Life by death (Rob Harrod)

Recently I had the privilege of attending the annual Men’s Christian Convention here in Christchurch. David Cook from Sydney was helpfully unpacking truths from John 11 and 12, and showing us their vital application to life and ministry. On the second night he highlighted something that has been much on my mind and heart for much of this year. David opened up John 12:23, 24: "And Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." Here Jesus states that He will be glorified through His death. Through His death on the cross He will be like a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying, and in death He will bring forth much fruit.

How would Jesus accomplish His purpose? How would He save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21)? How would the Lamb of God take away the sin of the world? By His death! The grain of wheat MUST fall into the earth and die, and through that death … Fruit would come! Life would come! Salvation would come! (Isaiah 53:8-10). All by the death of the suffering servant in the place of his people. In John 12 we see that this is not only a wonderful picture of what Jesus does, but it also provides a pattern for our life and ministry. This is how the disciples of Jesus must also live, individually and corporately. This Christ-like selflessness must characterise both the Chrisian believer and the church.

We often focus on the individual outworking of this biblical principle, but I want to draw your attention to one New Testament example of this selfless attitude seen in the events surrounding the establishment and early life of the church in Antioch, a major city some 500 km north of Jerusalem and the capital of the Roman province of Syria. Antioch was the third largest city in the Empire after Rome and Alexandria. Here are six examples drawn from the book of Acts of churches and believers learning to think and live ‘us’ and not ‘me’, being willing to fall into the earth and die in order to see real gospel fruit.

(1) Persecuted believers continue to preach Christ. Believers fled from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1) under intense persecution. Christians had lost their homes and jobs, and their lives were under serious threat. All because they aligned themselves with Jesus and His Church. The natural tendency in such circumstances would be to go quiet about Jesus in order to avoid more trouble. These believers did the opposite. They arrive in Antioch and freely and boldly preach the Lord Jesus despite the threats (Acts 11:19-21).

(2) A persecuted church still cares for others. The persecuted believers in Jerusalem could have been excused for retreating into a shell of self-interest: keeping their heads down for fear of more persecution. This was emphatically not the case: the church’s ‘ear’ was still open to hear of God’s work in other places, to pray for it, and to help where they could. (Acts 11:22-24) They send Barnabas (the ‘son of encouragement’) to assess and strengthen the work in Antioch. A 500km journey to benefit others! For the Jerusalem church it was clearly not all about them: it’s about their Lord’s glory, the good of their brothers and sisters in Christ, and it’s about the world hearing the gospel.

(3) Barnabas recruits Saul (Paul) to help the church in Antioch (Acts 11:27-30). The gospel work in Antioch was going forward strongly (Acts 11:21-24), but Barnabas longed for it to be established and further extended. He thinks of his friend Saul and believes he could make a significant contribution to the work in Antioch, so he goes off to Tarsus (240km away) and recruits Saul. These two men spend a year teaching many in Antioch, pouring out their lives to build up the church. Barnabas doesn’t care that the gifted apostle Paul might become more prominent – all he cares about is the fame of Jesus Christ and the good of the church.

(4) The generosity of the church in Antioch toward their brethren in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30). Hearing of the real need of the Chrisians in Judea because of a widespread famine, the Christians in Antioch (even though most of them have never met any of the believers down there) determine to send financial "relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea."

(5) Very different men work together (Acts 13:1).The leaders of the church at Antioch were a very diverse bunch. Barnabas, a Levite from Cyprus who had been a prominent encourager in the Jerusalem church; Lucius of Cyrene in North Africa, perhaps one of the founding members (Acts 11:20); Manaen, who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and was probably from a noble family; Simeon, called Niger; and Saul from Tarsus in Cilicia, who had been a Pharisee and fanatical persecutor of the church! These men, despite their differences in personality, background and gifts, worked together selflessly for the good of the church and the glory of Christ.

(6) The church in Antioch surrendered key leaders to frontline mission (Acts 13:2,3). Led by the Holy Spirit as they worshipped, prayed and fasted, the church set apart two of their most able, useful, influential and much loved leaders to a new work. This was not easy, these men still could have been very useful to the work in Antioch. They sent away two beloved pastor-teachers for the benefit of others and the glory of Christ. This became known as the first of the apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, through which many came to Christ and churches were planted throughout the Roman empire.

May the Lord help us, as individuals, families and churches, express the same selfless spirit in our lives and ministries today! And may the Lord use us to bear much fruit to His glory!

I’m Wrong (Chris Spark)

We’re both right.

That’s something an old friend and I used to say to each other in our teen years (I think the credit should go to him for originally coining it, but I could be wrong…). It was most likely usually used in the course of discussion of things like science fiction, music, and teenaged philosophy – not uncommonly in the potato and pumpkin fields of North Canterbury as we earned money to buy guitars and cymbals. We used ‘we’re both right’ when we differed on something and wanted to end the discussion happily. And we used it partially in jest.

But there is something profound in it I think. Not that we were profound (our discussions sometimes got very interesting, but ‘profound’ may be overreaching!). The profundity is in what it revealed about us that is common to so many of us. We didn’t like being wrong. When we held views, or made arguments, for two opinions that were clearly different, and wouldn’t fit together, we found it easy to say we were ‘both right’ than to admit one of us was wrong. Even if it was a case of saying one of us must be wrong, even if we weren’t sure which – it was still easier to say ‘we’re both right’.

Being wrong is really, really difficult. Actually, that is not quite right. Being wrong is easy. Admitting you are wrong, that is another kettle of fish. That is hard. One of New Zealand’s finest singer songwriter talents, Bic Runga, had a song on her first album called ‘Sorry’ with a line that went ‘it’s not that hard to say, so why can’t I say it now?’ The answer of course is that to say sorry is to admit I’ve been in the wrong. And to admit I’m wrong in that or any other way is just hard.

Should it be so hard? We are wrong all the time about a million things. And we so often claim to be happy to be corrected, to be happy to be shown to be wrong, to ‘hope I’m wrong’. Occasionally some of us manage to say ‘I was wrong’ – in the past tense. That is still hard enough, and rare enough. But it is a little safer, because that was the old me. I was wrong (but I’m right now).

But when it comes to actually being wrong now – acknowledging we are wrong, admitting it, and changing – it is hard. Because to be wrong feels like it is to question our value. To undermine the justification for our existence.

That is where Christianity is really hard. It can be hard in lots of ways for people to accept. But among the most universally difficult is this – to be Christian is to say ‘I’m wrong’. And not just in one area, or about one theory, or on one occasion. Rather, to become a Christian is to say, at the most fundamental level, I am wrong. As Jesus puts it, our hearts are wrong (Mark 7:20-23). As the Apostle Paul puts it, our rejection of God makes us thoroughly wrong and in big trouble (Romans 1-3). And that’s why, at the heart of the start of being a Christian, and essential to the continuation of being a Christian, is repentance – turning around, because you are continually admitting you are wrong.

“8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:8-9

If we confess our sins. In other words, if we say we are wrong. There is the real rub.

But there is the real freedom, too. To be able to admit we are wrong, and to know that at the same time we are justified. It’s not about being right anymore. Rather, as Paul puts it in that discussion of our wrong-ness: it’s about this: “Let God be true, and every human being a liar” Romans 3:4

It’s about us all admitting we are wrong. All of us. Each of us – including me, including you. On a level playing field of wrong-ness. And, having been freed from needing to justify our existence by being right, we can get on with really living. Because it is Christ’s right-ness that justifies us, not our own.

For those of us who are Christian teachers and preachers and pastors, I suggest this means we need to help our people get better at being wrong. Because they are anyway, whether they admit it or not. And perhaps the first way to help them admit they are wrong is to show them how. We can own up to being wrong, We can express the freedom of God’s justification in Christ by admitting the areas and ways we are wrong, rather than passionately holding on to our right-ness and defending ourselves all the time.

We are not both right. We are all wrong. I’m most certainly wrong. And Jesus is right enough for the lot of us.

Conservative – but not necessarily in politics (Peter Collier)

I was talking to a friend recently about Stanley Cripps. Stanley Cripps was a Labour politician in the UK during the time of the Second World War, and a committed follower of Jesus Christ. My friend told me that when he got elected as a member of the Labour Party in the UK, he was no longer allowed to be involved in the Anglican pulpit where he was from! It was felt that if you were an Anglican Christian you could not possibly serve the Labour Party at that time!

We may wince at people having such firm political views that they could not countenance that other committed Christians would believe anything differently. However, we need to make sure we don’t repeat the error.

Take for example the term ‘conservative’.

I am more than happy to wear the label ‘Christian’; indeed, delighted to do so. I believe Jesus is the Christ, and he is my Lord and Saviour. It is a privilege to be associated with Him in this way.

I am also very delighted to wear the label ‘evangelical’. The word ‘evangelical’ stems from the greek word ‘euangelion’ which means ‘the gospel’; an ‘evangelical’ is therefore ‘one who preaches the gospel’(of Jesus Christ, it is understood), or ‘one who believes the gospel proclaimed’. This is therefore a wonderful description of a Christian person: someone who believes and preaches the good news of Jesus Christ.

The problem with these two labels is that many people wear them with whom I would fairly seriously disagree. Indeed, some people wear these labels whom I doubt are evangelical or indeed even Christian at all. Others wear these labels and yet, while acknowledging they are Christian, we still have fairly major differences in our understandings of the Bible.

There are therefore a few other labels that get applied to people who believe what I believe.

A very common one is to call me (and who believe similar things to what I believe) ‘conservative’.

I am more than happy to be called a ‘conservative’ when it comes to theology. For to be conservative means to want to keep things as they have been. This is what is encouraged in Scripture. Paul wrote to Timothy, ‘the things you have heard from me, in the presence of many witnesses, pass onto reliable men who will be qualified to teach others’ (2 Timothy 2:2). Timothy was not to come up with some new teaching, but pass on the ‘good deposit’. Similarly, Paul says Titus is to select elders who ‘hold to the trustworthy message as it has been taught’ (Titus 1:9). Titus is not to find elders who are ‘progressive’ in their views, but who stick to the same old message. And in Jude, the author speaks of defending the message which has ‘once for all been delivered to the saints’. Since this message has been delivered once for all, there is no need for any improvement of it.

Christian belief, by its nature, then, is conservative. That is, it looks backwards to find truth. Now the term ‘backwards looking’ in our society immediately conjures up a negative image. That is because it is assumed that knowledge is ‘progressing’, and humanity is learning more. While that may clearly be the case in certain fields, such as science and medicine, it is different when it comes to the knowledge of God (which is what theology means). The best way to get to know God is not by humans philosophising more and for longer over time. The way to get to know God is by God revealing himself. And since God has done that in the past, in many and various ways in the Old Testament, and then finally through his Son Jesus Christ, then the way to find true knowledge about God is to look backwards, into the Scriptures of the Prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus’ appointed witnesses in the New Testament. Consequently, authentic theology is not ‘progressive’ in the sense that we are learning more about God than has already been revealed in Jesus and in the Scriptures; the way we learn about God is to look backwards into the Word of God with the Spirit helping us to understand and receive God’s word.

Consequently, I am happy to describe my beliefs as being ‘conservative’.

However, there is a great problem with this description in our day and age. It is loaded with a different meaning. The term ‘conservative’ is frequently associated with social views which are then expressed in political n parties. ‘Conservative’ then becomes a political term. And of course, in New Zealand at the last general election, a party was founded called the ‘Conservative Party’ which many Christians support.

It is important we realise what is meant by this term when it is used regarding social views and politics. It is different to what is meant when speaking about theology. To have conservative social and political views means looking back to the way society used to do things. Often the hot-button areas are in things like the laws about marriage and sexuality. Conservative politics also tends to emphasise personal responsibility.

Those of us who are ‘conservative’ in our theology because we believe the truth about God is to be found in the Bible will often find ourselves agreeing with various aspects of conservative social agendas and conservative politics. In part, this is perhaps because biblical Christianity once played a more influential role in our society than it does now.

However, we need to be careful. Being conservative theologically does not necessarily mean we will be conservative in our social views or our politics. For example, in the past, people who were left handed were made to write with their right hand. As a lefty, this is one area where I am definitely a social progressive! Similarly, views held in the past about disabilities and race are not views which I would wish to endorse. And even in areas where the Bible would critique the ways our society has changed, such as the roles of women, I believe that previous societies were often harsh and indeed un-Christian in their views and consequent legislation.

Consequently, while I am happy to be called a ‘conservative’ in my theology, I am less happy to wear the term to describe my social views, and even less my political views. I am glad that many Bible-believing Christians are eagerly supporting a Conservative Party. I am also pleased at some of the issues they are raising for discussion and giving people an opportunity to vote on the basis of. I am more than happy to hear from Christian brothers and sisters why they think I ought to vote for the Conservative Party. I do have one large concern, however, as a (theologically) conservative evangelical Christian. My concern is that it is assumed that all who are conservative evangelical Christians ought to, or do, support the Conservative Party (over other parties). Or that the Conservative Party speaks for ‘us’ conservative evangelicals. It doesn’t and it won’t – at least not always, and not all of us. It is important that we do not too closely align God’s infallible authoritative word, given once for all in the past, with a very fallible political movement in the present.

There may well be good reasons for Bible-believing Christians to vote for the conservative, and if you think there are – great! And I’m eager to hear those reasons. However, let us also acknowledge that who we vote for in New Zealand is an area of Christian freedom; let each servant of the Lord Jesus examine God’s word and do what is right in their own conscience on this matter – recognising it may be different for different servants, as it was for Stanley Cripps and many of his contemporaries.

Those post-preaching blues (Peter Somervell)

In less than an hour after I finished preaching I was only a few steps out the door of the church when it hit. It’s hard to explain but I think those who suffer depression might relate. It’s a feeling (and yes I’ll have to use that word) of deep emptiness, hollowness and gloom. Doubts began to form in my mind:

‘That was a really bad sermon’, ‘You’ve been preaching this long and you still manage a fail-boat like that?’, ‘So you had two people who liked it; if only you knew what the others were thinking.’

It’s not just psychological. It’s physical. There’s a heaviness of spirit and it isn’t imaginary. I really felt like I weighed an extra 10 kg but with less strength. Everything was an effort. Even opening the car door seemed like work.

If you are in Christian ministry of any kind your spiritual antennae is no doubt starting to twitch – big time. You’re thinking, ‘That’s not just a simple case of the blues. That’s a spiritual battle.’ And you’d be right. Those thoughts of doubt and despair were not merely human in origin; they had another source – Satan. And I happened to be preaching about him – well not him directly, but the place where he is heading. And I was warning others not to follow him. Obviously that’s not going to go down all that well, with him or with any of his helpers. So it was not that surprising that he might show his displeasure with me. I was preparing for his attack in the days leading up to my sermon but not after. I was caught badly off guard.

Paul says in Ephesians 6:10-18,

10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.
11Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.
12For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
14Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,
15and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.
16In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one;
17and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,
18praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints

You may have heard it said, “You don’t have to fight any battle, the Lord fights for you.” That sounds all very spiritual but I don’t think it’s entirely accurate. Paul says we wrestle. He’s talking about believers. We are in a battle. We are facing off with the enemy.

So here I was an hour after preaching a very difficult message, afflicted with disappointment, doubt and great heaviness of spirit. I’m experiencing a spiritual battle and I’m receiving hits from the enemy. So what do I do? What should you do if you find yourself in a similar situation?

1. Be strong in the Lord, or seek strength from the Lord. You’re weak. You’re vulnerable. You need spiritual strength. And Jesus can supply it. So ask him for it. Later in the afternoon after I rested I started to do that. I should have started a lot earlier.

2. Put on the armour of God. Fasten the belt of truth, buckle on the breastplate of righteousness, lace up the gospel shoes, take up the shield of faith, put on the helmet of salvation and grab hold of the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God. I want to focus on one of these in particular – the shield of faith. What’s a shield for? Deflecting missiles – in the soldier’s case, arrows and spears. In the Christian soldier’s case – spiritual arrows and spears. Paul calls them “fiery darts.” Satan is continually shooting “fiery darts” at our hearts and minds – lies, impure thoughts, sinful thoughts about others, doubts, fears, suspicions, and misgivings. We need to deflect these darts and extinguish their flames. And we do that with the shield of faith. Faith by definition looks away from self to God alone for help. Faith locks on to God and his trustworthiness. Put your trust in him. Trust his strength, trust his promises, trust his character and trust his wisdom.

3. Stand firm. Don’t go chasing Satan and don’t run from him. Just stand your ground. Be firm in your faith. Hold on to Jesus and there’s not a lot he can do.

4. Pray, pray, pray. Pray yourself and get others praying for you. A friend sent me a text later in the afternoon. When I told him what was going on he replied straight away, “Praying for you.” And it made a difference. Spiritual battles need to be fought using spiritual means and prayer is one of the most (if not the most) powerful.

There are some other practical suggestions I would like to add to this that I have learned by way of experience:

· Share. Tell someone you trust what is going on. You need others looking out for you. That’s what the body of Christ is for. Tell your husband or your wife or a friend that you can confide in.

· Rest. Preaching and teaching is exhausting work. Your body needs some time to recharge. Find some where quiet and close your eyes.

· Eat. Preferably eat something healthy. A good, healthy meal well help replenish the energy that’s been released.

· Serve. Take an interest in the people around you. Ask how they are doing. Listen and respond. Help your wife. Do something for one of your kids. It will help you get your eyes off yourself and slipping into too much morbid introspection.

Postscript: Shortly after writing this (I penned it the same day) my head began to clear, the weight began to lift and my joy was restored. That’s the power of meditating on the Word of God. It really is a sword.

The Golden Rule is Silver (Chris Spark)

When Jesus, a large number of secularists, and a whole lot of other religions all agree on something, you might figure you are on to something.

“Love you neighbour as yourself.”

This, and it’s close cousin “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, is a point where many secularists and many non-Christian religious traditions agree quite substantially with Jesus (and the Apostles, who are also big fans – Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8). I suspect this fact has made this principle a pretty good starting point for a lot of discussion and working together. It seems to be on to something.

This in turn fits with it being referred to as ‘the Golden Rule’, both in general and by Christians in particular.

This is all good stuff. Frankly if any of us are following any part of Jesus’ teaching (as he picked up Old Testament teaching) that can only be good for us and for society as a whole.

However for Christians this will never be enough. And I wonder if some of us are in danger of forgetting that – thinking that if we get the Golden Rule right, we will get everything right.

Problem is, the Golden Rule is actually silver. It is good and vitally important – and frankly we could all do a lot more living it out. But, it is second – silver. It only makes ultimate Christian sense when it is understood in the light of the real Christian Golden Rule.

When someone came up to Jesus and asked him the most important commandment, here is what happened:

29 "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’1 There is no commandment greater than these."
(Mark 12:29

Here we see it very plainly – loving God with all our beings is first (the real Christian Golden Rule), and flows into the second, which is loving our neighbours as ourselves (the Christian Silver Rule).

What this does is makes sense of reality – if God is there, he deserves to be loved first. Jesus puts it in that order. But it also ends up providing motivation – if you really love God with all your being, you will love creatures made in his image, and you will have the resources to recognise that all humans are indeed made in his image, and are therefore rightful objects of your love. (When people who call themselves by Christ’s name forget to love in their speech and actions, that is a good opportunity to call us to return to being true to our love of God by loving others.)

In light of this, I have stopped calling ‘love your neighbour’ and ‘do unto others’ the Golden Rule. As the Silver Rule, it is still vitally important, and it can still be stated on its own of course (as Jesus and the apostles do at times). But calling it the Silver (rather than Golden) Rule reminds us that there is indeed another command that is Golden. And that in urn reminds us that to really get the Silver Rule in its depth, with the sorts of implications Jesus saw in it, and to really have the resources to live this Silver Rule out in its Christian fullness, you need the real Golden Rule firmly in your heart and mind first.

But of course, Christians will realise that even knowing that the Golden and Silver Rules go together is not enough to motivate us to keep them when it is really costly – and Jesus clearly thought it would be costly (see the Good Samaritan for example, Luke 10:25-37). The only thing that will really cut it to motivate and resource us to live lives shaped by these rules is the Love to which both rules point – the Love that teaches us how to love both God and neighbour; the Love shown us in the one who loved others (to the point of death) in the way they had positively not loved him; the Love which moved that one to give his whole being – heart, soul, mind and strength – for us, when we didn’t even care for him.

10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:10-11)

REFERENCES TO THE GOLDEN AND SILVER RULES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

The Two Together:

Matt 22:36-40; Mk 12:28-34; Lk 10:25-8

Love your neighbour as yourself:

Matt 19:19; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; James 2:8

Do unto others:

Lk 6:31; Matt 7:12