Headline from The Birmingham News in October 1918

Recently a pastor friend of mine called for other pastors to defy their state’s regulations and still hold in-person Church services during our COVID-19 lockdown. His scriptural reason was to make sure we don’t disobey Hebrews 10:25 ‘…not neglecting to meet together…’

I respect his views, and value him and his ministry as a brother and partner in the Gospel, however I respectfully disagree with that view.

The matter of civil disobedience, obeying God rather than man (Acts 5:29), can be a thorny path to tread, since it can so easily slip into becoming political, aligning ourselves with the Right or the Left (either directly, or indirectly), and taking on rhetoric that comes from secular political movements rather than using a Gospel vocabulary. Sadly, it can lead to Christians becoming divided over secondary matters, and becoming distracted from that which unites us – the Gospel of Christ crucified, risen and reigning.

So the way in which we respond (if at all) to our government leaders, and whether or not pastors call their people to obey or disobey civil authorities must always be carefully, prayerfully and Biblically thought through.

It will be helpful to take a closer look at the Hebrews passage in question, seeing the full statement in its context, to see if it does actually require us to keep our churches open during pandemic restrictions.

See the phrase within its immediate literary context:

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:19-27, ESV)

See how reading the phrase in its wider context show that the issue at stake here is much more nuanced that simply the matter of whether or not I show up to Church on Sunday?

The main thesis of the book of Hebrews is that we have, because of Jesus our Great High Priest, a confidence to draw near to the throne of God, knowing that the sacrifice of Jesus at the cross was fully sufficient to atone for our sin. The recipients of this letter were (mostly) Jews who had come to faith in Jesus as their Messiah, and in doing so they had suffered great loss – being ostracised by family and community, losing their homes and property, although they had not yet faced a level of persecution that threatened their lives (12:4). But most likely the reason why they had not lost their lives was because they were beginning to cave in to the pressure to return to the old system, represented by the Temple and its sacrifices. They were being told that Christ was not enough; they must still observe the Law, including the Temple rituals, in order to have an assurance that they are justified before God.

But this old system has been made obsolete by Jesus, argues the author. It’s ‘growing old’ and is ‘ready to vanish away’ (8:13). It’s only the shadow of which Christ is the reality (8:5, 10:1). It can never perfect the worshipper nor clear their conscience (9:13-14); it cannot produce true and godly repentance (6:6). Only faith in Christ can bring about the fruit of ‘full assurance’ and a ‘hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.’ (10:22) that can give us the confidence to approach the Throne of Grace (read: ‘Mercy Seat’) (4:16).

Those Hebrews who are warned several times about ‘falling away’ (3:12, 6:6) were not ‘losing their religion’ in the modern sense of no longer believing in God. They were going back to the old religious system, thinking that the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ was not fully sufficient and needed supplementing by the animal sacrifices and traditions. They were rejecting ‘the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ (12:23) – literally ‘the ecclesia of the firstborn,’ what we know as by the english word ‘Church’ – in preference for the ‘assembly’ of the Temple. They had stopped meeting on Sunday with Christians to hear the Apostles’ teaching that pointed them to Christ, and instead had returned to the Synagogue on Saturday where the Rabbis were pointing them to the Temple and the observance of days and sabbaths and rules and traditions.

All of that is behind the call in 10:25 which stresses, albeit in a negative way, the importance of meeting together (interestingly, he uses the verbal form of ‘synagogue’ here rather than of ‘ecclesia’). He confronts those who have ‘neglected’ (or ‘forsaken’) gathering together, such that it has become a ‘habit’ – a way of life. They hadn’t missed a few Sundays here and there. They had abandoned Church and gone back to Temple.

These are those who have effectively said, ‘I don’t need church, because I’m OK on my own. I have my own means of carrying out my relationship with God, and it just so happens that my way is also much more acceptable to the world around me. My way will avoid persecution, it will make me accepted an approved by my community, because it’s really just the status quo. I’d much more prefer that, than having to ‘go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured’ (13:13). Church is just too much effort, too much risk. I prefer the easy, individual path of self-righteousness.’

This is what it means to disobey 10:25; that which is called ‘sinning’ in verse 26, because it’s an attitude that no longer relies on Christ alone, but on other ‘sacrifices’ and ultimately on me and my personal spirituality.

Closing our church doors temporarily during lockdown isn’t the disobedience that Hebrews describes. Closing our doors permanently would be. Saying to our people, ‘Gathering regularly isn’t important; you don’t need the meet with your brothers and sisters to encourage one another or spur one another on to love and good works,’ would be. Downplaying the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, making people think they can and need to find comfort and assurance in other things and ‘assemblies’ outside of him and his church, would be.

But saying ‘We will stay home, for the time being, as the government has directed (just as every other citizen regardless of their faith has been directed) and in this time we will seek to be creative about how we continue to love one another,’ is not disobedience. It recognises that our God-given government is actually working, in this case, in the best interests of all of its citizens and of the nation. They are not doing this out of a particular political or religious agenda, but under the common-grace wisdom that God tells us he still gives to the authorities of this world:

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. (1 Peter 2:13-15, ESV)

Note how, in this context, ‘doing good’ is something that that was defined, in a civil sense, by governors and even the Emperor (Yes, even the Emperor of that time who was instituting a brutal, state-sanctioned persecution of Christians!). Christians should not exalt what we see as our ‘civil rights’ over and above the command to love our neighbour, or to do anything that might discredit the Gospel. We are told, ‘If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.’ (Romans 12:18) and to pray for our government, ‘that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:2).

If the time comes when the Church is unreasonably targeted with restrictions that are not placed on the whole community; or if the authorities begin directing when, where and how we are to conduct our worship, or seeking to censor the content of our sermons; or if they require us to call evil good and good evil (beyond simply taking away tax breaks or funding); only then will we need to start having the conversation about civil disobedience.

In the meantime, let’s remain thankful, trusting in our sovereign Father, and being creative in how we may go about encouraging one another ‘all the more as we see the Day drawing near’.

Seen by Angels

Posted: September 1, 2022 in Uncategorized

A sermon

Preached at Bethel Christian Church on Sunday, August 28, 2022

Read 1 Timothy 3:16, Matthew 1:18-25, Acts 1:1-11

The third line in this confession is ‘Seen by Angels.’ This confession is actually in two groups of three, and so this phrase in a sense completes the first trio.

Before we look at what is meant by ‘seen by angels,’ let’s deal with a more basic question: What are angels? There’s a good chance that the Bible’s answer to that question will challenge some of the assumptions you’ve had.

Hebrews 1:14 gives us the clearest definition of angels:

Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?

This verse tells us about the purpose of angels – we could even say the reason they exist. Firstly they are ‘ministering spirits’. The word used for ministering here is that same word used of priests performing their duties in the tabernacle. It’s sometimes translated as ‘worship’. So an angel serves as a kind of ‘mediator’ between human beings and God, enabling us to worship. Secondly, they are ‘sent out to serve’  a specific group of people: ‘those who are to inherit salvation.’ They’re not for the general population, but uniquely for God’s people; they’re used by God to accomplish his purposes for his children. 

In the context of this verse in Hebrews 1, the writer’s stressing the supremacy of Jesus, whom he introduces as:

…his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

In first century Judaism, because of the influence of other religions in the centuries leading up to that time, angels had become very significant, to the point that some Jewish groups actually worshipped angels, and attributed to them some of the qualities and functions we know apply to Jesus – even being able to atone for sins. Some of these ideas had crept into Christian churches, and needed to be counteracted. For example, some people in the Colossian church were worshiping angels, and some people in the Corinthian church claimed the ability to communicate with angels in angelic languages. Angels exist not to be worshipped, but to help us worship God. So any discussion about angels must never stop just with angels. It must always lead on to the One true God to whom they will always point us.

While this Hebrews verse tells us about the purpose of angels to be of service to us, it doesn’t tell us how they actually go about doing this. We’ll look at this in a moment, but before we do I want to briefly demolish some other myths that surround angels. These are myths that we find in popular culture that’ve been taken on board by Christians, or are in popular culture because of some wrong ways that the church has historically spoken of angels. Some myths seem trivial, other more serious.

  • Angels don’t have wings. There’s no passage in the Bible describing angels with wings. This misunderstanding has come from a confusion between angels and cherubim. A cherub is a guard which shields the way into a holy place, keeping human beings separate from God. The first cherubim mentioned in the Bible were placed at the entrance to Eden after the man and woman were banished, with flaming swords blocking the way back in. All other instances of cherubim are in the tabernacle and the temple, and are artistic depictions of fearsome, composite creatures with features of animals like lions, bears, and eagles. The cherubim on the top of the ark of the covenant had eagles wings that met in the middle of the mercy seat, symbolically forming a throne for the Lord. These creatures are symbolic, seen by prophets in dreams and visions; angels on the other hand are real creatures, encountered in real life (as well as dreams and visions). Whereas Cherubim are always depicted as blocking our way into God’s presence, Angels do the opposite – they bring people into the presence of God.
  • People don’t have a personal guardian angel. This is an idea that came out of pre-New Testament times. We see evidence in the New Testament that some people believed in personal angels, but never is it taught as truth. The few verses in the Bible about angels protecting or guiding never point to the notion of angels being assigned to each person.
  • People don’t become angels in heaven. This is an idea that began with a cultic group in 19th century America, and has found its way into popular imagination.
  • Angels are not above us in the hierarchy of creatures. The apex of creation isn’t angelic beings, but human beings. We’re the only creature made in the image of God. In fact, angels don’t even get a mention in the creation account in Genesis 1-2. They exist to serve us, not be served by us. Paul told the Corinthians, ‘Do you not know that we are to judge angels?’ (1 Corinthians 6:3). More on this in a moment.

So what do angels do to serve those who are to inherit salvation? Angels are messengers. Both the Hebrew and Greek words for angel mean literally ‘messenger,’ and are sometimes used of human messengers, not just spiritual beings. Every time in the Scriptures an angel is sent to a person, it’s to bring them the word of God. It may be a reminder of God’s promise, or an instruction, or a word of assurance, or an announcement of something God has done or is about to do. But it’s always a Word.

If we were to do a survey like we did last week of the significant moments through the Gospels, we’d be looking at many of the same passages we looked at last week, and more. An Angel announced the conception of John the Baptist to his father Zechariah and told him John would prepare the way for the Lord; In our first reading today, Angels announced the conception of Jesus to Mary and to Joseph and told them to call him ‘Jesus’; angels announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds as they filled the sky and sang ‘Glory to God in the highest’; it was an angel who told Josep to flee to Egypt from King Herod who was killing all the children Jesus’ age, and then again told him when it was safe to return. Angels weren’t needed at Jesus’ baptism, because there the Father himself spoke directly out of heaven, and the Holy Spirit came in a visible way upon him. But then at the end of his time of temptation in the wilderness it was angels who came and ministered to him (The same word used in Hebrews 1). Given what we’ve seen so far, we can safely assume that the way they did this was to speak to him the word of God that he needed to hear in order to be ready to step into his public ministry. 

Then the angelic events at the end of the Gospels are like a bookend, reflecting the beginning, but in reverse order. An angel came and strengthened him as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, preparing him to face his greatest trial ever – infinitely greater than the temptation that had followed his baptism. When confronted with the soldiers who came to arrest him, he refused to summon legions of angels to save him from the worldly authorities, because his time had come – as it hadn’t yet come when he was a child and an angel saved him from King Herod. Then it was angels who announced the momentous, cataclysmic event of Jesus’ resurrection, as they did at his birth. Finally, in our second reading today, at the ascension angels told Jesus’ disciples to be prepared for his second coming, as the angel did in announcing his first coming to Zechariah.

So we have angels at the start, leading us into the Gospels, and then at the end, leading us out of the Gospels, so that our central focus will be on Jesus, to whom they testify.

But there’s something very significant we  need to note. Angels are absent throughout Jesus’ ministry from his temptation until his suffering. Why? Because, as at his baptism, these special messengers aren’t needed. The Son Himself, the Word made flesh, is speaking the words of life given him by the Father, in the power of the Spirit. In Jesus we don’t have a word delivered by angels second-hand from God, but we have the Word Himself who is God. In the Old Testament angels mediated God’s word to people because they couldn’t, as sinners, come face-to-face with God and survive being exposed to his glory. But then the Word of God came, embodied in flesh and bone, in a form that’s accessible to us, so that when we hear the voice of Jesus we are hearing the direct voice of God.

We also need to note that it was during this time Jesus was preparing his Apostles to become his messengers – human ‘angels’ – who’ll be commissioned with the task of proclaiming the Gospel, the euangelion, to the ends of the earth. He didn’t entrust this task to angels, but to us. People are brought to faith in Christ not by supernatural encounters with angels, but by the word of Christ being spoken by human lips. 

Through the book of Acts, there are seven angelic visitations spread across the roughly 30 years that are covered in the book, again at strategic points in the going out of the Gospel. Not the flurry of angelic activity in the early church that we might sometimes be led to think. Christians aren’t taught in the New Testament to look for or expect angelic encounters – if anything, we’re told to be cautious about an experience that seems like an angel, being told that Satan ‘disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Cor. 11:14). Heb. 13:2 tells us to practice hospitality, mentioning that ‘thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’ That’s probably a reference to Abraham and Sarah hosting the three men who then turned out to be angels; and even if it’s a reference to the possibility of it today, it says ‘unawares,’ meaning we won’t actually know the person is really an angel.

This isn’t to say that angels are no longer active in the world since New Testament times. But it is saying that something has changed about the place of angels, and our relationship to them. And that’s what the phrase ‘seen by angels’ is pointing to. We’ve seen so far the role of angels in speaking to us, declaring, announcing and pointing to Jesus. But here it speaks not of angels speaking, but of angels seeing. The focus isn’t on what’s being made known to us, but on what’s being made known to them as they observe Jesus. And as we’ll see, seeing what angels see is directly relevant to us.

Here’s what’s going on here. I said earlier that angels aren’t, as some may think, higher up in the hierarchy of God’s creatures, but that humanity is at the apex. Psalm 8 says:

What is man that you are mindful of him,

And the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings

and crowned him with glory and honour.

You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;

you have put all things under his feet, (Psalm 8:4-6)

Now, you might see that and say, hang on, that contradicts what you just said. Man is ‘a little lower than the heavenly beings,’ whom we know from when this verse is quoted elsewhere are angels. But it’s not a contradiction, because what’s described here is a temporary arrangement. Humanity was designed to rule and have dominion over the works of God’s hands. That rule was to be a priestly rule, in which we’d be the communicators of God’s glory to all other creatures, and to one another. But then through sin, through trying to grasp at that position of authority instead of receiving it thankfully as a gift from the Father, we made ourselves unworthy to rule. We were cast out of the garden into the wilderness, and what we could call an ‘interim administration’ was put in place, that involved laws and temples and priests, and in which angels were given roles that had been abdicated by us. For example:

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. (Galatians 3:19)

Since the fall, human beings have been ‘a little lower than the angels,’ but this is only in anticipation of what would happen when Jesus came to undo what took place in the fall. Let’s look at how Hebrews explains Psalm 8:

For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 6 It has been testified somewhere,

“What is man, that you are mindful of him,

or the son of man, that you care for him?

You made him for a little while lower than the angels;

you have crowned him with glory and honour,

putting everything in subjection under his feet.”

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:5-9)

See how, firstly, ‘the world to come’ (5) isn’t for angels to rule over, but for human beings. This is the Father’s ultimate goal, to have the new heavens and earth ruled over by human beings, as we were designed to do in creation.

Secondly, see how verse 7 brings out the sense of a ‘little lower.’ It’s little not in degrees, but in time. It’s only temporary. Human history, in the bigger context of eternity is a ‘little while.’

Thirdly, see how the end of verse 8 speaks of the world as we see it at the present, but then verse 9 tells us what we also see: Jesus who has come down to our level, taken on our humanity in the likeness of sinful flesh, and has been made ‘for a little while lower than the angels’ for a specific purpose: so that he might taste death for everyone. By uniting himself to us in our fallenness he’s taken us down into the grave with him, so that he may then take us up out of the grave through his resurrection, so that we, still united to him, may sit with him in glory by the Father’s side. In Christ, our status is no longer lower than the angels, but higher. 

In Ephesians 1 the raising up of Jesus is described in relation to both us the church, but also to other ‘cosmic’ creatures:

…he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:20-23)

The ‘all rule and authority and power and dominion’ is speaking not merely of earthly human authorities, but also of spiritual powers and authorities, both good and evil. Jesus is raised up far above not only human authorities, but also far above the angels. And then in Ephesians 2 we see something astounding:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7)

See how the language is the same as in chapter 1. What’s true for Christ in his humanity is also true for us. We are with the Father in the heavenly places in Christ! The church is the bride of Christ, one flesh with him. In our marriage to him, what’s ours is his, and what’s his is ours. He took on all our debts, our poverty, our sin and shame and our whole selves at the cross, and in return he has given us his abundance, his riches, his honour, and best of all, himself. That means then, we also share in his relationship to the angels and the heavenly beings. He was for a time a little lower than the angels, but is now above them, ruling them; he has also lifted us up so that we’re no longer lower than the angels. The ‘interim administration’ of the old system with angels and guardians and mediators has given way to the Kingdom of God in which we look to our king and brother Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, the only mediator between God and man.

Then, in Ephesians 3 is this same idea of angels ‘seeing’ Jesus:

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things…

There’s that idea of the Mystery being something that God kept hidden, but which is now being made known through the preaching of the Gospel…

…so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realised in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:8-11)

See how it’s not just Gentiles who have this made known to them, but ‘the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’. The Gospel is a message with cosmic implications. Jesus came not just to bring people into heaven, but to bring about the renewal of all things and to put everything in creation – including spiritual powers – in its rightful place. 

Your position in Christ isn’t just about your personal, private relationship with God, or about making sure you go to the right place when you die, or about God giving you the stuff you want in this life and the next. Being in Christ means, firstly, that he has taken hold of you and made you a member of his bride, the church. We confessed last week in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, ‘We believe… in the holy universal church’ and ‘the communion of saints.’ Michael Horton says in his book, ‘The Gospel Driven Life’ which is subtitled,  ‘Being good news people in a bad news world’:

‘The church is not simply the effect of the gospel, but it is itself part of the Good News that is promised. When God raises our eyes from ourselves to his Son through the gospel, we begin to see ourselves surrounded by a community of people who are no longer simply neighbours but brothers and sisters,’

The Gospel Driven Life: Being good news people in a bad news world (Baker, 2009), p. 192

The church is the only human institution in this world that will continue on into eternity. God will have a family for himself forever. In Christ, you’ve been brought into that family.

Secondly, it’s through the church that the Father’s working, bringing to bear on the world his purposes that ‘he has realised’ in Christ. We live in the reality that all God’s promises are fulfilled in Jesus. In Jesus his work has been completed, and both the salvation of all his people, and the renewal of all creation is guaranteed. The outworking of that reality, what’s called ‘the manifold wisdom of God’ (10) is happening through the church.

Geoffrey Bingham was a Prisoner of War in WW2. He once said that he remembered when the announcement came that the war was over and Japan had surrendered, but it seemed like a dream to them – almost unreal. It was true – but what did it mean for them? Shortly afterward they saw what it meant for them, as the Allied troops arrived and actually liberated them, put them on the trucks and took them home. The victory had been won, and the ‘Gospel’ announcement of that victory had been declared, but then the practical reality of that victory was rolled out as the army went out and brought that liberty to bear on their fellow soldiers who’d been captives. In this another message was being communicated to the Japanese: your defeat is a real defeat. Along with the liberation of prisoners, those guilty of war crimes were rounded up and put on trial. 

As we the church proclaim the Gospel, each time we declare ‘Christ is risen’, another nail, so to speak, is driven into the devil’s coffin, and the angelic hosts of heaven are given another reason to worship and give glory to God

Thirdly, because this reality of what we are in Christ is ‘seen by angels’ it tells us that our hope is much, much greater than we might realise. When you think about what it looks like to share the Gospel with someone, what is it that you would say is the true hope that Jesus gives by his death and resurrection? Maybe we would tend to lean towards the idea of ‘going to heaven/to be with God when you die.’ One popular evangelistic presentation starts with the question, 

‘If you died tonight, and God were to ask you, “Why should I let you into My Heaven?” what would you say?’ 

See how that’s an individualistic oriented question, about me being happy in a good place? It’s also no longer as relevant to anyone younger than middle-age who isn’t expecting to die any time soon – it’s something they think they’ll have plenty of time to sort out. But the thing is, going to heaven when I die isn’t the Christian hope that’s presented in the Bible. The resurrection of the body and the new Heavens and new Earth is. All things made new, with death and the grave not merely defeated, but done away with forever, with Christ reigning over all things visible and invisible in justice and truth and love, and with us his saints reigning at his side, restored to our creational design, exercising dominion over all of God’s creatures in such a way that every creature flourishes and lives to the praise of God’s glory that will fill the whole earth. That’s a much grander and more magnificent vision than ‘You can go to heaven when you die.’

Knowing all this enables us to lift our eyes from the petty, inconsequential things of our lives – those things that with a purely horizontal view seem all important and significant, like at the end of the day when the sun is low in the sky, the shadows of things grow in length and become bigger than the objects themselves. It helps us to look at things with a vertical view – to see things form the perspective of the angels who have seen Jesus in the fulness of his glory. In the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest and brightest, shadows are short or non-existent, and everything is seen clearly for what it is.

We may never in our lives have a personal encounter with an angel like we read about in the Biblical stories – although we shouldn’t rule out that ever happening. But we already, in sense, are living in the presence of the angels because in Christ the veil between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm has been pulled back. All the angelic hosts of heaven have ‘seen’ Jesus, watching as he stepped into creation to redeem us from sin and death, and to lift us up in himself to that place of reigning with him over creation, including the angels. The ministry that angels have to us today is to invite us to have the same view of Christ, and of us his church, as they do.

The book of Revelation was given to John from Jesus, via an angel. The word ‘angel’ appears more times in Revelation than any other book in the Bible. Twice in the book, John fell down at the feet of angels to worship, and was rebuked (19:10, 22:8) Because the book isn’t called the Revelation of angels, it’s the revelation of Jesus Christ:

Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.” For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. (Revelation 19:10)

Let’s hear the message this angel gives us: worship God, and testify to Jesus.

Read a response to a youtube video about an angelic encounter

On Sunday August 28 I preached the third message in a series on 1 Timothy 3:16, on the line ‘Seen by Angels’ (You can read it here). Afterwards, a member of the congregation asked for my opinion on a video that claims to be the performance of a song composed and given by angels, along with the claim that its words are ‘…instruments of divine restoration in the lips of anyone who sings them in faith’. The video has over 1 million views, which wile it sounds a lot, is not quite enough to, as the title claims, ‘shake the entire internet’.

The video can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4oGDGSZx8I

A related video with the musician and others testifying to his experience can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZVj0mstjFg&t=1820s

Is this a genuine experience of an angelic encounter? Should we take it seriously, and as the video invites us, begin to sing this song so we can receive deliverance?

Firstly, we should note that the New Testament teaches us to be cautious about what may at first glance appear to be angelic encounters, warning us that, ‘…even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14), and ‘…even if… an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.’ (Galatians 1:8). We’re warned to not be led astray by someone, ‘…insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. (Colossians 2:18-19). The one verse that suggests the possibility of encountering angels today also suggests that it will be ‘unawares’ (Hebrews 13:2 – reminiscent of Abraham and Sarah’s three visitors in Genesis 18).

In light of this, any experience or testimony (not just of angels, but of anything that seems to be some kind of message or visitation from God) should never be immediately embraced without question, and without first ‘testing the spirits to see whether they are from God (1 John 4:1). We should not just believe something to be true purely if someone tells us it happened to them, especially if they are the only witness. We may want to implicitly trust our brothers and sisters that they are telling us the truth – which is a good thing. However we also need to remember two things that are true of all people: 

  1. All people are capable of telling untruths or of twisting and exaggerating the truth. We all know people (sometimes ourselves) who will lie, or tell a certain version of something in order to benefit themselves. Sometimes their motive may be malicious, or sometimes is may be an expression of some insecurity that causes them to want to be noticed, included or applauded. Even the most godly Christian can be tempted in this area of being careless with the truth, in the weakness of their flesh. 
  2. People are also capable of unwittingly putting a wrong interpretation on an experience, because they have certain presuppositions or beliefs that will colour how they see it. We can at times be sincere in describing our experience, without realising that we ourselves have been at best mistaken, and at worst deceived, about the reality of what we’ve seen or heard. Was my vivid dream a message from God, or was it because I ate too much blue cheese last night? Was God telling me to make a certain decision, or was it because it was simply what my heart desired the most?

The New Testament teaches us to have a healthy caution about experiences in light of the fact that we are all both sinners and imperfect in our ability to discern. So when someone says ‘I was visited by an angel,’ my first response should be to ask myself, ‘On what basis should I believe this claim to be true?’ Their singular testimony alone should not be enough. Other people saying they believe it’s true should not be enough. Even people having some kind of ‘spiritual’ experience in response to hearing their testimony or listening to the song should not be enough. All of those are purely subjective tests, and if I were to use this as my standard I would have to be consistent and endorse the many New Age and eastern mystical experiences people have in ashrams and other cultic settings as being truly from God.

As Christians, the ultimate objective test we must always apply is the testimony of Scripture. By that I don’t mean a verse or two taken out of context that appears on its own to support the claim. Rather, it’s the Scriptures properly and responsibly understood and taught through reading it in the context of the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27), and done by those who have done the hard work of preparing themselves to be, ‘one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.’ (2 Timothy 2:15). Anyone can find a verse or phrase from the Bible to support their preferred view about anything they want, especially when they can search through countless English versions until they find the wording they personally like. Diligent study of the Scriptures, on the other hand, is the best and really only way to be able to discern the truth and interpret our experiences rightly and in a way that glorifies God. Diligent study will show anyone who does it that the singular focus, direction and theme of the scriptures is Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord; and so any study of the Scriptures that leads us to anything or anyone aside from the truth than is in him is a mishandling of the Bible.

With all that said, there are a number of reasons why I cannot accept this video, the song, or the testimony of its composer as a genuine angelic revelation.

1. Who are they?

The first thing we should ask when presented with testimonies like this is, ‘Who is this person? Are they a member of a church, and if so what is that church?’

If they’re a lone ranger with no accountability or respect for God’s church, then they are immediately discredited, as they are rejecting the wholesale teaching of the Scriptures that all Christians are members of the body of Christ, and are called to function in a way that is ‘discerning the body’ (1 Corinthians 11:29). In this case, the man’s experience is in the context of a local church, so at least he has that accountability.

However, what church is he a member of?

SCOAN Thessalonica is a branch of the Nigerian megachurch founded and led until recently by ‘Prophet’ T. B. Joshua. The Synagogue Church Of All Nations is an independent pentecostal church that has grown as part of the wave of the African version of the ‘Word of Faith’ and ‘Prosperity Gospel’ movements. It’s a church that has brought great harm to the cause of the Gospel in Africa through its emphasis on guaranteed healing, demonic deliverance, use of ‘anointing water’, and a focus on Joshua as the ‘Man of God.’ Ironically, despite his teaching on healing, Joshua died in 2021 from a stroke at age 57. While he didn’t teach that his followers could become rich, he himself was reportedly worth upwards of $10 million US, and was one of the wealthiest pastors in Nigeria. Joshua’s techniques were remarkably similar to those of African witchdoctors, with a message that used fear (of spiritual powers, and of God’s judgement) to lead people to follow him and look to him to solve their problems. Revelations have been made of actors being paid to pose as people needing deliverance.

The SCOAN church has many characteristics that would classify it as a cult.

The leader of SCOAN Thessalonica, ‘Wiseman Harry’ was a disciple of T. B. Joshua for ten years before planting this church in Greece. HIs ministry is modelled on Joshua, with the same focus on himself as an authoritative, anointed prophet. (All of the videos produced by the church share the hashtag #manofgodharry). Like Joshua, his preaching is not about the Gospel of grace, but one of fear and works, with Jesus hardly getting a mention. (For example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tz8Aci1wxSU). All of this immediately calls into question the credibility of anything that comes out of this ‘church.’

2. Why should I believe them?

Secondly, the man gives a testimony of a dream he had with a boy, an angel and Jesus. Apparently the angel gave him a song with all the musical accompaniment to go with it. When he woke up he had to translate the words and music so it could be sung in church. The question is, why should I believe him? How do I know he is telling the truth about the details of his dream? And if he is accurately recounting what he saw in his dream, how can I know it was from God and was actually a real angel? The only thing I have to go on is his word. This was his own individual experience. No-one else saw what he saw, to corroborate his testimony (Biblically, there must be two or more witnesses to verify someone’s testimony.)

It’s no miracle that this man could arrange a song – he is a professional musician after all. And this ‘angelic’ song sounds suspiciously similar in style to other songs he has written, and at least to me has a particularly ‘Greek’ feel about it. Strangely, the copyright for the song is listed as ‘Angel of God’, but it seems the angel gave him permission to sell the song on Apple Music for $1.69 per download. So how do I know that it wasn’t just his own musical ruinations that led to a dream and a new idea for a song? Maybe I can, maybe I can’t. And that’s the point. I have no objective or scriptural reason to say this song is definitely one that angels have given to him. So I shouldn’t say it is.

3. Does it line up with Scripture?

Thirdly, the content of the song, while not necessarily heretical, is not the kind of song that the Scriptures would lead me to expect angels to sing. It sounds more like a song I would expect SCOAN church members to sing. 

While it at least acknowledges the Trinity, it contains a strange line about the Holy Spirit: ‘Glory to the Holy Spirit will rise’ This line coincidentally reflects the big emphasis in the SCOAN statement of faith on the Holy Spirit (The opening statement mentions the Holy Spirit first before anything else). This immediately makes me suspicious, when in a dream or vision of heaven the message given seems to confirm a church’s peculiar theological emphasis.

If we read the Scriptures, we see a rather different emphasis. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit, ‘…will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’ (John 16:13-14, see also 7:39). Some may say this is splitting hairs, but I don’t think so. The Holy Spirit’s work in the world is to glorify Jesus, not himself. Biblically speaking, ‘glory to Jesus the Son will rise,’ especially on the final day when every knee bows to him and declares him to be Lord, to the glory finally not of the Holy Spirit, but of the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11). Possibly T. B. Joshua believed he was correcting what he saw to be an underemphasis by the church on the power of the Spirit, as do many Pentecostals. But in fact, the New Testament itself, inspired by the same Spirit, puts the main focus on Jesus, not the Spirit.

The song also makes no mention of Christ’s redemptive work. This too is strange if it was an angelic song. We’re told that angels long to look into the things concerning the suffering and resurrection of Christ (1 Peter 1:11-12) and that Jesus was ‘seen by angels’ (1 Timothy 3:16), with them appearing at his conception, birth, temptation, suffering, resurrection and ascension. In Revelation 5, John sees a vision of the heavenly throne room in which the worship is led not by angels, but by the twenty four Elders, representing redeemed humanity, who sing of the slain lamb who ransomed them by his blood (Revelation 5:9). The myriads of angels respond to the Elders’ worship, not the other way around. They sing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12).

4. Does it honour Scripture?

Fourthly, this song, it’s claimed, has a special anointing, in which every word contain angelic power to minister ‘deliverance’ and ‘divine restoration’ to ‘anyone who sings them in faith.’ This is the most dangerous thing about this kind of claim: attributing power to the words of an angelic song that makes them equivalent to God’s word. This again reflects the theology of the SCOAN church and the ‘Word of Faith’ teaching they embrace, in which words are endowed with a spiritual creative power, and in which we can ‘release’ that power simply by speaking them. This teaching originates from the 19th century metaphysical ‘New Thought’ movements, and was imported into Pentecostal churches from the early 20th century.

The Bible nowhere teaches the idea that words have intrinsic spiritual power, in the way that this teaching says. It’s a view that is more akin to witchcraft with its spells and incantations.

If the song simply reflects or repeats Scripture (which some may argue it does), why then do we need it? Shouldn’t we just speak the words of Scripture and expect them to have the same effect? If it’s claimed the words are scriptural, but that it has unique power, then it’s actually being set above Scripture and given more authority, as if simply reading or singing the words of Scripture is not enough. 

And of course, if it is a new revelation in addition to Scripture, then it should be rejected, as that would mean Scripture is not enough, and needs to be supplemented (and for some reason God has waited for nearly 2000 years to add this ‘update’).

5. Is the claimed evidence purely subjective and experiential – or objective and Scriptural?

Finally, some will point to the emotional and physical experiences some people are having as they hear the song: tears, shaking, falling down, convulsions that look like demonic deliverance. Others testify to their own subjective feelings of release. A woman and a man claim to have seen angels appear above the musicians when the song is first performed. The video has over 3000 comments, mostly positive, and as I said above, over 1 million views. But does that prove anything?

This is a church where these kinds of manifestations are both expected and taught as true manifestations of the Spirit, even though there is no Biblical basis for them. The same phenomena can be witnessed in Hindu ashrams and other cult-like settings. The evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in a person is not physical manifestations like this, but an increasing maturity in Christ, a love for His word, and the Fruit of the Spirit being displayed – fruit that includes self control (Galatians 5:22-23). Falling over, shaking, rolling around does not prove anything about the Holy Spirit. His fruit can only be recognised and tested over time, as the he patiently shapes us over our whole Christian life into the image of Jesus.

Even if there are real miracles happening here, that also doesn’t prove the presence of the Spirit. Jesus said that there will be ‘…many [who] will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:22-23)

Experience is never an infallible test of authenticity. The only infallible test is God’s infallible Word. If your experience contradicts the Word, it’s not the work of the Spirit. If it seems to match with something the Word, but isn’t in conjunction with the truth of the Gospel, it’s not the work of the Spirit. If it’s something that’s neither taught nor forbidden by the Word, it may not be wrong, but it is wrong to declare it to be the work of the Spirit, unless it has produced long term fruit in keeping with a scriptural understanding of the Spirit’s work.

Similarly, thousands of people commenting and simply saying in effect, ‘I believe this is true’, and other people’s personal claims of visions don’t verify anything. Maybe if the whole church saw something, and it was recorded on video (since they seem to video everything that happens) there would be cause to consider that something was really happening, and it wasn’t just the power of suggestion and people coming already wanting to have an experience – or worse, a deception by the devil who has come, as we’re told he does, disguised as an angel of light.

No.

1. God is both sovereign and good

If we believe that God is sovereign, we must also believe that the Corona Virus is from His hand. When assuring us of the Father’s loving care for us, Jesus told us that He cares about such ‘trivial’ things as sparrows (Matthew 10:29), grass and flowers (Matthew 6:28), and the hairs of our head (Matthew 10:30). Nothing in creation is outside of His loving will. This means nothing happens by accident, and everything has a purpose. “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.” (Isaiah 54:7). God is in control of the Corona Virus, and it has come in keeping with His good will. If that idea bothers you, consider this: If I do not believe He has power over this virus (to both create it and destroy it), how can I be assured that He has the power to accomplish His work of salvation in me?

2. This world is not the way it should be

The whole creation has been subjected to frustration (Romans 8:20) by God, who ‘cursed the ground’ in response to Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:17). What this means is that all of creation bears the marks of judgement, and while still being essentially ‘good’ in God’s eyes, is now characterised by decay, death and disfunction. God has done this so that we would be surrounded by the signs that humanity has failed in our mandate to rule over creation, that we have turned away from Him and worshipped the creature rather than Him as Creator, but also that we should be looking forward to the new heavens and earth. The frustration of creation, including this virus, is designed to give us hope for the day when we hear God say, ‘Look, I am making all things new!’ (Revelation 21:5)

3. God is patient and gracious

Humanity has faced far worse calamities than the Corona Virus. The Influenza pandemic of 1918 killed 20-50 million people, and the Black Death of the mid 1300’s killed between 75 and 200 million Europeans. While God takes no pleasure in anyone’s death  (Ezekiel 33:11), we can be thankful that the Corona Virus has brought about relatively few deaths, and for most people who contract it the symptoms are mild. This is an indication of God’s patience with this present generation, in that He does not give us what our sins deserve. Instead, He gives us some small insight into what things could be like if He were to allow the curse to run its full course. Why does he do this? So that we will wake up, repent and turn to Him to receive the grace and mercy He is constantly holding out to us.

4. God is good even to His enemies

‘We have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.’ (1 Timothy 4:10). God has a special care for those who are his people – saving and preserving us for eternal life; but this does not mean He doesn’t provide for, protect and care for those outside the community of His people – even those who are His sworn enemies! We can see the goodness of God at work through our secular governments and health authorities, using both Christians and non-Christians alike to do good to us all. We should be thankful for all people – regardless of their personal beliefs or religious convictions, who have a genuine care for the safety and wellbeing of our community – and we should recognise that this is the kindness of God to all people, intended to lead them to repentance (Romans 2:4).

5. Human systems are fragile

As sinful human beings we can very quickly and easily become prideful in what we have built and achieved, thinking that, like the city and tower of Babel, we can make a name for ourselves apart from God (Genesis 11:4). We forget that over the course of human history empires and civilisations have risen and fallen, all under His sovereign hand (Acts 17:26). We make our plans, but ultimately it is the Lord’s purposes that will prevail (Proverbs 19:21). Travel restrictions, closing of schools and universities, shortages of essential goods and services, and many more precautions we have been forced to take highlight for us that apart from God, all human attempts to run this world will be inadequate and flawed, and should cause us to look forward to the Day when “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)

6. We are mortal

While most of us are not living in fear that the Corona Virus will result in our death, we are all certainly aware of those who have died, and it is likely in the coming weeks and months that very few of us will not have some connection with someone who has died or come close to death, directly or indirectly, as a result of this pandemic. Living in an affluent society with a high life expectancy has caused us to forget that the length of time we live is determined by God (Job 14:5, Psalm 139:16), and that while we think we can be in control of when we die, that moment is up to Him. Any experience where we know of or witness death should be a solemn reminder to us that we, ‘do not even know what will happen tomorrow,’ and we are, ‘a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.’ (James 4:14); and it should convey to us a sense of urgency to be sure that we stand in right relationship with our Creator, ready for the day when our time in this world comes to an end.

7. We need the Gospel

The Gospel of Jesus shows us beyond doubt that God is both sovereign and good in the midst of suffering. The Eternal Son has taken on our humanity, walked alongside us, suffered with us and for us, and borne in himself the full weight of the curse as he hung in our place on Calvary’s cross. This same God whose judgements are in all the earth (Psalm 105:7) – including in viral pandemics – has entered into the place of judgement on behalf of sinners, bearing not only all the guilt of our sin, but also, “taking up our infirmities and bearing our diseases.”. (Matthew 8:17) The Gospel message declares to us that through faith in this Jesus we can know in this life the complete forgiveness of sin and welcome into the Father’s family, and in the life to come the resurrection of our bodies and an eternity not only free of death and mourning and crying and pain (Revelation 21:4), but also one in which we see God face to face. The glory of that will far outweigh our light and momentary troubles (2 Corinthians 4:17). The Corona virus pandemic is not only an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate self sacrificial love toward our neighbours; it is also an open door to share and proclaim the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.

I think we Christians have largely misappropriated Matthew 5:16: ‘In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’
We use it as an excuse to promote ourselves and our works, seeking affirmation from the world. Both the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ are guilty – we can do it whether we are standing up for pure doctrine and the rights of unborn children; or the rights of refugees and queer folk and the need to deinstitutionalise the church. All of it can so easily become a waving of our own banner, desperately seeking for someone to say, ‘Hey, you’re a really good, authentic Christian, you know?’
I think Jesus is telling us here that it’s not about us, or even our good works. Light is an image of the Gospel message. That’s the way it’s consistently used throughout the Scriptures. When God makes himself known – as He has done clearly in Jesus Christ – it is a Light shining into the darkness of human sin and despair.
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Isaiah 60:1-3
Notice here who Israel’s ‘Light’ is? The Lord, whose glory has risen, like the sun, upon them. What will attract the nations to Israel is not Israel themselves, but the fact that the Lord is among them. This is essentially the Gospel message:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Mark 1:14-15
Both Light and Salt (Matthew 5:13) are primarily images of what God has done to redeem and restore His people. To be the ‘light of the world’ (and the ‘salt of the earth’) is essentially to be the heralds of this Good News.
So what has this to do with our good works? Notice that when we are letting our light shine, people will come to a particular conclusion about our works. And this is the point of what Jesus is saying – not so much that they will see our good works, but that their response will be to give glory to the Father.
You see, our works will always be seen, whether we like it or not. We know this all too well right now, as institutional churches in the West are being dragged through the mud of their own failure to protect women and children in their midst. In this case, the world is seeing our evil works, and the name of the Father is being profaned among them, just as in the days of the Exile:
I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries. In accordance with their ways and their deeds I judged them. But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’
Ezekiel 36:19-20
Yahweh had judged his own people by exposing their sin and shame to the world, sending them into exile, where people saw them and said, ‘What kind of god do you have? Yo must not think much of Him, if you are going to dishonour Him so much that you must be vomited out of the land He gave you!’ Sound familiar?
The solution to this, we think, is to work on restoring our reputation in the world. To start doing good works, and to point to them and say, ‘See, we’re not that bad after all. You should trust and like us again. Please. We don’t want our churches to get small and die. Please come back?’ But this will not work, on two counts.
Firstly, the horse has already well and truly bolted. Christendom is dead, and people are no longer interested in being part of the church simply as a social or cultural club – which, if we are honest, has always been a fair chunk of the church-going population in the West for the last 1000+ years. We can no longer expect the church to be an institution that is endorsed by the state and society. Thankfully, Christianity in the West is gradually reverting back to the grass-roots, countercultural movement it has always been.
Secondly, even if we end up doing a good job at our good works, and an even better job at marketing ourselves and our good works; even if many people in the world say to us, ‘OK church, we see that you’ve been trying harder, and we’re prepared to trust you again; you can come back into the clubhouse,’ then we will simply have a lot of people giving glory to us, not to our Father in Heaven.
Out task is not to hold out our good works; it is to hold out the light of the Gospel. This Gospel tells us that the Father is so full of mercy and grace that He even perseveres with and forgives the vile, hypocritical sinner who goes about profaning His name with their lives. This Gospel tells us that while judgement begins with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17, Amos 3:2), it is so that mercy might flow out to the nations. It tells us that Jesus Christ died not only for his friends, but also for his enemies.
This is a Gospel that can only be proclaimed faithfully when it’s proclaimed in humility, by people who know that they are great sinners, but Jesus is an even greater Saviour. When we are in this place, we should not even want to wave the flag of our own works, because we know that apart from grace even our righteousness is like filthy rags.
This light of the Gospel will not lead people to say, ‘You are good people, because you do good things.’ It will cause them to say, ‘Your Father is a good Father, because He does good things – and if He can do good things even through you weak, hypocritical, compromised Christians, then maybe his grace in Jesus Christ is big enough to do something good in me?’ The Gospel will make people see that the basis for knowing God is not our good works – because no matter how good we think our works are, they will always fall short – but that it is the grace of Jesus Christ that says, ‘I will remember their sins no more’ (Jeremiah 31:34).
For too long we have misappropriated Matthew 5:16, and made the Gospel out to be a moralising message of, ‘Don’t do that, or God will be angry with you; do this, and God will be happy with you – just like us good Christians.’ A true appropriation of Mathew 5:16 is to say with Paul:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
1 Timothy 1:15

So many ‘Christian Living’ books and courses seem to fit the ‘Self Help’ genre more than the ‘Discipleship’ genre.

Most are written by people who are successful at the aspect of Living they are teaching about. They generally have a thriving marriage and obedient children who are planning to be missionaries. They read their Bible meaningfully every day, have overcome mental illness, know how to be positive in every situation, normally share the Gospel with strangers, especially those next to them in the aeroplane, and are by-and-large healthy, happy and good looking. Often they will also have some kind of secular high level degree – normally in the medical or scientific field, showing they must know more about Life than those who have only studied their Bible. Those who are also pastors seem to be whimsical communicators, lead one of the country’s fastest growing churches, and have an endorsement by at least 3 other celebrity pastors.

The message this sends is, ‘If you do what I did, you can have what I have.’ This helps us to conveniently forget the truth that they only have what they have as a gift of God’s grace, not because they did what they did. Sure, what they did was involved in the whole process of God giving them what they have, but because it’s a gift, He deserves all the credit for freely giving them what they have. And because He is free to give, He is also free to decide who gets what, and who doesn’t get what.

If I think that by doing what they did I will get what they have, I am treating grace as a commodity, dispensed from the divine vending machine I call ‘God.’ My actions determine what God does and what He gives, and unless I put the coin in the slot and push the button, God won’t give me what I think I need.

Not only does this belittle God, but it exalts me. It makes my Christian Living into something that is based on strengths, when it should be based on weakness.

‘…to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’

(2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Whatever Paul’s ‘thorn’ was – a besetting sin, a physical disability, a spiritual attack, or whatever – chances are someone somewhere has written a book about how to overcome it. (And it’s a pity they didn’t write it back in AD 50, as Paul’s ministry would have been so much more effective!). The Lord’s answer to Paul wasn’t to give him a book or a course or 5 easy steps to removing the thorn. He’d already enabled Paul to see that if the thorn was to be removed, it would have to be the Lord who did it (hence his asking). But in this he was teaching Paul that knowing His sovereignty wasn’t just about accepting whatever comes our way in some kind of fatalistic surrender. It’s about knowing His sufficient grace in times of rock-bottom weakness, even when it seems as though that weakness is here to stay.

I think Paul came to realise that as long as he was trying to deal with and overcome his thorn (or to work out how to teach others to live victorious, thorn-free lives) his focus remained on himself, and he was not able to get on with the high calling that God had put on his life to make the power of Christ known to the nations. It is possible to be so focussed on cultivating the most godly, disciplined and holy spiritual life, that we never get around to seeking our highest calling – giving glory to Jesus Christ by declaring his praises among the nations.

If we take our cue from the world, and make the Christian Life a strengths-based exercise, we will never be content – as Paul was – with weakness. If we think that simply doing what they did we will have what they have, we will end up either prideful (if we succeed), or disillusioned (if we fail), and neither of these bring glory to God. We either pat ourselves on the back for our correct operation of the Divine Vending Machine, or we make God out to be unreliable or weak because He didn’t let us have what they have, even though we did what they did.

This has implications too for how we read and apply His word. A strengths-based Christian Life will treat His commands as instructions – guidelines and principles to be applied to our lives to make us successful; they become a means to achieving personal holiness.

However, someone swimming in grace in the midst of weakness will hear Jesus’ commands and they will fill them with joy – to think that He would consider such a broken clay vessel to be the custodian of such a great treasure! This person will see that the commands of Jesus are not about  making us powerful, but about displaying His power; and the weaker we are, the more His power becomes apparent, because our ongoing failure to perfectly keep His commands shows that we live by His grace, not our works.

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 

Acts 17:30-31

If your worldview includes a personal, sovereign Creator who guides the destiny of human history, and constantly sustains every living creature, then believing in resurrection is a no-brainer.

This is the worldview presented by Paul to the Greek philosophers in Athens. He challenged their materialistic view of the universe, and their notion of fate in which God, if real, was nothing much more than an impersonal principle. Similar in many ways to modern naturalism, the Epicureans and Stoics lived in a universe that consisted of space occupied by matter, and guided either by reason (Stoics) or randomness (Epicureans). Both believed that meaning in life can be found in living for the now, as there is no guarantee of anything beyond the grave. To them the concept of resurrection was not only illogical, but completely foreign – to the extent that they thought Paul was speaking of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Anastasis’ as another couple of gods to be added to the Athenian pantheon.

Paul knows that the resurrection of Jesus and its sequel, the general resurrection, is something alien to their worldview. So, rather that trying to prove to them that Jesus rose from the dead, he explains to them how Jesus’ resurrection fits into the reality of God and his world – a reality about which, in their ‘wisdom,’ they were ignorant.

This God has created the world, and has done so with a goal in mind, and so He has been working to guide people and nations, with the aim of bring them into relationship with Himself. He calls all people to repent in light of the coming judgement, and this call is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In this worldview, the appointment of Jesus as judge – the one who will bring the consummation of all human history – is confirmed (assured, proven) by his resurrection. In a sense Paul has communicated to these pagan Greeks the same message as Peter did to the Jews at Pentecost, only in ‘Jewish-jargon free language’.

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing…

…Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Acts 2:32-33, 36

In the Jewish worldview (apart from the Sadducees’ annihilationsim), the resurrection was the Great Hope. The new Heavens and Earth promised through Isaiah (65:17, 66:22) would mean the restoration of the people, in the land, with Yahweh dwelling in their midst – the realisation of the Abrahamic promise. For them it was not so much a matter of can resurrection happen as when it will happen. The Gospel message was that the risen Jesus was the firstfruits of this general resurrection, which would inaugurate the new creation.

This is why when preaching to the Jews, the Apostles spoke of the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, because the issue at stake was whether Jesus truly was the Messiah – the resurrection established his identity as the ‘Son of God’ – the King of the Jews.

For the Greeks however, the concept of Messiah was alien and meaningless. While the Jews demand a sign – ie. miracles that verify a person is from God, the Greeks look for wisdom – ie. something that makes logical sense. (1 Corinthians 1:22). And so Paul shows them a worldview of which they are totally ignorant – a worldview in which resurrection makes sense – and calls them not to believe in the individual event of the resurrection, but in the totality of the worldview.

The Jews on the day of Pentecost were to repent of their rejection of the risen Jesus as their Messiah; the Greeks were to repent of their ignorant worldview that shut out the possibility of a risen saviour. For the Jews, a crucified and risen Jesus was a stumbling block; they were called to see Him as the power of God. For the Greeks, a crucified and risen Jesus was foolishness; they were called to see Him as the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:23-24) In both cases, the Resurrection is proclaimed, not proven.

What does this mean for us as we seek to tell a materialistic, naturalistic generation that Jesus is risen from the dead?

Modern evidentialist apologetics will seek to use the wisdom of the world to prove the resurrection with historical and legal argument, which says that if we can be convinced that if Jesus rose, then we are bound by logic to then accept everything else that the Bible says about Jesus. In the end, such an approach exalts human wisdom, such that anyone who is convinced by the evidence can take pride in the fact that they were smart enough to consider the evidence and come to a right conclusion.

We should, however, take a leaf out of Paul’s book. We need to understand enough about people’s worldview to both respect and criticise it; and we need to know enough about our own worldview to be able to proclaim and articulate it. We need to know why it is that Jesus’ resurrection marks the turning point of both the Biblical story and of the flow of human history, and why it is that our faith stands or falls on the words, ‘He is Risen.’ We need to be bold enough to call people to repent of their naturalistic ignorance, and to embrace the reality of a God who has been seeking and drawing people to Himself through His Son.

We need to accept that the world, by its wisdom, will never know God, but that they will be saved through the foolish message of the cross.

True Feminism is not about special privileges for women, but about equal dignity, value and opportunity for all people, regardless of gender.

Last week it was claimed on national television that ‘Islam is the most feminist religion.’ Since that claim, many have been debating its accuracy.

Sometimes that best way to disprove a claim is not to show why it’s wrong, but simply to point out an alternative that clearly trumps it.

So, here’s a few things Biblical Christianity gives women:

  1. A knowledge that they are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This means women and men may equally be representatives of God – ambassadors of His authority in ruling over creation, and communicators of His character in their love and care for other creatures and fellow human beings. No other religion contains the concept of ‘The Image of God,’ being applied to all people.
  2. As ‘Daughters of Eve,’ women have a wonderful and unique privilege of giving life in a way a man cannot. ‘The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.’ (Genesis 3:20). It’s significant to see that this statement is made immediately after the man is told that because of the curse of sin, he will labour and toil, and eventually die and return to the dust. As an act of faith, he knew that this was not a final word, since God would show His ongoing patience, care and love for humanity through Even and all her daughters; and ultimately in her descendant who would be the saviour of the world (Genesis 3:15).
  3. In Old Testament Israel, women were often given special protection under the law, in recognition of the fact that they were more likely to be the victims of violence from men (eg. Deuteronomy 22:25-29). To our modern 21st century western ears some of these laws seem patriarchal, however if we understand them in the cultural context of the time, they are laws that are pro-woman. These laws have provided some basis for the Western legal system that allows liberty, equality and protection for all citizens.
  4. Jesus welcomed, healed, taught, ate and drank with women, may of whom were considered outcasts by the culture of the time. (John 4:1-45) His confrontation of a gang of men about to stone a woman caught in adultery exposed their hypocrisy in assuming her guilt, and their moral superiority. (John 8:2-10) As far as Jesus is concerned, women and men are to be given equal opportunities to receive grace and forgiveness; as well as in the gracious call to repent and turn from a sinful lifestyle.
  5. In Christian gatherings men and women sit together. This may not sound significant to us today, but in the first century it was a radical departure from the Synagogue practice of separating men and women. Not only this, but women were active participants in the worship, both praying and prophesying in church – also a radical liberation of women (1 Corinthians 11:5-16 – The caveats in this passage about head coverings are to do with cultural sensitivities, as well as honouring the God-given distinctives between genders.)
  6. In Christ, women and men are ‘Joint heirs of the grace of life,’ (1 Peter 3:7) and ‘all one in Jesus Christ,’ (Galatians 3:28). Neither gender deserves grace any more or less than the other, since grace is not about deserving, but about God giving freely without partiality.
  7. The Christian hope for the New Creation is that many aspects of this world that give rise to discrimination, bigotry and oppression (not just between genders, but also between race, class, role, etc.) will pass away. ‘Heaven’ will not be populated by men served by virgins (Islam) or women as child-producers for new worlds (Mormonism); neither will it be populated by homogeneous, gender-neutral angels (A culturally popular idea, started by Swedenborgianism, the religion of Helen Keller). Rather, the New Heavens and Earth will be filled with the glory of God as Men and Women, both transformed into the image of Jesus, love and serve God and one another in full freedom and holiness. Adam’s words of Genesis 3:20 will be somewhat reflected in that this renewed humanity will be called ‘The Bride, the Wife of the Lamb’ (Revelation 21:9) An incredible dignity and honour will be bestowed on women by having attributes of their gender bestowed on this redeemed, eternal community.

So I wonder. Which religion is the most feminist?

wa075-035055-27Recently I and a couple of my student leaders attended an ‘Interfaith Welcome,’ to which we were invited by a University chaplain. We did so partly to show respect to the team who operate ‘Oasis’ (the religious centre on campus), and partly to observe and give feedback to the Christian club’s leadership team so they could make wise choices about how they as a Christian club would relate to and interact with the Multi-Faith Chaplaincy.

Having observed similar events in the past, I went with certain expectations, and was not disappointed to have them all met.

After being welcomed, our attention was directed to large bowl containing pebbles, which the presenter then submerged in water – symbolically representing the many religious faiths which while unique, make up the one riverbed, united by the water of our common ideals and humanity. We were invited to take a pebble from the bowl (I declined, as I did not know what we would be required to do with this pebble once we had it).

We were then give a series of pithy thoughts, including a story of a man who left his village with his only destination being ‘away from here’; a quotation from the Dalai Lama: ‘All major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that is love, compassion and forgiveness the important thing is they should be part of our daily lives.’; and a call for people of all faiths to be working together on campus, focussing on ‘mutuality’.

Participants were then invited to return their pebble, this time to create a line of stones, indicating that we are all, ultimately, on the same path together.

The ceremony concluded with a ‘Christian’ blessing (which contained nothing distinctively Christian),  followed by an Aboriginal blessing, and an invitation (which was not taken up) for anyone else to add a greeting or blessing from their own tradition.

The three of us then made a discreet exit to avoid being included in the group photo that was to be posted on Facebook.


I called this post ‘The Failed Interfaith Experiment’ because this experience highlights a number of reasons why I think such endeavours will never become the revolutionary, culture-changing phenomenon that their proponents often envisage.

Firstly, this event was entirely ‘horizontal’ – in that it was simply people talking to people, interacting with people, talking about (or implying) the Divine rather than addressing Him (or She, It, etc…). It implicitly  presented religion as a human endeavour, and contained no acknowledgement of divine presence or activity. This approach would not resonate with the majority of ‘religious traditions’ in which activities such as prayer, singing, reading, preaching, meditation and many other things are understood to be direct connection and communication between humans and the Divine.

While this could be seen as a positive thing – we weren’t expected, for example, to pray in a way that was incongruent with our understanding of God – it means that these kinds of events will not be able to offer any kind of ‘spiritual nourishment’ to the participants; they will be largely humanistic, rather than spiritual. The moment they cross over into spiritual activity someone will inevitable be excluded or offended.

Secondly, in their attempt to be inclusive of everyone, the organisers of the event were actually being exclusive. Anyone coming from a conservative religious tradition – such as an Evangelical Christian, and Orthodox Jew, or a Wahhabi Muslim – would not feel free to participate without compromising their own convictions that their faith is the only path to truth and to God. Some would find the Dalai Lama’s quote not only untrue, but even offensive, especially if their people have faced horrific suffering at the hands of people of other ‘religious traditions’.

So such an event is inclusive only of those who either already hold to a universalist or syncretist theology, or who have not really thought through the implications of their participation and how it could implicitly compromise the convictions they hold dear.

Thirdly, this kind of event actually holds very little appeal to the majority of secular, religiously apathetic Australians. This was evidenced by the fact that apart from us three, there was only one other white Australian present who was not a part of the Oasis team (ie. who was there voluntarily). The message of interfaith activities is, ‘No matter what your beliefs are, we are all on the same path,’ and this is interpreted by the average non-religious person as, ‘So if what you believe doesn’t matter in the end, why even bother with religious belief at all?’

This means that interfaith activities end up being essentially ‘in house’ and have very little potential for having any impact on the wider community.

Fourthly, these kinds of activities contain their own inherent contradictions which cause them to lack any ring of authenticity.

As I have already mentioned, while claiming to be all inclusive, they exclude those with conservative faiths.

Statements like the one made by the Dalai Lama cannot actually be maintained: Do all religious traditions really carry the same message? Does this include the tradition held to by ISIS that lead them to slaughter, rape and pillage? Or the ancient cult of Molech in which children were sacrificed to fire? Or the modern American Hebrew Israelite movement that declares white people to be devils? The Dalai Lama’s claim is ignorant and naive at best. While sounding warm and fuzzy, it actually offers no real solution to those who are wanting to both authenticate their own faith, and relate well to those of other faiths, because it ignores the fact that our differences are significant and do matter.

In an attempt to offend no-one, these events can often contain much ambiguity, relativism and obscurity – apart from the repeated dogmatic claim that this is how things should be. Making an absolute claim that there are no absolutes is symptomatic of confusion, not clarity. It may appeal to the emotions – in which case it becomes a handy excuse for not standing form on one’s convictions – but it does not ring true to a mind that is interested in truth, reason and consistency.


I have tried to write this post from the perspective of an objective observer, uncoloured (I hope) by my Christian convictions. However I must also point out that there is another reason why the Interfaith Experiment is a failed one.

It is worthy of notice that many interfaith activities, at least in the West, are initiated by those coming from a liberal, ‘progressive’ Christian perspective. In all cases they flow out of a milieu in which the Gospel and the authority of Scripture has been watered down or abandoned altogether. In this sense, while interfaith proponents sincerely believe they are working for God and the gospel (whatever they believe that to be), they are in fact, in the words of Gamaliel (Acts 5:39), ‘…fighting against God.’

‘All worship the same God,’  ‘All religions are the same,’ and ‘The key to world peace is interfaith cooperation,’ are relatively recent ideas in human history. Future generations should not be surprised if they observe that such ideas and those who promote them will have slipped into obscurity as yet another attempt by humanity to rule ourselves and solve our problems apart from the True and Living God made known in His Son, Jesus Christ.