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Ecclesiastical Tragedies

Not long ago I had an online conversation with somebody who clearly has not had a good experience of church. They decried hypocrisy, bigotry, narcissism, pride… which is obviously not how Jesus would want anyone to describe his church!

Why is it that churches, which should be loving, caring fellowships of Jesus-focused citizens of God’s Kingdom, so often deteriorate into holier-than-thou cliques and close-knit, unwelcoming coteries?

Well, the obvious answer is sin. The flesh, the world and the devil don’t go away without a fight; so sadly selfish attitudes (judgmentalism, power hunger, fear of anything that is different) keep popping up even in the people of God.

This is something we mustn’t accept! We mustn’t allow the community of believers to become societies for mutual admiration, where you have to fit the mould perfectly to be welcome – especially since this means non-believers often turn away from Jesus, thinking our pride and self-centredness is just a reflection of what our God is like…

What a tragedy!

Let’s instead make sure we welcome all who will come, regardless of who or what they are; let’s make sure sacrificial love characterises all our interactions with other people; and let’s make sure we always focus on Jesus, not on ourselves and our traditions, preferences, ambitions or fears!


Questioning Questioning?

Are Christians allowed to ask difficult questions?

One of the saddest things I came across when going door-to-door a few years back was people telling me they had abandoned church / faith / God because as children they were told off – even punished! – when they queried things they were told to believe (e.g. miracles or the creation story).

One of the best things I know is when people ask me questions about Jesus and the Bible. I love answering genuine questions about faith, and I can’t imagine that Jesus wasn’t happy to explain the Kingdom of God to his disciples. Yes, he sometimes got frustrated because they struggled to understand – I know exactly how he felt! – but I’m sure he still spent quite a lot of time answering their questions.

Some people seem to think that asking questions is the same as doubting the truth of the gospel. And of course it can be – but that doesn’t mean the doubter shouldn’t ask. On the contrary: doubts are only dangerous if you don’t address them, and it’s only by expressing them that you can receive answers to your doubts.

Because there are answers. Virtually every question you can throw at me has already been asked, probably many times, and most of them have also been answered as many times. The perennial “why does God allow suffering” has been answered so many times that I’m always surprised (and sad) when somebody states the reason they left church was the problem of suffering.

But still, that is the case for a lot of people. And if that’s you – if you left church because nobody seemed to be able to answer your faith-related questions, whether about the Bible or suffering or anything else – please don’t stay there. Don’t accept that as the final word on the matter.

There are answers, and there are people who are more than happy to take the time to share them with you – not in order to shove anything down your throat, but to help you make a more well-informed decision about God; and of course with the hope that you will choose to come back to the Father who loves you and sent his Son to be your Saviour!

Jesus, the Law and the Scaffolding

I have always been slightly ambivalent about the Sermon on the Mount and similar law-like passages in the New Testament. After all, we’re saved by grace, and Christ made an end to the Law, right? Both Jesus and Paul tell us love for God and neighbour sums up God’s will for us, so why do we have these commands in the gospels? And, come to think of it, why does Jesus tell us to teach new disciples to obey everything he has commanded (Matt 28:20)…?

Well, I still believe that we’re saved by grace, not by obeying Jesus’ commands (or any other ones). But while preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, I discovered to my surprise that I was changing my view on the Sermon, or more precisely, on the relationship between Jesus and the Law.

Let’s first make one thing clear: Jesus isn’t saying we have to live perfect lives in order to make it to heaven. Jesus didn’t come to dispense new entry requirements for heaven; he came to call sinners to repent and join Kingdom of God.

What he is saying is that when you do that – and never forget that the Sermon is addressed to people who are already his followers – you have to be more righteous than the Pharisees. This might seem like a tall order, since they were considered the epitome of godliness back then, but when it comes to righteousness, all is not gold that glitters!

Living here and now as disciples of Jesus, being salt and light in an otherwise dark and decaying world, does in itself mean being more righteous than the Pharisees, whom Jesus repeatedly calls “hypocrites”. Their “righteousness” was merely superficial, skin-deep, and even allowed them to disobey the purpose of the Law by obeying the letter of the Law (Matt 15:5-6)!

Citizenship in the Kingdom of God, on the other hand, requires genuine, Jesus-like righteousness in every aspect of our lives. So the question is, what’s the role of the Law in this Kingdom life?

It seems already his original hearers must have wondered about that, and Jesus’ answer seems quite straightforward: “don’t think I’ve come to abolish Law or Prophets”. But what does he actually mean by that?

This is where I’ve changed my thinking, mainly thanks to two books that helped me see it from a new perspective: “Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus” (David Bivin & Roy Blizzard Jr, 1983) and “The World According to Theologygrams” (Rich Wyld, 2017).

It seems that when rabbis debated (which they did often and whole-heartedly!), “abolishing the Law” was a semi-technical term which meant misinterpreting it, which would make people disobey it. “Fulfilling the Law” was the opposite: expounding its true meaning so people could apply it properly. Jesus is basically saying: I’m not misinterpreting the Law, I’m not making people disobey it; but I’m fulfilling it by telling you what it really means and how to actually obey it properly.

But, you say: doesn’t Jesus himself abolish aspects of the Law? Doesn’t he set aside certain commandments? In a way, yes – but he is still ‘fulfilling’ it: teaching his followers what it’s really all about.

For one thing, Jesus’ death fulfilled the meaning of the sacrificial Laws, so they are no longer needed. Similarly, the civic laws that regulated Israel’s life as nation-state aren’t relevant to the church. In neither case has the Law been discarded, but it has achieved its purpose, and the proper application is now to not apply them.

In Mark 7, Jesus does abolish food regulations – but they were part of Israel’s holiness code, showing that the nation of Israel was set apart for God. In the universal Kingdom of God it’s not our diet but our entire life that demonstrates that we belong to God, and since the citizens of the Kingdom are now spread out all over the world, the dietary Laws no longer have a function.

If we then look at Matt 5, straight after Jesus’ words about fulfilling the Law, it’s clear that that’s exactly what he’s doing: explaining the point behind the Laws, drawing out its true meaning and application in the Kingdom of God.

“An eye for an eye” is probably the most famous instance of this explanation-fulfilment, and at first glance it looks like he’s abolishing a clear command. Except it’s not a command; it’s a concession. The Law is restricting revenge and restitution to fit the crime: your demand for recompense must not go beyond the original damage. Which was quite revolutionary 3500 years ago…

So Jesus is just taking it one or two steps further: in the Kingdom of God, we shouldn’t retaliate at all; this is the “fulfilment” of this rule.

The same applies to the other examples. The Law permitted divorce, but the Kingdom attitude should be that marriage is for life. The Law forbade adultery, but Jesus extends the prohibition to include even imagined adultery: if your heart is willing, it doesn’t matter if you don’t actually act on it. Murder is evil, but even if you don’t do the deed, the anger and hatred in your heart still reveal a murderous attitude towards your fellow humans…

It might be worth pointing out that Jesus isn’t saying that if there is sin in your heart, it doesn’t matter if you commit the act itself or not. For the sake of your fellow humans, it’s obviously better to keep your lust and anger to yourself – but from God’s perspective, it make no real difference. God isn’t fooled by your external behaviour; he sees your heart, and wants you – not just your actions – to be righteous.

So what Jesus is doing is explaining how the Law is really meant to be applied: from your heart, out of love and compassion and genuine desire to be holy like God. Your righteousness has to flow from within: mere external compliance with the letter of the law isn’t what God really wants.

This is totally in keeping with the Law and Prophets, especially the latter. The prophets were forever pointing out that yes, God does require sacrifices, but they are supposed to be accompanied by true faith and righteousness (Isaiah 1:10-20; Jeremiah 7:3-7; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8). If there’s no genuine righteousness, the sacrifices are pointless.

And not only that; the prophets also predicted that one day the people of God would actually be able to internalise God’s righteousness. Here are two very important passages:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

‘This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.’ (Jeremiah 31:33)

Both these quotes proclaim that when the Messiah comes and inaugurates the New Covenant, obeying the will of God will come naturally, from inside, because those who belong to the Messiah will go through a spiritual heart transplant performed by his master surgeon, the Holy Spirit.

Jesus tells us that we need to be “born again” in order to enter the Kingdom (John 3:5-7). That seems to be just another way of talking about the same thing: a new heart, a new will, a new ability to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in this world.

Which finally brings us back to my initial question: why do we still have the Ten Commandments and all the other rules and guidelines in the New Testament?

Because we’re work in progress.

I found a good illustration in Rich Wyld’s book: the Law is like scaffolding. Yes, scaffolding. God is building a temple for his holiness, and we are the living stones (1 Peter 2:4-5), and his commandments are the scaffolding he has put up to make sure the building develops how he wants.

And what does he want? He wants to make us fit for his Kingdom: 100% loving, compassionate, and righteous, living lives characterised by integrity and holiness. Whatever your life looks like now, that’s the end product God is working towards – and he won’t give up! The Holy Spirit is constantly at work, making Kingdom values more and more natural in our lives.

But we’re not there yet. And until God’s work in us is finished, we need the scaffolding, the commandments: they’re there to keep us going in the right direction.

So when we struggle to be holy, when we come under attack and are tempted to think that maybe God doesn’t mind me leaving my wife or defrauding my employer, the scaffolding is there to remind us what God is like and what he want us to be like.

If we resist the Holy Spirit, if we don’t want to become more like Jesus, then the scaffolding is pointless: the building will remain unfinished. But if we allow the Spirit to keep working in us, the scaffolding will help the building grow – until one day we won’t need it any more.

Jesus said that not a single pen stroke of the Law will disappear “until heaven and earth disappear”, when everything accomplished. This means that when that happens, we will no longer need either the OT Law or Paul’s letters, or even the Sermon on Mount!

When Jesus returns and the Kingdom comes in full power and glory, our sinful nature will finally be completely redeemed and every sinful inclination forever removed. Then the scaffolding of written commandments will also be removed, simply because we will finally be perfectly conformed to Jesus and his righteousness. What a glorious day that will be!


New Opportunities for Error and Excitement

Welcome to 2018! New year, new opportunities…

Plenty of opportunities to upset people. There are so many issues people feel strongly about, and it’s not at all difficult to put your foot in it without meaning to. Brexit, church, in-laws, Christmas weight gain… Endless possibilities!

Plenty of opportunities to mess up. Life isn’t easy, and we constantly have to make decisions – and they’re not always well informed decisions. And while some of us make hasty decisions to be regretted later, some of us are far too indecisive and end up with a mess resulting from not having made any decision at all…

Plenty of opportunities to waste time, money and energy. However much or little you have of any of those assets, I bet you will not be able to put every ounce to the best use imaginable. We simply don’t have that kind of imagination, nor (to be honest) determination…


Yes, we are fallible human beings and we will get things wrong. But praise the Lord, there will also be other opportunities:

Plenty of opportunities to draw near to God in repentance, seeking his forgiveness (which he is only too happy to give) and his strength to do better next time (and his strength is literally superhuman).

Plenty of opportunities to tell people about a loving Saviour who is very good at helping us sort out our messes.

Plenty of opportunities to use our time, money and energy for the Kingdom of God. Yes, God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10), but he rarely draws on his riches without the agreement of the human steward. So whatever God has given you to look after while here on earth, don’t forget: everything you have ultimately belongs to the Lord, and he will one day audit your accounts. Did you waste your resources, or did you put your talent(s) to good use for Jesus?

And if you feel your records up till now are somewhat unsatisfactory, don’t despair! God is a God of second chances, and he loves to help us start all over again. Whatever your life looks like, just confess your shortcomings and ask Jesus to renew you from the inside and fill you with his love, compassion and generosity; and then start living in the power of God’s Spirit, making a difference for the Kingdom of God!


Happy New Year in the Hands of God!

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to travel in time? A lot of people think so, and this fascinating concept has been explored in innumerable science fiction stories, not least by that eminently British alien, Doctor Who…

The reason I’m thinking about this is simply that at the time of writing, I don’t know whether we had a white or rainy Christmas, or whether lots of people turned up for our carol services… whereas when you read this, you will know those things. Just think if you could go back in time, just one month, to tell me of any improvements our celebrations might require!

But alas, that isn’t possible. We are time-bound creatures, travelling inexorably into the future at the breath-taking speed of sixty minutes an hour, and we won’t know what awaits us until we get there.

But there is one who does know. God Almighty, uncreated and non-material, isn’t bound by time or matter – after all, he created both! And paradoxically enough, this means he doesn’t need time travel to know what’s happening in different times and eras: he is simply present everywhere and everywhen (yes, that’s a word).

So whatever 2018 may bring you, good or bad or unexpected, God is already aware of it. More than that: he’s already seen you through it – OK, it hasn’t happened to you yet, but that doesn’t really make any difference to the Almighty. He sees 2018 as clearly as 2017; to his infinite mind, they are equally present. Isn’t it good to know that our passing days are in the hands of somebody who is himself unaffected by their incessant flow?


Salvation – DIY or Call a Professional?

According to William Stafford (1914-1993), “everyone is born a poet”. So I thought I’d give it a try:

It wasn’t the angels that mattered most
When God came down to earth
It wasn’t the shepherds or kings with gifts
Who made it a special birth
I don’t really care if the baby cried
Or laughed in holy mirth
When he spotted Santa standing there
With his jolly Yule-tide girth…

Then again, maybe I should leave poetry to those who know what they’re doing…

Obviously we sometimes have to attempt things that we’re not very good at, whether it’s cooking or speaking French or changing a tyre. Sometimes we’re even encouraged to Do It Ourselves – and we all know what that might lead to…

Well, maybe the end result doesn’t matter so much when it comes to writing (bad) poetry or putting up a (wonky) shelf; but what about DIY salvation?

Sadly, ever since mankind rebelled against God we have tried to come up with our own solution to the problem of sin and judgment: legalistic lifestyles, mindless meditation, rigid religious rituals, smoking sacrifices … You name it, humanity has tried it.

And of course, none of our solutions have achieved anything. Sin is still separating us from God, and we can’t fix it. We simply can’t Do It Ourselves.

Which is why it’s such good news that God himself decided to Do It Himself. Throughout the centuries he continued working out his plan of salvation, which culminated with the birth of a special baby: the God-man, born to die and rise again to bring us salvation, forgiveness of sins and a welcome back to the Father’s house.

Some things we can easily do ourselves; other things we can try and ‘see how it goes’. However, some things are best left to the professionals, and salvation definitely falls in that category. Beware DIY solutions to the problem of sin! Only Jesus is able and qualified to save, and our role is simply to stand back and watch and worship as the Saviour steps in to sort it all out once and for all!



C – H – R – I – S – T – M – A – S

Dear friends,

December is definitely the hardest month to write the church bulletin letter for – after all, what can I say about Christmas that I haven’t already said? What does Christmas even mean?

Consider                            Church                                               Christians
How                                    Hesitantly                                         Have
Ridiculous                         Redirects                                           Repented
It                                          Intrepid                                             In
Seems                                 Shoppers                                           Sackcloth
That                                    Towards                                            Thinking
Many                                  Marks                                                 Mary
Adore                                 And                                                     Ate
Santa                                  Spencers*                                          Shellfish

Somehow I don’t think it’s either of those. What about this one instead?


I think that is a better summary of the message of Christmas! This is why it’s the season to be, not just jolly but cheerful, because God has heard our cry and come down to redeem and rescue. The birth of Jesus is a major event in God’s plan of salvation: the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, has finally arrived!

We say it every year, we sing it every year (and yes, I do love a good carol!), but it still needs proclaiming loud and clear: a Saviour has been born to us, and he is the Messiah, the Lord!

Happy Christmas!

PS: I’m sorry I can’t get the letters to align properly…

* For my non-UK readers: Marks & Spencers is a big chain of relatively expensive department stores. Other department stores are available.