Sunday, 28 September 2014

Romans 1:2-7 'The basis for unity'

To dwell above with saints we love, That will be grace and glory.  To live below with saints we know; Now, that's another story!

We are not told how the church in Rome was established.  Perhaps Jews from the Imperial City, who had been in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost, returned home with the knowledge that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.  Their conversion caused a stir among their fellow Jews.  There was unrest between those who proclaimed Jesus as the Christ and those who denied he was the Christ.  This unrest became such a problem that, in A. D. 49, the emperor Claudius expelled, from Rome, all Jews (including those Jews who were now Christians).  For the next few years the church in Rome would be dominated by Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians.

After the death of Claudius, Jews were allowed back to Rome.  Now Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians had to learn to get along with each other.  People from different cultures can find that difficult.  Their issues were bigger than the fact that some cultures are more rigid about time-keeping than others, or that some cultures are more expressive than others.  Add into the mix the fact that every church has to unite people of differing temperaments and you can see how relevant this letter is for us.

So what does Paul do to bring together this diverse collection of Christians in Rome?  He unites them by teaching the core truths of the gospel.  There is no such thing as real Christian unity where the gospel, which is so wonderfully explained in Paul's letter to the church at Rome, is not preached.  Christians need to be united on these truths.  The letter of Romans teaches us that God draws rebellious people to himself, forgives our sin on the basis of Jesus' death on the cross, and accepts us as dearly loved children.  These truths are the condition on which we fellowship with other Christians, not because they are some lowest common denominator of Christian doctrine, but because they form the epicentre of all we believe.

What do these opening verses in Romans tell us about the a gospel Paul wants to unite them around?  They tell us who the gospel is about and what the gospel has achieved for us.

1.  Who is this gospel about? (2-4)

I'm doing an Old Testament overview in Cafe Church and the key thing I want people to see is that the Old Testament is all about Jesus.  This is what the Apostle Paul teaches.  He speaks of the gospel 'promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son' (2-3a).  

Go back to Genesis (3:15) and you see that God promised a descendent of Eve would crush the serpent's head.  Moses spoke of a prophet who would come after him (Deuteronomy 18:15).  Turn to Micah and you will read of the child to be born in Bethlehem (5:2).  Isaiah say that this child will be born to a virgin (7:14) and describes the nature of his death (53).  Zechariah tells of the king who would enter Jerusalem on a donkey (9:9) and that he would be sold for pieces of silver.  The Psalms prophesied that people would cast lots for his garments and the Psalms also looked forward to his resurrection (22).  

The apostle Paul reminds the Christians in Rome that in his flesh Jesus was descended from king David - David who had been promised an descendent who would rule forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16) -  'and through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to the he Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord' (4).

Jesus was not made the Son of God through his resurrection, he was declared to be the Son of God through his resurrection.  The resurrection proved who Jesus is.  He was the eternal Son of God who had reigned with the Father and Holy Spirit forever; but when he was raised from the dead, through the Holy Spirit, his reign as Messiah began.  He had come into the world as a helpless baby, he had been subject to human weakness, but through the resurrection he is declared to be Son of God with power.  Now he rules as God's promised, heavenly Messiah.  

2.  What is this gospel about? (5-7)

So the gospel centres on the person of Jesus, but what is the gospel about? In his opening greeting Paul introduces some key words that will play a central role in his letter.  He writes of grace (mentioned twice), call/called (mentioned four times), loved, peace, obedience, holy, faith and belonging.

What the apostle Paul is going to teach us is that becoming a Christian begins with God's effectual call (we don't find God so much as he finds us and draws us to himself).  The amazing thing about this is that we were enemies with God, hostile to his rule over our lives and subject to his righteous anger at our sin.  But God has chosen to make peace with us.  This is an act of grace (free, unmerited and undeserved favour).  This grace is the result of the fact that Jesus paid the price for our guilt on the cross.  Having being reconciled to God we now belong to Christ.  We are the objects of his special love.  As his chosen people we are called to live a live of obedience and strive to be a holy people.  From our side all this comes through faith (actively depending on God from first to last).


Now, remember the context of this letter.  Paul is seeking to unite diverse Christians together in love.

Eighty thousand people go to Croke Park for a U2 concert.  They come from all sorts of backgrounds.  But for a couple of hours they are united in their enjoyment of the band.  Twenty-six thousand people pack into Thomond Park for a European rugby cup match.  They come from all sorts of backgrounds.  But for a couple of hours they are united in support of the Munster team.  Focusing on a common love brings unity.  It is the same with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Of course the unity we have through the gospel should surpass anything that a music or sports fan knows.  We are to be united in Christ through the message of the gospel.  As one preacher points out, 'as forgiven sinners at the foot of the cross, our petty differences and arguments pale into insignificance.  What does it matter whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile; rich & sophisticated or poor and struggling; we’re Christians together? What does it matter that one of us has been in the church for ages and another has just joined; if we both believe the Gospel, then we’re fellow Christians;  brothers and sisters together in The Lord?'

In the last part of this letter (chapter twelve on) the apostle Paul will show the Christians in Rome how to put the truths of the gospel into practice.  Included in this are some 'one another' commands.  What we experience in Jesus must effect our relationships with one another.

'Be devoted to one another in love.  Honour one another above yourselves' (12:10).
'Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited' (12:16).
'Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another', over disputable matters (14:13).
'Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God' (15:7).

Thursday, 18 September 2014

My ten books

The current Facebook challenge is to name ten books that influenced you.  I thought about it and wrote the following lost.

1.  D. A. Carson, 'How Long, O Lord?'
2.  D. A. Carson, 'The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God.'
3.  Ajith Fernando, 'The Call to Joy and Pain.'
4.  Jonathan Aitken, 'John Newton - From Disgrace to Amazing Grace.'
5.  D. A. Carson, 'Showing the Spirit.'
6.  Iain Murray, 'Spurgeon verses Hyper-Calvinism.'
7.  John Stott, 'The Cross of Christ.'
8.  Kenneth Bailey, 'Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.'
9.  Tom Hiney, 'On a Missionary Trail.'
10.  Michael Wilcock, 'The Message of Revelation.'

Friday, 12 September 2014

Paisley: Sorry seems to be the hardest word

So Paisley died today.  A truly enigmatic man.  My attitude towards him has changed over time.

When I first went to live in the north (1996) I really struggled with him.  I hated the fact that he tied Christianity to a certain political outlook.  He talked about 'Protestant Culture', but I was a Protestant who did not identify with his culture.  To me Protestantism was about the rediscovery of the truth of justification by grace through faith.  So Protestant was a religious category rather than an ethnic grouping.  I also didn't like his language.  He would refer to 'the people of Ulster', but seemed only to be thinking about one section of the people of Ulster.

People who met him said that he was charming.  He seems to have had a marvellous marriage.  The RTE iplayer archive has a wonderful edition of the Saturday Live show where he is interviewed by his daughter Rhonda, and he comes across as likeable.  He certainly had a change of heart in recent years, and I would like to believe that this was something to do with a work of God in his life.

I just wish he could have said 'sorry'.  When Eammonn Mallie interviewed him for the BBC, Paisley admitted that the lack of social housing provided to Catholics and the lack of representation of nationalists in government were wrong.  Yet when challenged about his own role in the troubles he would admit no wrongdoing.  Of course we may not all agree as to the extent of his culpability for violence in the north.  But his witness as a Christian would have been enhanced if he could have faced up to the fact that he said things that were unhelpful, unkind and unloving.  After all a Christian is not someone who has done no wrong but someone who loves that Christ who has taken our wrongs upon himself on the cross.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Review: How long, O Lord?

There are certain books that are so good that I find myself buying a number of copies (because of giving the book away to others). I am not sure how many copies of this book I have bought. I can honestly say that this book changed the way I think.

I purchased my first copy of this book before going on a placement to the majority-world as a theological student. I suspected that I would be exposed to a greater degree of human pain than I had witnessed before and should arm my mind to think through the issues that would be raised.

What struck me was how thoroughly Biblical Carson's thinking is. The minister that I worked with prefaced his thoughts on suffering with 'I think ...', Carson says, 'look at the text'.

A great breath of topics are covered and I found his thoughts of hell and war very memorable.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The call to single-mindedness (Romans 1:1)

The message of Romans changes people's lives.

Augustine, in the fourth century, had a mother who was a Christian.  Yet he turned his back on the faith she taught him.  He sought truth elsewhere and lived for his lusts.  Then, while in Milan, he heard the preaching of a bishop called Ambrose.  He could not shake off what he heard.  So one day he went into the garden on a friend to wrestle with his thoughts.  Suddenly he heard, from a nearby house, a child chanting 'pick up and read, pick up and read'.  He took this as an instruction for himself and lifted Paul's letter to the Romans.  His eyes fell on the words, 'let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.  Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature' (13:13-14).  In his spiritual autobiography he writes,  'I neither wished nor needed to read further.  At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if the light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart.  All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.'  Augustine was to be the towering figure in church history from that time until the reformation.

Which brings us to Martin Luther.  Martin Luther was a German monk who had been taught that God required him to live a righteous life in ordered to be saved.  Although he was scrupulously religious he actually hated God in his heart, for he thought that God required of him what he could not do.  He could not overcome his sin and justify himself.  Then he finally grasped the meaning of a verse in Romans.  'In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed - a righteousness that is by faith from first to last' (1:17).  'I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which, through sheer grace and mercy, God justifies us by faith.  Thereupon I felt myself reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise ... And as I had formerly hated the expression "the righteousness of God," I now began to regard it as my dearest and most comforting word.'

Luther's thoughts on Romans were to bring comfort to another great figure in church history.  John Wesley was a Church of England clergyman in the 1700s who had returned disillusioned from America where he had served as a missionary.  Despite his strenuous efforts at holiness he felt that he did not know God in an intimate way.  Then, on 24th May 1738, he went to a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate  Street, London.  There someone was reading from the preface to Luther's commentary on Romans.  Wesley explains in his journal, 'about a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.'  Wesley became one of the great evangelists of the 1700s.

1.  This message changed Paul's life

As was customary in the Roman world, Paul begins his letter by introducing himself.  'Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.'  Paul's own experience demonstrates how the message contained in Romans changes people's lives.

Paul, who was originally call Saul, was a Jew who had been born a Roman citizen.  He was brought up in Tarsus, one of three main centres of Greek culture.  He was a tent-maker.  He was single.  He was trained in the Jewish religion by Gamaliel, one of the greatest rabbis in history.  He was a  Pharisee and he had hated the early church.  It was while he was travelling from Jerusalem to Damascus, hoping to imprison Christians, that he had an encounter with the risen Jesus.  Jesus showed him that he was a rebel who needed to experience peace with God.  Jesus showed him how sinful people can be reconciled to God through the cross.

Paul is changed from being a Christ-hater to being a servant of Christ.  He actually calls himself a slave of Christ.  In the Roman world a slave was a bonded-labourer.  It was not unusual for such a slave to rise to a position of trust and influence yet they were always at the disposal of their owner.  Paul is gladly owned by Jesus.  'He is a bond-slave in the sense that anybody in love is always a bond-slave to the one he loves.  He is captivated.  He is captured' (MLJ).  The great Welsh preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, 'I have no hesitation in asserting that as we grow in grace, we talk much less about ourselves and our experiences, and much more about him.'

God was preparing Paul to be his servant long before he made him a Christian.  All the seemingly incidental experiences of Paul's life had significance for his service of God.  His singleness, his tent-making, his understanding of Greek culture, his Roman citizenship, his education in Jewish Scripture and his dramatic testimony all play a role in his missionary endeavours.  Similarly God's sovereign hand lies behind all that you have experienced.  He has drawn you to himself, he has given you certain gifts and talents, and he has ordered your circumstances.  Do you see that God has prepared works in advance for you to do (Ephesians 2:10)?  Do you realise that God has placed you in a neighbourhood/with a family/in a workplace where people will not hear the transforming message of the gospel unless you share it with them?  Do you realise that God has given you unique gifts and experiences that can be used to encourage the church and spread the good news?

2.  The message is from God

Paul had a unique role to play in the establishment of the church.  He was called to be an apostle.  An apostle was literally 'a sent one'.   Apostles were representatives who travelled with the authorisation and authority of the one who sent them.  In the book of Acts we see the unique role given to a select group of apostles.  The church devoted itself to the apostles' teaching (Acts 2:42).  Amongst the criteria to be such an apostle was the need to have encountered the risen Jesus, which Paul had done on the road to Damascus.  The apostles laid the foundation for the church (Ephesians 2:20).

Many people, who call themselves Christians, think that they can disagree with Paul' teaching.  But change his message and you will robe it of its power.  The church has always recognised the authority of the early apostles.  Peter refers to Paul's writings as scripture (2 Peter 3:16).  Paul warns those who ignore his teaching that they will find themselves ignored (1 Corinthians 14:28).  So if your understanding of the Christian message isn't in line with the message of Romans then it is not Christianity and it will be unable to bring anyone to God.

Romans begins with bad news: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and the wrath of God is being revealed against human sin.  Then it moves on to good news: God sent his Son do die as a sacrifice for our guilt, and that while the wages of sin is death the gift of God is eternal life.  Romans tells us that we only receive this gift of eternal life when we give up trying to earn our way to heaven and instead put our trust in the person and work of Jesus.  Romans shows us that when we have truly encountered Jesus we live our lives as an act of grateful worship.  Martin Luther called Romans 'the very purest gospel.'  Paul says that this gospel didn't originate with him, it is 'the gospel of God.'

3.  This message is for all people

Paul was a curious mix of a man.  On one hand, before his conversion, he was scrupulously religious and thought he was serving God - he can say that he was blameless in outward conformity to the Jewish law.  Yet Paul had hated the church and breathed murderous threats against God's people - he says he was the worst of sinners.  His testimony reminds both the self-righteous and the notorious that they need God's rescue and that abundant grace is available to them.

This gospel so wonderfully expounded in Romans is still transforming people today.  Self-righteous people like the woman who sat in church for years refusing to acknowledge her need of God's grace until God opened her eyes to see that she was a desperate sinner in need of God's mercy.  Notorious people like the loyalist paramilitary who opened a Bible while in custody and realised that God was interested in rescuing him.  This is the transforming that should gladden our hearts so much that we cannot keep it to ourselves.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Baptists and the Mosque

I got talking to someone who lived in Cahirvaven at the time when the Baptist Church was being built there.  He said that the movement of the Baptists to the area caused a stir, including from the 'altar' of the local Catholic Church.  I asked him to clarify, 'did the priest want the people to object to our planning permission?'  He suggested that he did.  But the priest's real complaint was along the lines 'what has happened that these sort would move into our area?'  The shocking thing was that such an attitude existed as recently as 1993.

But it is not only Catholics who are guilty of such prejudice and a sense of religious/cultural entitlement.  I lived in County Armagh at a time when the Muslims were looking for planning permission for a Mosque in Portadown (2003).  Many Protestants objected to the idea of such a building being built.  The attitude was 'this is our country not theirs' and the more illogical of people said 'we wouldn't be allowed build our churches in their countries so why should they be allowed build theirs here' (an interesting twist on 'do onto others as you would have them do to you').

I gladly believe in the separation of church and state.  I hate the linking of religion with nationality.  I think that the gospel can thrive where there is true tolerance.  And I fear that our increasingly secular state is becoming increasingly intolerant of religious opinions just as a religious state was intolerant of all dissenters.

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!