Christian Living Reoriented

There is a well-worn path in evangelical Christianity.  It begins with the presentation of wonderful news – that God has done everything necessary, in Christ’s death on the cross, to make it possible for us to receive salvation.  All we have to do is trust in Christ and we are saved.  To put it another way, we don’t have to do anything, because Christ has done it for us. 

The path then makes a surprising turn.  Having trusted in Christ for salvation, we soon find the path turning steeply uphill as we discover that living the Christian life is another matter entirely.  Living as a Christian is presented as a list of disciplines, activities, new habits to start and old habits to kick.  The sunny days of gospel invitation give way to storm clouds of pressure and obligation.

A superficial reading of the Bible only seems to reinforce this idea.  After all, there is plenty of instruction and lots of commands directed at believers. 

But a more careful reading of our Bibles will yield a more helpful set of directions.

The gospel is by faith from first to last (Romans 1:17).  That faith is both pioneered and perfected by Jesus (Hebrews 12:2).  And as Paul puts it in Galatians 2:20, “the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The Christian life begins by faith, and is to continue by faith.  The way we “get on” is the same as the way we “got in” – by faith in Jesus.  (See Galatians 3:1-3 for Paul’s critical evaluation of the idea that we are to grow to maturity by our own flesh effort instead of by faith!)

I would like to illustrate what this means and then suggest three areas where we may need a reorientation of our perspective.

Illustration – An actively engaged faith. Imagine a couple dancing at their wedding.  We are the bride of Christ, he has won our hearts and we are his.  And now we are invited to live by faith, with our gaze fixed on him and our every move lived in response to his loving leadership.  Just as in a dance, there are three options and two of them are bad.  We can imagine that living by faith means being uninvolved – hanging like a dead weight as he leads the dance.  That will never be a pretty sight.  Or we might assume that we must play our part and fight to express our own leadership on perhaps 50% of the steps.  Again, not pretty.  The beautiful way to engage the dance is 100% active, but 100% responsive.  We fix the gaze of our hearts on him and follow his every lead.  Fully involved, but completely responsive.  That makes for a beautiful married dance.

With that image in mind, let me suggest three wonderful gifts that God has given us for living the Christian life.  These are three gifts that perhaps we need in order to reorient our perspectives and enjoy them to the maximum:

Gift 1 – The Bible.  The Bible is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  But we tend to view the Bible as a book about us.  We read it looking for the instruction or the encouragement that we need to live our lives.  We settle for the idea that it is an instruction manual for life and then read through it looking for something that will help us.  Our unspoken feeling is often that it is not a very well-organized manual for twenty-first century living.  Our disappointment can lead to us neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Bible is so much more than a manual for life.  It is primarily and ultimately a revelation of the heart of God, culminating in the mission of Christ. (See John 5:39, for example, where Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders for daily Bible time spent pursuing life for themselves, but neglecting the revelation of God’s Son.)  When we sit down with a cup of coffee to read the Bible, or listen to it on the way to work, or take a few minutes at lunch time to ponder a few verses, we should come to it with a simple prayer, “Lord, please show me your heart as I read this now. I need to know you. Please show me you.”  Coming to the Bible looking for God’s heart and character, looking for God’s plan that leads to Christ, looking for Christ himself – this is the best way to engage with this relational prompt given to us by God.  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Bible is a fantastic gift from God to help me do exactly that.

Gift 2 – The Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the Holy Spirit as being there for us.  We might focus on the Spirit as a means to experience excitement and miracles for our own sake, or we might reduce the Spirit to a mere source of power as we strive to live as we are supposed to live.  Again, our disappointment with either the miraculous or the empowering work of the Spirit may remain unspoken, but may also lead us to neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Holy Spirit is able to work miracles when he chooses, and he is gloriously empowering.  But the primary passion of the Spirit is to point our hearts to Christ (see John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:14, Romans 5:5.)  When we wake up in the morning, why not begin the day by greeting the God who has not slept, but has been keeping watch over us, “Good morning, Father – thank you for your good heart and your love for me.  Good morning, Lord Jesus – thank you again for all you did for me on the cross, that you are alive today interceding for me.  And Holy Spirit, make me sensitive to all the ways you point me to trust in God’s good heart today, help me to keep my eyes on Jesus today.”  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Holy Spirit is a glorious gift from God to help me continue to do exactly that.

Gift 3 – The Body of Christ.  The Church is a relational prompt, given by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the church as being there for us.  What can I get out of it?  Is it serving my needs?  How easily we become consumers of services offered by the church, reducing our participation to that of a critic posting our negative reviews for others to browse.  Our disappointment with the church is often not kept hidden, and too easily we can neglect this gift from God.

In reality, the local church is a God-given gift, a community where believers can love and be loved in a way that is different from the world around us (see John 13:34-35).  Instead of looking to church as a consumer, ready to evaluate and offer a negative review, let’s see church for what it is.  Who can I love, encourage, and pray for today?  Who can I serve in practical ways?  What responsibility can I take on that will give me the opportunity to point people to Jesus?  When I preach, how can I point listeners to the goodness of God in Christ (instead of pointing them to their own failure and their need to try harder)?  When I teach the children’s class, how can I point them to Jesus so that they might find life to the full?  Who can I send an encouraging text message to today?  Who can I love, and serve, and encourage?  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The local church is a community of faith strugglers like me, encouraging each other to look to Jesus day by day. “The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Lockdowns & Online Church: Time to Evaluate?

There are few subjects as controversial as Covid-19.  Many churches are feeling the stretch of a full spectrum of views within the congregation. It certainly feels safer to not venture into writing about this subject, but I feel it is important that we evaluate what we do in church world – whatever our view of the actual issue may be.  Obviously, each context is different.  What my church was allowed to do will be different than the rules in your country or state.  What my church decided to do may have been inappropriate for another church in the same town because of different facilities, congregational demographic or local context.

At the beginning of the global crisis in early 2020, most churches saw the situation as a no-brainer.  We were confronted with a new virus and we did not know the extent of the risk (although early predictions were anticipating hundreds of millions of deaths globally).  What we did know was the importance of everyone pulling together to save lives. To illegally meet as a church during those early weeks could easily have been the talk of the town (and it would have made Jesus look very bad).  So for us, and probably for most churches, it was time to get creative and adapt to this unforeseen and temporary lockdown.

Now, 18 months later, we are in a better position to look back and do some evaluating.  In our context we had a long first lockdown, followed by a summer of restrictions, then a shorter lockdown in October/November.  The third lockdown, for the first half of 2021, did not apply to churches (although there were plenty of restrictions). 

Our church experienced the sudden move to “meeting” online without a budget for setting up a high tech studio.  When we were allowed to meet again, we experienced meeting in different venues because our normal venue would not rent to us during the pandemic.  We met in a place where our numbers had to be limited way below our congregation size.  We met in a field, actually two different fields, a large English garden, and as guests of a very kind Anglican church in our town.

Every church will have its own story.  Every church situation is unique.  I am not writing to criticize anyone.  But we should all evaluate.  We are so thankful for the way our congregation responded with flexibility and enthusiasm to the constant changes. As leaders I am sure we made mistakes during these months.  We probably all did.  None of us ever took a seminary class in how to do lead a church during a never-before-seen global health crisis!

So as we look back at online church under various levels of lockdown, let’s take stock of both the costs and the benefits.

There have been benefits – I have spoken with many church leaders and church members who have spoken of learning to be flexible.  Having to adapt to new technology and changing circumstances is probably healthy for all but the most fragile Christians.  Many of us are now as capable of hosting a Zoom call as a business executive, or as familiar with streaming live on YouTube and “speaking to camera” as a social influencer (even if we are still not as comfortable with it!)  Perhaps the reach of your church has extended to people who would never have stepped into your building.  Perhaps, moving forward, the blessing of your live-stream will also be felt by church members at home with a sick child or travelling for work.  

And it is not just about technology and livestreaming.  We have had to think through how to shepherd people that we don’t see in person multiple times each week.  We have had to think about unity more than ever before since Covid has scattered people across a spectrum of responses and perspectives.   We have possibly been given greater clarity on the spiritual condition of many in our churches than was obvious under “the old normal” of predictable church routine.  We have hopefully been pushed to our knees to recognize that we rely on God alone for the health of the flock and not that predictable structure of church life. It is right to recognize the benefits and thank God for His faithfulness during these challenging months of change.

There have been costs – Some people will only speak positively of the impact of lockdown on their church experience.  Perhaps there is something in the air these days that makes it feel forbidden to critique any aspect of Covid response?  But we must evaluate.  Our calling is too significant to do otherwise.  What has been the cost of the loss of fellowship?  What has been the cost of loneliness for believers living alone or as the only believer in their home?  Have people grown to see church as merely watching a sermon and perhaps singing?  What value does corporate worship have in the spiritual life of the believer? What about the relational dynamic at the heart of biblical Christianity?  What about discipleship?  What about serving others?  What about unplanned conversations, warm greetings, handshakes, smiles and hugs?

Have people thrived spiritually with online church, or have they just survived?  There is a cost to not meeting for weeks, or even months on end.  Remember how we would be very concerned pastorally about people who stopped participating in the life of the church for extended periods of time before Covid-19 came along?  That concern still applies.  As churches come out of existing online to meeting in person, they discover that they have lost people.  Some are lost to “pajama church” while others are lost to no church connection at all. Sundays have taken on new rhythms for them.

And what about the loss of opportunities?  We can and should celebrate the people that found church online, but what about guests that never came to church, never experienced believers worshipping together, never experienced the love of a community of God’s people welcoming them warmly?  What about the loss of in-person communion and group prayer?  What about the loss of other opportunities: childhood friendships and life transition moments, mission trips for teens at that key stage of transition to adulthood, youth group heart-to-heart conversations after youth group adventures, and so on?

What do you think? Personally, I believe that online church and lockdown has had far more costs than benefits.  If we had to do it again, what would we do differently?  And are we now happy to switch to online church whatever reason is given for future lockdowns?  Are we really settled with the idea that the authorities can mandate what we do as a church, who we meet with, what we wear, etc.? Is the plan to do what is commanded, or what is culturally popular, whatever the reason? Or are we making different plans to handle what may still lie ahead of us?  Whatever your perspective, it is vital that we all take stock and evaluate. 

I want to recognize that it has been a challenging season to be in church leadership. Thank you for all you have done where you are. It has not been easy. Hopefully, your congregation have expressed their gratitude for all that you have done to make it work in these strange times. Hopefully, you have seen God at work despite the challenges. Jesus promised to build his church!

Our contexts are different and rules seem to be constantly changing everywhere.  How vital it is to think it through, pray it through, and learn lessons in the late summer before another winter comes (whatever that may look like where you are).

(I have sought to gently provoke with questions in this post. I am not looking to stir a political debate, but prayerful reflection. Please do share in the comments anything that could be helpful for others.)

The Cost of Diversity

It is such a wonderful thing to look around a church and see the diversity of people that make up the body of Christ.  People from different backgrounds, with different stories.  Some seem to be likely participants in a church; others seem most unlikely! 

One person might say, “I was raised in a Christian home,” but next to them will be someone who might say, “I never went to church until recently.” Someone might say, “You would not believe what I used to be like,” while another will say, “I always thought I was a good person.” The church is a beautiful blend of backgrounds, personalities, cultures, and stories.

In Acts 16, Paul and Silas traveled through Turkey on the second missionary journey recorded in the book. Eventually, they arrived at the coast, and God directed them to cross over into Europe.  We are thankful they did!  Their first stop was Philippi.

In Philippi, we are introduced to three people who encountered the transformational power of the love of God.  In just these three people, we get a glimpse of the diversity to come as God builds the church in Europe. And there is also a challenge for us.

The first person we read about is Lydia.  She seems to have been a successful businesswoman from what we read of her home town and her trade (purple cloth).  Paul met her at the prayer gathering beside the river.  (If there weren’t ten Jewish men in the town, then there could not be a formal synagogue, so this gathering was the informal equivalent of a synagogue.)  We read that Lydia was already a worshipper of the Lord.  It is hard to imagine someone easier to reach with the Gospel!

In reality, even religious people who know the Bible are not easy to reach.  The text reminds us that it is always a miracle when someone accepts Christ because, we are told, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  Lydia was a person with a successful life and a genuine interest in God.  What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry.  Still, let us remember to pray that the Lord will open their hearts – otherwise, the story will always end very differently!

The second person we read about is the slave girl.  This girl must have had a horrible life.  She was a slave, used by her owners for her demonic powers.  The brief glimpse we get of her in this passage shows that she seemed to be a genuine inconvenience to Paul.  Thankfully, God delivered her from the evil spirit.  We don’t know what happened next, as the story swiftly moves on.  It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine believers like Lydia taking care of her.

Europe still has many people that we might find inconvenient, in comparison to the Lydias.  So many people in our continent bring with them a lifetime of brokenness and baggage.  Reaching them might feel more like a spiritual power encounter than a pleasant conversation about spiritual things over a cup of coffee.  And discipling them will always be more complicated for the church.  What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry. Let’s pray for eyes to see the broken and the hurting around us. Let’s pray for God’s power to set them free and change their story!

The third person we read about is the jailer.  This man was probably a retired Roman soldier who had served his twenty years and was now responsible for the local prison in this colony.  He was perhaps a hardened man who had seen a lot and was now content to live with his family and experience as little trouble as possible.  This man would be hard to reach.  Thankfully, God knew how to get through this man’s hard exterior and capture his heart.

Reaching this jailer proved to be a costly experience for Paul and Silas.  They were seized, dragged before the authorities and tried by a mob.  They were stripped, humiliated and beaten with rods.  Then their wounded backs were probably pressed against a wall as their feet were put in stocks by the jailer—a horrible few hours, and perhaps a lifetime of scarring to show for it.  Perhaps the jailer heard the Gospel from them as he locked them up.  Maybe he lay in bed wondering what they had to sing about.  And perhaps he had just drifted off when the earthquake shook him awake! Sure that they would have escaped, he prepared to end his life to save the higher Roman authorities the task.  But then Paul called out and brought him into the jail.  They were all still there, after all.  And at that moment, the jailer was turned spiritually upside-down!

If God could release a slave girl from demonic oppression, why did God not do another mighty miracle in the town square and impress everyone with his power?  Why all this suffering for Paul and Silas?  God could have sent a bolt of lightning down during the day, but instead, he waited and sent the earthquake that night.  Why?  Because that hardened jailer perhaps would have joined the crowds and prostrated himself before a display of God’s power, in fear and trembling, grovelling before this foreign god.  Yet God’s goal was not to show his power but to demonstrate his love. 

As the jailer stood before Paul and Silas, he discovered that their suffering was not under compulsion.  They chose to stay in that cell.  Their suffering was somehow voluntary.  That blew the circuits of his hard old heart.  Maybe this is what they meant when they spoke and sang about Jesus willingly suffering for sinners like him!

We should praise God for the diversity of people brought together in the body of Christ.  The “successful” people like Lydia, the people with lots of baggage like the slave girl, and the hardened veterans like the jailer.  Some might seem easier to lead to Christ – praise God when they are!  Some are more inconvenient to rescue and disciple.  And some will cost us a great deal of suffering to reach.

There is an actual cost to make the diverse body of Christ possible.  But ultimately, that cost is not ours, but Christ’s.  He suffered voluntarily to reach the hardest of hearts.  If we keep our eyes on him as we walk whatever path God sets before us, then maybe we can be like Paul and Silas. Perhaps we will also sing hymns of praise as we get the opportunity to represent the voluntary suffering love of God’s heart.

Why Humility Makes Sense

Last time I wrote about genuine humility in Bible interpretation (click here to go there). We live in a time when there is an increasing pseudo-humility, and a decreasing genuine humility in biblical interpretation. Why does humility make sense?

Increasing Pseudo-Humility – As truth apparently becomes more personalized, people can sound increasingly gracious if that is the tone they choose (there is a militant version of it too, which is also dangerous). The gracious tone and pseudo-humility sound like this: “I can’t tell you what this means to you, but my personal interpretation, for me, is this…” If anyone ponders whether this is a humble approach to the Bible or not, they will end up thinking about the horizontal dimension. That is to say, I don’t insist that my truth must also be your truth. Horizontal.

Decreasing Genuine Humility – But what about the vertical dimension? After all, if the Bible is God’s Word, then humility in interpretation should be evaluated vertically. Beneath the shroud of pseudo-humility lies an incredible arrogance. It says: “I have sufficient knowledge of every relevant subject, and have no worries about being culturally conditioned, so that I can evaluate the content of the Bible and sit in judgment over what it should mean in the realm of ‘my truth.'”

So why does humility make sense? Three quick facts to anchor our hearts as preachers and as readers of the Bible:

1. I am not God. Seems obvious, but in a fallen world, it certainly bears repeating! What I actually know is an infinitesimally small fraction of all there is to know. I am so shaped by my environment and culture, and yet incredibly unaware of how much my values reflect that reality.

2. God is God. He always has been and always will be. He is very good at being God. (Included in this statement of the obvious, but worth stating nonetheless, is that God is a wonderful communicator…why do we think we should sit in judgment on his inspired Scriptures?)

3. God is humble. It is easy to think that God values humility in us because it serves the pride in him. Dictators demand subservience. But the Bible reveals a God to us who is anything but a demanding dictator. His other-centred, self-giving and self-sacrificing nature appreciates humility in the human heart for the right reason. It is not to crush us, it is to lift us up and embrace us. God values humility in us because it resonates with who he is.

Let us be and help others to be humble and gracious. Vertically, we sit under the teaching of God’s Word with humility. Horizontally, we can speak of the meaning of God’s Word with gracious attitudes but also with boldness. This is what our “subjective truth” world desperately needs.

Handling God’s Word With Genuine Humility

Hermeneutics matters massively for us preachers.  It also matters for the people to whom we preach.  How we interpret the Bible makes all the difference in every aspect of faith and life. 

When hermeneutics is taught, you will typically find some standard elements.  There will be a foundation in bibliology – establishing the unique nature of the inspired Word of God.  There will usually be a set of general hermeneutical principles – guidelines that work whatever passage we may be studying.  Then comes the special hermeneutical principles – guidelines for each specific type of literature or genre.

I want to suggest that we need to include humility in our hermeneutics.  I don’t just mean humility that we may be misinterpreting a passage – although that is always helpful.  I mean humility as a foundational attitude. 

Humility or Hubris?

We live in an age when many believe it is not right to claim any definitive interpretation of a text.  Most people in our increasingly subjective age dismiss the idea of authorially intended meaning that retains any authority.

Many will see this subjectivity as a source of genuine humility in biblical interpretation.  Bombastic declarations of a definitive biblical interpretation have always been the antithesis of humility, have they not?

The logic of this position seems to make sense.  After all, people will say, there are many interpretations out there in the wider church world.  Furthermore, nobody has the right to claim to be right in their interpretation and thereby critically evaluate the interpretation of others.  And so, the logic goes, we are free to make of each text what we think best in our context.

Many people will feel this approach is the epitome of humility.  In reality, the tone may feel humble, but the core posture here is hubris, not humility.

Any Fixed Points?

Let’s be simplistic and imagine two marks in a diagram.  One represents the Bible.  The other represents you or me.

The Bible is a fixed point.  I know the Word of God is active, but hear me out.  The biblical text is an objective and fixed point.  God inspired the Scriptures so that every word in the original manuscript of each document is precisely what he wanted it to be.  We may release new translations, but the original text does not move.  And it still has absolute authority. 

We are not fixed points.  When I come to the Bible, I bring all sorts of assumptions.  My culture, my place in time, my worldview, my experiences, etc., will all influence how I understand the biblical text as I read it.   

Human nature, and the tendency of our time, is to subject the Biblical text to my subjective evaluation.  So the Bible becomes “unfixed” while I sit fixed in my position as the evaluator.  Chronological arrogance creeps in.  I start to evaluate what the text should mean in light of my great cultural insights.  Rather than acknowledging my arrogance, I can avoid the problem of sounding proud if I simply declare my interpretation to be personal to me. Then I won’t tread on any toes by declaring it to be the truth for anyone else. 

The reality is that the Bible is not subject to us; we are subject to it.  We are the moveable ones in the diagram.  Swayed by every wind of fashionable thinking, we don’t know as much as we might think we do.  So wherever we live in the world, or whenever we live in history, we are subject to evaluation by the Bible.  The Word of God comes against our assumptions.  It speaks against the spirit of the age.  It opposes the arrogance of our minuscule knowledge. 

On a horizontal level, our tone toward others may be humble.  But vertically, our subjective approach to God’s Word is the height of arrogance. 

Humble Hermeneutics

So what does it look like to interpret the Bible with humility?

  1. Let us be humbly thankful for God’s Word.  What a privilege we have to read, in our language, an accurate translation of the Bible.  What an honour it is to have this gift from outside of our world.  What a blessing to be able to read God’s self-revelation – we would be grasping in the dark without it.  What an encouragement it is to have God shepherd us through His Word.  He knows what we need and works in our specific circumstances, by His Spirit, and through His Word.
  2. Let us be humbly responsive to God’s Word.  Instead of arrogantly evaluating the Bible against what I think I know to be true, let’s humble ourselves.  Humbly respond to God’s Word as He challenges your thinking, beliefs, attitudes, habits, and every possible aspect of your life. 
  3. Let us be humbly confident interpreting God’s Word.  As we carefully apply a sound hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures, we can confidently assert the meaning of the text.  Always humbly recognizing that we could be wrong, or there could be a better way to state it, we can speak the Word of God as God’s Word.  This does not mean our tone should become bombastic or unloving.  But let’s not settle for the pseudo-humility of subjectivity in our Bible reading.

We need a humble hermeneutical approach to the Bible as we prepare to preach. Our hearers need to learn that same posture and approach. We live in an era of subjective pseudo-humility. Let’s pray that God will raise up generations with a genuine humility in handling God’s Word and a courageous willingness to respond to it and proclaim it!

It Can’t All Be “We”

As far as authority is concerned, there has been a shift happening over the course of a couple of generations. We have shifted from authorities being respected, to not being respected, to being distrusted and even opposed. Think of the police, or politicians. Actually, let’s think about the preacher. People may like the preacher, listen to the preacher, even appreciate the sermons, but there is a resistance to the concept of the preacher speaking with authority. One result of this is the shift in perspective and tone from preachers. Preachers often preach as fellow observers and recipients of the biblical text. The sermons are much more in the “key of we” than they used to be. There are benefits to this approach, but also some problems.

Back in the 1970’s the issue of authority was addressed in Fred Craddock’s book, As One Without Authority. This was a hugely influential book and it brought the “New Homiletic” into the consciousness of many in the preaching community. While there is plenty to learn from writer’s like Craddock, there is an underlying issue that needs to be faced. The New Homiletic, built on an underlying New Hermeneutic, is strongly emphasizing a reader-response approach to the biblical text. While we should think about what we, as readers, bring to our understanding of any passage we are reading, we must never lose sight of the author and his/His intent in the text.

If we believe a(A)uthorial intent matters, which it surely must if there is to be any correspondence between truth and reality, then it would be inappropriate to preach completely in “we.” As a preacher, you prayerfully study the text in order to determine the author’s intended meaning as closely as possible. Then you prayerfully consider how to preach that text to your listeners so that they can relevantly hear the truth of God’s word in the tone of God’s heart.

Your crafting of the sermon should never obliterate your study of the text, or else you preach a message stripped of the authority of God’s Word. Your authority is not the concern. His is. So when you preach, there should be a humble (you) and yet authoritative (His) explanation of the meaning of that biblical text and its implications for your listeners.

Humble but authoritative does not mean we have to jettison the “we” completely and become bombastic, haranguing, nagging, drill sergeants (remember the “humble”). However, humble but authoritative cannot be merely suggestive, reactive, passive and soft, either. There may be nobody in the room who consciously considers your role as a preacher to be authoritative, but everyone should sense that what you say is more than a suggestion.

If “we” is at home anywhere in the sermon, perhaps it is in the more applicational elements. After all, a strong division between clergy and laity has far less biblical argument in its favour than the role of authorial intent. You speak as one who needs to respond to God’s Word as much as anyone else. You speak as a priest to priests.

So there must be plenty of “we” in a message – we need to hear from God, we need His grace, we need His instruction, we all have gone astray, etc. But make sure you don’t infect the explanation of the text and the declaration of biblical truth with the subtle yeast of “we” . . . if it loses its anchor point in authorial intent then we all drift together. Understand and explain the meaning of the text with humble authority, and then take a lead as one of the “we” responding to His authoritative Word!

A Clay-Treasure Ministry

Why does Christian ministry often look so unimpressive?  We pray for the transformation of many lives, which surely is the will of God.  However, so often we feel beaten down by the lack of response from others, and sometimes even by the lack of transformation in ourselves.  We have such a wonderful calling, but all too often, it can feel so mundane.

Understandably, we long for greater power, greater impact, and greater results.  Maybe we pray for big breakthroughs as confirmation that God is still at work in our ministry. But perhaps our frustrating experiences are confirmation that our ministry is actually going according to plan.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul continues to defend his ministry against accusation and criticism from some in Corinth.  In doing so, he offers a glorious consideration of New Covenant ministry. 

In chapter 3 he shows how, even though the Old Covenant was out-of-this-world wonderful, it is as nothing in comparison to all that is ours in Christ.  In chapter 4, Paul addresses two potential discouragements in ministry: the lack of response from the lost, and the unimpressive person we see in the mirror each day.  Paul does not want his readers to lose heart, but instead to look forward to all that is to come in the future (chapter 5).

The image Paul paints is treasure in jars of clay.  The treasure?  That is the wonder of intimate fellowship with God by the Spirit, who unites us to Christ.  The New Covenant blessings of sins forgiven, a new heart, and the indwelling Spirit are the greatest treasure.  And yet it is stored in jars of clay.  That would be us.  Fragile, easily broken, unimpressive, almost disposable.

When we come to chapter 6, Paul is urging the Corinthians to be responsive to his ministry.  He doesn’t want them to receive God’s grace, but then not allow it to work in their lives (6:1-2).  He is concerned that their affections seem to be restricted, that they are holding back their hearts in some way (6:11-13).  In between, Paul presents a long list of the factors commending his ministry for them to consider. 

At first glance, the list of commending factors seems overwhelming.  It begins with ten negative things, followed by nine positive things, and then a set of nine paradoxes (positive and negative, simultaneously true).  It feels like a long list to read, and a real challenge to preach.  But keep in mind the jars of clay imagery from chapter 4.  New Covenant ministry will be New Covenant shaped.  That is, there will be the unimpressive and mundane jars of clay, but also the real treasure within.

Paul’s life and ministry was shaped like that.  I suspect the same could be said of those who preached the gospel to you in the past, or led your youth group, or were your parents.  Very normal, unimpressive people in many ways.  And yet, there was a treasure there.

A New Covenant ministry person may seem so normal, even weak on the outside.  But within there is patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, and genuine love.  They seem to be dying physically, and yet strangely alive spiritually.  They are often poor, but others are so enriched through them.  They may not have much, but they seem to possess everything.  The Clay-Treasure ministry that Paul lived and described in this passage is not a contradiction of the New Covenant, it is a confirmation of it.

So, when you are discouraged by the lack of response in others, or even the unimpressiveness you see in yourself and your circumstances, remember that the treasure comes in a clay jar.  This will be true for you if your ministry is a New Covenant ministry.  It was true for those that brought the gospel to you.  It was true for the Apostle Paul himself.  And, ultimately, it was true for Jesus!

Just take a moment to reflect on the list in 2 Corinthians 6:4-10.  Maybe you can relate to some of the negatives.  Maybe you are aware of some of the positives in your life.  But don’t spend too long looking at yourself there.  Instead, let your hearts gaze on Jesus Christ himself.  Consider how he suffered.  Ponder what perfect treasure he carried within.  Find your motivation in the ultimate New Covenant minister.  Celebrate Jesus.  Worship Jesus.  And then, take a deep breath, stand up, and press on in your service for Jesus.

The Local Church and the Missionary

The relationship between the local church in the West and the missionary sent to a far-off land has always been unique.  In one respect, the roles in this relationship may soon be reversed.

In some cases, the local church has revered missionaries and almost idolized them.  When visiting their home country, they are honoured as they regale the congregation with tales of life in exotic far flung lands. 

In other cases, the local church has felt awkward around missionaries and almost ignored them.  When they visit they have a token opportunity to “show their slides” and they sometimes feel like fish out of water – trying to communicate in a culture that is no longer their own.

Cultural Awkwardness

Whether the missionaries are somewhat celebrated or generally forgotten, they will speak to one another of the cultural awkwardness they feel when they return to their sending country.  They arrive and hear passing questions like, “is it nice to be home?”  But often missionaries feel far from home and uncertain of how to fit into the culture that has moved on from the one they left years ago.

In contrast, the local church in the West has typically felt very much at home.  It has always been the missionary’s context that has seemed strange and hard to comprehend.  The church in the West might wonder about the missionary: How do you live in a culture dominated by that strange and zealous religion?  How do you communicate to people who see the world completely differently?  How can the church exist and grow in a culture that considers Christians to be a danger and a threat to society? 

Times are Changing!

In recent years, western cultures have been experiencing significant changes.  The shift feels very rapid.  Years of preparatory work in education, the media, and entertainment culture are now bearing fruit as a much more activist-driven cultural upheaval is quickly turning everything upside-down (or right-side up, depending on your perspective!).  This is no superficial shift.  The very foundations of Western society are being replaced so that we now face a totally different worldview and a whole new morality.  Our culture is radically different than it was even at the turn of the century.  Truths everybody knew until a few minutes ago are now dogmatically dismissed and everyone is increasingly required to agree with the new truths. No debate is permitted.

Times have changed and now the home church does not feel like it is at home.  Increasingly, it feels like our culture is strange and hard to comprehend.  In the next few years we will be asking ourselves, how are we supposed to live in a culture dominated by another ideology that feels almost religious and fundamentalist in its zeal?  How can we communicate with people who are conditioned by their education and media to see the world very differently than we do?  How can our church exist and grow in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic to its very existence and considers the church to be dangerous and a threat to the safety and unity of society?

Maybe if we are not already asking ourselves these questions, we will be asking them soon.  Perhaps we should think about asking our missionaries how they would answer them.  Their experience of life and ministry in some foreign countries may become more relevant to life in “the West” than it would have been forty, or even ten, years ago. 

In the past, we may have asked the missionary about the dominant religion in their mission field because we saw families with that same religion moving in locally.  This is still true.  But maybe there is much more we can learn from them now that our culture is moving so far away from its Judeo-Christian roots and worldview.  Our culture will increasingly feel like the ideologically dominated cultures we used to think of as foreign mission fields.  Maybe we should be asking the missionaries how we can effectively reach people here.

(Photo by Roman Denisenko on Unsplash)

The “Sweetest Agony” of Ministry

Somebody has said that preaching is the sweetest agony.  It is sweet when lives are changed.  And it is agony the rest of the time! 

That is probably unfair, but whatever ministry we are involved in, it is good to pause and reflect on the sweeter parts of it.  After all, there is plenty to find discouraging!

There is nothing as rewarding as seeing lives changed.  Sometimes you preach a message or have a conversation and a life is changed completely.  More often, change occurs over a longer time frame.  It can be hard to measure when change occurs.  But occasionally, people may write a note that specifically lists the impact of your ministry. 

Since there is always a long list of reasons to become discouraged in ministry, it is a good idea to keep a log of some of these encouragements.  Keep a collection of those notes and let them sit there, ready for a day when you really need to be reminded of the sweeter aspects of ministry.  Keep an email folder of encouragements that you can go back to when the inbox is overwhelming and discouraging.

With all that is going on, and all the reasons for discouragement, why not take a moment to look back and list some of the lives that you have seen changed by the grace of God?  If you have some encouraging notes already collected, why not read a few and give God thanks for how he has worked in the lives of those you serve?

There is nothing as rewarding as seeing lives changed, but there is one other person to remember.  If the sweetness of ministry is changed lives, then don’t forget the one life that hears every sermon you preach, every conversation you participate in, etc.  By this, I mean you. 

Every time you prepare a sermon, you are involved.  Every time you plan a workshop, prepare a talk, anticipate a conversation, or schedule a one-on-one meeting, you are part of it.  This means that you get to go through the times of prayer, the low points, the spiritual highs, the wrestling with the biblical text, the struggle to figure out how to lead a session, the grappling with formulating your main idea, the prayerful decisions to omit material, and the practice runs of a sermon or speech with only you and the Lord listening.  You are there.

Much of ministry can feel like the agony of labour, striving to work through all that it takes to eventually bring to fruition something helpful for others.  It can seem like thankless toil.  People don’t understand the time you invest, nor the stress you often carry.  But let’s remember the good times too.  The times of sweet fellowship with the Lord.  Those moments where your desperate prayers give way to clarity on a way forward.  The times when study leads to deeper understanding of a text and greater worship in your heart.  These are times of blessing and encouragement in ministry.  Sweet times. 

Let’s find ways to mark these moments.  Maybe write a thank-you note to God and put it in your files.  Maybe a journal entry, highlighted to help you find it again.  Perhaps you have a collection of visual “memorial stones” on a shelf – markers of moments to help your memory.  You need some way to remind yourself of the sweetness of ministry: how good it has been, how good it can be, and how good it will be again.

Most ministries that are worth doing entail a whole lot of agony.  But there is a sweetness in serving God and his mission in this world.  There is a sweetness in the blessing that we receive as well as the blessing we offer to others.  And when ministry feels overwhelming and difficult, we need a way to remind ourselves of the sweeter parts of ministry, of the lives changed and blessed, including ours.

This year has started with all sorts of complexities and does not promise to be easy for any of us.  But God has promised to be with us through it all.  Let’s find ways to not let ministry drain play a decisive role in our life stories.  Yes, there will be agony in what we do, but let’s be sure we don’t miss the sweet moments too!

Real Darkness Requires Real Hope

Christmas Day gives us a break from normal life.  Maybe you associate it with family, food and presents.  The darker and heavier realities of normal life can be left for at least one day.  Enjoy another mince pie, watch some festive broadcast, and tip your hat to the ancient Christmas story.  Even that story offers a pleasant counterpoint to everyday burdens.  There is a young couple, some shepherds, a few travelling wise men, and at the centre, the baby who brings hope into the world.  Christmas tidings of joy and peace fits nicely with our shared good wishes, even if it is a little quaint.

What if Christmas in 2020 needs something more?  The darkness does feel more pressing this year, doesn’t it?  We have the global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political turmoil, racial tensions – it is a dark, dark world.  So do we jettison the quaint tales of the first Christmas and try to muster some hope from inside ourselves that can steel us for the year ahead?  Or do we look more closely at Jesus and see if he really does bring the light of genuine hope into our dark world?

Here are four reasons that the birth of Jesus can give us a hope bright enough to counter the darkness of 2020.

1. Because he reveals God.  When Jesus became one of us and was born in Bethlehem, he came to show us something important.  It wasn’t just a good example to copy, or some helpful tips for living life.  Jesus came to show us God.  We cannot accurately guess what God is like, so God came to us all wrapped up in humanity.  When we consider Jesus, we get a unique glimpse into the very character of God.  If God is a distant killjoy, or a well-meaning but impotent figure, then we are very much alone.  But if God is like Jesus, then maybe there is hope for us.  Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, and it was a mission of revelation.

2. Because in Jesus, God identifies with us.  When Jesus joined humanity at Bethlehem, he was deliberately identifying with us.  He chose poor and insignificant parents, humble surroundings, and the darkest of times.  He came to experience life with all its challenges, uncertainties and disappointments.  He knows what it is like to live in a world wracked with disease, political turmoil, racial tension, and economic hardship.  One result of that identification, according to the Bible, is that Jesus is now able to understand and sympathise with us – he prays for us continually as we experience the new (to us) challenges of 2020 and 2021. Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, and it was a mission of identification.

3. Because he came to give us true hope.  When Jesus came into the world, it was not just a thirty-three excursion into humanity.  He didn’t drop in only to shift into reverse and back out some time later.  Jesus is fully God and fully man – fully one … and that is forever!  Jesus did not become human temporarily.  That massively increases the offer of hope.  Why?  Because we have someone who wants to, and is able to, bring us into the relationship we need to fully experience life and love as God intended.  He didn’t come to hand over a ticket to heaven and then pull back.  He came to give us himself in marriage.  God’s great plan is for the ultimate and perfect marriage union of a rescued humanity with the only one who could rescue us: our creator.  Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, and it was a mission to create a marriage union.

These first three points speak of three great unions – the wonderful core of the Christian message.  The first union is the beautiful relationship of God with God – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in their glorious union, are a wonderfully different God than every other god we have ever imagined.  At the heart and at the start of everything there is a loving relationship.  Amazingly, we are invited to join!  The second union is what happened that first Christmas: God and humanity joined together in the person of Jesus.  This makes possible the third union: God united to a rescued humanity by inviting us to become one with Jesus.  In union with Jesus we discover forgiveness, life, love, joy, peace, and real, powerful, life-changing hope.

4. Because Jesus came to enter and shatter the darkness.  All that I have described so far is a mission that was launched that first Christmas, and confirmed some years later on that first Easter.  Jesus came into this dark world and went to the darkest place: his death on the cross.  He chose to enter the darkness of human sin and separation from God, in order to shatter the darkness.  In its place Jesus offers the warming sunlight of God’s love to any who will accept that his life and death was intended for me.  Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, a mission to rescue you from the darkness.

Don’t just grit your teeth and press on into 2021.  Discover the real hope that can only be found in relationship with Jesus.

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