Friday, February 26, 2010

Luke 12:13-14:35 Will those who are saved be few?

Jesus has been answering the question "How can I inherit eternal life?" Now the question changes, someone asks Jesus (13v23) whether only a few will be saved. Jesus doesn't directly answer the question. It's a narrow way but in the end people will repeatedly make their excuses to avoid being saved, and instead he'll be inviting in all the waifs and strays from the highways and byway (13v29, 14v23).

The approach to think about is humble acceptance of the invite - hence, take the lowest seats at the table (14v10-11). Let us read the times like we read the weather (12v56, 13v5) and be ready to come to the banquet.  Likewise know where your treasure is (12v13-34) - have your richness and treasure towards God (v12,34) - throw away everything else to have Jesus.

The question isn't how many will be saved, it's make sure you get saved - make sure you'll be dining with Jesus at the banquet in his kingdom. 14v35: Those who have ears to hear, let them hear...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Evangelical Ministry Assembly: Piper, Grudem, Virgo, Coles, Goligher, Bentley-Taylor, Reeves, Honeysett and others...

My friend Adrian Reynolds has gathered a fascinating combination of speakers for the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in London this summer... Anglicans and Free Churchers, Charismatics and not-so-Charismatics... for a gathering on Spirit-filled ministry.

Rupert Bentley-Taylor, John Piper, Christopher Ash, Vaughan Roberts with John Coles, Liam Goligher, Wayne Grudem, Marcus Honeysett, Wanyeki Mahiani, Tim McMahon, Mike Reeves, Terry Virgo.

Review: Crossing the Divide by Owen Hylton

Owen Hylton is a newfrontiers church leader in London. He's black. He's a man. These are ways of speaking of him. In his book Crossing the Divide he challenges us to both pursue diversity in the church and on how to do that. It's a practical book driven by theology and I enjoyed reading it. I was provoked by reading it. The main focus of the book is racial (ethnic) diversity, but the applications are broad.

Hylton says there are three main ways of dealing with diversity.
1. Assimilation which hides the differences (he suggest this happens in France... no Algerian-French, just French). 
2. Pluralism which accentuates and celebrates the differences (he suggests this is the British way of multiculturalism)
3. Integration which seeks unity and diversity (more an American way...?).

Whether or not the analysis holds I do find great appeal in the "third way". In the church we hold to a common core of relationship, identity and belief which is strong, and we don't  need to pretend that our differences don't exist. Hylton suggests actually it's counter-productive to pretend we're not different - and given our God is a diverse community I agree. Church can be a place where people agree to agree on certain things, and agree to be different in others.

There are implications for my work with Christian Unions too. Some suggest pretending we have no differences by "leaving your secondary beliefs at the door". This looks unified but breeds frustration. Others say diversify and lets have 17 campus ministries like in the US or New Zealand, but unity is more important than that among the people of the Triune God, or we betray the love of the Father for his Son. Could we then pursue a robust unity in the gospel, but with a celebration of our differences... a unity with diversity?

Published by IVP books UK

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Luke 11:1-12:12 Ask Jesus - join the life of the Triune God

Jesus famously teaches about prayer at the start of Luke 11 but something bigger is going on. Those who ask a human parent receive, how much more with God! When you ask of God the gift you receive is the Holy Spirit - in Luke this is (at least initially) a request for eternal life. How do you get it? Simply, ask!

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”


This approach which negates performance and religion offends the Pharisees and the Lawyers want to get in on the game adding “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” Christianity is the opposite of everything else - you just have to listen to Jesus when he says do you want life, and say yes.

But don't thinking asking is a ticket to heaven. That's not even the half of it. The amazing thing is that God comes to live in you! Jesus says the Holy Spirit is given by the heavenly Father to all who ask. We get deified, caught up into the family life of the Triune God. Just as Jesus can pray (Luke 10) to the Father, with joy in the Spirit - so can the Christian, and the Spirit will teach us.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Gran at 80

Today is my Gran's 80th birthday. How about that! Her three daughters are celebrating with her today and the family is gathering at the weekend, though sadly we can't make that. My Gran isn't a silver surfer so she'll not see this but I think she's great. She grew up in Wandsworth though she was evacuated during the second world war. On returning she married my Grandad, 11 years her senior who'd returned from spending much of the war in a PoW camp in Poland. They were married from 1951 until his death in late 1995. She's remained amazingly active and involved in her local church, the Mother's Union and National Trust ever since. Happy Birthday Gran!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Luke 9:51-10:42 How do I inherit eternal life?

I'll post some notes from the final two evangelistic events of the Plymouth Mission week at some point (The Bible: Historically Unreliable & Culturally Regressive - a adaptation of Tim Keller's approach to that, and Burn Your Plastic Jesus - which was a talk on Mark 15).

Each morning during the Plymouth CU mission week I gathered the team of 10 CU guests to review and plan, to pray and to walk through Luke's gospel. We followed Jesus from Luke 9v51 to 19v28, his journey to Jerusalem. It's a road of grace, marked with familiar stories, teaching, parables and healings.

When I read Luke I try and keep two things in mind...
1. Luke arranges his material very carefully. It's easy to know the small accounts that he records separately and to forget that they're put together for a reason (which is to give us certainty about Jesus). With this in mind I see some real benefit in studying 50-100 verses at a time. 
2. It's about Jesus not about us. It's easy to quickly apply things to ourselves, but as Jesus explained on the eight mile walk from Jerusalem after his resurrection, Moses and the Prophets are about Jesus... and I'm inclined to think that when Luke writes about how those books are fulfilled in Jesus he gives us this gospel (and Acts) as the write-up.

The journey is framed, beginning and end, by the twin questions of a self-justifying lawyer and a religious rich man about how to get eternal life. We began by reading Luke 9v51-10v42 with that question in mind. Jesus heads for the cross and calls people to follow him - going with him is better than all the good things he suggest to leave behind. He then does some evangelism training though Luke doesn't give us a report of the mission's events only that the disciples were very impressed only for Jesus to slam them down. Their mission of preaching and healing took Satan down, just like lightning falls from heaven, but joy is better anchored somewhere else - in having your names written in heaven.

We then get a Triune Moment as the Son prays to his Father with joy in the Holy Spirit. This is our God in conversation - the divine community enjoying fellowship together. 

The prayer celebrates that only the Father knows the Son and only the Son knows the Father - a moment of joy and yet despair!? - and that the Son makes the Father known. Not to the wise, not to the understanding, not to kings, not to prophets but to little children like these disciples. People not like busy Martha, but like Mary who sits at Jesus feet and allows the Son to reveal the Father to her.

In the midst of this is the lawyer who comes to trip Jesus up. He's told to love his neighbour via a famous parable about a Samaritan being a neighbour to a beaten up Jew. To do likewise though means what?

Could it mean go and love sacrificially - perhaps though that would conflict a little with it's pair in chapter 18 with the rich man... perhaps instead it's a call to receive help from the most unlikely of sources, namely from Jesus who would reveal life to him if he only sought it like a child, like Mary (context is key here). But, we can return to that nearer to the cross...

How do you get eternal life? You need Jesus to reveal himself and his Father to you... and he'd be glad to if you come like a child to listen humbly....      Next 11v1-12v12.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Avatar - a big film

Last weekend we saw Avatar in 3D. One thing I loved about it was the scale. It's expansive and immersing and big. Something in us longs for big, for things that are beautiful and take your breath away. Why would that be?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Terry Virgo at 70

Terry Virgo is 70 today.
He was 58 before I was even a Christian and I'd never directly benefited from his ministry until he taught at the UCCF student leaders conference in 2005.
Subsequently I found good friends within the newfrontiers family that has arisen through Terry's relationships, and in the last two years we've become members of one of those churches.
Terry is a man who is about the grace of God and the local church, something for which I'm very thankful. Having met Terry a handful of times in the last few years I find him to be a man of great integrity who lives what he preaches and whose ministry I hope has many years remaining.
If you've never come across him I highly commend his book God's Lavish Grace as a starting point, he'll deflect your attention away from himself towards Jesus. Quite right.
God's Lavish Grace

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Where is God when it hurts? (Plymouth CU Mission Week, Thursday Lunchtime)

With thanks to William Lane Craig and Andrew Wilson and others whose material on this subject was influential. The four wrong, four right outline in the middle is borrowed from the excellent book, GodStories by Wilson.

There are few questions more pertinent and present than this. Despite our best efforts to eradicate pain, evil and suffering in the world the 20th Century was the most bloody in our history, and the 21st Century hasn’t been much better, with terror attacks, pandemics, child abuse and the recent Haitian earthquake.

In the West, we live relatively insulated lives – we don’t expect empty shelves, or collapsing buildings, or hardship or disease to afflict us – while such things remain as “normal” for much of the world.

What does Christianity have to say to this? It’s charged that this is the achiles heel of Christianity. If Christianity has anything to say, it’s argued, there shouldn’t be suffering in the world. The fallacies in this argument are plain enough – if Christianity claimed to be the cure to all suffering then there would be a point to make, but it doesn’t. Likewise it’s phrased, if there is a good and powerful god there wouldn’t be suffering.
But that’s not really true either – it presupposes that the purposes of this god would be above all else to eradicate our pain. Where does that idea come from?

I’m not saying that a painless and plentiful life wouldn’t be good – sounds heavenly. No one is offering it and even if it was on the table – would it really be “best” for us? Take the film Sliding Doors we see Gwyneth Paltrow’s character live two parallel lives, in one things are going well, while in the other things are bad – yet in the end the more difficult life ends happier. We may be too close to the action to be able to tell what is good. Very often, as we reflect on life the pain is painful and yet when you meet someone who has really suffered they’re the better people, they have a substance and a resilience and a perspective and a can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it quality. Those who suffer tend to become like metal that has been in the crucible, tested and tempered by fire. I've not suffered much, but I see friends and family who have... they wouldn't choose it and they've lost much and yet they're somehow richer than I've ever been.

Where can we go with this subject of suffering?

At the events the Christian Union has been hosting this week we’ve been inviting you to step inside Christianity and have a look around. Imagine, on this grey day, a beam of sunlight coming in through the ceiling. You could look at it and see the dust in it, but you could step into it and look along it. The experience would be different. See how Christianity feels, tastes and thinks. I want to do the same here by inviting us to step inside the story of a man called Job. His story is told in the Bible. In painting his story I’m not asking that you accept it as history, though I think it is that, rather breathe the air of the world of the Bible for the next 15 mins..

The basic plot of Job is that an impeccably good man suffers massively and without knowing why. As the story unfolds his friends come to counsel him and help him work it out. Their advice is often conflicting and contradictory and deeply unhelpful, but as the “play” unfolds we approach some answers. In the end God speaks to him and provides some resolution. Perhaps not a complete answer but perhaps an answer that will help us. Job’s life is to some degree a test case for the question of suffering.

What can't a Christian say?

1. Suffering isn’t real. Some argue this. The Buddhist will argue that suffering in an illusion. Richard Dawkins wrote after the Boxing Day Tsunami with “pitiless indifference” – yet he can’t consistently do, having recently set up the Non-Believers Giving Aid charity for Haiti. He’s inconsistent and I would hope as much Job’s friends don’t say it’s an illusion that his health, his home and his children are taken from him – its clear that that’s not true. Denial wont do. It’s cold and heartless and unsatisfying.

Conceding the possibility of God might raise awkward questions for us but let’s not pretend the issue resolves simply if we exclude God. Suffering hurts and it feels wrong, it makes us cry out “what just happened!” – We grate against it in frustration. Something about it feels out of place. Why is that?

2. God doesn’t cause suffering. Easy to imagine that God is a distant deity, a King Richard who can’t save his people from the wiles of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Not so. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are intimately and lovingly involved in this world. And, difficult as it is to understand, Job confidently counsels us:  “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away”.

3. God is not good. Job’s wife says he should curse God but he responds, “Shall we receive good from God but not evil?” God will not be limited and he will not get himself off the hook.We might think he would but 

4. We get what we deserve. The basic argument of Job’s friends is that he’s suffering because he sinned against God. You know… “why does it always rain on me, is it because I lied when I was seventeen”. But this kind of “karma” isn’t Christianity at all. Some might suggest we get what we deserve whether in this life, in a reincarnated life or in an afterlife. Not so Christianity. Job is painted as a genuinely good man – whatever else is going on he’s not suffering for being bad. The Christian will say that this is a world under frustration because of the totality of human evil – but not in any cause or effect relationship. Some suffering is self-inflicted but generally we'll get in trouble if we try to draw connections too tightly.

What can a Christian say?

1. Nothing. This is the one good thing that Job’s friends do (2:13). “no one spoke to him for they saw that his suffering was very great”. While we sit here talking about suffering it’s entirely possible that it’s not an intellectual issue for you, but a real and personal present suffering in your life or that of someone close to you.
First and foremost I know that you don’t need an answer you simply need someone to be with you, to listen, to share your grief and to wait. My hope would be that a Christian would offer you that kind of support not that others wouldn’t, equally I know we’re all capable of being complete oafs and being insensitive.

2. God is still in charge. Job never concedes God’s sovereignty and we wont be able to purchase answers to suffering at the expense of either God’s goodness or his power. A world where God isn’t in control of suffering leaves us no better off. This is not a world of pitiless indifference but one in which the God of self-giving love is intimately involved.

3. There will be a resurrection. Job speaks (19:25-26) “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” This is not all of life – there is a day beyond this. That’s not to propose some kind of trite “pie in the sky when you die” answer, but simply to say there is more than now and that there can be hope of restoration and relief.

4. God is greater than us. The climax of Job’s story is an encounter with God. Ultimately that is what we need - to meet with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - the God who wants us to know him. Job and his friends are silent and God speaks. And then Job speaks a last time (42:3): “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” I don’t offer this as a complete answer but as something things we can hold on to, to help us cope and to help us comfort others.

In the course of Job’s story:
Job 9:32-33. We hear Job crying out that he wants someone who can arbitrate for him, if only one could stand between Job and God and have his case heard. 
Job 23:3-7. Again, we hear Job desire that the throne of God would be within reach, so his case could be put before God.

You see suffering’s real answer, Christianly, is not an argument, it’s not a philosophical construction that can resolve our experience and our definitions. The answer in Christianity is a person, Jesus. In Jesus, Job’s desire is met. God becomes a man to mediate between us and God. One Bible writer says this (Hebrews 4:14-15)

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

One who comes and loves us, suffers with us and for us, and is himself resurrected from the dead to stand for us as our “high priest” our representative. And so the writer concludes (v16):

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

That’s not a promise that the pain goes away, or that the questions go away, but it is an invitation to “receive mercy and grace” – to receive comfort from God, and in the company of his people. Jesus is the assurance that God isn’t out to get you, but out to invite you to know him, and the assurance that you’re not alone. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit forever love one another perfectly, and they invite us to join them in intimate relationship too.

One of the hardest things about suffering is to be bombarded with trite answers – like Job was.
But, worse than dodging cheap answers is to suffer alone, suffering hurts physically but the loneliness is often worse. You see “the church” isn’t a building or a meeting but a family, a community where when one person is honoured all can rejoice, and where one person suffers, all suffer together. The church might not be the only place you can find people who will stand with you, but it is a place for that – a place where the hurt and happy devote themselves to one another because they each know the comfort of Jesus, the innocent one who made the world but also planned before creation to come and suffer for his people, if anyone can speak to us in our suffering it is not me, but him.

Foundationally “suffering’s answer” isn’t an argument or an answer but community, company and comfort. Let’s pause for a moment’s quiet. Reflect on what we’ve said and then we’ll take some time for questions and comments.

Questions asked at the event: One on isn't the Bible just chinese whispers (partially answered, but next event is on that subject). One on even if I know God if he's behind suffering how can I trust him, and one on why are there so many rules to Christianity.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How Religion Makes People Judgemental (Tuesday evening at Plymouth CU Mission Week)

A good crowd gathered for pudding and a talk. One girl became a Christian at this event, though I'm not convinced that my talk had that much to do with it - more the end of a long process of friendship and evangelistic Bible study. 

When you’ve finished smashing up the world and blowing each other to bits and demanding special privileges while you do it, do you think maybe the rest of us can have our planet back please?

So says Marcus Brigstocke. He continues

I wish religious people would just own up that their special book says “fight, fight, kill, maim, fight, smash, destroy, smash, murder, kill. And fight. We love a scrap, we are fighty, scrappy, punchy, killy all the way.” I am so sick of religious people screwing it up for the rest of us. Please don’t kill us, seriously Religion is the power base for nutters. Religion by its very nature doesn’t tend to concern itself with truth. By the time all the toadying, condemning and hiding from science is done, truth has given up and gone down the pub for a pint. The Abrahamic faiths are like scousers – they all feel picked on harder than everyone else If we gave up religion we would have time to explore space, look in the sea, maybe find a cure for James Blunt The relationship between religion and warfare is like the relationship between Ant and Dec. You can have one without the other, but I am not sure anyone would see the point.

Hard to disagree isn't it? Religion is dangerous - and we're particularly fearful of fundamentalism. Taking things seriously, unless its the provision of puddings for us or care for the poor, saving the planet or ensuring there are graduate jobs. Being serious is ok, depends what the thing is. Religion is ugly though. Religion is about competing and playing the comparison game. Judging, am I better than you or am I worse than you. Some of us stacked our plates high and would like you to know we achieved that, others are deeply self-righteous that we only took one pudding.

Religion crushes the weak - it's power for nutters - it's about climbing to the top. So, religion is about survival of the fittest so that I triumph. It's power not love.

And it's kind of appropriate to think about this question on Shrove Tuesday ahead of Ash Wednesday, a made up religious festival, it's not in the Bible. The idea is feast today, fast tomorrow and feel good about it right, ahead of Easter. Nothing wrong with feasting - God made cake for us to enjoy. And fasting is ok, though quitting chocolate or facebook isn't quite going to tug on your desires like fasting is probably meant to. And remembering Easter is very important - Christianity is all about that event, the death of Jesus and his resurrection. Most of our attempts though are pure religion - making us feel self-righteous or depressed by our relative success or failure.

What of Jesus and religion - wasn't he the most religious person? Turn to p11-13.

Mark 2v1-12.
Jesus says: You're forgiven, you're healed. He shows he is God and does good to a man, and proves he's true to his word.  Religion says: You can't say that.  Religion is outraged by Jesus, but some are amazed by him. What do you make of him?

Mark 2v13-17.
Jesus says: Come for dinner to tax collectors, traitors, sinners, prostitutes. Religion says: You can't associate with them. Religion finds Jesus inappropriate, some enjoy his company. What do you make of him?

Jesus says we're sinners and failures and rebels who need a new start, and he can give it.

Mark 2v18-27.
Jesus says: eat and rest. Religion says: You can't do that. Religion finds Jesus unacceptable, some see Jesus is for them. What do you make of him?

Mark 3v1-6.
Jesus says: Have life - and we'd be glad to ask him to heal you if you're sick, as Jesus did for others. Religion says: You shouldn't do good here, today. Religion is insulted by Jesus, offended and wants to kill him - and does. Religion takes the moral high ground over Jesus, buts some admit (2v17) that they're in need of what he offers. Some say help me Jesus.

Religion is picky and performing, small-minded and striving, tight-fisted and trying. Religion leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. But, there's something expansive, lifegiving and attractive about Jesus.

Mark 10v45. Page 36.
Jesus says: Don't serve me. Let me die for you - your self-promotion and effort and love for everything apart from me has stirred my jealous anger - but I don't ask you to pay for that, I'll do that for you. Religion says: We want to climb up to God. Jesus says turn it upside down, don't climb to me - I come to you. You can be free from comparison and competing, you can be secure. Religion opposes Jesus, but you can receive him. Whatever your story, your background, your track record, Jesus says welcome, come and be forgiven, come and live. No religion, just Jesus. Jesus was the great anti-religionist, because he's the great life giver.

For some of you that's the first time you've heard that and you may just want to think it over more tonight, take away the biography of Jesus, come to other events later in the week.
For others you've been on this for a while, you still have questions but maybe its time to trust Jesus. It took me six weeks to pluck up the courage to propose to my wife, I was weighing it up - in the end, one September afternoon after dinner I realised I trusted her and popped the question, fumbling my words in the process, no ring, no readiness. Thankfully she said yes and nine months later she said I do to my I do. Is it time for you to do "that" with Jesus. He's "proposing", will you... That's not for all of us, but it might be for some. The best way to do that is to ask him. I'll read a sample prayer you can make your own. 
Father. I can't save myself or impress you with religion. I quite that. I need Jesus to forgive me, to welcome me, to provide for me and give me life. Come and live in me by the Holy Spirit because of Jesus. Yes.

Monday, February 15, 2010

How Atheists Are Right (Plymouth CU FREE Week, Day 1)

The basic idea of this talk is borrowed from Mike Reeves.

We’re not trying to be clever here, but rather to engage with a current question Perhaps you’ve come across Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens in the last few years. Famous for their bestselling books and their TV programmes. They’ve become known as “the new atheists”.

I enjoyed Dawkins book, it was entertaining and helpful. Hitchens would go further. He wrote “god is not great: how religion poisons everything”.
He’s says “I’m not an atheist, someone who would believe in God if I had evidence” rather “an antitheist” who would hate it if God existed. Why so opposed? Hitchens says (in an interview):

“the existence of god would be a bad thing. It would be rather awful it was true. If there was a permanent total round-the clock divine supervision and invigilation of what you do, you would never have a waking or sleeping moment when you weren’t being watched and controlled and supervised by some celestial entity from the moment of your conception to the moment of your death. It would be like living in North Korea.”

Pretty unpleasant, right? If Hitchen’s god is out there I want to be an anti-theist too. Such a god stands over against this world, it’s creator and it’s enemy. Ever thought of god in that way, the one who is the divine big brother, watching and waiting for you to slip up so he can smite you. This is the kind of god Hitchens and Dawkins rail against. And they should shouldn’t they?

And of course if you imagine a world ruled by this god, imagine what his people would be like? The police of such a regime – mini-dictators and control-freaks, thought-police of a heavenly Hitler.

Christians are sometimes portrayed that way. And it’s no wonder then that some of the top reasons why people say they object to Christianity are that the followers of God are angry, judgmental, hypocritical and intolerant. If their god is like Hitchens nightmare then it would figure.

Traditional Mainstream Christianity has for 2000 years believed in God, but not the god Hitchens hates. Let me illustrate from a piece of Russian art, it’s about 600 years old. It’s considered to be the finest piece of Russian religious art and it’s by Rublev, and called “The Old Testament Trinity”. It represents the mainstream historical Christian position on God.

Now, you can’t actually draw God – and the true “image” we have of God we find in Jesus who is called “the image of the invisible God” but this painting shows us something helpful.

Notice – that God is not some lone dictator. A lonely man in the sky picking on people like a kid with a magnifying glass persecuting ants on a summer’s day. That kind of god is unpleasant and is not the God Christians believe in. When I read Richard Dawkins I found myself entertained and largely agreeing with him.

Look at the picture. What we see is a community of three persons around a table, enjoying relationship with one another. The God Christians believe in is three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And they live in community. They love one another and always have and always will. Not that love is god but that God is love.

And their love is so perfect that it reaches out beyond them. They look at one another but also beyond, outwards. Quite different to the god Hitchens hates this God is defined by love. The three persons of this God exist in an expanding fellowship of love, for one another and… see there is a space at the table, because this is a community into which God invites us to come and enjoy loving relationship with him.

He’s not opposed to us, he’s welcoming and inviting us to know him. He’s jealous for his people and longs to have them with him. He longs for his creatures. He longs for his people. And demonstrates his love by entering into our world to bring us to himself.

Let us reword Hitchens “the existence of god would be a good thing. It would be rather lovely if it was true. If there was a permanent total round-the clock divine love and care of you, you would never have a waking or sleeping moment when you weren’t being loved by God from the moment of your conception to the moment of your death. It would be like living in heaven”

Hitchens might not be convinced so easily and neither might you. And even if you saw the appeal you’d be right to ask, where do you get this idea from? When we think of god we always end up with the god Hitchens hates. The Triune God I’ve described is a God who wants to be known personally, and so reveals himself. Not in a philosophy or a system but in a person, the second person, the Son – Jesus. Two implications.

1. This is God Involved.
This God is not distant and removed but involved. The Son, Jesus, came into the world. He was noted by non-Christian historians and the best eye-witness testimony is gathered into the book we now call The Bible. The legacy of his coming is the existence of the church.

Good news is a person (Mark 1:1) who comes to make God known. Jesus comes as the son of the Father (Mark 1:11). He comes to die for us - we've been adulterous against him, and his jealous love burns against us but he takes that upon himself in his death. Dawkins & co should hate the distant god but this God is involved in his world. He walked with us. Not against us, not supervising us, but loving us and wanting us to know him.

2. This world, relational.
The god Hitchens hates gives us a cold North Korea, this God gives us a world that is fundamentally relational. We're not the meaningless result of an equation or an explosion. Life is relational - this makes sense of our inconsolable longing for love - the first thing you did at Uni was find friends. We're relational. This is the world made by this God. He longs for us to know him. He is in a good mood with us and wants us to know him: (Song 2:10b-11, 14b)
10b “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone….
14 let me see your face, let me hear your voice,
for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.”

Objections? Questions? You can ask anything, poke fun at me, we’ll take your questions seriously and respectfully. At the event we had questions on evil done by Christians or in God's name, about the conquest of Canaan... 

University of Plymouth Christian Union FREE week

The University of Plymouth Christian Union are always on mission. 120 Christian students living in the same corridors as non-Christian students from all over the world, studying the same courses and socialising in the same clubs & societies. Between them they have a
network of relationships in which they've lived and spoken for Jesus.

This week is no different, except that we're turning up the temperature.

The team for the week are the students plus a few local church student workers and six members of the UCCF South West team.

Please pray for students inviting friends.
Please pray for me speaking at each main event.
Please pray that Jesus saves people - whether this week or subsequently.

I'll blog when I can this week at you can follow on and

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Expulsive Power of a New Affection: We must engage the heart not just the will or the mind...

Theology Network now has Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. Unmissible.

"the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."

There is something stunning about the faith of those plunged into the furnace of suffering.  No-one, but Christ, would seek to suffer, but the effects are unimaginable in the saints as they suffer and grieve.

Particularly, I see that in these guys who we knew to varying degrees while we lived in Reading. We were in the Arborfield & Barkham family of churches with Ed & Nicci whose son died last week (Ed & Nicci's blog). I only very loosely know The Mackays of Reading Family Church, Craig tells the story of his wife's journey to be with Jesus.

One can't help but marvel and give praise to God for the quality of their faith in horrendous times. Marvel and then sit in silence and sorrow for them.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Raised with Christ (Mike Reeves)

Adrian Warnock raises a flag for the importance of the resurrection in his new book Raised With Christ. I received a free copy of the book from Crossway as a thank you for some minor contributions towards its writing, as a service to the author who is a friend. 

The subject is very important. Catch a taste of Mike Reeves preaching on resurrection from 1 Corinthians 15 for UCCF London in 2008 (mp3 link). And a flavour in writing here:

Despising the body, did not just cause problems – it caused problems because in doing so they had thrown away their hope and the very gospel itself. The gospel is all about the body.

Now of course the unbelievers in Corinth would despise the body and laugh at the idea that there might be any hope for the body beyond death. The whole Greek mentality was anti-body. But what was really sick was that some within the Church in Corinth had become so unspiritual and worldly that they had started to actually laugh at this hope of resurrection.

It was like with the Sadducees in Jesus’ day who came up to Jesus with this terribly funny joke, meant to show how ridiculous the idea of us all walking out of our graves is.

They asked Jesus: if a woman manages to marry seven different men throughout her life who will she be married to when she’s resurrected? Ha, Ha! What a silly idea resurrection is! And some in Corinth were doing the same. See 1 Corinthians 15:35 – ‘someone may ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?"’ Obviously the latest joke doing the rounds: What kind of body will we have in the resurrection? Will we be married? Will there be enough room on a renewed earth for so many resurrected people and animals? Ha, ha, ha, ha!

Being so ‘spiritual’ as many in Corinth thought they were, the idea of a future for their bodies after death was just beneath them. That wasn’t very ‘spiritual’. So, in v12, at the beginning of our passage, ‘some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead’.

Now for Paul, this is not a side issue – for him, it’s not an option to say: ‘OK, you believe in a bodily future after death; and you hope for some sort of out-of-body experience after death. Doesn’t matter – whatever comforts you.’

No – v13, ‘If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.’ If you say our bodies being raised up after death is a silly idea, then you’re saying that Christ’s body being raised up after death is just a silly idea.

And if we’re saying that Christ was not actually, physically raised up from the tomb, then what are we wasting our time for, telling people that they should trust him? Why do we trust in Christ ourselves? He’s dead!... in that case. V14 – ‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.’

It’s pointless to trust in someone who’s dead. If Christ did not rise from the dead, don’t trust him! That’s why Paul spent vv1-11 showing how certain it was that Christ did rise from the dead. And so key is this that he repeats his point in v16:

‘if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.’ If there’s no future for our bodies after death, then you’ve got to be consistent and say that Christ was not raised from the dead. And then there’s no point in trusting him.

Because he’s dead, and that means – second half of v17 – ‘you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.’ If Christ is still under the power of death, then we must still be under the power of death – his attempt to save us failed, and so when we die, that’s it.

It is through his new ‘birth’ from the grave that Jesus offers us new birth from our spiritual deadness. But if he is still dead, then we are still in our sins. No salvation, and no life beyond death – at all. And if that’s the case, then Christians are idiots – putting ourselves through unnecessary troubles, dreaming of a hope that will never come to pass.

V19 – ‘If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.’ Yes, the resurrection of the dead decides it: Christians are either the most blessed creatures to ever walk the face of the earth. Or we are the biggest bunch of idiots. It all depends on whether there will a resurrection for these bodies of ours.

A hundred years after Paul, the great evangelist of the day, Justin Martyr, put it like this.

He said: there are some ‘who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven [and that is all]; do not imagine that they are Christians’. Now Justin’s not denying that, as a Christian, your spirit goes to heaven when you die.

He saying that if you think that’s it – your spirit going to heaven, that’s the only future – then you’ve fallen in with these Corinthians. Heaven is the intermediate state, not the final hope. And yet how often do our hymns and songs talk about heaven as our ultimate hope? Fleeing the earth to a tearless life there?

Or worse, pretend we have it all now with lines like ‘we now see you face to face’. But if your spirit going to heaven when you die is not the final picture for Christians, then what is? V20 – ‘But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.’

Here’s the real future. ‘Christ has been raised, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.’
Now Christians in Paul’s day – and particularly those who were Jewish – would instantly know what Paul’s talking about here.

For that Sunday – the day after the Sabbath – when Jesus walked out of his tomb – that was the day Israel celebrated the festival of firstfruits. The first Easter Sunday was the day for Israel’s feast of firstfruits. Now for us to get what they understood, keep a finger in 1 Corinthians and flick with me back to Leviticus 23...

Quote ends.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

God is always in a good mood. Or, How can I know the love of the Father?

They say you don't have to tell people God loves them, because people presume that. I take the point but people clearly don't actually know the love of God, otherwise they'd be Christians - they only think they know.

The suggested solution?
Major on hell and all the things people don't want to hear. I do see where that's coming from, and hell is important, but... perhaps we ought to tell people better about the love of God... given neither we nor God actually want people to perish... (2 Peter 3:9)

Paul is concerned that the local church in Ephesus should really know the love of God, he writes out his prayer for them in Ephesians 3.

He gets on his knees before the Father to pray that they'd be strengthened by God's power so that Christ would dwell in their hearts that they'd have strength together with all the saints - not to fight but to "comprehend the breadth, length, height and depth and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge" that they'd be filled with the fullness of God to the glory of the abundant Father through the church and through Christ forever. 

Quite a prayer to pray - imagine such an experience of the love of God. 

How can I know the love of God?  
As a gift. It's the answer to a prayer. And prayer is not a contract or a deal with God it's us asking and him giving. Want to know the love of God? Ask. To know him is the essence of his grace to us.

Where can I know the love of God? 
In me, in the church and in Christ. Which isn't a list of three independent options but three things that go together perfectly. 

Warm-hearted John Calvin says union with Christ is the heart of being a Christian. That is, God has made his home in me by his Holy Spirit, catching me up into the life of the Triune God. God is at happily at home in me. He is in "my inner being". Filling me with his Spirit ongoingly.

Inner life is part of being a Christian. But Christianity is more too. Being Christian is a community thing. The dividing walls fall down because of the blood of Jesus. Once impenetrable barriers become paper thin and get take down. We live "with all the saints".

There is no churchless Christianity. We know the love of God with God's people, in our relationships with the members of one local church. This isn't individualism. Reality is relational. The reference point for my life is not how things effect me, it's also how it effects my local church. A behind closed doors relationship with God is important - but a Christianity lived in self-giving relationships is non-negotiable too.

Everything of this is "in Christ". We were dead under divine wrath - Jesus died under that wrath for us!! For us! He was raised and seated and so to are we raised and seated. Everything that happened to Jesus happens to us and for us as we live in union with Christ.

Christ though points us to his Father. The goal is the glory of the Father through the church and through Christ. The gospel awakens us with an inconsolable longing for the expansive, lavish, surpassing, far more, much more, abundant love of the Father, the love he had for the Son and for the church before the foundation of the world!

The Father's power isn't control and oppression, its the power that raised Christ from the dead to make known his love - his power is all about love. The love with which he adopted and redeemed us lavishly to know his Christ-purpose of a global gospel. Everything about God and his gospel is expansive - small-mindedness is anti-Triune, anti-Christian.

Ask to know his love and you'll know the Father, and you'll know and love the Christ and his church. Knowing him leads to a stronger unity between believers, knowing him leads to a more expansive life that embodies the self-giving love of the Father, that stands with people and invites them too to know the love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Dynamics of Kindness, or Why Some Christians Are Cold

What kind of people are Christians? A  common perception is of coldness, judgementalism, arrogance and hypocrisy.

A stereotypical caricature often refuted by 'christians I know' but I know I can tend towards unkindness. Maybe it's just me, but I doubt it.

Such coldness looks like Naomi in The Book of Ruth. She and her family go out from the people of God. Her confession in chapter 1 is that God is against her.

Bethlehem is celebrating Passover, before the barley harvest - famine is over, salvation is in the air - Naomi is the wet blanket and the grey cloud. Naomi's god is mean and she need to tell you. Her god is against her.

Only when she finds her home again under the saving wings of the LORD among his people does she begin to see that the LORD in his kindness has not abandoned her but rather lavishes kindness upon her.

Studying Ruth again recently with our home group, I've been struck again by the sheer kindness of the LORD in this romantic comedy (yes a Bible Rom-Com). The key picture is of refuge under wingsA bird diving for cover and comfort with its mother, it's warm and vivid and its life-giving
In the middle two chapters of the book, which are the ones that are actually about Ruth (Naomi seems more prominent in chapters 1 and 4), we find a widow who is a foreigner and a Moabite at that. The most excludable kind of woman.

Ruth is welcomed by the people of God, represented by Boaz. She takes refuge in the people of God (under the wings of Boaz) and under the wings of the LORD. As to the LORD, as to the people of the LORD.

These two actions seem inseparable, and no surprise because how could we expect someone to be able to say Your God Is My God if they can't also say Your People Will Be My People? The two go together, and are the way the experience of kindness is found.

Ruth experiences the LORD's kindness through his people. This side of the cross the same dynamic is surely at work - we experience the definitive kindness of the LORD at the cross through his people (and in our hearts by the Spirit).

Imagine the Christian who goes out from the people of God, and who says I'll just go solo, a lone-ranger off to win the world for Christ. 

If such a person detaches from the people of God then what do they win people to? 
What message do they have other than one of hell-avoidance? 
What kind of God do they believe in as they speak with no experience of relationship? 

The god of such evangelists would surely be more of a cold monad than Triune God - solo and unrelational.

Such evangelism soon becomes functional and not overflowing with kindness and blessing as the people of God are.

The god of such evangelism is soon one who stands over against people rather than for them with an invitation to warm fellowship with himself and his people.

I'm not saying don't warn of hell but does not the evangelist appeal on God's behalf with an invite to relationship more than anything else?

Such is the message of the cross. We're right to speak much of propitiation! But let us not think that penal substitution is just about mere wrath-aversion and hell-avoidance.

Propitiation is about a declaration that the Triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is now definitively, unchangeably propitious towards His People.

He will be forever kind and favourable, not on the basis of anything in his people but on the basis of the blood of the one under whose saving wings they're to take refuge. Favourable because of Jesus. Warm because the Father, Son and Holy Spirit love one another. A invite to find life in the LORD among his people.

In the middle chapters of Ruth we're beginning to see the dynamics of experiencing the kindness of God fleshed out. We see the abundant kindness of the LORD: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to his people.

God invites us into a marital and familial relationship. Its espousal theology (Sibbes), full of warmth and kindness, full of unconditional kindess for the LORD is kind.

A woman of noble character (Ruth 3:10, Proverbs 31:10-31) takes refuge in the kind LORD. As the church we've taken refuge, let us enjoy his kindness and the life of this expanding fellowship of love into which all are welcome to come - whatever ethnicity, whatever gender, whatever their sin - for the LORD is kind, right? 

Download Ruth eBook 

Friday, February 05, 2010

The love of Christ to his church (with the help of Richard Sibbes)

Paul prayed for the local church in Ephesian church that they would "know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge" (Eph 3:19).

My default is to think of that individually. As Ron Frost says: "the great tensions of life need to be framed not as issues of old versus new—of absolutes versus relativism—but as a competition between a relational view of life and a devotion to individualism."

 In Ephesians we know that Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant sacrifice (5:2) and that "Christ loved the church..." (5:25).

Richard Sibbes makes this connection in his fabulously named sermon series "Bowels Opened: a discovery of the neere and deere love, union and communion betwixt Christ and the church; and consequently betwixt Him and every beleeving-soul, delivered in divers sermons on the fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters of the Canticles"

He notes in passing that "the knowledge of the love of Christ to his church is above all knowledge" Eph 3:19. Where do I best see and know the love of Christ? Of course: in his love for the church!

I see Christ and I see the church he fills with his Spirit and clothes in his righteousness - and in that glimpse of his bride we catch the reflection of the immense love of Christ. Nothing else can move the heart like this sight of the gospel, no love is like his love for the church, and no lover like the one who gave himself for her.

Sibbes was known as “the sweet dropper” because he had such a sweet way of presenting the confidence, richness, depth and encouragement of the gospel. Read some more of "Bowels Opened" here:

"Other books of Solomon lie more obvious and open to common understanding; but, as none entered into the holy of holies but the high priest, Lev. xvi. 2, seq., and Heb. ix.8, so none can eneter into the mystery of this Song of songs, but such as have more near communion with Christ. Songs, and specially marriage songs, serve to express men's own joys, and others' praises. So this book contrains the mutual joys and mutual praises betwixt Christ and his church.
And as Christ and his church are the greatest persons that partake of human nature, so whatsoever is excellent in the whole world is borrowed to set out the excellencies of these two great lovers. It is called 'Solomon's Song,' who, next unto Christ, was the greatest son of wisdom that ever the church bred, whose understanding, as it was 'large as the sand of the sea,' 1 Kings iv. 29, so his affections, especially that of love, were as large, as we may see by his many wives, and by the delight he sought to take in whatsoever nature could afford. Which affections of love, in him misplaced, had been his undoing, but that he was one beloved of God, who by his Spirit raised his soul to lovely objects of a higher nature. Here in this argument there is no danger for the deepest wit, or the largest affection, yea, of a Solomon to overreach. For the knowledge of the love of Christ to his church is above all knowledge, Eph. iii. 19. The angels themselves may admire it, though they cannot comprehend it. It may well, therefore, be called the 'Song of Solomon;' the most excellent song of a man of the highest conceit and deepest apprehension, and of the highest matters, the intercourse betwixt Christ, the highest Lord of lords, and his best beloved contracted spouse.
There are divers things in this song that a corrupt heart, unto which all things are defiled, may take offence; but 'to the pure all things are pure,' Titus i.15.
More samples at from Vol 2 of Sibbes Complete Works.

Banana Bread by Lizzie Kevan

Banana Bread from Lizzie Kevan on Vimeo.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Proverbs 31 Wife? A Spotless Bride

Proverbs ends with an acrostic poem. It's a careful piece of poetic writing like Lamentations and Psalm 119, structured and thoughtful. This is deliberate. This is memorable. This is a song at the end of the story. Yet, who can solve this ultimate riddle? Why is it at the end of the book of Proverbs? It's easy to say it's a model for a wife and maybe it has something to say about marriage - but it's worth zooming out and digging deeper before jumping to application.
Note: in this post I'm doing the zooming out, not the digging deeper into Proverbs 31:10-31 - I'll do that another day.

Peter Leithart summarises the plot of Proverbs, a truly Biblical-gospel book:
The Proverbs begin, then with the son confronted by a choice of two women who are bound up with two divergent destinies. It should be recalled, too, that the Proverbs are written by a King to a Prince. The book largely consists of the Proverbs of Solomon and King Lemuel (chapter 31), and the king consistently addresses his "son." The dramatic premise of the book of Proverbs is this: A Prince must determine whether Lady Wisdom or Dame Folly will be his princess. The dramatic question, then, is: Whom will he choose? (In teaching this to children, I have suggested that the book of Proverbs is structurally similar to Disney’s version of Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Little Mermaid," in which a prince must choose between the mermaid, who cannot speak so long as she is a normal girl, and the sea witch, who has disguised herself as a desirable young woman.)

The answer to our dramatic question is given in the final chapter of the book, the well-known Proverbs 31. It is no accident that the Proverbs ends with a celebration of the excellent wife. In the drama of Proverbs, the excellent wife is Lady Wisdom from the earlier chapters. Her husband, the Prince, now sits in the gates of the city. The prince has successfully resisted the seductions of the adulteress, Folly. He has chosen well. Together, the Prince and his bride form the royal household.
Think of the story - the Little Mermaid. Which woman will the man marry? It's the story of Proverbs, and it's the story of the whole Bible.
This structure and these characters are generally analogous to the major structures and characters of the Bible. The first prince, Adam, chose to follow the word of his adulterous wife (2 Cor 11:1-3), and ended up, as the Proverbs say, in Sheol. The Last Adam listened intently to the Word of His Father, and died to win a spotless Bride. Now He praises His bride in the gates; she is an excellent wife.
Proverbs like The Bible as a whole, ends with a spotless wife. The true son dies to win a spotless bride. Commentator Charles Bridges observes that in Proverbs 31 we find one to whom "no treasure can be compared to the woman in these verses". The language might suggest Christ himself, though the image and language suggest she is indeed a bride, the treasure He gives up everything to obtain - namely the church.

And so, by all means, learn about marriage from this passage, but first learn about the marriage of the Lamb. Learn of the one who doesn't follow the words of the adulterous Eve into sin, but follows his Father's words. See the one who doesn't stand over against us but rather comes into the world to woo and win his people for whom he dies. See the one who is The Bridegroom and know that he comes for sinners, the King who comes to marry the prostitute (the kind of people Jesus used to eat with) and make her the Queen.

To my bride I say, you are beautiful, you are fruitful, you are productive but more importantly you fear the LORD - you believe the gospel - and so by the grace of God you reflect the glory of Jesus' bride to whom we belong. But don't be weighed down by trying to be a Proverbs 31 woman - but let us together become her as Jesus washes us clean by his gospel word, as he makes us spotless and free from blemish by his blemishless sacrifice of himself. Feel the grace of Proverbs 31, the certainty that he we will reach the wedding supper of the Lamb and celebrate there with Him. Til then he calls to us:

10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone….
14 let me see your face, let me hear your voice,
for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.”
SONG 2:10-11,14b, ESV

Your comments much hoped for - I'm preaching on this passage in March and as you can see I have a lot more preparation ahead of me... The big picture seems to go against how many people read this chapter as a model for wives - such as this series at girltalk. I'm not saying there's no value there, but I wonder if we need something else first. Bit like my "controversial" views on The Song of Songs... because if we get the big gospel picture first then Biblical manhood and womanhood are first and foremost about cruciformity.