Richard Haas No Solution

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERARichard Haas recently spent a week in Northern Ireland completing over 30 engagements with politicians, academics, clergy, the Loyal Orders, business leaders and senior civil servants.  His purpose in fulfilling these engagements is to begin a process to find common ground on three outstanding issues not dealt with the 1998 Good Friday agreement – flags and emblems, parades and the legacy of the past.

At the end of that week a local newspaper reported that Richard Haas had a great deal of confidence and optimism regarding the process.

Haas said ‘We come away from this week with a strong sense of possibility about what can be and what should be accomplished’.  He also stated ‘Based on [our] experience and the quality of conversations and also our familiarity with the issues I believe there is a real chance to succeed’.  In addition to those statements Haas suggested that these issues would be resolved by December 31st 2013.

Now, I’m not a pessimist – although my wife may not agree with me!  I am not against any peace process, compromise, or progress in Northern Ireland.  Rather, I do hope and pray that there may be some compromise and some movement toward a more peaceful Northern Ireland.

However, I do believe that Richard Haas, in and of himself, has no solution to the problem of Northern Ireland.  This man cannot bring peace and unity to Northern Ireland – even though by the sounds of things it won’t be for a lack of trying.

The reason he cannot bring peace and unity to Northern Ireland is there is only one person who can bring peace and unity to Northern Ireland – that is Jesus Christ.

Northern Ireland’s problem may manifest itself in disagreements over flags and emblems, parades and the legacy of the past.  There may be sectarian tensions, failed attempts to create a shared future and stalling on the Peace Centre at the Maze prison.  But all of this is the outward expression of a much deeper issue – sin.

Sin can only be dealt with by one man, and his name is not Richard Haas.

Jesus Christ, on the cross bore the burden of sin in his perfect body.  He bore our sin – the sin of a divided Northern Ireland.  This means that by putting our hope in him, by confessing our sin and turning from it, we can find peace and unity.  This peace and unity is not just with God though, but with one another.

Ephesians 2:14‘For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility’ (ESV)

We cannot place our hopes, as Christians, in an American diplomat invited to solve our problems.  As Christians of Northern Ireland our hope must be in Jesus Christ – the proclamation of the gospel is the only solution to our problems.

Now this does not mean that we abandon politics and neglect the leaders of our country.  Nor is this a call for politicians to abandon the avenues open to them to make progress.  God has given government as a gift for the good of the people (Romans 13) and those in government must seek to fulfil that role.

But the reality is that no matter how successful politicians are, they cannot solve our deepest problem.  Our hope for peace and unity cannot be found in fellow human beings – it must be found in Jesus Christ and in him alone.

He is the one who holds the solution to our problem, he is the one who has dealt with sin and therefore he is the one who can offer peace and unity, not only with himself but with each other too.  Therefore, he is the one we should put our hope in.

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What is “Gospel Convergence”? Part 4

The purpose of Gospel Convergence is to provide:

“Meditations on the Life of Jesus in the Mission of His Church for the Glory of God”

converging arrows vimeoThis encapsulates our Theological Vision which can be broken down into three complementary points:

  • Christ-Centred
  • Mission Orientated
  • Doxologically Driven

Mission Orientated

We believe that to be aligned with God in being Christ-Centred necessarily results in being Mission Orientated. That is, we do not want our love for Jesus to terminate on itself but rather to overflow in service to him and others.

Mission begins and belongs to God; the mission is his, he started it and he has graciously invited us to join with him in it through faith in Jesus.

The God of Mission

The Scriptures tell us the story of Yahweh (the Lord) who out of the overflow of his love for himself and his own glory created this world and all that is within it and furthermore made himself personally known to those whom he created in his own image.

The Scriptures open with the words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1 ESV) but the story begins, as the Apostle Paul tells us, “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4 ESV). Prior to creation and time itself God existed eternally and enjoyed perfect community within himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in all his Trinitarian glory without need or want, being eternally satisfied in his own sufficiency (Acts 17:24-25).

Creation exists to showcase the incomparableness of God, to make him known for who he is in all his goodness. This is why in Genesis 1 we hear God declaring his creation to be “good” six times (vv. 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). The goodness we see in creation is but a shadow of which God is the substance. Creation does not exist for its own sake, nor even simply for ours, but ultimately for God’s that we might know him more deeply and enjoy him more fully.

After the creation of humanity God took a step back, so to speak, and he “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31 ESV). With humanity creation came just that little bit closer to its incomparable Creator. Humanity, because it has been created in God’s Image (Genesis 1:26-27), uniquely reflects God in a way the rest of creation does not. Thus with the Advent of Humanity creation became “very good”. As God’s Image bearers we have a special responsibility over and towards the rest of God’s creation. We are to have dominion over creation as God’s stewards, taking care of God’s creation by cultivating it and enjoying it (Genesis 1:28-30). This was God’s original intention for humanity in his creation: to fill the earth with worshippers of God who would fill the earth with worshippers of God and so on ad infinitum. God’s mission remains the same.

The Resurrection: Deus Ex Machina or Eucatastrophe?

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:19-21 ESV)

Imagine that fateful Sunday evening.

The sun is setting outside the window. Its shutters drawn, flickers of light intrude through cracks in the screen meant to keep out prying eyes.

The doors, locked and bolted against unwanted “guests”, proves no barrier to the fear that continues to grow in the hearts of all present, threatening to overwhelm them.

resurrection3The silence: deafening. Broken only by an excruciating groan from the protesting joints of a wooden chair as one of those seated shifts their weight.

No one speaks. But volumes are communicated as ashamed, bloodshot and guilt-ridden eyes meet across the room and quickly withdraw.

Suddenly, a familiar voice, clear and strong, declares, “Peace be with you.”

As if the roof were ripped off the house and the noon day sun flooded the room so their hearts were engulfed in joy.

In one glorious moment their inconsolable sorrow was unexpectantly turned to inexpressible exultation.

Deus Ex Machina

From the disciples point of view the Resurrection must have seemed like deus ex machina (pronounced ‘day-s ex mac-in-ah) because they obviously didn’t see it coming.

Deus ex machina is a Latin literary term that literally translates to ‘god out of a machine’ and refers to an event in a story which suddenly and unexplainably resolves an unsolvable problem that a character or characters have gotten themselves into. It is as though, in the closing chapters of a book or the final moments in a film, the hero is about to be unquestionably devoured by an evil monster when suddenly, out of nowhere, they are rescued by a never before seen character riding in on a white horse to slay the aforementioned evil monster. And they all live happily ever after.

Most literary critics regard deus ex machina pejoratively because it shatters the reality of the world created by the author as it removes any sense of real peril (the hero is going to be rescued anyway so why worry?).

Was the resurrection a god out of a machine? Was it an unexplainable resolution that no one saw coming? Or is there another explanation?

Eucatastrophe

J.R.R. Tolkien believed there is. In his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ he coined the term Eucatastrophe which he describes as,

the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): … it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of  deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium [good news], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief…”

It is differentiated from deus ex machina by its “inner consistency of reality”, meaning that it arises naturally from the story having been foreshadowed by the author.

Tolkien continues, describing the Gospel from this perspective,

“The Gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable Eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world [that is, our world]; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the Eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the Eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”

Tolkien could speak of the resurrection as the Eucatastrophe, the sudden joyous turn, of the story of the incarnation because it had been foreshadowed so well by the Author. It was no deus ex machina plotting device hastily thrown in so we might have a cheerful, happy ending.

Time and again Jesus predicted his own death and subsequent resurrection (Matthew 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:17-19; Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:32-34; Luke 9:22, 44-45, 18:31-34; John 2:19-22). The disciples should not have been surprised by Jesus’ death and resurrection. They had Jesus’ word that his death would not be the final word in the story, not to mention the testimony of Scripture.

Hundreds of years before the Incarnation the prophet Isaiah foreshadowed the resurrection in these words, speaking of the Suffering Servant of the Lord, the Messiah,

“And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” (Isaiah 53:9-10 ESV)

Like the disciples Jesus’ resurrection speaks, “Peace,” to us in this the present, ‘primary world’ because we have now been declared right with God on his account (Romans 4:25, 5:1) and can now live in anticipation of his promise of peace in the future world where Legend and History have met and fused’ and we see with gladness the Lord who makes all things new (Revelation 21:1-8).

Should Christians Read Secular Literature?

So, there I was. Attempting to pass time in the thriving economic hub of Ballymena. Clothes stores, card shops and perfume boutiques surround me, attempting to lure me in with unfathomable offers. And so, I sought refuge in the one place I thought I’d understand: Waterstones. Entering, I am immediately greeted by bestsellers and essential purchases of whose authorship I am, ashamedly, unaware. I lift down the most enigmatically named novel, with an equally mysterious cover, and proceed to read the blurb. Suddenly, I realise that, of all books to select, this strangely titled Fifty Shades of Grey is undoubtedly the least appropriate for an ESV toting male. I panic, and walk rather briskly out of Waterstones, refraining from oxygen until I reach the familiar surroundings of our local Christian bookstore.

booksYou might be able to identify with my non-Christian literary culture ineptitude; you, too, might prefer the comfortable surroundings and recognisable authors of your local Christian bookshop, yet be totally overwhelmed by wealth of secular literature. And this raises an important question: should Christians read secular literature?

Honestly, I think we should! But, rather than concluding here, I’ll quickly consider the biblical relationship between words and Truth; then, we’ll reflect on how our forefathers viewed secular learning, before finally considering how we should read, and the benefits we can receive from, secular literature.

Well, as we know, God places great emphasis on words. In fact, not only is God the Word, – “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1) – but He has chosen to reveal, and bring glory to, Himself through words. Moses, in Deuteronomy 9:10, recounts the moment in which God choose to record “with [His] finger all the words that [He] had spoken” to the Israelites on Mount Sinai; “the One who created the cosmos by the word of His mouth in the beginning…now put finger to stone and wrote” (Reinke, 25). Therefore this Word, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12), is unique among any other literary work.

This God-breathed uniqueness marks Scripture as being the supreme source of knowledge and wisdom, and the model and guide for all writing, in any past, present or future culture. Augustine recognised this, in De doctrina Christiana, and stressed the pre-eminence of Scripture, but he did not discount secular learning. Instead, Augustine allegorises the relationship between Christian and non-Christian literature through the Exodus: the Israelites are commanded to take the “gold and silver jewellery” (Exodus 11:2) of the Egyptians, which Augustine corresponds to “any useful human learning” (Huppé, 4) which reinforces Biblical teaching. Calvin furthers this by highlighting the impact God’s common grace has on man’s literary endeavour. In his commentary on Timothy, Titus and Philemon, Calvin ascertained that “all truth is from God…consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it, for it has come from God” (301). This truth cannot be bound by genre or form, and therefore we should employ our Biblical worldview, directly discerned by the revelation of God in Scripture, to engage with both secular fiction and non-fiction.

This worldview is essential for Christian readership of both Christian and non-Christian works; a firm grasp of God’s teaching will prevent us from being swayed by the literary distortion, subtle or otherwise, of Truth. No work, bar Scripture, is living and active with salvation power, but the truth which accords with Scripture within a non-Christian book can be useful tool to further promote us to wise living.

Take, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American classic, The Great Gatsby. “How”, we might wonder, “does a novel concerned with the Prohibition reinforce Biblical teaching?”. Well, if we read The Great Gatsby through the lens of Scripture, we can see that it attests to the futility of man-made idols. Gatsby takes a created being, Daisy, and attempts to confer divinity onto her. Gatsby’s wild parties, fantastic house and involvement in the criminal world all highlight his chief end in life: the glorification of Daisy. Yet, throughout Gatsby, Fitzgerald clearly displays that Daisy’s imperfect human state cannot possibly fulfil Gatsby’s own expectations, let alone his purpose in life. Therefore, we can see that Gatsby reinforces the Biblical truth of the foolishness of idols (Isaiah 44:6-23 is a prime example), and in conjunction with Scripture can perhaps convict us of the idols in our own hearts.

In closing, I believe we should read non-Christian literature because Jesus, the author of our faith, stands as the greatest storyteller of all time. Stories such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son have gripped, and will continue to grip, the imagination for many generations. Reading good stories, which may reinforce Biblical truth, will develop our imaginations and increase our appreciation for the intricacies of Jesus’s stories and God’s Word as a whole. Unlike Gatsby, truth does not elude us; we will read and run with perseverance, stretching our minds and arms farther as God grows within us a greater understanding of Scripture. And then one fine morning, we will stand on the shores of heaven, and see the One who is all Truth in the fullness of His glory.

Hopefully, this article has been useful, and has at least caused you to pause and consider engaging with the wealth of secular literature available towards us. If you’d like to further consider this topic, then I’d strongly recommend grabbing a copy of Tony Reinke’s Lit (Crossway, 2011.).

The Importance of a ‘Hinge’ Text

This summer I had the opportunity to preach on perhaps the second most famous missionary passage in Matthew – Matthew 9:35-38 (the most famous undoubtedly is Matthew 28:18-20).

As I prepared to preach Matthew 9:35-38 I quickly realised these four verses were inextricably linked to the surrounding context.  I had often heard this passage preached without any mention of the surrounding context and yet as I studied it I saw that this was a very important ‘hinge’ text.

hingeWhat I mean by ‘hinge’ text is that it connected that which went before with what came afterwards.

One of the unique features of Matthew’s Gospel is the five extended sections of Jesus’ teaching which Matthew records.  Matthew 9:35-38 forms a hinge between the first section of teaching and the second.

Matthew 9:35 reads,

‘And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction’.

This is almost identical to Matthew 4:23,

‘And he [Jesus] went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people’.

These two verses bracket the first section of teaching.

However, verse 35 also gives a summary of the previous five chapters.

Jesus was teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.

There is probably no better example of this than the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7).  This was duly noted by those who were listening to Jesus, ‘And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes’ (Mt. 7:28-29).

Jesus was also healing every disease and every affliction.

Chapters 8-9 recount effectively Jesus healing ministry – he cleansed a leper, healed a Centurion’s servant, cast out demons from two men, healed a paralytic, brought a girl back to life, stopped a woman’s bleeding, made two blind men to see and made a mute man to speak.  Again, the people speak ‘Never was anything like this seen in Israel’ (Mt. 9:33).

Both Jesus’ teaching and his healing were evidence of the compassion he felt for the crowd of people following after him, like a shepherd toward helpless sheep (v.36).

The need of more labourers for the ripe harvest, noted in verse 37, leads to Jesus’ call for the disciples to pray (Mt. 9:38).  They are, however, unaware of the fact that they will become the answer to their own prayers.

Immediately after praying Jesus gives his disciples authority (Mt. 10:1).  What authority does he give them? among other things, the authority to heal every disease and every affliction.  For the first nine chapters of Matthew the disciples had simply been spectators to Jesus and his ministry.  But now they are co-workers with Jesus in his ministry.  This leads to Jesus second section of teaching regarding his disciples’ involvement in the work (Mt. 10:5-42).

This was quite a remarkable step for a Rabbi/Teacher to take.  Rabbi’s/Teacher’s would often have disciples following them, but rarely would a disciple ever be included in the work of a Rabbi/Teacher.  Rather, disciples were simply commissioned to commit the Rabbi’s/Teacher’s teaching to memory.

What’s the necessity of knowing all this?  Surely, when all is said and done the application is the same:  Jesus wants his disciples today to pray for more labourers.

Well, yes and no.  Yes, Jesus does want his disciples to pray for more labourers.  However, that is not where it ends.  These verses (Mt. 9:35-38) display Jesus mission, and the power exercised in that mission, by pointing back to the preceding five chapters in Matthew.  But, they also point forward to the great truth that Jesus graciously includes his disciples in that mission.

As we pray for more labourers we soon come to the realisation that we are the answer to our prayer.  Jesus calls us to join him in his mission and we go in his authority!

What is “Gospel Convergence”? Part 3

The purpose of Gospel Convergence is to provide:

“Meditations on the Life of Jesus in the Mission of His Church for the Glory of God”

This encapsulates our Theological Vision which can be broken down into three complementary points:

  • Christ-Centred
  • Mission Orientated
  • Doxologically Driven

Christ-Centred

We believe that to be aligned with God in how he designed his universe to operate means being Christ-Centred, both in how we read and interpret the Scriptures and also in how we live our lives as individuals and within our various and varied communities.

This has profound implications for every area of our lives and we hope that we can help others, as well as ourselves, to see Christ clearer from the pages of Scripture to even the most mundane parts of our day and everything in-between.

We believe that being Christ-Centred has unambiguous Biblical warrant and tremendous practical application.

Practical Application (Part 2)

We have a saying in Northern Ireland, “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing that a tomato doesn’t belong in a fruit salad.” Which is to say that there is a difference between intelligence and wisdom. Likewise, there is a difference between having an informational knowledge of Jesus and a transformational knowledge of him. Paul wants the church in Colossae to have a transformational knowledge of Jesus by virtue of his being in them and their being in him.

A transformational knowledge of Jesus is one that results in having our hearts, as well as our minds, changed by the gospel so that we know how to live with Jesus as the centre of our lives and desire to live a life with Jesus at the centre.

C.S. Lewis superbly and succinctly explains the difference between a life centred on Christ and one which is not:

“Look for yourself, and you will find loneliness and despair. But look for Christ and you will find Him and everything else.”

Lewis was clearly referencing the letter to the Hebrews:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” (Hebrews 12:1-3 ESV)

The author of the letter to the Hebrews and C.S. Lewis are essentially saying the same thing, that in order to live a Christ-Centred life a person needs to take their focus off themselves and “look to/for Jesus” because only when we, by the grace of God, do this will our lives gradually become re-attuned to God’s cosmic symphony.

Looking to Jesus is trusting in who he has made us as a new creation in his image and consequently what God then says about who we are by merit of Christ’s finished work on our behalf. So when we read in Matthew,

“And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”” (3:16-17 ESV)

We can know, because we belong to Jesus and are “in Christ”, when God looks at us he says of us, “This is my beloved son/daughter, with whom I am well pleased.” We did nothing to deserve this gracious privilege, it is all because of Jesus and this should cause us to marvel and ask ourselves, “Who is this God who freely justifies undeserving sinners like us?”

To know God in this way, deeply and personally, is to be Christ-Centred.

The irony of this is that we will only find ourselves by looking outside of ourselves to Another, Jesus Christ.

To be Christ-Centred, then, is not to have all the answers but to have the one Answer who truly matters and really makes a difference (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:18-22).

Crushed by Trust, Comforted by Disappointment

Disappointment can be crushing.

We have all trusted someone who has let us down. Sometimes this is immediately devastating while other times it is slowly corrosive, gradually wearing away at our relationship while at the same time building to a breaking point.

Some of us have trouble trusting because we have experienced crushing disappointment. Someone we never thought would let us down failed us when we needed them. Maybe just once or perhaps repeatedly. And so we live in fear of trusting others because we don’t want to feel the pain of disappointment again.

It becomes no easy thing to trust others.

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, “To [trust] at all is to be vulnerable.”

Experience is an influential teacher. It shapes us in ways we may not immediately recognise because it operates on a subconscious level. This makes it very easy for our thinking to be informed primarily by our experience. When someone disappoints us we say to ourselves, “Why should I even bother trusting others when all they do is let me down? It would be better if I stopped trusting others altogether.” Over time we come to truly believe this and consequently live as if this were true because it becomes true for us.

If our whole understanding of life were to come solely from our experience we might be justified in thinking this way. However, as Christians we have a greater authority than our experiences. As Christians our ultimate authority in life is God and what he has said in the Scriptures. If we believe this then we need to view our life experiences the way God does and interpret them in light of what he has said about them.

What God has said about us overrules what we say about ourselves.

So then, how does God want us to interpret our experiences? How should we think about them and what should we tell ourselves about them? As we have noted above, what we tell ourselves about our experiences shapes how we live in light of them.

In order to rightly interpret trust and disappointment we need to consider them in the framework of the gospel.

Trust is foundational to the gospel. Unless a person trusts in Jesus they can’t be saved, it is a prerequisite for salvation (Mark 1:14-15). This trust, however, is not a natural trust; it is not something a person is capable of innately. Rather, it requires a supernatural act of God to create this trust in someone:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)

This gift of faith (or trust) makes a person able to trust where they were once unable to trust. Furthermore, this gift of faith is exercised throughout the entirety of our life and is not limited to justification but is necessary for our on-going sanctification (1 Peter 1:5; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-2).

Not only is trust foundational to the gospel but it is also essential in order to love. Love is built upon trust. Our love for God is predicated upon our trust in God. We would not love him if we did not trust him, likewise, we cannot truly come to love another person until we trust them.

Our love is only as deep as our trust.

If our greatest relationship, with God, requires trust doesn’t that tell us that trust is necessary for all of our other relationships?

Trust is part of the fabric of reality as God designed it; it’s how relationships, both vertical and horizontal, grow and flourish. Trust is therefore good and necessary but it is not easy. What is easy is convincing ourselves that it is better to not trust rather than to take the risk of trusting someone which may or may not end in the pain of disappointment.

Is it worth it?

It’s natural to be afraid of trusting others if our experience is characterised by disappointment. Nevertheless, the question of whether we will trust or not comes down to whose reality we accept as true: God’s or ours?

In God’s reality, as in ours, people will let us down. There will still be pain and disappointment. However, in God’s reality that pain and disappointment does not degenerate into bitterness because in God’s reality because of Jesus we are able to forgive and reconcile with those who disappoint us and break our trust as God has forgiven and reconciled with us because of Jesus.

Before you decide on whose reality you want to accept consider these words from John Calvin,

We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us…. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions… as consulting our self-interest is the pestilence that most effectively leads to our destruction, so the sole haven of salvation is to be wise in nothing and to will nothing through ourselves but to follow the leading of the Lord alone.”

(Institutes 3.7.1)

The West Wing: An Old Testament Hermeneutic?

Warning: This blog post contains spoilers.

The West Wing

The West Wing is an American TV series which follows the (fictional) US President Josiah Bartlett through two terms in office.

The President is very intelligent, holding a Nobel Prize for economics. He possesses an air of morality which causes others to place their trust in him. He also comes across as very personable; with a sense of humour which is appreciated, a love for those who are close to him and a manner which wins friends and influences people.

In short President Bartlett is the model President, he is the ideal.

However, as the TV series progresses (over seven seasons) there seems to be a downward spiral. It very quickly becomes clear that the Presidency creates numerous tensions in his marriage. There are a number of decisions which the President makes that are morally debateable at best. But, undoubtedly, the biggest upset is the revelation that the President has been suffering from a remitting/relapsing course of MS for eight years. This revelation comes to light just before his election campaign for a second term in office.

Yet, it is not only with the President that we find a declining progression – this is also seen with his staff, as they slowly disappear. There is a feeling that even if the President doesn’t cut it, well, at least the staff surrounding him will bring hope.

This hope does not last.

To begin with the Deputy Communications Director leaves to pursue his own career in politics. The replacement for the Deputy Communications Director leaves to work for the Vice-President’s office. Then the Chief of Staff suffers a heart attack that puts him out of action. This results in the Press Secretary being promoted to Chief of Staff, but this then leaves a void in the Press office. After that the Deputy Chief of Staff leaves to run an election campaign for another candidate. Finally, to top it all off, the Communications Director is fired for a breach of confidential information.

By the end of the seven seasons the audience is left in disarray.

This President offered and promised so much – he looked like the ideal President. However, it did not develop and we are left wanting more. As the series ends a new candidate is running for Presidency with President Barlett’s former Deputy Chief of Staff at his side and the unspoken promise that, surely, he will do a better job, personally and professionally, than the previous President.

The Old Testament

The Old Testament also begins with an ideal man – Adam. He is a man in close relationship with the Creator, God. He is a man enjoying a marriage of purity. He is a man who lacks no food. He is a man with a clear purpose in life. He has everything that any man could want, he is the ideal.

Unfortunately this does not last, and by Genesis 3 Adam has messed up. He has disobeyed God, and as a result lost his relationship with him, damaged his relationship with his wife, finds food difficult to come by, lacks purpose and ends up like every other man since – wanting what was freely given in Genesis 1 and 2.

This leaves us looking to other men in the Old Testament to fill this void left by Adam – we look for another ideal man.

We find Noah who shows great faith in building an ark, but we are disappointed to find him naked and drunk shortly after the flood had subsided.

We see Moses who shows great character in leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, but we are saddened that he does not make it to the Promised Land.

We come across Gideon who defeats an innumerable army with only 300 men, but soon we find him blatantly disobeying God.

We find David who faithfully defeats Goliath and looks like the king Israel have always needed, but then we are horrified to find him tied up in an intricate maze of betrayal, adultery, murder and remorse.

We see his son Solomon claim the throne and build the magnificent Temple so God can dwell with his people, but later we find that his has slid into partying, drinking, womanising and searching for meaning in this life.

All of the major characters of the Old Testament fail – just like all of the major characters of The West Wing. Therefore, the reader of the Old Testament, like the audience of The West Wing, is left in disarray, wanting more. Thankfully, this is not where Scripture ends (unlike The West Wing). Scripture continues until an ideal man does appear, the God-man, Jesus Christ. In him we find all of the failures of the Old Testament corrected and we find hope for the individual.

This is how the Old Testament should be interpreted. It all points forward to the one who will not disappoint us, to the one who will not fail us, to the one who is perfect for us and to the praise of God, who through Scripture reveals the One to us: Jesus Christ, the Messiah.

What is “Gospel Convergence”? Part 2

The purpose of Gospel Convergence is to provide:

“Meditations on the Life of Jesus in the Mission of His Church for the Glory of God”

This encapsulates our Theological Vision which can be broken down into three complementary points:

  • Christ-Centred
  • Mission Orientated
  • Doxologically Driven

Christ-Centred

We believe that to be aligned with God in how he designed his universe to operate means being Christ-Centred, both in how we read and interpret the Scriptures and also in how we live our lives as individuals and within our various and varied communities.

This has profound implications for every area of our lives and we hope that we can help others, as well as ourselves, to see Christ clearer from the pages of Scripture to even the most mundane parts of our day and everything in-between.

We believe that being Christ-Centred has unambiguous Biblical warrant and tremendous practical application.

Practical Application (Part 1)

In considering the practical application of a Christ-Centred life we will turn to the Apostle Paul.

Two passages stand out as especially spectacular in addressing this: 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 and Colossians 1:24-2:5.

Paul writes to the church in Corinth,

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” (15:1-4 ESV)

Paul feels it is necessary to “remind” the church in Corinth “of the gospel”. Obviously the Corinthians knew the gospel, they were Christians so they had to have heard it before, otherwise they would not be a church. They could not have been justified (counted righteous) by God without having heard and responded to the gospel that Christ died for their sins, was buried and then raised on the third day.

What Paul is saying here is much deeper and more profound. Look at what he says about the gospel and how he is talking about it, it is “the gospel… in which you stand, and by which you are being saved”. Notice Paul’s use of present tense adverbs. Paul is reminding the Corinthian church that there is more to the gospel than simply justification. The gospel goes much, much deeper than justification alone. Paul wants the church in Corinth to remember the gospel is meant to pervade and permeate their whole life, that it is the means of their sanctification as well as their justification.

The gospel is so much bigger than we believe and this gospel is for all of life. It is the very centre of the Christian faith and as such everything else we believe and do must be the result of, must flow out of, our understanding that the gospel is far deeper and much broader than we can fully comprehend. Yet we can understand it in part (1 Corinthians 13:12), more than we deserve and enough for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).

This is a vital truth, this is oxygen. We can’t live without this truth being real, being present and active, in our hearts along with our minds.

The gospel, says Paul, results in both justification and sanctification when it is applied to our hearts. Justification happens once, sanctification, on the other hand, is an on-going process of messaging, sometimes forcefully, the truths of the gospel into our hearts by the Holy Spirit’s empowering grace. In 1 Corinthians Paul speaks of Christ-Centred sanctification more generally than he does in Colossians, which is more specific:

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” (Colossians 1:24-2:5 ESV)

In 1 Corinthians Paul reminds the church of the vastness of the gospel, that it is gloriously big, however, in Colossians he reminds the church that the gospel is unsearchably deep.

Paul first reminds the Colossians of the immense truth that Christ is in them which means that they are “in Christ” (cf. John 17:20-26), one of Paul’s favourite ways of speaking of being a Christian because it so succinctly communicates how God now considers us according to Christ’s perfect obedience, wrath-bearing death and victorious resurrection and not our own sinfulness. And, secondly, that in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Lessons in Humility from the Book of Daniel

One of the undertones of the book of Daniel is humility.

There is humility in Daniel’s refusal to eat the king’s food. He doesn’t make demands. He requests that he be tested and trusts God to be faithful as he seeks to honour him in a country far from his home (Daniel 1:8-16).

When Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, rather than taking credit for its interpretation, he gives God the glory (Daniel 2:27-30). As a result of this Nebuchadnezzar is humbled and praises God. His humility is, unfortunately, short lived but God doesn’t give up on him and relentlessly pursues Nebuchadnezzar and twice more humbles him until he truly repents of his pride (Daniel 2:47; 3:28-4:3; 4:34-37).

It is immensely encouraging to know that God is committed to the humility of the people he chooses for himself, even through our repeated failures to really grasp it.

In chapter 5 king Belshazzar is punished for his pride and idolatry. He, unlike his predecessor, finds no chance for repentance – or so it seems – because he is killed the very same night God pronounces judgement against him. Daniel comments that Belshazzar should have known better, knowing, as he did, the story of Nebuchadnezzar (5:17-23). “And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven.” (vv. 22-23a).

The story of the life and experiences of Nebuchadnezzar were a warning to subsequent kings. In his life they could see that there is a God in heaven who humbles the proud. Yet his life also encouraged humility in others because Nebuchadnezzar became even greater after his humiliation (Daniel 4:36b cf. Psalm 138:6; Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6). Knowing this Belshazzar should have chosen humility because he had heard, if not seen, the destructive and humiliating consequences of exalting one’s self above God Most High.

God was not under obligation to treat Belshazzar exactly as he had Nebuchadnezzar. He was not obligated to be merciful to either. But he was merciful to each in his own way.

He was merciful to Nebuchadnezzar by humbling him through humiliation, certainly not how Nebuchadnezzar would have chosen to learn humility I’m sure. But he was also merciful to Belshazzar in giving Nebuchadnezzar as an example.

Like the Israelites whose grandparents had settled in Canaan and who had not experienced the first Passover and the Exodus, or the crossing of the Red Sea, or even the conquest of Canaan as well as the countless moral failures of their ancestors and God’s consequent judgements upon their sin. They, and Belshazzar, were meant to learn humility from the past acts of God in history and the lives of people just like them. They should have been humbled by a God who is not content to remain aloof but who condescends to being involved in the lives of people. Those people and their stories of humility through humiliation stand as a witness against them and us, indictments on their and our unlawful and unjustified pride against God himself.

It is into this repetitive story that Jesus comes. He came to kill our pride through the humiliation of his death on the cross and to grant us the gift of humility through the exaltation of his glorious resurrection.

I love this ironic juxtaposition!

Humility is often misrepresented as though it means we need to be self-deprecating, helpful to others but never allowing others to help us and never being seen to accept the praise of others. This is not true humility because it remains centred on ourselves.

“Humility,” says Lewis, “is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.”

There is only one Person upon whom we can think that will produce in us humility (Philippians 2:1-11). If we make anyone else the highest object in our thoughts and affections it will invariably lead to pride because if we make a family member, a spouse, a friend, or anyone (or anything for that matter) our greatest concern then as we love and serve them we will come to believe them to be indebted to us for all the love we have shown them. We will tell ourselves that we have shown them more love than they have shown us and so we will begin to feel they owe us. Just wait until the person you love most does something to disappoint you or fail you and you’ll see.

However, if Jesus is the one we set our greatest affections and thoughts on then humility is guaranteed for the simple reason that we can never love Jesus more than he loves us.

We can never pay him back for the love he has shown us by living the perfect life we can never hope to live. By dying as our substitute, absorbing God’s wrath in our place, so we no longer have to. And by rising again to secure not only our present joy in him but also our even greater future joy that we have yet to experience with him in his renewed creation.

Jesus has freed us from the vicious cycle of self-love that ends only in misery to a humble, life-giving, self-forgetful, others-focused love that brings inexpressible joy.

We will live this way to the degree our thoughts and affections are taken up with him.