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?

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!

7 Truths To Stir Prayer in Challenging Times

This year has been a year of changes and challenges for us all.  It certainly isn’t the year we were expecting as we headed into a new decade just a few months ago.  As church leaders we are having to face situations that we haven’t faced before and make decisions in a continually changing set of circumstances.  Wouldn’t it be great if God could give us some kind of blueprint for when traditional church is not possible, during a time when our society is rocked by racial tensions, by political division and by a constant fear of death?  Actually, God has given us exactly that – the book of Acts.

When the church began they could not follow what would later become normal church traditions.  In addition, the Roman Empire was a place of racial tension, political divisions and death was never far away.  How did the church thrive then?  And how can the church thrive now?  We could look at the way the church responded to authority, or how they cared for one another, or how they were evangelistically effective wherever they went, or how they were willing to face changes to their own traditions, etc.  But for now, let’s think about prayer.

When Peter was miraculously rescued from Herod’s prison in Acts 12, he immediately went to the gathering of believers that he knew would be praying for him.  Eventually he got let in.  Imagine their joy at this immediate answer to prayer standing in their midst!  Wouldn’t it be great to know what they had been praying?  We are not given that information in Acts 12.  But back in Acts 4, when Peter and John returned to the believers after another bruising encounter with the authorities, we are given their prayer.  In Acts 4:23-31 we can find seven truths that gripped them.  And if these truths will grip us, then we too will be stirred to pray in these difficult times:

1. God is in charge (v24)– “Sovereign Lord!”  That is a great way to start a prayer in troubled times.  They are praying to the One who is in charge of everything.  The term used here is only used three times in the New Testament, but on each occasion it is crying out to God in the context of monumental or trying circumstances.  God is in charge, the Master, the Boss.  The best person to speak to about what we are facing.

2. God created everything (v24b)– If God made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, that really does mean something for our prayer life.  We are not praying to one local and restricted deity among many.  We are praying to the God who made absolutely everything.  That means that absolutely anything we are facing is a challenge from within that creation.  A disease, a financial challenge, enemy armies, global political crises … they are all very much within this creation.  He made it all. Pray to Him.

3. God can predict history (v25-27)– In their case they knew that what was described by David a thousand years before in Psalm 2 had come to pass before their eyes.  David anticipated the future gathering of nations to oppose the Lord and the Messiah.  The ultimate fulfillment may still be in the future, of course, but they had watched Herod and Pontius Pilate and Gentile soldiers and Jewish people uniting in their opposition to Jesus.  But God is God, so it was no surprise.  Pray to Him about the challenges facing you – they are no surprise to God.

4. God planned this history we now live (v28)– Not only had God predicted it, but what they had watched was actually God’s plan.  God is working His great purposes out and that includes 2020.  Not only is all of this no surprise to God, but it is part of God’s greater plan that is being worked out.  We can be excited to participate in the history God is writing, and we should certainly pray to Him about it all!

5. God sees our specific challenges (v29)– Just minutes earlier they had been threatened by the authorities.  Now they are praying to a God who looks on those threats and cares about His people.  This was the revelation that Hagar received years before.  God actually sees me and the challenges before me.  We are not invisible pawns in a great chess game being played at a higher level.  God actually knows the specific challenges we face.  That truth should make us want to pray!

6. God is working today (v30)– For that group in Acts 4 it was important to recognize that God was at work all around them with healings and miracles.  None of that was taken away because Peter and John had been threatened.  It is important in a time of crisis to not lose sight of all that God is doing around us.  We may not see the miraculous signs described in this verse, but the miracle of regeneration is taking place across the world today.  As we pray for our local context, the church is being built and the gospel is continuing to spread in this world.

7. God answers prayer (v31)– Notice that when they had prayed the place was shaken.  Impressive!  But that wasn’t the answer to the prayer.  Actually, the final line should grab us – “they continued to speak the word with boldness.”  That was the very thing they had requested.  Actually it was the only thing they had requested.  They didn’t ask for circumstances to change (although they probably did when Peter was imprisoned in Acts 12); instead they prayed for boldness in the midst of their fear.

Let’s make sure we are gripped by these same seven truths so that as we face real challenges, we too can pray with confidence to the God who is in charge, who made everything, who predicts the future, whose plans are being worked out, who sees our specific situation, who is at work today and who answers our prayers.

Judge Jesus

“Do not judge by appearances.”  Sound advice.  Sometimes people, books, and even foods can surprise you.  But actually that isn’t a pithy proverb promoting discernment in dating or a more investigative approach to shopping.  Jesus said it.  In fact, he said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”  And he said it about himself.

In John 7 we read about the Feast of Tabernacles, the third, and favourite, annual pilgrim feast of the Jews.  The chapter starts with Jesus’ non-believing half-brothers trying to goad him into taking the stage at Israel’s Got Talent and doing some of his miracles to announce himself where it mattered, at the heart of the nation.  He refuses to go to Jerusalem on their terms, but then goes up secretly.  The whole town is talking about him anyway, muttering and wondering if he’ll show.

He does.  In the middle of the Feast he heads into the temple area and starts teaching publicly.  A few verses later he urges everyone to judge him with right judgment (v24).  Let’s note four things that they, and we, should evaluate based on this first part of John 7:

1. Why does the world hate Jesus? In verse 7 Jesus tells his brothers that the world hates him.  In verse 19 he flags the fact that some are seeking to kill him.  We see that hatred all through John’s Gospel, and we still see it today.  Why is Jesus so despised by a world that claims values that Jesus could be seen to champion?  Our world celebrates its own compassion and its action on behalf of the oppressed and hurting – Jesus demonstrated compassion and took action for the sake of hungry crowds, foreigners facing dislike, vulnerable women and children, the lame, the deaf, and the blind.  Our world talks about inter-racial unity – Jesus made a despised Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous stories, fed a crowd of four thousand Gentiles when the disciples didn’t consider that a possibility, and so on.  Jesus could be the figurehead for so many of the values celebrated today, and yet he seems to be hated so easily.  Why is that?

2.  Did Jesus really speak a message from God? In verses 15-17 Jesus explains how he can speak with such learning despite never having studied.  He explains that his message is not his own, but the message of the one who sent him into the world.  Jesus speaks God’s very words?  That is an astonishing claim.  And yet for two thousand years, across every continent, in hundreds of languages and contexts, the words of Jesus have proven to be the key to the human heart.  While he is hated by many, there are also many who have found Jesus’ words to resonate so deeply that they must be uniquely representative of God.  With so many people, in so many places, so massively marked by Jesus, surely it is worth investigating the source of his message?

3. How can Jesus be so pure?  Inverse 18 Jesus claims to have no falsehood.  Again, this is a huge claim.  Every leader you know is flawed.  Every Christian leader you respect is far from perfect.  We know the impurity of humanity because we know the person in the mirror.  We are not as bad as some, but we are still so far from our own ideals, let alone God’s.  We all fall short, desperately short.  But Jesus – not in some later developed mythology, but in a context where his own half-siblings were skeptical and his enemies scrutinized everything about him – Jesus claimed to be without falsehood.  And a few months later, when it came to trial, they couldn’t find any accusations against him.  The Roman authority with no vested interest in Jesus repeatedly declared, “this man is innocent!”  The purity of Jesus is not just a lack of sin, but also a radiant presence of life.  Jesus is captivatingly attractive in his holiness.  What is going on there?

4. What is the significance of transformed lives? In verse 23 Jesus underlines the source of the antagonism that was still rumbling in the crowd: he had healed a man by the pool a few months earlier.  A transformed body walking around Jerusalem stirred the people and the authorities.  And that man wasn’t in any way spiritually responsive. Today we can meet hundreds of people whose lives have been transformed spiritually, personally, temperamentally, morally, etc. (None of us are made perfect, of course, but the change is often undeniable!)

Jesus is hated by the world, claims to speak a message from God, lived a life that was uniquely beyond every reproach, and continues to transform lives all over the world.

Whether you are investigating Christianity for the first time, or are a long-time follower of Jesus, these four questions are well worth pondering.  If Jesus is who he claims to be, and if that is only underlined by the eyewitness accounts of those close to him, the hatred of many, and the transformation of others, then he is worthy of all your faith, your worship, your love.

Sitting Alone

In John 6, Jesus appears to have a public relations disaster.  He starts the chapter with a huge crowd and an event that will become a favourite of children’s Bible story books – in fact, the only pre-passion narrative that makes it into all four Gospels.  But he ends the chapter with a question mark hanging over his core disciples and a poignant reference to one of the twelve being a devil.

How does it all go so “wrong” for Jesus?

The passage begins with a huge crowd gathering with Jesus and a reference to the forthcoming Passover feast.  He takes five barley loaves and two fish (a poor person’s food) and turns it into more than enough (a proper feast).  The response of the people seems to be on target.  They start asking if he is the Prophet anticipated in Deuteronomy 18, and they want to make him king.  From a human standpoint, it looks to be a successful operation at this point.

Overnight Jesus sends the disciples on ahead and takes a creative shortcut across the lake, ready for the morning crowds.  The morning crowds are yesterday’s crowd, plus some others from Tiberias, and they come looking for something.  Jesus cuts through the hype and identifies what they want – another free lunch.  But this is insulting to Jesus, who actually came to give eternal life.  How often do we petition Christ for the petty things, while ignoring the far greater gifts that he wants to give us?  It is certainly not wrong to pray about the little stuff, for he does care for everything, but when we only care for short-lived comforts, while ignoring his greater giving goals, then we insult him.

Along the way Jesus critiques the Jewish idea that Moses had given them the miracle bread from heaven, when in fact it was the Father.  Then, instead of making himself the new Moses that they referred to in verse 14, Jesus makes himself the bread from heaven, sent to save and sustain the people.  He will turn none away, will give them true life, and will raise them up on the last day – a past, present, and future package of assurance from God. (See vv35-40, for instance.)

This only makes the Jews grumble about him.  How can he be the bread?  They wonder if he is talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  Rather than backing away from the physicality of this misunderstanding, instead Jesus goes along with the language of eating and drinking.  (Remember how people have already misunderstood the temple language in chapter 2, the new birth language in chapter 3, and the living water and food language of chapter 4.)

I suspect Jesus wasn’t expecting to be understood in reference to the later ordinance of the Christian church – communion, Lord’s Supper, or whatever your church calls it.  Rather, I think he may well have been thinking of the Passover meal.  The people were expected to eat all the flesh of the lamb, as well as drink all the “blood of the grapes.”  It was a special meal, an “eat-it-all-because-we-are-leaving-in-a-hurry” type of feast.  It celebrated the Passover lamb, provided to rescue the people and let them live in the face of all that was happening in Egypt that night.

Jesus could have been misunderstood as speaking of flesh eating and blood drinking, but I suspect that was not the issue.  Actually, what he meant was also insanely challenging.  Just as God had provided a way for the people to live through the Passover back in Egypt, so now there was a new Passover coming.  This new Passover was for eternal life.  The provision was costly and there was an implicit demand in the meal.  Jesus was effectively saying, “It is all about me, I am giving everything for you…make me your everything.”

Jesus was the whole lamb, the drink, everything.  At the next Passover he would make it clear that his body was being given and his blood was to be shed.  What was most offensive to human sensibilities was not the potential misunderstanding of eating flesh and drinking blood, but instead the absolute nature of Jesus’ offering and implicit demand.  He gave everything, so make him everything.

We humans are not fans of such absolute expectations.  We’d rather blend our options.  The crowds certainly felt uncomfortable and quickly dispersed.  The popular vote was lost in a day.  Maybe ten to twenty thousand people left and just twelve remained.  Jesus spoke truth and they didn’t like it.  He turned to the twelve.  “What about you?  Want to go too?”

Peter’s response is reflective of our situation too.  We have been drawn to a place of belief.  We are blessed not only by knowing Jesus, but also by knowing there is no alternative!  “To whom shall we go?”  Peter’s response is spot on.  “You have the words of eternal life.”  He certainly does.  But those words are not popular.

We live in a world where people live in fear of saying something that will receive the backlash of irrational intolerance and hatred.  To stand for truth is as unpopular as it has ever been, and there is no longer a Christian-worldview majority ready to affirm and support us in these times.  Instead it feels like everyone is fleeing the scene and chasing empty alternatives.  Will we leave him too?  To put it bluntly, where would we go?  This world has no viable alternatives to Christ.

And so we sit, almost alone, before Jesus.  Do we want to follow the crowds and reject Christ and the God he came to reveal?  It would certainly feel easier to follow the population, for the popular vote is never with God.  But honestly, we would do well to follow Peter’s pathway here… “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus gave everything for us to have eternal life.  Will we make him everything and follow him, even if nobody else will?