Thursday, 28 August 2014

The shepherd psalm

Along with John three sixteen these are surely the most famous verses in the Bible.  But I want suggest that they are also very much misunderstood.  We haven't understood these verses until we see that they promise that we will have troubles in life; we haven't understood these verses until we feel a renewed sense of peace and confidence; we haven't understood these verses until they point us to the cross; we haven't understood these verses until our greatest hope lies beyond this brief journey; and we haven't understood these verses until we acknowledge that they point to the magnificence of God the Son.

1.  Who is my shepherd?

The LORD is my shepherd, 
I shall not be in want. 
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness 
For his name sake (1-3).

In the book of Isaiah we read that God tends his flock like a shepherd. 'He gathers the lambs in his arms and he carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those who have young' (40:11).  It is a very intimate picture.  In ancient Palestine the shepherd lived with his flock and was everything to it.  The shepherd guided the flock, protected them and looked after them when they were ill.  God loves us so much that he wants us to enjoy an intimate relationship with him.

Then along come Jesus, such a compassionate and courageous man, and he takes this title of shepherd for himself.  In John's gospel we read that Jesus is our good shepherd.  The reason Jesus so often takes titles that the people used for God and applies them to himself is simply because he is God the Son.  Jesus gathers lost sheep and brings them into his flock, he takes broken sheep and binds up their wounds, he takes distressed sheep and holds them to his heart, he takes weary sheep and restores their souls, he knows his sheep by name, and had promised that he will never leave us.

Note where our good shepherd guides us: in paths of righteousness, for his name sake.  In ancient Palestine the shepherd did not drive the sheep from behind but instead he went ahead of the sheep and they followed him.  When we follow him, when we keep in step with the Holy Spirit whom he has given us, then we will live lives that bring him glory.  When Christians talk about guidance they generally are thinking of such questions as 'what job should I do?' 'should I marry?' 'where should I live?'  But to God those aren’t the biggest issues for our lives!  His guidance is primarily about who we are rather than just what we do!  His call is to live a life that honours Jesus.  Everything else is secondary!

2.  Will he be with me?

'Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death, 
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff,
they comfort me' (4).

There is nothing here that promises you, me or anyone an easy life! There are events that cause the psalmist to need to have his soul restored, there is the valley of the shadow of death and there is mention of evil and enemies. Being a Christian is no bed of roses!  We follow the good shepherd who endured suffering in his life so that he would know glory in the life to come.  

In this verse we read of the valley of the shadow of death (or the valley of darkness).  Christians know what it is to loose loved ones.  Christians get sick and die.  Some Christians die at the hands of their enemies.  However, we have a comforter, we have a Lord who watches over our circumstances, and we have a saviour who has passed through death and removed its sting.

David Watson was a well known speaker who died of cancer in 1984. He wrote about his struggle with that disease in a book entitled “Fear no evil.” In it he says, “The actual moment of dying is still shrouded in mystery, but as I keep my eyes on Jesus I am not afraid.  Jesus has already been through death for us, and will be with us when we walk through it ourselves.  In those great words of the Twenty-Third Psalm:
Even though I walk 
through the valley Of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
for thou art with me . . .”

3.  Where will he take me?

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever (5-6).

The picture changes in the last two verses.  God is no longer pictured as a shepherd but as a host.  The host is putting on a feast.  A meal is spread out on a table.  Enemies are defeated.  It was customary for an honoured guest to have their head anointed with oil.  There is plenty to drink.

When I read these last two verses I think of Jesus.  Who went through the suffering of the cross and then was raised in glory to the right hand of God the Father.  Jesus who set the pattern of suffering followed by glory!

This life is a mixed bag.  There are times of happiness and sorrow.  There are both green pastures and valleys of the shadow of death.  There are opponents and calm waters.  Yet our hope lies beyond the brief and fading life.  We are sustained by God's presence and anticipation of our heavenly home.  I don't think we will ever thrive in the Christian life until our sights are set on the world to come.  We tend to be so earthly minded that we are no heavenly good.  One day we will share in a heavenly feast and dwell with our Lord for ever!


Writing on this psalm Sinclair Ferguson tells the story of the first physician to die of the AIDS virus in the United Kingdom. He was a young Christian. ‘He had contracted it while doing medical research in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.  In the last days of his life his powers of communication failed.  He struggled with increasing difficulty to express his thoughts to his wife.  On one occasion she simply could not understand his message.  He wrote on a note pad the letter J.  She ran through her mental dictionary, saying various words beginning with J. None was right.  Then she said, “Jesus?”  That was the right word. He was with them.  Ferguson points out, ‘That was all either of them needed to know. That is always enough.’  

If all you want is an easy life then don't follow the way of the good shepherd, he leads us in paths of suffering now and glory to come.  If all you want are the riches of this world then don't follow the good shepherd, his greatest riches await the end of the journey.  If all you want is popularity then don't follow the good shepherd, for his enemies seek to harm his flock.  However, if you want something far greater—the shepherd who travels with you and ensures you make it home—then this psalm is for you!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Atheism: A survival guide (review)

I was always going to say I like this book because Graham very kindly (and unnecessarily) mentions me in the acknowledgements.  Thankfully I really do like this book.  A few things in particular:

1.  The book is clever, accessible and well-written.  Each chapter begins with a long and engaging illustration.  Clearly Graham is well-read and knowledgable.  His writing-style makes me think that I would like to hear what Graham has to say on a lot of issues.  Hopefully this won't be his last book.

2.  The book brings you through a logical journey: it begins with New Atheism and ends with an explanation of the Christian message.  This is a distinctly Christian response to New Atheism, even if there are arguments here that could be borrowed by other theists.  

3.  While Graham's thinking is clear to an non-scientist (like me) it would be engaging for someone with scientific knowledge.  I intend to reread the opening (more scientific) chapters again. 

4.  Graham does not get bogged-down arguing about young-earth/old-earth arguments.  It is a book that will please you no matter where you sit on such issues.

5.  This is a book that I would unashamedly share with my friends who do not share my worldview.  It is not full of theological language and it gets the balance between objective and subjective evidence for Christianity.

6.  Graham managed to get his book published by a great publisher.  I always like to see whose logo is on the spine of a book.  I find Christian Focus one of the best Christian publishing house.

The only things I would change are that I think it could be longer (because it is an enjoyable read), and the word 'guide' made me fear that it would be full of bullet points (rather than the smooth-flowing read that it is).

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Review of Mark Driscoll's new book

Someone very kindly gave me a copy of Mark Driscoll's new book ('The Call to Resurgence') in a manner that suggested that this was contraband.  I even felt a little worried about whether I should be reading it, given all the trouble Driscoll has been in (including claims of harsh leadership, sexism and crudity) and the particular trouble (claims of plagiarism) surrounding this book.

However I must admit I am loving it.  I am only a third of the way through, so my thoughts are at a premilinary stage.  The book is primarily related to the American Christian scene and has the feel of being Driscoll's thinking on everything church and culture related. At times his humour is a little pushed yet often he is genuinely funny.  He admits to many failings and actually comes across as likeable.  He speaks of people in other evangelical tribes respectfully (although some will think his definition of evangelicalism as being too narrow).  Some will be annoyed that he treats the 'emergent' stream of Christianity as if it is a fade that has passed and takes little note of emergent leaders.  At times he shows glimpses of the attitudes that have got him in so much trouble.

If you have no interest in the American evangelical scene then this book is probably not for you.  His classification of evangelical 'tribes' is interesting (he tells you what tribe he is in without actually pushing the position of any one tribe).  If you are one of those people who can't stand Driscoll then you will find enough rope in this book to hang him.  However I am finding it an enjoyable read with many interesting insights.

PS.  If your conscience won't let you buy this book you can borrow mine when I am finished (but I'll charge you for post and packaging).

Sunday, 10 August 2014

How should we respond to what is going on in Gaza?

I think it discredits the witness of Christians when we uncritically support Israel even when it carries out actions that are disproportionate and rightly receiving widespread criticism.  I have been hesitant to criticise Israel because I went to school with a good number of Jews and found them to be wonderful people.  I don't want to simply jump on an anti-Israeli bandwagon and I don't want to ignore the evils committed by groups like Hamas.  I found the following link from the Gospel Coalition to be most helpful.  In it John Piper lists the following principles:

1. God chose Israel from all the peoples of the world to be his own possession. 
2. The Land was part of the inheritance he promised to Abraham and his descendants forever.
3. The promises made to Abraham, including the promise of the Land, will be inherited as an everlasting gift only by true, spiritual Israel, not disobedient, unbelieving Israel.
4. Jesus Christ has come into the world as the Jewish Messiah, and his own people rejected him and broke covenant with their God.
5. Therefore, the secular state of Israel today may not claim a present divine right to the Land, but they and we should seek a peaceful settlement not based on present divine rights, but on international principles of justice, mercy, and practical feasibility.
6. By faith in Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah, Gentiles become heirs of the promise of Abraham, including the promise of the Land.
7. Finally, this inheritance of Christ’s people will happen at the Second Coming of Christ to establish his kingdom, not before; and till then, we Christians must not take up arms to claim our inheritance; but rather lay down our lives to share our inheritance with as many as we can.

The post then says: Why It Matters: Regardless of where you land theologically or politically, the events of the past two weeks mark yet another distressing development in the Israeli–Palestinian saga. This is a prime opportunity to pray. Pray for the Israelis, image-bearers of God, that they’d search the Scriptures and find life in the Savior (John 5:39–4046). May they discover that the meeting point between God and man is no longer a place—whether reconstructed temple or geographical acreage—but a risen and reigning and soon returning Person (John 4:21–26).
Pray too for the Palestinians, image-bearers of God, that they’d turn in droves to Jesus the King. Pray particularly for our Palestinian brothers and sisters in the faith; there are, after all, far more Palestinian Christians in the Middle East than the news headlines imply.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Disappointed with Driscoll

Okay, here is the truth.  I like Mark Driscoll.  I have watched a number of clips of him preaching and enjoy how he communicates.  I have read a good few of his books and recommend some of them to others.  So it saddens me that he finds himself in controversy so often.  Over twenty years ago I worked near Seattle and have often wondered what people there think of him; I guess he divides opinions there as he does here.

I love the fact that he can connect with certain groups that the church has failed to reach.  Yet, right from the first books that I read, I had concerns about his slagging of those who did not match his view of masculinity.  Now he is in trouble for comments that he made which were misogynist and homophobic.  He admits he was wrong.

What is the future for a Driscoll?  I don't know.  Just because someone has been in the spotlight does not mean they have to stay there.  Maybe it would be best for him to fade away from public view.  I would certainly be upset if he continues to give people excuses to dismiss the reformed charismatic theology he espouses.  I hope he will lose his taste for controversy and use his gifts more productively.  I hope that he will be more emphatic towards those who are wired differently to him.  I hope that in years to come those who oppose his beliefs will have trouble finding things in his character to criticise.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Prophetic insight

Over the summer I read 'The God I never knew' by Robert Morris.  While I believe that the so-called charismatic gifts are for today I did not agree with his understanding of baptism in the Spirit, found some of his exegesis to be very stretched, and felt that he only counteracted extreme forms of opposition to the classical Pentecostal position.  It you want to read a thorough reflection of charismatic gifts I recommend Don Carson's 'Showing the Spirit'.

Nevertheless it was an enjoyable read and his ongoing dependence on the person of the Holy Spirit is inspiring.  He related the following story.

'I was once in a cafeteria eating a meal with my wife, Debbie, when I observed a muscular fellow and a woman I later learned was his wife carrying their trays to a table near us.

The moment my eyes fell on this gentleman, I knew something about him.  I recognised this knowledge as coming from the Holy Spirit because I'd never seen this man before in my life ...'

He approached the man and after some small talk added, "The Holy Spirit showed me a picture of you when you were a young boy.  I saw you sitting in your grandmother's lap, and you were crying.  She told you that God could make you strong like Samson if you promised to serve Him.  I saw you make that commitment to serve God and honour him with your life.  Well, God just told me that He kept His end of the deal, but you didn't keep your promise."

The man's chin began to quiver and big tears started rolling down his face.  He looked at his wife and she began to cry as well.  As it turned out, he'd just been telling her the story.

He said, "Sir, I was raised by my grandmother.  My father left when I was born, and my mother left just a few years later.  One day when I was about eight, some boys were throwing rocks at me, just to be mean.  One hit me in the head and put a gash in it, and I went home crying.  That's when my grandmother sat me in her lap and told me the story of Samson.  I promised God that if He'd make me strong, I'd serve him all my life.  I was just telling my wife that I've been thinking about that promise lately, but I didn't really even know how to approach God."

Robert led them to The Lord and they were both baptised the next week.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Jeremiah 21-30 'Be careful who you listen to'

I once posted a blog on the topic 'Will all people be saved?'  I concluded that the Bible is very clear that all people will not be saved.  A minister friend of mine took issue with me over this.  His reply to my post included the fact that Jesus mentions hell directly only eleven times whereas he mentions money and poverty twenty-four times each, and love fifty-one times.

I am not sure I get his point.  If he is saying that the church does not speak enough about issues like social justice I am in total agreement with him.  But if he thinks that we spend too much time on God's final judgement I think he is wrong.  And if he thinks that we have to choose between preaching that emphasises social compassion over preaching that addresses God's moral outrage against personal sin then I think he is missing the mark.

You see Jeremiah is a book filled with calls to help the most vulnerable people in society.  It is also a book that warns of a judgement without mercy that will befall the finally unrepentant.  If Jeremiah was preaching the gospel today he would not choose between speaking about hell or addressing issues of poverty, he would speak about both.

1.  God is compassionate towards the needy (21:1-23:8)

'The word came to Jeremiah when King Zedekiah sent to him Pashhur the priest son of Malkijah and the priest Zephaniah son of Maaseiah ... (21:1).  Zedekiah was the last king of Judah and this seems to be the final year of his reign.  Ten thousand of the leading citizens of Judah had been taken into exile by the Babylonians who were now encroaching upon the nation again.  Zedekiah hopes that Jeremiah will tell his messengers that God is about to deliver them.  Instead Jeremiah says that God stands against him and is using the Babylonians as his instrument to punish them.  God declares, 'I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm in furious anger and in great wrath' (21:5).

But notice the offer of mercy!  'Furthermore, tell the people, “This is what the Lord says: see, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death.  Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; they will escape with their lives' (21:8-9).  The advice may have seemed odd to them but he is offering them a way of life rather than death.  Similarly Jesus offers us a way of life rather than eternal death.

Jeremiah speaks of coming judgement and calls them to accept God's way of salvation.  He also intertwines this gospel with God's heart of compassion towards the poor.  'Do what is just and right.  Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed.  Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place' (22:3).  God is passionate about social justice.  Compassion is a part of the fruit in-keeping with repentance.  The great king Josiah had 'defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well.  Is that not what it means to know me?’ (22:16).  If we are not compassionate towards the most vulnerable in our society then it shows that we simply don't know God.

Judah had been badly served by its leaders.  But the days are coming, declares the Lord, ‘when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.  In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Saviour' (23:5-6).  Who is this?  This is Jesus!  He is our compassionate king who cares for the needy and inspires his people to be concerned for the vulnerable.

2.  God provides the remedy for our guilt (23:9-40)

One theologian despaired of the theology being taught in his day saying that it taught a god without wrath who brings people without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministry of a Christ without a cross.  A bit like the false-prophets of Jeremiah's day.  'They keep saying to those who despise me, “The Lord says: you will have peace.”  And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, “No harm will come to you"' (23:17).  They wouldn't address the depravity of the human heart, the dire need to be forgiven our sin, and the dreadful fate that awaits those who reject God's means of salvation.  But God does provide a remedy for human guilt.

3.  God chooses to save an undeserving people (24-25)

Jeremiah is given a picture showing how God will save many undeserving people.  This picture centres on two baskets of figs.  One basket represented those who had been taken into exile and the other those left behind in Judah.  “Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians'.  My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land.  I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them' (24:4-6).

This is absolutely amazing!  Why does God consider those sent into exile as good?  Was it because they were actually good?  Was it because they were better than those left behind in Jerusalem?  Not at all!  These people were among the wicked leadership of a wicked nation.  God, in his unfashionable wisdom, simply chooses to show undeserved mercy to these people.  He does so as he changes their wicked hearts and causes them to repent.  'I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord.  They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart' (24:7).

In the book of Jeremiah God genuinely desires the salvation of all people.  He repeatedly has called them to repentance.  He is the God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but fathers that they repent and live.  But in our wicked, sinful stubborn hearts all people break God's heart by refusing his offer of grace.  Yet God does not stop there.  He chooses to change the hearts of many sinful people so that they willingly come to love and obey him.  In other words if you are born again it is because God has chosen to transform your heart but if you die in your sin it is because persistently refused his offer of mercy.  Salvation is all of God and final condemnation is all of man.

Before we move on to our final point notice that Jeremiah warns all the nations of God's cup of God's wrath.  'Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make the nations to whom I send you drink it.  When they drink it, they will stagger and go mad because of the sword I will send among them' (25:15-16).  As Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before he endured the cross he spoke to his Father about the cup he was about to drink.  He experienced the full weight of God's righteous anger so that people like us, gathered from all nations, would not have to experience God's anger for ourselves.

4. God has an unfolding plan that is for his people's good (26-29)

In chapter twenty-six Jeremiah is speaking in the temple.  They thought God would rescue their city because the temple was their.  In doing so they were exposing a superstitious religion that was disconnected from God's call to repent and act justly.  Bible commentator Chris Wright notes that only Jesus knew the kind of courage it took to say such things in such a place.  Jesus also went to the temple and criticised shallow religion and he too experienced the murderous hatred of people for it.

In chapter twenty-seven Jeremiah gate-crashes an gathering of international leaders who were meeting in Jerusalem.  They were deciding what to do about the threat from the Babylonians.  He tells them what they don't want to hear.  He puts a yoke around his neck and tells them to submit to the yoke of the Babylonians.  Again God is being merciful, he is offering them life rather than death.  Serve the king of Babylon and you will live (27:17).

But there were popular preachers than Jeremiah.  In chapter twenty-eight the prophet Hananiah claimed broke the yoke around Jeremiah's neck claiming that the power of the Babylonians would soon end and the people would quickly return from exile.  That was a blatant contradiction of what God had told Jeremiah.  The exile would last around seventy years before they would return.  God took Hananiah's life for preaching a gospel of false hope.

Chapter twenty-nine contains a letter to the exiles in Babylon.  They are to settle down in that place and seek to be a blessing to the wicked city in which they live.  This is so important for us.  We are to live lives that bless the communities where we are stationed.  The exile community is told, 'for I know the plans I have for you ... Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future' (29:11).  These aren't simply words to us as individuals, although they are true for every individual Christian, they are words to God's chosen people that speak of God's great unfolding plan.  A community would would return from exile.  From that community would come the promised king of David, The Lord our righteous Saviour.  He will bring his people home, not to an earthly Jerusalem, but to a heavenly Jerusalem.


All these chapters involve Jeremiah confronting different groups of people about their false-beliefs and wicked lifestyles.  People have to choose who they are going to listen to.  There are many false-gospels out there.  There are those who will avoid any talk of final judgement lulling people into a false-sense of security.  There are those who affirm the permissive values of our culture and so call no one to genuine repentance.  There are narrow groups who are so individualistic that they don't know the God of compassion.

Choose wisely who you listen to.  For there will come a day when God will be revealed to all the peoples of the earth as both a consuming fire and one of immeasurable love.  And on that day we will each be held accountable for how we responded to his invitation the mercy made available in the cross of Christ and whether we produced the fruit of compassion in-keeping with repentance.