Sunday, 19 July 2015

Focus on Jesus

In his account in Acts 9, Luke does not mention everything that happened to Saul after his conversion. He omits to say that, shortly after his conversion, Saul went to Arabia for an unspecified time and then returned to Damascus for three years (Gal. 2:17-18). Arabia is not the country that we call by that name today. In Saul’s time, it would have included the countryside around Damascus, so we don’t need to imagine that he travelled very far, although some speculate that he travelled down to Mt. Sinai. We are not too surprised at his decision to go to the countryside, to a place of quietness, because it was important for him to get his focus right. He needed to discover who Jesus was and what he had done for sinners and also to grasp the implications of all this for his future.
Saul’s experience here is a reminder that a new convert usually learns most doctrines in the first few weeks or months of the Christian life. No doubt, later experience will enlarge his or her understanding of the faith. And there will be some doctrines, which the Bible classifies as strong meat, which will have to be left to later. Yet there will still be a great amount of new insights in the first few weeks of the Christian pathway.
What effects would his time in Arabia have on Saul? Surely, there would have been an increasing sense of wonder as he realised who Jesus was and what he had done for sinners. He had discovered on the Damascus Road that the risen Jesus was the divine Son of God. In Arabia he would have pondered how the Son of God became a man, how he met the demands of God’s law in his life and death, how he had ascended to heaven after his resurrection, and how he was going to return in the future. And as all his knowledge of the Old Testament predictions of and descriptions of the promised Messiah flowed through his mind Saul would be amazed at the fulness of blessings there are in Jesus Christ. The future apostle would be astonished at his discoveries.
In addition to a sense of wonder, there would also be desire to worship Jesus. This is always the ambition of any who come to know Jesus accurately. Their roads to Jesus will be different, yet when they realise who he is and what he has done, they will imitate Thomas and say to Jesus, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Saul was not only an amazed disciple, he was also an adoring disciple. Surely, a true convert will have those desires in the early days of his or her relationship with Jesus.

Saul as he thought about Jesus would develop a burning desire to witness for him. He could not stay in Arabia for ever and eventually he would have to tell others about the Saviour that he had discovered. So he made his way back to Damascus and begun to tell others about Jesus. And the rest is history.
What are our intentions after coming to know Jesus?

Friday, 5 June 2015

Sunday Thoughts - Thinking about Election

The Christian Faith has some doctrines that we find hard to understand. One of them is the doctrine of election. It is important to note that election is not a barrier to getting converted. We should not look at this doctrine when thinking about trusting in Jesus for the first time. Instead we should look at the promises that God makes to everyone about forgiveness if they trust in Jesus. But after trusting in Jesus it is essential that we think about this doctrine because God has told us about it. So here are seven things to think about when considering this doctrine.

The first detail to observe is that election is an expression of the love of the Father. Before time began, it had been agreed within the Trinity that each of the divine Persons would perform specific tasks in the outworking of the plan of salvation. The Son would become the Redeemer and the Spirit would become the Renewer of sinners. As far as the Father was concerned, his role involved selecting those who would be redeemed. And he selected them because he always loved them. This selection does not mean that prior to it he did not love his people. Instead it means an eternal selection, that he had always loved each of his people in this unique and special way. As far back as we want to imagine, when we think about that moment we should realise that then, and long before, the Father loved his people. It is a love without beginning.

The second detail to note is that it is a love that is undeserved. This is a very important aspect of this doctrine that we should remember at all times. Often those who criticise this doctrine do so by saying that God the Father was unjust when he made his choice. He would only be unjust or unfair if we deserved his love. But the fact is that no-one deserved it because those God chose came from a race of rebels against his law.

Third, we will see that the act of election was connected to Jesus. Paul reminds his readers in Ephesus that they were chosen in Christ. What does this mean? From the rest of the Bible we can say that it means they were given to the Son by the Father. Jesus refers to this donation by the Father and reception by the Son in John 17. In verse 6, he refers to his apostles and says about them: ‘I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.’ And in verse 24, he mentions all of his people: ‘Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.’ 

This gift of the Father to the Son was an expression of his love for his Son as well as his love for his people. A lover will want to give what he knows his beloved would appreciate, would enjoy and would want to keep. The Father knew what was suitable for his Son and gave him a people that he would delight in and would want to keep for ever. The process of salvation began with love that was connected to the Son and all that he would do for them would reveal it.

Fourth, the details of the act of election reveals the unexpected. Paul writes this surprising description in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29: ‘For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.’ Whatever else this set of verses teaches, it makes clear that God did not choose the best. 

I recall reading the story of a very intelligent man who was glad the letter ‘m’ was in this verse, found in the word ‘many’. It would have been disastrous for him if it had been left out and instead of ‘not many’ wise it said ‘not any’ wise. But he was an intelligent man who found a greater wisdom. And there have been wealthy people and powerful people who have discovered that God had loved them eternally.

Yet we have to remember that God’s ways are not our ways and that often, if not usually, he reveals his mercy to the poor, the despised and the needy. Of course, the world describes their experience as having a crutch to lean on whereas the reality is that God has enabled them to lean on his grace. 

Fifth, the reality of election is a wonderful encouragement for evangelism. Paul found this to be the case in Corinth. Despite having converts there he became discouraged and afraid because Luke tells us that ‘the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them’ (Acts 18:9-11). Without election, the fact is that there would be no converts. But realising that God sends his gospel with a purpose of saving those he has chosen, we should be encouraged to evangelise because that is the way that God has planned to gather in his people.

Sixth, the doctrine of election provides us with a strong basis for assurance. Did God choose us in the past in order to reject us in the future? Of course not, for as Paul reminded the Philippians: ‘And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 1:6). The fact that he chose his people should be an immense encouragement as they face the daily struggles of life.

Seventh, the doctrine of election should result in verbal praise of the Father. This is what Paul does in Ephesians 1:3ff when he praises the Father for the great salvation provided for undeserving sinners by the Trinity. Is his electing grace a feature of our prayers of gratitude to him, the God of all grace?

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Sunday thoughts - Thinking of the future

In Acts 3:21-22, Peter informs his listeners that in God will restore all things at a certain time in the future. There are several details connected to this announcement that we can observe.
Firstly, we can see that the preaching of this great truth by Peter resulted in the conversion of several thousand people. The biblical prospect of a new creation gripped the imagination of sinners living in the bondage of a fallen creation and they eagerly embraced the One who will bring about this glorious future. It is right for us to look back to what Jesus did in the past whether in his work of creation as the Eternal Son or in his work of atonement as the Substitute of sinners. But we should not ignore what he will do in the future. It is impossible for us to see physically the creation of the universe at the beginning or to penetrate the darkness of the cross when Jesus suffered there and paid the penalty for sin. Yet before us is held out the wonderful prospect of seeing the exalted Saviour complete his mediatorial role by presenting to God a restored universe. Preaching, and listening to it, is an opportunity for us to reflect on the greatness of the future planned for his church by Jesus.
Secondly, we are to assess physical disasters from a biblical perspective. Today, a great deal is said in the media about the environment, with the blame usually being laid at this group or that practice. Whatever the secondary reasons, we are to look for God’s hand in earthquakes, famines and other disasters. Thomas Boston commented on such things: ‘They are the constant evidences of God’s indignation against, and hatred of sin, which are never wanting in the world. And it is a child-like disposition to be affected with the tokens of their father’s anger; though they who have no care to please God can easily pass the signs of God’s displeasure, others cannot.’ He went on to say that such happenings ‘bring their own sins to remembrance: and a tender conscience disposes persons to think, “This is for my sake, for my provocations, that they suffer.” And so the saints groan with the groaning creatures, and long for the common deliverance.’
Thirdly, this great future reality should remind us of the great capabilities of God. He is guiding the story of the heavens and the earth through each chapter. So far, each chapter has its dark details; each chapter records the murky activities of sinful humans in rebellion against their great Creator. Yet all this tale of rebellion is not going to result in an eternal demise for God’s universe. True, it will be eternal tragedy for those who refuse God’s provided way of escape. Nevertheless, his eternal purpose will be achieved. One day, there will be a perfect world in which every inch will reveal his splendour and every second will be an opportunity for him to reveal his endless capabilities. Even now, as we gaze at it by using the telescope of the Bible, we can be enthralled by what is before us.

Fourthly, this great future reality speaks to us about the riches of God’s grace and gives us an insight into what it means to be a child of God. What can be said about these riches? We have been forgiven our sins, we have received the righteousness of Jesus as our standing in God’s sight, we have been given the indwelling Holy Spirit as the foretaste and guarantee of this future reality, and he is sanctifying us throughout our earthly lives. One day, we will be fully conformed to the image of God’s Son and be like our Elder Brother. Why have we received all these undeserved blessings? The answer to this question is that the God of all grace desires that we should live in his perfect world. We will live there aware that we once lived here, aware that through his grace we were brought into living and permanent contact with Jesus Christ, that we were guided through it safely by the Holy Spirit, that we were declared righteous at the judgement seat. With those past experiences, we will live in the perfect world, thankful to God for the riches of his grace which he will continue to pour upon us throughout the endless ages. We will live there with the thousands who were blessed that day by Peter’s sermon, and with the millions of others who have been redeemed from sin. And we will live there conscious of the presence of the eternal Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which means that all of life there will be worship and enjoyment of God.

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.’