Beware the Lonely Verse

There is something about the ‘Lone Ranger’ type of character that captures our imaginations and affections. We all like the idea of an individual being a saviour of a group of people; a person who alone can do wondrous things. It doesn’t really matter whether they are an outlawed cowboy, a disgraced royal marine, a plain and simple Joe Ordinary or a geeky scientist. As long as they are someone who saves the day they capture our imaginations and our affections.

As Christians we can often treat Bible verses (or even parts of Bible verses) as ‘Lone Ranger’ characters. We pick one or two words, or a short phrase, and hope that it will save the day – capturing both our imaginations and affections along the way.

In fact many people have based business models on this premise – promise boxes, mugs with verses, tee-shirts with verses, and so on ad nauseam.

This is incredibly dangerous as it creates fictitious divisions in the biblical material.

I almost became a culprit myself recently:

I am currently reading through Ezekiel in my daily readings (well every Thursday is Ezekiel day at the moment). Recently I came across some verses which captured both my imagination and my affection:

Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am going to put an end to this proverb, and they will no longer quote it in Israel.’ Say to them, ‘The days are near when every vision will be fulfilled. For there will be no more false visions or flattering divinations among the people of Israel. But I the LORD will speak what I will, and it shall be fulfilled without delay. For in your days, you rebellious people, I will fulfil whatever I say, declares the Sovereign LORD.’” (Ezk. 12:21-25 NIV).

Once I had finished my readings there I was ready with Twitter to share with the world my ‘Lone Ranger’ verse – But I the LORD will speak what I will, and it shall be fulfilled without delay. What an inspiration that would be for the 80 odd people who follow me on Twitter! God speaks and acts, no matter what you face today our God is going to act without delay.

However, thankfully I paused before tweeting.

Part of my Bible College training taught me to always look at the context before assuming an understanding of a verse. In other words read the verses both before and after as they will help me understand what the verse is actually saying. What I realised stopped me from posting this verse on Twitter because as I read I realised that what God was promising to do was not going to be pleasant for his people.

The proverb that God was going to put an end to was ‘The days grow long, and every vision comes to nothing’ (v22 ESV). The people were mocking God’s prophet, Ezekiel. He had been delivering oracles and none of them had appeared to come to pass. Therefore, God was going to do something to end this oracle. God was going to send his people into Exile (v3; 11). The prediction that was going to come to pass was God’s people being taken from their Promised Land to live in a foreign land. Judgement was the great word that would be fulfilled without delay.

bible-verse-575231-mThis is not so encouraging when you are having a bad day! All of a sudden rather than a ‘Lone Ranger’ verse it became a lonely verse, stripped of its context and therefore its meaning.

While there are numerous other examples I could highlight, I will limit myself to two more.

I remember Matt Chandler humorously telling the story about an entire youth camp that had failed to understand the context in which their ‘Lone Ranger’ verse was found. All of the young people on the youth camp wore matching tee-shirts with the ‘wonderful’ promise from Habakkuk 1:5, ‘For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told’ (ESV). What a promise!

However, if we read Habakkuk chapter 1 we soon find that we would not be so keen for our children to be wearing these tee-shirts, sporting this promise. Habakkuk opens the chapter with unanswered prayers and facing terrible hardship in the difficult political climate that Israel found themselves in. He opens ‘O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?’ (1:2 ESV).

God’s answer is that he is doing a work that Habakkuk would not believe if he was told – he is going to send the most violent and vicious army to punish his rebellious people:

“’For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.’” (Hab. 1:6 ESV).

The Chaldeans are not what you want coming over the hill to visit your young people during their camp. It is no longer a ‘Lone Ranger’ verse but a lonely verse, stripped of its context and therefore its meaning.

Finally, I want to very briefly tackle the most famous of lonely verses, Jeremiah 29:11. It seems that almost any Christian who gets five minutes at the front of a church service quotes this verse, ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope’ (29:11 ESV). “God has prosperous plans for his people” is usually the point made, and funnily enough it is almost right. But, there is a certain nuance to this verse that is often missed.

Jeremiah 29 is a letter sent from the prophet to God’s people in exile (remember exile is a punishment/judgement from God, see Ezekiel above) (Jer. 29:1). The people are then told to settle down in this foreign land – they aren’t coming home any time soon (v5-6)! This is a startling thing for God’s people to hear from God. God is meant to rescue his people by crushing their enemies so they can return to their homes in the Promised Land. Instead, God tells them he is leaving them in Babylon for the foreseeable future. However, he has not abandoned them but is going to bless them in Babylon – the land of exile (punishment)!

God does bless his people, with specific plans and circumstance he uses for our welfare – but often they are not in line with our plans.

Once again we have found a lonely verse, stripped of its context and therefore its meaning.

So, beware the lonely verse. Don’t get caught out encouraging your brothers and sisters with exile, or your young people with murder and pillage, or your church with circumstances they wouldn’t choose for themselves!

Inevitably there will be the question ‘how?’ How do we avoid the lonely verse?

This is not fool proof, but here are three brief tips:

  1. Don’t read a verse a day

I have often heard older Christians encourage younger Christians to read a verse a day. Get started with small steps, build them up and then worry about reading whole chapters after that.

The advice has the right sentiment, but is ultimately an unhelpful way to teach younger Christians (or any Christian for that matter) how to read their Bible. Our Bible was not written in small chunks – it was written in sentences, paragraphs and literary units.

Don’t read a verse a day.

  1. Do read chunks of the Bible

The way to remedy a-verse-a-day is to read a chunk a day.

Now this will not totally protect you (as I read Ezekiel that morning I was reading three chapters but still managed to seek out a single verse), but it will begin to imprint in your mind that the Bible should ultimately be understood in chunks.

Some Bibles helpfully break the passages into smaller sections with subtitles. Although these aren’t always well chosen chunks, they are somewhere to begin. The same with chapter divisions; reading a chapter a day would be good, but sometimes the flow of thought crosses the chapter division.

Read chunks of the Bible daily (or at least regularly).

  1. Read consecutively

Finally, read consecutively.

By this I mean read right through books of the Bible, from beginning to end. In doing this we not only see what the chunks of the book say, but also what the book as a whole says.

If you are a good reader you could maybe read books of the Bible in one sitting (although that certainly isn’t possible for all of them, Isaiah has 66 chapters and some are really long).

One way in which I find myself helped to do this is by reading the Bible right through in a year (or maybe two). However, this is not the reading method for everyone. Nor do the books of the Bible need to be read in the order we have them in our Bible.

Nevertheless, reading consecutively through books of the Bible helps to protect us from stripping verses of their context and therefore their meaning.

None of us are immune from this danger, but if we remember the warning to ‘beware of the lonely verse’ by God’s grace we will be protected from wrongly encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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Choosing A Bible Translation: What You Need To Know (Part 1)

The question, “Which Bible translation should I use?” is one that isn’t going away. It’s a question that has stirred up quite a lot of controversy and disagreement which has led to some division among Christians (the problem being Christians, not Bible translations!). But it remains a question that requires thoughtful consideration by each believer and discussion within the broader church community. The decision over which translation to use has no easy answer, however, what follows are some things I’ve learned as I’ve considered this important and complex question.

Asking the Wrong Questions:

“Which Bible translation is best?”

The unfortunate truth is that there is no best translation, in spite of what you may have heard elsewhere. If you want to understand all the nuances of Scripture as the original readers did then you’re going to have to learn Greek and Hebrew (and even then you’re going to miss things – just look how many Bible commentaries are out there! – not to mention that we don’t actually have the original manuscripts).

“But surely some translations are better than others?”

bible reading 2Yes (a tiny yes) but mostly no. There are some bad Bible translations, like those produced by cults or heretics (e.g. the New World Translation used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Jefferson Bible, which is similar in concept to the Bible compiled by Marcion in the second century AD). But for the most part it’s a matter of understanding that all Bible translations have their strengths and weaknesses. So in light of this it’s my opinion (with a small caveat[1]) that the vast majority of modern translations are accurate and can be used profitably by Christians. When it comes to deciding whether or not a Bible translation is accurate (an important criteria!) then we have to say that all the most popular translations fall into that category because all of them accurately convey the truth about who God is and what he has done, and is doing, in and through his Son, Jesus the Messiah.

There are also other kinds of translations that should be avoided when it comes to choosing a Bible for regular reading (but which can be helpful in other contexts). These include translations by individuals and translations not based on the best and earliest available manuscripts.

Translations by Individuals

Bible translations are usually the work of a committee so as to avoid personal or theological bias and to create a translation that can be read and understood by as many people as possible. This doesn’t make committee translations perfect or necessarily mean bias is altogether avoided but it is a good way of reducing said bias and creating a translation that is a more accurate reflection of what the manuscripts record.

When an individual produces a translation there is greater likelihood, perhaps unintentionally, of personal and theological biases creeping in because the translator will be inclined to see how certain words or phrases, in their opinion, support their position when the text may be more ambiguous, and open to interpretation, than they’d like to believe. These translations can be immensely helpful for study but they shouldn’t be our translation of choice for regular reading.

Translations Not Based on the Best and Earliest Manuscripts

It almost seems redundant to make this point but English Bible’s are translations. Bible translations are translations of the Bible from other languages. And the original manuscripts are gone – lost to time and decay! What we possess today are copies, many copies, of those original manuscripts. Some of those manuscripts are very, very old dating back very close to when we believe the originals were penned while other manuscripts have been dated to hundreds of years after the originals. These earliest manuscripts are relatively recent discoveries (when you consider just how old the Bible is) and so it is only modern translations that have benefited from the insight they’ve provided us with concerning what the original manuscripts recorded. Older translations (such as the KJV and its revision the NKJV) were based on later manuscripts which contain scribal errors that have been corrected by new translations based on earlier manuscripts. What is amazing, however, is that the earliest manuscripts and the later manuscripts are incredibly similar (only around 5% difference). Nevertheless, it is of upmost importance that we, in our choice of Bible translation, choose a version that makes use of the best available manuscripts because the Bible isn’t a book where we get to pick and choose which bits we like but the Word of God under whose authority we should humbly submit.

Coming to the Right Conclusion:

“It’s difficult to choose one translation.”

Hopefully, by this point it’s become a little clearer just how difficult it is to choose a Bible translation because we have access to an abundance of good translations. In itself this is a real blessing but it can also be quite frustrating when it comes to choosing a translation for regular use.

Finally, while it’s important to choose a translation for regular reading – because as we read one translation regularly it will imprint itself into our memory, shaping our vocabulary, making it easier for us to recall passages for prayer and talking about God with others – it shouldn’t be the only translation we read. It’s good, especially for study, to compare translations and so benefit from the wisdom and insight of other translators and translation philosophies because no translation, or translation philosophy, is able to provide us with a  perfect translation of the Bible.

Next week we’ll consider how translations come about and the different philosophies of translation but in the mean time why not check out the different versions that are available for free online to get a flavour of what’s out there.

~

[1] When I say the vast majority of modern translations what I’m referring to are the most commonly read translations available in English as you might find on your Bible app or book shop. The fact is that there are tons of Bible translations available online but the debate surrounding the choosing of a Bible translation is, in my experience, limited to the most popular versions and it’s those translations I’m here endorsing (for example: ESV, HCSB, NIV, NLT, NRSV, NET, etc.).

Top Five Books For Discipleship

In recent years the local church has rediscovered the importance of discipleship.

Discipleship should be a fruitful by-product of living in our church community, relational in nature and naturally occurring. But for those of us who have tried to engage in long-term discipleship with one another we know that fruitful, relational, natural discipleship require intentionality.

Therefore, below I suggest my top five books for discipleship/discussion. These books will offer a good basis for conversation either in a one to one, or a group setting. They will also provide sound biblical material for that everyone can learn from (whether you are supposed to be the disciple-er or the disciple-ee).

  1. Francis Chan with Mark Beuving – Multiply: Disciples making Disciples (2012).

This book makes it to top of the list because it is a book written specifically for the context of discipling relationships.

This is reflected in the way the book has been written. The authors help us to think in a gospel centred way about discipleship by using short sections of teaching followed by probing questions to get us thinking – all without burdening us with guilt.chan-multiply

One great benefit of the material is that the authors have also provided online help (which includes videos) on how to teach this material in a one to one setting. This will encourage and guide those who are engaged in discipling for the first time.

The material covered in the book is excellent – living as a disciple, living as part of the church, how to study the Bible, understanding the Old Testament and understanding the New Testament. There is a logical progression to this material which aids in building others up in their faith.

  1. Kevin DeYoung – The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the gap between gospel passion and the pursuit of godliness (2012).

The Hole in Our Holiness isn’t a book on or about discipleship exactly but it does address an issue that is being misunderstood by some in the church today that has a significant impact on our discipleship.

One of the great blessings of the young, restless and reformed movement is the vast number of young people who are clear about the gospel. Justification in Jesus was understood magnificently. Sadly though, this did not always progress towards a correct understanding of sanctification in the Spirit.

DeYoung tackles this issue by calling the young, restless and reformed movement (and all other Christians) to a life of holiness without becoming moralistic.

Not only is the book on a great and important topic but there are also discussion questions provided for each chapter. I know of one group of Christian young people who have used this book as a basis for group discussion to good effect.

  1. Bruce Milne – Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief (1982, 1998).

In recent years Biblical theology has also been rediscovered by the church. This rediscovery has been of great benefit to the church as preachers, pastors and theologians proclaim a more coherent theology of Scripture.

This has left systematic theology out in the cold a little. This is not to our benefit. Neither biblical nor systematic theology is more important but both need to be held together.

This book is not a systematic theology, but it does reflect the shape of a systematic theology and would give any young Christian a solid footing in the faith. I was given this book by an older more mature Christian just two years after my salvation. We worked our way through part of the book and I found it hugely beneficial, which led to an increased interest in theology.

There are seven sections to this book – the final authority in matters of faith, the doctrine of God, humankind and sin, the person and work of Christ, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the church and the last things. And there are discussion questions at the end of each section.

  1. Vaughan Roberts – God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (2003).

To balance Milne’s excellent book I suggest Roberts’.

This is effectively a primer on biblical theology. Vaughan Roberts paints God’s big picture, showing us that all of Scripture is tied together as God unveils his universal plan.

Roberts is a clear writer, making this book useful even for younger readers. He breaks the Bible into eight kingdoms (pattern of, perished, promised, partial, prophesied, present, proclaimed and perfected). Each chapter has a Bible study on a particular passage as well as a number of questions.

If in a one to one, or a group setting, we were able to guide a group of people through both Milne’s and Roberts’ books they would come out the other end with a very firm foundation in biblical interpretation.

  1. John Stott – The Cross of Christ (1986, 1989 with Study Guide, 2011).

This is a magnificent book – a beautiful blend of rigorous scholarship and pastoral counsel. It is a book you will come back to again and again.

Stott masterfully examines both the meaning of the cross, and its implications. Christ is portrayed in all his splendour as his work on the cross is explained carefully and methodically.

As with the other books on this list, The Cross of Christ is helpful because of a study guide which has been published with it. This study guide provokes a closer look at both the text of the book, and more importantly, the text of the Bible. It is a book worth wading through with another person or a group of other people.

While it is an excellent book, it comes fifth on the list because it requires a basic knowledge or acquaintance with biblical and theological language. A slightly more mature Christian will get much more out of this book.

Having said all of this, it is undoubtedly true that the best book to work through in a discipleship setting is the Bible. The books mentioned above will aid in bringing people to the Bible and helping them understand it. However, they do it in a roundabout way.

If you want to dig straight into the biblical text in a one to one or group discussion setting I would recommend the use of the following material.

First, I would highly recommend The Good Book Company. They publish many study guides which either go through books of the Bible or offer thematic studies. The benefit of these books is their conservative evangelical foundation, and the fact that they bring you face to face with the text of Scripture. They are a great resource.

Secondly, I would encourage you to explore a new set of Bible studies being produced by the publisher Crossway called knowing the Bible. These are excellent, in-depth bible studies on books of the Bible. There are many great features in the conclusions to the studies such as gospel glimpses, whole Bible connections and theological soundings. These features draw together the ideas of seeing Jesus in all the Scriptures, and the twin themes of biblical and systematic theology. The range of studies available is relatively small at present but I look forward to the forthcoming volumes.

Finally, I would tentatively suggest undertaking an inductive Bible study method. One in particular that I have found helpful is The Swedish Method. This offers five questions which an individual can ask of any text. This is a simple template and easy to follow. A great first Bible study for a young Christian (as long as you know your text well).

To conclude I would encourage you to pick one of these resources and find someone to work through them with – but to do some humbly because even the more learned and mature Christians have much to learn as we grow together as disciples of Jesus.

Darwinian Christianity, Cured

Over the past number of weeks we have been looking at Paul’s command to bear one another’s burdens. This command is found in Galatians 6:2, as Paul closes his letter to the churches in Galatia. In the surrounding verses Paul gives us three examples of bearing burdens – restoring brothers and sisters caught in sin (6:1), paying those who teach the word (6:6), and doing good to all, but especially to our brothers and sisters (6:10). This is how Paul envisaged our life within the earthly community known as the church.

The question I want us to answer today is, ‘why should we do any of it?’

We have had four weeks of posts that have challenged our sinful selfishness and offered a number of practical things we can do. But why should we bother? Because, to be honest, doing any of those things is hard work, never mind doing all of them.

The answer I propose is that the church is a creation.

The reason we should want to do these things is because the church is not just instituted, it is created. This is how Ed Clowney describes the church – ‘the church is God’s creation, not simply a human institution’ (The Church, pg. 71). We do not want to expend a lot of energy at our own expense to work within the boundaries of a simply human institution. However, our thinking should be very different when we consider that this entity called the church is God’s creation.

The church is created!

photo-24764091-business-people-with-hands-together-for-unityOur first post was entitled Darwinian Christianity, and in it we considered the reality that many Christians function within a Darwinian worldview of ‘survival of the fittest’. If there is a Christian brother or sister struggling, instead of endangering yourself by getting involved with them, we simply step over them. Or even worse, try and kill them off.

As Jesus Christ took his first steps on earth as a child, God in the flesh, he embarked on a life of perfection. He was, is and always will be the Lord of all creation – and yet he humbled himself to live among his creation. Throughout his life Jesus would have had every right, and could very easily, have killed off all those who did not live a perfect life. But he didn’t. Rather, he did the complete opposite.

As opposed to looking out for his own interests he looked out for the interests of others. Instead of worrying about his own comfort he sought the comfort of others. Rather than surviving as the fittest he gave up his own survival for ours. All of this offered us not just survival, but life, and life abundantly.

Jesus’ perfectly obedient life, horrifically brutal death, gloriously triumphant resurrection and hope-generating ascension won for us an abundant life of self-giving.

We are empowered to deny ourselves, bearing our brother’s and sister’s burdens because Jesus denied himself and bore our burdens – the most cumbersome of which was our sin.

Through this death, God chose to redeem unto himself a people. In Jesus, God created the church. Our salvation; our forgiveness of sin, our rescue from darkness, our entrance into light is not merely individual – it is corporate. We do not stand as lone rangers; we live as part of a community: the church, the people of God.

As the people of God we have been given great and precious promises. We have been promised a greater, more beautiful life of comfort with our Saviour Jesus in this world when it has been released from its captivity to sin. Jesus was enabled to give up his life because he trusted in his Father. By doing so he made God our Father. So now we too are able to give up our lives because we too, like Jesus, trust our Heavenly Father.

The grace that has brought us into this community is the same grace that aids us in living within the community. We can restore a brother or sister caught in sin because Jesus has done so for us. We do not gloat in their failure because we are aware that we have been in the same position as them. We can pay our pastor joyfully because we know he is giving to us richly from the Word of God. We do not seek to control our pastor because we know he is a fellow brother in the community. We can do good to all, but especially to our church family, because we know they have been created by the same work that created us in our new lives. We do not serve ourselves because we do not stand alone.

The church is not primarily an institution; it is first and foremost a creation. This knowledge, understanding and awareness not only make it easier to bear one another’s burdens but also make it a joy. We, as the people of God, are in this together because of Jesus’ great self-sacrifice.

As God’s special creation we now sacrifice ourselves by bearing the burdens of our brothers and sisters.

Don Draper, C.S. Lewis, and the Missio Dei

Who Is Don Draper?

For fans of the hit period drama, Mad Men, Don Draper needs no introduction.

But for everyone else…

Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, is the Creative Director, and a junior partner, for the Madison Avenue Advertising company Sterling Cooper set in 1960s New York City. madmen posterThe show focuses primarily on Draper’s life, the lives of his work colleagues and his family, and the agency he works for. Throughout the series we receive a surprisingly, and often horrifically, honest look into what life was like for people living within the spheres of power and influence during a period of rampant bigotry, racism, and sexism. Where other shows would seek to soften the attitudes and behaviours presented or provide characters who, often untrue to their own time and culture, openly rejected and battle such injustices Mad Men does neither. The show makes a good case for the doctrine of Total Depravity, not because it is overly gratuitous (it is, for the most part, very modest), but because the characters are often unapologetically selfish and self-centred using one another in order to stoke their considerable egos. The scant goodness exhibited by the characters is for all the wrong reasons. Mad Men has no heroes or heroines; it just shows people infatuated with money, power, and sex who lived during a period when the rich and powerful were better able to get away whatever they wished because there was little danger of being crucified on social media. And it is for this reason I like Mad Men: because it’s honest about the sinful selfishness and self-centredness that resides in all of us, even within our virtues.

Draper’s Chronological Snobbery And Ours

At this point it would be very easy to write off Draper and his associates on account of their degradation of women, African Americans, one another, and the like because, of course, we know better. And yet to do so would be to commit, what C.S. Lewis termed, chronological snobbery:

“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.” (Surprised by Joy, p207-208)

That the attitudes and behaviours of our age are superior to those of every other age by merit of their newness. That somehow ours is the age that has gotten beyond all the nonsense of previous generations. Yes, it needs to be admitted that previous generations got many things wrong, particularly in regards to women and race, and repentance and forgiveness need to take place there but the bigger, more important, point we should take away from Mad Men is that, by and large, most people were completely unaware of their erroneous, not to mention sinful, attitudes and behaviours. They were men and women of their age, blind to the injustices they themselves were perpetrating. To borrow a phrase from Paul, “[they] acted in ignorance” (1 Timothy 1:13 NIV); they were, as Lewis would put it, chronological snobs. This by no means excuses the injustices carried out by previous generations but it should give us warning that we are not immune to similar chronological snobbery because they themselves looked back with distain upon the previous generations considering them prudish and puritanical.

In light of this we should be humbled and so behave accordingly because in generations to come our descendants will look upon many of our attitudes and behaviours with scorn and wonder how we could have gotten so many things wrong and thought ourselves so enlightened. We haven’t made it and we need to be aware that we are, just like previous generations, blind to our own blindness: we often don’t see where we are going wrong. And if we take this to heart it will humble us which is exactly the attitude we need if we are to play our part in the Missio Dei (the Mission of God) because a humble follower of Jesus learns to repent and forgive quickly; they are patient, not expecting the world, or people, to change overnight; they pursue justice graciously and courageously, showing respect even to those with whom they disagree; and they treat others with love and mercy because that’s how God has treated them in Christ (cf. Micah 6:8).

Learners, Not Just Teachers

As followers of Jesus we need to cultivate these Christ-like attitudes and behaviours as we share the good news with others because the days are gone when it was simply enough to tell someone what they already knew. We live at a time when people have access an almost endless number of religions, philosophies, and worldviews that each proclaim themselves to be the good news and so if we ever hope to gain a hearing with people of other faiths (or no faith) we need to adopt a posture of listening and learning. To even begin to do this require the courageous humility we talked about earlier that respects the beliefs of others, that treats everyone patiently and graciously – not becoming enraged that others don’t see truth of the gospel, we know they can’t apart from a work of God (cf. Ephesians 2:1-10) – out of merciful love for people we genuinely care about (not just souls we want to see saved from hell) because mission (and evangelism) today require a long term commitment from the people of God to the holistic well-being of individuals and communities, not 5 minutes of monologue and a dated gospel tract.

In order for us to gain this hearing with others we need to be learners, not just teachers. We have to be able to interact generously and graciously with people who disagree with us, showing them and their beliefs the respect we would want them to show us and our beliefs. The strategies of previous generations, of simply telling people the good news because they need to hear it, are ineffective today because they are perceived as coming from a place of arrogance. They often begin with the assumption that the other person (the unbeliever) is wrong and we (the Christian) is right. At the theological level this is true but at the relational level this is the entirely wrong way to go about things, is it any wonder most people don’t want to listen to us when we talk about the gospel? We can no longer approach mission and evangelism in this way because our method is getting in the way of the message and is putting people off even listening to us. We need to listen humbly and then speak graciously but courageously.

Gospel Humility

So how do we become the kind of person unbelievers will talk to? How do we become both respectfully gracious and unflinchingly courageous? Most of us gravitate towards one end of that spectrum or the other, we are either quietly respectful or outspokenly bold, because that’s the kind of person we are by nature. What makes us courageously humble?

The gospel doesn’t change our personality, if you’re an introvert you won’t suddenly wake up an extravert or vice versa. However, the gospel makes the timid courageous and the bold humble.

At first this seems paradoxical, how can these two qualities exist together in one person? And yet, we see both of them living harmoniously in Jesus who alone epitomises what it means to be truly human. In Jesus we find our perfect example of what it means to be courageously humble and through him we too experience this gospel humility.

The same Jesus who turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple courts and drove them all out with a whip (John 2:13-17) is the same Jesus whom Matthew describes in these words,

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.”

(Matthew 12:18-21 NIV, cf. Isaiah 42:1-4)

Our faith in this Jesus, who paradoxically combines courage and humility, is what will transform us into courageously humble people who trust and obey him as we take his gospel into the world and will empower us to face all the challenges of sharing the good news in a pluralistic world.

Charity begins at home

Over the past few weeks we have been thinking about a selection of verses from Galatians 6.

The controlling idea of the first ten verses of this chapter is bearing each other’s burdens. In light of that we have attempted to put in place foundations that will aid the reversal of Darwinian Christianity. In other words, instead of ignoring each other’s burdens we have thought about bearing each other’s burdens. We have explored the difficult task of restoring brothers caught in sin. We have considered, albeit briefly, the unique relationship of the pastor and his congregation.

Today we come to Paul’s trump card – doing good. Paul writes, ‘So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith’ (Gal. 6:10 ESV). This is Paul’s trump card because doing good to our fellow Christians makes it difficult to try and kill them off.

This neatly ties this section off as doing good undoubtedly includes paying pastors and brothering brothers. Doing good is bearing burdens. But there is a little more to this verse.

The beginning of the verse may sound a little like a ‘get-out clause’ – ‘So then, as we have opportunity…’ This is not the case. Rather than allowing us to sit back until an opportunity arrives this phrase reminds us of the abundance of opportunities in this life. The Greek word is kairon, which can be translated as ‘time’. It speaks of a time to do good, an opportunity today. There is urgency to act in this little phrase because one day this life will be over and there will be no more opportunity, no more time.

What do we do with this opportunity? This time to act? We ‘do good to everyone’. This is an all encapsulating statement – church and community, friends and enemies, men and women, adult and child, Christian and unbeliever, locally and internationally. There is no exclusion in this statement.

Doing good to all may seem unrealistic and so priority appear in the next phrase though, ‘…especially to those who are the household of faith’. Paul is saying that charity begins at home. One older commentator talks about how our brothers and sisters have a peculiar, a special and distinctive, claim on us. The reason they have this peculiar claim on us is because they have the same interest in our Saviour because he is also their Saviour. In addition to this, the reality is that our brothers and sisters are the people we will spend eternity with. All of this means that we should have a special interest in doing good to our brothers and sisters, but this should not be an exclusive interest. Charity begins at home, but it should not end at home. That is why Paul’s previous statement is so important.

photo-24764091-business-people-with-hands-together-for-unityNevertheless, Paul is clear – charity begins at home, because when it does it is much more difficult to kill off our Christian brothers and sisters, it is much more difficult to step over brothers and sisters as they struggle through life.

How do we exercise this charity?

How do we do good to others?

Here are three principles which should help guide us in our thinking:

  • Do the unseen things

I am convinced that all churches are similar – whenever something significant is happening in the life of the church there will be many people willing to help. However, as far as the day to day stuff goes, there is not such a long list. Many people are keen to lend a hand when there is a big thank you announced in the church service next Sunday.

But what about the other stuff?

Who cleans the toilets, locks up the building, contacts people who have missed one or two Sundays, posts a card or leaves of a bunch of flowers, cuts someone’s grass, visits the elderly? Should this be left to the pastor and elders, or to paid staff, or to the deacons?

No – these are things that should be done by brothers and sisters for brothers and sisters. Although they are certainly not the only unseen things that can be done – they differ for each and every one of us. Therefore we must look at our own situations and figure out what unseen things we can do.

Are we willing to do the unseen things?

  • Do the small things

Often the unseen things are the small things; therefore there is a little overlap here.

Nonetheless, it is important to keep the small things in mind. Do we tidy up after ourselves? Are we eager to volunteer for the less glamorous roles? Do we keep an eye out for jobs that need done here and there? Do we drop a card through a grieving brother or sister’s door? Do we drop a bunch of flowers of to a widow? Do we spend an hour listening to an elderly member who rambles a bit?

These kinds of things won’t gain you recognition church wide, they won’t impact a vast majority of the congregation, they won’t seem overly worthwhile because you don’t get a thank you, but they are good things to do for our brothers and sisters.

Are we willing to do the small things?

  • Do the same things

There is nothing worse than somebody starting to do these things and then dropping them halfway through. Do the small and unseen things over and over again.

This is not an excuse to do things just because they have always been done. Rather, it is a call to maintain a habit of doing good things for the household of faith. Don’t just visit that elderly shut-in once; don’t just buy one widow in church a bunch of flowers; don’t just tidy up after yourself when you are responsible for the ministry; don’t just visit a grieving brother or sister once after their loss. Maintain these things, do the same things again and again. Create a holy habit of doing good.

Are we willing to do things continually?

 

Charity begins at home; and while it certainly must not remain at home, if you can’t and don’t do good to your brothers and sisters in Christ, the good done to those outside of Christ is hypocrisy. Bonhoeffer once said ‘It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren’ (quoted in Scot McKnight NIVAC: Galatians, pg 294). To live in community with our brothers and sisters is a privilege – let us make the most of that privilege.

Depressed Poets Society

A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. For the director of music. According tomahalath leannoth (Possibly a tune: ‘The Suffering of Affliction’). A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

Lord, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.

I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.
I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief.

I call to you, Lord, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction?
Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?

But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?

From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken from me friend and neighbour—
darkness is my closest friend.

(Psalm 88 NIV)

~

Last weekend I was away with some friends staying in Portrush. It was a last minute decision on my part but I’m glad I decided to go. The first evening was bittersweet, one of our friends, the one who had organised the whole weekend, was leaving the next day to travel to England for a new job. So after all the work she had put into planning a fun weekend she wasn’t able to enjoy it with us. But we got to enjoy Friday night together and give her a warm send off which culminated in a huge group hug.

SONY DSCAfter a night of virtually no sleep (I now know what being buried will be like) and a more active Saturday afternoon than I had anticipated, come Saturday evening, after eating too much, I was exhausted. We all were. But when you go away it feels wrong to waste time with unnecessary sleep so the plan was to go to the beach. At the last minute I decided to stay behind, I needed some time to recharge otherwise I’d be emotionally drained for the rest of the weekend, and trust me no one wants that. As I sat listening to music I decided I wanted to read but I’d only brought two books, one of which was my Bible and I felt I should read it first.

So after grabbing my Bible and my journal (in case there was something I wanted to write down) I sat down to rest and reflect. I opened Psalms to where my book mark rested, it was Psalm 88. As I read the psalm it wasn’t the kind I was hoping to read. Here was the prayer of someone obviously in the midst of prolonged depression, which honestly wasn’t what I wanted to be reading on a Saturday night while away with friends. Truthfully, I was hoping for something cheerful or inspiring. At that point I could have just moved on but for some reason, I’m not sure why, I stuck with it and wrestled with it. I read over the psalm again.

The psalmist begins by affirming his confidence in God because he is a God who saves and who hears the prayers of his suffering people. As he continues, desperation seems to enter his cries as he recounts how he calls to the Lord everyday with his hands spread out in supplication: he is desperate that God would rescue him. The psalmist then ends his prayer bittersweetly:

“But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?”

He feels as though God has rejected him, as though God has hidden himself from him, but he hasn’t given up hope that God will come to his rescue. As he brings his prayer for rescue to an end he concludes, hauntingly, “darkness is my closest friend.”

Dare We Pray This Way?

Culturally speaking, this is a difficult psalm for us. We read it and we’re not exactly sure what to do with it because it seems unacceptable for us to speak of feeling rejected by God, of feeling like God has loosed his wrath upon us because we are so familiar, perhaps too familiar, with God as a God of love who accepts us and works all things together for our good. And yet in the midst of suffering, especially prolonged suffering, this is exactly how we feel. We feel abandoned. We feel as if God’s wrath is sweeping us away. But we’d never admit it, to ourselves or to others or even to God himself. Certainly not in such stark terms as the psalmist employs here. And what we need to realise, from Psalm 88 and our own experience, is the truth and falsehood contained therein.

Like the psalmist we need to be honest, with ourselves, with others, and with God, about our feelings. The truth is that sometimes we do feel like God has rejected us, abandoning us to his wrath. That’s just how we feel and we shouldn’t deny the truth of our feelings, the psalmist didn’t. God can handle us telling him how we feel and ironically, if we take the Psalms as our example, he even seems to be inviting us to share our feelings of abandonment and rejection with him.

However, we also need to realise that our feelings don’t tell us the whole story. They tell us the truth about our subjective emotional responses to our circumstances but they don’t tell us the objective truth about God’s actual feelings toward us, and that is what changes suffering from meaningless and destructive to meaningful and transformative. The truth is that God has not abandoned or rejected us because Jesus experienced the rejection of God, abandonment to his wrath, so we won’t ever have to. Our lives are marked by faithlessness, even our feelings betray this because even though we know, at some level, that in Christ we are fully accepted by God and that his unfailing love rests eternally upon up we still feel abandoned and rejected by him. The psalmist knew some of this: he knew that God saves his people even in the midst of their darkness and suffering, and he still expressed trust and hope that God would rescue him. We don’t know what happened to the psalmist, maybe God did rescue him but maybe he didn’t because he wants us to know that our hope for rescue from our present darkness might be longer in coming that the length of this life. But we know what the psalmist didn’t, that in Christ rescue is coming – that it is already here, even if our present darkness clouds our vision so we can’t see it.

In light of this tension, I think it is poignant that the psalm which follows Psalm 88 begins,

“I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever;
with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known
through all generations.
I will declare that your love stands firm forever,
that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant,
‘I will establish your line forever
and make your throne firm through all generations.’””

(Psalm 89:1-4 NIV)

Because, in a sense, the psalmist in Psalm 89 answers the cries raised by the psalmist of Psalm 88 and anticipates the final resolution of his cries, and our cries, in Christ.

Praying Psalm 88 As Christians

Firstly, we pray as sufferers expressing our genuine anguish to our God who hears our prayers and loves us far more than we can know. He invites us to share our pain with him because he knows our frailty intimately. Jesus himself prayed this way before he was arrested (Luke 22:39-44).

Secondly, we pray as sufferers who have read Psalm 89. We pray as those who know that God really does care about us because he sent his Son to experience true abandonment and rejection in our place so we never have to. Jesus was swept away by God’s wrath, taking the punishment we deserve, so we can know, here and now, God’s acceptance and unfailing love towards us. The reality of his resurrection, the glorious hope of freedom through suffering, gives us a certainty of these things – because Jesus experienced the worst suffering possible and lived so too shall we who trust in him.

Thirdly, we pray as sufferers who accept the veracity and falsehood of our feelings but who simultaneously trust in our gracious God who has ill-deservedly and eternally set his unfailing love upon us in Christ and who eagerly anticipate the Day when God will cause our present suffering to come untrue when he returns as our victorious King having defeated all our enemies and established his shalom over all of creation:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 (Romans 8:18-39 NIV)

The Pastor and the Congregation: In Search of a Working Relationship

The relationship between a pastor and his congregation is unique, and to be honest, quite strange, at times. As the outside world looks in at this relationship, they see a group of volunteers who have come together to employ an individual. The strangest aspect of this relationship is that the pastor is employed to oversee the collective group.

In the world of business this is essentially a working relationship, albeit an unconventional one.

As we continue our series considering ways to bear each other’s burdens, I want us to ask ourselves, ‘is our relationship with our pastor a working relationship?’ Or, in other words, does our relationship with our pastor work?photo-24764091-business-people-with-hands-together-for-unity

Undoubtedly, relationships between congregations and pastors go through periods of difficulty, hardship and testing. However, as we have been looking at the end of the book of Galatians over the past two weeks (Darwinian Christianity and Demolition or Restoration?) we have noted opportunities to bear one another’s burdens. And perhaps surprisingly Paul points to this relationship between the pastor and his congregation as an opportunity to bear one another’s burdens.

He states it succinctly in verse 6: ’One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches’ (ESV).

Are we helping our pastor?

For those of us who are members of churches reading this blog post we have to answer the question, ‘are we helping our pastor?’

Some time ago I heard about a church that refused to pay their pastor a month’s wage because they failed to see eye to eye with him on a non-doctrinal issue. Even though this is an extreme example it illustrates effectively the type of abuse that a congregation can exercise in this most unique of relationships.

Paul’s exhortation is plain and simple – congregations must pay their Bible teachers. Notice the wording, ‘must share’; not should share, or consider sharing, but must share. This is an explicit command to pay those who teach the Word (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:11 and 1 Timothy 5:17).

However, our payment of our pastor is not a means of leverage allowing us to dictate what he should wear, how he should preach, where he can live or when he can go on holidays. Churches and congregations must be careful they do not try to manipulate their pastor. If we are trying to manipulate our pastor we are not helping him.

We must pay our pastors generously (2 Cor. 9:7), and permit them to use their salary as their own conscience directs before God. Our employing them does not make them our employees.

Pastor, are you helping your congregation?

This is a two way street – and so for those pastors and church staff who are reading this blog post the question we must ask ourselves is, ‘am I helping my congregation?’

I remember talking to a pastor about the stresses and strains of ministry. My passion is preaching and teaching the Bible and so I often gravitate toward questions regarding that, ‘when do you study?’, ‘how do you study?’, ‘how do you organise preaching series?’ and so on. As this pastor expressed the busyness of life in ministry he said something along the lines of ‘it is enough just to be faithful to the text when preaching’. As the words left his mouth I felt uncomfortable with what he had said, but I couldn’t quite out my finger on it.

Yes it is important to be faithful to the text, vitally important. However, it is not enough – as we come to preach (even with all of the other stresses and strains) we must strive and labour to be engaging, deeply helpful, practically applicable and totally engrossed in our message. In other words, it is imperative that we pour all our intellect, emotion and strength into each and every sermon. We must be careful that we do not rob our congregations by fulfilling the bare minimum of preaching God’s Word to them. This does not help our congregations.

Intimately connected to this is the necessity to avoid laziness. I once heard a story about a pastor who would get up early and open all the blinds and curtains in his house before going back to bed! He hoped that if any church members drove past they would think he was up studying or working – not having a lie in. In many respects it is easy to be lazy as a pastor because there is no one looking over your shoulder all day long (this kind of thinking should alert us to our small view of God). However, sooner or later this laziness will reveal itself – in the pulpit, through visitation, in a lack of planning or preparedness, or in some other way. If we are lazy we do not help our congregations.

A final warning must ring out for pastors. One of the most profound things I heard during my time at Bible College was my pastoral studies lecturer tell me ‘you don’t need to be rich to be materialistic’. I had never really thought about the distinction. Being materialistic is not about the having of things, necessarily, but about the desiring of things. Pastors are not immune from falling into the trap of desiring things, wanting more, yearning for just that one other possession. We must guard against this, because this too does not help our congregation.

A working relationship?

Does your relationship work?

Whether it is your relationship with your pastor or with your congregation, is it working?

Do you bear one another’s burdens?

The congregation sharing all good things with the one who teaches, and the teacher devoting himself to the work of preaching the Word?

It can become too easy for congregations to beat their pastor into submission, especially when the cheque book is involved. It can be too easy for pastors to starve their congregations of the Word and so coast through ministry half-heartedly. This is just another version of Darwinian Christianity where one tries to kill another off. We should endeavour to be involved in the opposite, keeping one another alive (and in this case we mean both physically and spiritually alive).