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Thank You for the Music

Have you ever noticed how often music features in the Bible? In the NIV, the word “music” features 103 times, “song/s” appears 110 times, various forms of “sing” 150 times, “singer/s” eight times and “musician/s” 25 times. And that’s without listing the various instruments mentioned!

Some people (especially Baptists) think the sermon is the most important part of the church service, and you might think that as a preacher I would agree. As a matter of fact, I don’t. To me, the most important part of the service is the worship – and even though worship is a lot more than singing, I have to say that I find the musical aspect of our worship services more powerful than the rest.

With one caveat: it depends entirely on how you do it. And no, I’m not referring to the style of music or the exact instruments involved. Such matters will vary with the time and place, and should reflect what comes naturally to the local congregation. No, I’m referring to the attitude of your heart.

Worship – in whatever shape and form – is ultimately about expressing awe and adoration and love and surrender to God our Creator, and it has to be an act of the will. If you just sing the appointed hymns with no real thought for the God you’re singing about, it doesn’t matter how nice your voice or how beautiful the instrumental arrangement – it’s not worship. On the other hand, if you joyfully sing heartfelt praises to your King and Saviour, it doesn’t matter how tone-deaf you are: the Lord will gladly accept it as a beautiful sacrifice of praise.

You may have guessed I’m rather sad that we haven’t been able to sing together for so long. But at least there’s a lot of worship music (of whatever style you prefer) to be found online or on CD, and no one can stop you from singing along at home!

And one glorious day we will be able to sing together again. We actually booked the village green for the traditional Good Friday service, even though sadly we weren’t able to hold it on public land. However, we are currently allowed to sing outside our own building, which is something at least. But wherever and however you sing, just make sure that your proclamation of Jesus’ glorious victory over sin and death is exuberant, joyful, genuine and contagious!


Postscript: a couple of weeks ago I recorded this 5 minute video on whether or not we’re commanded to sing…

Happy Easter!

There is news.

There is good news.

And then there’s Easter.

I think it’s fairly self-evident that in the eyes of society around us, Christmas is the biggest and best of the Christian feasts. Last year we were even allowed to sing carols outside, despite the ongoing COVID restrictions (at the time of writing, there’s no sign of any similar concessions for Easter).

But actually – take it or leave it – whatever the world may think – whether we sing or not: there’s no doubt that among biblical festivals, Easter is King. Obviously all of them celebrate essential aspects of the execution of God’s plan of salvation through Jesus; but it’s at Easter that the main action takes place, the revolutionary events that give meaning and purpose to the other celebrations.

At Easter, Satan is definitively and defiantly crushed under the foot of Jesus the Messiah.

At Easter, sin is stopped in its tracks by the sacrifice of Jesus the Lamb of God.

At Easter, death is thrown into reverse by the resurrection of Jesus the Son of God.

At Easter, eternal peace is proclaimed to a battle-scared world.

At Easter, unshakable hope is offered to a desperate humanity.

At Easter, irresistible joy bursts forth in the hearts of sinners saved by grace.

Hades took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

(John Chrysostom, around AD 400)

So let us celebrate with the church of all times and all places: Jesus is alive, and we will live with him!

Resurrection!

[Background: our church is coming out of lockdown on Easter Sunday, and as you can tell, I am very much looking forward to it!]

Hallelujah – finally we get to celebrate Easter properly! OK, it’s not quite the same as normal, but it’s still going to be better than last year…

Of course it’s sad that we’re not able to celebrate the way we’d like to, and nobody is happy about having restrictions imposed on our collective worship. But let’s not forget that there are places in the world where followers of Jesus have always had to gather in secret, and others where they meet knowing that they could be violently attacked and killed, simply for proclaiming that Jesus is alive.

And still they gather to celebrate – and so must we; because the gospel message of resurrection and new life is too important to hide, too revolutionary to keep quiet about. And at least we can do it without fear of persecution!

I know it’s not always easy to share the good news with people, especially when they don’t seem particularly interested. But if anyone asks why we’re so keen on gathering for worship, we can at least try to answer by pointing them to the reason for the season – the reason Easter is so important:

Jesus died for your sins!

Jesus rose from the dead!

Jesus is King forevermore!

Happy Easter!

The Old Testament and the Way to Easter

This spring I have been preaching a series on “Signposts to Easter”, and even though it seem to have been well received, I think some people have been a bit surprised: as it’s all about Jesus and signposts to Easter, why is it all based on the Old Testament?

The Old Testament sometimes gets a bad press among Christians: it’s full of strange laws and ancient rituals, unknown countries and unpronounceable names – so why should we bother?

Because everything that happens in the world, big or small, is part of a chain of events that influence and illuminate each other, and the life and death of Jesus is no exception. The coming of Jesus was the culmination of a long series of events described in the Old Testament, including the calling of Abraham and the exodus from Egypt of his descendants, the Jews. Jesus was himself a Jew, a member of God’s chosen people who had been prepared over the centuries for the arrival of the Messiah.

Basically, without the Old Testament we wouldn’t have any of the necessary background to Jesus. Not only would we know nothing about Israel’s calling, priesthood, Temple and Law; we also wouldn’t have any concept of sin or sacrifices dealing with sin, or about the promised Deliverer who was going to deal decisively with the problem of sin. We wouldn’t even know who the God is that sent Jesus to be that Deliverer.

Virtually every book of the New Testament has quotes or allusions to the Old Testament, and Paul tells us that all of Scripture – by which he means the Old Testament, since the New hadn’t been written yet – is inspired and useful for teaching and edifying believers (2 Tim 3:16). It’s there for a reason, and we ignore it at our peril!

Putting Ourselves in the Worship

[The February edition of Premier Christianity magazine featured an article by Matt Redman about worship. I wrote this letter to the magazine as a reply / comment; they published a very abbreviated version of the letter, so I decided I should publish it here as well.]

It’s interesting to note that the format and content of our worship services continue to be a topic of intense discussion – nothing new under the sun!

Matt Redman’s article was good and thought-provoking, even though the argument against me-centred worship songs has been around for several decades. He is 100% right in saying we need to worship God for his infinite worth, ‘irrespective of whether or not it enriches our lives’. If those are the only two possible motivations, I totally agree: we don’t worship God because he is ‘helpful’!

Sam Hailes makes the same point in his editorial: worship shouldn’t be about what I get out of it, but what God gets out of it. True – but it also made me think: well, if all I get out of the church service is that the Bible is irrelevant and God has a strange taste in music, it’s unlikely that God will get anything out of my presence either… so I think we still need to take the reality of the worshippers into consideration.

And I think Redman’s article is missing the main reason most worship songs (of every era) use the pronouns “I” or “we”: because of Jesus, who ‘was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification’ (Rom 4:25, italics added).

Songs where the worshipper is included in the story are nothing new (I’m Not ashamed to Own My Lord 1709, And Can It Be That I Should Gain 1739, I Need Thee Every Hour 1872, It Is Well with My Soul 1874) and I think that’s as it should be. Of course we should sing of God’s majesty and holiness in themselves, and Redman is probably right in that we need more songs like that.

But we must never lose sight of the awesome mystery of the gospel: that this holy and majestic God has acted in Jesus to restore creation, including humanity, and I can be included in the restoration of all thing. It is right and necessary to put ourselves in the picture as recipients of this amazing grace – after all, that’s what the Bible does all the time.

What I’m trying to say is: let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater! It’s true that there are churches and movements where worship seems to be mainly about experiencing emotional kicks, what I can get out of God, rather than actually pouring our hearts out in worship to a holy and awesome God who deserves our worship come what may.

However, there are also believers (and probably entire churches) who haven’t really grasped that God actually loves them personally, that they can rest assured that Jesus is theirs. For their sake, I passionately believe we need both songs that emphasise what Jesus has done for (and help me express my response), and songs that emphasise who God is in himself. There’s no need to pitch the two against each other.

The End Is Nigh… Maybe

Dear friends,

Is the end nigh? Well, I guess that depends… The end of what, exactly?

The end of February? Well, yes, that’s due shortly – but the regular rotation of months and seasons, much as most of us appreciate the approaching end of winter, is hardly newsworthy.

The end of COVID-19? Probably not… The pandemic will hopefully come to an end when most people have been vaccinated, but the disease itself is unlikely to be completely eradicated – that would take a lot of political and international cooperation and goodwill, neither of which seems to be in high supply in the world today.

The end of the world? I preached about that on the 24th January (available here) – both the end of the ancient world (through the Flood) and the end of the current world (when Jesus comes back). It may well be imminent – but Jesus makes it quite clear that we’re not supposed to know. Instead, we’re supposed to be constantly prepared: living for the Kingdom of God and not being too attached to the pains and pleasures of the world.

The end of the church? Some seem to be predicting this on a regular basis… but it’s not going to happen. Denominations may shrink, individual congregations may fade away and church buildings be redeveloped – but the Church, the sum total of faithful followers of Jesus throughout time and space, will outlast the pandemic and the current world.

So let’s not worry unduly about any temporal ends we might be facing. Remember: if you have received eternal life through faith in Jesus, you will never end.

Church Life under COVID

So – how many of you have been forced to learn new computer skills thanks to COVID and the lockdown? One year ago, had you even heard of Zoom?

I hadn’t; but about a month ago we held our first Zoom prayer meeting as a church – and there were more participants than our normal prayer meetings used to have…

Obviously I would rather host a live prayer meeting, but the fact that we can meet in prayer without meeting in person is a great blessing for the church of Jesus Christ!

In Acts 2:42 we read that the early church in Jerusalem devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer, and it would seem to me that this is what every church and every follower of Jesus should devote themselves to.

Unfortunately fellowship is somewhat difficult right now, although there are obviously ways we can stay in touch and support each other; and eating together (whether in communion or just an ordinary meal) is not really possible in the flesh, although again there are online options.

The other two, however, have not been impacted in quite the same way. You can always read the Bible, which is the main depository of the apostles’ teaching – not to mention the many Bible teaching books, magazines and YouTube videos available (just be wise in your selection – all is not gold that glimmers).

And you can always pray. As a matter of fact, you should always pray – Paul says so: “Rejoice always, pray continually” (1 Thess 5:16-17). Both sound quite hard, and I think the only way to rejoice under the current circumstances is by praying, focusing on Jesus rather than on your circumstances. Pray on your own, pray on the phone, pray on Zoom or in your living room…

God our Father wants us to take our worries to him and let him deal with them, and maybe this pandemic is finally going to bring home that perennial truth: we’re not in control – but through Jesus we are children of the One who is!

I Mean This Literally!

A few weeks ago I saw a tweet that annoyed me. I didn’t have time to reply at the time and I didn’t Like it (because I didn’t like it!), so I can’t find it again – but I have been thinking about it ever since, so I think I still have to write a reply…

The gist of the tweet was this: why don’t Bible translators just translate what it says, rather that include their own interpretations?

If you know anything about languages (or about me), you’ll understand why this raised my hackles!

The thing is, no two languages say things exactly the same way, and it’s rare that two words in different languages have an exact overlap of meanings and connotations – so this idea that Bible translation is just about replacing a Greek or Hebrew word with the equivalent English one is really very naïve, not to say disingenuous.

  1. Translations should aim to convey what is said, not how it’s said

As far as I’m concerned, a translation should convey the same message with the same connotations as the original. Ideally, the translation should read as naturally as if it had been written in the receptor language.

Here’s a contemporary example. I’m currently watching a French crime drama (admittedly with English subtitles). So far they have twice used the term vouvouyer, which means addressing a person using the polite form vous, rather than the informal tu. English simply has no equivalent, using “you” for both – so the subtitles translated it as “show respect”.

To my mind, that’s both clever and perfectly accurate – precisely because it’s not a literal translation. In this situation, the literal translation “use the polite form of address” would be both cumbersome and detrimental to the story being told.

And of course, for most of the time the English subtitles simply ignore the difference between vous and tu, simply translating both with “you” – trying to introduce an artificial distinction, purely for the same of being faithful to the original, would be incredibly unhelpful!

Another example: most languages (including Greek and Hebrew) express the negative by simply using the word “not” – unlike modern English, which uses a form of the verb do + not. So when translating into English, the correct translation uses the do form: making Peter say “I know not” rather than “I don’t know” (Luke 22:60) may be literally correct, but if the aim is to convey what Peter actually said (or what he would have said if he had been speaking English), it’s still inaccurate.

Biblical Greek doesn’t have a word for “please” (neither does Swedish, by the way). The NIV contains at least one instance in the gospels (Mark 5:23) where a please has been added, with no Greek equivalent. Why? Because again, there’s no doubt that Jairus, had he been speaking English, would have said “please”, so the addition makes the text sound more natural to an English speaker.

2. Phrases and expressions can’t be translated literally

The other day I confused my wife by telling her that my shoe laces kept going up – a rare example of my mother tongue influencing my English! In Swedish, funnily enough, the phrase that means your shoe laces have come undone translates literally as “go up” – don’t ask me why!

Or take the expression gå och läsa. It literally means “go and read”, but translating it that way would be pointless, because what it actually means is “go to pre-confirmation classes” (which virtually all Swedes do at age 14-15). In both these cases, a literal translation actually makes the text nonsensical

3. Sometimes there is more than one literal translation

The Swedish word plugga is a colloquial term meaning “to study”, but it sometimes has the more specific sense of “cramming” (for an exam). The only clue as to whether the speaker intended the intensified or the ordinary sense is the context.

Likewise in Swedish, the adjective dum means both “stupid” and “mean”. We always know which one we mean, but a translator will have to decide from case to case which is the correct meaning to convey – getting it wrong would seriously distort the meaning!

Albanian has the adjective mërzitur which covers a lot of negative emotions, including “sad”, “upset” and “bored” – and again, only context and authorial intention will tell you which to choose.

In Biblical Greek, dikaiosune means both “righteousness” and “justice”, and kurios covers a range of polite addresses ranging from “sir” to “lord” to “(divine) LORD”. In Hebrew, there’s the word hesed which is variously translated as “love”, “loving-kindness”, “mercy” and “covenantal faithfulness”. And even our old friend shalom can imply “well-being” or “harmony” as well as the traditional “peace”.

A faithful translator simply has to decide in each case which translation best conveys the author’s intent, based on style and context – it’s simply not possible to use the formula “Greek/Hebrew word x = English word y” if you want to produce an accurate translation.

Obviously scholars need to pay proper attention to the actual words and details of the texts, just as a student learning French should be paying attention to the usage of vous and tu and the fact that using the wrong one implies a lack of respect. Still, the purpose of a good translation is to make the text understandable to readers who don’t speak the language, not educate them about its grammar.

However, sometimes I think the main problem isn’t actually lack of knowledge about how languages work, but some kind of pious idea that biblical languages should be treated differently to other languages, that they are somehow different. Here’s the thing: they’re not. Back then they were living languages, spoken by ordinary people in their everyday life, subject to exactly the same quirks and changes and individual variations as all living languages.

The difference is that there are no native speakers around today (modern Hebrew and Greek are too different to count), so we can’t ask how they understood particular words or phrases. Thus it’s easy to translate literally an expression that native speakers wouldn’t have understood that way, or assume that a particular word always carried the same connotations – there are no native speakers around to correct us!

This is why Bible translation requires a lot more than just a lexicon – and why, despite all the research, there will never be a perfect Bible translation. But we can at least try and understand why translators sometimes choose different ways of transmitting the words of the original – it’s actually about being faithful to what the original authors wanted to say.

Maranatha!

Happy New Year!

Once again we’re reminded how days, years, decades and centuries roll on, an endless succession of differently-sized segments of time…

Endless? Not at all. One day it’s all going to come to an end: history is neither a circle nor an endless line. The Bible suggests (and scientists agree) that time started ticking with the creation of the universe, and that one day the familiar ticking will cease. One day Jesus is coming back, and the world as we know it will come to an end.

This is good news – because it will mean an end to injustice, war, suffering, famine and oppression. It will mean an end to corruption, dishonesty and seemingly unending election campaigns. It will mean the final defeat of sin, death and evil…

And it means we will meet God face to face. How does that thought make you feel?

If you’re a child of God through faith in Jesus, it should make you excited. We were created to live in fellowship with our Creator, Jesus died to make it possible for us to do just that, and his return will be the final step in restoring all of creation, including us, to the sin-less condition God originally intended.

But if you haven’t yet accepted Jesus’ offer of adoption into the family of God, you may like to think about what facing a holy God might entail…

When it comes to the end of the world, there’s not much we can do about it. We have no say in setting the day and hour (despite the many who have tried and failed), no say in who will reign in the new creation (God has already installed Jesus as King), and no say in what will happen at the end – we only know that there will be a reckoning and a restoration.

The only thing you can influence is your reaction when it happens: will you shrink away in fear, or will you gladly welcome Jesus with shouts of joy?

Jesus tells us that nobody knows when he’s coming back, but that we’re supposed to wait eagerly for it to happen. For his followers, it will be joyous occasion! And after the kind of year we’ve just had, who would not be quite keen for Jesus to come back and sort things out, once and for all?

…and a Happy New Year!

A seasonal and traditional greeting – and one that seems to be more meaningful (and necessary) than ever this year:

The vaccine is being rolled out, so I imagine all of us will get it at some point during 2021; so if they just manage to curb the new strain of the virus, normality should be in sight on the horizon.

The Brexit transition period will end on the 1st January, and even though I imagine it will be a rocky ride to begin with, hopefully things will look better by the end!

And of course, we’re another year closer to the second coming, the return of Jesus, which is something all Christians should be eagerly looking forward to. If anything good is going to come of this pandemic, it might be that it’s reminded us that life in this world isn’t permanent – so it’s good that we have something better to look forward to!

And while we wait for that glorious day, let’s take the opportunity provided by the annual end-of- year season to ask ourselves two questions:

Am I more Christlike today than a year ago?

How can I become more Christlike during this coming year?

If you ask the Holy Spirit to help you answer those two questions honestly and truthfully, and then choose to cooperate with him in dealing with whatever issues and problem areas he highlights in your life, there’s every chance that the new year will indeed be a happy one!