Category Archives: Big questions

Mark 9:14-32: Towards Belief (Big Questions 9)

Today we come to the end of our series of Big Questions. (Nine barriers that stand in the way of people believing the Christian message.) We’ve looked at topics like suffering, abuse in the church, Science, the reliability of the Bible. And the goal’s been to help people TO THINK THROUGH THE EVIDENCE. Because that’s the thing with belief in God. (Belief in the Christian message). It’s about investigating evidence. And thinking it through. And then BASING your belief on the evidence.

And that’s very different from what lots of people think Christian faith is like. They see it as a CHOICE between BELIEF or BRAINS. Belief when there IS no evidence. Or worse, belief DESPITE the evidence. But that’s BLIND faith, not BIBLICAL faith. Like Richard Dawkins. The atheist, who wrote The God Delusion. Here’s how he defines faith: “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”

That might be how HE chooses to define Christian faith. But when the Bible uses the word, it’s more about TRUST, or RELIANCE, or CONFIDENCE.

And it’s BASED on evidence. Not PROOF. But investigating what you CAN know. And then RELYING on that for what you CAN’T be sure of.

And it’s no different from the way all of us trust ANYTHING. For example, you need an operation. You can’t be CERTAIN it will be safe or successful. So you do your research. You ask the opinion of people you trust. They recommend a surgeon. You check her credentials, and her experience. You talk to her. She explains what she’s going to do, and what the risks are. And then you weigh up all the evidence. (It’s not PROOF the operation will be successful). And then you make your decision. You choose to TRUST the surgeon, or not, on the basis of the evidence. And then you SHOW that trust by allowing her to operate.

And it’s the same with Christian faith. (With trusting the Bible. Relying on the claims of Jesus.) It’s about investigating what you DO know, and then choosing to trust what you can’t prove on the basis of that evidence.

In fact, it’s the sort of thing JESUS HIMSELF did. We read about it Mark 2. A paralysed man is lowered through the roof. His friends have gone to a huge effort for him to meet Jesus. When Jesus sees him, he says, “Son, your SINS ARE FORGIVEN.”

The Jewish teachers scoff, “Who does he think he is? Only GOD can forgive sins?”

Do you see the problem? Jesus MIGHT be able to forgive sins. With the authority of GOD HIMSELF. Or he might NOT. It’s easy TO SAY. But hard to PROVE.

And so Jesus gives them some EVIDENCE. Something they can SEE/ to help them trust what they CAN’T see. V10. He says, 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . .” He said to the paralytic, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” And the paralysed man gets up, takes his mat, and walks out. IN FULL VIEW OF THEM ALL. The evidence is there for EVERYONE TO SEE!

And Jesus’ point is THIS. We don’t have to BLINDLY trust that he can forgive sins. He gives us EVIDENCE WE CAN SEE – legs that work again – to help us trust what we CAN’T see. And it’s evidence to help us trust that he forgives OUR sins, TOO.

And John, the gospel writer, was aiming to do the same thing. He picks out certain VISIBLE things to help his readers rely on what CAN’T be proved. At the end of his gospel. Ch 20 v30, he concludes, 30 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But THESE ARE WRITTEN that you may BELIEVE that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by BELIEVING you may HAVE LIFE IN HIS NAME.

Lots of OTHER things Jesus did. But John picks out SPECIALLY those events that HIGHLIGHT who Jesus is.

And he calls them SIGNS. Things you can SEE that POINT TO something. And as readers observe and analyse and investigate the signs. It helps them TRUST the person they POINT to.

And THAT helps them trust God’s promise. That Jesus gives them life when they TRUST him. (He forgives their sin, restores them to knowing their Creator. And defeats death on their behalf.)

And that’s the purpose of THIS SERIES, TOO. (The last nine weeks.) To help people THINK THROUGH the EVIDENCE. To move them TOWARDS BELIEF.

I believe, help my unbelief

Now, I don’t know where you’re at. (What you BELIEVE and what you DON’T). Perhaps you’ve made some progress. Perhaps there are STILL some hurdles in the way.

So, if you’re NOT a Christian. And you’ve sat through a few of these topics. Let me ask a rather blunt question. What’s STOPPING you?

Don’t just leave things the way they are. (Somehow hoping that there’ll be some miraculous change). Stop and ask yourself. What’s STOPPING me from trusting Jesus?

WHATEVER those barriers are. Write them down. NAME them. And then do something about ADDRESSING them. INVESTIGATE. Ask questions. Read some books. Move from where you are. It’s WORTH it.

And, by way of encouragement, let me tell you about someone ELSE who wasn’t completely there yet. But who wanted to be there. Who WANTED to believe. And who Jesus worked with BECAUSE of that desire. It’s over in Mark ch 9 v14. Jesus and three of the disciples come down from a mountain retreat. Back to the others. And they step right into a major disagreement. The teachers of the law are arguing with the disciples. And there’s a large crowd standing around watching all the action.

Jesus asks the disciples what’s going on. But instead, a man in the crowd answers. V17. An evil spirit’s stopping his son from speaking. (A bit further on we learn he’s deaf as well). But it’s the symptoms like epilepsy that REALLY trouble him. And so he brought the boy to the disciples. But when they tried to cast out the demon/ nothing happened.

Now, it’s important to remember that only a few chapters before/ they actually HAD cast out demons and healed people. Jesus sent them out two by two. Back in Ch 6. But NOW when they tried it … NOTHING. But Jesus knows exactly what’s gone wrong. Nothing happened because the disciples weren’t acting IN FAITH. Look at v19. He’s talking about his disciples. “O UNBELIEVING generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” He’s exasperated with the disciples. They’ve seen everything he’s done, and STILL don’t trust him. And he commands them to bring the boy to him.

But when they do, the evil spirit doesn’t it, and does the only thing it can – tries to harm the boy. Something it’s been doing for the whole of his life. Because Satan is always about destroying whatever’s GOOD. Verse 20. It threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

The father’s DESPERATE. Because at any moment, his son might drown, or burn to death. So he PLEADS with Jesus. (And those of us who are parents can understand a little of his desperation. Because we’d do almost ANYTHING to help our children.) V22, But if YOU can do anything, take pity on us and HELP us.”

There it is. That’s the invitation. “Take PITY on us. And HELP us.” Not just help the SON. But help the FATHER. Because he’s suffering TOO.

But Jesus picks up on three of his words. Words that show this man’s got the same problem as the disciples. A lack of faith. Look at what Jesus answers. Verse 23. “‘IF you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who BELIEVES.”

The man thought it all depended on JESUS – whether HE had the power to make it happen. Which, in a way, it DOES. But instead Jesus turns the question around. The crucial question isn’t whether JESUS has the power. But whether the MAN has the FAITH. “If YOU believe/ EVERYTHING is possible.”

Jesus has a limitless supply of power to do ANYTHING. But it takes FAITH to TAP INTO that. And once you DO, Jesus says ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

And immediately the man responds with a great answer. One that sums up OUR situation so often, too. Verse 24. “I DO believe. Help me overcome my UNbelief.” He asked for Jesus’ help with the evil spirit IN HIS SON. And now he asks for Jesus’ help with the UNBELIEF IN HIS OWN HEART. “I DO believe. Help me overcome my UNbelief.”

That’s a GREAT prayer if you’re not SURE about Jesus. If you’re investigating the truth. “I know a LITTLE. I believe A LITTLE. But I’ve got questions. Doubts. So HELP me. GROW my faith. Show me evidence that will SUPPORT it. PROVE yourself reliable. And trust-WORTHY.” Because it’s LESS about YOU. And MORE about JESUS doing something.

But it’s not just a prayer for those INVESTIGATING Christianity. It’s a prayer for those of us who’ve been Christians for DECADES. Like the disciples, we doubt Jesus’ power, and try to do things on our own. “I DO believe. Help my UNBELIEF. God, I THINK I believe you’re in control. I THINK I believe you’ll provide all my needs. I THINK you’ve got plans for tomorrow. I THINK I believe nothing can separate me from your love. I THINK I can trust you with my child, or my future, or my cancer.”         “I DO believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.”

But what’s so great about this/ is that Jesus never expects PERFECT faith. (Or complete faith. Absolute faith). He can work with faith THE SIZE OF A MUSTARD SEED. He’s THE ULTIMATE MICRO SURGEON. Working with things SO SMALL you need a microscope to see them.Have you got faith THAT big? Enough to ask Jesus to step in, and HELP your unbelief?

The man DOES. He’s got SOME faith. He MUST have, because Jesus does his work again. Verse 25. He rebukes the Spirit, it comes out of the boy, and Jesus helps him to his feet. Healed and whole. Jesus MEETS us where we are. Do you have enough faith to ASK for faith?

Christianity is about Christ

But there’s something ELSE interesting in this passage. It’s the role of the CROWD. V15. Jesus arrives, and the crowd are overwhelmed with wonder and RUN to greet him. What do they WANT? If you jump back a page or two, you can see the last two public events were Jesus feeding the four thousand, and the healing of a blind man. So it’s likely they want a FEED, a SHOW, or a HEALING. And as THIS event unfolds, it looks like they’re going to get at least a SHOW, and A HEALING. Jesus has COMPASSION on those in pain. And he wants to HELP. But notice what happens in v25.

The boy’s convulsing on the ground, the father’s pleading for Jesus’ help. And then v25,

25 WHEN JESUS SAW THAT A CROWD WAS RUNNING TO THE SCENE, he rebuked the evil spirit.

The spectacle’s attracting an even GREATER crowd. And now, THEY’RE running towards him. Rushing over to see what all the fuss is about. And Jesus wants to avoid too much of the wrong SORT of attention. (People coming to Jesus to have THEIR OWN NEEDS FIXED).

It’s something he’s done all the way through Mark. Back at the end of Ch 1, he heals a leper, and commands him not to TELL anyone. Instead, he goes and tells EVERYONE. And we read in v45. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

He wants to TEACH. About himself and repentance and forgiveness. But the crowd want HEALING. Which Jesus DOES, because he CARES. But it distracts them from his TEACHING. So much NEED, but no EARS TO HEAR.

Same thing again in Ch 5. He raises a dead girl to life. And then GIVES STRICT ORDERS NOT TO LET ANYONE KNOW ABOUT THIS. (Which I would have thought was a bit difficult with anyone who knew she’d DIED!)

Or Ch 7, he heals a deaf and mute man, and he commands them not to tell anyone. V36. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.

And even here in Ch 9. After he’s healed the boy with the evil spirit. V30, we read,

30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was TEACHING his disciples. TEACHING is what the people REALLY need.

We see it in ch 4 where Jesus talks about the different types of SOIL. Different reactions people have to hearing about Jesus. And those who DON’T produce fruit, (who don’t believe), are those who let TROUBLE or PERSECUTION, or WORRIES, or the desire for other things CHOKE OUT JESUS’ MESSAGE. Our NEED can STOP us from believing. Whereas the GOOD SOIL. Are those people who… HEAR THE WORD. Who don’t let their needs or problems distract them from LEARNING. Learning that leads to belief, and forgiveness, and LIFE. And his conclusion is, He who has EARS TO HEAR, LET HIM HEAR.

Because, ultimately, Jesus didn’t come to satisfy people’s needs. He came to show people HIMSELF. To teach about HIMSELF. Because that’s what people REALLY need. They might come to Jesus for healing, or help with a problem or a relationship, or with guilt. And Jesus will often DEAL with our pain and struggles.

But what we need MOST is Jesus. We need to know the One who came from the Father. Who shows us what he’s like. And who shows us what WE’RE like. And then who dies in our place to restore our relationship with our Creator. And who defeats death, and demands our loyalty and service. And gives us LIFE.

We saw it in chapter 2, the crippled man is brought by his friends to Jesus. What do they want? It’s obvious – HEALED LEGS! But what does Jesus do instead? FORGIVES HIS SINS! Because that’s what WE ALL need most.

So, as you think about investigating evidence, and growing in your belief. As you think about what you might GAIN from coming to Jesus. (Your needs, or problems, or questions). Just remember that, in the end, what you need MOST is JESUS HIMSELF.

Look at what Jesus’ priority was. He takes the disciples off, away from the crowds, and their needs. And he teaches them about HIMSELF. V31. he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”

Ultimately THAT’S the Big Question we all need to consider MOST. As much as all these other questions might be real issues. Who is JESUS? What did he DO? And what should YOU DO in response to that? And we get a great answer to that question if we look at the events described just BEFORE the boy’s healing in Ch 9. Where Jesus and the other disciples had been. They’ve been up on a mountain, and Peter and James and John get a vision of Jesus’ eternal nature. His TRUE IDENTITY. God’s eternal Son. V2 says,

There he was TRANSFIGURED before them. 3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

And the point of Moses and Elijah was that they were two prophets with EXPERIENCE at speaking to GOD/ on a mountain. And they’re TALKING TO JESUS. JESUS IS GOD. Glorious and eternal. Pure and holy and powerful.

But there’s more. Not just VISIBLE evidence. AUDIBLE evidence TOO. V7. Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” God himself speaking up for his Son. Declaring his love for his obedient, victorious Son. And then speaking a command to the three disciples. But also to US. “LISTEN to him.” Will you DO that?

Will you consider the evidence? Trust it? And then trust Jesus? That you might believe that he is the Christ. And that by believing, you may have LIFE in his NAME?

 

Matthew 16:13-20: The irrelevant and obsolete church (Big Questions 9)

culinary-converted-churches-the-white-rabbit-restaurantAll across Australia church buildings sit vacant, or are being turned into restaurants, or shops, mosques or private homes. Congregations are often aging, and getting smaller. Gone are the days when church was at the centre of society. When sermons were published in the newspaper, and the social events were centred around the church’s program.

Australia-wide surveys regularly show the percentage of Christians, depending how you MEASURE that, has been in decline for decades. Dr Ruth Powell, a researcher with the National Church Life Survey writes,

At the turn of the century in 1901, nearly every Australian claimed a Christian affiliation or identification (96%). By the most recent Census in 2011 this figure had declined to six out of ten Australians (61%). In the past two decades from 1991 to 2011, there has been a decline in Christian identification from 74% to 61%

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And the same graph shows that the percentage of people who attend church at least monthly has fallen from 25 to 15% between 1990 and 2009.

If you ask the person on the street, often their impression is that the Christian church is IRRELEVANT and OBSOLETE. That society has moved on, and outgrown its need for organised religion. And that the church just doesn’t have anything of importance to say to the average Australian. They just don’t see OUR MESSAGE, or WHO WE ARE, as important enough to adjust their OTHER priorities for.

They see us as a support group, or a welfare organization, for the needy. But they don’t NEED support or welfare. Or they see us as an educational institution. But they’re already doing ENOUGH professional development and self-improvement courses. Or they see us as A COMMUNITY CLUB. But they’ve already GOT their own community: their sporting team, or hobby group, or gym, or pub. Or they see our message as being about death and sin and eternity. And they just don’t want to think about ANY of those things. Or they don’t see them as RELEVANT to their lives.

Let’s be HONEST. We’ve got A PROBLEM. And we need to DO something about it. GOD wants us to do something about it.

Acts 2

And a good place to START is A HISTORY LESSON. To study the church at a time when it WAS relevant and significant. Because the very FIRST New Testament church is described in a way that makes it A BLUE-PRINT for what OTHER churches should look like. A PATTERN to FOLLOW. Acts Ch 2 v42, there’s about 3000 Jews who’ve heard the good news of Jesus, repented and been baptized. And they form a new community, within the community of Jewish Jerusalem.

And there’s FOUR PRIORITIES they devote themselves to. Four things that CHARACTERISE them. And four priorities WE need TODAY, if we’re going to be relevant and significant. V42 says they DEVOTED themselves. The FORM of that word suggests it was their CONSTANT HABIT to be devoted to these things. Something they CONTINUALLY did. “They WERE DEVOTING themselves.”

And to be DEVOTED to these things meant they PERSISTED at them, held FAST to them, paid close ATTENTION to them. MADE THEM A PRIORITY.

  1. The Apostles’ teaching

First, they devoted themselves TO THE APOSTLE’S TEACHING. The Apostles are eyewitnesses to the incredible, miraculous, life-changing news that Jesus ROSE FROM THE DEAD. And that he’s beaten sin and death, and offers forgiveness and life to EVERYONE. The first Christians devoted themselves to hearing about THAT. But that’s not all. The apostles begin to pass on what they’d learned from three years sitting at Jesus’ feet. And they’re guided and helped by the Holy Spirit, who leads them into all truth. And who helps them remember everything they’d heard.

And they DEVOTE themselves because JESUS IS THE EXPERT ON LIFE. He’s the expert on God, and sin and death and righteousness. The expert on morality. The expert on relationships and family and children. On love and marriage. On work and health and jobs and purpose and guidance. It makes sense to DEVOTE yourself to teaching like THAT.

And surely, today, the teaching of JESUS makes the church relevant. Our culture may no longer listen to religious authority. But it’s hungry for EXPERT OPINION. Whether it’s self-help books, or courses, or lifestyle shows, or specialist referrals. All life’s questions answered, and all life’s problems solved. Health, relationships, tutoring, tax and investment advice, gardening and lifestyle advice. Parenting, beauty treatments, cosmetic surgery, Career guidance, life coaching. Whatever the NEED, there’s an expert to HELP.

But Jesus is the EXPERT on life. Especially on the deeply SIGNIFICANT things – life and death, guilt, purpose, significance. And we’ve got his teaching summarized in THE ULTIMATE GUIDEBOOK. And it’s TRUTH. Truth that WORKS. Truth with PERSPECTIVE and DEPTH. Truth about our origins and design and nature and ultimate purpose. Truth that sets you FREE. Truth that makes life rich and real and true and hopeful and joyful.

That’s JESUS. And people need to LISTEN to him, and TRUST him and FOLLOW him. People need to DEVOTE themselves to teaching like THAT.

  1. The fellowship

(The early church devoted themselves TO THE APOSTLE’S TEACHING.) Second, they devoted themselves TO THE FELLOWSHIP. It’s a word that just means SHARING. It could simply mean the GROUP OF PEOPLE. Or it could mean the sharing of PHYSICAL RESOURCES – like in v45. Or it could mean the sharing of ideas – prayer points and testimonies and prophecies and encouragement. Whatever it means, the first Christians were DEVOTED to it. They were devoted TO THE GROUP. You see, Christianity is NEVER meant to be an individual past-time, like fishing, or photography or golf. It’s a TEAM SPORT. Like rugby union, or netball.

We NEED other people to challenge us, to rejoice with us, to connect with us. To correct us, and sharpen us. We need people to SUPPORT us. And we need, for OUR good, to support and care for OTHERS.

On our own, we can’t do everything God wants his people to be doing. Our mission is to go into ALL the world and make disciples. And the world’s a big place, filled with lots of different sorts of people. So there’s lots of different jobs God wants his people doing. In lots of different places and ways. Some of us preach, others serve, others give, others evangelise, or pray, or provide hospitality, or govern, or show mercy.

We’re like a rugby team. All shapes and sizes and skills. And a good rugby team does lots of things well. But no one person does them all. The prop can’t sprint down the sideline like a winger, and finish off the backline move by scoring in the corner. And the little halfback can’t jump 3m in the air and catch the lineout throw. And the little winger can’t pack down in a strum like a prop, and bear the weight of a small car on his shoulders.

The Bible doesn’t describe the church as a SPORTING TEAM. But it DOES describe it as A BODY, with many parts. Each part DEPENDS on the others and contributes something DIFFERENT to the total body. That’s 1 Corinthians 12.

And Ephesians 4 expands that metaphor to talk about what a HEALTHY body looks like. Christ gave some to be pastor-teachers, whose job is to prepare God’s people for works of service

so that THE BODY OF CHRIST MAY BE BUILT UP 13 until we all reach UNITY in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become MATURE, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Notice we’re supposed to be into BODY BUILDING. But it’s not about pumping iron. What’s most important in being built up – to being healthy and mature – is HAVING THE FULLNESS OF CHRIST. (Being connected to him, and following him. And growing LIKE him).

That begins as we devote ourselves to the FIRST priority – the Apostle’s teaching. And then as we join ourselves to Jesus and follow him, day by day. And do everything in his strength, and for his glory. That’s attaining the fullness of Christ.

Ephesians 4 ALSO describes the church as A BODY. And Christ is the HEAD of the body. Our guide and source of life and direction. V15 describes a healthy body as one that speaking the truth in love, in all things GROWS UP INTO HIM WHO IS THE HEAD, THAT IS, CHRIST. 16 FROM him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

The picture is of EVERY PART OF THE BODY, or the TEAM, drawing life from Christ. And then playing their part. So that the church is working as it should. Healthy, active, loving, strong and mature. That’s what it means to be devoted to the FELLOWSHIP.

ANOTHER image the Bible uses to describe the church is a FAMILY. I LOVE that one! A family LOVE and are COMMITTED to each other. They’re REAL with each other. No masks or PHONINESS. Just genuine openness. Family, who ACCEPT one another, on good days and bad days. Who know each other well enough to ANNOY each other. But who confess their sin, and who forgive. And keep loving each other. As a family, there’s a bond between us that’s solid, and should be difficult to break. Ephesians 2:19 says 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and MEMBERS OF GOD’S HOUSEHOLD (or FAMILY), We’re not individuals any more. Or separate cultures or languages. We’re CONNECTED. We’re FAMILY.

And Galatians 6:10 spells out what that MEANS. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us DO GOOD to all people, ESPECIALLY to those who belong to the FAMILY OF BELIEVERS. We’re to have a fundamental COMMITMENT to the local family of Christians we meet with week by week. THEY’RE our priority.

The first Christians were devoted to the fellowship. Are YOU devoted to the fellowship? What does that LOOK LIKE? Is it really devotion if you offer your church an hour or two on a Sunday? Are you committed to PRAYING regularly for your church family? To making phone calls? To being a regular part of a home group? Do you show hospitality to your church family? Do you make time to come to our picnics and movie nights and church retreats?

I don’t say it to GUILT-TRIP you. But if WE’RE not committed to the fellowship, why would we expect OUTSIDERS to become committed? If our church family isn’t relevant and significant for US, why would we expect it to for NEWCOMERS?

  1. The breaking of bread

The THIRD priority of the early church was the breaking of the bread. It could just refer to sharing meals together. And they certainly did THAT. (See there in v46?) They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,And that’s WONDERFUL when that happens. Naturally, and regularly. Without fuss or bother. After all, it’s just FAMILY We’re not talking a DINNER PARTY. It’s just a MEAL. You’re not IMPRESSING each other, you’re ENJOYING each other. But it’s a different expression in v42 – “the breaking of the bread”. And the fact that normal meals are ALSO mentioned in v46 suggest THIS is something DIFFERENT. Something they did when they came together in bigger groups. Something like the Lord’s Supper.

Which means they were devoted to remembering Jesus’ death. As they broke bread, they remembered his broken BODY. Broken for their sin. And they drank wine, and remembered his poured out BLOOD that washed away their sin. You see, regularly recognising your sin doesn’t lower your self-esteem, or lead you to depression or anxiety, or leave you battered and wounded. No! Recognising your sin and need for grace, and then repenting of it, and claiming the cleansing and forgiveness that comes from Jesus produces SOMETHING DIFFERENT ENTIRELY. It produces JOY and ASSURANCE and PEACE and HOPE. Or, as v46 and 47 describe it, “glad and sincere hearts, praising God.”

They made it a daily habit to be receivers of grace. GRACE is the MOTIVATION that FUELS us to be devoted to the teaching and the fellowship. We RESPOND to grace by BEING devoted. Not the other way around.

Our culture teaches, “Make much of yourself. You deserve it. Don’t think BADLY of yourself. You’re better than MOST people. Look after number one – no one else will. That’s the way to satisfaction and fulfilment.” But Christians make much of JESUS, and make little of THEMSELVES. That’s the way to TRUE fulfilment and joy. And we can DO that, as we devote ourselves to the breaking of the bread. MAKING MUCH OF JESUS. That’s what we need MORE of.

I set up the topic this morning as being about THE CHURCH being irrelevant and obsolete. But the church getting relevant isn’t the solution. Because the church is SECONDARY. Because Australia won’t be saved by THE CHURCH. Australia won’t be turned around by everyone joining a local congregation. No! Australia will be saved by JESUS. Jesus, not the church, is the answer. The church is SECONDARY. JESUS is PRIMARY. And we’ve failed to get that message out if people think we’re concerned about MEMBERSHIP. About FULL BUILDINGS.

Australia needs DISCIPLES OF JESUS. People who LOVE him, and want to see HIM honoured. Who make MUCH OF HIM, and NOTHING of themselves. And if THAT happens, then churches will be full. And the church will be RELEVANT.

Which means that, in a sense, there’s a simple solution to the problem of society dismissing the church as irrelevant. GOD needs to do a miracle. A miracle in each individual person. In families. In suburbs. In cities. In Australia. A miracle that breaks their pride, and convicts them of sin and death and judgment, and turns their gaze upward, and makes them fall on their knees before the cross in repentance and thankfulness.

  1. Prayer

Which means the FIRST thing we need to do IS PRAY. And that’s the FOURTH priority of the early church. They devoted themselves TO PRAYER.

We need to pray FOR A MIRACLE. We need to recognize our complete helplessness to effect ANY sort of change IN THE CHURCH, let alone in our SUBURB, or SOCIETY IN GENERAL. And to cast ourselves, in utter dependence, on God. And to plead for him to pour out his mercy. On us, and on our society.

Are you praying for our church regularly? Is your FAMILY? I’m encouraged by the number of people who tell me they’re praying for me, and my family, and for the elders. Join our WEEKLY prayer meeting. Wednesday morning 6:30am. Or our MONTHLY prayer meeting. First Saturday of the month. 9am. Meet up with someone from church. Read the Bible and PRAY for each other. For your witness, and your godliness, and your marriages. And for our church. Don’t make prayer time at Home Group an after-thought. Be thoughtful, and real. And BE GENUINE and OPEN with each other – share your struggles, not just your SAFE prayer points. Write down requests, so you can praise God for his ANSWERS. I love it how the Christopher’s Home Group does that. LOOK for God at work, and you might be surprised how much you SEE him.

Did you notice what comes in the next verse after v42? After they DEVOTE themselves to PRAYER? “Many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.” Just perhaps we might see a bit more of THAT if we were a bit more DEVOTED to prayer!

The result

That’s a portrait of the early church. Four things they were DEVOTED to. And what was the RESULT? V43 Everyone was filled with AWE. Or V47. “They ENJOYED THE FAVOUR of all the PEOPLE.” Their MESSAGE and their LIFE was attractive. People saw something in their lifestyle that made their MESSAGE fascinating, and important and relevant. The early church had a significant impact on their society.

And God USED that. See the end of v47? “And the LORD added daily to their number those who were being saved.”

Is that your regular, fervent prayer for Ashfield Presbyterian Church?

That’s our GOAL. (That God would add to our numbers those who were being saved.) And we’re working on that as we work to fulfil our VISION.

Do you know what our VISION is? It’s printed on the front of our news sheet every week. “Building bridges toward genuine community around Christ by growing disciples, through an emphasis on Home Groups and bridge-building activities to reach Ashfield.” If we’re doing THAT, we won’t be irrelevant, or obsolete.

Let’s work hard at devoting ourselves to the Apostle’s teaching, because that’s how we grow into the fullness of Jesus. And let’s devote ourselves to the breaking of bread – to remembering the grace God’s shown us in Jesus, and our sin and dependence on him.

And let’s devote ourselves to the fellowship. To each other. Because none of us can do it on our own.

And let’s devote ourselves to PRAYER. Because only God can DO it. And we, and ASHFIELD, and our WORLD, need a MIRACLE.

Genesis 2:18-25: When the church seems anti-gay

flagMany of us who are Christan have friends or family members or work colleagues who are homosexual. But the Christian position – the teaching of the Bible – is that homosexual practice is WRONG. It’s a SIN. And God will judge people who ENGAGE in it. So, what are we to do? We’re called to LOVE people, without judging or condemning them. But does that mean we have to ACCEPT, and APPROVE of, what they DO?

And this is probably the biggest barrier of all for people to consider Christianity. Because the Christian position puts us in conflict with much of society. With the media, with gay lobby groups, and possibly with our friends and colleagues. And with the push for same sex marriage growing stronger all the time. The conflict is just going to GROW.

Those in favour of same sex marriage see it as a matter of EQUALITY and FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHTS. They want to connect it to the historical battles for RACIAL equality and, more recently, GENDER equality. They want to paint it as the great civil liberty issue of our time.

And so, when it’s set up like THAT, when Christians offer the biblical opinion. Either on same sex marriage. Or, more broadly, on homosexuality. They’re branded as ignorant, intolerant, prejudiced, old-fashioned and outdated.

The two main things I’ll try to do today is summarise the Bible’s teaching on homosexual practice. And then, secondly, outline some ways forward. (Attitudes and actions and approaches to dealing with the issue).

In the beginning…

And the first relevant passage is the first chapter of the Bible. In Genesis 1, we read about God’s design for humanity. V27 says, 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; MALE AND FEMALE he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be FRUITFUL and increase in number; fill the earth and SUBDUE it. RULE over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

God’s design is MALE and FEMALE. That’s the family unit. And part of their purpose is to be FRUITFUL. To REPRODUCE. Only male and female can do THAT. And he gives them PURPOSE and SIGNIFICANCE. To rule and subdue. And God declares everything VERY GOOD.

That’s the BIG PICTURE. Painted with broad brush strokes. When we move to Genesis 2, we see the same event from a different point of view. God makes MAN. And he gives him BOUNDARIES to operate within. V16, he says “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 BUT you must NOT eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” Notice that, by God’s design, our BEST life has LIMITS. Restrictions. Just because we CAN do something, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s a good thing to DO it. (We’ll come back to that idea in a few minutes)

And even though everything ELSE he’s created is GOOD, in v18 he says, “It’s NOT good for the man to be alone. I will make a HELPER / SUITABLE for him.” God DESIGNED us for relationship. The desire for a partner to walk through life with is NATURAL and GOOD and GOD-GIVEN. And in his goodness, God sets about making a SUITABLE partner. MATCHING. A partner to COMPLEMENT and COMPLETE. The same, but different. (To COMPLEMENT means to add something that the other person doesn’t have). And so, to REFLECT that, v21, God puts the man to sleep, and takes one of his ribs. And makes a woman from the rib. And the man says, v23, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; Bone LIKE my bones. Flesh TAKEN from my flesh. The same, but also, DIFFERENT.

And at that point we learn what God’s design means for ALL marriages. V24.This FIRST marriage gives us a blue-print for every OTHER marriage.24 FOR THIS REASON a man will leave his father and mother and be UNITED to his wife, and they will become ONE FLESH. 25 The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. ONE FLESH. The physical union of husband and wife. Two become one PHYSICALLY. And that reflects, and helps, the two become one RELATIONALLY. And God’s design is for man and woman. Only man and woman can become ONE FLESH in that way. Man and woman. The same, but different. A complementary pair.

In fact, they’re just ONE of a NUMBER of complementary pairs in God’s creation. He created heavens and earth. The sun and the moon. Day and night, sea and land, plants and animals. In each case, each part BELONGS with the other, but neither is INTERCHANGEABLE. They’re COMPLEMENTARY – ONE adds something that THE OTHER can’t do. Creation just wouldn’t WORK to have two earths but no heaven. Or two suns, but no moon. Or two days but no night. Or plants but no animals. Or two men, but no women. Or two women, but no men. God’s creation is about complementary pairs. Kevin de Young says, “If God wanted us to conclude that men and women were interchangeable in the marriage relationship… he gave us the wrong creation narrative… Homosexuality simply does not fit with the created order of Genesis 1 and 2.” (What does the Bible really teach about homosexuality?, p32)

Mistaken cultural assumptions

Let’s stop for a moment, and consider what we have. Because it contradicts two of the dominant, but mistaken, assumptions in today’s culture. They’re assumptions you can see behind much of the way society thinks about homosexuality. The first assumption is that FULFILMENT MEANS GETTING EVERYTHING YOU WANT. People think you can only achieve your full potential, you can only find fulfilment, when you get your every desire, whatever it is. And that it’s somehow sub-human to be DENIED that. Which means that anyone who STANDS IN THE WAY of that. Or says that a desire is WRONG. Is oppressive, and domineering. It’s infringing your basic rights. It’s stopping you from being who you were meant to be. And that’s the sort of thing we hear people saying as they talk about their RIGHT to pursue a homosexual lifestyle. Even though God might say it’s wrong. They say God’s preventing them from being fully human.

But we know that sort of thinking just doesn’t work. A loving parent will set BOUNDARIES around what a child can do. FOR THEIR GOOD. A child won’t achieve their full potential by playing on the road, or sticking knives in toasters. And it works the same with God’s boundaries. His design is that our human potential is maximised when we live WITHIN HIS BOUNDARIES. His moral guidance for what’s right and wrong. Our BEST life –our richest and most satisfying life – happens when we follow our manufacturer’s instructions. Including his design for sex, and personal relationships. That’s GOOD NEWS!

The SECOND wrong assumption is connected to the first. It’s that sexuality DEFINES someone. Sexuality has become primary. It seems to have happened since the sexual revolution in the 60’s. We hear people talking about themselves as GAY. Rather than that being ONE of the things they DO. It’s who they ARE. Mark Thompson, principal of Moore College comments “‘What I do’ has morphed into ‘who I am’ without anybody noticing”

But it’s not just homosexuals. The spirit of the age says we’re defined by our sexuality. Singles are incomplete. Virgins are sub-human. Everyone’s doing it. And if you’re NOT having sex, then you can’t be complete and fulfilled. And smartphone apps like Tinder. Or websites like Ashley Madison just fuel the assumption.

Mark Thompson goes on to make the great point, “Our sexuality is NOT what defines us as human beings… It is possible to be fully human, and joyfully so, and live without sex. Many do by choice or by necessity — not to mention the human being par excellance, Jesus himself.” No! Genesis 1 and 2 teach us that what defines us as human beings is that we’re MADE IN THE IMAGE OF GOD. We’re made to be in a relationship with him. And to live as creatures, properly related to our Creator.” That’s our primary identity. And everything else FLOWS FROM THAT. Including our sexuality.

Crossed boundaries

And so we come to Genesis 3. Where mankind chose to cross the boundaries God had set in place. Boundaries designed for OUR GOOD. And our ENJOYMENT. Satan tempted Adam and Eve. And they chose independence, rather than obedience. They chose to construct the world according to THEIR priorities and desires. Rather than GOD’S. And SIN came into the world. The knowledge of good and evil. And CURSE. And DEATH. And BROKENNESS. Broken relationships, a broken creation. Misdirected desires. Children forced to live out the consequences of their parent’s wrong choices.

And if we turn to Romans Ch 1, we see how EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US since Adam and Eve has made that same choice. And every ONE of us suffers the same CONSEQUENCES. The main point of these first few chapters of Romans is that EVERYONE has sinned against God. We’re culpable. Guilty, without excuse. We deserve his judgment, and need his salvation. Which makes it pretty difficult to be pointing the finger at just ONE GROUP in PARTICULAR.

Chapter 1 focusses on the Roman Gentile world. V21. Even though they knew SOMETHING of God from creation, they didn’t ACKNOWLEDGE him. In fact, three times it says they consciously and deliberately EXCHANGED that knowledge for something else. V22 says they claimed to be wise, but became fools because they exchanged the glory of God the CREATOR for images of CREATED THINGS. V25 says they exchanged the TRUTH of God for a lie. And WORSHIPPED the created things. And then in v26, women exchanged NATURAL relations for UNNATURAL ones. And v27. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Deliberate, conscious action. And at each point we read that God’s response was to HAND THEM OVER. To give them up. He allowed them to experience the full expression of their choices. It’s part of how his wrath is being revealed.

V24 they exchanged the glory of God for idols, 24 Therefore God GAVE THEM over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.

V26. They exchanged the truth of God for lies, 26 Because of this, God GAVE THEM OVER to shameful lusts.. To homosexual acts. Both WOMEN, and MEN.

And finally in v28, having exchanged natural relations for UN-natural ones, God GAVE THEM OVER to a depraved MIND, to do what OUGHT NOT TO BE DONE. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

Now, there’s lots there I COULD talk about. But let me make three points. First, homosexual practice is the SYMPTOM, not the CAUSE. The CAUSE is the rejection of God. People chose idolatry instead of the TRUE God, they CHOSE lies instead of truth. And the SYMPTOMS of that were desiring the wrong things. Including homosexual practice.

And that has something to say for us in how we deal with homosexuals. The big issue isn’t who they sleep with, but their rebellion against God. We need to preach the GOSPEL to them just the same as we do to everyone else. That’s what they need more than anything else. Gospel, not law, is what will SAVE them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying law doesn’t matter. Or sexual behaviour doesn’t matter. Just that it’s SECONDARY, not PRIMARY. They need a new heart first, THEN we can start with the new life.

Second, homosexual practice isn’t the only sin, or arguably even the WORST sin mentioned there. You’ll notice from v29 a whole LIST of sins many of us are guilty of, even if we’re not guilty of homosexual practice. For me, my depraved mind means, at various times, I’m guilty of envy or malice or gossip or arrogance or boasting. I deserve judgment and I need grace every BIT as much as the WORST of sexual sinners.

That said though, homosexual sin may not be the ONLY sin mentioned in Romans 1. But, my THIRD point, it IS SINGLED OUT. It’s PROMINENT in this chapter. De Young makes the point, “In Paul’s mind, same-sex sexual intimacy is AN ESPECIALLY CLEAR ILLUSTRATION of the idolatrous human impulse to turn away from God’s order and design.” It’s logical that when you suppress the truth about God written in nature, you’ll suppress the truth about your own sexual identity written in nature. And that when you exchange the truth of God for a lie, you’ll exchange natural relations for unnatural ones. There’s no getting around it. God’s Word is clear. Homosexual practice is a sin, and it’s condemned.

Following Jesus

Our own identity

In lots of ways, that’s the easy question. The DIFFICULT question is how we work that out in our relationships. How we relate to homosexual people we know. How we treat Christians struggling with same sex attraction. What we say about same sex marriage. I’m no expert, and it’s, no doubt, simplistic. But we won’t go far wrong if our guiding principle in all these questions is TO FOLLOW JESUS.

First, WITH REGARD TO OUR OWN IDENTITY. Jesus never married. And he was celibate his whole life. Yet he was the most complete and fulfilled human who ever lived. If you’re single and longing to be married. That’s a good desire. But it’s not ULTIMATE. Your identity is that you’re IN Christ, made in God’s image. Not that you’re single. Or perhaps you’re married, but it’s dry and unsatisfying, and you’re tempted to be resentful of your spouse. Don’t make sex an IDOL. Learn to be content. Learn to find your identity in Christ, as his disciple, God’s image bearer. Learn to follow Jesus.

Or if you’re struggling with same sex attraction, and are tempted to be angry at God for giving you feelings you can’t ACT on. Hebrews 12:2 tells you to fix your eyes on Jesus who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. And Mark 8:34 commands you to deny yourself. And take up your cross DAILY, and follow him.

And that’s a command for ALL of us – whatever our orientation, or situation. That’s the COMMAND. But there’s also a WONDERFUL PROMISE. In Mark 10:29, Jesus promises No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields-and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. Jesus promises to satisfy our longing for intimacy and connection far more completely than we can imagine. But it begins with DENYING SELF, and FOLLOWING HIM,

How we treat others

And, second, following Jesus helps us when it comes to the question of how we treat OTHERS. How we TREAT those who practice homosexual sin, or who have same sex attraction. Let’s follow Jesus, who, John 1:14 tells us, reflects the Father’s glory, FULL OF GRACE AND TRUTH. Not full of grace, but no truth. Accepting everything, never speaking against ANYTHING. And not full of truth, but no grace. Aggressive, judgmental condemnation of sin, with no thought of the PERSON who sins. FULL OF GRACE AND TRUTH. May that be what our CHURCHES are like! Ephesians 4:15 says we’re to SPEAK the TRUTH IN LOVE. Notice, it’s not a CHOICE, or a BALANCING ACT. It’s not love OR truth. But truth IN love. Because LOVING someone MEANS speaking the truth to them. Loving the homosexual doesn’t mean giving false comfort by misrepresenting what God thinks. And loving the homosexual isn’t tolerating them.

The former lesbian, now Christian author, Jean Lloyd wrote “During my upbringing, I heard a few fiery sermons on homosexuality. These days, I hear declarations of love instead. They make me shout for joy… At the same time, however, many pastors have begun accompanying this love (by speaking against) Biblical sexual morality as oppressive, unreasonable, or unkind… affirming and encouraging homosexual people in their same-sex sexual relationships and behaviors. Although I appreciate the desire to act in love, this isn’t the genuine love that people like me need. LOVE ME BETTER THAN THAT! http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2014/12/14149/ Love me BETTER than that. She wants love that SPEAKS the TRUTH.

Like Mark Thompson, who writes, “We want them first and foremost to hear of something far better than they could ever have imagined. We want them to hear of the possibility of a life without shame, without fear and without condemnation… Our responsibility, in the meantime, is to show the same unconditional love that was shown to us, while we speak with gentleness, but without compromise, of what God has made known about his will for us.”

I’ll leave the final word to Kevin De Young “Jesus gives everything to us, and demands everything from us. He died for our sakes, and then told us we had to die for his. We desperately need grace in our lives.  We need to hear from Jesus “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28)  We need to know that God doesn’t expect us to clean up our act before we come to him.  He implores us to come, now, today, just as we are–in brokenness, in pain, in humility, in repentance, and in faith.  We need to hear that wayward children, who have squandered their inheritance and lived an immoral, rebellious life, can come home into the arms of their heavenly Father (Luke 15:20).

And we desperately need TRUTH in our lives.  We need to hear from Jesus “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).  And we need to hear from Jesus what this saying really means: “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a SLAVE to sin…But if the Son sets you free you will be FREE INDEED” (John 8:36).  We need someone as gracious as Jesus to tell us the TRUTH: you are NOT okay.  You do not need to push away those feelings of guilt that weigh you down.  You ARE guilty.  And anyone who tells you otherwise, is not telling you the truth.  And because they won’t tell you the TRUTH, you won’t experience the GRACE you need. We need truth. We need grace. We need Jesus… Only in Jesus can we be given new birth. Only through Jesus can we be new creations. Only with Jesus can all things be made new… That’s the best news you’ll ever hear. (Kevin de Young, 135-36)

Mark 10:13-16: Abuse in the Church

ChildProtectionPolicyWhat would Jesus say if he sat in on the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse? As he heard the heart-breaking evidence from victims of unspeakable acts and ruined lives? As he heard of the cover-ups and incompetence and deception of Christian leaders and institutions?

In a sense, it’s the wrong question. Because Jesus HAS heard all the evidence. But more than that, he’s SEEN all the CRIMES. The hidden, shameful acts and thoughts and motives. And he’s WEPT with victims. And he’s ANSWERED their prayers with comfort and healing and strength. And his JUDGMENT against the abuser is to be feared far more than that of any royal commissioner. So perhaps a BETTER question is what HAS Jesus said?

The Book of Hebrews talks about what Jesus himself endured. And how he’s uniquely qualified to speak. Hebrews 2:10 says that God made Jesus, the author of salvation, PERFECT THROUGH SUFFERING. Then a bit further on in v17 it says that Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a MERCIFUL and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because HE HIMSELF SUFFERED when he was tempted, he is able to HELP those who are being tempted.

Jesus is ready, willing and ABLE to understand, and to HELP, those who suffer.

Jesus and the children 

And if we turn to the gospels, we see HOW Jesus helped. And we see two parts to that. First, his attitude to the vulnerable, especially children. And then his attitude to those with POWER.

In Mark 10 v13, parents are bringing their children to Jesus to place his hands on them and BLESS them. All sorts of people wanted Jesus’ attention. And it seems like the disciples saw themselves as the gatekeepers. The priorities were the important or the wealthy. Or perhaps those who needed it MOST – the most helpless and desperate. And children weren’t EITHER of those. They had no status, or power, or connections, or wealth or even any great need. And so the disciples turned them away. And rebuked the parents for wasting Jesus’ time.

The problem is the disciples have only just been given a LESSON in how to treat children. Back in the previous chapter, Ch 9, they’re arguing among themselves as to who the GREATEST is. And, v35, Jesus sits them down, and sees a little child, off to the side, ignored by everyone. The opposite of great or important. And he brings him right into the middle of the circle. The centre of attention. And then he TAKES HIM IN HIS ARMS, and he says, v37, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me”

Jesus’ kingdom is about RECOGNISING and VALUING the LEAST important. Children, and poor, and old. People with learning difficulties, and disabilities, and issues. The least, and the lost, and the last. People who TRULY follow Jesus/ value and welcome and protect people LIKE THAT.

But by the very next chapter the disciples have already FORGOTTEN THE LESSON. And they’re TURNING kids AWAY. Because they’re not IMPORTANT. And Jesus REBUKES them. V14 says he was INDIGNANT.

The world values productivity and efficiency. Return on investment. Value-adding. What you can GET. Not what you can GIVE. But that’s not the kingdom of GOD. Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for THE KINGDOM OF GOD BELONGS TO SUCH AS THESE.

They’re not off on the edges: ignored, overlooked and taken advantage of. They’re right there in the MIDDLE of the kingdom. And, v16, he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and BLESSED them. Acceptance, inclusion, love, relationship and BLESSING. That’s what children mean to Jesus. And so anyone who calls himself a Christian, and yet abuses kids. Or who overlooks, or fails to act against, people who DO. Isn’t following Jesus. It’s as simple as that.

Jesus and the hypocrites

Children matter to Jesus. And we see it, not just in how he treats CHILDREN. But in his warnings to those who MISTREAT them. Back in the previous chapter, (Ch 9 v42) He’s just commanded the disciples to WELCOME little children in his name. And then he turns it around. V42. “And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck.

Those in Christian leadership have a great responsibility. We’re not only responsible for our OWN behaviour. We bear a load to guide and protect and set the example for our little ones. And Jesus will hold us ACCOUNTABLE for how well we DO that.

What a great reminder TODAY, at the baptism of A. It’s a serious promise you make that you’ll receive these children into your midst with Christian love and consideration, to pray for them, to care for them, and to provide them a Christian education and godly example.” Jesus is WATCHING and LISTENING. And he’s PROTECTING his little ones. And punishing those who lead them to sin.

That’s how we should treat children SPECIFICALLY. Jesus also had some stern words about the Jewish teachers of his time. Especially when it came to HYPOCRISY IN GENERAL.

And I think that’s one of the big complaints non-Christians have with the church, and the problem of abuse. There’s the hypocrisy of the abusers themselves. But also, of the Christian church in general. We TEACH about love and service. And about truth and justice. And yet we’ve overlooked, protected and covered up abuse. We can’t expect people to listen to our message when our actions say something DIFFERENT.

And we need to OWN UP to that. And apologise. And repent. And work at restitution and restoration. And commit to doing better in the future.

In Matthew 23, Jesus calls the disciples and the crowds together. And he WARNS them about the Pharisees and teachers of the law. He says, “Obey them. But don’t do what they DO. Because they don’t PRACTICE what they PREACH.”

It’s the classic definition for a hypocrite. (Someone who doesn’t practice what he preaches.) People very quickly lose respect for someone if their LIFE doesn’t back up their WORDS. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the following, often-quoted, piece of advice for the hypocrite. (Social Aims, 1875) “Don’t say things. WHAT YOU ARE stands over you the while, and THUNDERS so that I cannot hear what you SAY TO THE CONTRARY.”

That’s the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Jesus goes on to describe, v5, how they do things for APPEARANCES. For people to see. They love the place of honour. The complete OPPOSITE of the kingdom! Or down in v23. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more IMPORTANT matters of the law-JUSTICE, MERCY AND FAITHFULNESS. You should have practiced the LATTER, without neglecting the FORMER. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Focussing on MINOR things. Things that other people NOTICE. But not worrying about things that GOD notices. Justice and mercy and faithfulness. And it’s a word STRAIGHT to our churches that, in the past, have overlooked abuse. We haven’t been concerned enough about JUSTICE. And MERCY. When you get priorities upside down like that you’re not leading people ANYWHERE. You’re like a blind guide! Which is DANGEROUS, and DEADLY!

And Jesus CONTINUES. V25. More back-to-front priorities. 25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you HYPOCRITES! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

Cups that are clean on the OUTSIDE, but FILTHY on the INSIDE. That’s what hypocrites are like. It’s what happens when you’re more concerned with reputation and appearances. (With EXTERNALS.) But not with INTEGRITY AND CHARACTER, (the INTERNALS), because no one sees them.

But JESUS sees the inside. He knows our TRUE motivation. And that’s what counts to him. Because when you deal with the INSIDE, then the OUTSIDE takes care of itself. The outside FOLLOWS the inside. The actions of our HANDS follows the desires of our HEARTS. And he says, “WOE to the hypocrite. WOE. Keep on the path you’re on and you’ll end with JUDGMENT and PUNISHMENT.”

And then in v27 there’s ANOTHER image that’s even MORE confronting.crypt

27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

Perhaps you’ve seen them at Rookwood Cemetery. The family crypts. Beautiful gardens, fine marble, clean, shiny plaques. But inside there’s death and decay. Generations of bodies, slowing rotting away.

And that’s what HYPOCRISY is like. That’s what abusers in the church are like. Presenting a good clean face to the world. While living out a secret, dark, rotting life.

Hypocrites are happy to keep the INSIDE and the OUTSIDE separate. They don’t see the contradiction. It doesn’t BOTHER them. There’s a PUBLIC life that says ONE thing. And a PRIVATE life that says SOMETHING DIFFERENT.

And Jesus HATES it! Because he can see straight through the pretend. Straight through the tidy, impressive clean face hypocrites present to the world. And he sees the dead bones. The uncleanness and sin.

Jesus and the church

And so, when it comes to how THE CHURCH deals with abuse. We need to be JUST LIKE JESUS. We need to VALUE the weak and fragile. And then that means we need to PROTECT them. Because they can’t protect themselves.

And when we VALUE the weak and fragile, then we’ll HATE it when they’re HARMED. And we’ll be ACTIVE at seeking it out. The WHOLE truth. And bringing justice against WHOEVER harms them. Without fear or favour. We need TRUTH and TRANSPARENCY.

And it means we need to own mistakes we’ve made IN THE PAST. Be HONEST about them. We need to WEEP in sorrow and repentance. And do what we can to MAKE UP for them. We need to bring justice against the abusers. And work to bring restoration and restitution to victims.

And then, looking into the future, do all we can to make sure children are protected. That we make it as HARD as we can for people to harm the vulnerable.

And so the Presbyterian Church, along with all the major denominations, has a comprehensive process for how we deal with abuse. There’s our POLICY. That’s our public commitment to dealing with abuse. And PREVENTING it. And we make statements like;

  • We believe that churches ought to be places of safety and refuge for children, young people and others, where they should be and feel safe from any threat
  • We commit ourselves to striving to ensure that all our actions are morally upright
  • We are committed to establishing a process that strives for truth and confidentiality.
  • We are willing to know the full extent of the problem of abuse and the causes of such behaviour within the church.

And, when it comes to PUTTING THAT INTO PRACTICE. Everyone who works with children is AUTHORISED and TRAINED. And there’s a CODE OF CONDUCT all our volunteers sign off on. It includes obvious things we can’t do. But also a lot of things that might have been fine ONCE, but that aren’t appropriate anymore.

So, our volunteers know that inappropriate physical contact or even personal correspondence between a leader and a child is out. So is a leader being in a room, or a car, alone with a child. And we’re happy for parents to observe any of our activities.

And the goal is to create a climate that makes it very difficult for an abuser to operate in. We set up a fence that EVERYONE stays behind. And so, if someone steps PAST the fence, it’s OBVIOUS.

Now, that’s a MAJOR EFFORT. And it’s taken HOURS and HOURS. And there’s a COST. Because we need to employ people whose JOB is to keep us compliant. But it’s WORTH it. Because our YOUNG PEOPLE are worth it.

We can’t guarantee abuse will NEVER happen. But, without doubt, our churches are safer places than they USED to be. It’s more complicated to do ministry. But it’s an effort we’re WILLING to make to PROTECT people.

And we make the effort because of what Jesus wants his church to be. It’s WORTH it because JESUS is worth it. Jesus is the only one who has the power to forgive sin. And the power to produce REAL CHANGE for the BETTER in people.

In Colossians 3 we read about a whole string of things that should flow from people who belong to Jesus. Life should look VERY DIFFERENT. Not just in ACTIONS, but WORDS, and PRIORITIES and ATTITUDES.

The chapter begins by describing something that’s ALREADY HAPPENED. V1. Talking to the church. “SINCE you’ve all been RAISED WITH CHRIST.” In other words, since you’re a new creation. Since God’s forgiven your sin, and you’re born again.

That comes FIRST. Ethics and morals come BECAUSE we’re Christian. They don’t MAKE us Christian. (Same thing down in v12 it says AS God’s chosen people who are holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion etc. It’s BECAUSE we are dearly loved that we clothe ourselves. We don’t DO good things SO God will love us.)

Then it continues. SINCE you’re born again, that affects what you FOCUS on, and what’s MOST IMPORTANT. V1 “Set your hearts and your MINDS on things ABOVE, where Jesus is, not on EARTHLY THINGS.”

Because that’s where your FUTURE is found. In fact, there’s a sense in which your life is ALREADY hidden there with Christ (v3). And when Christ returns, you’ll be WITH him. In GLORY.

And because that’s TRUE. It means something about what your life looks like NOW. V5. You should be PREPARING NOW for that FUTURE GLORY. Making sure you’re FIT for it.

Put to death whatever belongs to your OLD, EARTHLY nature. Which includes sexual immorality and impurity and lust and evil desires and greed. God’s WRATH is coming against that sort of life. But not only that (v8). Get rid of anger and slander and lies.

And, INSTEAD, v12, clothe yourselves with compassion and kindness and humility and gentleness and patience. (Like getting ready for a wedding – put on your best clothes). And then in v14, put on top of all of these things the big overcoat of LOVE, that binds them all together in perfect unity. (That sets them all in their appropriate CONTEXT. And is the right MOTIVATION for them to COME from.)

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if THAT was the reputation the church had in the local community? A group who genuinely LOVED everyone, irrespective of their influence, importance, or what they had to offer? Rather than a reputation as a bunch of HYPOCRITES. Who TALK about love, but don’t PRACTICE it. Who TALK about truth and justice, but who don’t DELIVER.

If we can begin to live out THOSE things. Then we’ll better be able to do what verse 17 calls us to. 17 And WHATEVER you do, whether in word or deed, DO IT ALL IN THE NAME OF THE LORD JESUS, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Doing it all FOR him, and in RESPONSE to him. And according to HIS VALUES and his KINGDOM. Because on our OWN we can do NOTHING. We need Jesus for EVERYTHING. We need his GRACE and forgiveness and strength and help. Every minute of every day. Because we’re ALL sinners, broken and helpless.

I love the final comment on the video from Dale Kuohne, himself a victim of abuse. “It’s not going to do any of us any good to beat up on God and beat up on Jesus WHEN THEY’RE OUR ONLY HOPE.”

In all of this, HUMAN SOLUTIONS can only do so much. Jesus IS our only hope.

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, DO IT ALL IN THE NAME OF THE LORD JESUS, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

John 14:1-9: Exclusive Faith (Big Questions 5)

elephantWhen I was growing up in Gosford in the 1970’s, I don’t remember knowing an Asian person, or even anyone from Europe, other than Britain. And the closest we came to multiculturalism was sweet and sour pork with fried rice at the local Chinese Restaurant. And as far as I knew, everyone identified themselves as either Catholic or Protestant. Sure, there were other religions out there, but they were in OTHER COUNTRIES. And the way they might interact with Christianity was THEORETICAL.

But jump forward 40 years. And today, most cities in Australia are THOROUGHLY MULTICULTURAL. Just in the street you live in, there are probably DOZENS of different nationalities and cultures and religions. Globalisation means we live SIDE BY SIDE with more religious views than any other time in history.

And so the question of how different religions relate to each other has moved from theoretical and abstract to RELEVANT AND PRACTICAL. EVERYONE, whatever their background, wants to live in peace and harmony with those around them. Everyone recognizes that we need TOLERANCE between different cultures and religions. There needs to be an open-mindedness and acceptance of others with different opinions.

And it’s in THIS climate that Christianity is often criticized for NOT being tolerant. For making exclusive claims to TRUTH. (That WE’RE right, and everyone else is WRONG). And we’re accused of being INtolerant, arrogant, divisive and disrespectful. And so people think that whatever TOLERANCE is/ it’s NOT what Christians show when it comes to our beliefs about other religions. So the argument goes.

What is tolerance?

So it’s worth spending some time thinking about what tolerance might LOOK LIKE. How can people with different opinions about religion live side-by-side?

  1. Avoid the issue

ONE option is to avoid the debate altogether. Keep religion a PRIVATE matter. That was the way my PARENT’S generation dealt with it. Australians used to say, “There’s TWO things you never discuss – religion and politics. People were happy for you to believe whatever you liked in your PRIVATE life. As long as you KEPT it private. And, even in churches, plenty of Christians lived their lives looking like everyone else, good and moral. But never speaking about their faith to anyone. Because it was a private matter. And, I think, many Australians probably STILL live that way. Christian or otherwise.

But one thing the rise in Islamic extremism has done is show that RELIGION refuses to STAY in the private domain. ESPECIALLY Islam, which wants to CLAIM public society, and law and justice for Allah and Islam. If ONE person’s religious belief is that it’s right for him to blow up public buildings and kill innocent people, then that FORCES religion into the public space. Religion like THAT refuses to STAY private.

But it’s not just Islam. ANY of the major world religions, if people are SERIOUS about them, are going to have an IMPACT on OTHERS. There’s a public EXPRESSION of their belief. Because RELIGION IS IMPORTANT. Human beings are NATURALLY religious. It’s an important part of who we are. And you can’t separate it from the rest of life.

The media’s quick to criticize politicians with religious beliefs. The assumption is they should avoid letting their beliefs influence their decisions. (Andrew Hastie was questioned about this a few weeks ago.) But that’s not POSSIBLE. ALL SORTS OF THINGS in a person’s background influence who they are, and what decisions they make. Their family upbringing, their schooling, previous employment, their hobbies and interests, their travel. And the more important something is (the more FOUNDATIONAL it is to who that person is), the more it will INFLUENCE THEIR DECISIONS. It’s unfair and unrealistic to allow all these OTHER things to influence a person, but not their RELIGION.

It might SEEM respectful not to discuss religion. (To keep it private.) But it’s ultimately DISRESPECTFUL. It says to the religious person, “I don’t think enough about you to even LISTEN to what’s important to you, and think about whether you might be true”.

Besides, if you AVOID the debate, you never find out answers. It’s really a cop out. No one moves ANYWHERE if there’s no discussion. And if what a number of the religions say about life after death is TRUE, then it’s a very important conversation to HAVE. AVOIDING the issue puts you in a very DANGEROUS position indeed!

Blaise Paschal, the 17th century French Scientist and Christian, put it something like this, speaking to a non-believer, “If I’M wrong I’ve lost nothing; If YOU’RE wrong, you’ve lost EVERYTHING.” So, tolerance can’t mean keeping religion PRIVATE.

  1. Every religion is true

A SECOND option is that tolerance means saying that every religion is true. Or, perhaps, that every religion has PART of the truth. And that’s the story people use about the different religions being like paths up a mountain. And that God is on the top. All the paths LOOK different, but they end up in the same place. Or another popular story is of a number of blind people describing an elephant. Each person knows PART of the truth. They’re all PARTLY correct. In other words, when it comes to describing what GOD is like, each person experiences what’s true FOR THEM. And each person has a different experience. But no one is WRONG. Because God is ALL of them.

And the point is to criticize Christianity. Because Christianity only experiences PART of the elephant that’s God. How can it say everyone else is WRONG? Or with the paths up the mountain story, how can Christianity claim that it’s the only TRUE path to the top, when all the OTHER paths ALSO go there.

Once again, it SOUNDS inclusive and humble and respectful to say that everyone’s correct. But here’s the problem. Who gets to stand back from the elephant, and see all the blind people holding only one part? It’s the person who stands outside everyone else, and makes an exclusive claim that HE is the only one who sees the full picture. HE’S the only one who’s NOT blind. And that everyone else only sees PART of the picture. Which makes him at LEAST as exclusive and disrespectful as he accuses CHRISTIANS of being.

Or, as we saw on the video excerpt, with the many paths up the mountain example. The only place where you can see all the paths coming to the top is FROM THE TOP. From the place of GOD. So making the claim that all paths lead to God is ARROGANT. It’s setting yourself up AS GOD.

A SECOND problem with this argument is that religions CONTRADICT each other. The elephant example doesn’t work. Religions don’t make claims about God that, taken together, make a complete picture. Much of the time they aren’t even describing the same ANIMAL. Because their claims CONTRADICT each other. Hinduism teaches there are MILLIONS of gods. Judaism teaches there’s only ONE. Those are CONTRADICTORY. There is no greater truth that somehow fits those truths TOGETHER. Or Buddhism teaches that you’re RE-BORN as another creature after you die. But Islam says people live and die ONCE. Those are CONTRADICTORY. There is no greater truth of life and death that somehow fits those truths TOGETHER. Or here’s ANOTHER example. Christianity and Islam both teach that Jesus was a prophet. But Islam says he was just a man, while Christianity teaches that Jesus was God. Those are CONTRADICTORY. There is no greater truth of Jesus’ identity that somehow fits those truths TOGETHER. Now, in each of those cases, both religions might be WRONG about God, or life and death, or about Jesus. But they can’t BOTH be RIGHT.

So, what’s the way FORWARD? Is there ANY way we can be confident what’s TRUE? Well, just like the elephant with the blind men. What the blind men need is someone who’s NOT blind. Someone from OUTSIDE THEIR SITUATION to show them reality. To show them the FULL PICTURE. The complete perspective. What if GOD HIMSELF showed us blind people the FULL PICTURE, as only HE COULD? What if he sent us a visible representation of himself so we could know what he’s really like?

Of course, that’s what he’s done IN JESUS. John’s Gospel begins, ch 1 v1, by describing Jesus as THE WORD. God’s COMMUNICATION. His self-portrait. And he was WITH God in the beginning. And he WAS God. Which means when we talk to people about GOD, we need to make sure we identify WHICH God we’re talking about. He’s not the go we imagine for ourselves. He’s the GOD OF THE BIBLE. The God who’s the FATHER of Jesus. The GOD who IS Jesus.

And then, in v14, it says that the Word became FLESH and made his DWELLING among us. Jesus was born thoroughly, completely human. God became MAN. And people SAW HIS GLORY. Just like Israel saw God’s glory, a cloud that led them through the desert. The INVISIBLE God chose to make himself VISIBLE. And it was glory of the ONE AND ONLY SON who came from the FATHER. If there’s ANYONE who can show you what the Father’s like, it’s his ONLY SON who’s come straight from heaven. And just like the Father is ABOUNDING IN LOVE AND FAITHFULNESS. So the WORD, his SON, was FULL of GRACE AND TRUTH. We can tell the CHARACTER of God from the character of JESUS. Which means that, when it comes to knowing what God is like, we’re NOT BLIND. We’re not groping around in the darkness of our own imaginations. We’re not lucky to stumble across PART of the truth of God.

We look at JESUS. At his character, at his power, at his priorities and desires and qualities. And THAT’S what GOD is like. In all his FULLNESS and GLORY and MAJESTY. He’s loving and good and reliable.

Over in Ch 14, v8, Phillip asks Jesus, “Show us the Father and that will be enough for us,” And Jesus answers, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? ANYONE WHO HAS SEEN ME HAS SEEN THE FATHER. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?

Jesus said some pretty outrageous things. But this one is up there with the BEST of them. That when you look at Jesus, you’re looking at God the Father. I don’t quite know what the Muslims do with this verse. They revere Jesus as a prophet, which I assume means they believe he speaks truth from God. But they won’t believe what he SAYS HERE. They CAN’T believe it.

But that’s not all Jesus does. He doesn’t just SHOW us God. He LEADS us to God. (It’s by coming to know HIM/ that we come to know GOD.)

Let’s think again about the mountain that represents God, with many paths to the top. The TOP is the only place to REALLY see which path makes it to the top. So GOD has to be the One who shows us. So what if God sent us A MAP? What if he sent us THE PATH to the top? And that’s just how Jesus understands himself. At the start of Ch 14, he’s preparing his disciples for his imminent death, when he’ll return to his Father. He says he’s going away. But that he’ll come back.

In v5, Thomas says, “We don’t know where you’re going, and we don’t know how to GET there.” And Jesus says, in v6, either the most arrogant and deluded lie you’ve ever heard. Or else the most comforting and significant words ever spoken by a religious teacher. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

He’s the one who’s COME from the Father (He’s come down the mountain from the top). And now, he’s GOING to the Father. And he’s the WAY to him. And he’s the WAY, because he embodies the TRUTH about God. And when we BELIEVE that truth, he becomes LIFE to us. And he’s not one path among many. The message from the top is that there’s only ONE WAY up the mountain. And it’s come from GOD HIMSELF. Jesus ALONE. Jesus ONLY. You see, according to Jesus, finding God isn’t like climbing a mountain with many paths to the summit. It’s more like a mountain of sheer cliffs with NO paths up. The only way up is if someone at the top lowers a ROPE LADDER from TOP for us to CLIMB on. And that ladder’s JESUS.

And it’s THAT view of Jesus that separates Christianity from every other religion. Religion is about HUMANS climbing their way to God. But Christianity is about GOD, in Jesus, making his way TO US. OTHER religions are about “DO”. Christianity is about “DONE”.

Now, Jesus might be WRONG. (He might be lying. Or he might be DELUDED.) But the more I STUDY him, (the more I investigate his words, and his actions, and his character and personality), the more I’m convinced he’s telling the TRUTH. That when I look at Jesus, I’m looking at the ETERNAL GOD. My Creator, my King, and my Judge. And that he’s THE ONLY ONE who can do that. And so, the more I want to spend my life LEARNING about him. And LIVING HIS WAY. Following him all the way to the Father. I want to live to see him recognized and honoured and obeyed by EVERYONE. Because he’s WORTH it.

  1. A third way: Humble dialogue.

Which leads us to A THIRD way of understanding tolerance. TRUE tolerance. How’s THIS for a definition? Respecting, engaging with, and treating with compassion those you disagree with. You can still DISAGREE with someone and be TOLERANT. Tolerance means defending someone else’s right to hold an opinion even if you don’t AGREE with it.

And if you genuinely CARE for someone, and you genuinely believe they’re WRONG about something IMPORTANT. Then you’ll RISK the CONVERSATION. You’ll talk to them, respectfully and engagingly and passionately, about the things that matter most to you. Important things. You’ll speak the TRUTH/ in LOVE.

Christians have a reputation for being arrogant. For thinking we’re BETTER than others. But we need to be GENTLE and WISE. 1 Peter 3:15 says we need to be GENTLE. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with GENTLENESS AND RESPECT.”

Notice that there’s a DIALOGUE happening. Answers are given to QUESTIONS. Reasons are given. And we’re to BE PREPARED. To have thought through reasons, and explanations. To have STUDIED. Studied our OWN faith, and OTHERS. And to have PRAYED. Prayed for OURSELVES, and prayed for the PEOPLE WE TALK TO. And we’re to be GENTLE and RESPECTFUL. We need to argue the IDEA, not the PERSON. We need to listen TWICE as much as we SPEAK. God gave us TWO ears and only ONE mouth FOR A REASON. Respectful means asking questions and listening well to find out what the other person believes, or DOESN’T believe. And WHY they do, which can be just as important.

And Colossians 4:5 talks about being WISE. 5 Be WISE in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Opportunities are there. Whenever we have conversations. We need to be wise to TAKE them. We need to be on our guard, and paying attention. To SEE the opportunity, and then to TAKE it. With the right REPLY, at the right TIME. And we get a hint what that right reply might LOOK LIKE from this verse. First, wisdom means our reply will BE GRACIOUS. The WAY we argue is more important than WINNING the argument.

Second, wisdom means we’ll add a little SALT. We’ll push the conversation beyond the BLAND and SUPERFICIAL. And add some FLAVOUR. Introduce something of SIGNIFICANCE. It MIGHT be about God, or church, or Jesus. But it might be about the big questions of life. Identity and purpose. Or about disappointment, or hopelessness, or helplessness. It might be about the evil in the world around us. Or the beauty and enjoyment in God’s world.

And the opportunity may not even BE about WORDS. It might just be the opportunity for you to SHOW love. To offer a hand, or an ear, or a shoulder to cry on. When you ask someone how they’re going, ACTUALLY LISTEN. And ask a FOLLOW UP QUESTION that shows you CARE.

You see, true tolerance isn’t about saying NOTHING. And it’s not about PRETENDING differences aren’t REAL. True tolerance is about HUMILITY and DIALOGUE. It’s about GENTLENESS and WISDOM.

And those things are JUST as true IN THE PUBLIC ARENA as well as with our friends. In the media – on TV or newspapers. OR in SOCIAL media. Tolerance doesn’t mean we abandon the public debate. Too often we’re SILENT. And the humanists, and the rationalists and the atheists WIN THE ARGUMENT by DEFAULT. Because there’s NO REPLY to their arguments.

And those without an opinion, or who aren’t SURE, assume they’re RIGHT. Because we don’t care enough to STAND UP.

Jesus IS the way and the truth and the life. NO one comes to the Father except though HIM. He’s the answer to all the big questions. We’re CONFIDENT of that. But that confidence isn’t the same thing as ARROGANCE. It’s wise and humble and gentle and loving. Just like Jesus. Who we want to POINT people to. Might HE be honoured and recognised as we live for him.

 

John 18:28-40: The Problem of Religious Violence

Last year Sydney Morning Herald journalist Sam de Brito wrote an religious violencearticle arguing that religion is the cause of much of the violence in the world.

To be fair, ISIS is giving him plenty of ammunition for that argument with their rape, murder, beheading and general cruelty throughout the Middle East.

And there’s lots of Australians who’d AGREE with him. And they’d include Christianity in with Islam. And want nothing to do with organised religion. Because they reckon it brings out the WORST in people, and encourages violence and hatred.

And there’s two areas of criticism people focus on. The FIRST is the violence in the Old Testament. Like God commanding Joshua to completely destroy the Canaanites.

The SECOND is the violence done in the name of the church DOWN THROUGH HISTORY. Like the Crusades, or the Inquisitions. Which we’ll consider in a few minutes.

  1. The conquest of the Promised Land

First, though, let’s think about Old Testament warfare. In particular, about Joshua and the conquest of the Promised Land. Because it’s in conquering Canaan where God, very clearly, says that Israel is to go in and take the land, and drive out those who live there, DESTROYING THEM COMPLETELY.

  1. God’s just, patient judgment

The FIRST point I’d make is that the conquest of Canaan is God’s just, patient judgment against the people.

The Bible’s big story is about how God created everything. And when he created human beings, he demanded that we live with HIM as God. And OBEY him in everything.

But we failed to live up to our calling. Instead we choose independence and rebellion. We chose EVIL every time.

ALL humanity deserve death. Canaanites, Israelites and Australians.

But OUT of that condemned humanity, undeserved and simply by grace, he chose Abraham. And promised to bless him by giving his descendants a land. The land of Canaan. But not yet. In Genesis 15:15, he promises

15 You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back HERE (that is, CANAAN) for the sin of the Amorites (one of the main nations there) has not yet reached its full measure.”

Hundreds of years before, God knows the sin of the people in Canaan. And he patiently waits for that to reach its worst. Patiently gives them every chance to repent. But knowing they WON’T.

(Deuteronomy 18 describes how, in worshipping their gods, the Canaanites do ALL SORTS OF DETESTABLE THINGS: Sorcery, witchcraft, even sacrificing their children.)

And when the SIN reaches its full measure. The PUNISHMENT will fall. And the JUDGMENT of that sin will be its most JUST. And God would use Israel as his agent of justice.

  • Mercy offered first

A SECOND point to make is that God offered MERCY FIRST. Listen to the instructions he gave Moses in Deuteronomy 20 about cities they meet on the way.

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you.

It’s only if the city REJECTS the offer that the war begins. And then it’s only the FIGHTING MEN who are to be put to the sword. The women and children become servants.

V15, we read the qualification.

15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at A DISTANCE FROM YOU and do not belong to the nations nearby.

  1. And that’s the way it worked with the Gibeonites in Joshua 9. They tricked Joshua into thinking they’d come from A DISTANT LAND. They ask for a treaty. And Joshua agrees, without asking God. So they’re SPARED. And they live as servants for Israel, carrying water and cutting firewood
  2. Total removal

Deuteronomy 20 goes on to describe DIFFERENT rules of engagement for the people who LIVE in the Promised Land. V16.

16 However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive ANYTHING that breathes. 17 COMPLETELY DESTROY them–the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites–as the LORD your God has commanded you.

Which sounds EXTREME. And UNJUST. Especially as it includes children TOO. And it’s one of the most difficult ideas both Christians and non-Christians have with the Bible. And I don’t have any COMPLETE answers, but I’ll make SIX points.

  1. To remove the evil influence

First, the reason God gives is because it’s to REMOVE THE EVIL INFLUENCE from the land. Deuteronomy 20 continues, “Completely destroy them…

18 Otherwise, they will TEACH you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will SIN against the LORD your God.

Israel can’t live in peace, and they can’t pursue holiness and obedience with the evil and idolatry surrounding them, INFECTING them. God’s intention of a just, peaceful, holy society couldn’t happen with the nations still spreading their wickedness.

It’s like when one of the kids catches a vomiting bug. And mum disinfects EVERYTHING. Every surface, every sheet and towel. Hands, faces, pens and pencils. The child goes into quarantine- separate from everyone else. All so the REST of the family doesn’t catch it TOO. ONE INFECTED OBJECT that’s MISSED, and everyone can get sick.

The land has to be CLEAN before God’s people can live there, protected.

  1. The Promised Land is a picture/ type of the kingdom of God

And this leads to ANOTHER point. The Promised Land is a PICTURE of what God’s kingdom should look like. And we see that more clearly in the New Testament. And we’ll only see it FULLY when Jesus returns, and God rules the new heaven and earth.

The Old Testament is FULL of pictures. And they all point FORWARD, and help us understand what’s coming in the New Testament. Priests, and prophets and kings. Adam, and Moses, and Melchizedek and Aaron, and King David. Sacrifices, and temples. Feast and festivals. Holiness and purity and judgment. All of them point forward to Jesus and the kingdom of God. They’re LIKE what they point to. And NOT like what they point to.

And it’s the same with the Promised Land. It’s a picture of the new heavens and earth. Paradise. When all evil and rebellion will be justly judged and destroyed by God himself. If it WASN’T destroyed, it wouldn’t be PARADISE.

And the Promised Land, together with God’s command to destroy the wicked, is a poor picture of that.

The Conquest of Canaan only happened ONCE in history. Because it’s not meant to be a standard way of dealing with the world. But a picture that points ahead to a GREATER REALITY.

Which means ONE way we should react to it is to make sure we’re ready for REAL judgment day. The FINAL one.

  • The nations remain defiant

Another point to make is that the nations REMAIN defiant. Joshua 11:20 describes how no other nation asked for a treaty except the Gibeonites. They all CHOSE to fight.

18 Joshua waged war against all these kings for a long time. 19 Except for the Hivites living in Gibeon, NOT ONE CITY MADE A TREATY OF PEACE WITH THE ISRAELITES, WHO TOOK THEM ALL IN BATTLE. 20 For it was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses.

Now, that raises ANOTHER question for ANOTHER day. (About how God hardens human hearts. And yet still holds people accountable.) But the point is they refuse to submit to God all the way to their destruction. There’s no second thoughts. No appeal for mercy. Their guilt is confirmed. And God’s judgment is seen to be JUST.

  1. We don’t view sin as God does

ANOTHER point to make is to do with US. We see God’s judgement of Canaan as UNFAIR because we don’t see SIN as GOD does.

We think we’re not too bad. At least not as bad as OTHER people. But our sin is FAR WORSE and our guilt FAR GREATER than we could ever understand or imagine.

We CAN’T understand sin, because we don’t really understand HOLINESS and PERFECTION. To understand how far we fall SHORT, we need some idea of what perfection is LIKE.

The more we learn of GOD, the more we understand purity and perfection. And the more we understand the depth of our sin.

And, as Christians, that means we understand more of the GRACE we’ve been shown in JESUS.

ONE of the messages of Joshua, then, is that for God to destroy people like THAT, sin must be far worse than we realise. And so we can rejoice in MERCY even more.

  1. Most of the judgment in the Bible is against Israel

The FIFTH point I’d make is that this is just ONE EPISODE in the whole of biblical history. MOST of the Bible actually tells the story of God’s dealing with ISRAEL. And how he punishes THEM. How he sends foreign nations to attack and destroy, and ultimately evict them from the land he’d given them.

He uses OTHER nations – Assyria and Babylon – to punish ISRAEL. Just like he’d used ISRAEL to punish Canaan.

  1. External cleansing doesn’t work.

And the FINAL point I’d make about the destruction of the Canaanites is that the message of the whole book of Joshua is that it DOESN’T WORK. Even WHEN Joshua does such a thorough job of obeying God. And completely wiping out wicked cities.

If one of the purposes is to keep Israel PURE, then it FAILS. Spectacularly.

By the end of the book, Joshua WARNS Israel not to fall into the sins of the nations. But when he dies, it takes barely a generation before Israel is headed down the path to being just as idolatrous and wicked as the nations they removed.

Removing evil influences doesn’t cure you of evil. Because sin is A HEART PROBLEM. Externals, like sacrifices or law-keeping only deals with SYMPTOMS.

The problem is our fallen nature. Our hard rebellious hearts. And only A MIRACLE OF GOD can fix that. When he sends his Spirit to make people NEW.

  1. God LOVES the foreigner

That’s a few points about the total destruction God commanded.

But the interesting thing is, even before the conquest, God KNEW there’d still be foreigners in the Promised Land who’d live among Israel. Back when he gives the law to Moses in the desert, he includes a whole series of laws about how the Jews are to treat the FOREIGNER who LIVES AMONG them in the land. (Either those who are captured servants. Or else, who’ve VOLUNTARILY joined Israel.)

And it BEGINS with the truth that God LOVES non-Israelites. Because he’s God over the WHOLE WORLD. Not just Israel. Listen to Deuteronomy 10:17

17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the GREAT God, mighty and awesome, WHO SHOWS NO PARTIALITY and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and LOVES THE ALIEN, giving him food and clothing. 19 And YOU ARE TO LOVE THOSE WHO ARE ALIENS, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.

It’s because of WHO GOD IS, and HOW HE TREATS THE FOREIGNER, that Israel is to respect and treat Gentiles well.

And in other places in Deuteronomy we read some EXTRAORDINARY laws concerning non-Jews. Deuteronomy 27:19: They had equal status in the eyes of the law.

5:14: They got to rest on the Sabbath TOO.

24:14 They were to receive fair wages

24:19 Their poor were to be cared for.

14:29 They were to share in the prosperity of the harvest.

And 16:11 They were to join in the feasts and celebrations.

No other ancient nation comes ANYWHERE NEAR that sort of treatment of its foreigners.

  • History of the church’s connection to violent war.

That’s a few thoughts on the Old Testament and violence. Let’s jump forward a couple of thousand years in history, and think about the problem of the violence done in the name of Christianity.

Christopher Hitchens, the well-known atheist, wrote a book called “God is not great: how religion poisons EVERYTHING.”

And his argument is that people are basically GOOD until they get religion. And he cites as evidence the Crusades in the Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition, and the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.

The FIRST thing to say is most Christians today are rightly and deeply ashamed of the Inquisition and the Crusades. The Christian church has done some great evil. And we recognised it long before Hitchens, and others, pointed it out.

A second point to make is to consider what happens WITHOUT religion. Humanity actually does FAR WORSE. There’s only been three atheistic regimes in world history. Mao Zedong in China, Joseph Stalin in Russia and Pol Pot in Cambodia. Between them, it’s estimated they killed close to 100 million people. Which make the Crusades, the Inquisitions and Northern Ireland pale into insignificance.

In fact, when it COMES to those episodes, historian and theologian, John Dickson makes the point that most retellings of those stories involve gross exaggerations. He says “Historians estimate the Spanish Inquisition killed approximately 5000-6000 people over its 350 year history. That’s fewer than 18 a year. One a year is too many, but the number hardly sustains the monstrous narratives we often hear.”

He makes a similar point about Northern Ireland.

“Likewise, the Northern Ireland troubles—if indeed they were religiously inspired—caused the deaths of about 3500 people over a thirty year period. Again, one death ‘in the name of Christ’ is a blasphemy but the iconic status of these two evils of Christendom exceeds the reality.”

The reality is conflicts such as the Crusades and Northern Ireland often have the APPEARANCE of being about Christian belief. But when you look a little closer, you see that it’s often just A CONVENIENT LABEL to gather people together. And the TRUE motivations are more about what USUALLY leads to war: power, wealth and nationalism.

John Dickson makes the point that rather than being TOO Christian, the problem with those episodes was that THEY WEREN’T CHRISTIAN ENOUGH.

“Anyone can tell you that when Christians are violent and imperialistic they are not obeying Jesus but defying him who said ‘Love your enemy and do good to those who hate you.’ At best, the criticisms launched by Hitchens, Dawkins and Coulter only prove that Christians haven’t been Christian enough.”

Look to Jesus

Which leads us to turn from the pages of HISTORY to look at the pages of the BIBLE. And consider JESUS HIMSELF. Because that was where those so-called Christians got it wrong. (They didn’t look at Jesus)

Jesus, who taught and lived, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called sons of God.” (Mt 5:5,9)

Who taught and lived that if someone struck your RIGHT cheek, you should let him strike your OTHER one.

And who taught and lived, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt 5:44)

And, at the start of the chapter we read earlier, we see Jesus REBUKING Peter for taking up the sword against those arresting him.

And he turns the other cheek when he’s struck and insulted and tortured.

And, in Jn 18 v36, when Pilate asks him whether he’s a king. Jesus replies,

“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Pilate seizes on his reply. You ARE a king, then!

And Jesus replies with the only weapon that’s effective in his kingdom. His WORD OF TRUTH.

“You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, TO TESTIFY TO THE TRUTH. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.

It’s the truth about Jesus that wins victories. That conquers kingdoms and rulers. That demolishes strongholds.

He’s the king who defeats Satan and sin and death. And who builds his kingdom, not by the SWORD, but by the life-giving MESSAGE OF FORGIVENESS.

And in case you think that’s SOFT. And EASILY DEFEATED. Listen to the description of the King of the kingdom as he brandishes his mighty weapon. Revelation 19 v11.

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war.   12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Out of his MOUTH comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.

Jesus is a powerful and mighty warrior, leading a mighty army. But the only weapon is the whole army is one sword that comes from the mouth of the One who NAME is the Word of God.

THAT’S the only weapon the Christian army needs. 2 Corinthians 10:3 says

3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

Our weapons are WORDS of TRUTH. Just like JESUS. And they’re POWERFUL.

And, it seems to me, that down through history, Christians have got it wrong when they’ve got THIS verse wrong. And when they’ve taken their eyes of Jesus. And stopped listening to his WORD OF TRUTH. The sword that comes out of his mouth.

And they’ve, instead, taken up REAL swords. And guns, and arrows and fists and bombs.

If Jesus’ kingdom is DIFFERENT to earthly kingdoms, then it seems to me that the church is where it SHOULD be/ when it stands at a DISTANCE from earthly authorities. When it lives on the FRINGES of culture. Rather than at its CENTRE. And when it speaks truth and peace into that culture. And when it LIVES OUT the kingdom, like a light in darkness, or salt that flavours whatever it’s added to.

Justine Toh, writing on the Centre for Public Christianity website lays out an agenda.

“If Christianity can recover its anti-establishment credentials then maybe more people will come to appreciate its beauty and profundity. For while many in the ancient world disdained the service and acts of charity that characterised the early faith, it was by THESE means that Christianity was able, by NON-violent means, TO OVERWHELM AN EMPIRE.”

And not just the EARLY church. Christ-following Christians like William Wilberforce who worked for decades to eradicate the slave trade in England. Or the French Huguenots who protected Jews from the Nazis in WW2, risking their own lives. Or Mother Theresa in Calcutta slums. Or George Muller caring for orphans in 19th century London. Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war. But never firing a shot in anger.

Or the everyday Christians, like you or me. Who donate time, or money, to share the love of Jesus with those in their community. And who speak of him as they can.

THAT’s the way the kingdom of Jesus will conquer all others. Not by violence, but by LOVE.

 

Luke 1:1-4: The reliability of the Bible

Back in the days of street directories. Before smart phones and GPS. Sometimes I’d drive around a brand new subuubdrb looking for a house. But my street directory just showed an empty field. There were no streets. I’d be LOST, because my street directory was OUT OF DATE. It was useless for modern life.

And that’s what MANY people today think about the BIBLE. IRRELEVANT. They say it’s an OLD book that reflects an OLD WAY of thinking about the world. It says things we now know are scientifically impossible, or culturally outdated, or historically unreliable. Which, people think, makes it as useless to modern life as an out of date street directory.

And we can add a FOURTH objection to that. Many people suspect it’s INTERNALLY INCONSISTENT. That with all the different authors and points of view, it CONTRADICTS itself. (Although my experience is that most people who SAY that have never really STUDIED the Bible).

For example, here’s a quote from the well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins. “The Bible is… a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and improved by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries.”dawkins

Now, I actually want to AGREE with some of his observations. Just not his CONCLUSIONS. Yes, the Bible is a collection of different books. 66 books in a range of literature styles. History, biography, prophecy, poetry, even wildly symbolic apocalyptic literature. There are around 40 different human authors, from different educational and cultural backgrounds, across Asia, Europe and the Middle East, spanning something like 1500 years, and writing in three different languages.

But where Dawkins sees it as CHAOTIC AND DISJOINTED, my experience, and plenty of people who’ve spent their life studying it, is that it’s INCREDIBLY CONSISTENT. That, from start to finish, it tells ONE COHERENT STORY.

The fact that it addresses the biggest questions of life, death, eternity, mankind and God makes that even MORE amazing. They’re the questions people have very different opinions about. And yet, these are the questions the authors of the Bible tackle head on, chapter after chapter. And they do it THOROUGHLY CONSISTENTLY.

One SIMPLE example is the different accounts of Jesus’ life in the gospels. We get FOUR DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES on the same events. They’re not IDENTICAL, but COMPLEMENTARY. And TAKEN TOGETHER, they give us a comprehensive, but not contradictory, description of Jesus’ life.

In fact, if they WERE identical, we’d be SUSPICIOUS. When police investigators are comparing eyewitness statement, they look for small differences. If the stories are identical, it’s evidence they’ve been rehearsed, and made-up.

If it was simply a HUMAN book, we would EXPECT it to be contradictory and inconsistent. The fact that it’s NOT is evidence that it is what it CLAIMS to be. The work of the ONE DIVINE AUTHOR, the one true creator God. And that it tells the one story about how he MADE us, and how he’s working to WIN US BACK to himself.

That’s the INCONSISTENCY question. The SCIENCE question we’re going to look at in a few weeks. As well as the question of MIRACLES, (the SUPERNATURAL), and how THAT fits with a modern world view.

Let’s think about the claim that the Bible is culturally outdated and irrelevant. The ideas people have MOST problems with are to do with the equality of women, acceptance of slavery, and the condemnation of homosexuality.

We’ll look at what the Bible teaches about homosexuality in a month or so. But let me make a few general comments about these sorts of objections.

The first comment is that there’s profit in researching in depth. Rather than just skimming the surface. Because the Bible might not be saying what you THINK it’s saying.

For example, slavery in New Testament times was very different to the African slave trade of the eighteenth century. People in debt could enter VOLUNTARILY into slavery until their debt was paid. They could EARN their FREEDOM. It wasn’t for life. And a slave’s owner had claim only on his WORK, not his LIFE. And it wasn’t based on ONE RACE enslaved to ANOTHER. The early Christian church had slaves and masters sitting side by side, as brothers and sisters.

Another general comment is to recognise that our culture and time in history is DIFFERENT, not necessarily BETTER than OTHER cultures and times. To assume everything is better here and now is cultural arrogance. For example, we emphasise individual choice and forgiveness. Other cultures emphasise group responsibility, and justice, and loyalty. But who’s to say which is primitive and which is progressive. Perhaps our grandchildren will look back on some of our dominant cultural views and think WE were backward.

What a shame to stay away from the Bible because it contradicts something you value! Especially if THAT VALUE ends up, itself, looking outdated and wrong.

Another point is to consider how dismissing the Bible ends up dismissing GOD. If you rip out of the Bible every part you don’t like, it means you can never have a personal relationship with the God who WROTE it.

Let me explain. In a true relationship, the other person has to be able to interact with and challenge you. Otherwise, they’re a PET, or a ROBOT.

In the movie, The Stepford Wives, the husbands of Stepford have their wives turned into robots who always agree with them. Their wives may be beautiful, and the marriages might be peaceful. But they’re not a real relationship. If you refuse to allow God to contradict you, then you’ve got a “Stepford” God, a God you’ve made yourself, not one you can have a genuine relationship with.

And a FINAL point to make when we have objections to the Bible’s teaching. Don’t confuse the MAJOR themes of the Bible with LESS important ideas. A MAJOR teaching of the Bible is what Jesus is like, and what he DID. A MINOR theme is the roles of husbands and wives. The MINOR theme DEPENDS on the MAJOR theme. Don’t worry about gender roles until you figure out what you think about CENTRAL teachings of the faith.

Christians THEMSELVES have all sorts of ideas about these MINOR themes. But they can all stand together and say the Apostles’ Creed, that they believe Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.

Tim Keller, in his book “The Reason for God”, makes the great point, keller“If Jesus is the Son of God, then we have to take his teaching seriously, including his confidence in the authority of the whole Bible. If he’s NOT who he says he is, why should we CARE what the Bible says about anything else,” like gender roles.

Make you mind up about the MAJOR points FIRST, then worry about the MINORS.

That’s a few thoughts on the problem of the Bible being culturally irrelevant. The FOURTH problem people have with the Bible is they consider it’s not HISTORICALLY ACCURATE.

And the Bible certainly opens itself up the possibility of being historically accurate. Because it claims to be HISTORICAL. The writings of Buddhism are not in danger of being disproven historically. Because they don’t make historical CLAIMS.

But whether in the Old Testament or the NEW, the Bible is SET in history. Especially the most important claim of all – that Jesus rose from the dead. And plenty of people have assumed, in the past, that it’s UNHISTORICAL, because there was no supporting evidence for some of the people, places or events it describes.

But the more we discover, the more we find how ACCURATE the history of the Bible is.

For example, an expert in Middle Eastern Archaeologlueckgy, Nelson Glueck, has written,

“No archeological discovery has ever controverted [overturned] a Biblical reference. Scores of archeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or in exact detail historical statements in the Bible. And, by the same token, proper evaluation of Biblical descriptions has often led to amazing discoveries.”

For example, King David wasn’t mentioned in any historical source other than the Bible. And sceptics doubted he was real. But in 1993, a 3000 year old inscription was unearthed that mentioned David, the King of Israel. Time magazine concluded,

“The sceptics’ claim that King David never existed is now hard to defend.”

The same doubt was held about Pontius Pilate, who sentenced Jesus to death. That is, until 1961, when archaeologists working in Caesarea Maritama unearthed a Latin inscription that mentioned Puntius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.bethesda

Or the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. It was where Jesus healed the paralysed man in John 5. John says it had five covered colonnades, which seemed so unusual it was assumed to be an unhistorical literary creation. But scientists have recently identified a site in Jerusalem as being the Pool of Bethesda, and have even identified the five covered sides.

There’s plenty more examples we could mention. And I’d encourage you to do some research of your own. But perhaps you can just take the word of the former Director of the Australian Institutewilson of Archaeology, Dr. Clifford Wilson*, who said:

“It is remarkable that where confirmation is possible and has come to light, the Bible stands investigation in ways that are unique in all literature. Its superiority to attack, its capacity to withstand criticism, its amazing facility to be proved right after all, are all staggering by any standards of scholarship. Seemingly assured results “disproving” the Bible have a habit of backfiring. Over and over again the Bible has been vindicated.”

The Historical accuracy of the gospels

But what I want to spend a few minutes considering is the historical accuracy of the Biblical Gospels. The four accounts of Jesus’ life. Because plenty of people will say they’re full of LEGENDS. Perhaps with a GRAIN of truth, but exaggerated. ENHANCED over the years, as the story is passed from one person to another. Like a story about catching a big fish. The more times you tell the story, the bigger the fish becomes.

Now, I specify the BIBLICAL gospels. Because they’ve come under attack in recent years from people peddling the claims of NON-biblical gospels. Like the Gospel of Thomas. Or the Gospel of Mary, or Judas. That say a whole lot of weird things about Jesus.

But if we take a closer LOOK at those alternatives, we find it’s unlikely there’s much truth in THEM. They were written one to two hundred years after the Biblical gospels were written.

By comparison, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written between 20 to 60 years after Jesus. In fact, Matthew and John were probably written by EYEWITNESSES THEMSELVES. Two of the 12 disciples. And Mark and Luke were written by people who personally interviewed eyewitnesses.

We read before from Luke Ch 1, where Luke described the way he RESEARCHED his work.

1:1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 Therefore, SINCE I MYSELF HAVE CAREFULLY INVESTIGATED EVERYTHING FROM THE BEGINNING, it seemed good also to me to WRITE AN ORDERLY ACCOUNT FOR YOU, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the CERTAINTY of the things you have been taught.

He wasn’t an eyewitness HIMSELF. But he RESEARCHED the events of Jesus’ life. He SPOKE to eyewitnesses. And he had plenty of OTHER writings AS WELL. (Notice he says many others have drawn up an account of the events of Jesus’ life). He read THOSE.

And then he carefully RECORDED it all. Choosing and arranging his version. And he produced an ORDERLY ACCOUNT.

And the purpose? That his reader, Theophilus, might be CERTAIN of the things he believed. That he would have EVIDENCE for his FAITH. Solid SUPPORT for the things he believed.

Notice Christianity isn’t about faith INSTEAD of evidence. It’s not ONE OR THE OTHER. It’s not mindless or blind faith. It’s thoughtful and considered.

So let’s USE our brain.

If the gospel writers had INVENTED the stories about Jesus, there would have been plenty of people still alive who would DENY them. They’d say, “No. It WASN’T like that. I was THERE!”

But that didn’t happen.lewis

And the stories themselves have a RING of truth about them. There’s little details in the gospels that are the memories of eyewitnesses. Like the green grass the crowd sat down on before they were fed. Or the Jesus was sleeping on a cushion at the back of the boat during the storm. CS Lewis, an expert in Greek literature says the gospels are far too detailed to be like every other ancient work of fiction.

ANOTHER reason the gospels RING TRUE is they’re TOO UNFLATTERING to be made up. Why would the writers make up a story about Jesus asking God in the garden of Gethsemane if he could AVOID the cross? Or why make up Jesus crying out that God had abandoned him on the cross?

It would have OFFENDED or CONFUSED potential followers.

And if the disciples MADE UP the stories about Jesus, they wouldn’t include details that make them seem foolish and petty and jealous and cowardly. And no one would DARE repeat a story about Peter, the leader of the early church, denying Jesus unless it was actually TRUE.

But it’s not just the gospels that ring true. There’s the behaviour of the disciples themselves. Almost from the start they were persecuted. They were imprisoned, and beaten, and even executed. And yet, they never changed their story. People don’t die for something they know is a lie. At the very least, they genuinely BELIEVED the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection had happened.

But it’s not just the gospels themselves. Or the behaviour of Christians. There’s also the support of other contemporary writings. Like the Jewish historian Josephus, who mentions lots of details that AGREE with the gospels. And NOTHING that contradicts it. The same with the Roman senator and historian Tacitus, who writes in the second century that Christus, the founder of the Christian faith was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.

Neither of these men were Christians. They had nothing to gain by making things up. In fact Tacitus calls Christianity a “pernicious superstition.” And yet they support that the history of the gospels is TRUE.

SO, rather than the Bible being UNHISTORICAL, there’s plenty of evidence that it’s SOLIDLY historical. Reliable.

But don’t take MY word for it. Any more than you should take the word of the DOUBTERS. Read it for yourself. Read it with an open, enquiring mind.

If it’s NOT true, you’ve lost NOTHING. But if it IS true. If the God who made you has really communicated to us through it, then there’s EVERYTHING to GAIN.spurgeon

C H Spurgeon was asked how he defended the authority of the Bible to non-believers. He said, “Defend the Bible? I would as soon defend a LION! Unchain it, and it will defend itself!”

IN other words, the BEST way to work out what you think about the Bible isn’t to read what other people think. But to read the Bible for YOURSELF.

And the BEST thing you can learn from it is about JESUS HIMSELF. Especially the ALMOST unbelievable truth that he ROSE FROM THE DEAD. Which we read about earlier. About how he appeared to eyewitnesses. Who couldn’t believe it. And who Jesus had to give SOLID EVIDENCE to. (He showed them the holes in his hands and feet. And he ate some fish to prove he wasn’t a ghost, or a vision).

But not just that. He showed a couple of disciples how THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS (that is the Old Testament) was ALL ABOUT HIM. How it described him, and predicted him. And prepared the way for him.

Which, by the way, shows that JESUS HIMSELF trusted the authority of the Bible. Which is a pretty good reason for YOU to trust it TOO.

Is that what you’re DOING? Are you TREATING the Bible as God’s communication to you?

If you ARE, it certainly should affect the PRIORITY you give it. How much ATTENTION you pay to it. How much TIME you actually spend READING it. And whether you really PAY ATTENTION when you read, or just let the words WASH OVER YOU.

And if you see it as God’s word, you should come to it with HUMILITY, not PRIDE. You see, it takes a certain HUMILITY to recognise the authority of someone else over you. Do you JOYFULLY submit to the Bible’s instructions? Or is there a resentment? A proud resilience to bowing to it? A feigned, rather than genuine, interest?

James 1:23 says the Bible is like a mirror that reflects what you’re truly like. Not on the OUTSIDE. But the INSIDE, where it MATTERS. You’re a fool if you look in the mirror, then walk away unchanged. Don’t just LISTEN to the word, DO WHAT IT SAYS, says James. That will show whether you think it’s God’s authoritative word or not.

If you let the Bible soak into you, you can’t remain the same. It’s POWERFUL. 2 Timothy 3: 15-16* says it’s able to make you WISE FOR SALVATION. Saved from judgment, and beating death – just like Jesus.

And it teaches and rebukes and trains in righteousness. So that you’ll be THROUGHLY EQUIPPED.

And it’s LIGHT that shines into your life. It guides, and gives purpose and freedom. It sets priorities and direction.

And it’s WATER that refreshes. That gives joy and hope and blessing and strength in the toughest of trials.

May this be OUR prayer. The prayer of the Psalmist.

Psalm 119:16 I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word. 18 Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law… 32 I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free. 33 Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. 34 Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart. 35 Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight. Amen

Hebrews 2:5-18: The Problem of Suffering

curtis cheng   Last Friday afternoon, 58 yr old father of two, Curtis Cheng was leaving work in Parramatta. He was looking forward to an early start to a long weekend. But he was shot in the back of the head by a 15 yr old radicalised Muslim boy from a local high school.nepal

What sort of God allows THAT to happen?

Or the earthquake that struck Nepal in April this year, killing 9000 people, and destroying 700,000 homes.

What sort of God allows THAT to happen?

Or else there’s the more PAINFUL question when suffering gets PERSONAL. Like P’s prostate cancer, or Ph’s breast cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome, or J’s blindness in one eye.

And lots of non-Christians say, “I can’t believe in a God who would allow things like THAT to happen.”

And their argument goes something like this: If God is infinitely GOOD, and infinitely WISE, and infinitely POWERFUL, then he would STOP things like these.

So he mustn’t be POWERFUL enough to stop it.

Or else he’s POWERFUL enough, but not GOOD or WISE enough to WANT to stop it.indonesia

One journalist, writing about the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed more than 250,000 people, wrote, “If God is GOD, he’s not good. If God is GOOD, he’s not God. You can’t have it both ways.”

At ONE level it sounds reasonable, but behind the argument is a mistaken assumption . The assumption is that just because WE can’t see any good purpose in suffering, there can’t BE any. But that’s arrogant, and blind faith. Arrogance and blind faith just as bad as what a non-Christian accuses a Christian of having.

The reality is/ it’s JUST as reasonable to argue, as the Bible teaches, that God IS wise and powerful, and has some purpose for suffering that our small brains can’t understand. And that he’s LOVING, so it must be a GOOD purpose. Even if we don’t know what it IS.

It’s like a child whose family moves house. There might be all sorts of good reasons why the parents decide to move. For work, or to support family, or to afford a house. But the child thinks it’s terribly unfair and hates his parents, simply because he loses his friends, or no longer has a backyard to play in.

But as a child gets older, he can understand better, and he can see things the way his parents do. He can see more of the complexities. He may not understand COMPLETELY, but he can grow to TRUST his parents.

That’s the position many CHRISTIANS are able to get to as they live through suffering. They don’t understand WHY, but they trust their heavenly Father.

In fact, rather than their suffering disproving the existence of God, many Christians say that, without God, they’d never have made it THROUGH the suffering.

The problem of suffering for atheists

So ONE thing I want to suggest is that, rather than suffering being a problem for BELIEVERS, it’s a GREATER problem for those who DON’T believe in God. (Those humanists, or atheists).

For example, the Nepalese earthquake. If there’s no God, and if we evolved by chance over millions of years of evolution, then there’s no PROBLEM with 9000 people dying. Weak people are wiped out, the strong survive. That’s survival of the fittest.

If there’s no God, why should we WORRY about rape or genocide, or natural disaster.

In fact, even our REACTION to suffering is evidence that God exists. We sense there’s something WRONG about it. Our moral outrage at EVIL / COMES from somewhere. There’s no evolutionary reason for a sense of right and wrong. It doesn’t HELP survival. And Christians say that sense of right and wrong has been PUT in us by God, our just Creator.

And even to ask, “WHY?” presupposes that there’s a PURPOSE. Or DESIGN to our world. To ask WHY suffering happens is meaningless if everything happens by CHANCE. (If there is no wise Creator who has a purpose for doing things.)

Atheists think suffering is a problem for Christians. But I reckon it’s MORE of a problem for ATHEISTS. For me, the thought of facing suffering if it’s just random BAD LUCK is too depressing to contemplate. Far better to trust myself to a wise, good, powerful God even when I can’t understand why.

God created

So, after those few comments about our EXPERIENCE of suffering, let’s look at what sort of answers the Bible gives. And we’ll base ourselves in Hebrews 2.

From verse 5, we’re picking things up halfway through a description of how wonderful Jesus is. And in v6 it quotes Psalm 8 about how GOD CREATED. Look there at v7. God made mankind a little lower that the angels, and crowned him with glory and honour, and put everything under his feet.

In other words, God made us DIFFERENT from everything else. He made us as the climax of his creation. Made in his IMAGE. Which means we’re like him in ROLE and in CHARACTER. Our ROLE is that God appointed us to rule over creation, under God’s kingship.

And that’s how things were IN THE BEGINNING. With Adam and Eve in the garden. As v7 says, “made a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour, everything put under their feet.”

But there’s ANOTHER aspect of being made in God’s image. To do with our CHARACTER. And ONE aspect of that is that God made us, like him, with free will. At least in a sense that’s different from everything else. The rest of creation has no choice in whether to obey God or not.

But we WERE. We were offered the choice of obedience and doing what was RIGHT. Or DISobedience, and doing what was WRONG.

The fallen world

And so, even though God had CREATED his world perfect and good. By allowing us THE CHOICE, he introduced a THREAT to that perfection.

The writer of Hebrews gives us a hint there in v8 how that TURNED OUT.

In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. YET AT PRESENT WE DO NOT SEE EVERYTHING SUBJECT TO HIM.

And if you know the story of Adam and Eve, you know how it turned out. They chose INDEPENDENCE from God, and DISOBEDIENCE. And, as a result, SIN entered the world. And DEATH. And DISORDER. We live in a FALLEN world.

That’s v8. The world is NOT subject to mankind the way God designed.

And it’s TRUE, isn’t it? As much as we like to THINK we’re in control of our world, that’s far from true.

And when we’re sitting in the emergency waiting room. Or watching flood waters destroy our home. Or helplessly holding the hand of a relative slipping away to death. We realise we’re HELPLESS in the face of stuff like that. We’re NOT in control. We’re subject to the forces of the world, rather than the other way around.

And it’s because we refused to follow the Maker’s instructions. Like buying some new IKEA furniture. You pick up the flat pack, and bring it home. You’ve got the instructions, and the Allen key. But instead of following the instructions, you think you know best. You throw them in the corner, and start putting it together on your own.

Before long, you’ve made a COMPLETE MESS of it. Panels on back to front. Wrong screws in the wrong places. And it DOESN’T WORK PROPERLY.

And that’s what we’ve done with God’s world when we ignore HIS instructions.

And so, when it comes to suffering like Curtis Cheng being gunned down on the street, human sinfulness bears the blame. In THIS case, the sinfulness of people who teach and practice that KILLING is something their god approves of.

And much of the suffering we see around us can be connected to human greed or sin in some sense. Like war and murder and abuse. Even FAMINE and DROUGHT can often be connected to the greed and foolishness of those making the decisions, like governments or companies.

But not all. What about natural disasters? The Nepal earthquake? Or the Indonesian Tsunami? What’s the Bible say about THAT sort of suffering?

Once again, it’s to do with the consequences of that first sin. Remember v8? “At present, we don’t see everything subject to mankind.”

You see CREATION ITSELF bears the scars of the sin of mankind. Romans 8 talks about creation GROANING like childbirth, frustrated, waiting eagerly to be liberated from its bondage to decay.

In all sorts of ways our world is corrupted and decaying. No longer perfect the way God made it. Some of it due to US. Like deforestation, climate change and bushfire. Other aspects not so much, like floods, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes.

And we can add more PERSONAL causes of suffering to that. Like cancer, disease, even old age, arthritis and short-sightedness.

Our world, including us, is declining and decaying. Wearing out. Captive to the results of sin. At least IN A GENERAL SENSE.

Which is NOT the same thing as saying that a person’s suffering is the result of their individual sin. More than once Jesus denied that sort of thinking.

Like in Luke 13, when some people told him about a massacre of Jews by Pontus Pilate. And Jesus said,

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no!

Suffering isn’t necessarily the result of individual sin. Which doesn’t there AREN’T consequences for sin. Jesus goes on to warn them,

“But unless YOU repent, you too will all perish.”

That’s a NEGATIVE lesson from suffering. In John Ch 9 there’s a POSITIVE lesson. The disciples see a blind man and they ask Jesus

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

And once again Jesus points out there’s no direct relationship between someone’s sin and their suffering.

3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.

The disciples want to know WHY. Jesus says it’s not because of anyone’s sin. But instead it’s so that people might see God at work. And then he HEALS him.

In BOTH these cases Jesus sees A PURPOSE in the suffering. They’re an opportunity for people to recognise Jesus, and to RESPOND to him.

And in the midst of OUR suffering, SOMETIMES we can see a good reason come out of it.joni

Sometimes, suffering opens up new opportunities that would never have happened WITHOUT it. Like Joni Ereckson, who was paralysed diving into a lake. As terrible as that was, Joni says that she’s been able to see all sorts of good things come out of that. She’s had an influence on thousands of people through writing books and a speaking ministry. Something that probably would never have happened OTHERWISE.

Joni also sees ANOTHER good purpose in her suffering. She’s learned to be dependent on God. One of her favourite Bible verses has been Psalm 79:8, that says, “May your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need”

She says, “Basically, I wake up almost every morning in desperate need of Jesus — from those early days when I first got out of the hospital, to over four decades in a wheelchair, it’s still the same. The morning dawns and I realize: “Lord, I don’t have the strength to go on. I have no resources. I can’t ‘do’ another day of quadriplegia, but I CAN do all things through You who strengthen me. So please give me Your smile for the day; I need You urgently.”

‘This, I have found, is the secret to my joy and contentment. Every morning, my disability — and, most recently, my battle with cancer — forces me to come to the Lord Jesus in empty-handed spiritual poverty. But that’s a good place to be because Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”’

God’s used suffering to teach Joni DEPENDENCE.

That’s JONI. But plenty of times we can see NOTHING good in the suffering. Like a little child who dies of terribly painful cancer. Or the rape and murder of innocent people in wartime. What’s the Bible say about THAT?

Jesus

Let’s keep reading in Hebrews 2. Because from v9, it gets interesting. Because JESUS is introduced. MANKIND isn’t ruling over creation. But Jesus IS. V9.

9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, NOW CROWNED WITH GLORY AND HONOR because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Jesus was born as a human. Made a little lower than angels. But, unlike the REST of us, he never ONCE chose INDEPENDENCE from God. He never sinned.

He lived in a fallen, painful world. And experienced all sorts of suffering. But never, once, contributed to it. Or DESERVED it.

And then God caused him to suffer an unjust death in our place. The innocent dying in the place of the guilty. So that guilty ones might LIVE.

People look at suffering. And ask, “Why doesn’t God DO something?” And the Bible’s answer is that God HAS done something. He sent Jesus to DEAL with suffering. By SUFFERING. And to DEAL with death, by DYING.

And then, because of his obedience, God RAISED Jesus from death. And then CROWNED him with glory and honour. Not just as a member of the human race, ruling creation. But as the king and Saviour of the world. Who defeats sin and death.

And not just defeats it HIMSELF, but makes it available to THE REST of the human race AS WELL. As we TRUST him.

Look down to v14 to see how it describes it.

14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death-that is, the devil- 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

Freedom from death! God HAS done something about suffering. Which is WONDERFUL NEWS.

But Christians STILL suffer and die. That’s the time we’re living in. Christ has WON the victory, but we’re still living with the CONSEQUENCES, in a decaying, broken world. We don’t YET see everything subjected under us.

But God’s at work, through the victory of Jesus, slowly bringing his victory to bear. Replacing death with life, and suffering with peace, and guilt with forgiveness.

God USES suffering

God IS at work, bringing people from death to life through Jesus. And renewing them, growing them in patience and endurance and trust. Making them more like Jesus.

And the message of the Bible is that ONE of the ways he DOES that is through suffering. Look at v10, how it worked with JESUS.

10 In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God… should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.

God USES the suffering of Jesus to COMPLETE or MATURE Jesus. (Not that he wasn’t ALREADY perfect. But that the FULL plan for Jesus included suffering and temptation and testing.)

If God used suffering to work his good purposes in JESUS. Then it makes sense that he might be doing the same thing IN US. We see that, for example, in James Ch 1, which says,

2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

BAD THINGS can produce GOOD RESULTS. God uses them to grow things in us. FAITH. And PERSEVERANCE. Or DEPENDENCE, like with Joni.

And MATURITY. That word for MATURITY is the same one as Hebrews 2, where Jesus is made PERFECT through suffering.

God completed Jesus through his suffering. And he completes US through it as well.

God EXPERIENCES suffering

Which COMFORTS us as we suffer. Because whatever WE experience, Jesus has experienced FAR WORSE. He’s not distant and isolated. He UNDERSTANDS. Look down to v17.

17 For this reason he had to be MADE LIKE HIS BROTHERS IN EVERY WAY, in order that he might become a MERCIFUL and FAITHFUL high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 BECAUSE HE HIMSELF SUFFERED WHEN HE WAS TEMPTED, HE IS ABLE TO HELP THOSE WHO ARE BEING TEMPTED.

He’s our BROTHER in suffering. Which is COMFORTING. But that’s not ALL. It gives us CONFIDENCE to ASK FOR HIS HELP. Over in Ch 4 v15, we read

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with CONFIDENCE, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Come to God with CONFIDENCE in your pain and suffering. And with your questions. The cross is our guarantee of his LOVE and his ACTION.

We may not understand EVERYTHING about suffering, and about why God allows it. But the cross tells us what type of God he is who ALLOWS it.

In our pain, we’re tempted to accuse God, “You don’t UNDERSTAND my suffering!” But he understands suffering and grief and loss far worse than US.

God HAS DONE, and WILL DO, something about suffering

And in our pain, we’re tempted to accuse God, “Why don’t you DO something?” But God HAS done something. He hates the suffering of this world far more than WE do. He hated it SO much he killed his own Son to DESTROY it. So we can’t accuse God of not CARING.

But not only HAS he done something. He WILL do something about suffering. One day, he’ll run out of patience. And the time for repentance and forgiveness will end. And he’ll destroy suffering once and for all. And all wrongs will be righted. And all injustice called to account.

Which will be the ultimate answer to all our prayers for deliverance from suffering.

And he’ll bring in a new heavens and a new earth. Where there’ll be no more pain or crying or sickness or death.

So, as you live with suffering in this broken world, recognise your weakness, pray with confidence that God understands, cares, and gives grace and mercy. Look to Jesus. And long for the new heavens and earth.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.