Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Royal Observatory (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:11)

Having spent the winter months in The Song of Songs and Proverbs I figured that the coming of Spring was a good time to embark on the third volume of God's wisdom books - Ecclesiastes. Chirpy eh!

The great king carries out a vast experiment. He is the Dean of the University of Life. He has near infinite resources at his disposal. This is how the son of David considers the world. Welcome to the royal observatory. His study considers four areas. He looks at Geography and History, at Wisdom and Pleasure. The verdict in each case is very similar. He writes up his report in the language of wisdom literature, words to ponder, parallelisms to chew upon.
  • Geography tells him that the world is desperately cyclical. Things go no-where. The sun rises and sets, again and again. Like the sea, even eyes and ears never get filled up. Repetitive. Monotonous. Some of us hear it as refreshing honesty, some of us don't want to admit that the world is like that.
  • History is much the same. Things don't go anywhere. We love to believe in innovation and progress but what is new really? Even 3000 years ago, innovation wasn't innovative. We love to believe we're the best to have lived but we're no more than the latest. Some will hate this, but heard humbly this is liberating stuff.
  • Even the pusuit of wisdom seems futile. Increased knowledge increases sorrow. The more we know the more we see we can't fix things, we may know some things but we see more problems. Ignorance can be bliss and "Education, Education, Education" didn't fix the world...
  • And as for pleasure, the son of David, limits himself in nothing. Everything is on offer in this hedonist heaven, and whilst there is some joy, like all the rest this pursuit is ultimately disappointing too. The man who had it all has tested the limits of life. He says: it's wind-chasing like everything else.
Ecclesiastes isn't just some great thought experiment. It's an application of the heart to life. He gives his everything to the chase. What does his heart find?

Some of us will hear this and argue with the Preacher, Qoheleth, Solomon, we say - it can't be like this. We wont agree with him. Others hear it and say - yes, this Scripture explains my frustration and my boredom. I ask - how come things are like this? Why do we desire progress if there is none? Why do we thirst if there is no satisfaction? Does not the presence of the desire tell us there should be more?

And what of Solomon? Some say of him - these are the ravings of an atheist because if you believe in Jesus you'd never say this stuff. That's convenient but I'm far from convinced.

Solomon's verdict on things is "Vanity" (ESV) or "Meaninglessness" (NIV) or "Smoke" (The Message). It's the Hebrew word "hebel". This is the name of Adam & Eve's son - Abel. Not the serpent seed Cain, but the other son. The one who was a true worshipper. The one who could have been the promised seed until his brother struck him down. Solomon looks back and says - Hebel, it didn't have to be like this, yet it is. Solomon cries out in anguish for the coming of the promised seed, for freedom from the frustration that seems hard-wired into this world.

Reading Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:11 I feel the breeze of the gospel in my heart, the warm breeze that makes me long for the life of summer. It's a call to honesty and humilty about how life is for everyone on earth. And it's a call to join the cry of the son of David, the greatest king history had seen, who knew himself not to be the promised seed. Not Abel. Not Seth. Not anyone else in the line through to Solomon, but great David's greater son.

He looked forward to the coming of The Promised Seed, and we're drawn back to his coming as we live now in the frustration. And we look further ahead to the day when the world will finally find its liberation crying from the heart "Come Lord Jesus" - joining the groans of God's world for that day.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Ordinary Work of the Gospel (Reflections on a weekend with the IFES team in Paris)

I spent the weekend in Paris visiting members of the IFES team who support students doing mission together in Paris. It was a deeply encouraging weekend.

I loved seeing them stage the Mark Drama (Mark L'experience) by Andrew Page, which tells the story of Mark's gospel - accessible, funny, engaging and creative to show the story of Jesus to people who have never heard it before. Abnormally big for France, great opportunity.

I loved hearing that the team and students are doing the ordinary work of opening up the Bible with one another and with non-Christian students. It's not a new idea. It's a very old idea. It's the way people become Christians, through friendship and seeing Jesus walk off the pages of Scripture and into their lives. There is nothing new, and that's great.

I was encouraged to catch up with a good friend Matt who is on the team. It was great to see his wrestle with God through the challenges of being struck dumb (i.e. having to learn the language) having been very active in ministry here in Exeter last year. I love that guy and his love for God. You get a flavour of his experience from this video with Philippa Wilson who is in her second year in Nice, France:

Relay Homestart Interview with Philippa Wilson from UCCF: The Christian Unions on Vimeo.

If you speak French and love Jesus I can't help but think you should go, being there even made me want to re-learn the language. The church is small, the number of Christian students is small - but that just increases the potential impact of even one person becoming a Christian... As the IFES teamers told me, they've asked themselves - is there a good reason not to be there. I was inspired by them and their desire to see the gospel advance in the French speaking world. They're heroes. And yet they'll tell you just how ordinary they are - ordinary Christians, doing the ordinary work of opening up the word of God with people that they might see Jesus.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Heroes: Athanasius of Alexandria

In our journey through church history we spent time with some heroes - people who wouldn't exactly be at home in our churches but who can certainly teach us.... Athanasius & Augustine, Luther & Calvin, Sibbes & Edwards.

Athanasius is our first hero...

296/8 Athanasius born
303-5 Diocletian’s great persecution
312 Conversion of Constantine
318 Arius begins to teach that there was a time when the Son was not
325 Council of Nicea “begotten, not made, of the same being of the Father”
328 Alexander dies, Athanasius becomes bishop of Alexandria`
335-7 1st exile of Athanasius, writes Against the Heathen and On the Incarnation
336 Death of Arius (born 256)
339-46 2nd exile
356-62 3rd exile, writes Against the Arians, Life of Anthony (and sparks a legacy of monasticism)
373 Dies following two further exiles.

Athanasius finds himself caught up in a great fight - against the world - and against Arius. The key idea of this comes in Against the Arians, 1.34: "Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate"

Where Arius' best idea of God is the uncaused cause, the originate - discerned from creation Athanasius says we can do better than that. We can do better than a deity who has attributes and resources and achievements. From that Arius can seemingly get no better than an impersonal god. Athanasius follows Jesus (Luke 10) and says that we know the Father as the father of the Son, and the Son as the son of the Father.

"Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate"

God then is basically relational - as is humanity in God's image. This lack is easy to see in Islam or with the Jehovah's Witnesses buts slips into the church when we are fearful to be Trinitarian, imagining that Trinity is some obscure doctrine rather than who God has revealed himself to be. Singing songs about God's great power without calling on him as the Father of the Son in whom we too become sons may betray the same. Our God is Triune, relational, personal and that is good.

More in The Breeze of the Centuries by Mike Reeves or read Against the Arians

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Where there is no vision, the people perish? Thoughts on reading Proverbs

So, Hebrew poetry is big on parallelism.
Say something once, then say it again another way.
So, Proverbs 31:10
An excellent wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.

And given that "more precious than jewels" is the Proverbs way of talking about Wisdom (3:15, 8:11) this is a way of saying that the excellent wife is found when wisdom is found. And therefore, as previously blogged here - not ultimately about finding a spouse for yourself. The rest of the acrostic poem / riddle in Proverbs 31 point us in the same direction - much to learn about marriage but ultimately looking to the most excellent bride and her glorious husband...

Or take the famously half-read Proverbs 29:18

"Where there is no vision, the people perish:
but he that keepeth the law, happy is he" KJV

Which isn't about general vision but, prophetic vision.
Where God's word is found - via prophets and supremely in Scriptures...

"Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint,
but blessed is he who keeps the law" ESV

The parallelism helps us know where to find vision. When people don't have the word of God they're ruined (like God's people casting off restraint to make and worship a golden calf in Exodus 32, perhaps?), but when they stick with God's word they'll know God's blessing. The law here being what God had said... law, prophetic vision,... words for the same thing: the word of God, today in Scripture and in weighed & tested prophecy.

And so what of Proverbs 29:18. It's not a leadership manual inspiring half-a-proverb, but a call for God's people to live by the word of God... and therefore to be a theocentric people (loving Christ our Wisdom) since the alternative is that we rule ourselves and are ruined (as lovers of folly). Mmm, tasty gospel words in Hebrew poetry.

With thanks to Peter Mead for reminding me how poetry works.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Five things you need to know about church history

Had the opportunity to teach 'The Story of the Church' for FP Impact Training. This from our first session together...

1. One big romantic comedy, with songs. No, not Mamma Mia! It's the Bible. The story of the church isn't a footnote in human history from Pentecost to today. It begins with Adam and Eve on the slopes of Eden, before that in the heart of God, and runs into the renewed creation at the wedding supper of the Lamb.

2. Warning. Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 tells us that we're not the first people or the only people, there's no memory of us - history administers a strong dose of humility... the gospel through creation. History is laced with frustration and the lost hope of Adam's son Abel personifies this.

“You may have heard the story of the Mennonite Brethren movement. One particular analysis goes like this: the first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments.” Don Carson, cited in Assumed Evangelicalism at

3. Movements don't last - it's very hard to sustain the gospel from one generation to the next, the gospel continues movements almost inevitably don't. If we fight to maintain a movement we'll miss the gospel, if we fight for the gospel then whatever happens to the movement isn't so important.

4. There are villains - five key nasties who keep coming back. Bullies like legalism aka Biff Tannen that make us feel like we're not proper Christians and add all sorts of cultural extras that remove joy and blunt mission, two-faced foes like gnosticism aka Castor Troy that are anti-physical, apparent bad-guys like Arius (Dr Evil) who threaten a lot but are easily refuted, chaotic figures like Pelagius (the Joker) who are anti-community, optimistic about people, and the Sylar of Heresy, Liberalism who looks charming but steals everyone else's powers..

5. What to expect? Jesus promised he will build his church - it's a promise (Mat 16:18). Division and problems will come but when the word spreads the number of disciples will increase (Acts 6).
The story can be told of the Stephens and the Philip's.
The story can't be told of the Nicanor or Prochorus' - most of the story of the church is ordinary Christians doing ordinary Christian life. These are the history makers. Human history forgets them, or never even knew them at all - but in the real story of history - the story of the church, God's story, they are the story.
And, ultimately this is Jesus' story. No better story.

"The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes." CS Lewis, introduction to On the Incarnation, Athanasius

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cor Deo - Gripped by God, Sharing His heart

This week we've gathered as UCCF teams in the South for some fellowship and fun, training and prayer. We're joined by Peter Mead of Cor Deo. Peter blogs at Biblical Preaching and Mike Reeves guest for the latest Theology Network Table Talk interview, on teaching the Bible.

"Central to Cor Deo is a conviction that God’s triune love – as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – gives us a wonderful model for human relationships and ministry. Combining study and ministry in a relational setting, Cor Deo is for those with a heart for God, and a passion for ministry... Our calling is to participate in the glory of God’s triune love. We live in response to the revealing and redeeming work of the Son. We are captivated by God’s love, which the Holy Spirit pours out in our hearts. Our guiding resource is God’s Word, which sanctifies us in his truth. As God transforms us we share his heart with others, both near and far. We embrace the biblical priority of life to life ministry. We esteem and serve the Church, Christ’s beloved body."

Monday, March 22, 2010

REVIEW: Raised with Christ (Adrian Warnock)

Readers can hardly fail to be familiar with Adrian Warnock. The UK's most prominent Christian blogger ( who bridges past involvement with St Helens Bishopsgate, London and a present very much involved within Newfrontiers churches. Now the blogger, as they do, turns published author.

Two things: I'm one of the people in the acknowledgements for this book, and subsequently I received a free copy of Raised with Christ. That said, I'd gladly have paid to get a copy of this book.

Adrian's punchy and provocative style combines a deep reverence for Scripture, a love of citing with Martyn Lloyd-Jones and a passion for experiential Christianity is well known on his blog, and throughout his book.

The first half of this book is a fairly standard defence of the resurrection of Jesus including some interaction with extra-Biblical sources, a harmonisation of the Gospel accounts and an overview of the resurrection in the Bible - including from the Old Testament which is very helpful. This is a useful resource for the church and its good to have this material gathered in one place. If this was all though one would have to argue that there are other comparable defences of the resurrection in circulation. Such books however often stop with establishing the fact of the resurrection of Jesus. That is where Raised with Christ takes a different turn.

The book takes off in the second half where Adrian begins to lay out the implications of the resurrection for Christian life: how the resurrection changes everything. He rates his chapter on prayer as the one that we'll skip but which he considers most important. It's a great call to pray to the risen Christ which is lively and inspiring. For me the most significant contribution of this book is to be found in chapters 15-16. In view of the resurrection we're shown a solid basis for an experiential Christianity, of relationship with a risen Lord, and for me this is the key contribution that this book will make to the church. Reading it was personally challenging and convicting, driving me more to Jesus.

Raised with Christ humbly interacts with others in an accessible and warm style reminiscent of Adrian's blogging. The size of the book may put some off but one need not fear that it is a book only for leaders or "serious" readers. This is a book for any church member to add confidence and conviction about the fact of resurrection of Jesus, and much more than that to come and enjoy life with the risen Jesus.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Proverbs 31: The Eternal Song of the Spotless Bride

Today we completed our six month series in Proverbs. It's been a refreshing journey in wisdom literature. I've had the privilege of preaching on chapters 1,4,8 and 31 which have to be some of the major high points of this book, the great book of royal sayings, the Bible's version of The Little Mermaid. Classic Disney, classic Bible.

We finished today with the excellent wife in chapter 31.
Here's my outline and the mp3.

Download mp3: Proverbs 31 (2nd service) - 33mins

Intro - love stories, the way people love and hate this passage.
1. The excellent wife is precious
2. The excellent wife is productive
3. The excellent wife is profusely generous
4. The excellent wife is perfect?
Jesus and his bride, Proverbs 31 stirs our eternal song.

"the whole of your life is marriage preparation, 
you belong to a groom whose name is Immanuel"
Paul Tripp, Instruments, p241

Friday, March 19, 2010

The answer to Paul's prayer is the gospel (Ephesians 3)

Recently had the joy of preaching on Ephesians 3:14-21 for Exeter ECU.
Download mp3: Getting caught up in the love of God - Ephesians 3:14-21 (35mins)

“so that Christ would dwell in their hearts through faith” -
That's already true of a Christian - yet Paul longs that it'd be the case. Strengthening the Ephesians hearts is the outworking of the gospel - God at home in their hearts by faith - Christ present by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

This is about experiencing what's already true. They have union with Christ but do they feel it? Paul has told them how Christ died, was raised and seated in the heavenly realms - and so too they've gone from being dead under wrath, raised and seated with Christ. This is true but do they know it? The answer to Paul’s prayer is the outworking and evidencing of that gospel reality in your life and mine.

“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” This prayer, like Ephesians as a whole, is not remotely individualistic. The letter is written in the plural, masked by the limits of the English language. What the prayer asks for is something to be known with God’s people. 

 After an evangelistic talk for a CU a guest asked me, “but do I have to go to church?” What would you say? It’s like someone asking on their wedding day, “so, do I have to live with them now” – you’d say they were barking. So too, genuine Christianity, being about the relational Triune God is about a relational people.  How? 4v2, as we bear with one another in love. 4v15, as we speak the truth in love. 4v16 and are built up in love. 5v1, walking in love. Nothing marks the reality of Christian life more than the way you view the people of God. Do you love or distain them? Judge and rate and compare or serve and value them? It’s good for your witness but it’s a good thing in itself. Being together embodies the unity that only the gospel achieves.

That’s why being committed to a local church is so vital for you. And committed doesn’t mean being on the members list or even necessarily having a responsibility in the running of the church. It means being “together with all the saints” – relationally committed. Can you say of your church “these are my people, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them”? Could you say, unless God sends us separate ways, I’ll attend your funeral unless you attend mine first?

What is it we’re strengthened for with God’s people?
Strengthened, to have Christ in you, means having the strength to know: to know the scale and love of Christ which is beyond knowledge – strengthening of a global proportion – in every dimension. The distance from the peak of Everest to the depths of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific is 19.7km. The scale and love of Christ demonstrated most clearly in his death for us makes that look like the gap between your fingers.

There are not words to capture the love of Christ. The love of Christ surpasses knowledge – v19. You can know, and then there’s more. Peter O’Brien writes:
“This petition is remarkable, for although the apostle has said much in chapters 1-3 about his readers being in Christ, he assumes that they do not adequately appreciate Christ’s love. Also, God’s almighty power is needed to grasp how immense it is. This is not a petition that they may love Christ more, however important this might be; rather, that they might understand Christ’s love for them. Further, their grasping this cannot be simply a mental exercise. Clearly, it is personal knowledge, and, although it undoubtedly includes insight into the significance of God’s love in the plan of redemption, it cannot be reduced simply to intellectual reflection. Paul wants them to be empowered to as to grasp the dimensions of that love in their own experience”

Do you want to experience the love of God?
It doesn’t just happen by default. It’s to be sought as the answer to a prayer. When you come to the gospel don’t you want your imagination stretched and your horizons exploded by the gospel love of Christ? And more!

“that they'd be filled with the fullness of God to the glory of the abundant Father through the church and through Christ forever.“ 

The church already is 1v23 the fullness of him who fills all in all. We’re already clothed with every spiritual blessing in Christ and yet how little we know it… they're meant to be caught up in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit - filled up with the fullness of relationship with God.. from the Father's riches in the Son by the Spirit. We pray to dig up this treasure of the gospel - we read the Scriptures not to know facts but to taste the sweetness of the gospel - in the splendour of Jesus. Beyond your imagination? Yes and more! (v20-21) 
The answer to Paul’s prayer is nothing less than that you’d be caught up into the fellowship of the Triune God!! And not for your sake but for his glory - all glory to the Father in Christ and in the church.

In view of this Athanasius and other early church fathers called this deification: Christ became man so that we could become “God” – careful now! - Not that we are God but that we are caught up into the loving intimacy of the Triune God in Christ. Being a Christian isn’t a mater of doing or believing – it’s about being involved in the loving relationships between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

It’s good to be forgiven.
It’s good to avoid hell.
It’s good to be justified.
It’s good to look forward to life in the renewed heaven and earth but there is something better than all of that. Talk with a Jehovah’s Witness and they’ll offer you a vision of a renewed world, free from pain and suffering – but someone is absent. God remains distant and aloof.

The whole story of the gospel is that God and man really can and will and now by faith do dwell together – from the fellowship of Eden, the pain of exile, the shadows of tabernacle & temple, to Jesus himself walking among humanity and now dwelling in his people. God’s story is Immanuel, God with us. We enjoy this community life on the same terms that we enter it – by feeding our hearts by faith on the gospel – by the grace of God extended to us in the self-giving love of the Triune God. This is the attractive, breath-taking, mouth-watering gospel, that the Father, in his Son, by his Spirit, invites us into their community of love.

The answer to Paul’s prayer will keep you united when you and everything else would want to divide you. 
The answer to Paul’s prayer will move you to mission together with the rest of the Christian Union.
The answer to Paul’s prayer opens the way to a normal Christian experience of knowing the beyond-knowable, beyond-imagination love of God in Christ, filled to with the fullness of God. 
The answer to Paul’s prayer is the gospel.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Can you be over affected by the gospel? (Ephesians 3)

I had the joy on Tuesday night of preaching Ephesians 3:14-21 for Exeter ECU.
Download mp3: Getting caught up in the love of God - Ephesians 3:14-21 (35mins)

On his knees before the Father to pray for, v16, a strengthening, a heartening, an invigorating of God’s people. Keep in mind as we look at this prayer: what is prayed for and what would it mean for this prayer to be answered? Paul prays for the Ephesians v14-16 that they’d be:
  • WHAT? Strengthened with power. With God’s power. What does God’s power do? Not oppress or control. What does the pinnacle of divine power look like? We might think of making the world, but Paul looks higher: 1v19-20: “the immeasurable greatest of his power… according to the working of his great might… in Christ, when he raised him from the dead”.  The power of God in a person does resurrection. Taking what was dead and making it alive.
  • FROM WHERE? When I give a gift I give according to, or out of, what I have. What does the Father draw on? “the riches of his glory” which is a way of saying: Christ the very radiance of the glory of God whose glory never shone brighter than when he hung on the tree for us.
  • HOW? “through his Spirit” – See a Triune moment: the Father, Son and Spirit working to strengthen the believers!.
  • WHERE? In the human heart – the very core of your inner being. The seat of your thinking, your feeling, your deciding – of your affections, that which move you to anything you ever do. Once the the bitter root of sin’s poison in us, now by the gospel, you have a new heart, the wellspring of new life as the Spirit lives in you!
People say “nothing happens without prayer”. Others say that the size of a church or CU is the size of it’s prayer meeting, and I think with the odd caveat I agree (in a church it’d take something for the whole church to come to a prayer meeting, unless we get the pagans babysitting for us… which is an idea! But that doesn’t really apply to a CU…)

We don’t pray though because prayer changes things, the people of God can be beaten down by the importance of prayer. We pray because the Triune God changes things, and he invites us to pray. It’s his gospel by which the Father freely strengthens your heart with his Son by his Spirit. That’s how things change. That’s something to pray about.

Praying in the implications and applications of the gospel for you and your University that’ll make a difference. If you lack the motivation for mission, if you lack the drive for the Christian life then don’t try harder – turn to the gospel again for grace. You don’t need more prayer or more Bible in your life. You need more of the Tirune God. You need that which is already freely given to you the gospel.

A racing driver doesn’t aim to stay on the track, he aims to win the race, for which staying on the road is necessary. So it is with prayer and Bible reading. To speak in prayer and listen from the Scriptures are part of being in relationship with the Triune God – the aim then is not pray and read the Bible, the aim is God!

If you guys aren’t thrilled with the Triune God will get no where in mission. You can know the right answers and be able to speak articulately, but moving the cold hearted is like pushing a boulder up hill. Even if you do it what is there to say? What is there to commend? Unaffectionate telling of the good news is boring, but when hearts are transformed by the gospel they move relatively easily into the kind of gospelling that the most resistant minds will find themselves drawn to.

I’m not here to flog you with the gospel – God forbid! - but I trust to see the gospel warm your heart. With this ambition it’s no wonder then that the corporate life of the Christian Unions has always been threefold:
1. Gathering around the Scriptures to have our hearts strengthened by the Triune God through his gospel as his word dwells richly in us.
2. Using our gospel privilege of access in prayer to intercede for the salvation of the University by the gospel, and for the warming of our own hearts with the same gospel.
3. Creatively proclaiming the gospel of the Triune God to those who have yet to taste it.

Some Christians are thrilling company – you ask them what God is doing in their life and they’re like fresh air to your soul. Others, and I see myself there too often, can speak accurately of hell without weeping sorrowfully and of the Lord without tears of joy. Such company is disheartening and draining. And I know how commonly my own heart is so cold to my Saviour.

The answer to Paul’s prayer is the strengthening of your heart by the gospel. Ask God to affect your heart with his gospel, to win your heart afresh by the immeasurable riches of his grace which makes praise resound in your heart. When you read the Scriptures – worship – behold the riches of his grace, the bank account from which “redemption through his blood” and “the forgiveness of our tresspasses” are completely purchased (1v7).

"Oh we don’t want to get carried away and emotional!"
I hear you, but given the choice between being under-affected by the gospel and over-affected by the gospel, I choose the latter. You can rein in excess and its exceedingly dubious that you could even begin to be over-affected if you’re feeding your heart on the gospel. 

What if you’re under-affected? I know that in myself too often - get on your knees holding on to nothing but the promises of the gospel, with your eyes open to behold the riches of God’s glory in Jesus. What to pray?

Follow Paul, he has three requests which really amount to asking for the same thing in three ways.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Getting caught up in the love of God (Ephesians 3)

I had the joy last night of preaching Ephesians 3:14-21 for Exeter ECU.
Download mp3: Getting caught up in the love of God - Ephesians 3:14-21 (35mins)

What will move this Christian Union to fulfill its mission of giving every student at this University the opportunity to hear and respond to the good news about Jesus? What will keep this Christian Union united rather than splintering into shards? What does a normal Christian experience look and feel like?

On a vast and cosmic canvas these are among the concerns of Ephesians – written to address the heart with the gospel. Charles Spurgeon approached preaching this passage saying:
“If I could make any of you feel your mouths a-watering after Christ by what I have said, I should be pleased indeed” 

And CJ Mahaney notes:
“If you want to feel deeply, you need to be willing to think deeply.”

Are you up for that?
 See, what is often lacking isn’t the gospel but our appropriating of it.
We have, according to Ephesians 1-3 every glorious spiritual blessing of union with Christ.
Christianity isn’t distance from Christ, but ultimate closeness.

The apostle is Spirit-inspired and on his knees in prayer for the Ephesians. Praying because he has, 3v12, “boldness and access with confidence” to the Father in Christ. He prays because the church is, 2v22 “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit”. Believers are meant to be at home with the Triune God but do they know it?

His prayer is about “The Love of God”. Some say: everyone knows that God loves them, and so we need not even speak of it, and instead we ought to speak of hell and wrath for people don’t know that… The consequence is often a cold and unattractive gospel of mere hell-avoidance. This is a far cry from Pascal’s suggestion that “good men should wish it were true”. And then be persuaded that it is.

The gospel is a love story between the bridegroom, Jesus, and his bride the church. The story of the man who gives himself up to save his rebellious, ruined and wretched bride. Everyone loves a love story – even if men are slow to admit it, but brothers – what is a man who does not love?

Three members of my team had babies last year, this year we have two weddings – not the same people!

What's better than attending a wedding? Seeing friends commit to one another in love is brilliant. The only thing better is to be the bride or the groom and to experience love from the inside. To know the Christian love story, of the man and his bride is great – to step inside and own it as your own is better by far.

Teaching my son about honey. I can teach about it's chemical composition. I can teach him that it tastes sweet. Or he can taste its sweetness. There is a difference. Paul prays for a tasting not just an understanding of the great love with which God loves us as Christ gives himself up for us.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Jesus: The Bridegroom

Jesus uses titles to describe himself to us. This one is surprising and yet stunning.
Look at Mark 2v19-20 - And Jesus said to them,
“Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?
As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.
Jesus calls himself “the bridegroom”.

It’s an overwhelmingly positive image of a lover on his wedding day. Besotted and devoted. Mark tells us, in line with many of the other writers of the Bible, that when God comes and stands in the room, he does so as the bridegroom. We find the bridegroom in Genesis, Ezekiel, Hosea, Song of Songs, Ephesians, Revelation... and in the gospels.

He comes as one who loves us. When he is among his people they feast – though they’ll mourn and fast in his absence.

The image here isn’t Jesus the husband to individuals – that could be icky for some of us – but of the husband to a people, to his people the church. A people gathered from all nations of the world, from all classes and backgrounds, populated above all by the tax collector, the sinner, those who know they need Jesus. This is the church – a people who have tasted the goodness of Jesus – who love nothing more than him.

He loves this people. He loves this people with his life.

When he speaks of the sad days of his departure he is referring to his death – the climax of Mark’s account of Jesus’ life – casting its shadow over the whole book. A day when he will stand under the curse that we deserve and open the way for us to come to God.

In his death he gives himself for us to give himself to us. To bring forgiveness, and welcome and life itself. He goes to his death and returns, resurrected from the dead three days later. After that he departed again to return to his Father, sending the third person of the Triune God – The Holy Spirit – to live within his people until his final return, on a day called “the wedding supper of the Lamb”.

I have a colleague getting married in three weeks and you can't shut her up about it. And you wouldn't want to. So too the Christian, longs and yearns and aches for the day when with all God's people they'll be with the bridegroom.

Jesus the bridegroom is not about religion. Jesus the bridegroom gives himself to give forgiveness Jesus the bridegroom welcomes sinners to come and eat with him. Jesus the bridegroom gives himself to us, for what is the groom without his bride - and what could the bride desire more than to be with his bride.

Jesus is Unacceptable, Unsuitable and Inappropriate

This is the sermon from our son's dedication service on Sunday. It was great to say with the church that he's a gift from God, to be prayed for by elders and our home group overseers and to have the church pray to support us.

Download mp3: Mark 2:1-3:6 - No religion, only Jesus

Religion finds Jesus to be...
1) UNACCEPTABLE (2:1-12)
2) UNSUITABLE (2:13-17)
3) INAPPROPRIATE (2:18-3:6)
Jesus calls himself
4) THE BRIDEGROOM (2:19-20)

I'm struck by the way the religious respond to Jesus - they couldn't be more right about who he is, and yet couldn't be more wrong as they grumble at his claims, his welcome of tax collectors and sinners, his feeding of his followers and his saving and doing good to a man. Religion is so small-minded, picky and tight-fisted and anti-people and anti-God.

Jesus however is God standing in the room to give people life - any who will taste and see his gospel. God turns up as bridegroom, the one who gives himself for his people to give himself to his people.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Salvation is having the Lord himself (Song of Songs Commentary - Robert Jenson)

I'm really enjoying Robert Jenson's commentary on The Song of Songs in the Interpretation series as I read it for a second time. Jenson's approach is very different to contemporary approaches to The Song but that's it's greatest strength. He draws deeply on the church fathers, reformers and others, rooting his interpretation in the history of the church rather than the culture of our day.

His approach is simple and easily accessible in a series designed to equip preachers. He takes The Song passage by passage looking at the overt story, then the theological allegory, and then thirdly an application to marriage.

The Song is taken seriously as a text and the applications in revealing the gospel and to human relationships are outstanding. This on 1:2-4:
"Our poem's soteriology is thus that of the church fathers, especially those in the East - and indeed exposition of the Song was a favourite way for them to describe salvation. Israel does not here long for forgiveness of sin or rescue from disaster or for other gifts detachable from the Giver, as Western theology tends to conceive salvation, but simply for the Lord himself. Moreover, the longing is aesthetic rather than ethical; it is longing for the Lord's touch and kiss and fragrance, The Lord is simply lovable, and salvation is union with him, a union for which sexual union provides an analogy"
And then applied to marriage
"If bodily love can be an appointed image of union with God, then we may not suppose that love becomes purer or nobler by disembodiment. If there is such a thing as love that needs no touching, it is not this love that in the Song mirrors the love between Israel's God and his people, whatever may be true of the gods of the religions and the philosophers. During the recent sexual "revolution" those among the mass fornicators who still felt that their practices needed justification sometimes said, "It's only bodies, after all"...  precisely such opinion is the most precise self-manifestation of the evil that currently infests us.... The Song knows better: we were made for, and therefore need not only God but the created other, in whom the heart may find some est also penultimately to union with God."
You might not agree with everything in this book but you'll find it sane and engaging and enlivening as a way into a book that our forefathers have drawn on to enjoy the gospel but which is sadly neglected or mocked or missed today.

See also Ellen Davis' commentary - Who's being allegorical, eh?

Friday, March 05, 2010

Ezekiel 36 - Why Does God Do Anything He Does?

We moved from Ezekiel 1 to Ezekiel 34 (recording corrupted, sorry) and then concluded our weekend with Ezekiel 36 which is just breathtaking.

Have a listen to Adrian Reynolds on the gospel from Ezekiel

Ezekiel 36 - Why does God do anything he does, or the one thing you need to know (again)

We had a great weekend digging into this great book, and I'm encouraged that some CUs are now choosing to study it on the ground in the near future. Adrian recommends the IVP BST Commentary on Ezekiel, by Chris Wright for further study.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Gospel Leadership: From the throne to the cross

Jim is a member of the South West staff team, and has been wrestled with by God as he's studied Mark 8-10 over recent months, as he's studied it with students at Bristol. In light of this I invited him to take one of our main sessions at the South West CU leaders weekend, on gospel leadership. He served us well, and I recommend this to you.

Mark 10:32-45: Gospel Leadership - Jim Walford

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Gospel from Ezekiel - To know the LORD

Over the weekend we gathered with about 85 student leaders from across the South West to... well you'd think to do leadership and evangelism training. And in a manner of speaking we did, by spending a weekend digging deeply into the gospel, beholding the glory of God in the gospel, and working out together the applications and implications of this.

We were joined by Adrian Reynolds, previously pastor of Yateley Baptist Church and now working with the Proclamation Trust, training preachers. Last summer I asked him to preach the gospel from Ezekiel - and he agreed. Here's the first session.

Ezekiel 1: To know the LORD - Adrian Reynolds

Sadly the recording of Ezekiel 34 didn't work, but I'll share chapter 36 later in the week, and also a plenary session by Jim Walford on Gospel Leadership.