54. A Time to Regain our Identity

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 8 – Counter Attack

54. A Time to Regain Our Identity

Mt 16:18  I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

1 Pet 2:9,10  But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

I wonder? I have wondered if the average church member ‘sees’ themselves in any way different from anyone else? Very early on in this series I considered a number of ways the Christian – and subsequently the Church – is different from their non-believing neighbors. So yes, being a ‘believer’ is perhaps the starting place, but is that all you see?

Why? Now you may be thinking, why is he taking us back over this ground if we have covered it so thoroughly in the past studies? Well, it is simply because when I meet with other believers, that is the sense, and only that – that we are ‘believers’ – that ever seems to get communicated, and because I believe that is so, I think it is one of the reasons that Christians are so often backward in coming forward, or so deferential when it comes to standing up and declaring how needy the world is and how wonderful the answer that we have is. Mostly I detect we are on the defense.

A Positive Faith: One of our failures of recent decades is that of not communicating the positive aspects of Christianity – which are only found in Christianity – which can help this sick and ailing world. Of course part of that has been our ongoing failure to coherently and graciously communicate why the ways of the present world of the West are failing. It seems it is only the occasional columnist of one of the big ‘broadsheet’ newspapers who shouts, “This is not working!”

The appearance – and forgive me if I am wrong – is that in the UK where there is a ‘state church’, the Church of England, it is too tied in to the establishment to be regularly prophetic and thus it fails to prepare itself and its leading bishops to be voices of hope and change in a dark world. In the USA, although there is no state church, church and politics appear entwined so often but this seems to have resulted in specific limited battles being fought – the abortion battle being the most obvious but there have been others – but without conveying, “Hey this Christian thing is the best thing going!” and so there has been a failure to collectively convey the positive nature of the Christian faith that should be life changing, and if given a chance, also community-changing and nation-changing.

My Identity: So if someone asks you who you are, do you reply, “I am a believer in Jesus Christ,” or “I am a Christian,” because as excellent as those testimonies are, they only take us a short way along the path of identifying who we are. A shorthand answer along this path is, “Well, the Bible says I am a child of Almighty God, the Creator of all things” and that opens up a whole new area of discussion. But perhaps the more important issue is not so much what I have to declare as what I feel about myself. Knowing who I am, enables me to speak or act as I do.

For example, a number of times, either in this series or other series, I have reminded us that a) Jesus is seated at his Father’s right hand in heaven, ruling in the midst of his enemies (Eph 1:20) and then, b) that we are told that we are seated with him in the heavenly realms (Eph 2:6). Now this is quite remarkable if we believe it (understatement of the year!) because it means we are linked to Almighty God and because of that there is a sense where we should see ourselves as ‘above’ the world, having an overview of it that provides a more accurate view than anyone else, which means learning with Christ how to live with that.

Part of a Strategy: But this also reminds us of a verse we have considered many times in the past: “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.   For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”   (1 Cor 15:24,25) Now this requires us to realize and recognize how Christ is ruling in the midst of his enemies (Psa 110:1,2, Heb 1:13, 10:13, Mt 22:44) – even though the world seems to be doing its own thing – but also for us to realize that we are part of his ruling, we are with him in working to bring down these enemies (which include such things as unbelief, unrighteousness, ungodliness, anger, bitterness, hostility, wars, fighting, etc. etc. as well as the more obvious evils, such as slavery, still as prevalent today as in the past). We have a privileged position, privileged power and a privileged calling within the strategy of Christ in his calling to bring in the kingdom of God.

Inferior or Special?  So let’s be honest, how do we really feel about ourselves before the onlooking world? Have we let Satan demean us, do we feel inferior?  Now if this was a church meeting and I was one of those preachers who hype up the congregation, asking those things in an ever louder voice, we might expect the temptation might be the shout back, “No, we’re superior!” but that is not Christlike, it is not what the apostle Paul taught, or any of the other apostles. The word we are looking for is ‘special’.

I have a friend who dislikes us saying to anyone, “you are special,” because, he says, you can’t say to everyone, “You are special.”  Yes you can. First of all we can say it to us as a group of people in the world. At Mount Sinai, God said to Moses to say to the people, if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” (Ex 19:5) Don’t tell me that “treasured possession” doesn’t mean special! Perhaps it was with this in mind that the apostle Peter wrote to the church (see 1 Pet 1:1,2) those words at the top of this study: But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet 2:9,10) Here I have highlighted words that say we are special.

Uniqueness: So dare we say, “I am special to God,” or “We as a local church are special to God,” so that marks us out from the rest of the world?  We are special because we have responded to Him and we have been adopted into His family so that we can say we are children of God, even sons and daughters of God. We are special because we have open access to heaven, a voice to God and an ear to hear from God and the ability to receive all the resources of God.

If that doesn’t make us feel good, perhaps we need to pray and ask the Lord to open our eyes to see the reality of these things, rather like the apostle Paul prayed, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people,  and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Eph 1:18,19)  All this comes only by revelation. We need today the fresh revelation of who we are, the wonder of who we are, the wonder of what we are, the wonder of our destiny, and when we get that afresh, perhaps we will stand up in the midst of the world and cry fearlessly with the apostle Paul,  “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes,” (Rom 1:16) and then go on and demonstrate that power – which leads us on to the next studies about going into battle. Stick with me.

53. Drowning in Knowledge (1)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 53. Drowning in Knowledge (1)

Psa 90:2,4 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God….  A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.

Quick Recap: We are still in the series about ‘ongoing redemption’ but are now looking at those things in our modern world that have a tendency to swamp or drown the unthinking believer. They are things I have observed the younger generation struggle with because they have been insufficiently taught both the Bible and about these things. The older generations struggle more at a sub-conscious level because these things have subtly become the atmosphere of modern life and they have a tendency to stifle belief and faith, but so slowly they are often hardly noticeable.

Today we move on to consider the subtle way big numbers in science, big people in science, or even big theories may appear to some to bring challenges to the truth in such ways that they stand above contradiction. So let’s be like Hans Anderson’s little unknowing boy in the story of ‘The Emperors New Clothes’ and ask some challenging question about things that are cast in concrete as far as modern science is concerned. Now I have to say from the outset that everything our leading scientists say may be absolutely right. It is unlikely because science has a history of changing theories and ‘facts’, so we should hold these things lightly. We won’t know the truth until we get to heaven.

Way Back! Let’s start with a history book on my shelves entitled “A History of the World”, an authoritative and comprehensive work. Page 1, line 2: “There is the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.” Page 1, second paragraph, “We could start more locally with the early history of Earth, beginning some 4.5 billion years ago.” I’m never sure about billions or trillions but Wikipedia says a billion is a thousand million. (Trillion = a million million).

Measurement: Now I am not a scientist, but my understanding is that we measure these periods not by a time machine but by observing an ‘expanding universe’ and extrapolating backwards in the assumption of a uniform continuation of movement to a point derived mathematically to have been the point of origin (The Big Bang). The other way of determining age is by carbon dating (used for objects less than 50,000 years old) and radiometric or radioactive dating, both of which assume a uniformity of decay.  Notice my emphasis on the word ‘uniformity’ which makes all we are saying here pure theory – you cannot prove it, you have to assume the uniformity and once you do, then, yes, it works. As I said before, they may be right, but it is a fool who is dogmatically certain.

‘Big Time’: I have a problem with “4.5 billion years” because it is utterly meaningless. It is merely a figure on paper (or screen) and although that figure is then broken down into smaller chunks of ‘events’, it is absolutely impossible for the human mind to grasp the concept of a million years, let alone 4500 million years. You and I struggle to envisage a hundred years. We do it by filling it with events. My wife and I have been married 45 years and we make sense of that time by going through all our past diaries and filled ten sheets with things we’ve done in that time.

Stephen Hawking was the expert on time with his book, “A Brief History of Time”, bought by many, understood by few. My only problem with people like Hawking or Einstein, is that with brains the size of a bus they are beyond contradiction by the rest of us mere mortals. If, as some predict, we will live longer and longer lives, if I were able to live another hundred years (more ‘time’) I would break a habit of a lifetime and lay a bet (who would take it?) that another genius will come along and question the current theories of all of these great men – but of course that is heresy in a scientific world that worships these men uncritically.

A Crutch for Evolution: I don’t have a problem with the theory of evolution; it may be the way God brought the present world into being, but I doubt it (note that would have to be ‘guided evolution’). I say that because there are so many holes in it that any intelligent critical person (not a negative person, but a person who questions, which is what is missing in life today) will say, “Yes…. but!” You know the biggest ‘elephant in the room’ of evolution that evolutionary scientists struggle with – biological sex! If you dare think about it, the very concept of male and female ‘complementary equipment’ as coming about through survival of the fittest, is pure nonsense.  I leave you to seriously ponder that one.

But the thing about evolution is that it only becomes vaguely credible if you have staggeringly big times to play with, for ‘accidents’ to happen, for mutations to die out or develop. It isn’t just a case of this is how it happened, it is a case of this is how it would HAVE to have happened. It is only when you think about millions and then billions of years that you have a big enough, long enough laboratory for the necessary changes to come about. If one day some super-mathematician appears and says, “The maths is all wrong; here is a viable alternative,” or scientists suddenly find that uranium breakdown occurs in spurts rather than uniformly, and both conclude that the age of the earth is say ten thousand years (now currently a scary, stupid or impossible thought) suddenly evolution would be in trouble, even more, impossible.

I am simply setting up what ARE possibilities to challenge the set mind, the mind set in concrete that is thus not ‘scientific’. When Stephen Hawking said, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change,” he perhaps unwittingly laid down a challenge to mathematicians and scientists generally, because at the moment, people (clever scientists) are persecuted for saying of modern scientific dogma, “I’m not sure about that.”

More Big Figures: It is big figures that intimidate us. Try this from a book of science on my shelves; this is about the ‘Big Bang’.  Health Warning: “A yoctosecond (ys) is a septillionth of a second or 10–24 s”. Can you think that small? Here’s my science book quote, starting to explain the Big Bang: “At the moment of the Big Bang, the entire Universe was much smaller than an atomic nucleus. Within a tiny fraction of a second, it underwent an inconceivably rapid expansion called cosmic inflation”.  Additional notes suggest that the temperature was “100 trillion trillion deg.C”.   Hullo? Is your mind still switched on? Well, let’s see the additional note of how fast the first change took place: “a hundred-billionth of a yoctosecond.” Wow! We saw how small a yoctosecond was just now and now you’re saying a hundred billionth of one septillionth of a second!  That was only the first part of the explanation of the Big Bang; there are four more stages of incredibly short periods of time, but you can do you own research. But I do like the word ‘inconceivably’ in that quote above.

Why all this? Why have I bothered to fill this Bible-blog with scientific information? Very simply because I find that when books baldly state these sort of things, people generally, let alone believers, are intimidated by the ‘fact-ness’ of print, the certainty of modern science. When it comes to Christian believers, it is almost natural, when looking at the short period of history covered by the Bible and the Bible’s lack of scientific detail, to wonder about the reality of all that we have been thinking about to do with ongoing redemption in this series. I will say it again: the numbers are meaningless, the results of mathematicians’ and scientists’ speculations, sounding so credible – if only we could understand them. I am not saying don’t believe them, but I am saying hold them lightly, see them as theories that are not so set in concrete as many would like to suggest, and see them (IF they are true) as explanations of how God made the world.

The God-Perspective: Our starter verses attempt to poetically convey something of God’s greatness: Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God….  A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.”  Not an explanation of how, but simply an attempt at conveying greatness.  The apostle Paul suggested that all of ‘Creation’ reveals the might and majesty of God (Rom 1:20).

The modern atheistic scientist (and many aren’t) seeks to explain the world in purely ‘mechanical’ terms so that there is no need for a God, because if there is a God that you and I speak about, that would lay a question against that person’s life – how should I live in the light of the knowledge of the existence of such a Being? – and many people don’t want their lives directed by someone greater than them. Outlook is often not formulated by facts (which so often need interpreting) but by personal prejudices and fears. How does Genesis fit into all this? We’ll look at that in the next study. Meanwhile, keep a clear head, do not be intimidated by great men, great brains, great theories, and great numbers. They may be right, and they may not, but put them all in perspective before the greatness (size and majesty) of Almighty God and we just find a marvelous world brought about by a marvelous Creator who deserves our worship, and in that, nothing has changed.

 

20. Viewing the World

Meditations in Titus: 20:  Viewing the World

Titus 3:1   Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good,

More than once in Titus we have observed Paul’s concern for God’s people to be a good witness to the surrounding world.  We wonder why those who set the Bible in chapter and verses put these next two verses in chapter 3 because in many ways they flow on from what he has been saying.

Certainly there has been no prior reference to the rulers and authorities but the tone and direction is a continuation. So let’s consider the first half of the verse first of all: “remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities.”  Being a believer isn’t just to be a good citizen of the kingdom of God, it is also to be a good citizen of the country in which you live. Paul doesn’t give Titus a reason for this injunction as he assumes as a leader he will understand the issues. To the church at general in Rom he said, Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” (Rom 13:1) There he explains to the believers that it is an authority issue and authority goes right back to God.

This wasn’t just something that Paul thought, the apostle Peter taught the same thing: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” (1 Peter 2:13-15) However he spells out what Paul has been instructing Titus to pass on to the church, that the way we behave in public will reveal the sort of believers we are. The best citizens should be Christians. I wonder, however, how often that can be said?

Note also his words, “to be obedient.”  The obedience he refers to must be the laws of the country which mostly we should obey. However if there is a direct conflict with obeying God and a man-made law, then obeying the Lord must come first, e.g. “Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard,” (Acts 4:18-20) and “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”  Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:28,29)

Yet, we would suggest, when there is such conflict, great wisdom is needed to not accentuate the conflict and no doubt believers have sometimes done that. The example of the wisdom and grace of Daniel and his friends in the court of Babylon (Dan 1) is worth studying.

Likewise, we would suggest, the believers should be working to be such outstanding members of their community that any conflict is likely to be overlooked by the authorities. It is said that quite often in the early centuries of the Gospel, when particular Caesars sent out a decree to persecute the Christians, the local governors sometimes gave the Christian community warning of what was coming and told them to leave town until the dust settled, because they knew that the Christians were the backbone of the local community.

We need to reiterate the point we made to start with, that Paul wants Titus to make the local believers realise what an impact on the local society they can have by the way that they work out their faith. Earlier on he had spoken about the poor quality of life on Crete. Yes, speak out against it, and yes declare the Gospel but ALSO live out your lives in such a way that the world will see and wonder. Remember Jesus’ teaching, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16)

There have been times in the life of the Church when there were those who felt the only way to really know God was to escape living in the everyday world of people and so we can think of the ‘desert fathers’ of Egypt or monks or nuns of closed orders, yet the Lord taught us to be light to the world and you cannot be that hidden away. Yes, circumstances may sometimes be difficult and when outright persecution occurs it is very difficult, nevertheless our calling is still to seek to be light to those around us. Even the apostle Paul had cause to apologize for overstating the issue to one in authority.  We may speak out, we may protest but we may not use violence, I would suggest, which goes against all of Jesus’ teaching. As we said above, a study of Daniel and his friends may help in difficult situations.

It might also be worth commenting, that when the church is moving in power and signs, wonders and healings become part of the life of the church again on a regular basis, instead of just rarely, then that also may challenge the hearts of unbelievers. Although there were times of persecution recorded in Acts we also find that early on, the church were, “enjoying the favor of all the people,” (Acts 2:47). After the incident of Ananias and Sapphira we find, “No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.” (Acts 5:13) The witness of the church in respect of the world can influence the way people think about the church and about the Lord. That is what is behind so much pf what Paul has been saying to Titus.

47. Through the Water

Meditations in 1 Peter : 47: Through the Water

1 Pet 3:20-21 God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also–not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.

Baptism, I have observed over the years, is often a contentious thing in parts of the church. Some want to sprinkle as a symbolic gesture, others use deeper water. Some sprinkle children as a symbol; others wait until the adult is a believer. Peter says some interesting things about it.

He starts by referring to Noah as we have seen in the previous meditation. Note in passing, for the doubters among us, that in the apostle Peter’s eyes, Noah is an historical figure and the Flood a real event in history. Some of us are not so sure, but Peter is. In this he was following in the steps of his master. Jesus said, Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.” (Lk 17:26,27) Clearly the all-knowing Son of God is referring to an historical event.

When John the Baptist baptised people in the Jordan he said, “I baptize you with water for repentance,” (Mt 3:11) indicating that baptism was a form of cleansing from the sin from which they turned away. The apostle Paul spoke of us “having been buried with him in baptism,” (Col 2:12 – also Rom 6:4) indicating the baptism is a picture of us dying to our old life and being buried, and then raised to new life.

Peter now comes with a bigger picture, an all-embracing picture. He refers to Noah building the ark, many dying in the flood with only Noah and his family being saved. Thus, he says, “this water symbolises baptism.” i.e. the Flood waters destroyed the world but the ark saved the faithful. The water symbolises the judgment of God which we all face but (implied) the ark symbolises Jesus who saves us from the judgment.

But then he says something that seems even more contentious:this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also.” Baptism, he says, saves us. How can that be? Didn’t the apostle Paul teach that salvation comes by faith alone? Yes certainly, but perhaps Peter has the ongoing work of salvation in his mind. Remember the illustration that we have used more than once in these meditations – saved from the sinking ship, saved as we go across the sea and saved once we land. We have been saved and we are being saved. It is also an ongoing thing – our living out our lives ‘in Christ’ until the day when we are called home and we die on this earth and go to heaven, our eternal destination. So why do I suggest that Peter is speaking of our salvation in an ongoing sense? Well, see what follows.

not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. The point of this picture – being saved through the Flood – is that it is not about cleansing or washing away dirt, but it about how we can now feel about ourselves and God. It is in fact about us being saved from our sins (being washed clean) and from the judgment of God, and it is all because we have an ark – Jesus, who died to save us from that judgment, as we have seen already a number of times in these meditations. Baptism is thus to be an outward act (and there aren’t many of them) that we do that contribute to our salvation, the onward walk with God.

How does it contribute to our salvation? It does it by being a continual reminder to us that we came to a crisis point in our life when we surrendered to God and jumped ship, from the ship of destruction, and are now being carried in Christ to our eternal destination. Christ is God’s provision for us and as we look back we are reminded that there was a time when we changed from a sinking ship to a saving lifeboat and it was all his work. All we had to do was jump into his provision and that was enough. Jesus, the ark, had done everything possible to be done and he qualifies as our ark, our means of salvation, our ongoing salvation.

We are what we are because we are being carried to shore by him and thus our conscience can be clear before God. No longer am I under fear of judgment. Now I am being carried to my eternal destiny by God’s provision, God’s ark, His own Son, Jesus Christ. My being baptized was a visual affirmation of all of this and it is something that I can look back on and know is a real expression of what has happened. It confirms and affirms my salvation and it strengthens my faith and reassures my conscience. There is nothing more I can do except let him take me through the choppy waters of the life in this world until we eventually reach the destination he has in store for me. Hallelujah!