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Get Ready before You Need to!

Back in June we held one Sunday service outside our church building, in support and solidarity with the persecuted church. Afterwards, I idly wondered how it made people feel – grateful that we have a building, or just annoyed that we weren’t using it? And how many would have been there if our gathering had actually been illegal, or disapproved of?

In a way that question is impossible to answer until you find yourself in that situation; in another way we should always be asking ourselves that question. And it’s true of many other situations as well: it’s the sins and mistakes we’re not anticipating, the temptations we’re not prepared for, that catch us off-guard and trip us up.

And persecution, according to the New Testament, is one of the things we should be prepared for. Why? Basically, because the Gospel is so offensive. It proclaims that people are sinners and need to repent; it offers forgiveness for sins simply through faith; it insists that Jesus actually rose from the dead and violated the laws of nature; it calls people to submit to this Jesus rather than to existing kings, emperors and religious leaders.

That was true 2,000 years ago, and it’s the same today. Our proclamation is exactly the same; and the message is just as unpopular now as it was then. But it’s also just as true and life-changing and rewarding!

If Jesus is Lord, we need to be determined to stand firm for Jesus whatever the consequences. So we need to be prepared beforehand: ready for opposition before we’re opposed; ready for temptation before we’re tempted; ready for persecution before we’re persecuted; fully committed to Jesus, come what may. And, as I’ve said so many times: it’s worth it!


(Belated) Pentecost Post

This year, the first Sunday in June was Pentecost: the third most important festival in the Christian year, but one that receives much less public attention than Christmas and Easter – at least I have never noticed any Pentecost crackers anywhere…

But make no mistake: the church depends just as much on Pentecost as on the other two for its existence. Pentecost is the celebration of the Holy Spirit coming to the followers of Jesus, in accordance with promises given in the Old Testament, and without the Holy Spirit there would be no church.

Jesus told his followers to preach the Good News everywhere; but he also promised persecution and opposition. The Holy Spirit gave them – and us – the necessary courage to go out and preach the gospel. Without the Spirit, we Christians wouldn’t spread the gospel.

Jesus told his followers to be perfect, like the Father is perfect. This would be absolutely impossible in our own strength; but with the Spirit living in us, we will be enabled to live lives pleasing to God. Without the Spirit, we Christians wouldn’t be any different from the rest of the world.

Jesus told his followers that he couldn’t teach them everything; they weren’t ready yet. Instead the Holy Spirit would guide them into the full truth, and so he did; and we have that further teaching in the New Testament. Without the Spirit, we Christians wouldn’t know the truth about Jesus.

But the most important aspect of the Spirit is this: he connects us to the Father, and is the guarantee of our future redemption. If you are a follower of Jesus, you have been given the Spirit as a down-payment; don’t ignore this amazing power residing in you!

Evidence of Evidence

Whenever I discuss faith on Twitter, sooner or later we run into the issue of “evidence”: I claim to believe on the basis of evidence, while my opponents often claim there is no evidence. Both can’t be right, and I maintain that there is plenty; but what do I actually mean when I talk about “evidence”?

First: evidence isn’t same as proof. Real proof is only found in mathematics, I’m told, and that’s not what I’m talking about. Evidence, on the other hand, is “anything presented in support of an assertion” (Wikipedia), and that’s exactly what I want to present to you: lots of actual, incontrovertible facts that support the assertion that Christianity is true.

Exhibit A: the universe. I know Stephen Hawking and others argue that the universe “created itself”; I fail to be impressed. Nothing creates itself, so the fact that something does exist suggests there is a divine Creator. There may of course be other plausible explanations, but so far I haven’t heard one.

Exhibit B: morality. Most people agree that there is right and wrong, good and bad; atheists often base their accusations against religion on such ethical assumptions. Where does this idea come from? If life is just a matter of surviving long enough to reproduce, there’s no room for either justice or mercy; if there is no absolute law-giver, what you consider “right” and “wrong” is just your personal preference which can’t be imposed on anyone else. There’s no reason evolution would bring about a conscience; so where did it come from, if it wasn’t implanted by an intrinsically moral Creator?

Exhibit C: the Bible. No, I’m not saying you should “just believe what the Bible says”! The Bible may or may not be reliable; but its existence is a fact, and it has to be taken seriously as part of the evidence – not just dismissed out of hand as “fairy-tales”.

For starters, nobody has ever staked their life on a fairy-tale being true. There are no followers of Cinderella in the world; Jesus, on the other hand, has millions of followers who claim that the story is worth dying for.

Secondly, fairy-tales are generally set in a land far away, once upon a time, with unidentifiable characters and places. Christianity is based on a particular person, clearly located in a particular country at a certain time in history, and whose existence can be objectively verified.

Here’s another big difference: in fairy-tales and legends talking animals, walking trees, magical objects and people with special “powers” are all seen as quite normal, par for the course, no explanation given or expected. By contrast, in the Bible you only find the supernatural breaking into regular human history at irregular intervals, and it’s always presented as God’s direct intervention, never as a natural phenomenon. Miracles are so called precisely because people knew such events were not normal; Joseph planned to divorce Mary, which shows that he (or at least the narrator of the Nativity) knew as well as we do that virgins don’t get pregnant!

Plus, the supernatural events in the Bible “make sense”: they aren’t just irrational violations of natural law, but happen for a reason. Unlike many legends and fairy-tales, the biblical universe is coherent, and clearly recognisable as the same universe that we live in.

There are many books (e.g. by Lee Strobel and J Warner Wallace) that explore the general reliability of the New Testament, so I won’t argue that here. I’ll just point to one particular piece of biblical evidence: the episode where Peter denies Jesus before the crucifixion. This is actually one of the strongest pieces of evidence in favour of the reliability of the gospels. Nobody in their right mind would make up a story about the first Christian leader denying Jesus! The only explanation for its inclusion is that it must have happened; but the only reason Peter would have told anyone is if he was forgiven afterwards so it didn’t matter – which implies he really did meet the risen Jesus …

Exhibit D: the church and its message. By the middle of the first century, there were Christian communities all over the Roman Empire. By the mid-60s there were enough of them in Rome for Nero to be aware of them and pick them as scapegoats. These early Christians were prepared to die for their faith, rather than deny Jesus. And remember that these Christians proclaimed a Messiah who had been crucified – a ridiculous concept, not one that was likely to attract new followers on its own merits.

So what made thousands of people leave their inherited religion (whether Judaism or paganism) and claim allegiance to a Messiah who had been executed as a criminal? I don’t think there is any way to explain the explosive spread of Christianity without taking the power of God into consideration.

It’s also important to note that the early church didn’t proclaim a new set of ethics, but the resurrection of the crucified Messiah – because they were convinced he was alive again.

Everything points to the tomb actually being empty. If the Romans or the Jewish leaders had known where the body was, they would have brought it out and put an end to the whole thing as soon as it started. The disciples stood to gain nothing: the church was persecuted for the first two centuries of its existence, and there was neither money nor honour involved in preaching Jesus. Nobody willingly dies for something they know is a lie!

Note also that the four gospels give slightly different accounts of the resurrection morning, as always happens when different people give an account of the same event. This suggests the authors got their info from different sources who had not colluded with each other, but who independently of each other claimed to have seen the empty tomb and the risen Jesus.

By the way, if there was no resurrection, why didn’t the disciples just disperse after the crucifixion? On all counts, an executed Messiah was a failure, and if the disciples didn’t actually meet the risen Jesus, there is no reason they would have hung around in Jerusalem, where Jesus’ enemies held sway. The obvious thing to do would be to go back home and forget all about Jesus; surely the foolishness (and danger!) of continuing to follow an executed Messiah would be worse than the embarrassment of going home and admitting they were wrong!

Exhibit E: changed lives. Millions of people can testify to radically changed lives as well as more low-key encounters with Jesus. Such claims can rarely be tested scientifically, but they are still valid as evidence: the fact that all these people claim to have experienced something beyond the physical has to be explained, and to me, the most simple explanation is that there is something beyond what can be seen and heard.

There we are: that’s probably the main evidence I would present to any sceptic. So just one final word:

Some atheists refer to God as a “sky fairy”, implying he’s just as real and just as believable as fairies at the bottom of the garden. But from the Christian perspective there is a big difference: fairies are optional: the garden can happily exist without them; God is the gardener, without whom there wouldn’t be a garden to begin with. Scientists can study the garden (and discover that there doesn’t seem to be any fairies in it); they can’t access the Gardener unless he chooses to reveal himself to them.

This I believe he has done throughout the history of humankind but supremely when he came to earth in Jesus. If you don’t at least investigate properly who he was and what he did, how can you claim to be objective and unbiased?


Christian Myths

Did you realise that there are all sorts of things we Christians think are biblical, but on closer examination it’s not actually true? Here are three such “Christian myths”:

Paul changed his name when he became a Christian. No, he didn’t. It was very common for Jews back then to have two names, one Jewish and one Greco-Roman. So when this realigned Pharisee started preaching Jesus in the Gentile world, he used ‘Paul’; in Jewish circles he would still have been ‘Saul’. (Incidentally I do the same: in the UK my name is “day-vid”, while it’s “dar-vid” in Sweden.)

St Peter is guarding the gates of heaven. Actually, when Jesus gave Peter the keys of the Kingdom, he wasn’t talking about Peter deciding who gets into heaven, which would be theologically impossible. This idea is based on a centuries-old misunderstanding of the words “kingdom of heaven”, which never refer to “the place where our souls go when we die” but to the Kingdom of God: the entire realm – past, present, future, visible and invisible – where Jesus reigns as King. Peter having the keys is probably a reference to the universal preaching of the gospel of the Kingdom, which started with Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost.

On judgment day, God will weigh up my good deeds and my bad ones to see if I’ve made it to heaven. Now, this is about as wrong as it gets; this is Islam, not Christianity. Nowhere does the Bible teach that you can earn your place in heaven by totting up enough good deeds.

On the contrary, the Bible states that we can’t work our way to heaven. All sin, every sin, separates us from God, and it doesn’t matter how many good things we do: we are still separated from God. The only way we can get into heaven – or better, become children of God and citizens of the Kingdom of God – is by trusting that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for all our sins. Once we believe and receive, we are in; there’s no need to wait until you die to know if you’re a child of God or not!

But, you ask, does it really matter if we get these things wrong? Well, maybe the first two don’t matter that much; but the third one is vital. If you get that one wrong, you risk missing out on an eternity with Jesus – and if you are a child of God through faith, you don’t have to spend your life worrying about whether or not you’re “good enough”. Don’t let faulty theology deprive you of the joy of your salvation!

So, Am I a Heretic Or Not?

This coming Sunday my evening sermon is on 2 Tim 4:1-7, where Paul exhorts the young pastor Timothy to keep preaching the Word, because there will lots of false teachers in the church. This depressing warning made me think again about all the divisions within the Christian church, and how easy it seems to be to be called a false teacher by one branch or another. I for one would definitely earn that label from a variety of corners:

Some would say I’m dangerously deceived and possibly demon-possessed because I pray in tongues; others would question my salvation if I didn’t.

Some would insist that God can’t bless my ministry because I don’t support Israel; others would accuse me of condoning injustice if I did. (For the record, I don’t support the Palestinian authorities either – there, now everybody hates me.)

Some would say I’m rejecting God’s work when I’m critical of weird practices coming out of Bethel Redding; others would be suspicious of me because I still consider them part of the Christian family.

Some believe I deny babies the saving grace of God because I won’t baptise them; others would think I believed in salvation by magic if I did.

Some confidently proclaim that my preaching will never be effective as long as I’m not using the KJV; others probably accuse me of being a crypto-fundamentalist because of my conviction that the Bible (in any translation) is the infallible Word of God.

Some would be upset because I find serious fault with Catholic doctrine; others would accuse me of compromising the faith by participating in joint events with Catholics.

Some would say I’m legalistic because I preach holiness and discipleship; many more would accuse me of antinomianism because of my emphasis on grace and free forgiveness and (as Rend Collective sing) “countless second chances”.

And of course some would probably consign me to eternal damnation simply because of my taste in music…

I could go on, but you get the point: when you look at the wide spectrum of Christian sub-divisions, it’s sometimes difficult to determine what is permissible doctrinal variation, and what is genuinely false teaching. All the above positions (and many more) are held by Christians, people who believe in the same Jesus but who struggle to understand and listen to each other.

Now, I’m not going to say that anything goes or that doctrine is irrelevant – anyone who knows me would know I believe strongly in the concept of ‘truth’. Instead my plea would be:

Let’s read the Bible together to try and determine what is permissible variation and what is going too far.

Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt, until it’s clear that someone has definitely departed from the core truths of the Gospel.

Let’s remember to be on our guard against Satan – he hates us and will happily disseminate false doctrine – but also that we’re saved by faith in Jesus, not by correct doctrine.

Let’s always stand up for the truth of the Bible – but let’s also try and understand each other, before we assume that we are the only ones who have truly understood the Gospel…


How Sweet the Sound…

How amazing is grace?

Amazing enough to sing about. A lot. If you count the songs and hymns in any Christian compilation, I think you’ll discover that there are many more songs about God’s grace than about his judgment… and that is as it should be. Why? Because whereas his judgment is necessitated by human sin, God’s grace is an integral aspect of his character. If Adam and Eve had never sinned, God would still be full of grace – we just wouldn’t be as aware of it, as there would not be a judgment and therefore no need for us to be saved by grace from that judgment.

Amazing enough to write books about. Yes, there are books about God’s judgment as well (and some of them are quite spectacular) – but I think the ones about grace have impacted more lives more permanently, and that is as it should be. I can particularly recommend Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? – I have a copy if anyone wants to borrow it.

Amazing enough to go on and on about. You may have noticed that preachers often have their favourite themes or texts that they come back to, over and over again. And I’m not ashamed of preaching grace until the cows come home (and afterwards as well). Martin Luther said that “No nobler preaching exists than that of grace”, and I have to say I agree with him!

So don’t switch off just because you think you’ve heard it all before! We can never hear enough about God’s grace towards us sinners – and as it runs as a scarlet thread through the entire Bible, it would be futile (and soul-destroying) to try and avoid it…

The Only Basis for Our Unity

There’s no doubt that our attitude to Easter is absolutely crucial. The Christian faith hinges on the events of Passover AD 33 (or possibly AD 30): if the death of Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t the sacrificial death of the Lamb of God, and if the tomb he was laid in wasn’t vacated a few days later, Christianity is nothing, and all branches of Christianity agree on the importance of Easter and the Resurrection.

But what about the things we don’t agree on? Even within our own fellowship, there are different views about a number of issues, some of which are fairly important. What should we do about that?

To begin with, it’s NOT the case that everybody has to agree with the pastor! 🙂

Secondly, we need to distinguish between primary and secondary issues. Primary issues are ones that directly affect our salvation: the character of God, the identity of Jesus, the truth of his death and resurrection, how you become a child of God etc. When it comes to such issues, the Bible is quite clear, and when that’s case we obviously need to adhere as closely as possible to what the Bible teaches.

Now, some people feel the Bible is too old-fashioned and we should move on to another basis of faith. But how could we do that? The Bible is the only authorised record of God’s self-revelation to mankind; it may be hard to understand at times, but we simply don’t have another basis for knowing God. If we “move on” from the Bible, we will simply be making up our own religion, using our own limited reason and experiences, probably heavily influenced by the current persuasions of society around us. How is that in any way better than trusting God’s own inspired Word?

Thirdly, we need to remember that our salvation is by grace, not by doctrine. You can be wrong on a number of issues, even important issues, and still be a child of God. Our entry to heaven is not predicated on giving the right answers to tricky doctrinal questions, but on whether we have received the forgiveness and restoration that is offered in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

That’s why those events so long ago are still so important. We’re not just safeguarding a set of doctrines, we’re worshipping a risen Saviour – and since that is the most exciting news the world will ever hear, let’s carry on celebrating his victory all year round, not just at Easter!