Friday, 26 February 2010

Who Jesus is

Mark's gospel begins with the bold declaration that he wants to show us that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

Mark then leads us through the near three-years of Jesus' ministry, showing us all that Jesus revealed of himself and also showing us the disciples' extreme slowness to perceive what it was all pointing to: this great verdict about the true identity of their teacher. The demons know it, and tremble; even Gentiles like the Syro-Phoenician lady understand far more quickly. But these Jews, with their deeply faulty preconceptions about the work of the Messiah and the manner of his first coming, cannot get it.

Eventually we get to the the great initial climax of the gospel, in chapter 8, when Peter finally confesses on behalf of the disciples: "You are the Christ".

But have you ever compared Mark with John? Because John tells us that the whole reason why Peter and the others came to Jesus at the beginning of his ministry was because they were persuaded (by the John the Baptist's testimony, then by each other) that he was the Christ! "One of the two who heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first finds his own brother Simon, and says to him, 'We have found the Messiah', which is, being translated, the Christ" (John 1:40-41).

So what is going on here? Is it a contradiction? What does it mean?

Surely this: it was one thing for Peter and the other disciples to believe in Jesus as the Messiah at the start. But it was another when they had seen Jesus irreparably separated from the Jewish religious leaders, rejected by many of his followers, and apparently totally failing to carry out the work which they had, according to their erroneous preconceptions, expected the Messiah to do. This confession now came after they had been forced to face up to the fact that Jesus would not be leading an Israelite army, taking on the Romans, being received by the Jewish leadership, reigning in Jerusalem, restoring the territory controlled under David, etc., etc. It was a confession of true faith: they believed in Jesus because they knew him for who he was, not because he had satisfied carnal sense and belief. It was thus a truly valuable confession of faith: not that of a beginner - many had followed him but were now nowhere to be found - but tried and true. Not flawless, of course - but nonetheless, the real thing.

The lesson is clear. You began trusting Jesus as Saviour. But then you will have had to go through the mill, because that is God's will for us - what do you say now?

Thursday, 25 February 2010

We're shocked, shocked I tell you

Richard Dawkins built a forum on his website for atheists to interact with one another, sharing the results of their free-thinking. The results
were consistently and persistently crude and revolting. As a result Dawkins has felt compelled to basically close the forum down as a venue for open discussion. The natives reacted to this news by taking it as a further opportunity to show more of the fruits of their Dawkins-inspired philosophy. Now quoth the startled mad ex-professor:
"Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, over-reacting so spectacularly to something so trivial. Even some of those with more temperate language are responding to the proposed changes in a way that is little short of hysterical. Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people? How can anybody feel that strongly about something so small? Have we stumbled on some dark, territorial atavism? Have private fiefdoms been unwittingly trampled?
Something wrong with people? With atheists, who've been freed from that "root of all evil", namely religion, and who live in a rational, scientific, delusion-free zone? How could that be? Especially when all those God-less regimes which the atheists built in the 20th century - Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pot, Tsetung, Hoxha, etc. - were all utopian paradises. This is such a surprise! How could this have happened?

Dawkins a-theology has no answer to that question, so he lamely pins the blame on a nebulous impersonal non-cause, "Internet culture":
Be that as it may, what this remarkable bile suggests to me is that there is something rotten in the Internet culture that can vent it. If I ever had any doubts that needs to change, and rid itself of this particular aspect of Internet culture, they are dispelled by this episode.
Because it couldn't just be the inevitable results of encouraging godless thinking, of course. You naughty, naughty "Internet culture". Curious how atheist websites seem to attract a much higher proportion of "Internet culture" than the rest of the Internet....?


Wednesday, 24 February 2010

A curse for us

"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.'"
Galatians 3:13 is one of the Bible's clearest short statements of penal substitution, and thus of the authentic gospel (which it is Paul's purpose to defend, Galatians 1:6-9). (Penal substitution has been discussed here most recently here, here, here).

What is taught us in this verse?
  1. We were exposed to the curse of the law: we were under it, and stood in need of redemption from it. (Note that Paul is writing to uncircumcised Gentile Christians here - this is not just Jews who were under it. This observation has implications for various other theological ideas floating around).
  2. Christ is the one who has brought us out from under this curse. He redeemed us.
  3. He did this by himself taking the curse upon himself. He hung on a tree: he was cursed.
That's penal substitution. Penal substitution means two ideas: there was a punishment due (a penalty), and that somebody else other than the offender suffered it (substitution).

Many theologians have toiled long and hard to make this an obscure, difficult or controversial question. Regrettably, some solidly evangelical men have also fallen into the trap set for them of talking of penal substitution as a "model", implying that it is a human reconstruction, one possibly viewpoint amongst many. But it is not a difficult one, nor one alternative on a menu. It is a simple statement of what Christ did, from which all the other benefits and achievements of Calvary flow out: it is the foundation that undergirds everything else that can be said. (e.g. Calvary is the great victory over the powers of evil, "Christus Victor", precisely because by a substitutionary atonement, Christ has robbed those powers of their hold over man - sin being forgiven, God no longer needs to punish man, or leave him to be a slave to his sinful nature; the possibility of new birth and a new life and new society is opened up, and hell is raided for its inhabitants, etc.).

According to Paul, this is the gospel, and no other alternatives are allowed; indeed, they are all damnable - Galatians 1:6-9. It's there in words of very few syllables.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Peter at Antioch again

Earlier this week I posted some thoughts from studying Galatians 2:11-24, when Peter came to Antioch and Paul opposed him in public.

As I've reflected on this passage further, I'd like to ask.... what exactly does it mean?

On one level I know what it means. It tells us what happened when Peter came to Antioch, of course.

The question is, though, why is Paul telling us about this? In other words, what exactly is the passage's function within the whole letter? How does it advance the case that Paul is making?

Paul's case, as outlined in 1:6-9, is simply this: that there is only one gospel, and it is the gospel that Paul preached - not the gospel of the "Judaisers".

Any kind of "mirror-reading" of chapters 1 and 2 will make clear that the Judaisers were trying to persuade the Galatians that there was a gap between Paul and Peter's apostleship and their gospel - with Paul on the losing end. Paul was some kind of subordinate, and had mangled the message somewhere in transmission when bringing it (allegedly) from Jerusalem.

Within this context, how exactly does Galatians 2:11-24 function? Here the mirror-reading is more difficult I think. Were the Judaisers spreading a false report of Peter's trip to Antioch that Paul wanted to correct? Or is Paul simply continuing to demonstrate that he was not inferior to Peter, shown by the fact he had once even publicly rebuked him? Were the Judaisers making Peter seem infallible in everything he did (perhaps Peter also had begun to separate from Gentiles in Jerusalem too, and the Judaisers were using this report?), and was Paul's purpose to correct this untruth? Is Paul's purpose simply, like in 2:1-10, to show that his gospel had been publicly vindicated with Peter present?

Or is it a combination of these things, or some others too? The answer to this question seems impossible to be dogmatic about. God has not revealed the answer to this question. So how does this then affect how we preach it? For a lot of the preaching, it makes no difference - we'll have to spend a good deal of time explaining what happened and what it meant, and how it fits in the overall scheme is not affected by this so much. But it still makes some difference - we have to give some account of the purpose of the passage if people are meant to understand the book as a whole and not just individual verses her and there.

Any thoughts? My (I hoped educated) best guess is that Paul is, for the best of motives, having to expose to the Galatians that Peter is not all that the Judaisers have made him out to be. It is a historical argument, refuting the idea that Peter was the super-apostle whose teachings (though these actually totally agreed with Paul's, as 2:1-10 established - and necessarily so, as my understanding is that the apostles were inspired and infallible in all their teaching) and practices were the guide to judge the others by. He's demonstrating that the Judaisers' reconstruction simply doesn't work when tested by what had really gone on down the years.

A pastor - the last thing to be?

Have you ever heard this kind of advice? "If you are wondering if you should be a pastor... then consider if there is anything else you desire to be. Only be a pastor if you find you cannot avoid it - that you are compelled to it."

I think that is profoundly unbiblical advice. It's a romantic kind of idea - the idea that the Holy Spirit always gives the same kind of experience to everyone who he intends to be in pastoral ministry: that he chases you down, that you resist, and that he gets you in the end. That might be the experience of some and make for good reading, but making it a rule for all I think has no Scriptural precedent and its effect will be to prevent people from entering ministry who ought to.

The Biblical rule I believe is that God gives you a gift and then you are responsible to use it, whatever it is (e.g. Romans 12:4-8). If you are gifted for pastoral ministry, then you should exercise that gift - and if you find out that you are gifted to the extent that you ought to be devoted to it full-time, then you devote yourself to it full-time.

Your emotional and other internal experiences along the way may involve all kinds of thing. You may be reluctant, or you may be eager (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:1). The struggle might be long, or almost non-existent. The question "did you make sure you tried to resist to see if you were compelled to it?" is not a Scriptural one. The Scriptural one is, "If Jesus has given you a 'talent', are you making sure you're employing it so that you can give an account for it later?"

Friday, 19 February 2010

Whose children? The miseries of modern secularism

This news story reports that a UK parliamentary committee is advising that the right for parents to decide whether their children should receive their (state) school's sex education lessons should be revoked, and the school should have the authority instead.

Of course, for "school", read "state" - because the schools will be following centralised government "guidelines" when making these decisions.

This is the ultimate state take-over of parenthood. Once the state awards itself the right to control sex education against the wishes of parents - as sensitive and personal a topic as there can be - then that's about it. What rights should not belong to the state in preference to parents, if this one should? If the state knows more about how to teach your children about sex than you do, then what does it not know?

But note this.... the way this issue has been framed, the battle is already lost. The right is already awarded. If a parliamentary committee can legitimately discuss what rights you should or shouldn't have, then that committee has already deified itself. If it's up to them whether to let you be a parent or not, then in reality they are already the parent and not you - they've just kindly let you have a play at it for a while.

Historically, it was believed that individuals and parents possessed certain inalienable rights. Rights were not awarded or withdrawn by committee: they existed by virtue of your existence, as a human being made by God. It was not up to governments to decide if they liked it or not: parents and individuals were entities existing in the sight of God just as much as governments were. Each had their own sphere, and each was accountable to God for not overstepping. Government no right to invade the family.

This comes from a Christian world-view, where each of the individual, the family (and the church) as well as the government exists as an entity under God. Where God rules over men. Each is answerable for itself, and has no right to trample the rights of another in a different sphere.

But in the secular world-view, God is abolished. There's nothing (in our thinking) over-head. This means nothing to keep each in its own place. Historically, for a time each then wanders around in its own confusion. But inevitably, and normally sooner rather than later, government starts to climb out of its place to assert its rights over all other spheres. In the absence of a God that government is answerable too, government then starts to make individuals and families answerable only to itself. The idea of inalienable rights of families disappears from view, and all must submit to the all-powerful state. Nothing is inalienable - government committees can then decide every question they please.

Result: eventually, a centralised, totalitarian nightmare. The 20th century ought to have taught us this, with its all-powerful states: Hitler's Germany, Stalin and Lenin's Russia, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Hoxar's Albania, etc.

But even if we have been taught it, what can we do about it? With God abolished from the secular mind, there's no other reality there to keep the state in its place. There is, unless God himself is merciful and restrains the evil or even turns it around by a work of revival, a tragic inevitability. With no God to worship and serve, we must end up having to serve man: there is no alternative. "Progressive" and "modern" are the words the authors of this tragedy use - but history tells us that "regressive" and "miserable" are far more accurate. God-less utopias do not exist. Man is never truly free until he is in the delightful "slavery" of acknowledging and obeying his Maker. Then he is truly free, free to do what he was made for, and what he ought, and what is right.

The alternative is man's freedom: the true slavery, where you cannot even instruct your own children about something so intimate as sex as you see best without the state, by force of law, over-riding your wishes. May Jesus have mercy on the modern UK!

The duty of joy

Religions have all kinds of duties, commonplace and esoteric. (Some of the esoteric ones are a good proof that the religion in question originated in the mind of man and not God.... for example, only a man who lived in the east and was ignorant of polar regions could have come up with a binding requirement that you should fast at certain times of year whilst the sun is up. Bit tricky when the sun is up for months at a time, or if this only gives you 2 hours in the middle of the night to eat, n'est ce pas?)

Christianity, being uniquely true, has a unique and surprising duty: joy! Not only joy, but continual, permanent joy. "Rejoice in the Lord always", wrote the apostle Paul (Philippians 4:4). These were no glib words; Paul knew all about suffering and persecution - about being rejected, beaten, in fear of his life, being pressed down by all the problems of his churches, etcetera. Just a few lines later he acknowledged this all, and yet said "I have learned, in whatever condition I am in, to be content" (Philippians 4:11).

The key to rejoicing is in the words "in the Lord". The son or daughter who is heir to a king, and who knows that final victory is already won and that the crown is certain can never have more than temporary sorrow. Sorrow is real, but it can never overcome the joy. Christ has conquered, he loves us, and is returning. To not have our Christian lives characterised by joy is inconsistent. A Christian can give way to long-term depression only if he or she lets the truth take a secondary seat.

We are not meant to endure trials, teeth gritted. We are meant to rejoice through them. The pain is real - but the joy ought to be even more real. This is not pie-in-the-sky head-in-the-clouds stuff: it's following Jesus, who "for the joy set before him, endured the cross" (Hebrews 12:1-2). Amidst many trials and Christian duties we can forget that one of the truest tests of all of our faith is to see whether we go through life with joy, or not. One of the most important duties of all, by which our real standing will be seen, is to rejoice.

How are you doing?

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Sobering lessons from when Peter came to Antioch (Galatians 2:11-21)

When Peter came to Antioch, he ate with Gentile Christians: in violation of the ceremonial laws of Moses. But Peter knew that the ceremonial laws were no longer binding; Christ had purified all things. Peter himself had had this made graphically clear to him in his vision before the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10). The middle wall of partition had been pulled down once and for all through the Messiah who died for the sins not of Israel alone, but of all the world.

Later on, though, when certain men came representing James (whether officially or purportedly is not significant: if Peter could err in this matter, so could James), he stopped. Why? The Bible says "fear" (Galatians 2:12). From that moment on, Peter became a hypocrite. He preached a law-free gospel that places all men everywhere on an equal footing: Jew and Gentile alike sinners before God, and able to be justified by God's grace through faith alone; able to fellowship together at the Lord's Supper in the same way. He preached that righteousness does not come from the law, but is a free gift to all in Christ. Yet whilst he preached this, he started again to rebuild the distinctions between Jew and Gentile by separating himself from his non-Jewish brothers, refusing to treat them as equals and enjoy fellowship with them on that basis. He ate with them at the Lord's Supper: but not at the ordinary meals of every day! His gospel which he never stopped to preach, and his practice became two contradictory messages.

I think this passage has wide-ranging applications today. Here are just a few lessons from consideration of what Peter did:
  • Good men, even the best and most used, can make catastrophic mistakes. As Isaiah 2:22 in the KJV memorably says, "Cease ye from man".
  • Even the best men can be defeated by that most miserable of motives : the fear of man. As the same verse reminds us, that is man, "whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?" And though our lives are but a shadow and a mist - this monster, the fear of man, stalks us all at all times, and we scarcely realise how much "danger money" we hand over to pay off its demands day by day. If this happens to apostles - how much more to us? "The fear of man brings a snare: but whoever puts his trust in the Lord shall be safe." - Proverbs 29:25.
  • The behaviour of great leaders is not to be our guide: Scripture and truth are. Great leaders can and do lead great numbers of people astray! The powerful example of Peter led even Barnabas astray (Galatians 2:12). This is Barnabas, an early leader in the Antioch church which led the way in treating Gentiles as full equals of Jews (Acts 11:19-20). Barnabas, who had been a pioneer leader alongside Paul in the first organised missions to the Gentiles, preaching the law-free gospel openly and widely (Acts 13:1ff). Just because Spurgeon, Stott, Lloyd-Jones, Whitefield, Packer, Hodge, Masters, MacArthur, Piper, Carey, Carson, Olyott, or whoever your particular present favourite is did it or does it, so what? We must take responsibility for our own countless blunders, and they for theirs. Hero-worship is not a Christian virtue.
  • The errors of great men and even apostles do not fall short of practices which can totally deny the heart of the gospel. Peter continued to preach the gospel flawlessly, as a Spirit-guided apostle of Christ. He declared justification by faith alone. But in his practice, as Galatians 2:14-16, he was effectively declaring justification by Jewish works. There was only ever one man whose practice was without error, and that is why we are called Christians are not Petronians or Paulicians! How tragic: and one more reason to cling closer to Christ, not putting our trust even in the best of Christian leaders. I think some of the men I named above deny the gospel in practice in the manner that Peter did. How can some of them remain in denominations whose official leadership does not teach the evangelical gospel, and where the denomination as a whole has no clear position on whether the evangelical gospel is true or not, or compulsory or not, or whether we can instead substitute it for liberalism or Roman Catholicism? I believe that they would resign immediately if their churches appointed flamboyant and unrepentant bank-robbers, homosexuals or murderers at the top of the leadership: yet if the top of the leadership is not evangelical, that is apparently OK? Is this because they believe outward morality is more important than the gospel? Surely not... but it is the error of Peter. These men teach justification by faith alone; but in practice tolerate all kinds of other justifications.
  • In making his blunder, Peter actually went backwards. He had once eaten with Gentiles; even for many years. Even the best men and leaders can backslide. What Peter once knew very clearly, he apparently then suppressed and/or forgot. Our past attainment is no guarantee of future faithfulness: even for apostles! May God have mercy on us all!
It's worth noting that some years later in 2 Peter 3:15 that Peter affectionately calls Paul - who publicly rebuked him for his error - "our beloved brother". Proverbs 27:5-6 - “Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” Proverbs 9:8 - "Do not reprover a scorner, in case he hates you: rebuke a wise man, and he will love you." Peter received the rebuke, repented, and loved Paul for recovering him. Lessons for us in there too!

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Are science and atheism compatible?

One of the most-read blogs on the Guardian is presently this one, by Andrew Brown, entitled "Are science and atheism compatible?".

Brown does not offer a very penetrating analysis of the question, in my opinion. He does not define what he means by "science", and following that failure mostly flounders around in generalities. If he does actually answer his own question, it is not clear to me what the answer is. His main point seems to be that the rise of scientific knowledge and the fall of religious belief are not as closely correlated in reality as campaigning atheists would have us believe.

Instead of defining science, Brown begins with an in-from-left-field announcement of something totally non-obvious, thus:
Obviously the two [i.e. science and atheism] are closely linked, in as much as science assumes the falsity or at least irrelevance of supernaturalism.
This statement is a category mistake. Science, when properly defined, is the study of nature in order to search for general principles which can describe observed behaviour and predict future behaviour. Science studies the natural world in order to be able to describe patterns.

Being the study of the natural world, science can by definition make no assumptions or statements about either the falsity or irrelevance of the supernatural. It is not within its remit. Looking at nature to discover what is beyond nature is a self-contradiction. Asking science to make such statements is like asking a tennis umpire to declare a player off-side, or asking a soccer referee to send the goalkeeper off for LBW. (For non-British readers, off-side is a soccer rule, and LBW comes from the world of cricket!). It is out of scope. "False" or "irrelevant" are rulings that can only be made for something "in scope". Brown appears to be talking about "scientism" (the unprovable philosophical assumption that every question is potentially satisfiable by science), not true science.

It's important also to recognise that science is descriptive, not prescriptive. When science codifies its predictions and calls them a "law", this needs to be understood with care. The word "law" has misled many people. To predict, using Newton's "laws" of gravity, at what time the sun will rise tomorrow is quite different to explaining why the motions predicted will take place. The law tells us what we expect to see - but not why we see that thing. To say that a force of gravity is at work that obeys an inverse-square law is one thing; but to account for that force and why it is inverse-square instead of something totally different is something else. Science can note that an inverse-square law appears to consistently be at work (description); but to account for that law (prescription) is something very different.

This leads to the search for a "theory of everything". Perhaps the inverse-square law, and every other law, are natural consequences of some other working within nature. But even if they were - then that other working within nature would also need accounting for. Either then you have an infinite chain of causes, or at some point you have to allow the supernatural: that nature is ultimately caused by something beyond nature. Ultimately, nature itself needs accounting for. Searching within nature to account for nature is absurd. In other words, making science the arbiter of supernaturalism is absurd. Richard Dawkins argues that we cannot attribute the cosmos to an intelligent being, because then we would have to account for that intelligent being. But this argument only works if the intelligent being is itself within nature, and not outside it. And the Christian claim which Dawkins hopes to refute is precisely the latter: thus, Dawkins' argument is irrelevant. Dawkins has not faced up to the regress in his own position - if physical forces are sufficient to account for all we find in nature, what accounts for those physical forces themselves? Other physical forces? Or are they just suspended over nothing, having no origin and needing no explanation? This is ultimately a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Science cannot decide it, nor is it meant to.

The fact is that science itself needs accounting for, and cannot account for itself. Why should everything work together in an orderly way? Why should we be able to reduce our observations to rationally understandable principles and then generate descriptions from them? Whence this comprehensibility and orderliness?

If science needs accounting for, then the question ought to be, "does atheism count for science better or worse than theism does?". This is the question that Brown ought to ask, but skips over because he appears to have been led by such as Dawkins to confuse science with a particular (and erroneous) brand of philosophy. Theism accounts for science very well by stating that nature is orderly and understandable to human minds because it is itself created and ordered by a divine mind who fashioned it and us for each other. We were made to live in the world and to harness it. The belief that God is orderly in his being and ways and that he made us to enjoy his creation generates the expectation that nature will be orderly and possible for us to investigate and harness for our use. That is precisely why modern science was born out of the soil of Christian Europe - people expected that studying the works of their Creator would be a fruitful enterprise, not a random and frustrating one. They did not believe that order came from chaos, and so they studied the Creation expecting to find order that could be described in orderly ways: exactly what happened.

How, though, does atheism account for science and for nature itself? It does not, and cannot. Ruling out the possibility of a mind being behind the cosmos, atheism leaves scientific "laws" hanging in mid-air: they just exist, whether we like it or not and we cannot tell you why. For an atheist, the scientific enterprise is essentially a huge irrational faith-leap: he has no reason for believing that nature should be coherent or comprehensible, but he investigates it with that expectation anyway. It's just pot luck, a fortuitous hand dealt to us! (But who set up the pot, and who was the controller dealing the hand?) The compatibility between his mind and the objects being studied by his mind is just a big happy fluke. Ultimately atheism is not supported by science; rather, it removes its foundations.

Family Worship

Family worship seems to me from my limited experience to be one of the "great omissions" of modern Christianity. I as going to say "Western", but I don't see it here in Kenya either.

By "family worship", I mean a time, daily (as far as possible), when the whole family (which might just be the married couple if they have no children or they have left home) gathers together to worship God. It could be at any time of day, though after one of the meal-times is the most natural as the family is often together then already.

I think it is hard to argue that every family ought to have family worship:
  • Are we meant only to worship God one day a week? Is that consistent with his worthiness, and his daily care for us?
  • God created the family as a fundamental unit in creation (there being only two others - church and state) - is it meant to not have organised times to return worship to him?
  • The book of Proverbs gives us an extended model of a father giving instruction to his son, in a comprehensive range of subjects. How can this happen without organised times?
  • The Bible explicitly commands, in both Testaments, fathers to ensure that their children have a comprehensive Christian education that is woven into the fabric of family life (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Ephesians 6:4). Is this really meant to happen by accident, and without routine worship? Can we really expect our children to learn the teachings of the Bible just by osmosis? If temporal learning needs 5 or 6 days a week of organised activity (whether at home-school or an outside school), how can godliness only need one?
  • The Old Testament festivals were family events (e.g. the Passover in Exodus 12); is it consistent with the greater glory of the New Covenant that New Covenant worship is meant to be solely for individuals and churches?
  • The ten commandments are addressed to family contexts (e.g. in particular the 4th) - is there really meant to be no formal family religion?
  • Can we really defend finding time for sport/TV/browsing the web or whatever your leisure/hobby is, but not for the worship of God?
"Worship" does necessarily mean a 90 minute formal service with 40 minute sermon, or whatever! It simply means reading the Scriptures, praying in praise, thanksgiving and request, and singing of psalms/hymns/spiritual songs. Incidentally, where there is family worship it seems to me that part of Biblical reformation of our family worship is to restore the element of singing (e.g. what is Psalm 127 for if it is not a family Psalm? Is it only meant to be sung outside the family?)

Where did family worship go? Historically, it used to be unquestioned and unquestionable amongst evangelical Christians of all stripes: there was simply no argument. Christians worship God, of course they do - and families are the most fundamental unit in society and hence a primary place where worship ought to be: of course they are! How could we lose such a fundamental part of our walk with God, and how can there be so little (to my knowledge) being said about it?

Have you ever heard a sermon, or read an article on the importance of family worship? Whence this silence? How to carry it out in practice of course is another topic - a practical matter that may need some guidance and help if it has never been done before. But carry it out, we must - if we want to see the kingdom of God advance, and not just a bare-bones Christianity limping and struggling on as it seems to do in much of the world today.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The band of theologians

This is a lovely quote from astrophysicist Robert Jastrow. He's talking about the fact that 20th century physics has been a tour of crushing defeat for materialist dreamers (which is why atheist apologists try to make you only think about biology and Darwinism (not that they have much excuse for this either), and keep mum about physics):
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. (Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, W.W. Norton, New York, 1978, p. 116)

By "reason" he means the pseudo-reason of Dawkins et al - i.e., scientism. But I digress. This quote came to mind as I read from today's Daily Telegraph, this article in which the Science Correspondent reports that, well, an analysis of their behaviour shows that babies aren't innocent after all.

This hardly comes as news to anyone who has existed in the Judaeo-Christian stream since the fall of Adam. But, in hushed and awed tones, our correspondent reports:
Yet it now appears that babies learn to deceive from a far younger age than anyone previously suspected.
Excuse me - who is the "anyone" in this quote? It must exclude anyone who a) takes their Bible seriously or b) is a parent who observes their child's behaviour in any meaningful way....

Original sin, anyone? Is that really a doctrine which nobody ever suspected before? Has Mr. Gray just discounted several centuries of Western history, and the fundamental cultural values which our civilisation as built on? Something that nobody ever heard of before? Ho hum.

Or when he says "nobody" is he, perhaps, only including as real live people the people who can be described as "the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of [pseudo-]reason" ?

Hi there! Do come on up. You're a bit late, but welcome at last. Do enjoy the view before you fall off the other side!

Galatians 2 and the Jerusalem Council

I am presently teaching Galatians at Bible college. Galatians is a book of great significance in working out a Biblical, covenantal theology, and a theology of the true gospel and its place in church life.

It is also a very important letter for piecing together a chronology of the New Testament, and of the life of Paul. But that is not an easy task. There are lots of different data points which it is non-trivial to bring together. To give a simple example, in Galatians 2:1, Paul says "Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem". Fourteen years later than what? Perhaps, fourteen years later than the visit to Jerusalem mentioned in Galatians 1:18. Or, perhaps fourteen years later than his conversion, which he dated the Galatians 1:18 visit as being three years later than. I have in my lap at present a commentary which on page 44 states the latter, then on page 50 states the former without seeming to be aware of the self-contradiction!

One of the difficult questions is whether Galatians 2:1-10 is an account of the same "Jerusalem council" as in Acts 15. On the face of it, this seems quite likely:
  • It is a meeting in Jerusalem,
  • occasioned by a controversy over the role of the law of Moses in salvation,
  • and in particular circumcision
  • involving Paul, Barnabas, Peter and James,
  • which gave a decisive verdict in favour of a circumcision-free, law-free gospel.
But in my opinion deeper reflection leads to the conclusion that it is not the same meeting:
  • The Galatians 2 meeting appears to have been private and unofficial between a few apostles, whereas the Acts 15 one was fairly public and official involving many more leaders of the church.
  • The Jerusalem council laid down some guidelines that Gentiles should not indulge in particular acts that would inflame Jewish sensitivities; whereas in Galatians Paul only reports an exhortation to help the poor - which the Jerusalem council's letter does not mention. (There are various other apparent dissimilarities which are arguments from silence and are therefore weak, but in this case we have the council's letter in totality, so this argument from silence is significant). Likewise, the Judaisers might have been expected to use the council's prohibitions against these inflammations of Jewish sensibilities, distorting them to make them into absolute laws for all Gentile Christians for all times - but Paul never tackles this argument, which suggests it was not being made.
  • One border-line is-it-an-argument-from-silence difference: in Galatians Paul states that he went to Jerusalem because of a revelation, whereas in Acts 15 the church in Antioch determined after discussion to send him. (I could conceive that both could be true). But if Galatians 2 is in fact reporting events of Paul's Jerusalem visit in Acts 11:27-30, this fits in well: the trigger then was a revelation through the prophet Agabus, and that Acts visit was a visit in part for poor relief, which in Galatians 2:10 Paul reports as being a matter on his heart at that time.
  • In Galatians, Paul makes no explicit mention of any official pronouncement on the question. This is again an argument from silence, but I'd assert a significant one. Why would he only speak of private agreement, when after the Jerusalem council an official letter was written that should have settled the matter once and for all? Such an argument would be weighty and powerful - final, indeed. If the Jerusalem council had taken place by the time Paul wrote Galatians, it is strange that he speaks of it only in such a guarded, round-about way when its verdict was so helpful to his case. The Judaisers were clearly saying "the Jerusalem apostles agree with us, not Paul" - why would Paul fail to appeal to their public pronouncement to the contrary, and only testify of a private agreement?
My conclusion: The meeting reported in Galatians 2 is a separate meeting which pre-dates the Jerusalem council.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Were they really that dim?

I'm presently teaching through John's gospel at Bible college. Two well known characters in the early chapters are Nicodemus, the Pharisee who comes to Jesus at night (chapter 3), and the woman of Samaria (chapter 4). Both of them has a personal meeting with Jesus - Nicodemus comes at night, and the woman meets him at Jacob's well.

Jesus engages each in conversation, and very early on, to each he makes a startling statement (perhaps something for us to try more often?):
To Nicodemus: "I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

To the Samaritan woman: "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."
Each then gives Jesus a correspondingly startled answer:
Nicodemus: "How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!"

The Samaritan woman: "Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?"
I have read and heard many modern sermons and commentaries on these two meetings. I cannot recall the exceptions to the below rule. Almost always, the preacher/commentator remarks that Nicodemus/the Samaritan woman completely misunderstood Jesus, and understood him in a crude and literal sense. Nicodemus thought Jesus meant he needed to come through the birth canal again! The woman though Jesus was talking about getting some really special water out of the ground somehow! What amusing misunderstandings! Thankfully, Jesus then goes on to explain that he meant it in a spiritual sense.

I want to question whether Nicodemus, a highly educated teacher of the law or the Samaritan woman, who shows a lot of familiarity about the religious controversies between the Jews and the Samaritans, were really that dim. I do not think their answers actually mean, "Really? You mean that literally?" Modern Western thought seems to be fairly impoverished when it comes to thinking in non-literal, symbolic terms, and this misunderstanding I think is one that we are all too ready to make. But I really doubt that ancient Jews were quite so quick.

I'd like to think this is a modern Western disease, but as I check Calvin on John I see that he also assumes, without question, that Nicodemus intended his objection literalistically. In the case of the woman though he says, "She understands quite well that Christ is speaking figuratively." Matthew Henry, on the other hand, takes both literally.

I am suggesting that in both cases, Nicodemus and the woman each well understood that Christ did not mean to be understood literally. They did not understand his teaching at all, of course, but this does not mean they misunderstood it. I propose that their responses are simply ways in which intelligent people say, "I do not understand this at all.... please tease it out for me." They state words which on the face of it seem hopeless misconstructions, but that it a common way of getting the conversation partner to spell out exactly what he does mean. They are not positively asserting the misconstructions; they are confessing their ignorance.

I could be wrong of course; I'm not be dogmatic about it. But I think in interpreting these passages we need to credit these people with more intelligence in following the thread of their conversations with Jesus. They were spiritually ignorant; but that does not mean that they were thick as well.

Similarly, I'd like to question whether in 4:19-20, the woman is really trying to divert Jesus with a question about the right place of worship, in order to divert the conversation away from her sin of adultery. I have not checked so much on this one, but this seems to be the common evangelical interpretation. I think rather than "Sir, I can see that you are a prophet" is an admission that Jesus' exposure of her adultery is true, and that she is not trying to hide from it. Her question about the true place of worship is rather the question of a seeking soul, who wants to be away from her sin and to worship God in truth - it is a genuine question, not a smokescreen. It was a controversial matter and with a newly stirred up desire to worship God, she was looking for the answer. But that's another argument!

Monday, 8 February 2010

Going off the rails...

We probably all know Christians who once seemed to be really going great, but today are spiritual shipwrecks. The shipwreck might have happened with some enormous, spectacular sin that had been hidden but now comes to light; or it might have been a slow, drip, drip, drip ruin.

But, unless the Christian was a total hypocrite from day one, the enormous and spectacular sins have normally come about in a drip-drip-drip way. Satan does not have to totally ruin us today. He knows that sudden, open and horrid displays of his malice often have the effect of driving Christians closer to Christ.

Satan is not impatient as we are. He has a lot of cunning, and a lot of experience. He knows that he can often ruin a man by degrees. He does not have to encourage you to head straight to the rocks today. If you lose 0.1% of your spiritual vitality today and repeat day after day, then in under 3 years you've lost the lot. Or, lose 0.01% today, and it only takes 27 years. Satan can afford that. Some unmortified sin which you do not mortify today, or tomorrow - and carry on like that - and it might take decades, but it will ruin you in the end.

There's only one way to be safe - make sure you repent of all known sin (and pray to be shown the ones you don't know about), and feed on Christ for spiritual growth, today. If you think this advice is too sensational, then it looks like Satan has already made huge head-way with you.

Miscellaneous news: The last two weeks I've managed to upload the Sunday morning sermon from Eldoret to our church website. Hopefully I will keep this up each week. There is a feed link there for those of you who'd be interested in being informed each time.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Human depravity

In fact it wasn't the ordinary day at the office finishing me off last week - it was "atypical pneumonia"! Thankfully the antibiotics seem to be doing exactly what they're meant to; four doses so far and I feel so much better.

This weekend, God-willing, I'll be preaching on Mark 7:1-23. This is the passage in which Jesus exposes the great difference between Pharisaical religion and true religion. Defilement does not come from outside - what you can touch or eat - it comes fundamentally from within, inside the heart.

Why is there so much wickedness in the world, and why is it so widespread? Because there are fallen people in the world, and they carry within them the root of every possible evil. Where do the horrors we can read of in the daily papers come from? From your and my wrong desires, placed in the situation and with the opportunity to express themselves.

Yesterday I read of a 17-year old, well liked and respected high school student who..... hired the school drug dealer for $1,000 to kill his mother. Which the school drug dealer did, stabbing her over 40 times after the door was left open to let him in. The reason was because she insisted he do his chores and observe the curfews she imposed. Tellingly, there were lots of comments on the website from his friends, who could not bring themselves to believe it. "I really feel there's something not quite right here" was the kind of comment - he was such a nice guy, surely nice people can't have this kind of thing in them.... and yet they really can, and do.

Christianity can afford to be uniquely frank about the real corruption of humanity, because it actually has the solution for it. Man-made religions, with all their rules which are supposed to make us righteous in God's sight, have to deny the truth. The fall of man, total depravity, the captivity (not freedom) of the human will to sin - all these things the philosophers and religionists of this world hate and try to scoff at. And yet the realities of the daily paper and our own inner struggles with appalling evils remain: stubborn facts that won't go away.

And yet they do go away, where the power of Christ's death is known and received. Christianity has the radical solution that the Son of God took the whole penalty of our wrong upon himself and paid off the whole lot. It says that he rose from the dead, and sends God the Holy Spirit to purge and make new creations out of those whom he saves. He comes himself by his Spirit to live in them, and little by little that corruption can be put to death. It is a solution every bit as radical as the problem. Man is immensely wicked to the very core - yet Jesus died for people who are immensely wicked to the very core.

You won't find this teaching of human depravity in man-made, Pharisaical religion - because such religion has no solution for it. Human "good works" cannot make up for such an enormous deficit. But the fact that such depravity is very real is in itself a great evidence that Christianity is true - because it can look the reality in the face, admit it all, and then say "and here is the answer".

Dawkins satire

Richard Dawkins is apparently visiting the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts.

Dawkins' mono-dimensional scientism makes him about as appropriate a figure in the world of the arts as Attila the Hun would be at a conference on good manners. But I digress. In my e-mail inbox comes a recommendation for this:

In anticipation of the visit of Richard Dawkins to the NZ International Festival of the Arts…
See a quality, locally produced satire/parody, 10 minute in depth “interview”, with “Richard Dawkins”…