March 13 2019

Good. News. About Jesus.

Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.

Acts 8:35

Most Christians know that they should be like Philip in Acts 8:35. We should share “the good news about Jesus” whenever we have the opportunity and we should try to make as many opportunities as we can. This, of course, is challenging. We often feel like we don’t know the best thing to say, or if we do, we can easily feel nervous or even fearful about how people may respond.

In my own journey of facing these challenges, there are the three key things I try to remember as I share the good news about Jesus:

It’s good. It’s news. And it’s about Jesus.


#1. It’s about Jesus

If you want to share the heart of Christianity, your focus has to be on the Christ at its centre. The gospel isn’t the good news about you. It’s not about how your life has improved since becoming a Christian. The gospel is about Jesus – about who he is and what he has done – and we must make sure we remember that focus.

As Paul the apostle wrote:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

1 Corinthians 2:1-2

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord…

2 Corinthians 4:5
Do you use the “J” word?

One way I challenge myself to remember this focus is with a funny little test I call “The Three Levels of Wussiness”. If I have a face to face conversation about spiritual matters, I reflect afterwards on which words I chose to use and which I chose to avoid.

Now, if I just talked about “Christianity”, or used phrases like “As a Christian” or “my faith”, I consider that a Level 3 of being a wuss. It’s not that I said anything particularly wrong. It’s just that there is little to no risk to me or to my listeners when you keep it that vague. There’s also little to no chance that the actual gospel was communicated.

If I have a bit more courage, I may get to Level 2, which means I talked about “God”. More personal, but still nice and broad as people can often inject their own definition as to what that word means.

Level 1 is where I actually use the “J” word and talk about Jesus specifically. For me, that is clear. That is courageous. That where I might actually be sharing the gospel. Because the gospel is specifically the good news about Jesus.

You may think I’m being harsh on myself, or maybe for you, just telling people that you’re a Christian is a big step. If it is, then don’t let my “Three Levels of Wussiness” test make you feel overwhelmed. God is glorified by (and can use) any small faithful word that we say in an effort to point people to the gospel.

My goal is not to guilt-trip you or myself. To be honest, I fail heaps of the time. It’s simply easier to answer a religious question with “Well, as a Christian…” rather than “Well, Jesus teaches that…” I do these reflections with a big awareness of my weakness and need for God’s grace and help. I simply want to challenge us to not wimp out by avoiding using the “J” word. As God gives you these opportunities to share the good news, pray for courage and remember – it’s about Jesus.

#2. It’s News

The second thing I want to remember is that the good news about Jesus may involve lots of things, but fundamentally… it’s news.

When Paul tells us to remember the gospel, look at how he summarises it:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you… For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

1 Corinthians 15:1, 3-5

The gospel – the central message of Christianity – is not a philosophy for how to live. It’s not a list of moral rules or a system of religious practices. The gospel is not even a presentation of theological truths or a creed that people need to sign up to. Of course, the New Testament does contain all of those things, and they are good to discuss. They just aren’t the gospel.

The gospel literally means “good news”. It is a declaration of something that has happened in history – centred around the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. So, even if you’re using the “J” word but you’re not sharing the news about Jesus, then you probably aren’t sharing the gospel.

Why is that an important distinction to get right? Because it’s only the good news that is “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). It is coming to hear and believe this news that is the primary method God uses to save people. Ethical philosophy, social commentary and systematic theology are great topics of conversation, but more than anything else, people need to hear the simple news about who Jesus is and what he has done.

This also implies something else important – you can’t just use your good works to share the gospel.

I’m sure you have heard the popular saying:

Preach the Gospel at all times.

When necessary, use words.

This quote is wrongly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (there’s actually no evidence he ever said this), but whoever said it, the way these words are often used is to argue that you don’t really have to use words to spread the gospel to the world. You just live it out.

Although, the New Testament does commend living “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14), it never suggests that sharing the gospel could ever be done silently. If the gospel is actual news that people need to be informed about and respond to, then actions alone will never suffice. Like any sort of news, both the spoken and written word will need to be the primary way that it will be communicated.

Now, I say “primary” because I do think there is a place for visual mediums such as illustration, painting, theatre and cinema. I have used lots of these creative tools over my life and know that can be very effective at communicating the gospel. But no matter what tool you use, if your goal is to share the good news, then you must remember that it is news.

Like an approaching bushfire, the gospel is important news that needs to be responded to.

Consider this illustration: A bushfire is sweeping across the countryside, approaching a nearby town. That is the news and all in the town need to hear it and respond to it. Now, you could communicate this news through phone calls, text message, sirens and visual alerts popping up on people’s phones. There are many ways that you can tell people the news that a bushfire is coming.

It’s also true that if you believe this news, then you will act in such a way that demonstrates that – hosing down your house or packing your bags and evacuating the area. In fact, if you weren’t acting like that, then even if you did tell people about the bushfire, why would anyone believe it was true. So our actions definitely do back up our words, but they can not replace them.

Like an approaching bushfire, the gospel is important news that needs to be responded to. We must live lives that show that we believe the gospel, but we must not rely on just our lives to communicate it. As the first part of that saying says, “Preach the Gospel at all times”. Just remember that words will almost always be necessary.

#3. It’s Good

Sharing the gospel is not easy. The news about Jesus is challenging and for some, offensive. There is also an increasing movement in the West to simply write off the gospels as fairy tales with no historical value that requires a response. If that wasn’t discouraging enough, the bible tells us that the human heart is naturally blind to the light of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4) and that no one is able to respond to the gospel unless God enables them (John 6:65).

Turning hearts to respond in faith to the news about Jesus is literally an impossible task – conversion is God’s work, not ours. In that context, it almost seems futile to share the gospel. If the expectation is that, unless God acts, the message (and maybe the messenger) will be ignored, rejected, mocked and opposed, why would anyone share it? Why put yourself through that?

I used to answer that question with “Because it is true.” But I am more and more convinced that even believing in the truth of the gospel will not actually get us sharing it. More than knowing that the news about Jesus is true, we need to know deep in our soul that the news is good.

So, the third thing I need to remember in order to share the “good news” is that it is indeed good news! The gospel is the hope for the world, the light in the darkness, the solution to the problem of the human condition. It is epic enough to fix the brokenness of the entire universe and intimate enough to reconcile an individual soul to their Creator.

God the Son truly did come to earth 2,000 years ago. He truly walked the dusty roads of Jerusalem, performed miracles, taught the truth about God’s kingdom and loved people as we never could. He truly did take our sins and die in our place on the cross and on Easter morning he truly was raised from the dead and now rules the Universe! And all people, no matter who they are or what they have done are called to abandon their sin, turn to Jesus and take this free gift of forgiveness, reconciliation and eternal life. This is the good news and it is truly good!

But do we really believe that? Do we honestly believe that your friends and family will be better off if they embrace the gospel? If we do believe it is good news, then why aren’t we sharing it?

When someone has discovered a new crazy diet that has changed their life, or has started watching a show on Netflix that is blowing them away, or has just won TattsLotto, or is going to get married and everyone’s invited, they have no problem telling people about it. It is natural to share good news, especially when others can join in on it too.

But is that how you think about the news about Jesus? Or do you think about it as simply a weird set of beliefs that we Christians ascribe to, but you wouldn’t want to burden anyone else with? If that’s the case, then you will never share Jesus with anyone, or if you do, it will only be out of some begrudging sense of duty.

If you want to joyfully and naturally introduce people to Jesus, you have to be convinced, as Paul was, of “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).

Consider these poetic words of King David:

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.

Psalm 63:1-3

His lips can’t help but speak about God because he knows that God’s steadfast love is better than life. We need to remember that too. We are such distracted and forgetful creatures. We need to daily remind ourselves and each other of the goodness of the good news.

In this “dry and weary land”, we need to spend time in God’s Word, drinking deep from the gospel and letting it overflow onto our lips in words of praise and gospel sharing. Then we will join with King David as he calls to people in another great psalm:

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

Psalm 34:8

I hope this article challenges and encourages you. I hope for some it convicts and humbles you. But really, this article is for me. Even in the process of writing it, I have become more aware of the words I use and the opportunities I have to talk about Jesus.

Most importantly, I have become more aware of my need to continuously thirst for God and be reminded every day of the goodness of the good news. May we all spur each other on as we try to share the good news about Jesus with prayerful dependence and godly courage.

And as you do, remember these three things – the gospel is so good, it’s wonderful news and it’s all about Jesus.

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February 24 2019

Does the Bible permit the drinking of alcohol?

There is some debate amongst Christians about what the bible teaches about drinking alcohol and getting drunk. Although is very important not to get drunk and drive because you can cause accidents and you will get a DWI, learn how to get rid of your DWI. There are generally four positions that Christians fall under:

  1. Drinking any alcohol at all is forbidden for all Christians.
  2. Getting drunk is forbidden. To avoid this sin, no Christian should drink any alcohol at all.
  3. Getting drunk is forbidden. Drinking responsibly is permissible.
  4. Drinking alcohol, even to the point of drunkenness is not forbidden.

I think the bible holds position 3. Let me show you why I reach that conclusion.

Old Testament Warnings

There are many passages that warn God’s people of the dangers of wine’s alcoholic properties. The wisdom of the Old Testament for example warns us that “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” (Proverbs 20:1) An even more descriptive passage says:


“Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, Like one who lies on the top of a mast. ‘They struck me,’ you will say, ‘but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I must have another drink.’” (Proverbs 23:29-35)

The dangers of wine were well known and for the sake of them ruling with justice and wisdom, the kings of the Old Testament were instructed not to drink alcohol at all (Proverbs 31:4-5). This was also true of the Old Testament priesthood (Leviticus 10:9) and the Nazarites (Numbers 6:1-4).


New Testament Warnings

The New Testament also warns against alcohol, describing “drunkenness” and “drinking parties” as “sin” (1 Peter 4:1-3) and in both Galatians 5:21 and 1 Corinthians 6:10 the Apostle Paul makes the very heavy statement that drunkards “will not inherit the kingdom of God”.

It’s no surprise therefore, that one of the qualifications of being an elder in the first century church was that you could not be a “drunkard” (1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:7) and a deacon also had to be one who was “not addicted to much wine” (1 Timothy 3:8). Likewise, godly older women were instructed not to be “slaves to much wine” (Titus 2:3). Last but not least, if there was still any confusion, Paul the Apostle gives Christians a clear command to not drink alcohol to excess: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.” (Ephesians 5:18)

The Bible’s celebration of wine

As we have seen, the bible in both Testaments clearly warns against and forbids drunkenness and this prohibition is especially important for anyone in any form of spiritual leadership or religious duty. But whilst it is clear that the bible forbids drinking alcohol to excess, it should not be concluded that the bible forbids drinking alcohol at all.

In fact, the bible is generally quite positive about wine as a good gift from God and there are clear passages where the drinking of wine is not only permitted, but recommended and celebrated:

“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7)

“You [God] cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate,

that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man.” (Psalm 104:14-15)

“Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord.’” (Nehemiah 8:10)

“Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine.” (Song of 7:8-9)

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins.” (Mark 2:22)

“No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (1 Timothy 5:23)

Although these passages are quite an endorsement for wine, the clearest and arguably most relevant passages in the bible that demonstrates that God does not forbid wine is the Wedding at Cana in John 21-11. If you don’t know the story, I will describe it in more detail later, but the point is that this passage records the first of Jesus’ miracles – the famous turning of water into wine. If drinking wine itself was sinful, then when they had run out of wine, Jesus would not have miraculously produced more. Jesus’ actions show that not only is wine not forbidden – it’s actually a good and wonderful thing.

So, to summarise, it would seem that in general (apart from Old Testament religious leaders) the bible permits the drinking of alcohol, but it does not permit drinking so much that you get drunk.

Biologically this lines up with how God has designed our bodies. He has given us a liver which has the capacity to filter alcohol at a certain rate and if we exceed that we will intoxicate ourselves which is a form of bad stewardship of our bodies and a recipe for leading us into foolishness and sin.

We are also called to be “sober-minded” in many passages (see for example, 1 Peter 1:13, 4:7 & 5:8) so that we are ready to do good, help others, avoid temptation and be ready for any action that we may be needed for.

The only position that agrees with all of the bible’s passages on alcohol, is the third position mentioned at the start of this article: Getting drunk is forbidden. Drinking responsibly is permissible.

So wine is fine but you booze, you lose.

It is similar to the gift of sex. Sex is good and should be celebrated as long as it is within the confines which God has ordained – namely, a marriage between a man and a woman. Food too is a good gift that can sinfully be enjoyed to excess. So sex can be expressed sinfully in orgies and immorality and eating food can become a source of greed and gluttony. In the same way, drinking wine can turn into drunken parties and debauchery. Of course, neither sex, food nor alcohol should be considered forbidden for Christians, but we must not abuse or misuse these good gifts either. Keep sex for marriage, eat healthy, and if you drink, don’t get drunk.

Permission not a command

Now, just because the bible says that it is ok for a Christian to drink alcohol in moderation, it doesn’t mean you have to. Many Christians have decided that for them, the best way to avoid drunkenness is to not drink at all. You are very free to hold that position. In fact, some people should. If you feel particularly tempted to drink to excess, maybe consider not drinking at all. Also, I know that some ministers choose not to drink, not because they particularly feel vulnerable, but to not leave any room of possibility for the sin of drunkenness to take hold.

Of course, others may argue that it is good for a minister to share in a drink with others, to model moderation and to avoid the appearance of suggesting that alcohol itself is forbidden. They may also see the evangelistic benefits to being able to enjoy a beer with someone as for some guys that can be a social sign of friendship and comfortability.

So, on the issue about whether you personally should drink alcohol, that is something that you must decide for yourself. The bible does not forbid it, so you shouldn’t think it sin, but it may be for you unwise.

In 1 Corinthians 6:12, just after warning against drunkenness, Paul writes, “All things are lawful for me but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me but I will not be dominated by anything.” If you are worried about wine not being “helpful” or potentially “dominating” you, then even if alcohol may be “lawful”, you don’t have to drink.

There is also wisdom in not drinking alcohol, if it will cause another Christian to be tempted to drunkenness or due to their lack of understanding about the bible, will believe you are sinning by drinking. Consider this instruction from Paul:

“I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.” (Romans 14:14-22)

As you can see by this passage, there is nothing sinful or “unclean” about drinking wine, but also it is good not to drink wine if it causes your brother in Christ to stumble. We may have a right to drink, but we give up our rights for the sake of “peace and for mutual upbuilding”.

A practical application of this might be if you are having some Christian friends over for dinner and you know that one of them is a new Christian and believes that drinking alcohol is sinful, for their sake, you probably should not offer a bottle of wine with the meal.

So feel free to drink responsibly and feel free not to drink for your good and the good of others.

One last thing I would say is, if you choose not to drink, you should not judge any other Christian for making a different choice. If you think they are unwise for drinking due to some particular circumstance, by all means tell them in love. But do so with the awareness that you are giving them what you believe to be wise and godly counsel, and not rebuking them for sinning. In the same chapter I referred to above, Paul covers this principle: “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.” (Romans 14:3-4)

Could it be Non Alcoholic Grapejuice?

The last point I want to cover is the suggestion by some Christians that when the bible commends or permits the drinking of wine that drink was not actually alcoholic, it was unfermented grapejuice. In Matthew 26:29, for example, Jesus refers to wine as simply “fruit of the vine” and there’s no necessary indication that it was alcoholic. Those that argue this position, point out that fact that there is no differentiation in the original greek for the word for grapejuice and the word for alcoholic wine.

Despite the truth of this linguistic reality, I don’t think this gives a loophole to hold the position that drinking alcohol is sinful.

The reality is that all grapejuice eventually fermented naturally as they had no technology or method of preventing that. So the suggestion by those that hold this position is that when the bible encourages and celebrates the drinking of wine, it is only referring to freshly squeezed grapejuice, whereas the wine that it warns about as potentially leading to drunkenness is the older fermented grapejuice. This distinction is simply not made in the bible.

For example, in 1 Timothy, Paul first warns against wine’s addictive potential (1 Timothy 3:8), but then near the end of the same epistle, he suggests that Timothy “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (1 Timothy 5:23). It is a big stretch to suggest that Paul is talking about one drink in chapter 3 but a different drink in chapter 5, even though he uses the same word for both. The more obvious conclusion is that Paul is simply talking about wine – normal alcoholic wine. Wine has the potential for being addictive, but that does not make it sinful to drink in moderation. In fact, as Paul points out, it may even be good for your health.

The Wine at the Wedding

Lastly, the story of the Wedding at Cana is for me, the best passage to demonstrate that Jesus both endorses the drinking of wine and that the wine that is being talked about is alcoholic wine, not unfermented grapejuice.

The story is found in John 2:1-11 and tells of Jesus’ first miracle. Jesus attends a wedding where wine is being served and to the great social shame of the bridegroom, they had run out of wine before the party was over. You probably know what happens next – Jesus turns six jars of water into delicious high quality wine, saving the reputation of the bridegroom and displaying his glory and power to his disciples. The question is, when this passage talks about “wine” is the grapejuice being talked about something that is non-alcoholic or alcoholic? I think it is undeniably alcoholic. Here’s why:

Firstly, there’s really no reason for thinking it is non-alcoholic. The idea of having alcoholic wine at a celebration was culturally acceptable, which is why drunkenness was still an issue that needed to be addressed even amongst Jews. Remember, even Jesus was accused of being a “glutton and drunkard” (Matthew 11:19) by those that opposed him. Jews were not “teetotallers”. The only reason why you would think that the wine at the Wedding in Cana must be non-alcoholic is because you were trying to force that idea into the story.

Secondly, as I have already mentioned, in the first century there was no way of preventing grapejuice from fermenting. So to suggest that all the wine at the wedding was non-alcoholic, you’d have to also suggest that they were supplying completely freshly squeezed grapejuice as required, to avoid any of it fermenting. This is simply impractical, especially as weddings in ancient Israel would often involve days of feasting and celebration.

Thirdly, and most convincingly, the words of the master of the feast himself tells us that the wine was alcoholic. After tasting the wine that Jesus had miraculously created, he is amazed that the bridegroom was only bringing out this fine drop at the later stages of the wedding celebration. He says: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:10) Think about that. Why do you bring the good wine out first and leave the cheap grog for later in the party? Because later on, everyone is too drunk to discern or care about how good the wine is.

The ESV is slightly subtle in it’s language, but as you can see here, the root of the Greek word that is used is always referring to when someone is affected by alcohol. For example, in Acts 2:15 when Peter tells the crowd that “these people are not drunk, as you suppose”, the Greek word for “drunk” used here is almost identical to the Greek word translated as “people have drunk freely” in John 2:10.

The point is hopefully clear. The wine that was being drunk at the Wedding in Cana was definitely alcoholic, and the new wine that Jesus created was even better. I won’t even entertain the suggestion that although the rest of the wine at the feast was alcoholic, Jesus created non-alcoholic freshly squeezed grapejuice and the master of the feast still thought it was better. Try serving high quality Ribena after you’ve run out of Merlow at your next wedding and see if your guests think you’ve given them an upgrade!


Conclusion

The Bible has much to say on wine. A lot of it is good. Some of it is bad. Wine is definitely a dangerous thing and alcohol has caused much damage over the millenia because people have not listened to the bible’s warnings about it’s addictive and intoxicating potential.

But if you are wanting a straight answer as to what the bible says on the topic of alcohol and what is or isn’t permissible, here is my summary:

  • Is it permissible for Christians to drink alcohol? Yes.
  • Do Christians ever have to drink alcohol? No.
  • Is it at times wise and loving for Christians not to drink alcohol? Yes.
  • Is it permissible for Christians to get drunk? No.

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February 21 2019

Jesus’ Most Useless Miracle

The miracle of the loaves and the fishes is the most useless miracle of all… and that’s the point.

In this story, found in all for gospels, Jesus feeds thousands of hungry followers, multiplying just a small amount of food so that it not only completely leaves everyone stuffed, but so there are piles and piles of leftovers.

And yet… Despite this miraculous abundance, what will happen? Just a day later, the leftovers will go start going stale and the bellies which were so full, will be hungry once again. When you’ve eaten to the point of feeling sick, you may think to yourself that you’ll never be able to eat again, but it just takes a day and the hunger will return.

If the miracle was about giving people true satisfaction, it was an epic fail. Nice party trick Jesus, but it doesn’t solve anything. And that’s exactly what Jesus is wanting his followers to see.

In John 6, we read that a day after the miracle the crowds are back looking for Jesus. But weren’t hungry for Jesus himself, they were hungry for more fish sandwiches.

Jesus says:
“Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (John 6:26-27)

And what is the bread that does not spoil? The bread that Jesus describes as coming “down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (6:33)?

He tells them:
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus didn’t come to provide our need for daily bread – though he demonstrates in the miracle that he can and in the Lord’s Prayer he does instruct us to pray for that provision. No, Jesus came to BE our daily bread.

Jesus repeats this declaration in 6:48-51…
“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

The point of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes was not to show us that Jesus has come to fulfill our bodily desires. It actually fails to do that. The point was to show that no matter how much bread we eat, our bodies will always be hungry. And our souls are the same. We need bread that truly satisfies. We need bread that doesn’t simply help us stay alive for a few more days. We need bread that gives us eternal life.

We need Jesus – the bread of life.

The miracle of the loaves and the fishes is an amazing miracle. But it is also so clever. It is deliberately over the top, and at the same time, deliberately useless.

May we get the point of it and seek after Jesus, not for the temporal things he might give us, but for himself.

After Jesus explains that this was his whole point, many of his followers who were simply following Jesus for the free feed, were disappointed and offended.

John 6:66 says: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

Jesus then asks his 12 disciples: “You do not want to leave too, do you?”

And Peter replies with an amazing answer that shows that they actually now get the point of the whole episode…

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (6:68)

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February 19 2019

No wilting wallflower

Today, a young sister in Christ died.

I didn’t know her very well, but it was impossible to miss her. In a church community in a denomination that some might expect to have strong gender expectations, I was always impressed by her wonderful bucking of feminine cliches, shaving her head to support cancer research and proving that a godly woman can be as bold and enthusiastic as anyone. She definitely was no wilting wallflower…

And yet, as God’s Word says, all flowers fall and in the end, everything is hevel.

This life is fleeting, even for the bold flowers that stick out from the bunch.

My comfort in the loss of this godly woman is the confidence that she trusted in the One who does not fade away, who could hold her soul secure in the joyful hope that one day these bodies that sometimes betray us, will be resurrected, restored and renewed in the New Creation.

Until then Suz Bell.

“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Philippians 3:20-21)

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February 12 2019

When Google Learned the Gospel

Back around March last year, I noticed that when I asked my Google Home about Jesus, it responded like an overly polite person at a party who had just been asked about some controversial issue of theology:

“Religion can be complicated and I’m still learning.”

Yeah, right Google! Don’t give us that fake humility. You’re just afraid to nail your colours to the mast!

Who Do You Say I Am?

Well, to give Google a break, there are many different views about Jesus amongst Google’s customers. Muslims believe Jesus is a prophet but not divine. Jews believe he is a teacher but not a prophet. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe he is the Archangel Michael and some skeptics even doubt Jesus existed at all!

Even back when Jesus walked the streets of the Middle East, there were lots of views about who he was. Jesus actually asked his disciples this very question:

“And on the way [Jesus] asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”
And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”” 
(Mark 8:27-29)

So at least the disciples understand who Jesus was and what he came to do… Well, not exactly. Peter did initially answer the question correctly, but in the very next few verses, it all goes downhill. Jesus tells his disciples that he has come to die on the cross and that same Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him for getting his mission wrong (see Mark 8:30-33)!

Fortunately, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, his disciples finally came to more fully understand who he was and what he had come to do. This is seen in the clarity of the unanimous testimony about Jesus’ identity throughout the New Testament gospels and epistles. If you want to know who Jesus is, it is shouted from every page of the New Testament.

There are many passages I could point to, but one of the boldest (and my favourite) comes from Colossians 1:15-20…

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 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. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 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. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

Google’s Still Learning

Despite this, I do understand Google’s tentativeness in giving a definitive answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” It is an important question and much of the population of the world disagree on the answer.

Also, to cut Google even more slack, last year they made it a policy to answer “Religion can be complicated and I’m still learning”, no matter which major religious figure you asked about.

They received a lot of criticism at the time from people who suspected Google of deliberately targeting Christianity and this was Google’s official attempt at explaining their reasoning:

A New Answer

Well, that was a year ago, and gone is the answer “Religion can be complicated and I’m still learning”.  Religion may still be complicated, but Google seems to have done some learning. Or at least, whatever algorithm they had set up to side-step the taboo topic of religion, they have now opened the doors to allow Wikipedia to answer your religious questions.

I discovered this recently when I asked my Google Home the questions “Who is Jesus?” and “Who was Jesus?”, and I was rather surprised by the way it answered…

To “Who is Jesus?” Google replied:

“The Gospel of Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s will as revealed in the Old Testament, and he is the Lord of the Church. He is the “Son of David”, a “king”, and the Messiah.”

To “Who was Jesus?” Google replied:

“Jesus (c. 4 BC – c. AD 30 / 33), also referred to as Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Christ, was a first-century Jewish preacher and religious leader. He is the central figure of Christianity and is widely described as the most influential person in history.”

Both pretty good answers if you ask me!

In fact, after a bit of experimenting, I found a few other questions that have great answers. If you’ve got Google Assistant, try these out:

  • What is God?
  • What is the gospel?
  • What is the only rule of faith and practice?
  • What is the chief end of man?

Now as fun as it is to ask Google questions, you don’t need to own the latest voice-activated technology to ask “Who is Jesus?”. The answer is not found in the robotic voice of Google, but in the living Word of God. My hope is that if you are curious about the identity of Jesus, you might pick up a bible and read one of the gospels or New Testament epistles for yourself. Two thousand years after he asked it, Jesus’ question to his disciples still echoes to each one of us: “But who do you say I am?”

Google was right last year when it said that religion can be complicated. The answer to the important question of Jesus’ identity is neither simple nor easy. But like Google seems to have done in the last year, there is indeed much to be learned.

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January 21 2019

Wow God! Thank You. Sorry. Please.

Wow God! Thank You. Sorry. Please.

A Kid’s Guide To Prayer

What is prayer? It may sound odd,

But prayer is just talking to God.

You can do it anywhere!

Tucked in bed or on a chair.

In a park or in the car.

It doesn’t matter where you are!

And even if no one else heard,

God would hear your every word.

So why not say a prayer right now? If you’re not sure, I’ll show you how.

See, when I talk to God each day, there are four things I like to say:

Wow God. Thank you. Sorry. Please.

I pray about each one of these…

WOW GOD

Wow God, you’re loving! Wow God, you’re great!

Wow God! All things you did create!

You made the sun, the worm, the cow,

So first of all I just say “Wow!”

THANK YOU

I thank you God for all you give.

I thank you for the life I live.

I thank you most for Jesus who

Did die for me. Dear God, thank you.

SORRY

I’m sorry God when I’m not good,

When I don’t love you as I should.

Through Jesus’ death forgive my sin

And help me love and live like Him.

PLEASE

And lastly God I ask you please

Provide all of my daily needs.

Please help me grow to trust in you

And help all those who need you too.

Wow God.

Thank you.

Sorry.

Please.

And now I’ve prayed all four of these.

And every prayer I end the same:

I pray these things in Jesus’ name.

Amen.


(This poem will be, Lord willing, the heart of the new children’s book I am working on. Along with this poem being illustrated into a fun little story, it will also include tips for parents about how to pray with their young children and pages that will be useful for going through this model of prayer with your child.)

For more info go to: www.kidsguidetoprayer.com

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January 5 2019

A Goodie and a Baddie go to the Temple

To some who were too familiar with Bible stories, Jesus told this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a tax collector and the other a Pharisee. The tax collector stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am a character in bible stories that is known for being a marginalised outcast who you’re supposed to sympathise with, not like the obvious villains in the story – the teachers of the law, the Jewish rulers, the rich, the powerful – or even like this Pharisee. I’m always the one that Jesus wants to eat with and the one that in the end, you are supposed to want to emulate.’

“But the Pharisee stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that the Pharisee, rather than the tax collector, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

(adapted from Luke 18:9-14)

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December 4 2018

A Bad Pro-Life Argument About “Life”

A Bad Pro-Life Argument About “Life”

I am passionate about being pro-life. But I am also passionate about pro-lifers (or anyone for that matter) using logically sound and robust arguments. I studied logic at University and I have always loved learning about this stuff and knowing when a seemingly strong argument is actually quite weak and full of holes. An argument like the one in the picture above, can sound compelling. It can even feel like a real “gotcha” line that clearly exposes the logical inconsistency of the other side, but as I hopefully will explain, I think it actually does the opposite.

Ok. First of all, let me acknowledge that I understand the sentiment and the argument that the sign is trying to make. Society is hypocritical in the way that it might value one form of life and not another, and if life was found on another planet it would be celebrated, but when life is found in the womb it can so easily be discarded.

But let me try to explain where this sign technically falls down.

(this is my own daughter’s heartbeat in the womb)

 

The sign asks the rhetorical question “Why would a bacteria be considered life on Mars and a heartbeat not be considered life on Earth?”. The suggestion is obviously, that some pro-choice people say that a fetus in the womb with a heartbeat is still not a “life” or not “alive”. This is very true and I have had this said to me before. But it is also true that when a pro-choicer is talking about whether a fetus is a “life”, they are not meaning in the same sense that a Martian bacteria might be called a “life”. 99 times out of 100, they are talking about a fetus not being a human person or being a life in the same sense that you or I am. They generally acknowledge that there is something alive in the womb, but they might say it is part of the mother’s body or that it’s just a “blob of tissue” or even that it is a “parasite” or a “tumor”.

In fact, despite what the sign suggests, many pro-choicers would happily say that that thing in the womb is just like bacteria. Like bacteria, they might say, it has no right to life and if you had bacteria living inside you and you didn’t want it, you would have every right to kill it.

Not Necessarily Hypocrisy

The key problem with the sign is that it suggests that pro-choicers are acknowledging that bacteria is alive but denying that a fetus is. Firstly, I don’t think that second statement is true generally, and if it is, it is usually because they are simply using the word “life” to mean different things. That’s not hypocrisy really. That’s just the complexity of the English language.

For example, would you say that a sperm cell is a “life”? Not usually I presume. That’s why, despite what we might think about the morality of masturbation, we don’t equate it with abortion. But, if a sperm cell was found on Mars, we probably would say that “life was found on Mars”, we might even say “human life was found on Mars” (if it was a human sperm cell).

The use of “life” is just different for different contexts, and we definitely don’t want to make the argument that every single thing that is “alive” should be considered a “life” in the same way that a fetus is. If we do that, we’ll be joining PETA to protest the “murder” of all animals, or we’ll be worried about every alive blade of grass that we step on.

The pro-life sign at the top of this article tries to point out the hypocrisy of the pro-choice side in how they use the word “life” and care for one living thing but not another, but it actually also exposes this same supposed hypocrisy on the pro-life side.

Josh Brahm from the US-based Equal Rights Institute (who is also my hero and mentor when it comes to discussing abortion) says that whenever the topic of “life” comes up in the abortion debate says that he always asks the following clarification question: “Do you mean biological life, or something more philosophical, like when a person with rights and value begins?”

He has a great article on this topic: CLICK HERE.

In it he concludes:
“The most important concept is that when somebody starts talking about ‘life’ in the abortion debate, don’t make another step before clarifying whether they’re talking about biological life or something more philosophical. Then you can respond to their argument without accidentally committing a straw man fallacy.”

That’s what this sign fails to do. It presumes that the two uses of the word “life” are talking about the same thing. Which in reality is almost never the case, for both pro-choicers and pro-lifers.

Brainstorming a Better Sign

Now, it’s easy to simply poke holes in a bad sign and a bad argument. But what would be a better sign that points out a legitimate area of pro-choice hypocrisy on the issue of “life”?

I’ve had a bit of a brainstorm and here’s a couple I came up with:

They’re not perfect, but I feel they maybe have less logical holes than the original.

Tell me what you think in the comments below, and maybe post your own suggestions!

 

 

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November 11 2018

Who are the “rulers of this age” in 1 Cor 2?

The Rulers of This Age

Yesterday, I had an interesting question put to me on Facebook about a phrase in 1 Corinthians 2. Below is the question, and my answer…

QUESTION:

[Paul] uses “rulers of this age” (1 Cor 2:8) which is another way of saying demons, and even says if ‘they’ knew who he was, they would not have crucified him. That is a very strange thing to write – why would Paul write about demons crucifying Christ when the gospels say it was the Romans who did it, and the gospels mention nothing about demons crucifying Christ?

 

What does Paul mean by “ruler”?

I totally agree that it would be a very strange thing for Paul to write if “rulers of this age” meant “demons” in 1 Cor 2. But it doesn’t. It just means the human rulers of that age.

I can understand why you might think (or have heard) that Paul was referring to demons here. Sometimes “rulers” are referring to spiritual rulers and demons. But not often.

If you look up the times in Paul’s epistles where the word “ruler” is used, you find it in three epistles – Romans, 1 Corinthians & Ephesians.

In Ephesians, he is clearly using it to refer to demons. Here are the four references:
“he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” (Eph 1:20-21)
“the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” (Eph 2:2)
“the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10)
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12)

As you can see, Paul always surrounds the term “rulers” with other spiritual language so that the reader can clearly understand that he is talking about demonic rulers rather than human ones.

In no other Pauline epistle, does he use the term “ruler” in this way.

In Romans, he uses the term several times. Have a read of Romans 13:1-6…
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.”

If you’re wondering why I included such a long passage, it’s because the Greek word for “governing authorities” in 13:1 is “ἄρχων”. This is exactly the same Greek word that is translated as “rulers” in 1 Corinthians 2:6 & 8.

As a side note, Acts also records Paul as talking about rulers in an earthly rather than spiritual sense. See Acts 13:26-29 and Acts 23:5. (Incidentally, in Acts 13:26-29, Paul specifically says that these earthly rulers had Jesus crucified and put in a tomb.)

So clearly Paul doesn’t only use the word “rulers” to refer to demons. In fact, he rarely does so and always makes it explicit.

 

What does Paul mean by “of this age”?

But the question may arise: Why does Paul use the phrase “of this age”? Doesn’t that point to a more spiritual concept or ruler? Like in Ephesians 1:21 where he says: “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”?

Well, you just have to look at how Paul uses the phrase “of this age” in the rest of 1 Corinthians, to see what he means by that term.

He actually uses it several times:
“philosopher of this age” (1 Cor 1:20)
“wisdom of this age” (1 Cor 2:6)
“rulers of this age” (1 Cor 2:6 & 8)
“standards of this age” (1 Cor 3:18)

If Paul talks about the “philosopher of this age” in chapter 1 and then talks about the “rulers of this age” in chapter 2, why would the first be talking about people and the second be talking about demons? Clearly the phrase “of this age” isn’t being used to refer to a spiritual reality.

If you actually go through all of 1 Corinthians 1:18-29, you can see that “of this age” is paralleled with “of this world”. The philosopher, the wise and the ruler are all those people who are powerful and impressive to human society, but whose strength is passing away. Although they seem strong, they are weak in comparison to God.

 

What does Paul say about the “rulers of this age”?

Lastly, even if you were unsure whether Paul was talking about “rulers” in the earthly way he does in Acts and Romans or the demonic way he does in Ephesians, the clincher is the fact that he says that these rulers “crucified the Lord”.

So who did Paul think killed Jesus? Demons? Not according to Acts 13:26-29.

Paul also makes it clear in his epistle to the Thessalonians:
“You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.” (1 Thess 2:14-15)

So if there was any doubt, then what Paul says about the actions of the “rulers of this age”, should clarify that he is talking about the human rulers of the first century and not demons.

Phew! Exhausting! But thanks for tracking with me.

Hopefully it’s been helpful!

 

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October 22 2018

The Little Mermaid and The Wonderful Exchange

 

A Terrible Message

I took my daughter to see her first ever movie the other day – a screening of the Disney Classic, The Little Mermaid. The songs were lots of fun, the slapstick was silly and the animation was beautiful, just as I remembered back when I last saw it at the cinemas 28 years ago. But the message! Oh boy!

The message of the film to a young girl is absolutely terrible. Ariel is a rebellious, selfish and disobedient teenager who falls for a guy after just seeing his body and then sells a part of her body (her voice) in order to try to use the rest of her body to get the guy to kiss her so she can completely abandon her family forever. In the end, she gets everything she wants with absolutely no consequences for her foolish behavior. She learns nothing. She doesn’t change. She has absolutely no character arch.

The worst line in the whole film comes when Sabastian the crab, who has been charged with protecting Ariel, offers to help her get her voice back and reverse the deal Ariel has made with the Sea Witch. He looks into her immature, tear-filled, 16-year-old eyes, and says to her that if he helped her get out of her deal with the devil then she would “just be miserable for the rest of her life”. Come on! She’s 16! She’ll get over it! And what a way to re-enforce to a girl that her happiness “for the rest of her life” is wrapped up in whether she can be with a guy! When that line happened, my wife and I shook our heads and laughed at how terrible it was.

Now some may say that we shouldn’t have taken our young daughter to see such a film, but hey, we are raising her to critique these sort of messages and every day we pour into her the message that her worth, value and true happiness is found in the God who loves her and made her in His image. I’m not too worried that one movie will counteract all that.

Also (and here’s the real point of this article), there’s another interesting story thread in the movie that I can point out to her. It follows another flawed character who makes mistakes, but unlike Ariel, this character learns a lesson and actually changes. This is the story of King Triton, Ariel’s father.

A Flawed King

King Triton is not a very good king. He rules with an iron fist and when his daughter Ariel disobeys him, he responds with a violent rage that is just as immature as his daughter’s actions. But the one good thing about King Triton is he sees his folly and learns his lesson. Once he discovers that his anger has driven away his daughter, he cries out “Oh, what have I done? What have I done?”

Not only does he learn about parenting, but as I’ll explain, I saw in his story some wonderful parallels to the story of the gospel.

The Gospel According to The Little Mermaid

The first part of seeing the gospel themes in The Little Mermaid is to stop thinking of Ariel as the hero of the story who we should try to emulate. Rather, think of Ariel as a representative of humanity. Like Adam & Eve, she lives as a royal child under the rule of the king and yet she yearns for freedom. As she puts it, “Wouldn’t you think I’m a girl. a girl who has everything”, and yet she sings “I want more!” She is naturally interested in and curious about the human world, which is a good thing, but her stubbornness and arrogance leads her to disobey her father and ignore his warnings not to go to the ocean’s surface.

It is there she sees an attractive human and her immature superficiality leads her to immediately falls in love. All her healthy and natural desire for knowledge about humanity gets replaced with an intense focus on this one human. Like Eve with the apple, the Prince was “pleasing to the eye” (Genesis 3:6) and now she was willing to reject life with her father and his kingdom in order to get what she wanted.

She goes to see Ursula, the Sea Witch, an evil character who Sebastian calls a “demon”. The parallels between Ursula and Satan are interesting. Both used to live with the King but at some point in the past both were “banished and exiled” from the kingdom. The scene between Ariel and Ursula plays out just like Genesis 3:1-7. Like Satan in the garden tempting Eve, Ursula tempts Ariel with false promises of having all her desires fulfilled. Eve bites the apple, Ariel signs the contract, and both are left naked.

The difference between Eve and Ariel is that Ariel has no shame for signing over her life to the Sea Witch. In fact, she really never feels any shame about it. It’s only when it all doesn’t work out and she’s trapped by Ursula’s contact against her that she finally says, “Daddy, sorry! I didn’t mean to!” Yeah right. Of course she meant to. That’s regret she’s feeling, not genuine repentance. Eve on the other hand (and her hubby Adam), get to that emotion much quicker. But either way, for both Eve and Ariel, it is when the King arrives that they realise their foolishness and the fact that they are completely helpless.

They both are left guilty standing before the King with a document that condemns them. A document that, as Ursula declares, is “legal, binding and completely unbreakable.” For Ariel, it is the contract that she made with Ursula. For Eve (and for all humanity), it is the record of our sin as referred to in Revelation 20:12. It’s what Paul describes in Colossians 2:14 as “the charge of our legal indebtedness”. We stand before our King, with no hope, with no appeal, with no chance of saving ourselves. Ariel is not a model for little girls to follow. She is a mirror for the human race.

The Wonderful Exchange

So, if we have no hope of saving ourselves, how then can we be saved? Well, again, The Little Mermaid tells us.

With Ariel trapped and about to sent to Ursula’s “garden”, the Sea Witch says, The daughter of the great sea king is a very precious commodity.  But I might be willing to make an exchange for someone even better.” And with that, King Triton puts his name on the contract in Ariel’s place. And with that, King Triton gives up his glory and his power and substitute’s himself for Ariel. And with that, King Triton, although innocent, bears the consequences for Ariel’s guilt.

What a perfect image of the gospel. 

As the bible says, Jesus – though he was equal to God – relinquished his heavenly place to take our place on the cross (Philippians 2:5-8). He bore our sin and took the punishment that we deserved (1 Peter 2:24, 2 Corinthians 5:21).

This is what theologians call “substitutionary atonement”. Or to use less academic language, it’s what the Reformer Martin Luther called a “wonderful exchange”:

“That is the mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied Himself of His righteousness that He might clothe us with it, and fill us with it. And He has taken our evils upon Himself that He might deliver us from them.” – Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar, 1883), 5: 608.

And then, at the end of the story, after King Triton’s “resurrection” and the defeat of the evil Ursula, the King looks upon Ariel with mercy and kindness. Although she in no way deserves it, the King uses his power to restore her to her beloved Prince. And so, Ariel has gone through the entire story of the Bible from start to finish. She rejects the King, sins in rebellion, is trapped by her sin, needs a Saviour, is rescued from condemnation by the King taking her place, and then, just like the Bible, the story ends with a beautiful wedding and they all live happily ever after.

Maybe Not So Terrible a Message After All

In the end, I still think The Little Mermaid has a lot of problems with it. But in a weird way, I sort of do want my daughter to be like Ariel.

Not in Ariel’s stupidity, superficiality and sin. I do hope I raise her to be smarter than that.

But like Ariel did (and like I and my wife have), I want my daughter to experience the undeserved kindness of the King. In the gospel of Jesus, I want her to know the joy of the freedom, salvation and amazing grace bought by his wonderful exchange.

 

 

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