28. Clear your Mind

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

28. Clear your Mind

Mk 2:21,22  “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”

The Problem of Presuppositions : A presupposition is, according to a dictionary, “a thing tacitly assumed beforehand at the beginning of a line of argument or course of action.”  I concluded the previous study with the following words: I want to start by considering what would we do if we were starting utterly from scratch. The next few studies will be:

28. Clear your Mind

29. A New Creation

30. Life (1)

31. Life (2)

32. Being Together

33. Fellowship

So take a dose of amnesia, sit down on a desert island with a Bible, and see what might happen. I have tried to put myself in the position of starting completely from scratch, as if I knew nothing about church life at all, but the trouble is I have all these assumptions, these presuppositions, because I have history and I’ve just written twenty-six studies on the beginnings of it. It’s almost impossible to clear my mind of what I know from the past fifty years of being a Christian. But why should I want to do that? To perhaps see if it is possible to imagine what Jesus wants of us, without all the clutter of my (our) history.

An Imaginary Scenario: Supposing I just had a Bible, found myself on a desert island with a bunch of other people and we’re all unbelievers who have never been to church. We know nothing of church. I read the Bible I find in the remains of a wreck that got us there, and as I read my heart is strangely warmed on one hand yet convicted on the other. There is a sense of truth about what I am reading and I am warmed by the sense of love that comes through the stories of Jesus in the four Gospels and then I find myself convicted that I know nothing of this love. As I read on through the New Testament, I hear more of prayer, of talking to God and so one day, on my own, I talk to Him for the first time. I tell Him how wonderful I find the things I’ve been reading and yet how sorry I feel that all these years I have not known of it or experienced it, and I ask Him to change me, take me and do whatever needs doing in me to make me the person He would like me to be. I assume, having come down this path, it is first and foremost to experience more of this love that I have been reading about while at the same time letting Him (somehow?) speak to me to show me more of what He does indeed want me to become.

Church? But then one day I share what has happened with another of the survivors and they respond in exactly the same way as I did. Amazingly the word spreads like wildfire and before we know it there are over fifty people who have responded in the same way. As we read the Bible, we realize we are what the Bible calls ‘Christians’. “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11:26  See also Acts 26:28) and then we realize we have run across the word ‘church’ a number of times: “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it,” (Mt 16:18) and “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Mt 18:17). Then later, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events,” (Acts 5:11), and “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem,” (Acts 8:1) and “But Saul began to destroy the church,” (Acts 8:3) and, Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened,” (Acts 9:31) and “News of this reached the church in Jerusalem,” (Acts 11:22) and “Barnabas and Saul met with the church,” (Acts 11:26) and so on. We see that ‘church’ were the Christians gathered in various places, presumably where they lived. But what more can we gather about this concept of these Christians who gather together? Why do they gather together? What do they do together?

Back-tracking? Yes, I realize as I said that I have already written a lot of words describing how this body of people comes into being, but what do they do in the New Testament and why? If I’ve taken rather a tortuous route to get here, this far in this study, it is simply because I have history that includes the knowledge of so many different churches and it is almost impossible to clear away my presuppositions of what church ought to be, but I can’t help thinking that going back to basics must be a healthy exercise and if it challenges some of the things we do today, so be it.

Where to Start? The Gospels are not the obvious place to start; following the Son of God in the flesh was a limited-period experience. The easier starting place – as far as experience in history rather than principles in teaching is concerned – has to be Acts. At least it shows us a) how the church started off without the physical Jesus in their midst and b) what God led them to do. Now in respect of that latter thing, some of the things they did were clearly led or inspired by the Holy Spirit and others were natural responses to who they now were and the circumstances in which they found themselves. Let’s try and tabulate those two things:

Things clearly inspired by the Holy Spirit Natural expressions
All filled with the Spirit 2:4 Prayed together 1:14 (men & women together)
Spoke with other tongues of other nations 2:4-11 Peter preached 2:14-40 Chose replacement for Judas 1:15-26 (Some point out nothing more heard of Matthias!)
Apostles performed signs and wonders 2:43 Taught by apostles, met in fellowship, held ‘communion’ and prayed together 2:42
Peter & John heal a cripple 3:1-8 Met regularly, had everything in common even selling goods to help others 2:44,45
Gave answer to leaders 4:8-12 Met regularly for breaking bread together, praising God and seeing more added 2:46,47
Sprit falls as they pray 4:31 and enabled to speak boldly Went to temple prayers 3:1
Peter exercises word of knowledge and Ananias dies 5:3-5  Ditto his wife  5:7-10 Preached to crowd  3:12-26
Signs & wonders performed by the apostles 5:12 Arrested for preaching Jesus 4:1-3
Angel releases apostles from jail 5:19,20 Prayed together 4:24-39
Apostles arrested & jailed 5:17,18

That is probably enough to go on with. In the left-hand column some of the things are specifically explained as happening as the Spirit filled individuals, power fell, angelic help given, but some, the miraculous happenings at the hands of the apostles, are clearly impossible to humans and are therefore obvious manifestations of the work and power of the Spirit.

Early Spirit Activity: Here we see inspired preaching, healings, signs and wonders, all very clearly the work of God in their midst. In each instance we see men inspired and empowered by the Spirit, i.e. responding to and being used by the Spirit. For future consideration, the questions might be asked, were these things purely for that point of history? Well  history denies that. The records show that at various times (relatively rarely before the 20th century) such things have been seen in a number of parts of the church. Following the Spirit outpouring in the early part of the 20th century, and then subsequent movements of the Spirit  (Charismatic movement, Toronto Blessing, Wimber movement etc.) in the late decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, it is obvious to anyone with integrity who bothers to research these things, these things have had a resurgence in various denominations and ‘streams’ within the Church. Perhaps we need to look later at why.

General Lifestyles: Without doubt the early church was impelled by the wonder of the Spirit’s outpouring, and their ‘life-in-common’ lifestyles are sufficiently challenging that we need to consider them more fully in subsequent studies. A common prayer life, regularly meeting together, specifically to remember the Lord, sharing with one another, caring for the less well off, etc. seem to be uncontroversial characteristics of their corporate life that perhaps we need to think about emulating. Watch this space!

27. Building People

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

27. Building People

Mt 23:39  the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Jn 13:34,35  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Vision Focus: We perhaps need to remind ourselves we are reflecting upon what it means to have a vision for our church, trying to catch something in more general or overall terms of what the New Testament shows is upon God’s heart and which we can work towards. Without vision, we have suggested, people die from lack of hearing the word and from lack of being fed. In the last two studies we have majored on the need to be God-centred, a spiritual people, but there is another side to this coin, people. Someone, in a conversation with me about the direction of the church, recently uttered the words, “Well people don’t matter.”  I spluttered back, “But they do. They mattered to Jesus so they must matter to us.”

The Jesus Approach: It is perhaps so familiar to us at Christmas that we perhaps forget it, but part of the Christmas story – and especially as it flows out of Isaiah’s prophecies – is ‘Immanuel – God with us’. The incarnation is all about God leaving heaven in the form of His Son and coming and living as a human being (not as an angel or some other ‘spirit-being’) to share in the experience of humanity and to reveal His love to us through that channel – as a human being. Yes, it is vital that we restore the God-focus to church but equally that we catch afresh the significance of being human beings made in the image of God who Jesus came to save.

As we read through the Gospels we see Jesus calling twelve men to travel with him for three years, to be with him, learning of him, to be like him. There were also a number of women who also traveled with him, and with whom he appears completely comfortable. But then the Gospels are filled with personal encounters, Jesus interacting with individual human beings, but when it comes to references to people groups we find he was completely at ease with the tax-collectors, prostitutes, and ‘sinners’, the riff-raff of society. Yes, he ate and drank with socialites as well and so we see him with a wide spectrum of people.

Thinking about People: The Church is about people and so perhaps we should consider, in the context of vision, what we think about that we do as people, with people. Perhaps we could consider a) how we relate on a normal daily basis with one another in church, b) how we view past hurts, c) how we go about serving together and d) how we go about reaching out to others, all good valid points for consideration as we look forward and ask, “What sort of church is it that God wants?”

Daily Encounters: The ethos of the church has to be love (and we’ll consider this in detail at a later stage). Very briefly, our starting point is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” (Jn 3:16) to which John adds in his letter, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son,” (1 Jn4:10) i.e. it starts with God’s love for us. As we experience that and are filled with the Spirit of love (for “God is love” – 1 Jn 4:8,16) we respond to Jesus command, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12) We do this by loving, caring and accepting one another, learning to be encouragers, being there for one another. This is the starting vision we would want to convey, a church for whom people are important.

The Past is Important: Now I have referred to this already in a past study, but a danger that we have is to assume that once a person becomes a Christian, everything is fine and the past is sorted out. History and experience shows that this is not always so. Why? We live in a fallen world and a world that in the past century (at least here in the West) that has strayed badly from God’s norms. Thus we have many people damaged by past relationships going wrong. But it’s not just that, there are hurts from things beyond our control, inabilities to conceive, death of babies, death of children, death of loved ones prematurely through disease, all of these things cause hurts and often leave deep scars. Over the years I have had the opportunity to be in contact with ministries that minister to all of these sorts of things and I conclude, after having watched this for many years, that in any church of any size, part of their vision must be to seek healing for their hurting members, either through regularly (perhaps once a year?) bringing in an outside ministry, or training up our own people to so minister. All part of vision.

Serving Together: We have covered this in some detail in the two previous studies on servant-heartedness, so let’s abbreviate this to creating a church where individual gifts can be discerned and encouraged and developed and given space in which to operate. A big subject we will no doubt cover again before we finish.

Reaching Out Together: To misquote Jesus’ parable (Mt 13:45,46), having found a pearl of great price we will want others to find it as well. Now let’s try and remove some guilt from church. There will be those who have the gift of an evangelist (Eph 4:11, 2 Tim 4:5) and we need to encourage them, protect them and give them space and opportunity in which to operate. But we are not all evangelists. Some of us are what I call ‘people-people’, people who are natural communicators who get on well with anyone, but not everyone is like that. Introverts (and it is not a sin to be an introvert!) are not naturals like that. Yes, Jesus does call us all to be witnesses of his, and so there will come times when in conversations we need to speak out for him, but it does require sensitivity.  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15) Some of us are good at creating and making such opportunities, others of us will just be salt and light and then have people asking about us.

Preparation: Now if you anticipate having such a conversation, because a friend or family member asks you about your faith, about God or about church or anything spiritual, it is useful to prepare before hand what you are going to say. To save space, here I will simply suggest that part of our vision is to prepare our people for this, train and equip them to be witnesses or evangelists, and within that, design special services or special gatherings (or just meals) where not-yet-believing friends or family can be invited in to hear and consider the possibilities of faith. Unless we put it in our vision, it probably won’t happen.

And So?  So there it is: vision is presenting a picture of what we believe God has on His heart for us in such a way that we can see things to work on, goals to aim for. If it is of God’s heart and we get God’s grace to share it, we should win over the vast majority of our flock to it, to enter into a future that draws us closer to God, enables us to experience His presence, His equipping, and His empowering, and gives us exciting purpose and direction for the days ahead. The excitement is in what we could become with His enabling and linked with that will be anticipation of the church changing and us bringing changes to the world around us – for good! So I guess it is time we moved on into the real stuff that thinks of what church is about in real terms. As we go into the next Part, perhaps with an eye to where we have been in this part, I want to start by considering what would we do if we were starting utterly from scratch. So take a dose of amnesia, sit down on a desert island with a Bible, and see what might happen

(Here again at the end of this Part we present an overview of this series)

Part 1 – Falling Short?

  1. Wonderings about Church
  2. Concern for People
  3. Challenged by Scripture
  4. Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
  5. Problems with Religion and Revival
  6. Appearance & Performance (1)
  7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Part 2 – A Different People

  1. Different
  2. Believers
  3. Supernatural
  4. Repentance and Conviction
  5. Needing to be ‘Saved’?
  6. A People of Faith

Part 3 – Making of Believers

  1. A Guilt-Free People
  2. No Longer Orphans
  3. Growing in Sonship
  4. The Yeast of Humility
  5. Getting on a Learning Curve
  6. The Reality of Sacrifice
  7. No Add-ons
  8. Servant-hearted (1)
  9. Servant-hearted (2)

Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

  1. The Significance of Vision
  2. More on ‘Why Vision?’
  3. The God Focus
  4. Spiritual Expressions
  5. Building People

Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

  1. Clear your Mind
  2. A New Creation
  3. Life (1)
  4. Life (2)
  5. Being Together
  6. Fellowship

Part 6 – thinking about Leaders

  1. Led
  2. Local leaders – overseers
  3. Local leaders – shepherds
  4. Local leaders – elders
  5. Local Leaders – The Nature of the Church (1)
  6. Gifts of Ministries – Introduction
  7. Gifts of Ministries – to plant
  8. Gifts of Ministries – to build up
  9. The Servants – Deacons
  10. The Nature of the Church (2)

Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

  1. Uniqueness
  2. Another quick look at ‘Vision’
  3. Power – for Life Transformation
  4. Power – for Life Service
  5. Power – for Living
  6. The Need for Faith
  7. More on Faith.
  8. Obedience
  9. Finale – the Church on God’s heart

2. Motivation

Short Meditations in John 6:  2. Motivation

Jn 6:2  and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick

There are two things that always stand out to me when we come across these times when large crowds gathered with Jesus, as seen in the Gospels. The first is to do with people, the second, with Jesus.

So, first of all the people, and I suspect we are exactly the same as them. We are all very much people of the flesh, our self-centred concerns reach their height when we suffer physically in some way. Whether it be a cold or cancer, the focus turns inward. It’s a very natural thing. They speak of a self-preservation instinct within each of us and I guess the worries that arise within when something starts going wrong with our bodies are part of this.

So Jesus starts healing people, the word gets out, and larger numbers of people turn up to get healed. We all want the same thing – to get better; that’s why we rush to the doctor so easily. Now there is nothing morally wrong about this, it is quite natural. What it does do, however, when it comes to Jesus, is to block from their minds anything beyond the need to get healed and the fact that here is a source of healing. Now of course Jesus is far more than a source of healing, as wonderful as that is, he is the reflection of his Father in heaven and so everything he says is a reflection of the heart of heaven. His teaching has the potential for life transformation but that would never completely happen until the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Day of Pentecost, because our life transformation happens, not merely because we keep the Law (or the words of Jesus in say the Sermon on the Mount), it takes place because our heart direction has changed, and we have received the indwelling Holy Spirit. He changes us.

So the people come to have their lives changed, physically not spiritually. Next we come to Jesus: as the Son of God, we come to see he knows all things; he knows what we are about, and he knows why the crowds come – and he is happy to meet their needs and keep on healing them. Matthew’s Gospel shows him doing this again and again – healing all who came to him in the great crowds (see Mt 4:23,24, 8:16, 12:15, 14:14,35,36, 15:30, 19:2, 21:14.)

Now another thing that has bemused me about this is that although evangelical counselling so often focuses on the need to put right wrongs before healing can take place, there is no indication whatsoever in these general healings about needing to change. Jesus healed them and trusted that they would realize, understand and appreciate God’s love for them through it. He does want lives changed (see Mt 5:29,30,  9:2, Jn 8:11) and that he taught, but not in his healing ministry. Wow!

1. Introduction

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 1. Introduction

Gal 4:4    when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman

I am a sucker for Christmas; not what the world has made of it but the historical accounts of the first ‘Christmas’ as found in the Gospels. As I was thinking the other day, of the coming of Christmas, I found myself thinking of the traditional carol service that is so often ‘performed’ at this time of the year – “Nine Lessons and Carols” and as I pondered on it, the word ‘Lessons’ stood out. So I did what one does these days and Googled it. The way the word is used in this context is “a passage from the Bible read aloud during a church service”, but the other way we commonly use it is “a period or moment of learning or teaching”. Forgive me, but it struck me that so often at this time of the year, we go along to these carol services (and our church is having at least two of them for different ‘audiences’) and we listen to or join in with the beautiful music and we plough our way through nine readings, and I have found over the years it has become an endurance test for me – which is a tragedy.

But there is another thing about this time of the year and the way we celebrate it, and it is what I believe I have identified as a ‘weariness’ that people feel over Christmas. Perhaps that is not surprising because, in the UK at least, Christmas becomes ever more commercialised and becomes less and less ‘Christian’ or even ‘spiritual’, with references to ‘Winterval’ or even, heaven help us this year, ‘Christmasville’, and this whole approach leaves people jaded and weary. They desperately try new experiences to make something special, to create memories, while all the time ignoring, or perhaps not even knowing about, the wonder of what it is all really about.

I sensed this weariness in our own church at the beginning of the month when twice in the morning service there were references to Christmas which “of course we are not commanded to remember, unlike Easter”. And there it was, a demoting of Christmas, largely I suspect because of what the world is making it. Yes, Easter must be up there at the peak of remembrance because it is all about the salvation of the world, but actually without the Advent, Easter could never have happened.

And that’s why I find such a thrill at the Christmas story. Technically I retired from church leadership several years ago (today I just seek to bless the Church) and after I had stood down, I happened to attend a carol service laid on by my wife’s school, where the singing of some of the girls took you into the heavenly realms, and it was only as we stood to sing the first carol together in a beautifully old-church setting, that I found myself engulfed by a wave of emotion as I suddenly realised that years of preaching the wonder of the Christmas story had come to an end. Every year for decades I had made a point of preaching in the run up to and through Christmas, the wonder of what the Bible reveals, and suddenly that was there no longer. I was devastated, and it took every ounce of self-control not to pour out the anguish publicly. That service became a trial of self-control and it left me realising how much I value this part of the Gospels.

So what is it that makes these accounts so powerful as far as I am concerned.  First, they are about people, people like you and me, people struggling with life, struggling with the unexpected and often strange circumstances of life, people who were seekers, people who were antagonists, people who wondered whatever was going on. Oh yes, people just like you and me.

But then, second, it is all about God and his plans and His way of working and, more than anywhere else in the Gospels, we have angelic appearances like never before. We have dreams and we have weird celestial guidance, we have immediate local events and we have events spanning an empire and, at the end of it, the presence of one who we are reminded was called, ‘God with us’.

The truth is that nothing like this had ever happened in history. Star Wars films start with the scrawl, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and that is how some of us think about this story. Bethlehem? Jerusalem? Two thousand years ago? Yes, but that doesn’t make it any the less relevant today. The same God who brought all this about in the Advent story, is the same God who creates new stories in our lives today.

And this is the point that hit me as I was praying, these nine lessons are LESSONS that should be teaching us about the wonder of God, but instead, so often, they have been robbed of all their power because they have been made into ‘beautiful words in a beautiful context’. So, this year, in our run up to the day we focus on in order to celebrate the Lord’s first coming, Jesus coming to the earth, I intend, day by day, to focus on each of these ‘lessons’ and ask, what do they teach us today? What is their relevance and how we ignore them at our peril? That is what this week or so ahead is going to be all about, so come with me as we dare to pray, “Speak Lord, for your servants are listening”.

“When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.”

64. Holding the Truth

Meditations in Hebrews 13:  64.   Holding the Truth

Heb 13:9   Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.

Conflict: The first century of the Christian Church was much involved in intellectual conflict. Not only were they having to battle against outright heresies but also against simple distortions of the truth of doctrine agreed by the apostles: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching,” (Acts 2:42) and when there were major questions over doctrine the apostles got together in Jerusalem to consider it and make a decision (see Acts 15) which would be followed: As they travelled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.”   (Acts 16:4)

Church Sayings: In the early days it is clear from the writings of the apostle Paul that there were a number of ‘sayings’ that the early church used to teach basics of the truth, for example, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” (1 Tim 1:15) and “Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task,” (1 Tim 3:1) and “Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him;” (2 Tim 2:11)  Each one conveys a nugget of doctrinal truth and it is clear there are at least a half a dozen of these sayings that Paul uses. We just don’t know how many more there might have been.

Gospels: As the years passed questions were raised and it soon became obvious that the basics of what had happened with Jesus needed to be written down. It is thought that Mark (aided by Peter) was the first to put together his Gospel somewhere between AD50 and 56, then Matthew the tax collector, somewhere between AD56 and 58, then by Luke somewhere between AD58 and 60, and finally many years later after many more years reflection on what Jesus had said, John wrote his somewhere about AD95.

We have to observe that these dates, and even the order [Matthew & Luke being reversed] are open for discussion. All we can say is that we have these four accredited records, the first three of which each have similarities, using common sources for part of each of their Gospels.  Over the next hundred years all of the writings (of what we now call the New Testament) were collected and read in the churches and in the following hundred years they were carefully examined and compared with dubious writings and between 300-400 AD complete agreement was arrived at as to which books were to be included in what we now call ‘the canon’ of scripture. It is little wonder that while this process went on, there would be those who questioned the truth.

The beginning of Luke is especially good at showing us the care that these men took in compiling these ‘Gospels’: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Lk 1:1-4) Note the integrity of this doctor (a professional man) and particularly the words, “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”  i.e. you can be assured there is no question as to the truth of what you have been taught by the apostles.

A Body of Truth: Thus we come back to our beginning; there was a body of truth being passed on by the apostles to the early church which comprised the truth about Jesus’ coming, his ministry, his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and the teaching about what he had achieved and how it is applied into our lives.  Thus the apostle Paul was to eventually write, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” (2 Tim 3:16,17) meaning both the Old Testament scrolls and the new writings. There is, therefore, this established body of truth and we need a) to know how it came it to being and why it can be trusted, b) to know what it teaches, and c) obey its teachings and finally, ensure we d) do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings, that run counter to the truths that we have before us. May it be so!

4. Witnesses of God

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  4. Witnesses of God

1 John 1:1-3  That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

I suppose ‘Gems’ might refer to verses that stand out in the Bible and the ones above certainly do that. We can perhaps take for granted the most obvious thing that the Bible conveys and that is that God has revealed Himself to mankind. It is not that different human beings have gone looking for God and have found Him, but that God has made Himself known to us.  Initially it was through the nation of Israel and the record of its dealings with Him in a period up to about two thousand years ago. Then it was through His Son, Jesus Christ, and the record of him, in the four Gospels of the New Testament. Finally it was through the Church, some of its representatives and their writings, and the working of His own Holy Spirit in the lives of individual Christians and the Church at large over the last two thousand years.  There has been non-stop testimony if you go looking for it.

But this testimony of the apostle John, written down somewhere in the latter half of the first century AD, has got to be one of the most amazing testimonies ever written down. Admittedly it is couched in language that comes from a Hebrew and Greek perspective – “the Word of life” – but it is so similar to the language of his Gospel that his intent is unmistakable.

In his Gospel he had started out with the same sort of language: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” (Jn 1:1,2) Eventually he explained, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14) and as he unravels the parcel before us, there is no mistake about the fact that he was speaking about Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God.

For John there was no doubting as he used the Greek concept of ‘the Word’ or ‘the reason’ or ‘the purpose behind all things’ to describe Jesus who was not only “with God” but “was God”. Jesus was God in the flesh. Of that there was absolutely no doubt in John’s mind and his Gospel, written decades after the other three, reveals that on every page.

So then we come back to this incredible testimony in his first letter. If we insert the name of Jesus into it, it becomes even more powerful: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Jesus Christ. He appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you that Jesus Christ was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard.

In his Gospel, he picks up things that the other earlier writers had not noticed. They had been so taken up with getting down the bare bones of the story, the basic things that had happened, that they had not dwelt on specific things Jesus had said, as John had in his years of ministry after those three incredible years with Jesus in the flesh. As he got older, John clearly looked back and pondered the things he had seen and heard in those three incredible years  and he realised that Jesus had been giving them indicator after indicator about himself and the others had not bothered with those details. Thus in John we find, in the dialogue in chapter 6, repeated references to him being the bread that had come down from heaven. When Jesus prays in John 17, John remembers Jesus praying, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (v.5)  There is no question in John’s mind that Jesus was telling them indirectly (praying out loud before his disciples) that he had always existed there in heaven with the Father.

John is full of this revelation: this Jesus is and was God and what is more  we are so sure of this because we were there and we saw and heard him and we actually touched him, rubbed shoulders with him in daily life, that we know beyond a shadow of doubt that he was a human being but a human being who was God in the flesh. We were there, we KNOW!

What gems these verses are, just sitting there waiting for anyone with an open heart, who is not so perverted by jaded cynicism, so that they can see the wonder of them. How wonderful!

26. The Resurrection of Jesus

Meditations in Acts : 26 :  The Resurrection of Jesus

Acts 2:23    But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

So we come to the third of these three basics to the foundation of the Gospel. The first was the work of Jesus over three years, the second was the death of Jesus at the hands of wicked men but seen as part of a plan originated in heaven from before the foundation of the world, and now the third is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

For those of us who have been Christians for many years and have heard the Gospel again and again, we may have become dull in our appreciation of how incredible this was.  It is the declaration that in time-space history this ‘man’ had been put to death – and had died – but three days later rose from the death.

Over the years many people have come up with counter-claims to this truth but none of them stands against the details of the Gospels. Let’s very quickly run one or two of them. First, that he never died. This denies the fact that the Roman executioners did this every day almost and knew what death was like, and if they bungled it their lives too would be forfeit. The awful details of the execution by crucifixion plus a spear being thrust in his side, plus being buried for three days without any medication says this theory is untenable. The second one suggests that the disciples stole the body. For them to live the lives they did with the knowledge that they were living for and dying a scam for (because ten of the twelve were martyred) is again untenable. The third one is that it wasn’t Jesus on the Cross; it was a substitute. This flies in the face of everything we see of the character of goodness of Jesus who would never ask someone to do something so terrible for him. Moreover unless he conned the disciples (and it would have to be a perfect look-alike, because they were there at the execution) they could not have lived and died for that lie and thus again that is completely untenable. No, whatever you come up with, it flies in the face of the many details recorded in the Gospels.

The apostle Paul is insistent on the details of the resurrection: For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Cor 15:3-8) That is a powerful testimony. Note in the middle of it he appeals to the testimony of over five hundred disciples who had seen Jesus back up in those weeks in Galilee – “most of whom are still living.”  i.e. you can check with them if you like!

The resurrection is vital to the credibility of Jesus. First of all, he spoke about it in his teaching beforehand: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Mt 16:21) and “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”  (Mt 17:9) and “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”(Mt 20:18,19)  Oh yes, Jesus was quite clear in his mind that this is what would happen.

This teaching became fundamental to the Gospel: “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” (Acts 3:18) and “know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.” (Acts 4:10) and “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen–by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” (Acts 10:39-41) and “Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.” (Acts 13:28-31) Oh yes, this truth, this fact of history became a fundamental tenet of the Gospel; it proves or verifies Jesus as being the one he said he was, the Son of God, and as Peter preached, it is impossible for death to extinguish the life that is God. Hallelujah!

So what about it, preachers? Are you sold out to the fact of Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead? If you aren’t, you are not a New Testament preacher and you should stop preaching until you believe what you read in such detail in the Gospels. The credibility of Jesus Christ hangs on the resurrectio0n – as does your preaching!

24. The Liar

Meditations in 1 John : 24 : Beware the Liar

1 John  2:22,23   Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist–he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.

John is an upholder of the truth. He has reached old age and probably he is now the only remaining one of the original twelve apostles. The Gospels have been written but time has passed by and the enemy has raised up a variety of forms of Christian truth but which are not the truth; they are heresies. There is a battle going on and John still wants to play a part in it. He has declared that he is an eyewitness to the Son of God (1:1-4), he has reminded us that there is a difference between light and darkness and that affects our behaviour as Christians (1:5-7), he has reminded us that confession and forgiveness are at the heart of our faith (1:8-10), he has reminded us that Jesus is there interceding for us when we get it wrong (2:1,2), but he has challenged us to realise that obedience is at the heart of faith (2:3-6).  This obedience is vital and is an expression of our love for God (2:7-11). As spiritual children, fathers and young men, we’ve experienced God and His love in a variety of ways, which act as anchors for us. (2:12-14) The ways of the world are foreign to us (2:15-17) but they are expressed in those who are anti-Christ in this world who distort the truth (2:18,19). Yet we Christians have received the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth and so we will know and hold to the truth (2:20,21)

In all of this John is battling against the enemy who seeks to destroy the truth, and John does it by declaring the truth boldly and encouraging us in it. When there are disagreements over principles, doctrine or truth, accusations are made, challenges are brought. Who IS the one speaking the truth? If two people declare opposite ‘truths’ one of them must be wrong. It is in this vein that John now speaks.

“Who is the liar?”  This isn’t being unkind but someone in such a situation is not telling the truth, i.e. they are lying about the truth, they are wrong! So in this climate, where new versions of the truth are springing up all over the place, who is speaking the truth and who is telling lies?  John’s standard of measurement, in this latter area at least is, “It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ.”   If you have some theologian or philosopher who denies that Jesus is the Christ, the One sent by the Father to redeem the world, then he is the liar. He is not speaking what is truth. He denies what is true.  Be quite clear, there were such men around at that time and they had started in the church and now they were declaring that Jesus was a mere man and that the incarnation had never occurred.

If you didn’t take it in the first time, he repeats it in another form: “Such a man is the antichrist–he denies the Father and the Son.”  Yes, he’s also referred to many anti-christs coming and he simply means anyone who is against Christ. If you deny Jesus is the Christ, the messiah, the anointed one of God, then you are against Christ – you are an anti-christ – and, says John, you therefore deny God as well as the Son.

In his second letter John says the same thing: “Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” (2 Jn 8,9) Do you see in both letters the link between Father and Son?  Jesus came so clearly revealing the Father that if you deny that Jesus is the Son of God, you also deny who God is. Now we may take for granted who God is as revealed in the Bible but if you investigate other world religions you will find that their ‘God’ is portrayed very differently.

The whole point of Jesus coming was twofold: to reveal the Father and to redeem the world. Of the former task, Jesus declared, the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me,” (Jn 5:36) and “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father,” (Jn 10:32) and “Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, `I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” (Jn 10:36-38)  Again and again Jesus explains that he has come to reveal the Father through the things he does, and these things in turn testify to who Jesus is.

It is a hard hearted person who can read the Gospels with an open mind and not marvel at who Jesus is and at the things he did, and subsequently see who the Father is and what He is like.

When you come to that place of seeing and realizing who Jesus truly is, then you come to a place of calling on the Father, and out of that comes the relationship that Jesus died to bring. Thus it is that John can then say, “whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.”   The Father and Son are inextricably tied together. This is the truth that John declares and anyone who says to the contrary, he says, is a liar. Strong words but needed to counter the distortions of thinking that were coming about then, and which still appear today!

1. Continuation

A series of meditations covering the events in Acts, starting with chapter 1, a period of uncertainty between the Ascension of Christ and the coming of the Spirit to launch the Church. In chapter 2 we will see the launching of the Church and the first Christian sermon. Thereafter we follow the life of the early church

Meditations in Acts : 1 :  Continuation

PART ONE: “What Next?”

Acts 1:1-3  In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.  After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

Moving from the Gospels to the Acts, I always think, comes with a lightly strange feeling. There is a measure of continuation of the works of Jesus, but the person of Jesus is missing. The link between this book and the Gospel of Luke is quite clear in the first five words of chapter 1. This is clearly a follow on book from a previous writing and the object or receiver of it, Theophilus, has to be beyond coincidence: Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Lk 1:3,4).

The continuation is also quite clear from the reference to Jesus being taken up into heaven, for in the closing verses of Luke’s Gospel we read, “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” (Lk 24:50,51).

In this new series in the early chapters of Acts, we are calling this first part, “What Next?” because, after the amazing accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry in the Gospels, when we come to Acts there is this sense of continuation but at the same time there must have been a wondering in the minds of the disciples, what was coming next.  In this first chapter of Acts, I think if we are able to step right inside it, there is a feeling of uncertainty. When we get to chapter 2 we’ll see the launching of the Church but for the moment, there are big questions over everything that is happening.

In the first few verses of Acts, Luke almost seems to rush into recapping what had happened. Having done the link with Jesus ascending into heaven, he backtracks to the fact that Jesus had, after his resurrection, appeared to the disciples and taught them: after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.  After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.” In his Gospel Luke had told about how Jesus had appeared to the twelve (Lk 24:36-43) convincing them that he was who he said he was. In the Gospel he simply records that Jesus then taught them the background of what had happened from the Scriptures (Lk 24:44-49). It was Matthew who recorded in his Gospel the message from the angels and then from Jesus himself, that Jesus would be going up to Galilee and they were to meet him there (Mt 28:7,10). Mark also confirmed this (Mk 16:7). It is left to John in his Gospel, written many years later, to provide us with the details of how they had gone back up to Galilee and had the encounter with Jesus by the lake (Jn 21). Luke now makes good the omission from his Gospel: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God,” (v.3) and ties the Gospel accounts together.

It is perhaps worth a little comment about the matter of the differing accounts. There those antagonistic souls who make noises about discrepancies or, as they wrongly call the differences, contradictions. Several things can be said about this.

First, just what constitutes a contradiction? When four different people witness the same thing they will report it in different ways and with different emphases. It is only a contradiction when one person says “X did this” and another person says “X never did that.” If one person says “John wore brown trousers” and another person says “John wore a green tie,” that is not a contradiction but simply two pieces of presumably accurate information that do not conflict.

A second thing to note is that writers of that day did not seek to fill in all the details like a reporter today might. We are concerned with accuracy of details; they tended to often speak in generalities. From our perspective there often seems a gap between the two but that was not what bothered them.

A third thing that might be worth observing is that the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were possibly the most confusing and emotionally upsetting, at least as viewed by the disciples, that have ever occurred in history. It is no wonder that different writers pick up on different bits because without doubt they would all have been traumatized by what went on in a measure that is almost beyond understanding by us who have not been through what they went through.

A fourth point to be born in mind is that the Gospels probably didn’t start being written down until at least twenty years had passed. Neither this nor the previous point are made to suggest inaccuracies, merely that it is not surprising that different writers picked up on different parts of the story to tell, or expressed it in different ways.

We can never be sure that what we have is an absolutely accurate set of accounts, but then neither can we be sure that they aren’t!  Ultimately it is a matter of faith that says, “I believe that we have a credible record of what took place because it all fits, it all makes sense and Luke especially has given us prior grounds to trust his account when we find in his Gospel these words: “Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Lk 1:3,4) The words I have put in bold suggest strongly that this man is a careful reporter. We can believe what we read. Let’s read it carefully.

25. In the Home

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 25. Jesus in the home

Mk 1:30,31 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

So God walks into this house in human form. Again, we suggest, we might take this for granted but it is incredible! Does he come to be religious? Does he comes to demand homage and worship? That’s what the gods of the world would seem to demand. No, this God comes in and enters into the life of the home in the most ordinary and yet extraordinary ways.

They talk together and they tell him that Simon’s mother-in-law is unwell. (Incidentally for future pope watchers, please notice that your first pope is married!) So far it is a very ordinary episode in the life of these people. So Jesus says he’s really sorry to hear she’s not well and they get on with the business of the day. Well, no, they don’t actually – although if it was a modern church they might!

No, presumably Jesus asks where she is and he goes in to her. We don’t know if he said anything to her – presumably he did – but he just takes her by the hand and she gets up, and suddenly she is well! If you wanted to be cynical you would say she had a convenient headache and hadn’t wanted to meet Jesus but the facts were that she had had a fever. It’s just that the power of Jesus flowed to her as he reached to her and that power overcame the fever and left her well! So she gets up and serves them and does the sort of things that the woman of the house tends to do!

Now the comment I just made about a ‘convenient headache’ is an example of the common excuses that people make when they struggle to believe the things Jesus did. The fact is, as we read through all the Gospels, he healed many people and performed many miracles. Power wasn’t a problem for Jesus – he was and is God. To challenge that is to challenge whether he is the Son of God and to challenge the very Gospel records themselves. The more you study these things the more you find there is little room to doubt – except our own will, we don’t like the consequences that must flow!

Lord Jesus, thank you that you came in humility and put off all of the glory you had in heaven. Forgive us if, because of this, we sometimes stumble over your mighty power. I affirm my belief in your word: you are God and you do still heal. Thank you so much!