Sunday, 10 May 2015

Sunday Thoughts - Do all in the name of Jesus

Paul challenged the Colossians to do everything in the name of Jesus (Col. 3:17). The phrase highlights the supreme position held by Jesus. There is the danger that we can become so familiar with this title and therefore use it in an unthinking way. In addition, we have lost the concept of lordship – we watch the activities of the House of Lords and probably find their titles and interaction irrelevant to us. These individuals don’t look as if they have much power or authority. Yet if we lived in Colosse at the time Paul wrote his letter, or anywhere else in the Roman Empire, we would know that to say Jesus is Lord was to make a public announcement that affirmed he was the supreme ruler, higher, much higher, than Caesar himself.

The distinguishing mark of real authority is that those who possess it have the ability to make laws and have the power to enforce them. They need both – ability without the power only reveals that the person is wise and weak; the power without the ability will result in cruelty or chaos, or both. We should gladly confess that Jesus has both the ability and the power. He is the wonderful counsellor predicted by Isaiah, able to provide all the laws that are needed in his kingdom (he does not call a parliament every so often in order to discover what to do); he is the supreme Lord who possesses all power in himself (he does not need to have an army to protect him or to defeat his opponents because he is always almighty). It gives us great joy to recall that this is always true of Jesus.

Yet it is also the case that those who acknowledge the position of Jesus may be ignorant of his requirements. We have an election this month and I suspect that the vast majority of those who will vote did not pay any attention to the manifestos of the several parties. And I also suspect that even the supporters of the winning party will not pay much attention to the various laws it will enact, unless of course these laws have an adverse effect on them. Yet they, and everyone else, are responsible to find out what laws are binding. Whatever we will do or say, there are laws governing our speech and our actions, and if we fall foul of the civil authorities, we cannot plead ignorance. Neither can we plead ignorance when it comes to the requirements of Jesus.

Unlike most human governments, Jesus’ commandments are found in one small volume, the Bible. Further, unlike the laws of human governments, the laws of Jesus do not have to be adjusted because of developments in society – his wisdom is such that the laws he has devised will always be relevant to whatever circumstances his subjects find themselves in. And, again unlike most laws passed by human governments, the laws of Jesus are easy to obey – he told his listeners in Matthew 11:28-30 that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Usually the leaders of human governments cannot be contacted by those under their authority. How different with regard to the kingdom of Jesus – any of his subjects can speak to him all the time and all of them can speak to him at the same time. They can go to him and ask him to teach them his laws and he will be delighted to do so. In fact, when they became members of his kingdom, he wrote his laws on their hearts and since then they want to obey him. But sometimes, spiritual enemies hinder their growth in knowledge and they have to approach King Jesus and confess their failures; and unlike human rulers he does not send his erring subjects to prison, instead he restores them to his service.

Furthermore, Jesus will enable his subjects to practise his laws. I am sure that all human governments would love to have a means by which they could cause their subjects to obey laws from the heart in a glad manner. Sadly they do not have such a means; indeed it would probably be abused by them if they had it. But in the kingdom of Jesus, there is such a means and he achieves it in the lives of his subjects by the work of the Holy Spirit. Of course, the presence of the Spirit is not an encouragement to laziness, as if the disciples of Jesus can leave it all to the Spirit. The way the Spirit usually works is by enlightening their minds regarding the teaching of Jesus, causing them to love it, and then guides them to obey it.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Sunday thoughts - Finding fellowship

Fellowship is an essential Christian experience and practice. Yet it seems to be getting squeezed out of much contemporary Christian living. So here are some thoughts about it.

The first is that Christian fellowship requires time. This point is so elementary, but it is liable to be forgotten. We cannot have fellowship unless we set aside the time for it. This may mean that we have to change our priorities, and it does mean that times of fellowship have to be organised.

A second feature of true Christian fellowship is trust. Of course, the question we should ask is not, ‘Can I trust that person?’ Instead we should ask, ‘Can that person trust me?’ Trust is not only revealed in confidentiality. In a sense, that is easy. All confidentiality requires is for a person to keep his mouth shut about an issue. Trust also involves commitment. Commitment in Christian fellowship will be seen in the frequency of meeting together, and in the fervency of earnest, regular prayer for one another.

A third feature of Christian fellowship is tenderness. Each person in a Christian church has sore points. They may be current troubles in providence, they may be mistakes in the past, they may be disappointed hopes from long ago. When believers meet together in fellowship, they show great sensitivity for one another. This does not mean that they cannot have a disagreement about an aspect of Christian doctrine or Christian living. Yet they will be tender to one another. They will also be tender of each other’s reputations. Whenever you hear a believer running down another believer, you can deduce accurately that they are not having fellowship together, and it is usually the fault of the person who is repeating the problem.

A fourth feature of Christian fellowship is transparency. By this, I mean that true fellowship cannot take place where there is pretence. Instead, we have to be honest. If we are honest with regard to our limitations in Christian understanding we will learn from those who have made great discoveries in the Bible; if we are honest with regard to our lack of Christian progress we will be challenged by those of our number who have made advances in the Christian life. But if we pretend that we know everything and are making constant progress in the Christian life, we will get no benefit from times of fellowship.

The final feature of Christian fellowship to note is that it requires talk. It is not possible to have corporate fellowship in silence. One can be present in a room full of others in which nothing is said. What happens then is that it would make no difference if the rest were not there. Proper fellowship requires sharing. We should not go to a time of fellowship intending to say nothing. I don’t mean that we should make up a speech beforehand and let it rip whatever is being said. Instead we should be willing to contribute to what is being discussed. We should imitate the example of the believers mentioned in Malachi 3:16: ‘Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name.’

Friday, 1 May 2015

The Suburbs of Heaven, The Diary of Murdoch Campbell

The Suburbs of Heaven (2014), The Diary of Murdoch Campbell, edited by David Campbell, Covenanters Press, 160pp

Reviewed in the April 2015 issue of The Record of the Free Church of Scotland

A long time ago, when I was a new Christian, I was aware of the name of Rev. Murdoch Campbell, and that for two reasons. First, his several books, although written by a Free Church minister, had managed to get over the very high walls erected by the denomination in which I spent my childhood and youth and were read eagerly by its people. Second, after Campbell retired, he lived near an elder of the congregation in which I was converted, and he could not make any sense of Campbell’s mysticism. Later I realised that the first denomination shared Campbell’s Highland and Celtic spirituality, whereas the elder in the second denomination did not. I suspect that the same two reactions will re-appear with regard to this book.

Some will read the extracts from the diary with a sense of spiritual nostalgia and appreciate what they say because they describe circumstances that are gone and spiritual experiences that no longer seem to exist, even in the Scottish Highlands. Others will read about some of the experiences and wonder what is the connection between mysticism and Christian encounters with the unseen world – especially when the person describing his experiences was known for having a close walk with God – and how they enable a sinner to live with God on his journey together through this world. His unusual awareness of God speaking to him in dreams and of his awareness of praying while asleep will raise the eyebrows of some. Of course, when they do, they should recall that Andrew Bonar, himself not a Highlander, once found himself trying to form new Greek words in his sleep in order to express the love of Christ.

The extracts reveal a man honest with himself, yet willing to mention and sometimes detail his experiences for the benefit of others, including the prominent in the land, as Campbell did when writing to encourage Winston Churchill during the Second World War. Many times in the diary he records how Bible verses came to him with such power that he was aware they were conveying special, indeed specific, instructions and comforts from God. Moreover, his confidence regarding the post-millennial view of the future, and the spiritual comfort he received through thinking about it, may surprise those who regard it as an unsound interpretation.

Some of his details refer to his efforts in the pulpit such as him having mental freedom in preaching whilst his heart remained unmoved, and what added to the problem was that his listeners on that occasion seemed unmoved as well. He comments about times when prayer was hard and other times when he found it a pleasant experience. There are references to spiritual conflicts within and the power of the adversary. Occasionally he details meetings with kindred spirits who shared his awareness of God’s presence. Now and again he gives his assessment of a book he has been reading.

The diary refers to his family and to his friends, mainly fellow ministers and elders. There are notes of gladness when he records having met or heard of individuals blessed through his ministry. Statements of concern about the direction in which the national Church was travelling seem prophetic when looked at from our standpoint.

All this and more is found in this diary and yet it is not a large volume. Yet it has much to say about how we can interact with God in and through his Word. So I would recommend it to all, but especially to those who are finding their spiritual journey dull and flat. For the clear effect of reading this volume is that it describes one who walked with God, but does it in such a way that his readers can think, ‘So can I.’

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Sunday Thoughts - Why Pray?

Paul had explained to the Colossians how they were to show that they belonged to the new humanity, whether in life in general or in the specific area of household life (chapter 3 of his letter). We can imagine the Colossians, as they listened to the letter being read to them, responding at least to themselves, ‘How can we retain correct thinking about all these issues in our minds?’ If they were thinking in that way as they heard Colossians 4:1 being read, they received the answer in verse 2: ‘Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.’

Further, they may have said to themselves, ‘In addition to demands connected to life in the church, it is also the case that we have to face pressures from those outside the church. Our family members, our neighbours, the contacts we make day by day are not interested in what we have to say about Jesus. What would Paul, who we have never met, say to us?’ No doubt the apostle could say many things, but it is reasonable to assume that one response he would urge would be to ‘continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.’

In addition, it is possible that the Christians in Colosse would face official investigations and punishments by the authorities. Although Colosse was a small town, it was not a backwater location because it was close to the cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. It was inevitable that the authorities would be curious at least about the appearance of this radical new group that involved different races, all levels of society, and did not participate in any of the official religions. One of Paul’s responses to such potential difficulties for the church in Colosse would be to ‘continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.’   

The church in Colosse had lost its pastor Epaphras. He had brought the gospel to Colosse after he had been converted through hearing Paul in Ephesus. Over the next decade or so, he had guided the church in Colosse. He then had gone to Rome to see Paul and had himself been arrested. There is no hint that Epaphras was about to be released and we can imagine the anxiety that the church would have when Tychicus and Philemon appeared – without Epaphras (vv. 7-9). Paul’s advice, I am sure, would be to ‘continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.’

Two men had left the church in Colosse in the past while. One was their faithful pastor Epaphras and one was the unreliable slave Onesimus who had ran away from his master Philemon in whose house the church in Colosse met. I am sure that they prayed for both men, although with different desires for each. They would have prayed for the release of Epaphras and the conversion of Onesimus. Now they could see that the Lord had kept his promise and answered prayer for Onesimus. But what were they to do with regard to their prayers for Epaphras? The answer was to ‘continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.’ Be thankful for Onesimus and continue to pray for Epaphras.

Of course, Paul wanted them to pray for him. He knew that his colleagues Tychicus and Philemon would convey information about his circumstances when they delivered the letter to the church, and in their report they would mention his confinement as a prisoner. We will look in a future reading at what he requested about himself, but it is the case that with regard to these specific requests in verses 3 and 4, Paul would want them to ‘continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.’