Apr 102017
 

In an article on Sunday 9th April 2017 the BBC published an article with the provocative title “Resurrection did not happen, say quarter of Christians”. The article was based on a poll that they had commissioned – it breaks down some of the numbers, shows some helpful graphs (showing the views of “All Christians” and “Active Christians”) and includes comments from various groups.

It also – very helpfully – provides a link to the raw data and recognises that some of the results were drawn from people “describing themselves as Christians”.

In the survey 1019 people described themselves as Christians while 315 described themselves as “Active Christians”.

One of the questions asked was how frequently people attended a religious service (excluding special occasions such as marriages, funerals, etc) and of the group who were identifying themselves as Christians 31% said less often than monthly while 37% said never, that’s a total of 68%. While I don’t believe that the only sign of being a Christian is attending church I think there would have been questions asked if I said I was a student at college and never turned up for lectures!

And this isn’t saying anything against the individuals but more a comment on our society where we are encouraged to consider ourselves as Christians even if we don’t have any faith in, knowledge of, God or meet with other people who are seeking to understand who God is and what the Bible teaches. Why is this a label that people hang onto and use to identify themselves?

If we take the group of people who identify themselves as “Active Christians” (people who attend church at least 1-3 times a month) then the numbers look very different:

  • 57% believe in the resurrection of Jesus exactly as it is described in the Bible
  • 36% believe in the resurrection of Jesus but don’t take every detail of the account literally
  • 5% do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus
  • 2% don’t know

So a very different picture to the headline used by the BBC.

But leaving that aside why is the resurrection of Jesus important?

The Bible speaks about the resurrection of Jesus in the four Gospels (the first four books in the New Testament which tell the story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus) – if you want to read the accounts yourself to see what they say you can find them at Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-49, John 20:1-29

Paul, one of the early Christian leaders, speaks about the significance of the resurrection of Jesus in a letter to a church at Corinth.

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1 Corinthians 15:14)

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:17–19)

He was responding to people who were questioning the hope that people had in life after death (another topic covered in the survey) and arguing that without the resurrection of Jesus any hope in something “beyond” was pointless, that he might as well stop preaching and we might as well all stop believing.

But he then goes on with some wonderfully powerful words:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:20)

1 Corinthians 1519–20 [widescreen]

 

The belief in the resurrection of Jesus is an essential component of the Christian faith, without it we have nothing. It demonstrates that Jesus has defeated sin and death, it gives us real meaning for life today, and it gives us a totally certain hope for life beyond death with Him for ever.

This Easter time would be a great opportunity to call into a local church and find out more about the reality of the resurrection of Jesus and the life-changing impact it has on life today and in the future. Let’s not just accept a doubtful headline but let’s find out for ourselves.

 

 

Feb 192016
 

As part of a project to write a daily comment on each chapter in the Bible (#BCaD) I said this about Matthew 20:

Mt 20: The kingdom of God – not about what we can earn or gaining high position, but about mercy and service and self-sacrifice.

A friend of mine responded to this and said:

would be interested to know how you think this fits with passages in the bible that talk about storing up your reward in heaven or persecuted Christians reward being great in heaven. Mathew 6:20, Matthew 16:27 and so on. How does this fit with being saved by grace and not works and Mathew 20? Would be interested to hear your thoughts!

A great question and here is how I think it all hangs together.

It’s important to think about what the three Matthew passages are saying as they are all providing different insights into living as a disciple of Jesus and what it means to be a citizen of his kingdom.

Matthew 6:20 is in the wider context of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is speaking about what it means to be ” a kingdom person” – it’s about being blessed in all manner of situations (Matt 5:3-12), living as salt and light (Matt 5:13-16) , living righteously (Matt 5:17-20), the way we think and not just the way w
e act (Matt 5:21-30), seeking to understand God’s principles for living (Matt 5:31-6:4), a proper approach to God in prayer and fasting (Matt 6:5-18), focusing on what is important to God as opposed to what is important to us (Matt 6:19-24), trusting in God (Matt 6:25-34) and so forth.

And these were words that Jesus spoke to people in Israel before he died on the cross, before people really started to grasp what he was going to do and the significance of it. They were words spoken to a people who had been brought up to know about God and to try and obey his law and here Jesus was recasting and reframing things to get them to try and understand what living as part of God’s people was really all about. And, from that context, he calls on them to live in a way that will build up rewards and blessing in heaven as opposed to seeking to better themselves on earth. It was a question of focus, a question of “what do we think is important”, a question about where we are going to invest our time and energy – and recognising that there will be rewards for those who seek to do what God is calling them to do.

In Matthew 16:27 Jesus is looking past his death & resurrection and on to the time when he will return in glory and speaking about the rewards he will give to those who have lived for him. And the sort of life he is calling on people to live is spelled out in the previous verses (Matt 16:24-26) where Jesus speaks about being prepared to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses and to follow him. This, he says, is the way of finding and experiencing life and – for such people – there will be rewards. And Jesus picks up this theme again in Matt 19:29 where he promises rewards for those who gives up things for him.

Coming to Matthew 20 we find four separate sections:

  1. A parable about workers in a vineyard (Matt 20:1-16)
  2. The third time Jesus speaks about his forthcoming death and resurrection (Matt 20:17-19)
  3. The mother of two of his disciples asking Jesus if her sons can have a special place of honour with him in his kingdom and Jesus reminding his followers that the way of his kingdom is a way of service (Matt 20:20-28)
  4. Two blind men calling out to Jesus for mercy and receiving it (Matt 20:29-34)

The first reminds us that – even as we are called to serve God – the rewards we will receive are from his generous grace (there is much more to be said about this parable but not here!), the second is another reminder of how far Jesus will go for us, the third shows that greatness is in service and the fourth, again, draws our attention back to God’s mercy. So there are rewards for God’s people and those who choose to live and serve Jesus but they are due to God’s grace and not something we should seek.

So all these passages testify to the fact that there will be rewards and blessings for those who follow Jesus, who seek to live as citizens of his kingdom, but that the rewards themselves shouldn’t be the focus – rather we should be rejoicing in God’s mercy and seeking opportunities to serve.

Is there any tension between this and being “saved by grace and not works”? 

To answer this we need to recognise that most of the words Jesus was speaking in Matthew were aimed at those who were in “the kingdom” and encouraging them in how to behave. If one is a child of God how should we live, what should be our focus and what should we be looking forward to?

And we get very similar ideas from Paul who doesn’t see a contradiction here as he:

  1. Makes it clear that we have been saved by grace and through faith – and as a result of God’s gracious gift to us (Eph 2:8)
  2.  Speaks about people building on their foundation in Christ and receiving a reward (1 Cor 3:10-15).
  3. Looks forward to a “crown of righteousness” that God will award him and others (2 Tim 4:8)

For Paul, our becoming part of God’s family, our “being saved”, is a total act of grace on the part of God but the consequence of this is that we live out our lives in service and we can look forward to a reward from God.

James, speaking about the relationship between faith and works, makes his famous statement about “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). Here he isn’t arguing that faith isn’t important but he is arguing that people of faith should live lives, should do things, that demonstrate it.

So there isn’t any disagreement here at all. We become Christians through an act of God’s grace which we receive by faith; as a consequence of that we are called to live lives of discipleship & service in grateful recognition of what God has done; we look forward to a time when we will receive, from God’s grace, a reward for the things we have done as his people.

But just as our motivation for service shouldn’t be the prospect of a reward but rather a response to grace; so our “use” of our rewards will also be a response to God’s grace. In Revelation 4:9-11, the 24 elders around the throne of God fall down and worship God, laying their crowns before his throne. These elders refer to God’s people through history (warning alert – many different views on this but this is what I think!) as represented by the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Jesus. And they take the crowns they have been given, the rewards and standing they have achieved, and they offer them to God. In Revelation 5 this worship and praise is extended to the person of Jesus (Rev 5:8-10, 14). And so the rewards we receive will be things we can offer to God so that he will receive all glory and honour and praise.

Glory to the Lamb

Jan 192016
 

Last year, in our church, we had a preaching series on the book of Revelation – an opportunity to share together something of the greatness of God and His Lamb (Jesus), to hear the words of Jesus to His church, to gain insight into what is going on in the world and how God’s people are called to engage with it, and to look ahead to the wonderful future that is in store for us as God completes the work of re-creation and comes to dwell with His people (Rev 21:3).revelation cover

A number of people who weren’t able to get to some of the services asked for notes about what had been said so they could “keep up” and so I thought it might be helpful to make the entire set available.

There are, as is well known, many ways to look at the book of Revelation and I am sure some people will see it differently from how I present it in this book. But my hope and prayer is that it will encourage people to look again at what the book says, to wrestle with it, and to hear God’s voice speaking through it.

The book is available in a number of formats:

  • As a Kindle book (I had hoped to publish it for free but couldn’t find a way to do so in this format so it costs 99p)
  • As a “Personal Book” to be compiled as a Bible Commentary into Logos Software (the zip file contains the document, a cover file and a suggestion of how to install it)
  • As a downloadable PDF document

Enjoy!

Jul 312014
 

A recent post from David – “Where’s your god now?” – prompted me to write a review on a book I have just finished reading:

yancey - disappointment with God

Disappointment with God: Three questions no one asks aloud by Philip Yancey

It is a book written to try and respond to the disappointment which, he argues, many people, for a range of reasons, feel with God. One of the triggers in writing the book – and around which much of the book revolves – is a conversation Yancey had with a friend who had come to a point where he no longer believed in God. Reflecting on their conversation, Yancey felt that behind what was going on were three large questions:

  1. Is God unfair?
  2. Is God silent?
  3. Is God hidden?

In his book Yancey reflects on these, and other, questions from a biblical perspective and makes some fascinating observations.

  1. He points out that in the Old Testament, God had laid out for his people a clear set of rules by which to live and receive blessing – and they soon turned away and neglected / rejected God. God was acting fairly towards them and they rebelled
  2. While the people of Israel were wandering in the desert God provided many instances of clear and direct guidance to them – and they ignored him and went their own way
  3. When God did turn up and appear directly to his people they were afraid and wanted Moses to act as an intermediary.

Yancey concludes, based on this study, that even when God was demonstrably acting fairly, speaking to his people and present amongst them they still turned against him and wanted something else. Yancey suggests that:

These dismal results may provide insight into why God does not intervene more directly today

As he continues to explore these questions he makes some interesting observations.

  • He points out that Old Testament is full of people asking similar questions of God and God choosing to answer in a variety of ways
    • That he hadn’t been silent – he had spoken through his prophets
    • He had withdrawn his presence due to his people’s behaviour
    • He wasn’t acting – as they were calling on him to do – as a sign of mercy
    • That he suffered along with his people
    • That he grieved over what was going on

Yancey asks what the life of Jesus contributes towards answering those three questions and he suggests that:

  1. Jesus, in what he said, made God’s will clearer than it had been before
  2. In Jesus, God has taken on a real, physical shape in the world
  3. Unfairness – Jesus healed some but not others, he didn’t “wipe away tears from all faces”

Yancey starts chapter 15 with these words

If ever the time was ripe to settle the question of God’s existence, it was while Jesus walked on earth. Jesus had one splendid opportunity to silence the critics forever.

He talks about how people called on Jesus for signs but points out that even though those closest to Jesus saw the miracles he did it didn’t stop them running away and deserting him. Even that wasn’t enough.

And Yancey points out that the question as to why God doesn’t sometimes act came into ultimate focus at the death of Jesus. And he says:

The spectacle of the Cross, the most public event of Jesus’ life, reveals the vast difference between a god who proves himself through power and One who proves himself through love

And Yancey goes on to talk about some of the results of this death:

  1. It made possible an intimacy that had never before existed – we now have direct access to God
  2. As we reflect on Jesus we see the Father
  3. None of the outrage and despair which we find in the Old Testament is present after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yes there is still suffering but the way in which God’s people engage with it has changed forever due to the cross of Christ
  4. There is still a realisation that everything is not yet right – quoting Hebrews 2 “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to they. But we do see Jesus”
  5. We now have the amazing privilege of God dwelling in us through his Spirit

And then Yancey suggests that the way God engages in history has changed:

  1. In the Old Testament, the focus is on the powerful God, creator, holy, passionate
  2. In the Gospels, the focus is on the life and work of God the Son on earth
  3. In the rest of the Bible the focus is on how God’s people – the church – how to live as people “in Christ”

and he says:

He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye.
Creation seems to be delegation through and through. I suppose this is because He is a giver

The progression—Father, Son, Spirit—represents a profound advance in intimacy. At Sinai the people shrank from God, and begged Moses to approach him on their behalf. But in Jesus’ day people could hold a conversation with the Son of God; they could touch him, and even hurt him. And after Pentecost the same flawed disciples who had fled from Jesus’ trial became carriers of the Living God. In an act of delegation beyond fathom, Jesus turned over the kingdom of God to the likes of his disciples—and to us.

One of the implications of this is that if God seems silent and hidden and unfair then the church has some significant responsibility for that.

There is much more in the book – his detailed look at the story of Job is well worth looking at – but Yancey avoids giving easy answers to difficult questions.

He speculates about why God doesn’t explain what is going on and suggests:

  1. God keeps up ignorant because enlightenment might not help us
  2. God keeps us ignorant because we are incapable of comprehending the answer

and he talks about two kinds of faith:

  1. a childlike faith where we “swallow the impossible”
  2. a “hang-on-at-any-cost faith” where we continue to believe even when there is no obvious reason to do so – and he points to some of those listed in Hebrews 11 as examples of that

And he points to a future hope when everything will be made well even while we struggle with the events that are going on around us.

Its a fascinating book and if you want to explore these ideas further, I suggest getting a copy of the book and working through it. You may not agree with everything in it but it gives some deep and challenging insights into some of these difficult questions which we grapple and wrestle with.