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So Why Is Christianity Decreasing?

Why does it seem like Christianity is decreasing in the UK? Well, here’s one often overlooked reason: compulsory participation in the official state religion doesn’t automatically create personal adherence to that religion… so when such participation is no longer a societal requirement, it will naturally decline.

But there’s probably more to it than that, so here are three other misunderstandings that may put people off following Jesus:

  • “Science has disproved God.” No, it hasn’t; science only studies natural phenomena, and attempts to describe how the universe works under ordinary circumstances. If I drop a biscuit, it will hit the floor after x amount of time – unless a bird or a dog dive in to catch it! So when science says dead people don’t come back to life, that is just a statement about the natural state of affairs; but science can’t assess the possibility of a super-natural power “diving in” to contravene that natural state.
  • “Christianity is just about being a good person.” No, it isn’t; the early church didn’t preach ethics but the Kingdom of God. But since it should be obvious that nobody can fully live up to the ethical demands of a holy God, Jesus calls people to repent and believe in him – not just accept his teaching, but trust him as Saviour: that his death and resurrection is the solution to this human dilemma.
  • “Being a Christian is just one way of affirming the existence of God.” Well, yes; there are several other theistic religions which also affirm the existence of a God – but that is not the main point of Christianity. When the early church started preaching the gospel, their message wasn’t “there is a God” but “Jesus has risen from the dead”. They then proceeded to invite people to submit to the risen Jesus as Lord, King and Saviour, and that is still what Christianity is all about.

I think one reason people have lost interest in Christianity is that the church stopped preaching Jesus and started talking about general theistic ethics. That will never attract people to the Kingdom of God!

We mustn’t forget that our message is all about Jesus, who came here to live, die and rise as our representative, who will come back to set up his glorious Kingdom, and who is happy to welcome anyone who wants into his eternal family. Any other preaching has completely lost the plot.

Beyond Comprehension

Sometimes we just don’t understand everything. Actually, let me correct that: none of us will ever understand everything!

Yes, science is making progress, but there are still so many things we simply don’t know, so many illnesses we still can’t cure, so many conflicts we can’t seem to resolve… not to mention the many contradictory claims about what will happen when we leave the EU!

And then there’s the even bigger mysteries of our faith: how can God become a man? What will really happen when Jesus comes back? Why does he allow his church to suffer? And why is it so hard to throw off sin, when all we really want to do is please God and strive for holiness?

Some of these questions have answers; some have partial answers; some have conflicting alternative answers; and some are way beyond human comprehension.

And that is as it should be. If we could understand every mystery, we would be divine – and as I imagine few of us would make such bold claims (unlike the ancient Roman emperors), we can’t expect to understand everything.

And that doesn’t just apply to the “big”, eternal questions; it includes simple things in our own lives, like illnesses and financial issues and family trouble.

We can’t understand everything – but we can take it to Jesus. The Bible keeps encouraging us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Prov 3:5).

Our limitations are meant to drive us to Jesus our Lord, the only One who knows and understands everything – and who can still support us and sympathise with us, because he himself became human!

Happy New Year

A new year, full of new possibilities, new challenges (not least for our newly elected government), new life situations – for better or worse, as the case may be. But some things remain constant, despite the changing years: Water is still wet, cats still purr, and Jesus is still Lord.

The church has always proclaimed and confessed Jesus as Lord – it’s one of the two criteria for salvation in Rom 10 – but has not always been good at living up to that confession. It’s easy to pay lip service to the lordship of Jesus, while continuing to live your life as if you were in charge. That’s not how it works!

Calling Jesus Lord is a life-changing confession. It means living according to Jesus’ requirements, regardless of the cost. It means seeking his kingdom first. And it will usually mean sacrifices – whether giving up a selfish lifestyle, changing the way you speak about other people, or realigning your sex life with God’s holiness standards…

This is what the book of Revelation is really all about, and that’s why I make no excuses for restarting that sermon series on the 12th January. Yes, it’s a slightly on the complicated side, but in a way it’s very simple: it’s all about discipleship, all about being 100% committed to Jesus as Lord, whatever his enemy throws at us, because it will be worth it in the end.

And the main message is that God wins in the end. Remember: Revelation is interspersed with praise and worship because Jesus is on the throne, leading to the final vision when all evil is removed and we will finally live happily ever after.

As we enter yet another year, with unsettling events unfolding in our country and elsewhere, isn’t it good to be reminded that Jesus has already triumphed?

A New Year Non-Resolution

Here’s a question for those blessed with a good memory: on the first Sunday of the year, how often do ministers refer to New Year resolutions? Now, there’s nothing wrong either with making resolutions or speaking / writing about them – as long as we don’t attach any real significance (spiritual or otherwise) to the way we name the days and number the years.

Still, judging from how many people don’t succeed in keeping their resolutions for very long, maybe we should look beyond the New Year and past our own self-control and determination…

Instead of making high-flying promises of great improvement, let’s just endeavour to follow Jesus better day by day.

Instead of focusing on the things we want to change about ourselves, let’s just focus on Jesus and the fact that he has already started the process of changing us.

Instead of dwelling on past failures, let’s just leave them at the foot of the cross and ask the Holy Spirit for strength to do better next time.

Instead of putting our hope in a utopian future, let’s just hold on the promises of Jesus that one day we will be set free from all sin, all bad habits and everything that is detrimental to our health and well-being.

I said that there is no real significance attached to the way we count our days. There is, however, one thing about the passing of days and changing of years that is significant: every day brings us closer to the return of Jesus.

I’m not big on trying to interpret “the signs of the times” – people have got those wrong so often – but I’m all for reminding everyone that Jesus is coming back, and his return is closer now than when you started reading this letter. He told us he would come back, and since that is a solemn promise, not just a New Year resolution, we can be sure that he will keep his promise!

Here We Go A-Carolling…

Christmas Carols are a funny thing, don’t you think: some people really like them, others seem to have had enough of them even before the last note of O Come O Come Emmanuel has faded…

It’s true that carols are quite an odd category of songs. They vary quite considerably, both in musical quality and theological content, and they’ve been recorded by more artists than any other category of Christian songs: whether your preference is hip-hop or heavy metal, jazz or children’s choirs, there will be a Christmas album to fit your taste!

Christmas services require more thinking than the rest of the year. I normally start my annual chart of carols at the end of November, working out which ones fit best with what I’m planning for the different Sundays in Advent. Seriously, this is the only time of the year when I plan five or six services at the same time!

And it’s harder than it seems (or maybe I overthink it…). There are some carols that are such a fixture that you can’t really leave them out of the plan, whether they deserve it or not.

There are some that are so theologically astute that they have to be included – and some that are so inaccurate that it’s touch and go whether I include them or not… (and some that I’ve already quietly dropped, like It Came Upon a Midnight Clear – just don’t tell anyone).

The main thing, though, is that carols aren’t an aim in themselves: we sing carols because they tell the story of Jesus.

We hope and pray that people will come to our carol events not for the sake of the carols but so that they can hear about Jesus, the King who was born in poverty, shamefully executed and victoriously raised to life to bring us back to God – the one we actually sing about all year round!

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Remembering What We Mustn’t Forget

Winter is upon us again – well, obviously at the time of writing I can’t be sure of that, but it seems quite likely that November won’t be as warm and sunny as July…

But in the midst of the rain and wind, we can remember what summer was like, and can therefore look forward to it returning next year.

In November we also remember the fallen of past and present wars, and pray that we will soon see the day when “nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more”, as Isaiah predicted.

But do we always remember how that is going to come about? Isaiah’s prophecy is about the Messiah and the reign of God that he will bring about; so that peace and stability can only be established by Jesus.

We mustn’t forget that Jesus is the Prince of Peace who stands for reconciliation and sacrifice, whereas we selfish human beings are forever prone to fighting and exploiting each other to get what we want.

We mustn’t forget that Jesus came to deal with this our sinful selfishness, but also that we need to surrender our lives to him in order for the Holy Spirit to start changing us into the kind of people who can live in the eternal Kingdom of God.

We mustn’t forget that Jesus is coming back to establish that Kingdom. We may think the world is going to continue forever as it is – perish the thought! A holy God couldn’t possibly allow the current corruption and decay to go on unchallenged. His plan has always been to sort things out, get rid of sin and death and bring humanity back on track as his image and his family.

We mustn’t forget that until that day, our mission is to invite as many people as possible into God’s Kingdom. We mustn’t discriminate – the offer is open to all! We mustn’t hesitate – the call is urgent! We mustn’t complicate – it’s all about Jesus, the Son of God who died and rose again to bring us back to God.

One day all human wars and conflicts will be but a memory (and I for one wouldn’t mind if eternity eventually erases those memories), but the triumph of Jesus the King over all evil powers will be celebrated forever. “He can never be forgotten throughout heaven’s eternal days!”

Revelation Sermon by Sermon, part 1

So I’ve just finished preaching through the first half of the book of Revelation (no plural s!), and as an added service I produced short summaries of each sermon for people to keep and refer back to. And then I thought, I may as well put those summaries online as well… So here it is: the summaries of my nine sermons on the first half of Revelation.


Intro

Revelation is not chronological, and it’s full of images that need to be understood as symbols, not as literal facts. It’s not meant to scare or confuse us, but to encourage and inspire our Christian life.

Chapter 1:1-20

John greets the recipients, calling the book both a revelation (of what reality looks like from God’s perspective), a prophecy (what God wants to say to the church) and a testimony (to God’s mighty act of salvation).

It’s also a letter, and John greets the recipients in the name of the Triune God, Father, Spirit and Son; but his greeting emphasises Jesus who loves us and freed us from sin in order to make us kings and priests with him.

Jesus appears to John and asks him to take a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey). His appearance contains allusions to the robes of the high priest, the vision of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7, and the power and authority of God Almighty, showing us that Jesus is both priest, king and God.

Chapters 2-3

In these chapters Jesus dictates seven “mini-letters” to the seven churches. I have divided them into three categories: confused, compromised and committed.

Chapter 2:1-12; 3:1-6; 3:14-22

Two of the “confused churches” (Sardis and Laodicea) seem to have become established and relying on their own talents and resources rather than the power of God. At this point they’re probably very weak in prayer and evangelism!

The third one (Ephesus) has good ministry and doctrine, but has lost its first love: easily happens if we start thinking God likes us because of our good ministry and doctrine – first our awe at Jesus’ sacrifice decreases because we think we deserve it, and then our love for other people decreases because we think they don’t deserve it…

We need to avoid becoming established and inoffensive, playing down the gospel for the sake of our status; and we need to maintain our love for God and others, remembering that the gospel is about Jesus’ love and sacrifice for us even though we don’t deserve it.

Chapter 2:12-29

The compromised churches (Pergamum and Thyatira) have been allowing false teachers to spread false doctrines, resulting in sexual immorality and idolatry. Jesus compares them to two OT characters, Balaam and Jezebel, who had exactly that effect on Israel.

There was strong societal pressure on Christians to worship the emperor as Lord, and to participate in trade guild dinners, which involved sacrifices and prostitutes.

Today, Christians are still under pressure to compromise with idolatry, in the form of state allegiance (North Korea, Nazi Germany), scientism (which denies the possibility of miracles) and multi-faith worship (the modern idea that “all religions are equal” is only true if all of them are meaningless rituals and doctrines, rather than making statements about reality).

Sexual immorality is also common, with the only rule being “anything goes as long as nobody gets hurt”. But the Bible teaches that sex only belongs in life-long heterosexual marriage, thus excluding all forms of extra-marital sex as well as same-sex marriages (see separate leaflet for more on this).

But we must remember that these strict requirements are not meant to be preached to non-Christians. They apply to us who claim to be disciples of Jesus; and it’s because Jesus is our Lord that we mustn’t compromise:

He alone is the unique God-Man who provides a bridge back to our Creator; which is why we can’t worship anyone else, or pretend it doesn’t matter who you worship.

He alone defeated death; which is why we can’t go along with misguided anti-supernaturalistic scientism.

He alone is holy and just; so we can’t just live any which way and deny the seriousness of sin.

But Jesus is also unique in claiming to love sinners. He is always ready to welcome and forgive anyone who repents of their sin; and he comes to us through his Holy Spirit to help us live according to his standards without compromise.

And the Book of Revelation wants to reassure us that even if it involves sacrifices for Jesus, it’s worth it in the end!

Chapter 2:8-11 & 3:7-13

The committed churches (Smyrna and Philadelphia) receive only praise from Jesus: they are poor but spiritually rich, and strong despite having but little strength – they have learnt to depend on Jesus rather than their own resources, and are standing firm against compromise, whether with idolatry or immorality.

And they are active in outreach, attracting opposition from the local synagogues. Even though the Christians worshipped the God of Israel, the Jewish authorities refused to accept them as true Jews.

Jews were exempt from emperor worship, so when Christians weren’t recognised as a variety of Judaism, they would have to participate in it, facing persecution when they refused. This led to them being tempted to revert back to “normal” Judaism.

But that won’t do, since truth matters: either Jesus rose from the dead or he didn’t. You can accept Jesus or reject him, but you can’t mix him with other religions, gods and gurus. We must love our opponents, but resist their false teachings!

The committed churches stood firm in the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8): no compromise with idolatry or immorality; actively sharing the gospel with others; loyalty to Jesus above everything, whatever the cost.

How are we doing in those areas, individually and as a church?

Chapter 4

The two main points of this chapter are worship of God and power of God: all of creation worships God Almighty.

John is invited into heaven, which is God’s realm, the spiritual dimension of reality. It’s not our eternal home: we’re destined for resurrection and a new earth as described in Rev 21.

John sees the throne of God, surrounded by lightning and attended by 24 elders (God’s angelic council?) and four “living creatures”, all of which remind us of similar visions in the OT (Exodus 24, Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7).

These creatures all worship God. The living creatures praise him for what he is: holy, almighty and eternal, whereas the elders worship him as Creator of everything.

Humanity needs reminding of these things: God is the creator of everything, and unlike our “homemade” gods, he is holy and all-powerful. We mustn’t try and shape him into our own image; he is in charge, and we just have to choose whether to resist or worship him.

If we choose to worship, this passage is meant to encourage us: regardless of what’s going on in the world around us, this throne room is the power centre of the universe. And if this God is for us, who can be against us (Rom 8:31)?

Chapter 5

Suddenly God the Father is holding a sealed scroll, probably containing the plans for how God is going to punish evil and restore creation to original intentions. At first it seems like nobody will be able to open it, but then John is told that the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, is able to.

Both these Messianic titles come from the OT: a prophecy about a coming ruler (Gen 49:9-10) and a descendant of David (Isa 11:1).

John then sees a lamb that has been slaughtered, sharing the throne of God (also in 3:21 and 22:1,3). He takes the scroll, and immediately the heavenly beings worship him – using same praises for God as for the Lamb, which would be blasphemous if Jesus wasn’t God.

The elders are holding golden bowls which contain our prayers, going straight to the throne of God.

The heavenly worship crescendo focuses on Jesus’ sacrificial death: with his blood he purchased a multinational people for God.

There are strong Exodus echoes in this passage, with Jesus as the Passover Lamb whose blood rescues the people of God and initiates the new covenant, restoring his people to be kings and priests, the way first humanity and then Israel was once supposed to be (Ex 19:5-6, Rev 1:5-6):

“The priestly vocation consists of summing up the praises of creation before the Creator; the royal vocation, in turn, means reflecting God’s wisdom and justice into the world.” (Tom Wright)

This means that it’s important to live as followers of Jesus here and now: we are kings and priests with Jesus, freed from sin so we can serve God Father here and now as well as in eternity.

This also means the church can take heart: Jesus our Saviour and King is on the throne, and he is in charge of God’s plan of restoration, and he is worthy to be worshipped.

Chapters 6-7

Jesus the Lamb starts opening the scroll; as he breaks the first four seals, John sees four horrible horsemen bringing various disasters. This is probably a picture of ordinary life on earth: false religions, wars, famines and death have always been around and will not cease the end of the world, depicted at the opening of the sixth seal.

The fifth seal reveals the souls of the martyrs, who are told to wait until the full number has come in – because persecution for the name of Jesus will also be part of the life of church on earth (see John 16:33 and Matt 5:11) and there is a lot of it going on right now!

Chapter six ends with the unbelieving world asking who can withstand the day of judgment. Chapter seven answers the question: the people of God (1 Thess 1:9-10). We then meet this people as two different groups, which are most likely meant to refer to the same people.

The 144,000 Israelites show us the people of God on earth: a beleaguered minority in a troubled world, having to weather the storms of life but being protected by God from the storms of judgment.

The next section shows us the same people from heaven’s perspective: a happy, uncountable crowd from every nation and language and people group, eternally praising God in peace and harmony.

This vision of heavenly rest is again full of praise and worship, and a breath-taking description of the blessings of eternity:

Those who have been imprisoned and deprived of food and drink for their allegiance to Jesus will rejoice that there will be no more hunger or thirst.

Christians who were kept locked up in boiling hot metal shipping containers will appreciate the lack of scorching heat, as will those who had to work in labour camps with the midday sun beating down on them.

Instead, Jesus will lead the redeemed to springs of living water, and God himself will be our shelter (as per Psalm 91) and wipe away our tears.

So take heart: life on earth may well feature suffering and disasters, there may even be persecution or suffering for those who belong to Jesus – but one day, when we stand in awe before the throne, the suffering and hardship won’t matter anymore.

Chapter 8-9

Here we meet seven angels with trumpets, blowing six of them. All interpreters agree that these blasts are intended as warning signals, telling a rebellious world that God isn’t pleased with the current state of affairs an that he’s going to do something about it; a day of judgment is coming.

People have often tried to guess exactly what events what these trumpet visions refer to, but it’s more likely that they are pictures of all kinds of disasters past, present and future – Chernobyl, 9/11, the Black Death etc – that are meant to remind us that we’re neither immortal nor innocent, that the word is broken and so are we, and God is the only one who can do anything about it.

Basically, this whole vision is a graphic call to repentance – because, as C S Lewis puts it:

“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Unfortunately, it seems that most of humanity still doesn’t repent and turn to God – but until the end comes, obviously the opportunity is still available for anyone who hears and believes the gospel.

Before we see the disasters, we see an angel with the prayers of God’s people in a censer, which he hurls onto earth: amazingly, it seems our prayers are involved in what’s going on here on earth (James 5:16)!

It’s worth noticing that in Revelation, there’s a clear distinction between believers, who are called “saints”, and non-believers who are “inhabitants of the earth”. We mustn’t forget that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20), and that our allegiance is primarily to the Kingdom of God, not to this sinful world.

Jesus tells us what we should pray for: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6:10), and this would involve praying that people would repent, and that Jesus would come back soon to put an end to sin and suffering and death.

Chapter 10-11

This interval between the 6th and 7th trumpet answers the question, “Why doesn’t God just speak to people?” In ch 10 John eats a scroll which points to the need for the Word of God given through his apostles in order to understand his plans.

Ch 11 presents a very complicated vision; here’s my understanding of the three conundrums:

The trampling of the Temple might refer to AD70 or to the persecution of the church; in either case. True believers are still worshipping.

The time frame (42 months, 1260 days, 3 ½ years) is most likely a symbolic way of talking about the church era which sees persecution and preaching but is still limited in time.

The two witnesses – echoing Moses and Elijah, as well as the priest and royal ruler portrayed as two olive trees in Zech 3 – probably represent the church, believers acting as priests and kings, proclaiming the gospel in the face of opposition.

At the end it looks like the enemy succeeds in silencing the witness; but then believers are resurrected and taken to heaven, as described by Paul in 1 Thess 4:16-17.

When the seventh trumpet is finally blown, heaven rejoices that the kingdom of the world (split into many kingdoms and empires, but united in rebellion against God and his Messiah, as Psalm 2 points out) have become the eternal kingdom of God and the Messiah. God will finally step in and take back full control of the world!

This will entail judgment on the rebellious world, including “those who destroy the earth” (showing that God is also aware of the environment) – but believers need not fear the day of judgment: we know there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1), and the passage promises (unspecified) rewards to all God’s people.

So again we reach the end of the world – but not beyond; there will be more visions of persecution and judgment before we reach the very end and get a glimpse of eternity.