Sunday, 27 April 2014

Our City is Better

Some cities claim to be a location where East meets West or where North meets South. A few of them also claim to be a place where the past meets the present, and even where the future can be anticipated. I am in such a city at the moment, but I cannot check on its claims because I cannot speak the local language. 

Whatever the validity of the claims of this city, it is the case that those features are found in the city of God, the church. In a very wonderful way, people from east and west and north and south gather together. Of course, they cannot all yet speak the same language, but that day is coming. Meanwhile they all can read the same Book (the Bible), speak to the same God simultaneously and share his blessings.

Yesterday we visited a large palace which was built as a residence for the former rulers of the empire who used to govern from this city. The palace is full of exhibits in lavish rooms that indicate the splendour in which they used to live and the pleasures they enjoyed. Large gardens, precisely laid out, point to the interest they once had in beauty and art. Sadly none of them are here, because they all died and left their power and interests behind them. In contrast, the King of the heavenly city went through death as its conqueror, and having risen again ascended to the place of permanent universal power. 

The splendour of this palace also points to the selfishness of its former residents. One is not surprised that revolutions occurred in countries where such selfish opulence was engaged in. They ruled for their own benefits and now their wealth is only an exhibit for tourists to gaze at and wonder why one family was so self-focused. How different is the King of the heavenly city! He will share all his wealth with his people in the new heavens and new earth, and meanwhile and for as long as they are on earth he provides for them out of his limitless storehouse of constant grace.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Resurrection of Jesus

Today is Easter Day, the day on which many Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Of course, we should celebrate his resurrection every day. Surprisingly, some Christians have made great mistakes concerning it. 

Paul was aware that questions had been raised in Corinth with regard to the doctrine of the resurrection. The idea of resurrection was alien to the Greek mind as can be seen from the contemptuous response of the Athenians to Paul’s message to the Areopagus. Greek philosophy regarded matter as evil and the spirit as good, therefore the thought of spirit returning to matter was abhorrent to them. Greek ‘wisdom’ had affected the Corinthian church in several ways (see 1 Corinthians 1). So the apostle describes and explains the significance of the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15.

First of all, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the resurrection of Christ is an essential aspect of the Christian gospel, and that an ongoing commitment to it as an article of faith is required in order for one to be a genuine believer: 'Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain' (vv. 1-2). In actuality, the resurrection of Christ is as necessary for salvation as is the death of Christ – they are matters of primary importance: 'For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures' (vv. 3-4). How can Paul say that the resurrection of Christ is as essential as his death? He gives three arguments.

Firstly, Paul stresses that the resurrection, because it was predicted in the Old Testament, is biblical. This is Paul’s basic argument, more important than the other two he mentions (eyewitnesses and personal encounter). One reason for its priority is that the other two cannot give the meaning of the resurrection. Eyewitnesses observed but could not interpret; personal encounter is by nature subjective and open to misinterpretation. But the scriptures are the touchstone by which to understand everything, even the activities of God.

Paul’s second argument is that the resurrection of Christ is an historical fact. The risen Christ was seen by many: 'and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles' (vv. 5-7). Paul can call on many witnesses. In other words, Christ rose from the dead.

Paul’s third argument regarding the risen Christ is that he can be personally encountered, even although he is no longer on the earth. Paul himself had so met Jesus: 'and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them — yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed' (vv. 8-11). 

May we have an encounter with the risen Saviour today.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Description of God's People

What does it mean to be a Christian? In 1 Peter 2:9, Peter reminds his readers that they belong to a community – a community that he describes in four ways. They are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, [and] a people for his own possession’. Each of these descriptions says something different about God’s people, but each of them also stresses that a Christian is someone who lives in a community. This is a powerful reminder to us because we live in a society that stresses individuality.  

A second answer to the question, ‘What does it mean to be a Christian?’, is that they belong to a community who are the fulfilment of what the Israelites were a picture or a sample. The four features that Peter mentions initially described the nation of Israel after it was rescued by God from its bondage in Egypt.  

The first feature that Peter highlights is that his readers are a chosen race. There are many races in the world, but which one of them has been especially blessed by God? In Old Testament days, the race of Israel was the chosen race. Things changed in the New Testament and the chosen race is now the church of Jesus Christ. All the members of this chosen race were once members of other races, and were so by birth. Membership of the new race depends on the choice of God. He has chosen them to live together and he is in the process of completing the members of his race so that he can bestow upon them the place in which they will dwell – the new heavens and new earth. 

Second, they are a royal priesthood. It goes without saying that we are not to read this reference through modern ideas and practices connected to priests. Instead we are to look back to what happened in Israel. The function of priests was to participate in worship and there was a general sense in which all Israelites functioned as priests whenever they worshipped God. In particular, the tribe of Levi was given the important role of priesthood and wherever they went their purpose in life was to teach about God in such a way that others would worship him. Obviously they would have connected his worship to the sacrificial system of the temple and would have explained the need of sacrifices in approaching God. In addition to teaching others, the priests also led the praise of the people. It is not difficult to see how this terminology applies to believers today. Their role is to instruct others about God in such a way that they too will worship him. 

Further, Christians are described as a royal priesthood. They are royal because they are united to the King, to Jesus who is their Elder Brother, the Heir of all things with whom they are joint-heirs. Because believers are royal priests, it means that they function with power given to them by their King. Their calling is to function as the praise leaders of the world, evangelising the nations so that others will come and join the priestly choir that celebrates the works of God. 

Third, believers are ‘a holy nation’. If chosen generation speaks of privilege and royal priesthood speaks of praise, holy nation speaks of purity. Israel was separated from the other nations of the world and this separation was not merely a division, it was also a distinction. We can imagine how one group can be separated from others and yet remain the same as they had been. All that would mark them was that they were divided. God’s intentions for Israel were far higher than that – he wanted them to be distinctive, living together in a manner that revealed a higher level of lifestyle. It is easy for us to describe the level of difference between the wealthy lifestyle of a person in the affluent West and the poor lifestyle of a person in a deprived part of the world. We can easily describe the difference because it is obvious. The lifestyle of the Christian community should be so far above the best that the rest can offer that it will be easily observed.

A nation has government, laws, benefits and defences upon which all its activities are based. The rulers govern according to regulations designed to make life for their subjects fulfilling, enjoyable and secure. Those who belong to the nation experience its resources when they live according to its rules. In a far higher sense, this is also the case in the church. Holiness is heart obedience to the laws of Christ. When they are obeyed, the lifestyle of his nation is seen to be above all other possible ways of life. The nation that belongs to Jesus is scattered throughout the countries of the world, but they are still one nation obeying his requirements. When that happens, others see a society that is superior and blessed. 

The fourth feature that marks believers is that they belong to God, they are his special treasure. There is a sense in which God values every person that he has created because each has been made in his image. Nevertheless he does not give to each person special expressions of his love. But he does provide such benefits to those he regards as his in a special manner – for example, he forgives them when they do wrong and he restores them when they confess their faults to him. He is determined to do them good. 

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The permanence of God’s Word

In 1 Peter 1:24 and 25, Peter contrasts the important messages of humans with the message of the Word of God. Peter lived in a time when many ideas were circulating about life, and the vast majority of people would have been very surprised at his assessment of such ideas. The apostle did not expect them to last long – in fact, these messages would have the same influence as temporary flowers and grass. In contrast, the message that was preached to them, which was based on the Scriptures and is included in the Scriptures, would last forever. 

No matter how surprised Peter’s contemporaries would have been at his assessment, the verdict of history is on his side. How many people today know anything of what the famous thinkers and orators of Peter’s day thought and said? Tourists visit the places where such lived and taught, and have little idea of the influence they once held. Yet the message preached by Peter and others is adhered to strenuously and lovingly by millions of people all over the world today. 

Since Peter’s time, many other notions have been suggested for improving the state of humanity, and they too have disappeared despite once having great influence. Yet the Word of God remains and has greater impact today than it ever did as can be seen in the large number of people who live their lives by it. All this means is that we should have the same confidence that Peter had in God’s Word and we should have the same assessment as he had of other ideas that are advocated in our contemporary world.  

Of course, the primary reason why God’s Word is permanent is because he has made it so. This is the obvious difference between other messages and God’s Word – the other messages were the compositions of weak, limited humans whereas God’s Word is the product of the wise and almighty God. Because he is full of all wisdom, the Lord knew what to put in his Word, and because he is almighty he always has the power to ensure its effects are fulfilled. 

Peter reminds his listeners that they had experienced the effects of this word when it was preached to them. The content of the preaching is described as good news, which raises the question, ‘What were the various features of the message that allow it to be called good news?’ Obviously, he is referring to the gospel about Jesus, in which his person and work are explained. We are familiar with the gospel, but we should remember that it as a gospel that came to us (and them) through the Word of God. As we here the gospel today, let us be thankful for the permanence of God’s Word.