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.”

How Do You Respond to Your Greatest Fear?

We live in a world of fear.  Deep down, most people live with a fear of something happening to their health or their loved ones.  Many people live in cities with soaring crime rates.  Geopolitical changes in a country on the other side of the world can raise the fear of terrorist attacks.  What we see on the news makes us afraid, or else what we don’t see on the news does.  Some are afraid of the cultural shifts that are rocking the moral foundations of society.  And for the last eighteen months, the fear of COVID-19 has been at the forefront of everyone’s thinking.  Either people fear the illness itself or fear the response from governments.  Fear is a feature of life in this fallen world.

I know that logic does not necessarily mix easily with fear – it never helped much with shadows at night when we were children!  But still, logically, it would make sense to fear most what is most significant or powerful.  Why worry about hay fever if a third of your village has died from food poisoning in the last month?  So, what is the most important, significant and potentially life-changing person or problem facing each of us today?

In Luke 8, we find Jesus on tour.  In the previous chapters, he has gathered his disciples around him and begun his ministry.  From the end of chapters 9 to 19, he will journey to Jerusalem and all that waits in store there.  But in chapters 8 and 9, Jesus is on tour in Galilee.  He is teaching and helping people.  The chapter starts with one of his more famous teaching moments – the man sowing seed on four kinds of soil.  The different soils lead to different responses.  But the bottom line of that story is that our hearts can be good soil for the seed of God’s word.  Good soil does not provide the seed, nor the sun, nor the sprinkling of rain.  It is just churned up mud, ready to receive God’s word.  And Jesus promises a multiplied harvest: a hundred times what was sown.

After the teaching comes a couple of stories where fear is a feature.  In the first story (Luke 8:22-25), the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee when a terrifying storm hits.  Even the experienced fishermen are scared of this storm, but Jesus woke from his sleep, and he rebuked the wind and the waves.  Immediate calm descended.  But their hearts were stirred up.  They were afraid.  Notice their response – they ask, “who is this?” and continue to follow him.  That is the correct response.  Jesus has overwhelming power and authority.  The proper response to someone so significant?  Fear.  And the desire to know more about him, to follow him, to be with him.

In the second story (Luke 8:26-39), the disciples arrive with Jesus in the region of the Gerasenes.  I suspect they may have been a little nervous in this foreign territory.  Perhaps they would tell stories about this region over the campfire late at night with the orange glow of the fire flickering on their faces.  This visit did not serve to change their prejudices!  As soon as they arrived, a man with many demons approached Jesus.

Many of us live in a time and place where demonic manifestation is not the preferred strategy of the enemy.  Many of our societies like to think of themselves as too sophisticated for this kind of thing.  Nevertheless, in this one man, we see classic features of evil.  For instance, evil always pulls towards death.  For this man, that meant nakedness and not living in society, but among the tombs. 

Today we see the same pull towards death in anyone struggling with addictive behaviour and its impact on their life.  We see it when we consider the impact of gangs and crime in a city or watch the news and ponder the march of evil on a grander scale.  Stripping away life, civility, community, and fellowship is always a feature of evil, and we see it all too much in our world.  If we look back in history, we see this in the concentration camps of the Nazis, the work camps of Communism, or the destruction of terrorism.  We may not see many demon-possessed men in our local graveyards, but there is plenty of evil in the world today.  Evil pulls towards death, and in Luke, the mass suicide of the pigs only underlines that truth.

This story presents the fearful reality of evil, and it also shows us another aspect that we must recognize.  The multitude of demons in this man greatly feared Jesus!  They didn’t negotiate,  certainly not as equals.  They begged.  They recognized his authority both in the present and in the future judgment.  The greatest evil in this world cowers in the presence of Jesus.

I can imagine the disciples at this moment.  They would not have been fanning out through the crowd offering their expert commentary on Jesus’ actions.  I imagine them squeezed in behind Jesus.  Nervous.  Awkward.  “Me? Oh, I am with him!”  We must remember Jesus’ authority over all evil and lean in close to him.  We are with him!  Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

This story does not just present us with evil and its fear of Jesus.  It also shows us that fear in the response of the local people too.  As they came and found the impossible-to-contain man dressed and in his right mind, they were afraid.  This Jesus is too powerful, too significant, too much of a life-changer.  He made them feel uncomfortable and afraid.  Like many people, even today, it is too scary to let someone turn their world upside-down.  Much better to live with the evil we have gotten used to than to have everything changed.  So they were afraid (compare verses 25 and 35), and they sent Jesus away.

The rescued man wanted to be with Jesus.  He begged that he might be with Jesus and get in the boat too.  We know from reading the Bible that he would eventually get to be with Jesus, as we all will, but first, he had work to do.  Jesus had churned up that region like ploughing mud in a field.  Now he was going to plant this man as a single seed into that mud.  I am excited to imagine what a hundred-fold increase might look like for him!  Maybe we will meet the Gerasene contingent when we get to heaven!

I wonder, did he look jealously at the disciples?  “Why do they get to be with you when I get planted into this fear-churned world?”  Again, we know from reading the Gospels the answer to that too.  The disciples would need a longer apprenticeship, but after three years with Jesus, he would also plant them into this evil world.  Jesus planted them with a promise.  “All authority has been given to me, therefore go and make disciples . . . baptizing . . . and teaching . . . and don’t miss this: I am with you always, until the end of the world!” (Matthew 28:18-20)

We do live in a world filled with fear.  One day we will be with Jesus, away from all evil.  But for now, Jesus is with us as he multiplies a crop from our apparent insignificance.  May we not only see the evil around us that causes us to fear.  May we remember that evil cowers before Jesus.  May we respond to his greater significance in the right way – pondering who he is and leaning into him and his plan for our role in this world.  Fear Jesus, for he is more powerful and significant than any evil, or all evil!  Let us trust him as he places us in the mess of this world and see how he transforms lives through us!

Great Work

In Luke 5, we see Jesus gathering his disciples.  He has already been doing impressive ministry before this point in the Gospel, but this is where we start to see the familiar faces being gathered into his inner circle.  When we look at two brief incidents, we can find real encouragement for today.  This is especially true if you don’t feel particularly impressive as a follower of Jesus.  (And if you do feel impressive, it would probably be good to pray about that!)

In the first verses of the chapter, we see Jesus call Simon Peter to follow him.  Jesus was teaching a crowd and ended up using Simon’s boat as a platform for his message.  Then he asked Simon to head back out to sea and to cast his nets again.  Simon and his friends had just worked all night and caught nothing.  That was not normal (if it were, they would have found alternative employment).   Now Jesus wanted the nets in the water in the middle of the day. Again, this was not a typical request, because everyone knew that fish go deeper when the sun is shining.  However, they did as Jesus asked, and soon their nets were so full they began to break – unusual.  Even their purpose-built fishing boats started to sink – very strange.

We all experience days interrupted by unusual or abnormal events.  It is not normal to have a flat tire on your car, but it does happen.  It is not normal to experience unusual weather, but we have a category for it.  However, this was different for Simon Peter.  This was not the typical kind of unusual event.  This was the kind of combination of strange things that suddenly sent a chill down his spine and caused the hairs to stand up on his neck.

Something bigger was happening, and Simon Peter sensed it.  This is what happens when you suddenly recognize that God is not just out there somewhere, aware of everything.  This is what happens when you realize that God is right here and he is looking specifically at you.

Simon Peter suddenly felt completely undone by Jesus’ presence, the weight of his sin overwhelming him.  “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”

Jesus knew that he was calling a sinner to be his disciple.  Jesus called that sinner to a greater work.  From now on, he would catch people instead of fish.  Simon Peter and his colleagues left their old life behind and followed Jesus to a new life.  Two thousand years later, we are still naming churches and places after them: from St Peter’s Basilica in Rome to St Andrew’s Church in Chippenham, from St James’ football stadium in Newcastle to St John’s in Newfoundland.  How many little boys have been named Peter, Andrew, James and John in the years since?   What an impressive legacy, especially when we remember that they were just sinful fishermen.

Jesus knows that the people he calls are great sinners.  And he still calls us to a greater work.

But then there is another incident later in the chapter.  Have a look at Luke 5:27-28:

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.

There is no miracle story to set up this call, just a simple instruction.  And Levi left it all and followed Jesus.  But Luke tells us a little bit more – see verses 29-32:

29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Notice how Pharisees and scribes are in the scene, adding tension to the meal?  Their complaint was simple: Jesus’ disciples should not eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners.  This little group was not living up to their sinless standards.  Take note of Jesus’ response.  Jesus knew full well that he was dealing with sinners and that they needed healing.  These were works in progress. 

To put it simply, in the first story, we see Jesus calling sinners to a greater work.  In the second story, we see that Jesus knows those he calls need his great work. 

What an encouragement for us!  Before we are anything else in the church world, we are disciples of Jesus.  Whatever ministry we may be involved in, whatever position we may hold, we are disciples of Jesus.  And he knows that we are sinful and broken people.  He knows that when he calls us.  He has a far greater work for us to do.  And he knows that he will need to do great work in us. 

We Need Each Other

Some years ago, I was chatting with my future in-laws about their experiences on the mission field.  They mentioned a couple that they were close to during a challenging season of missionary work.  I asked if their very different denominational backgrounds were an issue.  The response was so helpful: “Secondary things do not matter when you are in the trenches.”

Back in the first century, the Apostle Peter wrote a letter to some believers in the trenches.  They had probably been kicked out of Rome by Emperor Claudius and transplanted to five regions in what we would now call Turkey.  These people had been unwanted back in Rome (troublemakers or guilty by association with others), and they were now unwanted in their new locations.  So Peter wrote his epistle to help them.

Today we live in cultures that are increasingly hostile to Christians.  We can certainly take on board the instruction Peter gave to those first-century believers.  In chapter 4, after the main body of his argument, Peter urges believers to live in light of their situation. God’s great redemption plan is in its final stage; they need to live with disciplined thinking for the sake of their attentive prayerfulness.  But then he gives a not-to-be-missed “above all” point:

“Above all, love one another earnestly.” (1 Peter 4:8)

He is not referring to casual and comfortable fellowship.  The word Peter uses here, “earnestly,” implies a full and sustained effort.  Think of the muscles of a thoroughbred horse working at full capacity as the horse gallops.  Or think of the strenuous and sustained efforts of an athlete in competition.  Peter is not just asking Christians to be pleasant to one another; he is speaking of how much we need each other.

In this paragraph, Peter gives us three “one another” instructions to help us understand how much we need each other:

1. We need each other’s grace. In verse 8, he urges them to “love one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Of course, some sins should not simply be covered over.  Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to graciously confront the sin of a fellow believer.  Sometimes a sin is so significant that you should inform the authorities.  But here, Peter is speaking about ongoing, every day, frequent annoyances. 

Think about a group of children gathering in a minibus for a day at the seaside.  They will be full of energy and excitement.  They will probably tolerate annoying pokes and name calling from their friends in this state – every comment will be met with laughter and joy.  But fast forward to the evening when they all clamber back into the minibus, exhausted and emotionally fraught.  Now the slightest poke in the ribs, a crossed word from a friend, or another tiny thing might provoke tears and tension.  As adults, we are often more drained by life than delighted.  How easily Christians can aggravate one another.  That is why we need one another’s grace.

Eugene Peterson translated the underlying thought in Proverbs 10:12 like this: “Hatred starts fights, but love pulls a quilt over the bickering.”

 2. We need each other’s generosity.  In verse 9, Peter goes on, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” We tend to think of hospitality in the New Testament as an essential support to the church’s missionary work.  Travel inns were expensive and dangerous, so finding a place to stay with fellow believers was a vital feature of the Gospel’s spread.  However, in this verse, Peter is speaking of hospitality to “one another.” Maybe this is less about helping travelling missionaries and more about supporting one another in the local community of believers.

After more than a year of restrictions and lockdowns, some of us are appreciating the blessing of being in each other’s homes more than ever.  Let us never take for granted the gift that it is to share a meal with fellow believers.  It is not about the performance of the chef or the presentation of a picture-perfect house.  We are not auditioning for a magazine.  We are a family that needs each other.

Sometimes, the gift of time, practical support, and fellowship can make the difference between making it through a challenging season and not making it through.  We need each other’s generosity.

3. We need each other’s gifting.  In verse 10, Peter adds one more “one another” to the paragraph: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” God designed the body of Christ to be interdependent.  We need the gifts that others have.  Some gifts are more visible and up-front, while others are more behind-the-scenes and play a support role.  We need each other.

The gifting may be different for one who preaches and one who sets up the facility, but both are intimately connected to God.  The speaker speaks the words of God.  The server works with the strength God supplies.  And whatever type of gift we have, God is at work amongst us as we benefit from one another’s spiritual gifts.

Whether we are living in a time of relative comfort and ease or a time of growing antagonism and complexity, the reality is that we all need each other.  It is an incredible blessing to be part of a local family of believers.  As we love one another earnestly, we will benefit from each other’s grace, generosity and gifting.  And the impact of all this will be a blessing for us, a powerful witness to a fragmented watching world, and glory to God.

What would it look like if you earnestly loved the people in your church family this week?

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.

Stepping Out Into a New World

The last year has felt like a whirlwind for us all.  There have been constant government guideline changes and the kinds of interruptions to everyday life that most of us have never seen before.  Now it feels like we are starting to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.

The world has been shifting.  Due to the pandemic or due to societal changes, the world is not the same place as it was just a few years ago.  So my mind has gone to the second half of Acts.  Acts 13 and following chronicles when the followers of Jesus first stepped out to take the message of Jesus to a very different world.

Let’s take Acts 13-14 as a case study to consider.  Here we read Luke’s account of the first missionary journey.  The church at Antioch in Syria sent out Barnabas and Paul.  These two travelled to Cyprus, then up to what we would call Turkey.  We read of their ministry in places like Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.

Perhaps we can note some basic principles that will be helpful to us as we step out into our new world with the message of Jesus today:

1. God is active in the spread of the message.  In Acts 13:1-4, we see how God is the initiator who launched the mission of Barnabas and Saul.  As we read further, we can recognize that God is involved in every aspect of their ministry.  That same God was not surprised by the challenges of 2020.  He is continuing to work out His purposes in 2021. 

2. The enemy opposes the spread of the message.  In Acts 13:8-11, we read about the active opposition of a false teacher called Elymas.  This “son of the Devil” was trying to turn others away from the faith.  Paul did not hold back in dealing with that opposition.  Remember that this was a foreign culture, but the apostles knew that people everywhere need to hear the truth about Jesus.  We will face opposition as we seek to speak of Jesus this year.  Let’s pray for the courage and boldness we need to carry that message effectively.

3. People respond to the message in different ways.  In Acts 13:42-52, we witness a typical response to Paul’s preaching.  Some of the hearers were stirred and wanted to know more.  But opposition arose from the local Jews who eventually drove the apostles out of town.  We might expect the opposition to come from overtly evil people. However, often it is the religious and self-righteous who prove to be most resistant to the good news of Jesus.   We should never be discouraged by a mixed reaction to the gospel.

4. Remember to begin at the very beginning.  In Acts 14:8-20, we watch Barnabas and Paul as they came to Lystra.  These were not Jews with a background understanding of the Old Testament.  These were pagans with no Bible background at all.  They soon gathered in a crowd with the local priest of Zeus, ready to offer sacrifices to Barnabas and Paul (who they mistakenly thought were Zeus and Hermes in the flesh!).  Barnabas and Paul could have seized the opportunity.  After all, here was a crowd, including a strategic influencer, who all thought Paul and Barnabas were gods – they could have worked with that position of influence!

Paul could have launched into preaching about God’s greater sacrifice.  Or he could have demonstrated the similarities between Zeus and the true God.  With some careful editing, it is always possible to forge the connections between other deities and our God.  Lystrans believed Zeus was the sovereign of the universe, master of heaven and earth.  It sounds biblical.  Zeus was concerned with justice and order; God too.  Zeus showcased his power in extreme weather; there are Bible stories that come to mind. 

But Paul and Barnabas did not entertain this approach at all.  Why not?  Because truth matters.  And the truth of the matter was that the God they had come to represent was not like Zeus or any other god hanging around the area.  The true God was so much better!  So Paul launched into a brief message introducing the true God.  Paul spoke boldly, calling them to turn from vain things.  He also spoke invitingly, calling them to turn to God.  And he spoke clearly, setting out the character of the true God: the living and generous creator God, patient and kind. 

The God we represent is not the same as the other gods worshipped in our world.  People worship the gods of other religions, or celebrities, or ideologies.  We can always edit the details and form connections. Still, the foundational truth is that the true God is different, and He is better because He is so so good!  Let’s be sure to start at the beginning, with the God question: which God is God?  What is He like?

5. Be prepared to suffer because it is worth it.  In Acts 14:19-23, we see Paul stoned, dragged out of the city and presumed dead.  When the disciples gathered around him, though, he stood up.  Amazingly, he then went back into the city!  After travelling on to Derbe, Paul and Barnabas don’t continue down the road to their ultimate destination, their sending church in Syria.  Instead, they turn around and go back to Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch – the three cities involved in trying to kill Paul! 

Why would they do something so inherently dangerous?  Because it is worth it.  It is worth it to help people know the true God instead of their false gods.  And it is worth it because those small groups of new believers matter to that God.  We may be offering encouragement and teaching to unimpressive little groups of young believers in Europe this year, but they matter to God!

There is plenty more we can learn from this section of Acts.  Let’s find encouragement in these missionary journey accounts, and then let us press on in our ministries empowered by God!

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.

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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Coming Soon: The Little Him Book

It is now just four weeks until The Little Him Book releases in the UK (early 2021 in the USA – click here to pre-order the book in the UK). My hope is that this little book that makes much of Him will be a helpful tool for many. Who might appreciate it?

  1. Christians wanting a brief and refreshing read about Jesus to stir their hearts to worship again. It could be used as a prompt for personal devotions, grab a quick chapter at lunchtime or as a light bedtime read.
  2. Young Christians wanting a brief and engaging introduction to what the Bible teaches about Jesus. They need to know about him, and the right response is a life of worship. This little book can help with both of these goals!
  3. People asking questions about Jesus. This may be a helpful evangelistic tool for people who may have some exposure to church, but have not yet grasped the significance of Jesus. As with any evangelistic tool, read it yourself to decide who it might be suitable for as a gift.
  4. Preachers wanting ideas for a series about Jesus. Don’t just preach this book, the Bible is better, but maybe this book can give you a jump start on an engaging series for your church.
  5. Youth Leaders wanting the bones of a series of short talks. Don’t just read the book out, but use it to help you formulate 10 brief talks for your youth group (and why not give everyone a copy of the book too?)
  6. Parents wanting an engaging read for family devotions. You could read each chapter out loud in a few minutes – they are easy to read and non-technical. And if you like to sing together, there is a suggestion at the end of each chapter!
  7. Book givers! You may be a dying breed, but if you love giving books to others, then this could be a great book to stock up on. Buy a stack and give away at Christmas, at special events, as an encouragement to a struggling friend, or to someone getting baptised, or to your pastor to thank him for his ministry.

Thank you to everyone who helps get the word out about this book release. Your RT’s, likes, shares, etc. on social media are all appreciated. And thank you to everyone who buys a copy or copies to pass on to others. I really appreciate your help.

Preaching as Connecting

There are some obvious ways in which the idea of connecting might relate to preaching.  We could think about connecting the world of the Bible with the world of today’s listeners.  Or we could think about connecting God’s will with our lives – sort of a “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” idea.  We could even move things down to a more practical level and think about connecting preacher with listeners, or biblical truths with relevant applications.  But in this post I am not doing any of these.

In preaching we get to make connections that are theologically critical, but typically remain separated in the minds of most believers.  How about these three to get us started:

1. Connect the cross of Christ with the life of Christ.  Too easily we can think of Jesus’ life and ministry as being somehow distinct from the cross.  It is as if the cross was a necessary but difficult diversion from what he was previously doing in his healing and teaching ministry.  So, we can think of Jesus as a great example and leader in his ministry, but as a victim of malevolent human agency on the cross.  Actually, the character that is constantly showing in his encounters with hurting people is the character that is presented in stark relief in the hours of extreme hurt on the cross. 

The cross is not a distasteful interruption to his ministry of revealing God’s character to us – it is actually the moment of greatest clarity.  It is that humble Jesus, that selfless Jesus, that giving Jesus that is constantly doing his revelatory work.  That is true beside the Sea of Galilee, as it is true beside the road in his crucifixion.  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the life of Christ from the death of Christ.

2. Connect the life of Christ then with the ministry of Christ now. In church world we have done a good job of helping people to know about Jesus’ three years of ministry two millennia ago, but a lousy job of helping people to know that that same Jesus is praying for them today.  I was really struck by Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly.  That book really builds the readers confidence that the Jesus who was so approachable, so humble, so kind, so gracious, so present with both sinners and sufferers in the stories we know so well from the Gospels is the same Jesus that we sinners and sufferers living our stories today can still approach. 

A lot of Christians have a massive disconnect between the Jesus they read about in the Gospels, and the saviour they are trusting with their lives today.  Jesus was so stirred by the battered fallen creatures of back then, but we assume he is impatient and frustrated with us today.  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the Jesus of the Gospels from the Jesus of today.

3. Connect Christ with God.  Hopefully this one is the most jarring of all.  Theologically I hope that Christians know that Christ is truly God, just as the Father and the Holy Spirit are truly God.  Also it should not be a stretch to hope that Christians know Jesus is the one who reveals the Father to us.  And yet so many still seem to have a mental distinction between the demeanour and character of Jesus in the Gospels from what we know to be true of God the Father in heaven today.  Too many gospel presentations have inadvertently reinforced the error – the angry judge in heaven is only appeased by the pleas and sacrifice of our kind advocate Jesus. 

When we look at Jesus in the Gospels, or when we gaze at the cross and see the Son suffering there, we are seeing the heart of the Father revealed to us.  I wonder how many Christian lives would be revolutionized if people actually dared to believe that the Father’s heart is as for them as Jesus’ heart was for the sinners and sufferers he encountered in the Gospels?  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the Jesus of the Gospels from the Father he came to reveal to us.’

There are probably more theological truths that so easily become disconnected in our thinking.  As preachers, let’s help people to put back together what should never have been separated at all.