[First published in the monthly congregational Notes, May, 2017]
Our editorial this month comes from a sermon preached by Charles Spurgeon on the text John 16:13 in 1855, when he was only 21 years old! Despite the passage of time, his observations into the human condition and the Divine remedy are still valid.
One of the diseases of the present generation of mankind, is their secret but deep-seated godlessness, by which they have so far departed from the knowledge of God. Science has discovered to us second causes; and hence many have too much forgotten the first Great Cause, the Author of all: they have been able to pry so far into secrets, that the great axiom of the existence of a God, has been too much neglected. Even among professing Christians, while there is a great amount of religion, there is too little godliness:… external formalism but too little inward acknowledgment of God, too little living on God, living with God, and relying upon God. Hence arises the sad fact that when you enter many of our places of worship you will certainly hear the name of God mentioned; but except in the benediction, you would scarcely know there was a Trinity. In many places dedicated to Jehovah the name of Jesus is too often kept in the background; the Holy Spirit is almost entirely neglected; and very little is said concerning his sacred influence …
We know that some think doctrinal knowledge to be of little importance and of no practical use. We do not think so. We believe the “science” of Christ crucified and a judgment of the teachings of Scripture to be exceedingly valuable, … that the Christian ministry should not only be arousing but instructing; not only awakening, but enlightening: that it should appeal not only to the passions but to the under-standing. We are far from thinking doctrinal knowledge to be of secondary importance; we believe it to be one of the first things in the Christian life, to know the truth, and then to practice it…
A knowledge of all truth is very essential for our comfort. Many persons have been distressed half their lives from the fact that they had not clear views of truth. Many poor souls, for instance, under conviction, abide three or four times as long in sorrow of mind as they would require to do if they had some one to instruct them in the great matter of justification. So there are believers who are often troubling themselves about falling away; but if they knew in their soul the great consolation that we are kept by the grace of God through faith unto salvation, they would be no more troubled about it. I found some distressed about the unpardonable sin; but if God instructs us in that doctrine, and shows us that no conscience that is really awakened ever can commit that sin, but that when it is committed God gives us up to a scared conscience so that we never fear or tremble afterwards, all that distress would be alleviated. Depend on this, the more you know of God’s truth—all things else being equal—the more comfortable you will be as a Christian.
Nothing can give a greater light on your path than a clear understanding of divine things. It is a mangled gospel which causes the downcast faces of Christians. …[Y]ou will often see melancholy congregations whose faces are not much different from the bitter countenance of poor creatures swallowing medicine because the word spoken terrifies them by its legality, instead of comforting them by its grace. We love a cheerful gospel, and we think “all the truth” will tend to comfort the Christian. No doctrine is so designed to preserve from sin as the doctrine of the grace of God…
That is good counsel but it did not originate with Spurgeon! The Holy Spirit moved the apostle Peter to urge his readers to grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ for exactly the same reasons. (2 Peter 3:18).
[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for April, 2017.]
Among the ancients, as with many today, the idea that there is something spiritual about us that lives on after we die was quite acceptable, even if just what happened after death was largely the focus of speculation. Given that the Bible tells us that God breathed life into humanity in a way that differed from all other living things, we should not be surprised that some vestige of this awareness remained after the Fall. We should also not be surprised that their ideas are so wrong, although we can see the “reasoning”. What did the evidence say? Bodies decay. They get old. They “rust”, die and smell! They can be torn apart, dissolved into the ground, or burned to ashes. If there was to be a place of eternal bliss, some place where humanity dwelt with the gods, then surely it had to be a body-free zone. So we understand why many mocked when in Athens, Paul declared the resurrection of the body to be an integral part of the Christian gospel, and its doctrine of the future life. After all, who would want to do it all again? But some were intrigued, and wanted to hear more.
In many ways today’s world shows the intellectual schizophrenia we expect from sinners trying to make sense of God’s world without Him. On the one hand it draws comfort from the sense that the real me is not defined by my physicality. Am I blind, lame, deaf or otherwise crippled? It is not “me”! So we accept that society asks us to make allowances in some way so that those who are physically limited may enjoy fuller participation. On the other hand we show that we are very much bound to our physicality to define the sum of who we are. Our TV and magazines daily insist that my beauty, self-worth and social acceptance are tied to my physical appearance, with little regard for the sense of despair or broken self-esteem created in those who might never have such physical attractiveness or the means to purchase it.
If we let both of these ideas go to extremes, we find ourselves at ugly destinations. If the real me is in the mind and not the body, then the body is not important and why should I care for it, or any one else’s for that matter? Or, if the real me is only in the body, then let me live entirely for my senses without any restraint. But it is not a matter of either the mind or the body, and thankfully God does not often allow cultures to swing to these extremes, because each is sub-human. We are both body and soul. There is an inter-connectedness between our physicality and soulish-ness that we can observe but not always explain. If I am blind, I know that I cannot experience intellectual delight from a beautiful sunrise, and so with all the bodily senses. Sadly something will be missing—for now. In the same way brokenness in the mind can have profound physical effects—for now. But not forever.
It was and still is part of the uniqueness of the Christian gospel that the body shall be raised new and incorruptible on the last day, as well as the soul. As proof, Jesus gives himself: “Touch me, and see; a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” While His resurrection body clearly had some different qualities, it was the same, physical, recognizable body, and it is the body that He still has and which shall last forever. That is why the Bible ends with a vision of a new earth, as well as new heaven. Our future eternity has a physical aspect to it as well, because creation was physical, and because God declared that physicality to be Good.
The resurrection of the body therefore assures us of our future wholeness as people. But in doing so, it is also the only assurance of our dignity as humans now even though we may still suffer the effects of the Fall.
[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for March, 2017.]
In the space of less than a generation standards of public morality have tumbled in ways that no-one would have imagined. The Australia many of us have known since birth has gone and apart from a mighty work of God (for which we always pray) is not likely to return in our time. It is as if we have been invaded and taken over by a foreign power because the public space in our nation is now very much under the control of an ideology hostile to the gospel with its own thought police and spies to report all ideas opposed to the new secularism. Anything highlighting the exclusivity of Christ is frowned upon, or shouted down in the name of anti-discrimination. We have been subjected to an intellectual coup, (mostly bloodless apart from the wicked bloodshed of abortion) and we can feel, quite justly, as if we are now exiles in our own land. God’s Word from both His Testaments is, “Never lose sight of My Big Picture!”
In Jeremiah 29ff, written about 594 BC, God gave the exiled Israelites the encouragement of His Big Picture. Three years earlier, Nebuchadnezzar had made his second attack on Jerusalem and installed another puppet government to replace the first one he installed in 606-5BC . That first conquest had seen some of the rising generation (among whom were Daniel and his three friends) carried off for “re-education” at the University of Babylon and employment in the Babylonian civil service. About seven years later (587 BC) a third assault would destroy the city altogether and carry off what remained of the temple treasures. To any secular observer at the time, the public profession of faith in “Jehovah Alone” had been banished from any place under state supervision in just on 20 years. Where was the promise now (Ps 115:2)?
Jeremiah’s message is at once encouraging and sobering. Encouraging, because God assured He had not forgotten His covenant, sobering because God also warned that there was not going to be a quick-fix and anyone who promised one was a liar. His Big Picture required waiting for at least another 60 years, by which time most of those who heard Jeremiah the first time would be dead. His message to the godly was to preserve their faith within community and to teach their children and grandchildren that whatever happened outwardly, inwardly they were called to be Israelites by faith and not Babylonians. Outwardly, they might do little more than commend their faith through the attractiveness of exemplary lives, establish private synagogues and pray. Inwardly, they must believe that the Saviour would still come and that meanwhile by God’s grace there would be opportunities for wider witness to their hope.
And so to 2017 where modern-day “Babylonians” rule over us. “How long, O Lord?” We do not know the detail of the Big Picture or how long the gospel will be repressed in our land. BUT we have the solemn assurance that the ultimate victory of history is Christ’s. Christ shall have dominion Over land and sea; Earth’s remotest regions, Shall His empire be, as the hymn puts it. Christ will build His Church, and the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14). Amen! Hope!
It takes real faith to live in hope knowing that things may not change for a very long time (e.g. Heb 11:13), but God warrants such faith, and bestows it on those who seek it. We have generations under and around us who need the example of our trust, not the discouragement of our fears. Living in exile in our own land also reminds us that rich as God’s earthly blessings may be, this land is not our final home. We are “exiles” waiting our new home, citizens of the Jerusalem which is above (1 Pet 2:11, Phil 3:20) not striving for a return to the past but looking forwards to the New Earth. It is also our prayer that many “Babylonians” will come to faith along the way.
[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for February, 2017.]
I have been somewhat surprised at the sudden energy devoted to American politics in the Christian blog-o-sphere and on social media, even from within Australia. In some comments Trump seems the epitome of evil and [amazingly] Mrs Clinton the personification of virtue and dignity!! Yes, Trump can present as coarse and megalomaniacal but the danger is that our culture has deceived us into thinking that sin is worse when it is crude or impolite! Sinful people will do sinful things (despite Trump saying he has no need to ask forgiveness!) but we must not forget that “suave” sins are no less heinous and some-times even more so than those which are “in your face”. All sins, even those we consider polite and understandable, are “in the face” of God.
Ahasuerus (Esther 1:1) or Xerxes I as he is known in secular history, was a powerful and sometimes irrational Persian king whose empire reached from the Indus to Turkey to Sudan. As Cyrus’ grandson, he loved to show off and the book opens with a 6-month public show of wealth and power in the third year of his reign (1:3-4). He loved pretty women and enjoyed putting them on display in ‘beauty pageants’! An impulsive decree for such an event probably resulted in him losing his wife, but it was also how he thought he would find a new one (1:10-2:4)! Despite his bravado, he was an easy mark for an adviser who insinuated himself into a place of influence for a private vendetta and profit (3:1-15 & ff). Such leaders can do irrational things if they believe their own propaganda and according to the historian Herodutus, Xerxes once had the sea punished with 300 lashes for a storm which destroyed a bridge for his army!
Religiously, Xerxes was probably Zoroastrian, but apart from claiming to believe that there was a Good Being, Ahuru-Mazda, who opposed the Evil Ahriman, his ‘faith’ was most likely grounded in the well-being of his empire; Israel’s God was just another way of describing his own, so worshippers of Jehovah were free so long as they did not rebel. He was a “strong-man” and anyone opposed to him should know there would be no mercy (2:21-23). By any measure, Xerxes was not a godly man and every Israelite would know he had seriously transgressed the Laws of God. Yet, strong as he was, he too died and God’s purpose prevailed despite his sin.
God was teaching Israel that He was over all nations, so they should not fear. God’s way with dictators can be a puzzle but He never forgets his elect. He had overwhelmed Pharaoh. The proud and idolatrous Nebuchadnezzar had been humbled and brought to faith (Dan 4:34ff) yet his grandson Belshazzar was godless and blasphemous! Babylon fell. The Persian Cyrus, (another Zoroastrian?) funded the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem and then Xerxes was tricked, almost, into destroying Israel! After Persia? Daniel said Greek then Roman dictators!
God had also told Israel that there was nothing strange about their exile; it was a result of their past sinful neglect of holiness. Yet He had also graciously given them a missionary calling to pray for the their new land and leaders, Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace (Jer 29:7). This call to prayer was the same as that given to the early church as they declared the gospel in an empire ruled by despotic, megalomaniacal Caesars [1 Pet 2:17, Rom 13:1]. They had no vote and no power other than the witness of their life, times of public instruction in Sunday worship and the occasional public lecture opening up the Scriptures, their prayers, AND the power of Christ with them through His Spirit. Their witness prevailed and Nero and other persecutors after him died. Nero could not Trump the Church either. There is a pattern here!
Yes, godless leaders will act godlessly and we must warn, protest, and even vote. But rather than ridicule, or lose sleep over things we cannot alter, we must be like Habakkuk and ask for a faith sufficient to see something of what the Lord may be doing (Hab 1:12-2:1). Then we watch and pray: for Trump’s genuine conversion and the Lord’s confounding of all wickedness.
[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for January, 2017.]
Perhaps you have heard the joke about the generous, but none-too-bright, fisherman. After years of patient failure, he finally struck success, pulling in fish after fish! Being a generous fellow, he quickly motored back to the shore to share the good news with his friends. “Are you sure you will be able to get back to the same spot?” they asked. “Easy,” he said, smiling. “I’ve marked the spot with a big marker.” And with that, he showed his friends a large freshly-painted white ‘X’ on the side of his boat! We smile, confident that no-one would be so stupid, but in many ways that is what happens when a Christian measures one’s growth and maturity by anything other than the objective measure of the Word of God.
The early Corinthian Church had that problem: at least, they had a group within the Church with that problem who were not slow in pushing themselves forwards. Was Paul an apostle? Well, they were “Super Apostles” (2 Cor 11:5). Was he able to give guidance? Well they could do it better and with more impressive oratory, and so on. According to them, they were simply the most impressive exemplars of Christian ministry possible, but the measure and affirmation of their excellence was always and only themselves, so that Paul could say with withering understatement, “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise”(2 Cor 10:12). “Not wise”: we understand his point—or do we?
The problem was not unique to 1st century Corinth, and is not limited to those who challenge Apostolic authority or doctrine today, although there are plenty who fit into that category at the fringes of the Church. We also can be guilty—not by inventing new doctrine or declaring ourselves to be fit for Church office when no-one else agrees but in being the only assessors of our spiritual condition to whom we will listen.
If we measure ourselves by ourselves, we will always err in our favour when called to assess our spiritual life. We will rationalize our failure to progress, excuse our sin and delay its mortification. We overstate our growth and understate our faults. Inevitably we will also begin to “drift” away from Christ but because the any “X” we use to mark out our Christian progress moves as we drift, we will have no measure of how far we have drifted until something rouses us. Doubtless a true believer will have a sense that “all is not as it should be” but drifting is not always obvious until one has drifted so far off that returning becomes hard work and only possible through the love and grace of Christ. [see Matt 18:12ff & Heb 2:1ff.] O that we had not trusted in ourselves!
Navigation is complicated, even for well known journeys. Each day sees new combinations of winds or tides so that yesterday’s settings cannot be taken without careful checking. A navigator who plots everything just by his own assessment or yesterday’s settings is “not wise”! Complacency leads to catastrophe and even death. The same is true in the spiritual life. We may not fall foul of the known hazards Christians have dealt with for many years but each day and generation brings subtle new pressures or temptations that if ignored, will cause us to drift. Complacency leads to catastrophe!
Thankfully, as Paul knew, God in his grace provides us with such navigational aids outside ourselves (2 Cor 10:13). The sphere of his ministry and service was defined by God’s measure (metron) and that measure was the grace of God which revealed the full mature knowledge of Jesus Christ (Eph 4:7&13-14). So how can we avoid drifting in 2017? By keeping our eyes on Christ through His Word, and not on ourselves.