Resolve logoIntroduction

At Resolve 2016, Flinders Evangelical Students explored the issue of pluralism – an issue facing both our society and the church.

As part of this exploration, we invited Geoff Boyce, Coordinating Chaplain at Flinders University to speak in our ‘Respond’ section of the conference. Geoff has, over a period of years, developed an approach to chaplaincy that has sought to respond to the reality of pluralism, and the contemporary context on the university campus in which Christians can often be less represented that other faiths, due to both the increasing secularisation of Australia, and the increase of migrants and international students.

Our aim in having Geoff speak was to listen respectfully to someone with whom we do not agree theologically, but whose approach we want to understand, so that we may be more gracious and respectful in our response both to him and to those with similar views.

What can we affirm?

Hospitality

Geoff helpfully highlighted for us the significance of hospitality as a Biblical principle, exemplified by Jesus. God’s work through human history has been one of inviting, welcoming and drawing people to Himself. By contrast, much of human enterprise has been about exclusion – keeping our own patch safe, and keeping the ‘other’ at arm’s distance, being unwilling to learn about and from those who are different to us. Geoff and his team have developed (and designed) Oasis as a venue centred around hospitality, where people from many cultural and religious backgrounds may engage, form friendships, and learn from each other. For this we are grateful, especially in that this hospitality has been extended to us in our freedom to use Oasis for our gatherings.

Genuine enquiry

Geoff also highlighted the danger of looking at others and trying to understand them ‘through Christian spectacles’ – ie. with unrecognised assumptions that come from our Christian worldview which can prevent us from truly understanding a person. For example, the best way to learn about Islam is to speak to and get to know a Muslim, rather than to hear about them from another Christian. This may well lead to us to discover more about what we actually have in common as fellow human beings, and to help us better understand and respect our differences.

Authenticity

Geoff helpfully emphasised for us the importance of desiring authenticity for others; in other words, wanting – for their sake – that they be truly themselves, not the person we think they should be. This is God’s desire for all people – that they be the people He has created them to truly be, free from the burdens and stereotypes placed upon them by other people who are really trying to deal with their own insecurities by manipulating people to become more like themselves. This is the Biblical idea of ‘maturity’ – when someone is fully human, and thus fully alive.

Relationships

Geoff also called us to focus on relationships, pointing us to the fact that relationship is at the heart of the Kingdom of God. God desires a relationship with His people, and He so works that those in a relationship with Him express this in the way they relate to each other. It can be easy for us to allow the task or the method of our mission to get in the way of genuine, loving relationships both with fellow believers, and with those around us who aren’t Christians. The moment we lose sight of the call to love God and neighbour, we will treat people as targets to win, or commodities to exploit.

Where do we differ?

Our view of Scripture.

Geoff mentioned that ‘the Scriptures were written in the exile;’ and that it was only in this time when the Jews themselves were outcasts that ‘they figured it all out.’ This is a view of the Old Testament that has emerged out of the late 19th and early 20th century ‘higher criticism’ movement that began to question the church’s traditional understanding of the origin, authorship and interpretation of the Bible. Coming from a rationalistic worldview that emerged from the Enlightenment, scholars and theologians who follow this more liberal or ‘progressive’ approach tend to emphasise the human element of authorship of scripture over the divine. Rather than viewing the historical books of the Old Testament as actual and accurate history, they prefer to see in them a ‘mythical’ element – stories that were written at a much later date than their actual historical setting, with the intention of providing a basis for meaning, identity and purpose for the discouraged and oppressed Jews living in captivity in a foreign land.

From an Evangelical perspective, such a view of Scripture undermines their authority and veracity, as expressed in the ES statement of faith: ‘[We affirm] The divine inspiration, trustworthiness, and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given, its entire sufficiency for our knowledge of God, and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.’ The conservative view of the Old Testament books, held to by most Christians for most of history, is that they were written much earlier, either during or soon after the time of the events described, sometimes by eyewitnesses, and always by men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:10-11, 2 Peter 1:21) to record an accurate account of events. These men, enabled by the Spirit, also spoke of things to come, primarily the sending of the Messiah. Thus, Jesus could say that the Scriptures spoke of him. (John 5:39). This view sees the Bible and its story as something overseen and coordinated by God, not ‘figured out’ by human beings. It is a story of God actually working throughout human history in historical acts of salvation to bring all things to the point of Him entering the world in the person of Jesus. The Christian faith is founded securely on historical events through which God has revealed Himself, not the more pop-culture idea that it is based, along with most other religions, on principles of conduct and ethical/moral behaviour.

While we can agree with Geoff’s point of hospitality being a key idea in the Bible, I would be unsure about a hermeneutic that seeks to ‘read the whole bible through the lens of hospitality.’ We can all be guilty at time of imposing on the Bible a particular framework, and us Evangelicals can be just as culpable of this as anyone. However I am not convinced that ‘hospitality’ is the one or primary framework or ‘lens’ through which we should read the Bible, such that we look for it in most if not all passages we read. Geoff pointed us to Jesus’ rejection at the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4:16-30 as an example of this ‘hospitality hermeneutic’. He suggested that hospitality was the key issue here: the fact that the two stories Jesus mentioned were of non-Jews being accepted and included by God (a Sidonian widow and a Syrian official), and this is what enraged the people and made them want to kill him. While I agree that the problem was, as Jesus says, ‘…no prophet is acceptable in his hometown (Luke 4:24), it was not the issue of the ethnic identity of the people in the stories that was taken issue with, but his accusation of the Nazarenes that they would not accept him unless he performed signs and wonders. This sets the scene for the ongoing issue Jesus faced with the Jews – that they demanded of him a sign – which comes to a head in Luke 11:29 when he says “This generation is an evil generation. It demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”

These are not the only occasions when we see Jesus ‘picking a fight’ with people who do not accept him as the Messiah and Son of God; and in the Nazarene synagogue it is he who starts the conflict by speaking scathingly of those who were otherwise, ‘speaking well of him and marvelling at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.’ (Luke 4:22). It is difficult to see how this, and many similar incidents, are an expression of hospitality, at least as described by Geoff.

Our view on the urgency of the Gospel

Geoff advocated strongly for an approach to those of other faiths which is only comfortable with another changing their view when it is entirely on their own terms and through their own initiative. He supports a model of ministry (specifically for chaplaincy) which is, ‘…no longer the ‘rescuing’, ‘telling’ salvation paradigm, but the hospitable, listening, empowering and long-term-committed mentoring (‘walking beside you’) paradigm, directed toward individual and corporate well being.’

Such an approach to institutional chaplaincy is understandable and expected, given the brief of a chaplain to work primarily for the well being of the organisation and the individuals within it. However it is a model that unfortunately discounts the fact that the Gospel is a message of salvation that is to be proclaimed, and must be received through repentance and faith. It is not merely a set of tools to be used in promoting individual and corporate wellbeing and harmony (although these are outcomes that should be expected as fruit of Christ at work in people through the Gospel.)

The ‘rescuing, telling salvation paradigm’ is unavoidable when we see the ministry of both Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament. ‘Repent and believe the Gospel’ is the summary statement of Jesus’ preaching given in Mark 1:14, and must be held alongside his ‘hospitality’ statements (eg. ‘come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28) is said in the immediate context of him just having pronounced woes upon towns that had rejected him!). Not simply a set of ideas and principles that can be explored and considered intellectually or emotionally, it is a message that carries with it a command to be obeyed:

‘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)

This command is given in light of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the coming Day of Judgement, from which God wants people to be saved. If Jesus, as he claimed, is the only way to the Father (John 14:6), then we truly love people by pointing them to him, and calling them to put their faith exclusively in him.

Our view on ‘comparative religion’.

Geoff encouraged us to look at the things we have in common with those of other faiths. That will be the point at which hospitality will be able to happen, as we use these commonalities as our starting point in creating open, trusting friendships (see diagram).

He suggested that the key point of commonality between all religions is love: the Golden Rule:

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12).

This is a popular idea today, especially when people are trying to make sense of and find solutions to the problem of religiously motivated violence and abuse. It is suggested that if all religious people simply practiced this as the heart of their religion, there will be harmony.

While it is true that many (but not all) religions contain a principle that in some way resembles Jesus’ Golden Rule (See table below), there are some problems with such a claim.

Golden Rule

Firstly Jesus, echoing the Law given through Moses, stands apart from the other religions in the way he phrases the Rule. His is the only one that is together entirely unconditional (ie. not for spiritual merit, or in order to receive good in return), proactively loving (as opposed to simply avoiding doing harm to others), and non-exclusive (not just within one’s own community.)

Secondly, unlike some religions in which the central theme is the effort humans must make to be good, the Golden Rule is not the central theme of Christianity in that sense. Christianity is based around not what we do, but what God has done in Jesus Christ. Jesus came not to enforce the law, but to fulfil it. What we were and are unable to do (love God and neighbour perfectly), he has done on our behalf, hand in hand with taking at the cross the punishment we deserve for our blatant unwillingness to love. In Jesus Christ God has done for us what we should have done for Him, and because He has perfectly kept the Golden Rule, we may be reconciled to Him:

‘In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.’ (1 John 4:10-11)

Our call to love is the outflow from the centre of our faith, which is in the person and cross of Jesus.

Our view of the Kingdom of God

Geoff told us that the Kingdom of God is about relationships. While that is true in as much as all that the Triune God does is about relationships, the Kingdom language used in the Scriptures is not primarily about communicating the truth of relationship as much as the truth of God’s authority. Entering the Kingdom of God means coming into a place of submission and allegiance to the King – the cry of Christians is ‘Jesus is Lord!’ and the message conveyed by Jesus’ resurrection is that he now reigns at the Father’s right hand and has been appointed as the coming judge of all people.

That being so, how are we to recognise the Kingdom of God in action in this life? Primarily, it must be people who are both acknowledging the lordship of Jesus over their lives and the world, and who are living in such a way that their actions give glory to Him.

This must necessarily be more than people of any faith or creed showing friendship and hospitality to one another. While we can certainly acknowledge that Jesus as King rules over all people regardless of their awareness of him, we can only call something a true expression of his kingdom where people are doing what they do ‘in his name’.

Because all people are made in the image of God, friendship and hospitality will be given expression in some form no matter how ‘fallen’ we may be, as long as we are human. However, as long as we are seeking to live outside of the lordship of Christ, such actions will ultimately be another expression of our rebellion. Because our deeds can in no way change our status before God, ultimately ‘…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.’ (Isaiah 64:6)

Geoff told us, in the context of speaking about inter-faith friendships, that ‘God is doing his thing – he doesn’t need the church.’ This is really a straw-man argument. I have rarely heard anyone say words to the effect that, ‘God does need the church.’ He is bigger than the church, and technically could accomplish all He wants to accomplish apart from the church – except for the fact that in His plan that the Church is actually central to all He wants to accomplish! His goal in all He is doing in this world is to prepare the Church to be a spotless bride who will be presented to his Son, Jesus. Because of this the church is described with such terms as, ‘God’s household,’ ’The pillar and foundation of the truth’ (Titus 3:15), ‘a kingdom, priests to his God and Father,’ (Revelation 1:6), ‘a chosen race… a holy nation.’ (1 Peter 2:9). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the church (the people, not the institution) is the visible expression of the Kingdom of God, and the instrument God uses to bring people into the Kingdom though its proclamation of the ‘Gospel of the Kingdom’ (Matthew 24:14).

Conclusion

I want to reiterate our thankfulness to God for the opportunities we have to gather freely as God’s people at Flinders Uni, and the role that Oasis as a location and as a team has played in making this possible. This space is a privilege that very few groups like ours around Australia and the world have.

We also appreciate the friendship and hospitality extended to us by Oasis team volunteers, staff and chaplains, and affirm their genuine desire to work for the wellbeing of students at Flinders. Flinders ES members and friends should be encouraged to participate in and assist with any activities in Oasis as their conscience gives them freedom to do so.

The relationship between ES and Oasis has not been without difficulties through the fifty years of us operating on campus, and it is important to acknowledge that this relationship has been strained at times, especially as the transition was made from a mainly Christian chaplaincy based ‘Religious Centre’ to a multi-faith and inter-faith ‘Oasis’. It is important also for us to acknowledge and be repentant of those things done and said by representatives of ES that have not reflected the love and grace of Christ. While we cannot take responsibility for the way in which others may perceive or interpret our actions, the love of Christ constrains us to make every effort to not merely speak the truth, but to speak it in love.

It is also important to remain firm on the commitment we have to our convictions as evangelicals – a commitment to the absolute truth of the Gospel, the uniqueness of Christ, the authority of the Bible, and the call to proclaim Jesus at university. Compromising on these would not only lead us to be disobedient to Christ, but would also annul our reason for existing as a club. The testimony of history is that Christian student groups who have assumed, lost, or denied the Gospel have eventually lost traction and finally ceased to exist, as they have nothing to offer to people that the world is not already claiming to give.

This means that we need to be always carefully and prayerfully thinking through what it means for us to be operating in the environment of a secular institution, a pluralistic culture, and an inter-faith setting such as Oasis. This is a similar issue to that wrestled with by the Israelites as they lived in exile in Babylon: They were called by God to remain distinctly seperate as His holy people, yet at the same time told to ‘…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7).

There is no simple formula to apply when working out our relationship with the university and with Oasis. We walk the tightrope somewhere between the compromise of full-blown partnership and the ‘bunker mentality’ of full separation, and we need the wisdom of God to guide us as we seek to navigate between these unhelpful extremes. ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’ (Romans 12:18) is a verse that we must apply to everyone, not just to Christians or those who may provide some benefit to us. This principle is motivated not by pragmatism, but by sincere love (Romans 12:9). Because of God’s grace, we can be confident that He will enable us to practice this sincere love towards our friends in Oasis in such a way that we will not compromise the Gospel or our mission, to the glory of God.

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.

 

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.