THE QUEST FOR CONTENTMENT!



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If we are to find true contentment, my thesis is that such can only be found outside of ourselves through a relationship with the Almighty God of the Bible. Hence we have to ask ‘Is GOD content in himself?’ Looking at the Scriptures and history of the Early Church, there has emerged a teaching called God’s ‘Perichoresis’ or ‘divine dance’ (cf. symbol above) (smile, born with two left feet, I’ve always had an aversion to dancing). Perichoresis refers to the mystical, perfect and intriguing inter-relationship within the Trinity. It is a cyclical movement, capturing reciprocity and inter-penetration. I.o.w. all three Persons occupy the same divine, inter-acting ‘space’ shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit (cf. early Church Fathers and the Nicene Creed). A vital point here is that God is sufficient in himself, independent of anything/anyone outside of himself – this has been called his ‘aseity.’ I conclude that God is totally content within himself, that ultimately he does not need our company, though in outrageous mercy and grace he has chosen our poor company and included us in his creative and saving dance on earth!

The question I’ve had to pose myself is, am I truly content with God alone and who I am in and through his Son? You might here want to ask yourself if you’re content, and if so, how contented you are in this world, and whether that contentment is in the Lord God alone?? Two things inspired me to ask the question of myself. The first was following five years of serious ill-health. The second was the recent two-week visit of our youngest daughter who with her family had emigrated to New Zealand some years ago. Lyndall shared our cramped retirement cottage, bedding down on a mattress on the lounge floor, happily, contentedly, blessing us as parents with her sunny disposition and the presence of God himself! I need to explain that in New Zealand folk generally are not as competitive as we are in our country, few feel the need to ‘prove’ anything, their houses on the whole are much simpler and functional than ours, etc. Our daughter’s siblings here in South Africa, God be praised, like Lyndall are all minimalists given to simplicity of attitude and life. What a ball they had!

Turning to Scripture, our local house church recently took an in-depth look at 1 Tim. 6:3-10, where the Apostle Paul gives guidelines to his pastoral supervisors Timothy and Titus concerning the matter of believers’ contentment within a surprisingly materialistic context. He wrote against the backdrop of false believers who were infiltrating their midst and teaching that godliness is actually a means to financial gain: ‘There is constant bickering between people whose minds are ruined and who have been robbed of the truth. They think that godliness is a way to make money!’ (v. 5/CEB).

This of course we recognize today in the worldwide ‘prosperity gospel’ heresy especially in the West but also rife in our poverty-dominated continent of Africa! This has seduced many ‘Christian’ leaders and congregants alike. Generally it’s evidenced in an obsession with power, control, money, earthly comforts, passing pleasures and personal happiness – all this in a world where 80% of the population is poor and young. It can poison the most unlikely persons including Christian celebrities. We S. Africans recall the personal tragedy of the renowned ‘Christian’ Proteas cricket captain, Hansie Cronje. After much media hype he tearfully admitted in a law court to accepting monetary bribes from different cricketing power groups to ‘lose’ certain pivotal matches. Apparently he had a reputation for stinginess among the players, a millionaire who never offered to buy his compatriots the traditional after-match drink or such-like. Tragically he was killed in a cargo plane crash in the Southern Cape, leaving a devastated family and nation. In recent years I’ve personally had to deal with other issues, like academic achievements (a cherished PhD), personal and kingdom ambitions, unfulfilled future plans amid frail health, physical and material comforts with a hopelessly inadequate pension fund, etc. All/some of these can easily lead to a spirit of discontent even as a committed Christian. Maybe you can relate to at least some of these subtler temptations? It was Henri Nouwen who said that God turns some of our ‘wishes’ into ‘waitings.’ That’s not so easy!

Paul’s main conclusion in our text passage is that the secret of contentment is ‘godliness:‘Actually, godliness is a great source of profit when it is combined with being happy with what you already have’ (6:6). Elsewhere (2 Tim. 3:1ff) he had warned his readers that ‘the last days will be dangerous times. People will be selfish and love money. They will be the kind of people who brag and who are proud. They will slander others, and they will be disobedient to their parents. They will ungrateful, unholy, unloving, contrary and critical. They will be without self control and brutal, and they won’t love what is good. They will be people who are disloyal, reckless and conceited. They will love pleasure instead of loving God. They will look like they are religious but deny God’s power. Avoid people like this…’ Ouch! Note it’s not money that’s the problem, but the love of it: 6:9-10, ‘But people who are trying to get rich fall into temptation. They are trapped by many stupid and harmful passions that plunge people into ruin and destruction. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from the faith and have impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they made money their goal.’

The apostle’s overall conclusion is that the secret of contentment is godliness (Christ-likeness). V. 6, ‘Actually, godliness is a great source of profit when it is combined with being happy (content) with what you already have.’ To clarify and apply, we can isolate four critically important matters for every believer/faith community:

  1. The importance of a simple life. As grandparents we pray daily for our children and six grandsons – the latter, particularly, are being bombarded (as you well know) by daily media given to materialism, hedonism and instant gratification. We can’t police them as parents or grandparents, but we can live Christ-like and ever prayerful lives as an attractive alternative.
  2. The importance of good teaching. Paul has already referred to poor doctrine in 1 Tim. 6:3ff and 2 Tim. 3:1ff and the destructive consequences. Here prayerful listening and intelligent Bible-reading is vital.
  3. The importance of humility. V. 7-8/NRSV, ‘For we brought nothing into this world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing we will be content with these.’ The NRSV underlines the importance of humility in our stance toward God our Creator and Father!
  4. The importance of life-long learning. I.e. in all the up’s and down’s of the Christian life. Cf. Paul’s personal testimony in Phil. 4:10ff, ‘I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it). I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned to be content in any circumstance. I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength…’ Imagine the powerful and winsome combined witness in the world of tens of thousands of contented communities!

At the end of the day, contentment/happiness is a choice! You know the story of the puppy who chased his tail endlessly, until he realized that if he just got on with the job of growing up to be a healthy and mature doggy, happiness would follow him everywhere he went! (1)

Let’s join the Lord and his people everywhere in his dance of time and eternity… shall we??

FOOTNOTE:

(1) Over many years I was able to use as counseling tool Christian psychiatrists Dr.’s Minirth and Meier’s ‘Happiness Is A Choice.’ If you can find a copy somewhere, it’s a worthwhile companion.

HEY, JUDE! [PART 3]

“We must not only be True. We must be Beautiful!”

(Francis Schaeffer)

American theologian and philosopher of L’Abri fame in the Swiss Alps, Francis Schaeffer, asked long ago, in the light of the rise and decline of Western culture, ‘How should we then live?’ We ask the same question decades later concerning Christian living in a rampant libertine culture. Jude reminds us in v. 17, “… remember the words spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, ‘In the end time scoffers will come living according to their own ungodly desires…'” (CEB). Then in v. 20ff Jude gives us God’s five-fold strategy for faithful living in a secularized world. ‘But you, dear friends…’ :-

  1. Build each other up on the foundation of your most holy faith…’ [cf v. 3, ‘I… urge you to fight for the faith delivered once and for all to God’s holy people.’] What did Jude mean by ‘most holy faith?’ It referred to the unique Christian revelation, handed down by the apostles to the Church of all ages. From other NT references it’s clear that this faith required some study (Acts 2:42), in order for believers to grow in faith and be of use to others (Heb. 5:11-14). This faith, outlined in the Bible and fulfilled in Jesus, is ‘holy’ because it is ‘utterly different,’ entirely set apart from all others and beautiful. ‘It is unique in the message it teaches and in the moral transformation it produces’ (Michael Green). You and I today need to read the Bible text in a Christo-centric way, in dependence on the Holy Spirit and in the communitas of fellow believers. How many Christians in the West still do that? I submit a small minority! The ugly consequences are there for all to see…
  2. Pray in the Holy Spirit…’ v. 20. For the battle against false teachings is not won purely by argument but by revelation in answer to prayer: cf. Eph. 1:14ff; 2 Cor. 10:3-5. Today many ‘come of age’ Christians’ have given up on prayer, just like the libertines of Jude’s day. But to outrun the scriptures and prayer is to outrun Christianity (M. Green). Followers of Jesus have the Holy Spirit within, in contrast to the false teachers of Jude’s day (v. 17-19) and their post-modern counterparts. As to ‘praying in the Holy Spirit,’ most Bible students agree that it does not refer primarily to ‘speaking in tongues’: Rom. 8:18ff sheds some light, v. 26-27 (NLT), ‘And the holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.’ The wordless sighs and groanings of a humbled heart mean so much to the Father and are surely signs of ‘praying in the Spirit!’ In summary, the person led by the Holy Spirit in his/her prayers as in all else, certainly prays in the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who brings us into relationship with the Father as ‘Abba’ (Rom. 8:15).
  3. ‘And keep each other in the love of God…’ v. 21. It was God’s love that first drew us to him, and now we need as a body to remain within that unique love at all times. God’s love is always present with us, but we can cut ourselves off from it by disobedience! (1 Cor. 13 addresses the divisive Corinthian believers). I.o.w. believers must at all times cultivate, in company with one another, their love-relationship with God. As the false teachers demonstrated in Jude’s time, it’s possible to turn one’s back on the love of God. Jesus indicated that ‘abiding in’ God’s love is dependent on keeping his commandments (Jn. 15:9-10). [NB, as ecclesia we cannot separate the word ‘love’ (so easily bandied about today) from the Person of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice. Love in its essence is at all times cruciform. Sadly today’s society and much of the Church has divorced ‘love’ from history and eschatology (‘the end things’): resulting in mere sentiment and do-goodism]
  4. Wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will give you eternal life…’ v. 21. This means to keep God’s bigger kingdom-picture in mind at all times. Jude’s assemblies had to keep alive in their hearts the fire of Christ’s return and hope. When too much attention is paid to future hope, believers tend to become so other-worldly that they are not of much use in this world. However, if the future hope is soft-pedalled, the Christian faith becomes a mere religious adjunct to social services. Christians become irrelevant, discouraged and irresponsible.
  5. Have mercy on those who doubt. Save some by snatching them from the fire. Fearing God, have mercy on some, hating even the clothing contaminated by their sinful urges…’ v. 22-23. It is of God’s mercy that we are not consumed. Even ‘man come of age’ cannot survive without God’s mercy, manifest on the Cross. ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’ (Lk. 18:13) is our cry at all times. To reject this, is colossal arrogance and raw rebellion on our part.

So wrote CT Studd (1860-1931), English international cricketer, Cambridge graduate, millionaire and missionary to China, India and Africa. What he wrote, he lived (1). We all have to give attention to those in danger of being excluded from the kingdom of God. Surely those who’ve experienced God’s mercy must be merciful to others. When our friends are still in two minds, that’s the time to humbly but clearly present the inescapable truth to them. Those blase toward the Gospel, need a more direct approach.‘When there is a danger of fire, we hesitate not to snatch away violently whom we desire to save; for it would be not enough to beckon with the finger, or kindly stretch forth the hand!’ (John Calvin) It’s become a cliche, but remains true that we must ‘hate the sin, yet love the sinner’ (a very tricky balance in today’s ‘pc’ world). And as Michael Green reminds us, ‘one of the best ways of discovering the true value of any new theology is to test it in active Christian evangelism.’ Evangelism has always suffered when theology has gone wrong – I’ve asked many a time, where are our Christian witnesses and gifted evangelists (Eph. 4:11ff) today!? still awaiting responses…

My reader, graciously adorn the above biblical principles in your individual/corporate life, remembering that these are useless without our ‘absolute surrender’ (Andrew Murray) to the beautiful Lord of the Church!

And a reminder, what is impossible with humankind (escaping legalism and libertinism) is gloriously possible with the God of the Bible! Note Jude’s magnificent doxology-benediction in v. 24-25 below…

FOOTNOTES:

(1) My son, while at High School, wrote Studd’s words on his school satchel. The result was being summoned to the Head Master’s office! As a young adult, my peers and I witnessed in the city square and in down-town cafeterias. Despite our bumbling efforts, there were a few who came to Christ!

‘HEY, JUDE!’ [PART 2]

In looking at Jude again, I recognized the need for two things:

(a) In addition to correctly interpreting the text of Scripture we must above all allow it to interpret us! I learned this from some of the best Bible students in the world. So whether the text is easy or difficult, we submit to it and thereby to the loving lordship of Christ. He must reign over our minds, conscience and lives. [Rom. 1:18ff warns against the age-old idolatry of worshiping the creature rather than the Creator]

(b) We need to recognize how the world and the Church has been swamped, particularly in more recent centuries, by a subjectivism/relativism that leaves no/little room for any kind of ‘objective truth’ (‘objective’ being a swear-word in many circles today). Hence folk speak of ‘my truth’ and ‘your truth.’ The fact is, truth is both objective and subjective. Lost at sea in a little boat at night, it’s virtually impossible to navigate it to safety in the absence of a lighthouse or clear night sky! Key role-players in this existentialist drift over recent centuries have been people like Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolf Bultmann, Jacques Derrida and their followers at many universities and seminaries today. They all promote an ‘inward Jesus’ apart from the historic, verifiable Christ and his unique resurrection from the dead (cf. 1 Cor. 15). The celebrated Australian theologian, Prof. Leon Morris (1914-2006), commenting on 1 Tim. 6, put it like this: ‘It is important that we take Christianity for what it is and not impose our own pattern on it, making it what we wish it to be. That is the way of pride (v. 4), the way which in effect means (whatever its exponents may say) that those who put it forth know better than Christ and His apostles. A concern for orthodox teaching does not come simply from an innate conservatism. It comes from a firm conviction that there is a finality about God’s sending of His Son. Men cannot improve on the teaching of the Son God or on that which he committed to his apostles. The apostles bore the definitive witness to Jesus and to reject this is to walk the way of pride and self-sufficiency…’

Back to our text, Jude v. 8-16. The thing that forcibly struck me was the pervasiveness of sin, i.e. humankind’s bias toward self-centredness, idolatry and moral licence since time began. Like a drop of black ink dropped into a tumbler of clear water, the water doesn’t turn midnight-black but has a greyish tinge to it, i.o.w. there is no area of the water where there is no ink. In the opening chapters of Genesis and Romans this pervasiveness is referred to as the ‘fall,’ i.e. from a place of grace and favour at the hand of a good God, revealed in creation, conscience and Jesus Christ.

As Jude points out in v. 8, those who drown themselves in sensual pleasures are ‘dreamers’ – i.e. they are not living in reality but are caught up in a life of worshiping their ego at the cost of moral authority. Thus the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, at the southern tip of the Dead Sea (1), were acting like irrational animals, insulting God’s heavenly messengers sent to his servant Lot, slandering what they did not understand. Note Gen. 19 where they beat Lot’s door down to fornicate with the angels over-nighting in his home (v. 8-10/CEB). And Lot, can you believe it, offered these lusting men his two virgin-daughters, as if the latter’s protection was not as important as that of his angelic visitors! Talk about confusion and twisted thinking. All these people obviously didn’t realize whom they were up against, viz. the deceiver of all humanity and father of lies (v. 9). Of course, many postmodern believers also don’t realize what/whom they are up against, viz a demonized world and the devil himself. Over the years in my ministry on different frontiers in Africa, South America and the Far East, I have encountered frightening occultic powers – I didn’t go looking for demons, they came looking for me! There are many undiscerning Christian leaders who try and take on this ‘evil supernaturalism’ (Michael Cassidy) without proper understanding of the Gospel and the war waged against us as described in Eph. 6:10ff. I’ve witnessed lives and even marriages torn apart as naive leaders have walked where angels fear to tread. I.o.w. beware of the populistic, showman-type ‘deliverance ministry’ we witness on so many platforms today!

Jude goes on to give 3 historical examples of ‘false leaders/shepherds’ misleading God’s people:

  • Cain. Gen. 4 relates how he killed his brother because of a toxic jealousy, when he was supposed to be his younger brother’s ‘guardian.’
  • Balaam. Num 22ff relate how this ‘man of God’ dialogued with a pagan king and lusted after his esteem.
  • Korah. Num. 16:1-50 describe how he and his followers, despite God’s loving overtures, rejected the LORD’s instructions through Moses and succumbed to a violent earthquake.
  • All three the above had to learn the hard way that no one can mess with the Holy One and get away with it!

These were the kinds of people secretly infiltrating the churches also in Jude’s and the apostles’ time. Just as Jesus in his day exposed the false ‘shepherds’ of legalism in Jn. 10, his brother exposed the false ‘shepherds’ of libertinism! V. 12, ‘These people who join your love feasts are dangerous. They care only for themselves. They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; fruitless autumn trees, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom the darkness of the underworld is reserved forever.’ In recent times we’ve seen the devastation of narcissistic leaders/’shepherds’ in politics (N. America; South Africa; etc) – there are more subtle narcissists manipulating mega-congregations through flattery, charm and empty promises, of which we must beware, dear Bride of Christ! A well-known N. American pastor recently said to his own and the congregation’s rapturous applause, ‘God is busy changing us back to ourselves.’ If only he had read again Jesus’ words in Mk. 8:34 about ‘denying ourselves,’ and the apostle Paul’s words in Rom. 6 about ‘dying to ourselves.’

In a recent dinner conversation, the topic turned to ‘heaven and hell.’ One party defined hell as ‘hell on earth.’ True, but only partially, for it is surely past, present and future, according to Jesus himself. What is sure is that there is a final day of restoration but also of judgment. V. 14-16, ‘See, the Lord comes with his countless holy ones, to execute judgment on everyone about every ungodly deed they have committed in their ungodliness as well as all the harsh things that sinful ungodly people have said against them. These are faultfinding grumblers, living according to their own desires. They speak arrogant words and they show partiality to people when they want a favor in return.’ Are you and I prepared to submit to this clear and present danger, written on virtually every page of the Bible and the pages of history? If not, we’ll have to face the inevitable.

FOOTNOTES:

(1) Archaeological evidence tends to place ancient Sodom beneath the shallow waters of the southern tip of the Dead Sea.

According to British theologian J.A. Motyer, many OT and NT scriptures concerning Sodom and Gomorrah became synonymous with brazen, public sins (Is. 3:9; Lam. 4:6; Jude 7). On the other hand Ezek. 16:49-50 lists their inward sins of pride, complacency and lack of compassion toward the poor.

Gen. 19 focuses on sexual perversion, particularly homosexuality. Lot’s vicious offer of his daughters indicates the demoralizing influence of Sodom’s society. Sadly the Church over the centuries has been almost totally insensitive to the issues facing ‘sincere’ LGBTQI+ folk. They face tremendous societal and personal challenges, e.g. their youth are twice as likely to commit suicide compared to heterosexual young people (recent study at University of Georgia). At the same time they are the targets of much brain-washing and lies and being absolved of all personal responsibility before their Creator. There is huge confusion re gay behaviour. In South Africa the LGBTIQ+ family has e.g. come out in criticism of an 18-year-old who has been living as a trans-woman since age 4, who now wants to undergo the rigorous traditional initiation into manhood, camping in the mountains for 4 weeks and undergoing circumcision at the hand of local bush surgeons (hundreds of initiates have died at their hands, due to unhygienic surgery, etc). One LG leader has commented, ‘I don’t understand how one can transition to be a woman and still want to undergo a ritual to become a man. I don’t see how this will help her. It’s complicated!’ (NEWS24) It certainly is! On this topic of homosexuality, I commend the materials of Ian Paul (https://www.psephizo.com) on the Church of England’s gay debate tearing it apart, ex-gay activist Prof. Rosaria Butterfield (YouTube), ex-gay Becket Cook (YouTube), apologist Sean McDowell, and Anna Waldherr’s blog (A Lawyer’s Prayers) headed by the moving testimony of an abuse victim (‘Abandoned Duty of Care to Transgender Youth,’ 23/10/22). I also mention respected Bible scholars who have taken a clear biblical stand on the gay issue, like Dr. John Stott, Dr. J.I. Packer, and in more recent years Dr. Tim Keller and Prof. Tom Wright. RC theologian Henri Nouwen admitted to a same sex attraction, but consciously chose to be celibate ‘for Jesus sake.’

HEY, JUDE! [PT. 1]

[The Apostle Jude, Brother of Jesus]

Back in the mid-70’s my newly-wed and I pastored in a small Eastern Cape town of South Africa. It had only one restaurant, named the ‘Galloping Chef.’ The service was so slow we nick-named it the ‘Galloping Tortoise!’ Their piped music often included the Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude!’ which I’ve always enjoyed. Hence my title for this little series on the Letter of Jude, written by Jesus’ brother ‘Judah’ (Hebrew) approx. 65 AD (i.e. if Peter quotes him in 2 Pet. 2). The sad bit about the song was that Paul McCartney composed it especially for John Lennon’s 5-year-old son ‘Jules’ (short for Julian, but ‘Jude’ falling better on the ear, according to McCartney). Jules’ father, John Lennon, had abandoned him and his young mother for the artist Yoko Ono. Paul had built a relationship with Jules, John never did.

Jude in his brief letter was addressing scattered believing communities, both Jewish and Gentile or mixed. He was about to explore their wonderful mutual salvation in Jesus (v. 3a) but now felt compelled by circumstances to take on the subtle heresy of libertinism being evidenced in their midst. This libertinism was essentially the old Gnosticism, which minimized bodily/sexual sins as long as the ‘spirit’ was left untainted – an obvious contradiction and impossibility as our personalities are holistic.

This false teaching also flew directly in the face of the absolute, loving lordship of the Master who bought believers out of slavery to self, sin and the enemy (cf. v. 4 (CEB): ‘Godless people have slipped in among you. They turn the grace of God into unrestrained immorality and deny our only master and Lord, Jesus Christ. Judgment was passed against them a long time ago…’ cf. 2 Pet. 2:1, ‘But false prophets also arose among the people. In the same way, false teachers will come among you. They will introduce destructive opinions and deny the master who bought them, bringing quick destruction on themselves.’

Of course we have our share of such free-spirited ‘Christians’ today, those who hold no tension between spirituality and bodily sin – note the multitude of ‘fallen pastors’ and ‘Christian’ politicians in N. America in recent years, and in Africa. On the other hand, this past weekend, 150 people died in S. Korea in a ‘Halloween stampede.’ NBC news reminds us of a huge upsurge of paganism and witchcraft worldwide, including South Africa: here in my city we have had the Nigerian false prophet and alleged multiple paedophile Timothy Omotoso (whose occultic ministry I personally witnessed on one horrible occasion), after years still being held in St. Albans Prison whence he continues to protest his innocence. This in the face of overwhelming witness by teen virgins groomed for his sexual pleasures!

We have to also mention those syncretists who either add to or subtract from ‘the faith once delivered’: witness New Ager Oprah Winfrey’s flirtation with spirit-guides and popular preachers. Add to this the underlying witchcraft (‘evil supernaturalism’ – cf. Dr. Michael Cassidy of African Enterprise), which has manifested wherever AE has been invited to evangelize a key city in our continent. By contrast Jude reminds us to ‘contend for the faith once entrusted to the saints,’ i.e. that body of essential truth built around the person, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This stands in stark contrast to those ‘new revelations’ promoted by ‘Christians’ around the world, e.g. Mormonism (the Bible + the Book of Mormon), cheap grace/prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen and countless others. Canadian theologian Dr. Brad Jersak has for years written about the ‘spiritual deconstruction’ of millions of Christians in North America: he recently wrote, ‘Once a Christianity corrupted by civil religion, consumerism, and clerical abuse is put on trial, the fate of Christian faith hangs in the balance.’

These heresies are nothing new, of course, and are mentioned in various parts of Scripture:

a) Mt. 24:5,24-25. Jesus himself, in talking with his disciples on the Mount of Olives about ‘Signs of the End of the Age’ warned that “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ.’ They will deceive many people… False Christs and false prophets will appear, and they will offer great signs and wonders in order to deceive, if possible, even those whom God has chosen. Look, I’ve told you ahead of time.’

b) Acts 20:29-31a. The apostle Paul, in speaking to the Ephesian elders, says ‘I know that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you and won’t spare the flock. Some of your own people will distort the word in order to lure followers after them. Stay alert!’ My wife and I have experienced this in several formal pastorates, despite clear teaching from the pulpit.

c) Rom. 6:1. Again, Paul, in addressing the Roman church concerning ‘Dying and Rising with Christ,’ writes, ‘So what are we going to say? Should we continue sinning so grace will multiply? Absolutely not! All of us died to sin. How we can still live in it?’ [with respect, in certain instances the Reformed Faith, via hyper-Calvinism, has fallen into an emphasis on covenantal grace to the neglect of ‘working it out’ in personal experience (Phil. 2:12-15) in the power of the Lord. Growing up in a nominal Christian home I was baptized as a baby without any understanding/experience of the new birth, faith and cruciform discipleship called for by Jesus himself (Mk. 8:34). How helpful is the whole Letter to the Hebrews on the biblical balance of grace and the pursuit of ‘holiness without which no one will see the Lord!’ (Heb. 12:14)] ***

d) Gal. 5:19-21. Paul reminds the Galatian churches of ‘The Works of the Flesh:’ ‘The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and others things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.’ [how postmodern is this list!]

e) 2 Pet. 2. The apostle Peter is even blunter and more specific concerning the issues above: cf. Part 2 of our series.

We, like our famous African theologian Augustine, need to heed again the child in the garden’s repeated plea, ‘Tolle lege! Tolle lege!‘ Augustine did just that, turned to the Roman Epistle and was saved from a life of debauchery and emptiness. As we pick up our Bibles once more and read them contextually and through the Christ-centred spectacles of his new covenant, we also shall be saved to eternal life and godliness. Then, as someone has said in his commendation of Jersak’s latest publication ‘Out of the Embers,’ we ‘deconstructors’ and the masses disillusioned with ‘church as we have known it,’ shall surely recover and rediscover the imperishable treasure that fire can never destroy but only refine!!

*** See Prof. Leonard Verduin’s (Calvin Theological Seminary) (1897-1999) ‘The Reformers and Their Stepchildren.

[Photo by Jakson Martins on Pexels.com]

SOME THOUGHTS ON ‘CONFIDENCE’…

‘He passes through like the wind and invades; but he will be held guilty, the one whose strength is his god’ (Habakkuk 1:11/CEB)***

[The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines confidence as ‘firm trust,’ ‘assured expectation,’ ‘boldness’]

There is a huge emphasis today on personal ‘confidence.’ Research on the raising of children has shown that saturating them with super self-confidence, e.g. ‘You can do anything, you can achieve anything’ can also set them up for failure when encountering real life and perhaps not gaining the promised/imagined/expected results. We hear the success stories but not the drop-out ones. This is what happens, I believe, when we over-exalt human achievement, reason and ‘success’ in our society.

There is of course a valid and healthy self-confidence, when we recognize that each of us has been created uniquely in the image of God, having been given different gifts according to our Father’s wisdom. If you have parents/mentors who nurture this value, you are most fortunate.

On the other hand there is a self/over-confidence which is built on extreme self-belief and pride. E.g. the (smile) example of South Africans priding themselves on leading the top rugby-playing nations of the world. Traditionally the champions have vacillated between our ‘Springboks’ (type of leaping antelope) and the New Zealand ‘All Blacks’ (that’s their uniform).

We recently thrashed the Kiwis in a test-match only to fall prey a week later to over-confidence and succumb before a record crowd of 63,000 at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg. How embarrassing! There’s the example of world-famous Virat Kohli, India’s incredible cricketing batsman, confessing just a while ago that he was suffering from a mental slump in his health, so that he now often feels ‘alone’ in a room full of people. He’s short on runs and his confidence has gone through the floor, the same man who has over many years enthralled hundreds of thousands of people across the globe with his talented captaincy and batting. Think of Steve Jobs of Apple renown: he (understandably) took pride in his magnificent achievements: however before he died a few years ago of pancreatic cancer at the age of 56, he declared that none of his business successes really mattered, the only thing that mattered were relationships and life itself.

Is this not the story of God’s covenant people Israel, repeatedly turning from reliance on GOD to reliance on themselves and the pagan idols of the surrounding nations? Take the account in Judges 6 of Israel being plagued by the Midianites, until God calls one man, Gideon, to stand up and blow the trumpet of truth and call out the nation’s trust in dead idols. The Book of Hebrews chap.’s 2 and 4 emphasize the importance of hearing and obeying God’s Word when he speaks, for he reigns supreme! However in our present Western world we (both society and Church) are ‘thick into idolatry!’ (Walther Brueggemann) We are bound to the gods of military consumerism, greed, fear-driven violence, materialism, exceptionalism (our nation’s enemies are God’s enemies), power and control – only to reap the judgment of a collapsing morality all around us (witness the Russian-Ukrainian war; US gun-violence resulting in the deaths of 12 children every day; etc). And it all starts with the individual, you and me: I’m reminded of the words of William Cowper, ‘The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be, help me to tear it from thy throne And worship only Thee!’ (the hymn is pasted in the opening page of my Bible, but is it pasted in my heart? And yours?) [btw, Brueggemann concludes that the only way to a peacable society is by living the meta-narrative of the Gospel, viz, God’s holiness and neighbourliness]

Then there are assaults on our confidence through personal trials. In my case sickness: I’ve been hospitalized 6 times this year, including for a quadruple bypass with several complications. Beforehand I was issued a pamphlet warning that often males undergoing bypass surgery suffer a collapse of personal confidence during the long recovery period. And yes, it happened in my case! Needless to say, the road back to a healthy self-confidence is a long one and takes constant working on in the power of the Lord. Like the psalmist of old I have to remind myself regularly, ‘Light, space, zest – that’s GOD! So, with him on my side I’m fearless, afraid of no one and nothing. I’m asking GOD for one thing… To live within his house my whole life long. I’ll contemplate his beauty; I’ll study at his feet. That’s the only quiet place in a noisy world, The perfect getaway, from the buzz of traffic. God holds me head and shoulders above all who try to pull me down (Ps. 27:1 and 4ff/MSG). How often, on a daily basis I have to tell myself that my life and circumstances are in the Lord’s hands and that I cannot hasten his healing in my life in the least way.

Thus we all need to build a biblical confidence, learning to confide in GOD as our chief confidant on a daily basis. This is underlined by literally scores of biblical references, including Ps. 27 already referred to, where David addresses some of his personal fears, e.g. personal enemies (like King Saul) seeking his death, etc. But he re-assures himself of ‘living/abiding in’ the LORD’S house (presence) all his days, sure of his defence and protection at all times: ‘But I have sure faith that I will experience the LORD’s goodness in the land of the living…’Hope in the LORD!’ Be strong! Let your heart take courage! Hope in the LORD!’ (v. 13-14/ CEB).

Think of wise King Solomon in Prov. 3: ‘Trust GOD from the bottom of your heart don’t try to figure out everything on your own (how we love to do that). Listen for GOD’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track… ‘(MSG/v. 5ff) ‘The LORD will be your confidence, he will guard your feet from being snared!’ (Prov. 3:25/CEB)

In the NT, the apostle Paul, having unpacked the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Roman church, rejoiced in the Good News reaching the Gentile world so that they also ‘might give glory to God for his mercies to them’ (Rom. 15:9/NLT). In the next few verses, citing the Psalms and the prophet Isaiah, he rejoices in Christ who rules over all and who alone is our abiding hope. “I pray that God, the source of all hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit!’ (15:13/NLT)

My friend, I don’t know where you are in terms of true confidence as you read this, but trust some of the biblical and experiential principles shared from my heart will be, by the revelation of God, of help and blessing to you. Shalom!

*** FOOTNOTE

The abiding value of Habakkuk’s little prophecy (late 600’s BC?) is that it presents the picture of a man who believes and yet questions. God explains that he has sent the surrounding pagan nations to chastise his people Judah, who despite God’s many mercies insisted in corrupting themselves and yielding to pagan idolatry. The next instrument God would use would be the mighty Chaldeans, who ‘worshiped their own strength.’ Habakkuk’s confidence in God amid trial is vindicated by his towering expression of faith scarcely equaled anywhere else in the OT (cf. 3:17ff).

CONFRONTING OUR MORTALITY: A PERSONAL TESTIMONY

[Immortality of course belongs ultimately to the living God alone (cf. Ps. 90, etc), it’s not innate to every person born into this world, as for example the ancient Greek philosophers believed]

Human mortality is such a well-supported historical/biblical fact (Genesis to Revelation) and such a daily reality, yet surprisingly, most try and avoid thinking/talking about it at all costs! In the past 5 years I’ve undergone two major, life-threatening surgical interventions, which in a way forced me to get to grips with the reality of my personal mortality. At present I’m still very much trying to cope following quadruple by-pass surgery, accompanied by some on-going complications. My caring wife and I have been so heartened by the prayers of so many – our wholehearted thanks!

One major thing I can share from personal experience is that we need to learn early the lesson of Francois Fenelon and his ilk that the Christian life and service is all about dying to ourselves and embracing Christ’s cross (Mk. 8:34). In reflective times, I’ve had to say to myself repeatedly, ‘your ministry is not about you, Erroll, its about Christ and him alone!’ – therefore surrender all personal ambition immediately and let the glory go to Jesus. By grace there have been some positive results, but ‘ego’ dies hard. I think of the old hymn ‘The Way of the Cross Leads Home:’ this holds true not just for receiving God’s free gift of salvation (Jn. 3:16) but following Christ in true discipleship. (Mk. 8:34)

The other thing I am very slowly learning is that one cannot hasten the purposes of God. For me, at this moment, my main aim is not to become impatient but to be a daily blessing to my wife and family and reflect something of the grace of Jesus to those around me. I’ve not always been successful but hopefully there has been some progress!

In this journey of pain I’ve found that in the ecclesia believers so easily become condemnatory of others who are suffering in one way or another: you know the popular heresy ‘Christians should not feel depressed,’ etc.The reality is there are often doubts and fears that come our way, even as long-standing Christians. I often pray we could embrace a more Christlike God and human Jesus (D. Bonhoeffer). Trite answers don’t help. I’m reminded of the native American who said, ‘Do not judge your neighbor until you have walked two moons in his moccasins!’

Take for example the need for believers to minister TO JESUS himself: cf. Mt. 25:31-66, where Jesus as the Sovereign, Human One announces the judgment of all the nations which includes a final separation, brought about not by him but folk turning their backs on his Christ-Love. To the latter he dares to say, ‘Get away from meI was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat… thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink… a stranger and you didn’t welcome me… naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me…’ When some query his argument, he replies ‘when you haven’t done it to the least of these, you have not done it for me!’ (v. 41-45, CEB). Hmmm…

We see the same principle in Mt. 26:36ff (‘Jesus At Prayer’ in Gethsemane). Jesus is in deep, personal crisis: socially, emotionally and spiritually. “He said to his disciples, ‘Stay here while I go and pray over there’… ‘I am very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert with me…’ As he undertook to drink ‘the cup of suffering’ he asked the Father three times that he may be spared this torment, to no avail. And all this while his closest friends, whose companionship he was counting on, were repeatedly found wanting. Now it was too late… Would we have acted similarly? If so, Jesus had mercy on the ultimately repentant Peter, and so will he on us if we submit to his Kingship here on earth.

In conclusion, the best way to face our immortality is by being at home with God! Both now and in the future…

I relate the prayer-story of Richard Foster, Quaker theologian and author. In tackling a book on prayer, he was spending endless hours in the university library, late at night on his own. One night he was at the end of his tether and about to abandon his task when something happened! He ‘saw’ something, ‘What I saw was the heart of God, and the heart of God was an open wound of love.’ He heard a voice, that of the true Shepherd: ‘I do not want you to abandon the project. Instead I want you to tell my people, my children, that my heart is broken. Their distance and their preoccupation wounds me. Tell them, tell my children, to come home!’ By this Foster understood that the Father is calling us to turn from all our busyness, striving, pushing and shoving and ‘come home,’ to where we belong, to that for which we were created, home to the loving heart of God! We are to come into his living room, the kitchen, its chatter and batter mix – we are co-labourers with Him, working together for the outcome of events…’ In this interchange, prayer is of course key: hence the book title, ‘Prayer, Finding the Heart’s True Home.’

Is this not what Jesus was teaching in John 15, about the Father’s abiding in us and our abiding in him? ‘Abiding’ refers to being ‘at home,’ with other believers and chiefly with God. ‘Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me… Those who abide in him and I in them bear much fruit… whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers… If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you… If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love…’ (15:1ff/NRSV).

The apostle Paul likewise drives ‘home’ (pun intended) the same metaphor in his Ephesian Epistle, ‘This is why I kneel before the Father… I ask that he will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith…’ (3:14ff). Dr. Rex Mathie (SA theologian) once equated it to ‘Christ being/feeling perfectly at home in your hearts’ by faith. He must feel perfectly comfortable in every nook and cranny: family life, our bedrooms, relationships, conversation, etc. The point is does he??

In conclusion, what a beautiful reflection of heavenly life we’re given by the prophet Isaiah long before coming of Messiah; take time to read it in Is. 65:17ff; whenever I despair of life on earth, I find it refreshing to ponder this passage from the prophet giving a realistic picture of life in our ultimate abode. Read it at leisure and let your imagination run…

And now a prayer…

https://youtu.be/2qrryKC9vYY?list=RD2qrryKC9vYY

PT. 4: ‘THE UNBELIEVABLY CONSTRUCTIVE POWER OF BELIEF!’

[How do we, under God, grow our faith in him?? My previous post submitted 5 avenues]

Sixth avenue, by putting our faith into action. Dr. Jordan Peterson (below) is a world-renowned Canadian behavioural psychologist and emeritus prof. at the University of Toronto. He’s a high achiever but simultaneously wonderfully in touch with his own and others’ emotions. In recent times he’s abandoned atheism for a journey toward God, weeping at the mere mention of Jesus’ name. Peterson argues cogently and enthusiastically that ‘belief absolutely necessitates acting on it!’

2000+ years ago the apostle James made the same point in writing to scattered, persecuted Christian groups about ‘Listening and Doing’ (I guess most of us are poor at both?). His readers were surely familiar with the many ‘religions’ of the day – James writes concerning a unique, ‘pure religion’ of God the Father: “Don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word but don’t obey it, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it! If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows and refusing to let the world corrupt you’ (1:22-27/NLT) (‘world’ here = the idolatrous, humanistic, egoistic, materialistic society-system of every age). And so we could be long-time professing believers, kidding ourselves about the genuineness of our faith and practice! If so, let’s repent and act, beginning with v. 26-27!

There is need not only for individual repentance but corporate repentance. A week ago News24 in South Africa published an article by Dikeledi Molatoli,‘The Dead Faith of Christian Churches.’ In it he highlighted the SA Council of Churches’ response to one of the deadliest floods ever to hit our country (in Kwazulu-Natal), claiming the lives of some 500 people and leaving 8,000 homeless. The message included condolences and a request to ‘set aside a moment of prayer’ on Good Friday. The author expressed dismay at this inadequate response: not even calling the Church to contribute finances, food, water, blankets, clothing and equipment. All this when the local Islamic ‘Gift of the Givers’ was already on the ground with immediate practical aid, many churches working alongside that organization because of its proven record in SA and abroad. Molatoli then goes on to quote Jam. 2:14ff, ‘”My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? … Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? … In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity!” (CEB)

I’m reminded of a powerful, personal encounter with Jam. 1:26-27 many years ago. I attended our annual national ‘Synod’ on the Reef (Gauteng). One of the early speakers was Ds (Pastor) Christo Botes from Belville in the Cape. I remember feeling so disappointed at the turnout, approximately 50 leaders out of a potential 200? He and his flock had been engaging the poor and broken on the streets and under the bridges of their suburb. His text was Jam. 1:26-27, an ‘unusual’ one for ‘evangelicals’? As he shared those brief verses and his congregation’s journey with the needy, the Spirit was powerfully at work. At the conclusion of his message, he made an invitation in the context of James’ definition of ‘true religion.’ Now imho professional pastors can be some of the proudest and self-sufficient people, believe you me! Overwhelmed, I made my way to the front of the meeting place and knelt there weeping. Others joined me, a bit of heaven came down, and I knew I would never be quite the same again – a powerful, living seed was planted within me that day, and grows within me still. [PS, 15 years ago I learned that 80% of our world is young and poor]

While we are all called to this ‘pure religion,’ some of my readers may/will be called to give themselves more fully to the challenge of the poor – some of my younger readers, and even older ones! (I recall visiting the underground church in China and meeting an elderly couple from the West overseeing a home for children with special needs). So let me tell you the story of Craig Greenfield and family (pic below)…

Craig grew up in New Zealand, came from an affluent home, and from his earliest years wanted to be well-off, climb the corporate ladder and drive a really fast car! Then, as a corporate executive, Jesus interrupted his life while travelling in Cambodia. He recognized his Saviour in the distressing eyes of the many orphan children. ‘I realized that Jesus left the most exclusive gated community in the universe to move in among us!’ (see Addendum). He and his wife, a Khmer Rouge refugee, emigrated to Canada. Soon God called them both to plant orphanages in Cambodia, and they moved in among the destitute of that distant land. God gave them much success, under extremely trying and dangerous circumstances. At one point, with their lives in danger, they were forced to return to Vancouver, again moving into an inner city community, this time to create a safe community for addicts and the homeless. Over the years they’ve established ‘Alongsiders International,’ a grassroots youth discipleship-movement spreading into Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond. In fact I’ve just read of their work in Malawi in Central Africa, where thousands of children are starving. [In my own tiny ministry in the slum areas of my city, I have learned from Craig ‘never to do for the poor what they can do for themselves’ – quite a challenge to keep the balance, I can tell you]

All of us need to ensure that we escape the extremely subtle self-interest and materialism of our time, live a simple life, so that we can take care of the vulnerable in one way or another. Bob Goff, NY TIMES best-selling author, lawyer and philanthropist, has challenged comfortable churches and church leaders with these pungent words: ‘If you want applause, join the circus, if you want Jesus, find the poor!’

ADDENDUM:

We’ll never be able to fully plumb the depths of that pivotal scripture, Jn. 1:14, this side of heaven! The apostle John has been speaking about the eternal ‘Logos/Word of God’ moving into our world of time and space at a specific point in history. We need to read the preceding verses, i.e. v. 1-13, to capture the the context of God’s massive self-revelation to humankind: v. 14ff/NLT, ‘So the Word became human (Gr. ‘became flesh’) and made his home among us (lit. ‘pitched his tent among us’). He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son’ (the OT word ‘glory’ carries the idea of weightiness, the NT word that of splendour/beauty). The MSG paraphrases v. 14, ‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.’ Here is God’s own expression of ‘true religion!’ How shall we express our faith today?? Please ponder that before moving on in your busy world, and may God be with us all!

[PT. 3] ‘THE UNBELIEVABLY CONSTRUCTIVE POWER OF BELIEF!’

HOW do we, under GOD, grow our faith in him?? Let me suggest 6 biblical avenues worth exploring, hopefully avoiding that ‘magic formula’ approach so popular in today’s ‘Church’:

First, by recognizing our helplessness before God and looking to him alone. I refer my readers to Luke’s account of the conversation between Jesus and the two criminals crucified beside him: “One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him, ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, ‘Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise’ (Lk. 23:39-43/CEB). Someone (despite many attempts I’ve been unable to identify the author) has asked very aptly, “How does the thief on the cross fit into your theology? No baptism, no communion, no confirmation, no speaking in tongues, no mission trip, no volunteerism, and no church clothes. He couldn’t even bend his knees to pray. He didn’t say the sinner’s prayer and among other things, he was a thief. Jesus didn’t take away his pain, heal his body, smite the scoffers. Yet it was a thief who walked into heaven the same hour as Jesus simply by believing. He had nothing more to offer other than his belief that Jesus was who he said he was. No spin from brilliant theologians. No ego or arrogance. No shiny lights, skinny jeans, or crafty words. No haze machine, donuts, or coffee in the entrance. Just a naked dying man on a cross unable to even fold his hands to pray.”

More than a century ago 15-year-old Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) was on his way ‘to church’ during a snowstorm in Colchester, England. The blizzard worsened and he decided to shelter in a Primitive Methodist Chapel on the way. The congregation was small, the ‘licensed’ preacher hadn’t arrived, the teenager sat down to hear a ‘layman’ (I don’t enjoy these terms) preach. The preacher kept repeating the words of the Prophet Isaiah, ‘Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else!’ (45:22/KJV) The outcome? Charles simply ‘looked to Jesus’ by faith that day and went on, despite chronic illness and seasons of depression, to become ‘The Prince of Preachers’ and initiator of orphanages for the poor. All of London was plunged into mourning, with 100,000 lining the streets for the funeral procession, flags at half-mast and every pub closed in honour of this man.

Second, by habitual Bible-reading through the lenses of Jesus. His sent-one, the Apostle Paul later wrote to the Roman ecclesia concerning the Jews, “So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news.’ But everyone has not obeyed the good news… So, faith comes from listening, but it’s listening by means of Christ’s message” (10:14-17/CEB).

My wife grew up in an assembly proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. Her mother regularly instructed her girls, ‘Just read the Bible, even if you don’t always understand it.’ I fell in love with the beautiful ‘product’ of that old-fashioned up-bringing, more than 4 decades of happy marriage behind us. I would add, read the Bible even if you have no Christian background. English Professor Rosaria Butterfield of Ohio State University was an outspoken lesbian and gay rights activist for years. She was befriended by a pastor and his wife, hated his preaching, but decided to read the Bible for herself multiple times… she was converted in 1999. She married a pastor, raised a family and is currently an astute apologist for marriage according to the original Creation mandate (cf. YouTube).

Third, by regularly feeding our belief. CS Lewis wrote in his ‘Mere Christianity’, ‘There are three things that spread the life of Christ to us: baptism, belief… and Holy Communion. If you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive. It must be fed!’ At simplest, The Apostles’ Creed comes to mind, i.e. reciting it, thinking about it’s statements and even singing it (cf. Hill Song’s ‘This I Believe’ below).

Fourth, by lovingly ‘gossiping the Good News.’ The story is told of Englishman John Bunyan (1628-1688) of Bedford being powerfully influenced to faith by a few poor women in conversation one day in a doorway. He paused and overheard them speaking of their ‘new birth’ and the Spirit’s indwelling. He listened amazed, painfully aware that he knew none of this. Bunyan, through many spiritual struggles, was eventually converted to bless the world with his ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ and 60 other titles! You may protest ‘I’m no Bunyan!’ May I resume the story of my wife: like her mother (the latter sadly died of cancer at 42) who would spontaneously engage with anyone in the neighbourhood concerning her Saviour, she is one of the most ‘natural’ evangelists I know. I can’t tell you how many have entered her nursing clinic over decades, been gently prayed for (with their permission and without wasting her boss’s time), resulting in an amazing harvest of ‘ordinary’ and professional people drawn nearer Christ. Even if you’re not some Bible scholar, never underestimate the power of your personal testimony to Christ and the change he’s worked in your life!

Of course, winsome Christian Apologists (my personal favourite? Prof. John Lennox of Oxford) have a powerful role to play in our post-modern world. However, I believe Swiss theologian Karl Barth was also right when he said:

Fifth, by persistent prayer even in the face of our world’s stubborn unbelief. As one Ukrainian believer reminded the world recently, ‘Prayer is more powerful than rockets!’ To quote Barth again:

I think the notion of mass prayer being somehow more powerful than small group prayer, generally speaking, is a fallacy (I can think of at least one exception, the 1994 mass stadium prayer-gathering in Durban, South Africa, when a peaceful transition to democracy was sealed at the last moment: however we must never underestimate the many preparatory small all-night prayer meetings across the nation under the leadership of Dr. Michael Cassidy and African Enterprise, leading to that national breakthrough). Consider again Christ’s assurance in Mt. 18:18-20 to the effect that two or three believers in prayer-agreement can bring down his divine presence and power. The young praying Evan Roberts of the 1904/5 Welsh revival comes to mind, his prayers and testimony impacting Welsh society and nations for years! I treasure my copy of David Matthews’ ‘I Saw the Welsh Revival:’ I heard the latter preach in my city as a teen – he was in his 80’s, but the fire was on him still!

This post has just borne twins, I’ll leave point 6 for the near future. We’ve more than enough to process in the mean time!

[PT. 2] ‘BELIEF (IN GOD): IT’S UNBELIEVABLY CONSTRUCTIVE POWER!’

Having dealt with the unbelievably destructive power of unbelief, we now consider ‘THE UNBELIEVABLY CONSTRUCTIVE POWER OF BELIEF!’ Here follows Part 2 of what has grown into a trilogy (wink)…

Again, we’re talking about faith in GOD, who has so graciously revealed himself in creation (‘the first Bible’); human conscience; and history, i.e. in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth who lived among us, died and rose from the dead! All this, in immense love to rescue us from ourselves, sin, and self-destruction and then to bless us with an eternal love-relationship with himself. [Reminder: we’re not talking here about the power of positive thinking (Norman Vincent Peale), nor ‘faith in faith’ (Kenneth Hagin and his ‘word of faith’ heresy), nor innate ‘belief’ (‘new ager’ Oprah Winfrey and panentheist Fr. Richard Rohr)]

(1) To clarify biblical faith, we turn firstly to Luke 7:1-10, the historian’s account of a very special Roman centurion serving in Capernaum on the North West shore of Galilee, who came to believe in the Messiah. Roman centurions were seconded for administration purposes during a very turbulent period in Palestine’s history. It’s interesting that all 5 Roman centurions mentioned in the NT are men of standing and visible integrity, picked for their character and strength (Dr. E.M. Blaiklock). It’s not strange to find this particular officer attracted to Judaism and its lofty views of God and stern moral conduct – many Romans had long discovered the unsatisfying nature of the Roman and Greek gods. This man seems to have gained some insight into the arrogance of so many Jewish leaders, suspicious of the Nazarene’s messianic claims. In fact, he sees something of the worth and wonder of Jesus’ person – thus he comes to seek him with courtesy, reverence and trust, on behalf of his beloved dying servant. He certainly understood that Jesus had come not only for the salvation of Jews but also Gentiles who were receptive to him. He asks some Jewish friends to approach Jesus for the healing of his servant. In glad response, Jesus had almost reached his house when the officer sends new messengers to Jesus not to bother coming to his home, feeling unworthy of his sheer presence. As a military man of some experience he understands how authority works, so he says: “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed…” When Jesus heard this, he was mightily impressed… He turned to the following crowd and said, ‘I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.’ When the centurion’s emissaries returned home, they found the servant fully restored to health! (v. 6ff/CEB). As South Africa’s superb exegete of yesteryear, J. Norval Geldenhuys, has said (commenting on the centurion’s deep, humble and whole-hearted faith in Christ), ‘Today this is still the only way to receive the divine blessings – we must realize our own utter unworthiness, but at the same time cherish a steadfast faith in Christ Jesus, our Lord.’ In the context of this post, a clear example of the unbelievably constructive power of belief in God!

(2) Biblical faith comes in the context of a great prior, divine love. Here we think of the apostle John’s story, beautifully elucidated in ch. 3 of his testimony to Christ. Many years ago as a young man I heard the renowned American evangelist Dr. Billy Graham preach in Johannesburg South Africa, packing out the Wanderers cricket stadium with folk spilling on to the grass pitch right up to the podium. This was during the Apartheid days, the evangelist bravely insisting on addressing a multi-cultural audience – fortunately our government relented because of popular demand! At that time a popular movie, ”Love Story,” was doing the rounds. Dr. Graham entitled his message, ‘The Greatest Love Story Ever Told,’ basing it on John’s pivotal Jn. 3:16 text. As a believer I was deeply moved by that simple message – on the other hand a fine family member I had invited along, was impressed but remains indifferent to Jesus’ loving claims to this day. His response confirms the message of Pt. 1, i.e. the unbelievably destructive power of unbelief in the face of Jesus’ glorious revelation and his loving call.

(3) Let’s take a glimpse at the great apostle Paul’s theology of saving faith: writing expansively about ‘The Faith of Abraham’ (Rom. 4:1-25), we read that the aged ‘Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact his faith grew stronger (his was a growing faith), and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises…’ (v. 20-21/NLT). To this kind of persevering faith, as Abraham’s spiritual seed, we too are called.

By way of practical application, let’s take a look at the faith of two outstanding figures in more recent Church history. They and their devoted families were certainly flawed (as we all are), but hugely faithful and fruitful!

A) Adoniram Judson (1788-1850), American Baptist missionary to Burma, today Myanmar. Of him John Piper wrote ‘He died a thousand times and lived!’ In tropical Burma he and his loved ones suffered multiple diseases such as cholera and malaria. His wife had to take care of their young children when Adoniram was imprisoned for his preaching. Judson underwent total burn-out as a result of his demanding ministry, to the point of digging and sitting beside his own grave. Happily married three times, his wives lost more than seven of their children to disease and weakness. Judson, having married a third time, himself became severely ill, dying alone and unknown at the age of 62, his coffin let into the ocean off the East African coast en route to America. His ministry and that of those following in his footsteps left a massive harvest: 3,700 congregations, 617,000 members and 2 million affiliates! (portrait below)

B) So also Englishman Dr. James Hudson-Taylor (1832-1905) and his family, founders of the famed China Inland Mission. Called to China at the age of 21, Dr. Taylor sailed for that great land to share the Good News at all costs. He learned the power of faith and prayer from his mother and sister. His mission motto was, ‘God’s work done in God’s way will never lack his supplies!’ By faith alone he planted 20 mission stations, enlisted 840 missionaries, and raised some $400 million from the Western Church for the work. It’s estimated that his ministry resulted in 125,000 converts of whom he personally baptized some 50,000! All this while suffering poor sight and sickness, many robberies, depression, his wife’s many illnesses and the loss of 4 children. [A missionary friend of ours in Hong Kong is presently writing her Ph.D on Taylor’s Song of Songs meditations – I learned something of their richness at a silent retreat in our metro some years ago]

From these two faithful mountain-movers, back to Jesus. His frustrated disciples, when confronted with a demon-possessed boy whom they were unable to help, asked the Master why they couldn’t cure the lad: “Because you have little faith… I assure you that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed (so tiny), you could say to this mountain, ‘Go from here to there,’ and it will go. There will be nothing that you can’t do!” (Mt. 17:20/CEB). I don’t know about you, but this statement embarrasses me and (I believe) much of today’s Church no end! Hence in Pt. 3 we’ll think about how to ‘grow our faith’ under God, in our present post-modern world.

[In the mean time, I’m sure you’ll identify with the soulful prayer below]

‘UNBELIEF AND BELIEF: THEIR UNBELIEVABLE POWER!’ [Part 1, The Incredibly Destructive Power of Unbelief]

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[Hiroshima 75 years ago]

There are so many massively destructive powers in our world presently, not least in the political, social, economic, ecological and health realms. We’re all aware of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine – our news media daily update us on the terribly destructive rocket fire and tank attacks on Ukraine’s major cities. I submit that, in the spiritual and eternal realm, humankind has always been threatened by ‘THE INCREDIBLY DESTRUCTIVE POWER OF UNBELIEF!’

Going back two millenia, the evangelist Mark (6:1-6a) captures the ministry of Jesus in Nazareth. This record demonstrates some sharp contrasts between the Nazarene’s failure and success, opposition and acceptance, misunderstanding and understanding – of all places, in Nazareth, where he grew up! We might have expected the village to give a warm welcome to its now famous son, just as a modern country might celebrate some distinguished person whose reputation has spread across the globe: e.g. South African and world statesman Nelson Mandela, who first brokered peace in our divided nation. But when Jesus visits the local synagogue on the Sabbath and accepts an invitation to teach, his audience is largely skeptical – surprised but not impressed: “They asked, ‘Where did he get all this wisdom and power to perform such miracles?’ Then they scoffed, ‘He’s just a carpenter, the Son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon. And his sisters live right here among us.’ They were deeply offended and refused to believe in him'” (v. 2-3/NLT) [The fact that Joseph isn’t mentioned here indicates that by now he was probably deceased or it was a blatant insult to the family: Bible scholar E.M. Blaiklock makes the point that in ancient Hebrew culture, describing a person’s parentage without naming the father was tantamount to hinting at illegitimacy, i.o.w. a calculated insult!] The sad result: ‘Because of their unbelief’ there was nothing Jesus, the very Son of God, could do in Nazareth beyond healing a few sick (v.5-6). All he could do was remind his followers that great men (and women) are not appreciated at home, even the greatest of prophets! The evangelist John brilliantly exposes the essence of unbelief, commenting on the work of the Holy Spirit: ‘And when he comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment. The world’s sin is that it refuses to believe in me… (Jn. 16:8-9/NLT). In short, there is a day of ultimately accountability, and our final destiny depends on what we think of and do with Jesus!

In sharp contrast (Mk. 6:6b-13), Jesus’ work had now reached such momentum beyond Nazareth that he could send out the Twelve to repeat his work in the power of the Spirit, through preaching, exorcising demons and healing the sick wherever people accepted them (otherwise they were to shake that town’s dust off their feet, an action all pious Jews performed on leaving a Gentile territory). A seemingly harsh judgment, but indicating to Jew and Gentile alike the seriousness of unbelief! Mark ends this passage with good news: ‘So the disciples went out, telling everyone they met to repent of their sins and turn to God. And they cast out many demons and healed many sick people, anointing them with olive oil’ (v. 12-13) (cf. Acts 13:46-52 where Luke contrasts the Jews’ stubborn unbelief in Pisidian Antioch with the Gentiles’ joyful response to the Good News).

[Just a mention of Mk. 8:1-21, recording Jesus’ miraculous feeding of 4000 people, in spite of the disciples’ ill-preparation and lack of faith in the Master’s power] In Mk. 9:14ff we read of Jesus’ encounter with a loving dad who had brought his severely demon-possessed boy to the disciples for healing, his followers failing to do so because they were ‘faithless people.’ Jesus responds, ‘bring the boy to me.’ Dad replies, ‘Have mercy on us and helps us if you can.’ Jesus: ‘If I can?… Anything is possible if a person believes.’ Dad: ‘I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!’ (v. 24) (I’ve been there many times, haven’t you?) After some struggle, the boy is set free to the joy of his family! When the embarrassed disciples ask Jesus why they were unable to help the boy, Jesus responds,‘This kind can only be cast out by prayer’ (v. 29/some mss ‘by prayer and fasting) – one assumes by fervent, sincere and persistent prayer as an expression of true faith in God. (I know of some staggering healings right here in my city, which only took place months or in one case years later, in answer to believing prayer)

The Epistles endorse the Gospels’ teaching, a clear example being Heb. 3:16ff, written by Apollos (?) to persecuted Jewish (and Gentile) believers tempted to return to un-persecuted Judaism. The writer reminds them that Jesus is infinitely greater than Moses! ‘And who was it that rebelled against God, even though they heard his voice? Wasn’t it the people Moses led out of Egypt? … And to whom was God speaking when he took an oath that they would never enter his rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed him? So we see that because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest’ (NLT).

My fellow-pilgrim, the message of unbelief is not just for ‘those bad (and perhaps ‘good but lost’) people out there’ who refuse to believe. Every time I’m tempted to control circumstances myself, with resultant anxiety, am I really believing in Jesus? I think of passages such as Ps. 27 (recently, after some teaching on this psalm by one of our house church members, we decided to read it privately every day for a week, with much benefit), Mt. 6:25-34 and Phil. 4:6-7… Faith surely = TRUST!

Finally, imagine the plight of the billions around the world today, who, having been faced by God’s truth and love powerfully expressed over millennia in creation, our conscience, the Bible and the Living Word, only to turn their back on this revelation in preference to their ego, resulting in eternal lost-ness! It makes me shudder. We recall Jesus’ familiar words in Jn. 3:16, ‘This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.’ Jesus continues in v. 17ff, ‘God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-king Son of God when introduced to him’ (MSG). That same Jesus urges each generation (us) to preach his Kingdom to all the world – by word, deed and life. Are we?? Someone related the story of a lone Christian prisoner in a Nazi death camp bungalow. For breaking some minor camp-rule the inmates were all sentenced to death by locking them up with no access to air, food and drink. The story goes that, aware of the inevitable, the Christian man began to share the message of Jesus with each one. When he had completed his task, he died. What an example for us all…

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PLEASE LOOK OUT FOR PART TWO OF THIS CRITICALLY IMPORTANT TOPIC