Talk one of Flinders Uni Jesus Week 2016google

‘Why does God allow suffering?’ is possibly the most common response people have to the Christian claim, ‘God is love.’

Some people feel that religion has nothing to say to us on the question of suffering. Maybe you are one of these people. Maybe you are sick of religious platitudes, ‘It will all work out in the end,’ ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ or even judgemental statements, ‘God is punishing you!’ ‘You just don’t have enough faith!’ Maybe you have been at the receiving end of promises to the effect that God will heal you or solve your problem, and it hasn’t happened. Or, maybe you just feel that religious answers to the problem of suffering just don’t cut it, or lack intellectual credibility.

It may be that you are reading this because you or someone you love is facing or had faced great suffering, and you are still searching for answers as to why it happened, and whether it is possible to believe that God is loving.

Or may be that for you this is purely an intellectual issue, because, like me, you have never really gone through serious suffering – at least compared to many people in this world. The danger for people like us is that we can treat suffering glibly – either by using one of those platitudes that I mentioned, or by using the reality of suffering as an excuse to justify a refusal to believe in God. Both of these actually trivialise suffering, and neither prepare us to deal with the actual experience of suffering.

Whatever our position, we cannot avoid the fact that every one of us has, or will, encounter suffering in some form. Even if your life is long and relatively comfortable, you will be confronted with suffering in the lives of people you know; not to mention the reality of your fellow human beings around the world who fill our news bulletins with stories of war, oppression, famine, poverty and plague.

Whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have some view on this issue.

Depending on where you stand, the issue of suffering is either complicated or simplified by introducing the idea that the is a good, loving God who created and is in charge of the universe. For some, a loving God and world with suffering are two incompatible ideas, and so they conclude that God is either not good, or not real. For others, belief that God is both real and loving, is the greatest comfort and source of strength when facing suffering.

I would like to suggest, based on my reading and observation, that the first response is more common among those who try to deal with the problem intellectually – ie. those who may be observing, but not necessarily experiencing suffering; while the second is more commonly expressed by those actually experiencing suffering. It is certainly true that religious – and particularly christian – belief is stronger and growing in parts of the world in which suffering is greater, and especially on places where people’s suffering is due to religious persecution. The Christian church, without fail, has always thrived and grown where Christians have suffered most, and is only declining here in the West where most Christians are comfortable and feel safe.

This begs the question: what is it about the Christian faith that enables people to not just cope with, but even thrive when suffering?

It has been said that religion is one of humanity’s attempts to come to terms with the enigma of suffering, injustice and death.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (Karl Marx)

All major religions do try to come to terms with suffering. And they take different approaches. Some may say that it’s a test – to see if we are worthy of God and deserving of entry into paradise. Some say it is an illusion – a symptom of our being trapped in this physical world – from which we must liberate ourselves through enlightenment and suppressing our desires. Others say it’s just the harsh reality of a live that is controlled by the will of a distant, uncaring God, and we must just surrender to it and not ask ‘why’.

Amidst all these attempts, Christianity offers a solution that I put to you is much more satisfying than all of these. When I use the word ‘satisfying’ I don’t merely mean it makes people feel better. Rather, I mean that it provides both the understanding and the tools that enable a person to both live this life with meaning and significance, and to have a hope for the future of both this world, and of life even beyond the grave.

Firstly, the Bible has a realistic and honest view of suffering.

Suffering is a major theme throughout the Bible, and in fact it contains several documents in it that are wholly concerned with the issue (Job, Lamentations, Habakkuk, Ecclesiastes, etc.). And the Bible is raw and honest about suffering, and in endorsing people’s questioning of God about it. Here is an example:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest…
…I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads…
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey open their mouths wide against me…
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.
(Excerpts from Psalm 22)

Note that the writer of this song is not merely pondering a question: rather he is requiring God to explain himself. The writer’s suffering is real, and he has very little – if any – hope left; as far as he is concerned, God has abandoned him.

What we need to see is that God is OK with having this kind of sentiment in the Bible. He is big enough to have questions asked of Him and to not be knocked off his perch. He does not get angry at people for being real about suffering, and for demanding to know where He is when they suffer, and why it seems that He is not responding to their calls for help.

If you have your questions, doubts, fears and anger about yours or others’ suffering, God welcomes you to bring it to Him. He will not reject you or be angry at you for asking Him to give an answer to your pain.

Secondly, the Christian faith provides a coherent reason for why suffering exists.

In the Bible, suffering is an intruder into a world that was designed to be good. God created the world and humanity to be living in harmony with one another and with God. When humanity, the world, and God are in right relationship, everything will function as it should. We are made to live under God’s loving authority, caring for one another and for the world in which we live. This, however, is not the case. Human beings have rejected a relationship with God on His terms, and as a result both we, and this world have become dysfunctional. Behind the problem of suffering lies a deeper problem – a moral one.

The Bible presents suffering, from this perspective, on two ways:

First, suffering is the natural consequence of human failure or ‘sin’. Because God has made this world the way it is, actions have consequences. If you smoke, you will most likely get cancer or emphysema. If you drink and drive, you will increase  the chance of dying or killing someone in a crash. If you treat people with disrespect, you will in turn be treated with disrespect. If we exploit and misuse the earth’s resources, we will ruin the ecosystem and cause problems for ourselves. A large proportion of human suffering can be traced ultimately to human greed, selfishness, laziness and malice. In that sense, we have no place to blame or accuse God for suffering which, to put it bluntly, is our own fault.

Second, suffering is a reminder of God’s Justice. Once Jesus was asked about the tragedy of the slaughter of some Jews by the Romans:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:1-5

It may seem that Jesus is being insensitive and harsh here in his response, by telling people to repent lest they perish. It’s important to see that Jesus does not say, ‘These people were being punished for some sin they committed.’ In fact, he seems to complicate the dilemma by bringing up another incident – a ‘natural disaster’. It is most likely that the Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate had tried to rebel against Rome, and one could argue that they had brought their fate upon their own heads. However in the case of the tower of Siloam – ultimately the only question may be, ‘Why did God allow that to happen to people who were just minding their own business?’

Jesus does not give a direct answer to that question, but instead uses the incident to point his hearers to a greater issue: every human being faces the prospect of suffering that is too great for us to imagine, and which makes suffering in this world pale in comparison. This is the suffering of being banished forever from the goodness and love of God – something which we all deserve because of our rejection of Him – that which the Bible calls, ‘hell’. The Bible tells us that God has deliberately, but only partially, handed us and this world over to our dysfunction,  to be cursed, with all of the suffering that entails. This is in order that our suffering – whether caused by human evil or by ‘natural causes’ will serve as wake-up call, or a warning to us about the full consequences of rejecting God and arrogantly insisting on living life our way. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia series, put it this way: “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Suffering is like the rumble strip on the edge of a road – a warning that if we continue the way we are going, we’re in trouble.

Thirdly, God has provided the only foolproof solution to the problem of suffering.

God does not stand at a distance or ignore human suffering; nor is He uncaring or unmoved by suffering, but rather comes closer to us that we can even imagine. We see this clearly in the person of Jesus.

A church near where I live has on its fence a banner saying, ‘Jesus was a refugee’. This is a reference to when Jesus’ family had to flee their home country to escape the king of the time who was trying to find Jesus to kill him.

During his public life, Jesus lived without a home, and was at times hungry, thirsty, and physically exhausted. Because of his teaching on love and justice, the time he spent with the outcasts and ostracised, and because of his claims about himself, the religious authorities finally had him arrested and sentenced to death. All his friends deserted and betrayed him. He faced an corrupt trial, and was handed over to the Romans to be beaten, publicly humiliated, and to face one of the most excruciatingly painful forms of execution devised by human beings – crucifixion (in fact, it is the latin word for cross, ’crucis’ that forms the basis for the word, ‘excruciating’).

But Jesus was not just a man who, as some have suggested, showed us how to practice the virtue of enduring under unjust suffering. Jesus is God in person. In Jesus, God the Son has entered into human experience, walked our streets, lived our life, experienced our pain. In Jesus we see that God has not chosen to stand at a distance and remotely fix the problem of suffering. If He did, the only way would be to remove forever every person who is responsible in some way for causing suffering – and they would mean everyone, including you and I. Instead, God in love has chosen to deal with the problem not from the outside, but from the inside. What is first and foremost ‘Revolutionary’ about the love of God is that this God, the creator of the universe, who is above and immune to suffering, has chosen to enter into our suffering and walk alongside us in it; to plumb the depths of human agony both physically and psychologically. In answer to our question, ‘God, where are you when I suffer?’ God calls out from the cross, ‘Here I am.’

But this is more than just God sympathising with us. In Jesus, God has dealt with the suffering problem by dealing with the moral problem.

Jesus not only experienced the existential, physical suffering of abandonment, humiliation, torture and physical death. He also experienced the ultimate suffering to which, as I said earlier, that all points. Moments before his died, Jesus called out,

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Did you notice that these are the exact words from the song we read earlier? In that moment, Jesus was experiencing the ultimate suffering: abandonment by God – the abandonment that all people rightly deserve.

Not only did Jesus share in our suffering, but he stood in our place and came under the punishment we deserve. The Bible puts it like this:

Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
(1 Peter 3:18)

In Jesus’ death, the moral problem behind evil and suffering in this world has been dealt with: by taking our sin and evil onto himself, and by suffering the consequences of our sin in our place, he has ‘reversed the curse’ for anyone who comes to him and receives what he has done for them.

God comes close to us in Jesus, and shared in our suffering, not simply to fix our problems, but to bring us into a relationship with Himself.

God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.
(German Theologian Jurgen Moltmann)

This explains why it is that Christians throughout the last 2000 years have persevered through suffering, and why the Christian message is able to give hope and meaning to people in the depths of pain. Christians have a revolutionary hope which is based on the fact that Jesus’ death was not the final act. God raised Jesus from the dead to demonstrate that this moral problem has been dealt with – forgiveness and reconciliation has been won by him – and that for those who trust in him, suffering will only every be temporary. Christians are able to make the outrageous claim that in comparison with what God has in store for us – a world which will not only be free from suffering, death and grief, but also a place where we will see God face to face and know only his goodness and love – in light of that our sufferings become ‘light and momentary’, not even worth comparing to what is to come.

That’s why Jesus word’s that we saw earlier, ‘Repent, or you too will perish,’ are not harsh words, but loving words. The same one who calls us to trust in him and turn back to God is the same one who has suffered our pain and paid the price to enable us to return to God.

I urge you to hear his call. Repent, and put your trust in him.

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Shepherd

While preparing a workshop on leadership, I came across a paper I gave in 2010 at a NCTM Ministry School on pastoral ministry in the Church. I thought it was still worth a read…

The Gift of the Spirit and Pastors

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. 17And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone . . . ’

   24So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. 25Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it.

 26Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27And a young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ 28And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them.’ 29But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ (Num. 11:16–17, 24–29).[1]

The Father’s goal from the beginning has been to create a community of Spirit-filled children, led by Spirit-filled men and women. In the above passage Moses catches a glimpse of this goal. The purpose of the Spirit’s work in this situation was that Moses’ burden of feeding and leading the people might be shared (see 11:9–15); it was the Lord’s answer to Moses’ complaints about the people’s complaints about the manna which in their eyes didn’t compare to the gourmet food of Egypt. In the Lord’s lavish grace, He is willing to provide meat for His people, even though the manna was adequate; and in His holy love He also sends disciplining judgement in conjunction with the gift, so that Israel may ultimately understand that their covenant relationship with Yahweh is not one where He simply panders to their every whim. The seventy elders are set apart and enabled by the Spirit for their role,[2] and unex­pectedly demonstrate their appointment by prophesying—which begs the question: why do you need to prophesy in order to give people meat?

As the story unfolds, we see that their role was not necessarily distribution of food, but to in some way stand with Moses ‘around the tent’ (v. 24) in the judgement that followed:

And the people rose all that day and all night and all the next day, and gathered the quail. Those who gathered least gathered ten homers. And they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. 33While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck down the people with a very great plague (Num. 11:32–33).

The empowerment of the Spirit was required for these men to minister to the whole nation of Israel in the midst of the Lord’s gracious action of judgement. Presumably they are the same body of men who accompanied Moses at the giving of the Law and the sprinkling of the blood of the covenant on the people (Exodus 24:1–12), who ‘beheld God, and ate and drank’ (v. 11), and thus were qualified not to guard the tent against the people, but to facilitate the people’s access to the forgiveness that would be provided through the numerous sacrifices that would be offered in the wake of the plague. The contaminated quail was in hindsight seen to be the gracious action for the Shepherd leading and disciplining His sheep in covenant faithfulness:

He spread a cloud for a covering, and fire to give light by night.

40They asked, and he brought quail, and gave them bread from heaven in abundance.

41He opened the rock, and water gushed out; it flowed through the desert like a river.

42For he remembered his holy promise, and Abraham, his servant (Ps. 105).

Moses’ response to Joshua’s objection to Eldad and Medad’s prophesying, ‘Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ (v. 29) was an anticipation of Pentecost, and his sentiments are echoed in the words of the prophets, notably Joel’s famous prophecy:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,  your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions (Joel 2:28).

This gift of the Spirit was not only that all may know the Lord (Jer. 31:34), but that Israel might fulfill their mandate as God’s chosen people, entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2), to be a blessing to all nations through proclaiming the excellencies of God to His glory (1 Pet. 2:9). The Spirit sanctified the seventy elders for their roles, foreshadowing the sanctification of the whole nation/people; sanctified not to form a holy club or esoteric society, but to participate in the action of the triune God in reconciling the world to Himself.

The outpouring of the Spirit in Acts is invariably linked with speaking the Word of God, be it in tongues, prophecy or proclamation. We see the church, as the true people of God—those who are truly Israel because they are so through faith not the flesh —fulfilling this mandate through the proclamation of the Gospel and the dynamic action of the Word of God in the community of the Father’s family; the former being the overflow of the latter. This was no doubt in Paul’s mind as he wrote his letter to the Ephesians. The church finds her completeness and full identity not in her structures, strategies or slogans, but in her unity in Christ her head and husband who fills all things and so gives wholeness and maturity to His bride. Every member (Eph. 4:7, ενι δε εκαστω ημων) is given this fullness, which enables them to operate as members of the Body; this leads one to see that the list of 4:11 need not apply to a distinct group of ‘staff’, but is in a sense descriptive of the ministry of the whole body:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . . (Eph. 4:11–13).

To show the basis for these gifts, Paul quotes in verse 8 from Psalm 68, a song of Yahweh’s victory over His enemies, demonstrated in the deliverance of His people from Egypt, their establishment in the land of promise, and of the Temple in Jerusalem: ‘Because of your temple at Jerusalem kings shall bear gifts to you’

(v. 29). In the Psalm it is men who give gifts to the victorious, exalted King as he processes into the temple (v. 24); Paul has Christ the King giving gifts to men. Some have attempted to explain what at first appears to be a misquotation here in various ways, which impose modern grammar and punctuation on the text. Whatever may have been in Paul’s mind, it seems that he quotes the passage as prolepsis;[3] the kings of Psalm 68 give gifts in tribute to the One whom they recognise as being King of all kingdoms and Lord of all nations, and they do so in anticipation of the protection and wealth that will come to their kingdoms as a result of being embraced by their Sovereign and subsumed into His empire. The Lord is not made richer by the receiving of gifts from men, since all things already belong to Him; rather the acknowledgement of His sovereign rule over the world means riches for the nations whom He has promised to bless. In a sense the giving and receiving are of the same action; the action of the King.

Jesus, by virtue of His cross, resurrection and reign, has been given by the Father the kingdom of this world (Rev. 11:15), and will reign with the Father over the new Jerusalem into which ‘the kings of the earth will bring their glory’ (Rev. 21:24). This means that ‘receiving gifts among men’ in Psalm 68 necessarily implies the applica­tion of ‘he gave gifts to men’ in Ephesians 4:8 when we see that Psalm 68 has been fulfilled in Christ. This is more than trivial exegetical semantics. Knowing this must necessarily enlarge our understanding of the gifts of verse 11. His goal to ‘fill all things’ (v. 10) speaks not so much of his immanence or omnipresence (‘My God is so BIG!’), but of His sovereign rule as head of all things for the church. It is the reigning Christ, who from his throne at the right hand of the Father, far above all rule and authority, administers his church through the appointment of these offices, and as the Gospel goes out to the nations through the ministry of the Body of Christ.

The scope of this paper allows only a limited examination of each of the offices of verse 11; and our goal in this is to see specifically the place of the pastor/teacher[4] in relationship to apostle, prophet and evangelist.

The survey that follows is not comprehensive, and will focus chiefly on the Gospels and Acts.

Apostles

These men were separated from the wider circle of disciples and commissioned by Christ, therefore reflecting (duplicating?) his ministry. All four Gospels show the appointment of the Twelve, and the giving to them of apostolic authority, involving proclaiming the kingdom of God, and authority to go out in his name and exercising authority over unclean spirits and to heal. Yet this was not restricted to the Twelve, as we see Jesus in Luke 10:1–12 sending out another 72 with the same commission; quite possibly this is an indication that this was something he did more than twice. This appointment was not by their choice or will: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide’ (John 15:16).[5] The distinct impression one gets is that the apostolic ministry is not one that is limited to time or number; Jesus’ boundaries of definition were much wider than the ones we might want to set, as the Twelve had to learn when later they realised the necessity of including Paul (and with him Silas, Apollos, Timothy, et al.) in their number.

Prophets

In the Gospels the title of prophet is only used in reference to the Old Testament prophets, to John the Baptist who stands in their line, and Jesus himself when people surmise that he may be ‘The Prophet who is to come’ (John 6:14). In this we see Jesus himself as the ‘final word’—the Word made flesh, who in his arrival makes obsolete any notion of ‘ongoing revelation’. The role of the prophets in pointing God’s people forward to the Day of the Lord has given way to the declaration in the Gospel that this Day has arrived. Yet this declaration in itself is also prophetic: ‘the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy’ (Rev. 19:10). The Old Testament prophets, ‘searched and inquired carefully’ to see that which has ‘now been announced’ to—and subsequently by—us (1 Pet. 1:10–12). So we might dare to claim that proclamation of the Gospel is more fully true prophecy than anything spoken by the Old Testament prophets. In Acts ‘prophets’ are mentioned four times, at some strategic moments in the advance of this Gospel—predicting the coming famine (11:27–30), the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas (13:1–3), the Jerusalem letter to Gentiles (15:32), and the prediction of Paul’s arrest (21:10–11).

Evangelists

Phillip (one of the seven charged with the role of distributing food to widows) is the only person in the New Testament who is entitled ‘evangelist’ (Acts 21:8), and Timothy is urged to see that to fulfill his varied ministry at Ephesus was to ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Tim. 4:5). Simply meaning ‘a proclaimer of the Gospel’, these two uses of euaggelistou (euaggelistou) would demonstrate that this procla­mation characterises and goes hand in hand with all ministry, no matter how ‘mundane’. Our brothers and sisters in the majority world have been more conscious of this role as an office in the church that deserves the training, commissioning and sending of dedicated men, however, as the West is becoming increasingly post-Christian, more Western churches and movements are seeing the urgent need for this gift to be recognised.

Pastor–Teachers

In the flow of this apostolic, prophetic and proclamatory ministry of God through His people, we come finally to the pastor–teachers (shepherd–teachers).[6] As with the first three, we should be careful about placing hard boundaries around the role, since it is defined by the sover­eign work of the Spirit who manifests himself (1 Cor. 12:7) in various ways in the church. Their place in the list could be seen as an indication of chronology; the pastor–teacher builds on the foundation laid by the ministry of the first three; the former may come and go, the latter remains more constant as the church continues her journey towards maturity in the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

Yet this constancy neither makes the office more superior to nor replaces apostles and prophets. Historically a lot of passionate rhetoric has surrounded debates and discussions on whether the offices of apostle and prophet have continued beyond the first century (i.e. the death of the original apostles and the completion of the New Testament canon). Both cessationist and continuist have been guilty of bad exegesis, arguments from silence, and ad hominem attacks. Both ironically have appealed to what seems to many to be the actual cessation of apostolic and prophetic activity and other miraculous gifts in the Western church; one saying that it is in the providence and plan of God, the other that it is cause for us to rediscover them.

Whether we are cessationist or continuist, we must nevertheless all agree on several things about all of the gifts:

Firstly: These people are appointed by Christ for his church (‘he gave’), not by the church for Christ. Possibly our problems begin when we want to define, restrict, quantify and professionalise the offices in our attempt to domesticate and rule over the church. From time to time para-church movements may arise that seek to ‘redress the imbalance’ of the perceived absence of one or more offices, and often consequently battle with defining their relationship to (or independence from) the local congregations in which the deficiency is perceived. We may also use them to set up a clergy–laity distinction, demanding that each office requires certain training and worldly qualifica­tions. As we have seen in the brief survey above, none of the offices appear to be mutually exclusive, and all elude a neat and tidy categorisation or ‘job description’; they are ultimately the manifestation of the Spirit himself who blows where he wills (John 3:8).

Secondly: Jesus is building his church, ‘on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone’ (Eph. 2:20), and so the church, as the household of God, is necessarily apostolic and prophetic; a calling known only as we operate corporately. This means that in the course of its apostolic and prophetic ministry there will be (and have been) persons who will be used in significant ways that we may call apostolic or prophetic, even if we are shy to directly label them apostles or prophets. At the same time, the ministry of individual persons loses validity as soon as they operate as individuals, independent of the Body; once they lose sight of the fact that their being gifted to the church is cause for great humility in which there is place neither for celebrity status nor personal empire building.[7]

A number of passages, notably in Paul’s letters, speak specifically of the apostolic ministry in a way that does not immediately allow a direct application of what is said to every Christian—for example, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:13, ‘We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things’, this is in the context of drawing a contrast between Paul (and his apostolic companions), and the believers in the churches to whom and for whom they laboured: ‘We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute’ (1 Cor. 4:10).[8] These things cannot be said to  be ipso facto the case for the ‘everyday’ Christian—unless we understand that this person is a member of the apostolic and prophetic community, and as such both suffers and rejoices with the Body. The rejection and hatred a Christian may face is not a personal thing; it is a rejection of Christ as he is embodied in his church. As a pastor–teacher, I must see myself as being in this flow of the apostolic and prophetic work of Christ in his church, and rest firmly on this as my foundation.

Thirdly: The goal of these gifts is the maturing of the church into ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’. This is not an end in itself, but is with a view to him filling all things; the church’s glory is the glory of the Father’s grace (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14), and the fullness of this will be seen in the Telos, not in the visible institutions we are wont to call ‘churches’. So while we serve the church, we ultimately serve Christ and through him the Father. This means we cannot see this passage as a strategy for church growth or management just waiting to be applied, nor is there any room for self-congratulation when we feel we have got our ministry structures ‘right’. Both pastoral care and teaching is therefore transformed from management and therapy into an exciting (even exhilarating) participation in the Father’s eschatological purpose. Our task is not to help people live happy, comfortable and prosperous lives in this world, but to call them to fix their eyes on Jesus, and forsake all this world has to offer in light of their treasure stored in Heaven.

Fourthly: The gifts are an expression not just of the ministry of Jesus in his church, but reveal something that is ontological about humanity. As the renewed, recreated humanity, constituted in Christ the second Adam, the church as a community should be expected to display the creational design; the various ministries and gifts within the church are not purely pragmatic means to get the church to function well or to achieve her KPI’s.[9] The gifts are representative of the Spirit-filled people of God, created and redeemed to be vessels of God’s glory; exercising authority over creation; hearing and speaking forth the Word of God; living in genuine, self-sacrificial love and care. They show a humanity that is functional and complementary; in short: it works, and in working, all glory goes to the Father who created all things to be very good and work together (Gen. 1:31). It is an interesting aside to note that some secular analysts who study the functioning of successful teams have identified five key roles that they say should exist in any organisation in order for it to operate smoothly and with growth. Each of these roles can be seen to correspond in some way to the five gifts of Ephesians 4:11, suggesting further their ontological nature.[10]

This means that pastoral–teaching ministry is also firmly grounded in the realities of the created world; it is not a call to escape the material and focus only on the ‘spiritual’. We teach people of the excellencies of the glory of Christ, including his faithfulness to redeem the whole of this groaning creation and the final liberation of the physical world into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:21).

Fifthly: Ultimately, we will all be cessasionist. All five titles of Ephesians 4:11 are attributed, finally, to Christ. He is the Apostle and high priest of our confession (Heb. 3:1); the Prophet like Moses raised up by God (John 7:40; Acts 3:22); the Evangelist who came ‘proclaiming the gospel of God (Mark 1:14–15); the Good Shepherd/Pastor who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11); and the Teacher who by his Spirit leads us into the truth of all that the Father has and is (John 16:12–15). When Jesus our Apostle/Prophet/Evangelist/Pastor/Teacher appears, then in a sense all of these titles—insofar as they are applied in this age—will become obsolete. They would have fulfilled their purpose in this age when the kingdom of God is advancing by force (Matt. 11:12) and when the doors of the kingdom remain open to those who will enter by faith through the Gospel proclaimed by the church apostolic. We can therefore say with Paul, ‘Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart’ (2 Cor. 4:1).


Footnotes

[1]  Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations in this study are from the English Standard Version.

[2]  We possibly see this echoed in the appointment of the seven Spirit-filled men to distribute food to the widows in Acts 6:1–6.

[3]  That is, in anticipation of its implications.

[4]  The debate may continue endlessly and uselessly about whether pastor and teacher are distinct offices or a single office of pastor–teacher; any pastor must also teach, and any teacher must be pastoral. See study 15 for more clarification on this question.

[5]  Which helps us see that this verse is not so much about assurance of salvation and election, but about our confidence in the ministry of the New Covenant.

[6]  Here in Ephesians is the sole place in the New Testament where the title ποιμην is applied to someone other than Jesus, except in the literal sense. The elders in Ephesus (Acts 20:28) and the Dispersion (1 Pet. 5:2–3) are charged with pastoral responsibility, and in both cases reminded that the flock/church is God’s (i.e. not theirs). Does this indicate that eldership and shepherding are synonymous, or that those with authority need to be always reminded that true authority is embodied in the self-sacrifice emulated by the Good Shepherd?

[7]  For this reason, it is good to be presenting this paper at ‘New Creation Teaching Ministry’, not ‘Geoffrey Bingham Ministries’.

[8]  Some commentators see Paul being sarcastic here—speaking not of realities but of the Corinthians’ self-perception. Rather, Paul is highlighting the fact that the Corinthians were being misled by the ‘Super Apostles’ who proclaimed worldly success and prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing and in this they were no longer one with Paul in the true ministry of the Gospel. His call in verse 16 to ‘be imitators of me’ is a call back to being the authentic Apostolic community.

[9]  Key Performance Indicators

[10] Observed by Alan Hirsch (Three Over-looked Leadership Roles):

  • The entrepreneur: Innovator and cultural architect who initiates a new product, or service, and develops the organization.
  • The questioner: Provocateur who probes awareness and fosters questioning of current programming leading to organizational learning.
  • The communicator: Recruiter to the organization who markets the idea or product and gains loyalty to a brand or cause.
  • The humaniser: People-oriented motivator who fosters a healthy relational environment through the management of meaning.
  • The philosopher: Systems-thinker who is able to clearly articulate the organizational ideology in a way as to advance corporate learning.

This is not a post about gay marriage (In fact that’s the only time I’ll mention it).

It’s about the absurdity of the statement, ‘Believe in Love.’ It was displayed at the recent Superbowl, which while an all-American event, seems inexplicable to capture the eyes of millions outside the US. There was even a gaggle of viewers watching it on the big screen at the new Flinders Uni Plaza; I happened to walk past just as the thousands of cards given to spectators were held up to display the message.

The statement is very telling in regard to our late-modern, post-Christian western culture. A few generations ago a large proportion of the western world would have affirmed Jesus’ call, ‘Believe in God’ (John 14:1) even if they weren’t so strong on what he said next, ‘…believe also in me.’

The values of our culture were built to a large degree on the acknowledgement of a Creator, on whom we are dependant for life, breath and pretty much everything. The source of human wisdom, progress and compassion was generally seen to be outside ourselves, in God (however people understood that title).

It seems like we then went through a shift, in which ‘God’ was gradually removed, and the call simply became ‘Just believe’. This nebulous mandate, perpetuated in popular culture by the music, movie and media industries, allowed us to jettison faith in God, but still retain the virtue of faith, and to choose whatever we wanted to believe in, as long as it enabled us to fulfill our dreams.

The 2016 Superbowl message simply confirms what was underlying the message of ‘Just believe,’ which is becoming more explicit. Now that we have chased God out of the public arena, as well as the cathedrals of our own hearts, there is only one thing left to believe in – yourself. Believe in your ability to love. Believe in and love yourself. Believe in your right to love whomever and whatever you please. Believe in the legitimacy of your self-love, no matter what the old fashioned religious people say. Believe that you can achieve what you dream and get what you want, even if it means others may have nothing.

Self-belief (set against faith in God) is at the heart of idolatry. It leads us to fashion our gods in our own image, so that our adamic narcissism can be masked by a facade of false piety and self sufficiency. Thinking we are free and wise and loving, we are in reality being enslaved by the idol of self, gutted of our true humanity as we dig our own graves with a smile on our faces, convinced that our individualistic, libertarian rights-focussed rhetoric will somehow save us.

Jesus’ message (the Gospel) tears down this facade by exposing our selfish sinfulness and calling us back to faith in the only one who can rescue us from ourselves. That’s why it’s so offensive, and so counter cultural. It claims that true love can only happen when our gaze is drawn away from our navels, and onto the man on the cross, the empty tomb, and the Son of Man coming in the clouds. Such a vision kills off any selfish pride, ambition and self love by declaring, ‘You are a great sinner – but Jesus is an even greater saviour. Believe in God; believe also in him.’

“Not another blog post on this question!” I hear you say.

Initially I decided that I would not post anything in response to the current debate in the US about the potential dismissal of a professor from a leading Evangelical college over her claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Many people have written on this, a large number defending the college’s evangelical commitment. Many have pointed out that trinitarian Christians and unitarian Muslims do not worship the same God, since each of their affirmations and denials about the nature of God are an anathema to the other (eg. Christians affirm the divinity of Jesus, which is blasphemy to a Muslim; Muslims deny that God can have a son, which is heresy to Christians.)

However to date, I have not seen (maybe I have missed it) a writer wrestling with two verses in the New Testament which on the face of it may seem to lend support for the professor’s statement:

‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.’ (John 4:22)

‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’ (Acts 17:23)

I have singled these two out because both of them use the word ‘worship’ – implying that both the Samaritans’ and the Athenian’s approach is not merely about conceptual knowledge or confession of beliefs, but also about devotion and piety. They don’t simply have an idea in their heads about God, but practice it in acts of devotion and worship.

Similarly, both make a statement about the worshipper being ignorant in some way, and needing a fuller, correct revelation; this fuller revelation will bring a reformation of their worship.

All this may sound like the professor is onto something. Maybe even the Pope was onto something when he said the Muslims and Christians are brothers and sisters.

However, when we take a closer look at these verses, we will see that they do not, in fact, support the idea that there are non-Christians who worship God, albeit in a faulty or deficient way.

The first thing to notice is that the two words translated in our English Bibles as ‘worship’ and ‘know’ are different in each verse. This reflects the two different contexts: in one (John 4:22) Jesus is speaking to a Samaritan, and in the other (Acts 17:23) Paul is speaking to Greek philosophers. Straight away that should indicate to us that we cannot take these two verses out of their context and throw them together as if they are identical in their meaning.

John 4:22

Jesus has been speaking to the Samaritan woman, and she has raised the issue of where true worship of God is supposed to take place – since the Jews had the temple in Jerusalem, and Samaritans had their own alternative temple in Samaria, which they set up after the retuning exiles from Babylon in the 5th century BC rejected their help in rebuilding the Jerusalem temple.

Jesus dismisses this as the key issue, instead saying that true worship of his Father will be in the power of the Spirit, and is not tied to location or architecture. His statement ‘salvation is from the Jews’ is an affirmation that, up to this point, Jerusalem is the correct location for the Temple and therefore worship of God; it is the centre of His presence with His people. However, this is about to change now that the true temple, priest and sacrifice has appeared in his person. The coming of Jesus does away with both right places of worship (such as the Samaritan temple) and the right place of worship (the Jerusalem temple) as people now come to the Father through faith in Jesus.

Jesus however is not invalidating all that the Samaritans did in their worship. They held firmly to the first five books of the Scriptures, and so both their theology (understanding of who God is) and form of worship was orthodox. However their understanding of God’s purposes was deficient since they did not acknowledge the rest of the Old Testament – the Prophets, Psalms and historical books.

When Jesus says, ‘you worship what you do not know,’ the word here for worship refers to the physical act of bowing down or prostrating oneself (and is sometimes used in this literal sense) that forms part of a worshipper’s actions. And the word for ‘know’ means a knowledge that comes from seeing and experiencing – rather than a conceptual knowledge. In other words, the Samaritans go through the motions, but their experience of God is lacking, because they do not come to the true seat of His presence in Jerusalem.

Jesus on several occasions, both in practice and in his teaching, appeared to be affirming the Samaritans in their identity as the ten Northern tribes of Israel, who were one day to be reunited with their Southern Jewish brothers (See Ezekiel 37). This is fulfilled when Samaritans are included in the experience of Pentecost in Acts 8. In that sense, the Samaritans were ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ whom Jesus the Good Shepherd has regathered into the flock through his death and resurrection. The Gospel has dispelled their ignorance, and brought them into the full revelation of the Father and His plan so that they may be one with their Jewish brothers in worshipping Him.

Acts 17:23

Paul’s address in Athens begins with an acknowledgement that the Athenians are ‘very religious’ – and he uses a word that may also be translated, ‘superstitious’. The word he uses for ‘worship’ (twice in 23) is one that means ‘pious’ or ‘devoted’ – which ties in with his description of Athenian religion as superstitious. It’s a word often associated with idolatry.

When he says that they ‘worship’ that which is ‘unknown,’ he uses a word from their own philosophical vocabulary – the word from which we get our English word ‘agnostic’. This is an ignorance that comes either from lack of learning, or from the sheer incomprehensibility  of the thing that is unknown. It’s a statement of conceptual knowledge, rather than experiential knowledge.

The Athenians took pride in the fact that they were able to acknowledge the reality of something of which they had no knowledge. They knew they did not know everything, and so  there was a distinct possibility that there was, out there, an ‘unknown god.’ This was a ‘dark matter’ god – one deduced by human reason, yet not encountered in human experience. Paul devastates their intellectual pride by equating this lofty philosophical learning with superstitious religion.

Paul’s claim is that the message he brings of Jesus and the Resurrection is one that will cut through this superstitious ignorance, replacing it with a clear and present truth that will call for a response of repentance. The God he describes to the Athenians is one that demolishes and replaced both the superstitious god of paganism and the deistic, conceptual god of the philosophers.

Conclusion

Neither John 4:22 nor Acts 17:23 can be used to support the claim that adherents of the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity worship the same God. The former refers to those who, in a sense, were already ‘in’ the true people of God; the latter refers to those whose worship is false, arrogant and idolatrous.

David Bowie’s hope

Posted: January 12, 2016 in Uncategorized

David Bowie’s music video ‘Lazarus’ was released on his birthday, 2 days before he died. It is a song that seems to be about his coming to terms with his own imminent death. It opens with the words ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven,’ sung while he lies blindfolded like a prisoner on his bed; it closes with him retreating into a dark wardrobe, invoking Narnia-esque ideals of a parallel world beyond this one.

The lyrics sound like an affirmation of a Prodigal Son lifestyle, declaring, ‘By the time I got to New York I was living like a king. Then I used up all my money; I was looking for your ass’ and then boldly asserting, ‘This way or no way, you know, I’ll be free.

The song expresses some wistful hope that there is something beyond that may be better than this life, but with no real sense of regret about how this life has been lived.

The actual Lazarus story (John 11:1-44) is a different thing altogether. Rather than retreating into a dark shadow, Lazarus is a picture of the sure hope for all who know the truth about life and death.

The people in the story – Mary and Martha, Jesus’ disciples, Lazarus’ neighbours – wrestle with the bleak enigma of death. And remarkably, Jesus does too: when he hears of his friend’s burial, he weeps. All through the whole event he is ‘deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.’

There are no platitudes about death from the mouth of Jesus. No, ‘This is just part of the circle of life,’ or ‘He’s in a better place,’ rubbish. Death is stark and brutal, and is an affront to all that his Father designed this world – and us – to be.

Yet this is all in the context of the remarkable words he has just said to Martha, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Not a platitude, but a simple statement of fact. Death is not the end of the story. It will never be.

Martha knows her theology, and affirms the doctrine of the resurrection and day of judgement. But Jesus gives her much more than pie-in-the-sky-when-I-die. Her hope is not to be in a future event of resurrection, but in Him: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ The resurrection/life after death/heaven, or however we describe it, is a Person before it’s an event. True life is found in Jesus, and it’s because He is both the Author of life (Acts 1:15), and the Firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18), he gives life to all who come to him – a life that by its very nature bursts the bonds of death and secures a future not of shadows and uncertainty, but of light and hope.

What Jesus did next was for a very specific reason: ‘I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.’ Then he calls out to his friend in the tomb, and Lazarus emerges – the man who seconds before was a decomposing corpse.

What was it he said, which was for the benefit for those watching? ‘Father, I thank you that you always hear me.’ The Father always hears Jesus – and by implication, always does what he asks of him. He heard him that day and brought Lazarus out of the tomb. Whenever Jesus calls a person out of the grave, the Father hears and acts.

Because of Jesus, Lazarus was set free from the bonds of death. He stands as a picture of anyone who comes by faith to this One who does not merely give life, but is the Resurrection and the Life.

Jesus is, in fact, ‘this way or no way’ to freedom.

ef21d1d84ea14ba82a5045a3e48bb114Christmas is a time of year when we hear a lot of hopeful talk. Despite our culture’s loss of understanding about the real meaning of Christmas, there is still a strong sense that it has something to do with hope, peace, harmony. Something that’s often said is, ‘If there’s anything the world needs at the moment, it’s hope.’ The thing is, that’s what people say every year, and nothing much seems to change in the world. We have a sentimental, mushy sense of, ‘Maybe things will work out one day, if those other people in the world who are causing problems get their act together and change,’ and then a few days after Christmas is over we go back to living our own regular, self centred lives, and nothing much really changes.

Do you have a hope for the future of the world? If so, what is it?

And is your hope merely wishful thinking – ‘It would be really great if it were to happen,’ – or is it a hope that is grounded in a sense of certainty – ‘Despite the present circumstances, I know for sure that all will work out for good in the end.’?

I put it to you that we all, in some way or other, have some kind of perception about what the future holds, and some kind of longing or yearning that that future be good. Even ISIS is a movement based on a sense of hope. We might find that difficult to comprehend, however if we were to speak to any ISIS fighter and ask them why they do what they do, they would speak about their vision of a future world in which there is peace and harmony when all people everywhere submit to the rule of Islam.

World leaders recently gathered in Paris to discuss the issue of climate change. For some people this was probably an ethical issue – that it’s just plain wrong for human beings to disrupt the world’s finely tuned ecosystem, while for others – and I suspect the majority – the problem is that our future is at stake. They have an intrinsic sense that the future for humanity and this world should be a positive one. I think much of what motivates human beings to take action and world for a cause is the desire to remove any threats to a future that is good and positive for us and for the world in which we live.

Our passage this morning is about this hope. It tells us not only what is in store for the future of creation, but that that future is a good one. It tells us how that future will be accomplished. And the events that took place at the first Christmas are right at the heart of this promising story of future hope.

 11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister
(Colossians 1:11-23 ESV)

Paul, who wrote these words, is telling the Colossians – the Christians who received this letter – that they have an excellent reason for living in hope. He prays that they will be strengthened by God the Father so that they may have endurance and patience – words that speak of waiting for something good that is yet to come. And in this patient waiting, they are to have the attitude of joyful thankfulness. This not just grinning and bearing it, or stoically facing tough times just for the sake of it. This waiting is done with a deep sense of joy and gratefulness, knowing that what the Father has in store for us not only makes the waiting worth it, but actually gives a sense of purpose and glory in the waiting. This is because the hope Christians have is that we ‘share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.’ (12) I don’t have time or space now to to unpack all that that means; but those words alone show us that the future the Father has in store is pretty glorious, and far above all that we can ask or imagine.

This glorious hope has to do with a rescue mission, in which we are transferred from a kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his Son; a rescue which is accomplished by the forgiveness of our sins. (13)

There is a reason why human beings universally have a sense, or longing, for a future for the world which is only good. It’s because that is actually God’s design or plan for creation. And as part of this creation, we have been designed for this good and glorious future. We live with a sense of awryness in our lives because deep down we know that this world, and we, are not the way we should be. And so most, if not all of human endeavour is all about us trying somehow to bring things back to the way we know they should be. Yet in all that there is a deep sense of dissatisfaction, because no matter how hard we try, the world and the future we long for always seem elusive, just over the horizon or just around the corner.

The Bible tells us that Jesus is the answer to this unfulfilled longing; the solution to a world and a human race that is not what it should be.

Verses 15-18 tell us many things about who Jesus is – ‘Image of the invisible God,’ ‘firstborn over creation,’ ’Before all things,’ ‘In him all things hold together;’ ‘Head of the church,’ ‘The beginning,’ ‘firstborn from the dead,’ the one who has ‘Supremacy in all things.’ Each of these things are tied together and summarised in the astounding statement, ‘God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him.’ (19) The complete fulness of God, dwelling in one man. The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.

At a point in history, a little over 2000 years ago, something took place which would change the nature of the world forever. A biological process was miraculously triggered in the uterus of a young woman, and a human being began to form inside her. At this point, God Himself invaded this world, not with the armies of heaven or in visible power, but in a dividing cell, that nine months later would be born as a helpless child. As the old hymn says, ‘Our God contracted to a span.’ As many like to put it today: 100% God, 100% human.

God in his fullness entered this world as he had never done before, and we’re told that he was pleased to do two things: to dwell (19) and to reconcile (20).

At the heart of God’s covenant with His people was the promise that he would dwell with his people. This was more than just being present in some philosophical way. To dwell is to make your home; to pitch your tent. God looked at this world in all its awryness and brokenness and rebelliousness and said, ‘I will come and make my home here.’

The end result of this coming to dwell is all things – and all means all – will be reconciled to himself. He is not saying here that everyone will be ‘saved’ or ‘go to Heaven’. He is using the word ‘reconcile’ in the sense of everything being put into its proper place, so that there is justice. It is bringing about a harmony, where all who oppose God and his loving rule are finally put in their place, and in the words of Revelation 11:15, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever!”

The entry of God into this world in the person of Jesus is the guarantee that both God’s promise, and our yearning, to see this world retuned to the way it is supposed to be will be fulfilled in him.

Notice that there is not only a global, universal dimension to this. Not only will ‘all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.’ be brought back to their proper place, but so will individual people. In fact, this personal work in you and me is the foundation for the global work.

Our awryness, our disfunction and alienation from God and one another is a result of our sin (22). Because we have refused to live in loving obedience to God, we deserve God’s wrath, and so we live our lives running and hiding in the shadows, instead of coming into the light. Notice that he says we are ‘enemies in our minds’ – the problem is not merely that we do ’naughty’ things, but that in our minds – the word encompasses thinking, feeling and desiring – we stand apart from God and refuse to acknowledge or come to him. Jesus solves this personal problem by bringing together in himself – literally – a union between God and humanity. So the reconciliation he brings gives us not only a ‘big picture hope’ for the world, but also an intensely personal and individual hope.

How can it be that the arrival of Jesus – God among us – heralds the solution to both the problems of the world and the problems of our own hearts? Our passage tells us it was ‘through his blood, shed on the cross’ (20) and ‘by Christ’s physical body through death’ (22). What actually happened in Jesus’ death is unpacked in chapter 2:13-15:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

In Jesus’ cross (his death) he accomplished both personal and global reconciliation. His death was the payment for the debt we owe to God – the debt of sin which makes us stand guilty before him, and which gives Him every right to justly and fairly banish us from his life-giving presence forever. By taking our place and dying the death we deserve, he has opened the way for forgiveness and a re-entry in to a warm, intimate relationship with the Father. Not only that, but the cross was the ‘D-Day’ for the defeat of all evil in the world. Evil has been ‘disarmed’ (15), and like an ancient king who returned from victorious battle dragging his captors behind him for his citizens to mock and deride, the cross shows up all spiritual and human evil for the empty, foolish and pointless sham that it is, and it marks the downfall of all who choose to stand in opposition to God.

When God the Father raised Jesus from the dead in the power of the Holy Spirit, he not only secured the future of all who will put their trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, but he also guaranteed the eventual renewal of this world and all human systems so that peace and justice will reign forever.

The question for all of us is, which side of the cross do I stand? Do I stand on the side that simply displays my rebellion and sin – sin so serious it required the death of the Son of God for payment? Or do I stand on the side that means peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation – a reconciliation that was accomplished not by my efforts or good works, by by the lavish grace and mercy of this loving and merciful saviour who gave himself for me?

I urge you – if your faith is not in Jesus Christ, to come to him – flee to him and his abundant mercy, and know renewal of your soul and a hope for the future. Take the opportunity this Christmas to prepare him room, so that he may come and make his dwelling with you.

A ‘secondary’ issue

How we interpret, view or experience the gifts of the Spirit are not, in the end, what defines whether we are Christian or not. However, it is possible for teaching on this topic to be done and practiced in a way that obscures the Gospel, and gives more glory to leaders than to Jesus. This was something that Paul was seeking to address in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he demolishes the notion of spiritual elitism among leaders (Chapters 1-4). The focus of a Christian as they gather with other Christians is not to be, ‘How can I have a great worship experience and receive some spiritual blessing?’ but, ‘How can I glorify God by loving my brothers and sisters and speaking the word of Christ to them?’

Churches can abuse spiritual gifts by either ignoring and neglecting them altogether, or by going to extremes and attributing to the Holy Spirit things that are actually the working of the flesh – or worse. However, your church’s position on and practice of the gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12 should not be the ultimate decider for you on whether to join, stay or go; rather their position and practice of the Gospel should. Is the Gospel of the cross of Jesus proclaimed clearly, regularly and faithfully, or is it ignored, distorted or obscured by other things?

Paul spends most of his time in 1 Corinthians 12-14 discussing the two gifts of Tongues and Prophecy.

Speaking in Tongues

The issue of tongues (among other ‘spiritual gifts’) is dealt with in depth by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14. In his letter, Paul is confronting a culture based very much on experience, with a call to the church to have a culture based on the Word of God. And so in this discussion about tongues, he calls the Corinthians to look maturely at the Scripture the see what the biblical teaching is:

20 Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21 In the Law it is written: “With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. (1 Corinthians 14:20-22)

Paul quotes Isaiah 28 here, which we will look at in a moment; however behind the Isaiah passage is an earlier reference in Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 28:47-50

Moses predicts the time when Israel/Judah, because of their hard hearts and idolatry, will be overrun by a foreign nation, surrounded by people speaking a language they do not understand.

Language was very important to the Hebrews, because God had entered into relationship with them by speaking His word and His Law, calling them to listen and obey. God spoke their language. His words were written down, and accessible to them so they could hear, obey and have life. (Deuteronomy 30:11-16)

So a sign of God’s judgement upon His people was when all around them were speaking unintelligible languages; to be in a place where you are not hearing God’s words, but words of foreigners that you don’t even understand.

Isaiah 28:7-13

By the time of Isaiah (around 700 BC) the revelation of God had been reduced by the priests – who were corrupt and drunkards – essentially to simplistic, infantile babbling. The Hebrew reads, ‘sav lasav sav lasav, kav lakav kav lakav, ze-er sam ze-er sam’ and while these are real Hebrew words, they are most likely the prophet mocking the teaching of the priests – an equivalent of the English, ‘Blah, blah, blah…’

God’s judgement upon this people who want to neither teach or hear the truth, is that God will speak to his people through other languages – ie. the word of God will become unintelligible to them not just because of their own hard hearts, but because God will obscure it through judgement. People outside Israel will be hearing, understanding and speaking God’s word, while His own people will not.

This prophecy was partly fulfilled in the exile, through which most of the scattered Jews lost their Hebrew language over several generations. (Eventually the Scriptures were translated into Greek – the Septuagint – so that non Hebrew-speaking Jews could read them.)

Israel was called to be a blessing and light to the nations. Instead, by their disobedience they were misrepresenting God to the nations. God’s intention is to keep his promises to Abraham, and so the blessing will still go out to the nations, but it will be through the action of judgement upon Israel that it will happen. The way Paul describes it is, ‘“God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.’ (Romans 11:8), and ’Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in…’ (Romans 11:25). So, tongues is to be a sign of both judgement and blessing, depending on where you stand!

Mark 16:17

While this is doubtful that this is an original part of Mark’s Gospel, we can nevertheless take it as an indication of the understanding and experience of the early church. One thing characterising believers is that they will ‘speak in new tongues’ – ie. that they will not be only ethically/linguistically Hebrews. This conforms with the command in 15 to preach the Gospel in the whole world.

Acts 2:1-8, 12-13

Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. People from other nations who spoke other languages were hearing God’s words spoken in their language, while others (13) couldn’t understand them, and assumed they were drunk. It’s to this second group that Peter appears to address his speech (15), and his message is primarily one of judgement than Gospel! (23, 36, 40). It’s important to note that the languages the Apostles spoke were known human languages, understandable by those who were native speakers, not a mysterious, angelic language that no human being could comprehend. This sets the precedent for the rest of the cases of tongues in Acts – it’s what we are to understand in the two other places where tongues are recorded to have occurred.

Acts 10:44-48

This is essentially the ‘Gentile Pentecost’ – Peter affirms that his Gentile listeners have received the Holy Spirit because they were praising God in their own language – The Gospel was ‘indigenised’ in that the Gentiles did not use Hebrew or Aramaic in their language of worship.

Acts 19:1-7

This is another ‘mini Pentecost’, for people who were disciples of John the Baptist (‘disciple’ here doesn’t automatically equal ‘Christian’). Luke hints a this being a pentecostal event by mentioning that there were ‘about twelve men in all’ (7) – he would have no real reason to mention this number apart from its resonance with the twelve Apostles on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14). More significant though than these men being followers of John the Baptist, was the location – Ephesus – which became a key centre for spreading the Gospel across Asia (modern day Western Turkey).

1 Corinthians 12-14

The only other book in the New Testament that mentions the phenomenon of tongues is 1 Corinthians. Some important background is helpful for understanding why the issue needs to be addressed for the Corinthians: Firstly, Corinth was known as a very multicultural city. The church there was correspondingly dominated by Gentiles – most if not all of whom would not have spoken Hebrew or Aramaic. Secondly, Corinth prided itself on its spirituality, and pagan worship, particularly involving sensuality, sexuality, and ecstatic spiritual experiences. Some of the pagan worship involved ‘speaking in tongues,’ in which the worshipper claimed to be communicating with gods, angels or spirits. For the pagans, truth and enlightenment came through experience, rather than revelation; through their own engagement in rituals rather than by God speaking clearly to their minds and hearts through the words of Apostles, Prophets or Scripture. This led to a ‘spiritual elitism’ in which participation in these ecstatic rituals were a mark of deeper spirituality.

Some of this had translated into the church, to the extent that some Christians were considered more spiritual than others because they manifested the ‘spirituals’ (translated ‘gifts of the Spirit’ or ‘spiritual gifts’ in English bibles, even though the word ‘gift’ is not in the text). In 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul makes the key points that a ‘spiritual’ person is not someone with greater spiritual capacity, but one through whom the Holy Spirit is at work, manifesting Himself in ways that glorify Jesus – ie. by enabling someone to say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ (12:3) and build up Jesus’ church, which is what Jesus promised in Matthew 16:18:

 ‘On this rock [Peter, who confesses Jesus to be the Christ] I will build my church, and the gates of hades will not overcome it.’

The fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work is ultimately love (Chapter 13), not spiritual power or prestige, nor the ability to perform miraculous acts. The way the Corinthians were to show love in the context of their public gatherings was to ensure that all who came would be able to hear God’s word spoken clearly, so that even non-believers there would know the reality of God’s presence and would worship Him (14:25).

Three correctives for Corinth… and us?

So Paul gives some correctives to the Corinthian practice of tongues, by referring back to the Old Testament teaching about tongues that we looked at earlier.

  1. ‘Tongues’ are not an ecstatic, trancelike experience of communicating with angels, but speaking in a human language that the speaker at least can understand. The popular idea of tongues being a  ‘personal prayer language’ is not taught anywhere in the Bible. Some may feel this is discounting the miraculous work of the Spirit; however such a view does not rule out someone speaking in a language they have not learned (as on the day of Pentecost), of someone being enabled by the Spirit to translate the words, or of the speaker being empowered by the Spirit in what they say – which is Paul’s main point – ie. that it is the Spirit at work, not the people, which makes all of it ‘miraculous’.
  2. Spiritual maturity is demonstrated not in being able to manifest the Spirit in spectacular ways, but in clearly communicating God’s word in a way that all can understand. So, in the case when a member of the congregation speaks in a language that is not commonly spoken by the rest of the church, they have a few options: have someone else interpret (12:10), interpret themselves (14:13), or not speak publicly in that language (14:28). By not following these principles, a person who speaks publicly in tongues is essentially being selfish (14:4) rather than loving (13:1). If something brings division and damage to the body of Christ, it is not a work of the Spirit, no matter how much the person insists it is.
  3. Speaking in tongues when there are non-believers or enquirers present will not communicate the Gospel, but rather judgement, since the original Biblical purpose of tongues was a pronouncement of judgement upon people who refuse to hear! The non-believer will come away from the meeting with the truth hidden from them since they didn’t understand what was being said, and their conclusion will be ‘these Christians are out of their minds!’ (14:22-23) Speaking in tongues without interpretation will hinder, not facilitate the spread of the Gospel. So out of love for these enquirers, all that is spoken in church should be done so it can be clearly understood by all who are present.

 

Spiritual gifts are for the body, not individuals

The picture Paul is painting for the Corinthians in chapters 12-14 is not one where each individual has their own ‘package’ of gifts, dispensed to them by the Holy Spirit, which then becomes their special ‘ministry’. Rather, it is of the church as a corporate body, to which God gives the Holy Spirit, who manifests Himself in the context of the community in various ways (12:7). The whole setting of chapters 11-14 is ‘when you come together’ (11:17,18,20,33, 14:26), and in this context the Triune God is present, with the Spirit giving (4), the Lord Jesus serving (5) and the Father working (6). Each of these words touches on the unique roles of each member of the Trinity in salvation, yet all are a united work of the one Triune God, and because the work of the Holy Spirit in this age is to make known to us the Son and the Father, we can use the overall title ‘gifts of the Spirit.’ This is important to see: the Holy Spirit does not work in a way that does not bring to us the full reality of the Triune God’s presence among us as His people.

Prophecy: ‘Speaking the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15)

The other implication of this passage is that as God – who is Love – is giving, serving and working amongst us, this is primarily demonstrated in us giving, serving and working in love. Chapter 13 is a picture of God’s people truly reflecting His own character. ‘Love never fails…’ (13:8), whereas prophecies, tongues and knowledge will cease/be stilled/pass away. Some have taken this to be a reference to a point in history when these ‘sign gifts’ stopped; but Paul is rather referring to the transient nature of these gifts – they are words spoken in a set time, which apply for a certain context and moment in time; love, however, is universal and timeless in its application. Prophecy, tongues and knowledge serve their limited purpose and then become obsolete, but love, as an expression of faith and hope, continues and will have the real eternal impact.

So God wants the Corinthians (and us) to consider how these ‘transient’ gifts may best be used to express that which is lasting – faith, hope and love. And because the central activity of the church gathering together is to hear the Word of God, it become a no brainer that the most loving way a person can contribute to the meeting is to ensure that God’s Word is clearly spoken, heard and understood. We must put aside and personal ambition to be seen as ‘spiritual’ – as if somehow God’s powerful work amongst His people is somehow because of our piety or ability to be in touch with God more than others. Our first ambition should be to be practicing love in the form of chapter 13, and only then, if appropriate, to seek to exercise the ‘gifts’ that we believe the Spirit is giving us – and even then, He gives the gifts only to extend our action of loving one another.

This is why Paul gives primacy to prophecy over tongues. Tongues serve a specific purpose, yet to exercise them could easily be unloving for both our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as any non-believers present. Prophecy, however, is a clear speaking forth of the Word of God in the ‘lingua franca’ so that everyone present can understand.

So, what is prophecy?

1. The foundation of the Apostles and Prophets (Eph. 2:20)

The Jews understood that all that was spoken by the godly people of their history – ie. the Old Testament scriptures – was prophecy. The most common reference to prophets and prophecy in the New Testament is in this sense – the Word of God given in the scriptures. This is a form of prophetic ministry that has finished. John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets, who came in fulfilment of the last words of Malachi, the last of the ‘inscripturated’ Prophets:

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

John the Baptist, as the ‘returned Elijah’ stood as a representative of all the prophets, and pointed people to Jesus as The Prophet of whom all the prophets spoke – Jesus is not merely the last prophet, but he is also the last prophecy through whom God has spoken completely and finally. The prophets told us about God; if we have seen Jesus we have seen God face to face. Jesus then sent his disciples out and called them not prophets but ’Apostles,’ commanding them to teach not a new revelation, but simply ‘all that I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:20). This is the content of the New Testament – the Apostles’ teaching put into writing for future generations.

So this aspect of prophecy – the revelation of God, and all that He wants us to know about His plan of salvation, and how it is completed in Jesus Christ – has come to an end with the completion of the New Testament canon. And so many take the final words of Revelation to be applicable to the whole of the Bible:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. 19 And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll. (Revelation 22:18-19)

Some argue that this type of prophecy was what was occurring in the Corinthian church (and possibly other New Testament churches). Most of the New Testament documents had not been written yet, and they may not have had access to those that had. During this period, God kept His church in the truth through the live teaching of the Apostles, and through ‘word gifts’ such as prophecy, tongues, knowledge, etc. These gifts became less vital as the scriptures – OT and NT – were distributed throughout the churches. We know that the early church placed great emphasis on the written scriptures because we currently have tens of thousands of ancient New Testament manuscripts – around 1000 time more than any other ancient document.

2. ’Speaking the very words of God’ (1 Peter 4:11)

Joel’s prophecy, fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21) promises that all of God’s people – young and old, male and female – will be commissioned to prophesy:

‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.’ (Acts 2:17-18)

No longer will it be a seperate group or ‘class’ of people who have the Holy Spirit, but anyone who calls on the Name of the Lord through faith in Jesus is drawn into the ministry of the Kingdom, where they become,

…a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

An individual believer is caught up into the royal, priestly and prophetic ministry of the church; in the context of the church community we are involved in preaching, teaching, singing, encouraging and proclaiming – all things which involve speaking the Word of God. In this sense, the ministry of prophecy is alive and well whenever we do these things; we are ‘prophesying’.

William Perkins, an English Puritan, described what he understood a prophet to be in his 1606 book, ‘The Art of Prophesying:

“First of all he is someone who can expound and explain the covenant of grace, and rightly lay down how this reconciliation is accomplished. Secondly, he is someone who can properly and accurately apply the means for its outworking. Thirdly, he is someone who has authority to proclaim and declare it when it is effected. In these three ways he is God’s interpreter to the people.”

3. ’The Holy Spirit said…’ (Acts 13:2)

The New Testament also allows for and records another type of prophecy.

In Acts 11:27-30 some prophets predicted a famine, which spurred the church in Antioch to take up a collection to help their fellow Christians in Judea. In Acts 13:1-4 God uses prophets to communicate that Paul and Barnabas should be set apart and sent into mission. In Acts 15:30-33 two prophets, Judas and Silas, encouraged gentile Christians when they received a letter with special instructions from the Apostles in Jerusalem. And in Acts 21:10-11 the prophet Agabus predicts Paul’s arrest.

This appears to be a form of prophecy in which God spoke specifically and practically into the the church for a given time and situation in a way that enabled them to be on about the work of the Kingdom. They were occasions in which the church needed a word that was more precise than the general Biblical revelation, in order to help them discern God’s will for them in a specific context.

Some also believe that this form of prophecy has also become obsolete with the completion of the New Testament; I believe the biblical case for this claim is weak. As we saw, Paul’s description of prophecies as transient in 13:8 highlights the limitation of a prophetic word given in a church meeting to both time and application; it’s a stretch to say that all prophetic ministry must have ceased since the end of the first century.

Love and order (1 Cor. 14:26-40)

Paul’s emphasis in these chapters is not so much on the nature of prophecy, as on its appropriate use in the church. Prophecy (along with tongues and other gifts) should not dominate, but be part of the various ways the Holy Spirit enables people to serve (26-29). Prophecies should be given with humility and a sense of accountability and collegiality (29-33). Prophets and their prophecies should be submitted to the authority of Christ and the revelation of the Gospel given to the church through the Apostles (which for us is the New Testament) (36-37). And it should be done in a way that is ‘fitting and orderly’ (34-35, 40) – ie. not causing chaos, confusion or offense for believers or non-believers.

There are four wise responses we should have to anyone who claims to have a ‘prophetic word’ either for us personally or for the church:

  1. Test what they say with the Scripture.
    God will not give a revelation that adds to, takes away from or changes His revelation given in the Bible and in Jesus Christ; and ultimately it should point clearly to Jesus and lead people to honour Him. Hold onto it loosely until you have been able to affirm this; this is often best done by speaking with others who know the Bible well.
  2. Wait.
    If a prophecy is given as a prediction of something to happen, the proof of the truth of the prediction is in its fulfilment. This was the Old Testament test of a true prophet (Deuteronomy 28:20-22, Jeremiah 28:9). Be prepared to see God at work, but don’t pin all your hopes on the prophecy; and ask yourself, ‘How can this encourage and enable me to serve and glorify God more faithfully, and love His people more earnestly?’
  3. Move on.
    Remember that prophecy is limited, but faith hope and love continue forever. God may be speaking to you in a way that is for this time and place, but the definition and design of your life and calling is found in the truth already revealed in the Bible, which is as living and active as any ‘life’ prophecy. Don’t build your life’s foundation on one incident of prophecy, but on the sure and certain revelation of the Gospel of Jesus.
  4. Rejoice.
    If this is truly God’s word to you or your church, then it demonstrates that God cares for you such that He brings His word ‘up close and personal’ in order to build you up and make you more like Jesus, and also that someone in the church is willing to love you by bringing this word to you (even if it is difficult or scary for them). Whatever the outcome of their ‘prophecy’, be ready to acknowledge the positive of their desire to see you moving forward in God’s purposes for you.