scriptures were restricted to the five books of Moses and they disputed the true place of worship with the Jews in Jerusalem. They had even built a rival temple on mount Gezirim, about 400BC, which the Jews destroyed in 128BC.

The Samaritans were leftovers from the Northern Jewish kingdom who had intermarried with foreigners after the chiefs and nobles were taken into exile in 722BC” (John Piper)
  • Temple on Mount Gezirim
  • Rejected OT except selections from Moses
  • Mixture of truth and error
This was a cult and we can learn a great deal from Jesus and his encounter with the woman of Samaria.

The Samaritan Woman John 4

4:9-15 Jesus offers “the gift of water” but she can’t see past her immediate circumstances. Her view of the world is circumscribed and limited but Jesus perseveres. In the same way the cult member can't initially see past their own world-view. Don’t give up on people too soon.
4:16-18 Why does Jesus reveal her sin? (John 3:20)

We can’t, as Jesus, read people’s hearts but we can and must bring people by way of the Cross and the gospel message is always the same – man has sinned and God calls us to repentance. Romans 7 is helpful here as Paul describes the human plight in Rom.7: 7-25 (esp. Rom.7:19-20)

4:19,20 The universal response to conviction is avoidance, changing the subject, talking a little religion. Jesus patiently uses the opportunity to talk about truth. Where we worship is not as important as how and who we worship. We mustn't be sidetracked by discussion of relatively minor issues.

4:21-24 Jesus points out that Samaritan knowledge of God is deficient and their worship, therefore, deficient, so he deals now with the error (v22) We mustn't be afraid to correct error.
He brings out three things in this conversation:
  • Sin blinds us and we must allow Him to deal with our sin and recognise this problem for others
  • Religion, per se, is no good if we have the wrong God and come to Him the wrong way and we must be prepared to demonstrate the right way
  • As witnesses we must understand why people’s understanding is so deficient and show patience and persevere in our witnessing, using God’s priorities.

Where else do we find Samaritans?

We find them in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) and of the faith and gratitude of a leper (Luke 17:11-19). You can see why the Pharisees hated Jesus when he compared them unfavourably with Samaritans!

Paul writes about those who obey the law for conscience sake (Romans 2:14-15) and people from all sorts of backgrounds can and do work good works. This doesn't mean they don't need saving or correcting; the “Good” Samaritan needed Jesus too. It does mean that we should value them for who they are as we seek to bring them into the good of what God has for all who turn to him in faith and stop trusting in their own good works.

How would you feel if it was the parable of the Good Mormon? Or the thankful JW? Are you grateful for such people in the world even as you seek to evangelise them? Conversely, do you allow their good conduct to blind you to the problems in their faith and does this stop you witnessing? Can you love and value them and share boldly the gospel truth?

Sunday, 11 August 2019

How to Start a Cult

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If I was to start a cult these are the steps I would take:
  1. Reinvention: Every cult leader worth his salt has an image that he/she must work hard to maintain, from the clothes they wear to the way they conduct themselves. Saffron or white robes, smart casual western dress, formal wear, (a white suit is effective, as are robes, turbans, etc.) all will be determined by the image you want to project, but it must be consistent, people must recognise you instantly from your appearance and persona. Maybe this is why so many cult leaders choose to come across as still and contemplative rather than active and energetic.
  2. Novelty: It is important to have a message. The best messages have some novelty, revolve around issues of Revival, Renewal, Restoration, Transformation. It’s good if it is a ‘lost’ message, or something misunderstood until you came along to explain it. You can look really good if you can compare yourself favourably with ‘corrupt Christendom; the confusion of the churches is a puzzle only you can solve. But some tradition must be worked in because it is familiar and a role for Jesus is essential. You may bring new Scripture or, if you don’t want to take the risk of being branded heretic from the off, bring new, fresh commentary to established Scripture. You are going to recapture the best of the past, put it together with your new revelation, and make a better future.
  3. Simplicity: The message must be simplified and presented in sound bites. People laugh at politicians for repeating the party line on news programmes but if you repeat something often enough it becomes the truth. 'Strong and stable government,' 'A new day is dawning,' 'God is doing a new thing,' 'New wine skins,' 'Follow the prophet,' etc. These become a mantra that makes it easy for your followers to articulate your message and feel good for doing so without actually having any depth of understanding.
  4. Target Have a target audience. This is typically young people and intellectuals. Young people because they are old enough to have realised the world is a mess, naive enough to think they can 'make all the difference,' but young enough that they don't have the wisdom and discernment to help them make sound judgements when they hear your mantra. Intellectuals because they are older, educated, convinced they can take their education and make a difference in the world if only they could find a way; you provide the way. They also mistakenly think only stupid people join cults and so their guard is down. They can be won by flattery and a sense of purpose like everyone else.
  5. Hierarchy: Restrict access to yourself, dividing followers into groups and individuals that compete for your attention. By all means speak to crowds, but allow only a select few access into your inner circle. This makes them concentrate on how to get closer to you as the source of meaning for them. It constructs a cohort of followers that is most faithful in doing the work for you, putting out your message, reassuring the ordinary members, modelling the best and most faithful example for others.
  6. Exclusivity: Restrict access to the world. We conduct our lives according to the social norms of wider society. By restricting access to those norms of behaviour you create in them a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which you can write your own social norms. This is sometimes achieved by physically removing people from the world into a community, which has the added advantages of constant, direct control. Having members in community makes them more easily controlled and encourages them to spy on each other for any dissent. It is more usual to separate peopl socially, spiritually, and intellectually by holding a lot of meetings, to which they 'must come' if they are to grow, having them spend time reading, meditating, etc. suggesting they cut ties with old friends until they are rightly emebdded in the group.
  7. Popularity: Accept that not everyone will like you. Play to the crowd that does, demonise those that don't.
  8. Grooming: You should be able to groom key people, an exhausting and demanding process but essential if you are to build an inner circle and competition to enter it. This involves active listening, making someone feel they are the most important person in the room, even in a crowd. This means keeping eye contact, having a listening posture, mirroring (reflecting back their own posture and expressions), cutting out all distractions, quickly picking up on concerns, hopes, and fears and speaking to those specific points, or distracting from them with a picture of a better world where these things won't exist. 'Keep the faith friend.'
  9. Proselytising: Keep an emphasis on recruitment, calling it evangelism. This achieves two things; (1) it focuses followers on repeating the message, reinforcing their own conviction, and keeping them busy (2) it gets new recruits to replace those who are bound to leave the fold.
  10. Contest: Create competition for succession, making vague promises to various members of the inner circle, making them vie for your attention.
What would you add to the list?

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

The Bible: The most precious thing this world affords

'The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.' (Hebrews 4:12-13)

Queen Elizabeth II was crowned on 2 June 1953. She would spend her life living in castles and palaces. She would sit on thrones, ride in gold carriages, and leading designers would line up to make her the best clothes, She would wear the finest jewellery, eat the finest meals, and travel first class.

At her coronation in Westminster Abbey, amidst all the pomp and ceremony, lords and ladies, dignitaries both spiritual and secular, she was handed a Bible with these words:

Our gracious Queen:
to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords.

What is true for princes is surely true for everyone. This is the rule for the best life, the life we were made to have. It is to the Bible we go to understand something of what that life looks like and of God's purposes for me and for you. I wonder what the Bible is to you?

In Psalm 119 we read, 'Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light to my path.' (v.105)

When you are struggling to find your way do you look to the Bible to be a lamp to your feet, a light to your path? When you are trying to negotiate the challenges of this world do you go to the Bible for illumination?

For some, the Bible is like the convenience store, the corner shop. We're glad it's there, we go to it for our bits and pieces, we run to it in an emergency, but we do our main shop in the supermarket.

So with the Bible. We go to it for our bits and pieces, for those things that encourage us (23rd Psalm, John 3:16), at those times when we want comfort and reassurance, but when it comes to how we think about the big issues, the knotty issues of life - science and faith, moral and lifestyle choices, the ideas the world presses on us and urgently insists we embrace - we too often go to the supermarket of the world. We allow the world to shape and influence our thinking, shape our world-view.

We say, 'that's what people do today, that's how the thinking goes today.' The problem is, not so long ago people thought and acted quite differently, and in the not too distant future people will think and act differently again.

In the TV documentary Back in Time for School, fifteen pupils and their teachers time-travel as they fast-forward through more than 100 years of school life. As they move forward in time attitudes and philosophies change, from celebrating empire, to preparing for war.

Girls start in classes with the boys doing science, then they are separated as the boys do science and the girls do domestic science because this was thought to be the best way to prepare them for the brave new post-war world of the twenties and thirties. It is well said, who marries the spirit of the age will end up widowed in the next.

How will young people deal with the changes that are bound to come, when they increasingly find they don't understand the world any more? When the issues they thought were settled are churned up again and a younger generation, with different attitudes comes to very different conclusions?

The speech to the queen ends with these words:

Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.

The Bible gives an eyewitness account of Jesus. John writes so that we, his readers, should have fellowship in knowing what they saw, looked upon, heard, and touched, 'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life...that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us...' (1 John 1:1-4)

The Bible brings us hope. Paul reminds us, 'Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.' (Romans 15:4)

The Bible teaches, reproves, corrects and equips. In a letter to Timothy Paul writes, 'All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.' (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

The Bible calls us to action. James writes, urging us, 'Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.' (James 1:22)

The Bible calls us to defend the truth. In their book The Identity of the Church Anthony and Richard Hanson observe: 'God's word is not anybody's word. The church has a right to be protected from heretics, cranks, and fanatics...'

Jude reminds us, 'beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed...ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.' (Jude 3-4)

We cannot have that fellowship John writes about, we cannot know hope, be instructed in the things of God, identify to what actions we are called, or understand clearly the faith we are called to defend unless and until we have and apply ourselves to the word of God in the Bible. In the earliest account of Christian fellowship we have the example from those who, 'devoted them selves to the apostle's teaching...' (Acts 2:42-47)

The most precious thing this world affords.

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